The full text can be downloaded here in PDF format: Where We Stand, bell hooks
The Politics of Greed
Being overwhelmed by greed is a state of mind and being that most human beings have experienced at some time in our lives. Most children experience greed in relation to food— endless longing for sweets, longings that lead to hoarding, stealing, or some combination of these. Excessive indulgence in favorite foods, especially sweet ones, by children often leads to sickness. Consequently, many of us learn while quite young that greed has its dangers, that it causes suffering. Most children are taught that excessive desire is bad. Parents, even dysfunctional ones, do not wish to raise a child to be greedy.
These childhood imprints lose power in today’s hedonistic consumer culture where the good life has come to be seen as the life where one can have whatever one wants, where no desire is seen as excessive. Beyond childhood squabbles over toys or food where greedy desires to possess and hoard surfaced sometimes, for most folks, religious teachings were the only other place where greed was talked about, where it was deemed sinful and dangerous. The decline of substantive religious practice in contemporary everyday life engendered in part by the worship of technological advancement and our ongoing cultural obsession with progress has practically eliminated any concern with the ethics of greed.
Indeed, as a nation where the culture of narcissism reigns supreme, where I, me, and mine are all that matters, greed becomes the order of the day. While the sixties and seventies can be characterized as a time in the nation when there was a widespread sense of bounty that could be shared precisely because excess was frowned upon, the eighties and nineties are the years where fear of scarcity increased even as a culture of hedonistic excess began to fully emerge. Widespread communal concern for justice and social welfare was swiftly replaced by conservative notions of individual accountability and self-centered materialism. Zillah Eisenstein notes in Global Obscenities: “The extremes of wealth and poverty within the united states also mirror the extremes across the globe. The wealthiest 20 percent of u.s. citizens received 99 percent of the total gain in marketable wealth between 1983 and 1989. More than 38 million people live in poverty in the united states, of whom more than 40 percent are under eighteen years of age. ”The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
Radical young politicos from privileged backgrounds who had sought to intervene on oppressive capitalism became adults who were eager to find and keep their place in the existing economic system. And if this system was fast turning our nation into a world of haves and have-nots with little in between, they wanted to remain in the ranks of the privileged. Once they advocated living simply and sharing resources, now they join their more conservative counterparts in embracing and advocating individual gain over communal good. Together both groups put in place a system of protectionism to further support and perpetuate their diverse class interests.
Since the radicals and/or liberals who had once repudiated class privilege brought to their reclaiming of class power a more open view toward the masses than their ancestors, they were quite willing to let go of old notions, whether rooted in racism or sexism, to exploit the material desires of any group. More than any other group in the nation s history, this group was and is willing to forego allegiance to race or gender to promote their class interests. If they could make a fortune promoting and selling a product to any group, they were willing to play and prey upon any need or vulnerability that would aid in their accumulation of wealth. Suddenly, spheres of advertising that had always excluded poor and lower-class people had no trouble mining their culture, their images, if it would lead to profit. A new generation of upper and ruling classes had come of age. They were motivated more by the desire for ever-increasing profit than by sustained allegiance to race or gender.
These newly converted fiscal conservatives were different from the generations who preceded them precisely because they had crossed the tracks, so to speak, in that they had not only lived outside the mores of their class of origin, they had a more realistic and experiential understanding of less-privileged groups. While they understood their needs, they also understood their longings. Anyone who spends time with people who are underprivileged and poor knows how much of their energies are spent longing for material goods, not just for the basic necessities of life, but also for luxuries. It is no accident that just as the gap between classes in this nation began to widen as never before, the notion that this is a classless society, where anyone can make it big irrespective of their origins, gained greater currency in the public imagination.
Opportunities for class mobility created by radical political movements for social justice, civil rights, and women’s liberation, especially in the workforce, meant that there were individuals who could serve as examples of the popular truism that “anyone can make it big in America.” Multimass media has played the central role as the propagandistic voice promoting the notion that this culture remains a place of endless opportunity, where those on the bottom can reach the top. In the areas of sports and entertainment, more and more individual black stars were entering the ranks of the rich. Ironically, the token presence of individual white women and people of color among the rich and powerful was effectively used to validate the existing social and economic structure by conservatives who had religiously fought to keep them out. By the early eighties the idea that sexism and racism had been eradicated, coupled with the assumption that the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy could work for everybody gained momentum and with it the notion that those groups for whom it did not work were at fault.
