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<nettime> Wants and Needs (or Why Occupy *Whatever* is Really *Digital*
Newmedia on Wed, 30 Nov 2011 21:32:21 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Wants and Needs (or Why Occupy *Whatever* is Really *Digital* Distributism)


[From Lewis Mumford, "The Condition of Man," 1944, Volume III, "Renewal of Life," Chapter IX, "The Progress of Prometheus," pp. 304-5]

As a humanizing influence the new interests and the new processes of production were extremely fruitful and they were to have a healthful effect upon the development of the personality.  But this is more than one can say without qualification of the goods themselves or of the goals of the utilitarians set before the community.  This distinction is important.  The philosophers of industrialism, from Bacon to Bentham, from Smith to Marx, insisted that the improvement of man's condition was the highest requirement of morality.  But in what did that improvement consist?  The answer seemed so obvious to them that they did not bother to justify it: the expansion and fulfillment of the material wants of man, and the spread of these benefits, from the few who had once pre-empted them to the many who had so long lived on the scraps Dives had thrown into the gutter.  The great dogma of this religion is the dogma of increasing wants.  To multiply the powers of production one must likewise multiply the capacities of consumption.

What, then is man's true life?  The utilitarian has a ready answer: it consisted in having more wants that could be supplied by the machine, and inventing more ways in which these wants could be varied and expanded.    Whereas the traditional religions had sought to curb appetite, this new religion openly stimulated it: forgetting its hungry Olivers, who could with pathetic justice ask for more, it licensed its Bounderbys to unlimited consumption and surfeit.  In the name of economy, a thousand wasteful devices would be invented; and in the name of efficiency, new forms of mechanical time-wasting would be devised: both processes gained speed throughout the nineteenth century and have come close to the limit of extravagant futility in our own time.  But labor-saving devices could only achieve their end -- that of freeing mankind for higher functions -- if the standard of living remained stable.  The dogma of increasing wants nullified every real economy and set the community in a collective squirrel cage.

Thus the universal use of the telephone has caused the abandonment of the far more economic written memorandum or postcard for brief intercommunication; the invention of the radio has caused the time-consuming human voice to displace the swift human eye even in the consumption of daily news: the cheapened cost of printing has added to the amount of needless wordage and unusable stimuli that assail modern man in newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, prospectus, folder, advertisement.

On the basis of its quantitative success, this untrammeled productivity and activity should result in boundless satisfaction: but its massive actual result is confusion, frustration, impotence.  The mechanical expansion of human appetites, the appetite for goods, the appetite for power, the appetite for sensation, has no relation whatever to the ordering of the means of existence for the satisfaction of human needs.  The latter process requires a humane scale of values and a priority schedule for their fulfillment which puts first things first.  No such scale existed in the utilitarian ideology.  Without critical inquiry it assumed that the new was better then the old, that the mechanical was better than the vital, that the active was better than the passive, the the financially profitable was a sufficient indication of the humanly valuable.  All those unqualified assumptions were demonstrably false.

[What Mumford calls the "mechanical" is, of course, what McLuhan referred to as the "Gutenberg Galaxy."  What he points to as the lack of "critical inquiry" is what McLuhan meant by a deficit of pattern recognition, resulting from the "visual" sensory bias of the print-based media environment.  What McLuhan hoped would occur under electric-media conditions would be a re-examination of these deficiencies, as the sensorium rebalanced.  Indeed he *joined* the Distributist League (circa 1934), which was an attempt to return to the economics *before* the ideology of "utilitarianism" had taken over.  Person-to-person economics.  However, what McLuhan hoped for couldn't happen in the ANALOG environment of radio and television -- which harnessed "behaviorism" (i.e. discarnate man-is-just-monkeyism) to stoke the "demand" for pornographic levels of consumption, which was the subject of "Mechanical Bride."  Today's DIGITAL environment, where we all *lean-forward* and *interact* -- which completely redefines wants/needs and consumption/production and encourages us to RE-CARNATE -- presents the first opportunity for Distributism (i.e. the broad social distribution of the productive means to sustain ourselves and our families) to finally come into play.  This is why Occupy Wall Street began as a rallying call from ADBUSTERS, as an anti-consumption declaration.  This development is neither "Left" nor "Right," which are terms from the seating pattern of the 18th century French National Assembly and make no sense at all in today's media environment.  Now we are all *digital* environmentalists!]

Mark Stahlman
Brooklyn NY
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