Along with the revamped myth that everyone who worked hard could rise from the bottom of our nation s class hierarchy to the top was the insistence that the old notions of oppressor class and oppressed class were no longer meaningful, because when it came to the issue of material longing, the poor, working, and middle classes desired the same things that the rich desired, including the desire to exercise power over others. What better proof of this could there be than calling attention to the reality that individuals from marginal groups who had been left out of the spheres of class power entered these arenas and conducted themselves in the same manner as the established groups—“the good old boys.” Once the public could be duped into thinking that the gates of class power and privilege were truly opened for everyone, then there was no longer a need for an emphasis on communalism or sharing resources, for ongoing focus on social justice.
More importantly, there was ample evidence among token marginal individuals who entered the ranks of ruling class privilege that they, like their mainstream counterparts, could be bought— could and would succumb to the corrupting temptations of greed. The way had been paved to bring to the masses the message that excess was acceptable. Greed was the order of the day, and to make a profit by any means necessary was merely to live out to the fullest degree the American work ethic.
In relation to the poor and underclass, this permission to indulge in excess fostered and perpetuated the infiltration into previously stable communities, especially black communities, a predatory capitalist-based drug culture that would bring money for luxuries to a few, a symbolic ruling class. Suddenly-impoverished communities where life had been hard but safe were turned into war zones. Greed for material luxuries, whether a pair of expensive sneakers, a leather jacket, or a brand-new car, led individuals to prey upon the pain of their neighbors and sell drugs. Many a family starts out disapproving of drug culture but suffers a change of heart when money earned in that enterprise pays bills, buys necessities, and provides luxuries.
Those who suffer the weight of this greed-based predatory capitalism are the addicted. Robbed of the capacity to function as citizens of any community (unable to work, to commune with others, even to eat), they become the dehumanized victims of an ongoing protracted genocide. Unlike the drugs used in the past, like marijuana and heroin, drugs like cocaine and crack/cocaine disturbed the mental health of the addicted and created in them cravings so great that no moral or ethical logic could intervene to stop immoral behavior.
All of us who have lived or live in poor communities know that the addicts in these neighborhoods do not prey upon the rich. They steal from family and neighbors. They exploit and violate the people they know most intimately. Since addiction is not about relatedness, they destroy the affectional bonds that once mediated the hardships of poverty and lack. Contemporary street drug enterprises sanctioned by the government (if they were not,law enforcement would rid our streets of drugs perhaps using some of the millions that go to support the military industrial complex) have done more to promote and perpetuate a culture of greed among the poor than even the propagandistic mass media, which encourages endless consumption.
Drug trafficking is the only economic enterprise that enables a poor person to acquire the means to drive the same cars and wear the same clothes as the rich. Of course, unlike the legitimized beneficiaries of greedy capitalism, these profiteers lack the power to influence government spending or public policy. They function only as a fascist force that brings violence and devastation into what were once stable communities. They do the work of exploitation and genocide for the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ruling class. Like mercenaries sent from first world nations to small countries around the world, they devastate and destabilize. This is class warfare. Yet the media deflects attention away from class politics and focuses instead on drug culture and youth violence as if no connection exists between this capitalist exploitation and the imperialist economies that are wreaking havoc on the planet.
Mass media, especially the world of advertising, pimps the values of the ruling class to all other groups. A strong organized politicized working class does not exist in the United States today precisely because, through the socialization of mass media, a vast majority of poor and working-class people, along with their middle-class counterparts, learn to think ideologically like the rich even when their economic circumstance would suggest otherwise. This has been made glaringly evident by the response of the public to efforts to end welfare. Lecturing around the country to groups of working people, including black folks, I am amazed when individuals who should know better talk about welfare recipients as lazy predators who do not want to work. Eisenstein contends: “Ending welfare as the united states has known it also kills the idea that we share a public responsibility for one another. The extreme forms of this new poverty constitute the other side of the process of privatization begun a quarter century ago.” The folks who wanted to end welfare had little knowledge of the actual dollar amounts spent.
None of these people were willing to look critically at unemployment in this society. They could not let go of their misguided assumptions that jobs are endlessly and always available. Not even the economic crisis that is sorely impacting on their lives at home and at work alerts them to the realities of predatory capitalism. Their lack of sympathy for the poor unites them ideologically with greedy people of means who only have contempt for the poor. Once the poor can be represented as totally corrupt, as being always and only morally bankrupt, it is possible for those with class privilege to eschew any responsibility for poverty and the suffering it generates.
Greed is the attribute the poor often share with the well- to-do that lends credence to negative stereotypes, which imply that were the poor empowered, they would hold power and exploit in the same manner as the more privileged classes do. Certainly, it is probably true that the greedy poor are unlikely to act in ways more ethical and moral than the greedy rich. Hence the need in mainstream culture to socialize more and more people of all classes, especially the poor, to see greed as essential to making it in this society, as necessary for survival. If at one time individuals were convinced that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and only the strong survive, now the message is that survival belongs only to the greedy.
Greed has become the common bond shared by many of the poor and well-to-do. When honest caring citizens, especially our political leaders, are corrupted by longings for fame, wealth, and power, it demoralizes everyone who wants justice for all. Hopelessness generates inactivity. It is not easy to ward off the seductive temptations calling to everyone daily in a culture of excess. Constant vigilance is required to sustain integrity. None of us are exempt. The possibility of greed taking hold in all our psyches is ever present. It can be and often is the oppressor within. Confronting this reality without fear or shame is the only way we garner the moral strength to confront and overcome temptation and corruption.
Speaking openly about money remains taboo in polite society. In ever meet wealthy people who speak about themselves as “rich.” More often than not people of means display their wealth and the status it gives them through material objects— where they live, shop, what they own. While they may not speak openly about money, many wealthy individuals think about their riches all the time. Possessing wealth in a greedy culture, where millions of poor people live without the basic necessities of life, they work to hold on to what they have, using it to make more. Protecting their class interests takes time. Many wealthy people live in fear that the people they meet want to get money from them and, as a consequence, thinking about money often dominates their personal relationships.
Most individuals from poor and working-class backgrounds do not work directly as servants for the rich and know no wealthy people. Even though citizens of this nation like to insist that the United States is a classless society, we all know that the rich live apart from the rest of us and that they live differently. Growing up in the fifties, I was surrounded by folks who wanted to have more money to buy the things in life their hearts desired. I was most moved by the longings of grown women who worked hard keeping household, doing jobs outside the home, raising children while caring for the needs and whims of dominating men. Their longing for a nice house and appli-ances that worked made sense to me. While they talked about these longings, they did not sit around hoping to be rich.
In our communities we were schooled by religious thought to believe that wealth was dangerous. We learned from the Bible that it was hard for the rich to enter heaven because being rich made one more susceptible to greed, to hoarding. In the working-class and poor neighborhoods of my upbringing, most folks believed that one could not be rich without exploiting others. While it was fine to long for more money to live well, it was considered a waste of time and energy to long to be rich. In this world we did not identify with the rich or share their values. On a more basic level we simply assumed the rich were the enemy of working people.
More than any other media, television fundamentally altered the attitudes of poor and working-class people, as well as those of more privileged classes, toward the rich. Largely through marketing and advertising, television promoted the myth of the classless society, offering on one hand images of an American dream fulfilled wherein any and everyone can become rich and on the other suggesting that the lived experience of this lack of class hierarchy was expressed by our equal right to purchase anything we could afford. The rich came to be represented as heroic. By championing hedonistic consumerism and encouraging individuals of all classes to believe that ownership of a particular object mediated the realities of class, mass media created a new image of the rich.
On television and in magazines, the rich were and are fictively depicted as caring and generous toward impoverished classes. They are portrayed as eager to cross class boundaries and hang with diverse groups of people. Unlike the “undeserving” poor or the “unenlight-ened” middle classes, these images tell that the wealthy do not long to just stay with folks like themselves, that the rich are open, kind, vulnerable. And more importantly that they “suffer” as much as anyone else. Daytime and nighttime soap operas depict the lives of the rich as one sad crisis after another. On television screens, the vast majority of rich people work long hours. While they may have servants, they labor alongside them.
These images served and serve to whitewash the reality that the rich are primarily concerned with promoting their class interests, even when to do so they must exploit others. On the screen the rich are too busy coping with their own pain to inflict pain on others. And indeed most of television constructs a false image of a classless society since the vast majority of images depicted suggest most people are well-to-do, if not rich, or already on their way to becoming rich. Mass media lets us know that the rich are like everybody else in that they live to consume. Hence, it is through consumerism that the evils of class difference are transcended. In Global Obscenities, Zillah Eisenstein explains how this works: “Consumer culture and consumerism are woven through a notion of individualism that seduces everyone, the haves and have-nots alike. Consumerism is equated with individual freedom.
Transnational media representations construct consumerist culture as democratic—open, free, where anything is possible. Its underbelly—poverty, hunger, and unemployment—remain uninteresting to mainstream media.” Mass media never celebrates the lives of those who live simply, never acknowledges in a celebratory way the poor and underprivileged who live happy, meaningful lives.
By the eighties the only image of the poor we were likely to see on our television screens came on cop shows or the occasional hospital drama. Usually when they appear the poor are demonized. They are self-centered, corrupt, and dysfunctional. Depicted as liars and schemers, they are usually criminals. On television the working class are allowed to be funny now and then. Roseanne, a show that portrayed the white working class in a complex way, stayed on the air for a long time. Yet its popularity could not be sustained in a world where no one really wants to be identified as working class. Frank’s Place offered progressive images of the working class, especially black people, but though enjoyed widely by audiences it did not have a long shelf life. Producers and viewers tend to keep on the air programs with negative depictions of the working class, which show them to be petty, unkind, xenophobic, and racist toward any group unlike themselves.
Nowadays, where sitcoms of the working class used to appear on our screens, a range of shows featuring upper-middle-class young people abound. On these shows, identification with wealth and privilege is depicted as a norm. The fact that the television well-to-do are in their late twenties and early thirties strengthens the myth that anybody who works hard can make it. None of these shows reflect any aspect of the growing class divisions in our society. By the end of the eighties, images of working-class and poor people appeared on television screens primarily in cop shows. Depicted as lacking in morals, as criminals, as without humanizing affection, these images promote disdain for the underprivileged and identification with the privileged.
The rise in television talk shows and tabloid journalism furthered identification with the rich more so than fictional dramas. Real life “rich” people, usually celebrities, appear on these programs and talk about their lives—their problems. Watching these shows, viewers are not only able to imagine that they can rise to fame and fortune, they can have a sense of intimacy with the rich, which belies the reality that they have little or no contact with rich people in their daily lives.
Television is not the only mass media “selling” the notion that identification with the rich and powerful is the only way to get ahead in this society; magazines and newspapers exploit the fascination underprivileged people have for the lives of the rich and famous. No recent event in the nation s history dramatized as graphically the extent to which a mass audience of people identify with the rich as much as public reaction to Princess Diana’s tragic death. Of course, national fixation with her life and her fate was rarely talked about in mass media as tied to an obsession with class hierarchy. It was much easier to portray public fascination and grief for Princess Diana as tied to the fact that she was not from a ruling class background. Of course, the fact that she was from an upper-class background was obscured, and hers became a rags- to-riches story. Such stories capture the imagination of an American public that does not want to let go of the myth of a classless society where all can rise. By identifying with Princess Diana they could not only reaffirm the rags-to-riches fantasy but also indulge their fantasies of being rich and famous.
Despite Diana’s tragic fate, the notion that wealth and privilege bring happiness continues to dominate the consciousness of many people, especially the poor and working class. Public narratives where individual rich people share the tragic elements of their lives do nothing to change public opinion that wealth brings happiness. Since the mass public rarely sees the rich up close and personal in daily life, fantasy can always overshadow reality. A recent spread in the New York Times magazine section on the issue of “status” conveniently ignores the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in an effort to foster the false impression that anyone can reside at the top of our nation’s class hierarchy. On the front page, the first editorial cited was tided “In a Class-Free Society.” All the articles address the headlined issue: “What We Look Up To Now: The Democratization of Status in America.”
No one knows better than the rich the truth of class difference. Protecting their class interests so that the poor and working class do not engage in any form of class warfare that would undermine or in any way destabilize their comfort, wealthy people often covertly spend more time thinking about class and money than any other group. Yet they remain reluctant to talk openly about their wealth, especially with individuals who do not share their class backgrounds.
Many rich people find it easier to avoid questions of class in relationships by choosing to forge bonds solely within their own class. Rich people I know or have known are much more willing to talk about the way in which wealth and the privileges that come with it estrange and alienate them rather than speaking of the power it brings. Whenever they are relating to people who are not materially privileged, they fear that the attraction is their privilege and not who they are. Individuals who inherited wealth as children and who have never worked at a paying job often feel they must mask their class privilege. They, like many of their wealthy peers, live in fear of being exploited and/or harassed by those in need.
While most rich folks protect their class interests by preying upon the poor and needy, they tend to deflect from this reality by project-ing an image of themselves as constantly preyed upon by needy predators. Even wealthy people who see themselves as politically progressive and willing to aid others project an image of themselves as vulnerable, in need of protection from the greedy masses. The greed of the rich is often denied. Lots of rich people imagine that living in a miserly way means that they are not attached to wealth, that they are not greedy.
A rich acquaintance boasted about her reluctance to buy anything new. She wore her clothes until they were tattered and worn. Even then she did not discard them. She bundled them up to give to the “needy.” Growing up I can vividly recall black women who worked as maids in the homes of well-off white people expressing their contempt for employers who would give them worn and sometimes soiled raggedy items. Their rich employers expose their greed by their hoarding, their miserly habits. And it is a greed that fuels their contempt for the needy. Since they “get by on a little,” they assume everyone else not only can but should. It is quite different to take on the posture of asceticism when one has riches stashed away than to live in a state of lack where there is no hope of ever having access to material plenty.
Now and then progressive individuals who are rich grapple with the question of how they can best use their resources to empower the largest number of folks, especially those who lack resources. Yet these individuals are rare. Most people, whether they are born wealthy, inherit wealth, or achieve it through hard work and luck, focus more on what they must do to maintain and increase their wealth. A number of “rich” individuals I interviewed emphatically expressed that they did not see themselves as rich. They would point to friends and colleagues who have billions. In all cases, they judged their class status by those who had more rather than those who had less.
This attitude surfaces among all classes in this society. Again and again I hear individuals with varying degrees of class privilege speaking of themselves as though they are suffering lack because they per-ceive others as having so much more. Mass media has fostered this sense of lack in both those who have abundant privilege and those who have little. If privileged people feel “lack,” there is no reason they should feel accountable to those who are truly needy. In the fifties, many working-class and middle-class families reminded children of the starving on the planet when we were reluctant to eat or constantly complaining about our lot. Then, being wasteful was perceived as an act of aggression against those who had nothing. When I was little, I thought that these starving masses were mere fictions created by worried parental imaginations. It was a shock to later face the truth that not only did they exist, but that this country’s wasteful use of a huge portion of the world’s resources did and does create conditions of deprivation globally. Daily, children in the United States are shocked to learn that thousands of children are starving to death not only elsewhere in the world but here in our nation as well.
The rich are able to make notions of unlimited growth and expan-sion work for them economically. The throwaway culture of planned obsolescence that this mode of thinking and being has produced, while useful to the rich, has utterly undermined the class power of middle-class, working-class, and poor people. Wanting and wasting are practices that keep the have-nots from utilizing their limited material resources in the most life-enhancing and productive ways. Since the vast majority of these folks imagine that the rich are indulging every desire (since that is what mass media tells them) they have no under-standing of the ways in which the rich use their resources to produce more resources for themselves.
Not only do the vast majority of the rich keep their knowledge of basic economic skills from the poor, they invest in all forms of cultural production that encourage endless consumption on the part of those who have class privilege. As individuals without class privilege come to believe that they can assume an equal standing with those who are rich and powerful by consuming the same objects, they ally themselves with the class interests of the rich and collude in their own exploitation. Mass media has been the pedagogical tool used to teach the poor and working class to think like the rich. Ideologically, through mass media seduction, many of the world’s have-nots take on the thoughts and values of ruling classes. In everyday life they ideologically join with the rich to protect the class interests of the wealthy.
Socialized by the media to believe that ruling classes are morally better and superior to those without class privilege, they do not feel allegiance to members of their own class or to those who are less fortunate. They believe that the wealthy have earned their right to rule. And as a consequence they abandon any political commitment to economic justice or to ethical values that condemn greed and exploitation. While it is true that more than ever before in our nation s history rare individuals of any creed or color can enter the portals of the rich, they cannot maintain this class position and class power without betraying the interests of those who are needy. I interviewed one of the richest men in this society and asked him what he liked most about his wealth. He boldly replied that what he liked most about his shift from the middle-class to the ruling wealthy elite was the power over others it gave to him, that he could make them do things they would ordinarily not do. His candor was unusual. Most ruling class individuals mask their pleasure in domination and exploitation.
Traditional Christian teaching about the wealthy condemned greed. The apostle Paul declared that those who desire wealth have “pierced their heart with many pangs” (Timothy 6:9–10).Biblical teachings suggest that the rich must work harder for grace because they will be sorely tempted to exploit and hoard their wealth rather than be guided by the spiritual commandments admonishing them to share. The disciples were puzzled when Jesus explained to them that a camel could slip through the eye of a needle with greater ease than the rich could enter the kingdom of God. They were puzzled because prior to hearing this message they simply assumed that prosperity was a sign of being among God s chosen elect. They were astounded to learn that the poor had greater standing in the eyes of the divine than the rich. Then they were taught that it was not sinful to be rich; it was sinful to become attached to wealth, to be avaricious and hardhearted.
Nowadays much new age spirituality attempts to undermine traditional biblical condemnation of the greedy rich by insisting that those who prosper are the chosen, the spiritual elect. But there is a great difference between celebrating prosperity and the pursuit of unlimited wealth. Traditional religious thought was correct in its insistence that it is difficult and dangerous to be among the wealthy. To be wealthy and remain committed to justice is no easy task. We hear little from the wealthy who use their means to further the cause of justice, of economic self-sufficiency for all. Despite their good deeds, this silence maintains their class solidarity with those who exploit and oppress, as they are best situated to challenge their peers, to offer new ways of thinking and being in the world.
Ruling class groups keep themselves separate so that the masses cannot know who they are and how they really live. Most importantly, separation allows them to live the fantasy that there is no connection between their opulent lifestyles and the misery these lifestyles produce. They live in states of denial and deflect attention away from the imperialist violence enacted in their name globally to protect their class interests. However, they have no difficulty asserting the fas-cist thought and action needed to protect their wealth when they feel threatened. It is this link that makes their ruthless allegiance to a class hierarchy where they are on top a danger to us all.
Prosperity enhances life. As a nation we should uphold the belief that everyone has the right to a life of well-being, which includes access to prosperity. The rare rich folk who use their resources to enhance their lives and the well-being of the communities in which they live exemplify that possessing wealth is not an evil. Wealth built and maintained by the exploitation and oppression of others undermines a democratic vision of prosperity. When we recognize that abundance can be spread around, that more of our nation’s citizens should have access to material plenty that enables us all to live “a good life,” the rich will not need to live in constant fear and alien-ation. And those with little or no class privilege will not be preyed upon by the greedy.
The Me-Me Class: The Young and the Ruthless
The notion that everyone can be wealthy has supplanted the idea of the United States as a classless society. Indeed, the fantasy that cuts across class is the dream of a world where everyone can be wanton and wasteful as they consume the worlds riches. Endless indulgence of a fantasy life used to be solely the cultural terrain of rich white men. More than any other group they had the power to realize dreams and fantasies. Advertising changed all that. Through the manipulation of images, it constructs a fictive United States where everyone has access to everything. And no one, no matter their politics or values, can easily remain untouched by these insistent narratives of unlimited plenty posthypnotically telling us we are what we possess.
Hypervigilant individuals can turn off our television sets but we walk and drive in a world crowded with advertising. Whenever we seek to purchase any item in our lives we enter the world of advertised images. In recent years, we open bills for basic necessities like water, electricity, or credit cards where the envelopes are now designed to push products. This makes it practically impossible to ignore mass media images that push the fiction that there are unlimited resources and unlimited access. Teenagers are the largest growth population. Studies already show that their favorite activity is shopping and that they spend on the average more than twenty dollars a day consuming. Greater economic success for privileged parents coupled with societal support of hedonistic consumerism has produced a new generation of young people who see no value in hard work but who believe that value lies in status, and power lies
in getting one’s needs met, especially material needs. Today’s youth culture is centered around consumption. Whether it’s wearing designer clothes or cruising in luxury cars, materialism becomes the basis of all transactions. For young people, the world is their marketplace. All one’s worth, mass media advertising tells them, is determined by material things. Ironically, such thinking produces a symbolically “classless” society in that these values are shared by youth culture irrespective of race, gender, or class positionality. While today’s youth are eager to live in a world where racism does not exist, they do not want to do the political work of changing themselves or society. That world entails confronting pain and hostility. And they are the generations who are constantly told via mass media that only losers feel pain, that the good life is a life without difficulties. They are constantly told that the only peace and happiness they can have will come to them through rugged individualism, through a focus on meeting self-centered needs. In a world where pathological narcissism is the order of the day, it is difficult to arouse collective concern for challenging racism or any form of domination. The will to resist can be tamed by a world that says everything can be as you want in the world of fantasy. And consumer culture generates the fantasy.
When it comes to race, the ads tell us there is no racism, that “we are the world.” Racially diverse ads evoke a shared culture of consumerism where there is no racial divide; oneness is attained by mutual consumption. Martin Luther King’s vision of a beloved community gets translated into a multicultural multiethnic shopping spree. Commitment to consumption above all else unifies diverse races and classes. Everyone is a cannibal feasting on everything and everyone. In a New York Times magazine segment focusing on selfishness, a twenty-one-year-old student is quoted in Andrew Cherlin’s article “I’m O.K., You’re Selfish” declaring:“I just think it’s a ‘me-me’ world. Everything is focused on what you can accomplish, what you can do and how far you can go.” And the success of these accomplishments, of these journeys is always measured by how much you can buy.
While we live in a culture where racism prevails, where the limited gains in civil rights for people of color and all women are daily assaulted, a society where racial and class apartheid is a norm, the world of spending is the one place where the promise of community is evoked. No matter your class, no matter your race, if you have access to credit, to cash, every store is open to you. In the world of spending, desire for the commodity matters, it cuts across all barriers. In this world there is no need of social awareness, for radical protest. And that world is particularly appealing to a generation of youth who are caught up in the fantasy world that advertising produces, a world where everyone is one, where there is no pain, and everyone can belong if they can pay the price of the ticket.
In reality lots of young people cannot pay the price of the ticket. The downside of fantasies of a classless society, of a consumer-driven dream wherein you are what you possess, is the psychological torment it causes everyone who is unable to fulfill endless material longings. A dimension of that psychological torment is envy. Among young people, from grade school age kids to teenagers, to lack signs of material success is to be marked as worthless and to be the object of shame. That shame may be externalized and internalized. It con-verges with envy. In John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, he contends: “The most childish form of envy is greed….The envier magically believes that if he possesses that quality, he would be okay. Envy in the form of greed is exploited by modern advertising, which offers the posthypnotic suggestion that we are what we possess.” Among the poor this envy-based greed has produced a predatory culture where young people randomly slaughter each other over material possessions. And this same murderous longing manifests among youth who are not materially deprived but whose material longings are grandiose. Confronted with young peers who have greater degrees of privilege they also slander and slaughter.
In recent years popular movies directed at teens, like the film Clueless, which became a television series, poke fun at the ridiculous values of the wealthy world even as they glamorize possessions. In Clueless, much of the movie’s plot centers around the accumulation and admiration of possessions. In this movie, the star of the show is rich, white, blonde, blue eyed, and thin to the point of being anorexic. She has as her faithful sidekick a less materially privileged black friend who constantly expresses admiration and envy. In the popular imagination the longing to be rich is depicted as not just a positive aspiration, but the only aspiration that has meaning. The most recent version of this theme is the movie Anywhere But Here, where the teenage heroine is encouraged by a middle-aged divorced mom to lie, cheat, steal, do anything she can to be chosen by the rich, and live as they do. When the film begins, the daughter is hypercritical of her mother’s obsessive insistence that you are what you possess, but as the film progresses she colludes with her. Presented as light entertainment, watched by youth of all ages, these films deny class conflict. Yet grade schools and high schools are the places where class conflict is bitterly expressed through the constant shaming of kids who lack material privilege.
On an episode of the television show South Park, one of the students asks the teacher why it is that poor people always smell like sour milk. She does not challenge this perception. Instead, she tacitly acknowledges that it is a perception she shares, by simply saying that she does not know why this is the case. Many schools in our nation have insisted that pupils wear uniforms to intervene on the widespread violence that was taking place in relation to material possessions. One way poor tough kids wage war against materially privileged kids is to forcefully take their stuff. Lots of middle-class kids leave public schools, where the educational standards are excellent, to avoid conflict over material possessions.
Ironically, our nation is full of young people, especially teenagers, who deny the reality of class, even as they identify solely with the values and mores of a predatory ruling class. Children from poor backgrounds are isolated and self-isolated because being poor is always and only a cause of shame. And while that has to some extent been the case throughout our nation’s history, it was much easier for poor youth to mask class backgrounds with clothing and education. But when the notion that you are what you possess becomes the norm, and the possessions are no longer defined as simply decent goods but rather extremely costly luxury items, then the gap between those who have nothing much, those who have a little, and those who have a lot widens. Children raised in working-class and poor homes in the late fifties and sixties grew up in an environment where the clothing of the working class constituted what was chic, symbolized by blue jeans, overalls, or the peasant skirts made from bedspreads. This clothing was all part of a critique of class power. First popular in countercultures, it became an expression of class defiance by the children of the rich and well-off. It fostered the belief that class could be transcended. And more importantly, that privileged-class groups might be enriched by associating with the working class and/or poor.
Those are yesterday’s visions. Today’s youth who are among the thirty-eight million or more poor citizens of this society or who are members of working-class groups want to leave their class origins behind. Like their peers from privileged groups they do not think about a range of class positionalities. To them one is either rich or poor and there is no in-between, nothing else matters. In part, youth culture’s worship of wealth stems from the fact that it is easier to acquire money and goods than it is to find meaningful values and ethics, to know who you are and what you want to become, to make and sustain and friends, to know love. The pursuit of wealth may breed greed and envy but it may also breed ambition. And while the young are fueled with the ambition to get ahead, to make as much money as possible, all attention can be deflected away from emotional lack. When materially privileged white high school boys slaughter students who are different from them, from different races and classes, it is easier for the nation to talk about the luxury cars they drove rather than to talk about the emotional emptiness and nihilism that permeate their psyches. If their worship of death is linked solely to too much luxury, to many material possessions, then the fantasy that cutting back on these items will remedy what ails them and their peers can prevail.
Often parents of all classes who are themselves critical of the worship of money, of ruling class groups, still feel compelled to teach their children that money is the most important thing in life. Materially privileged parents who may themselves eschew luxuries often encourage materialistic hedonism in their children. Among poor youth, lust for luxury made synonymous with personal worth and value has supported predatory drug cultures, which bring huge sums of money into their lives. The artifacts that money buys are the sign that one is important, that one has power. Adults who once held different values are persuaded by young people that money is all that is important. This struggle between the ethical values of an older black generation and a young generation eager to get rich quick was a central theme in Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play A Raisin in the Sun. The child of parents who have worked hard to provide their children with a good life, Walter Lee wants to take the insurance money the family receives when his father dies and use it to buy a liquor store. His mother sees the money as providing them with the opportunity to challenge racial discrimination in housing, to live in a better neighborhood. In her ethical universe, money is only useful when it enhances one’s overall well-being. In Walter Lee’s universe, having money is the sole determinant of one’s well-being. At a key moment in the drama, his mother expresses her outrage at his values asking him “since when did money become life.” He responds by telling her, “It was always life, mama. We just did not know it.”
No study has been done to document the extent to which children living with divorced mothers with low incomes find these relationships changed when kids choose to live with fathers who have better incomes and can buy more. In some cases the children may know that their emotional growth is better fostered with their mothers, but they want to be where the money is because that it is what they are told will determine their value and, ultimately, their lot in life. They are told this by mass media, by the culture of greed surrounding them. Single mothers who struggle with impoverishment, who work to make ends meet, often send a double message because circumstances compel them to focus centrally and occasionally obses-sively on material matters even as they may be trying to teach their children a set of values where material needs and desires do not matter more than bonds of love and care, etc.
Sociologists have yet to link the extreme materialism of today’s youth with the economic changes that enter their lives through divorce or the failure of fathers to financially contribute. In part, their obsession with material goods stems from a deep-seated fear that they will possibly suffer ongoing material deprivation. Those fears have a reality base. And unless they are appropriately addressed they can lead to intense preoccupation with material consumption. Of course, this is equally true for children who suffer ongoing material lack. The difference lies in the fact that poor children who have never known material well-being rarely feel either a sense of entitlement, that is, that something that should rightly be theirs without effort has been denied them, or the despair that the material privilege they once had is no longer a part of their reality. Usually kids from impoverished backgrounds have a more realistic awareness of class even though this does not ensure that they will be protected from the brainwashing of a larger culture, which encourages us all to see our self-worth as linked always and only to material wealth.
The institutionalized church or temple, which once played a major role in creating both a compassionate image of the poor as well as compassionate identification with the poor, has no meaningful impact on the worldview of today’s young no matter their class or race. While young black gangsta’ rappers stand up at award ceremonies and give thanks to God for their fame and fortune, the Christian or Islamic religous beliefs they evoke do not shape their moral values or their actions in the world. They (and their nonblack counterparts) mock their gods, and their wanton worship of wealth encourages the young to believe that God is useful only as a tool for taking you to the top. And this top is not Martin Luther King’s mountaintop where he felt given a divine vision of social justice and democratic union.
This is the generation of the young who worship at the throne of the assassins who mock, ridicule, and destroy every value or ethical belief that challenges the rule of the dollar. This generation has blood on its hands and does not care as long as the blood can be washed away by fancy soaps, aromatherapy, and a host of other little luxuries. When the politics of greed rule, the young are particularly vulnerable. With out a core identity, belief system, or place with in a beloved community, they lack the resources to ward off the awesome allure that says unprecedented wealth awaits everyone, that we have only to imagine. When the deluded young are forced to face the reality that we are bound by class ,by limited resources, by the exhaustion of glories, by endless exploitation, they become rage filled and rage addicted. Only death, self- mutilation, or the slaughter of their peers appeases. They cannot kill the oppressor because they do not know who the oppressor is. They do not understand class politics or capitalism. In their minds, to be without money is to be without life.
Without education for critical consciousness that begins when children are entering the world of consumer capitalism, there will never be a set of basic values that can ward off the politics of predatory greed. Seeds of hope are planted in the efforts made by youth to shift from focusing on luxury items and designer clothes to a grunge, back-to-nature lifestyle, by the radicalized young who work for environmental rights, and by the young who are facing the realities of class and working to create a just society.