Make Affluence History

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 36, Lent 2006
Joseph Land

Was there ever so insidious a foe as creeping consumerism? Was there ever an enemy that could kill so many, so effectively, body and spirit? The vastness of the damage now threatens the very planet we live on and leaves hydrogen bombs looking tame. The self-destructiveness of creeping affluence makes suicide bombers look sane!

So where is the resistance movement? The partisans? The rebel armies?

The very nature of consumerism defies counter-attack because we are all implicated and the deeper we are involved the harder it is to find the Way, the Truth, the Life.

We decry the injustice of poverty and latch onto catch phrases like ‘make poverty history’ as a sop to our consciences, not daring to realise that affluence is the scourge of our age, not poverty.

Ask St Francis about poverty. ‘Never am I so ashamed as when I find someone more miserably poor than I am, for I have chosen Holy Poverty for my bride, my delight, my spiritual and material treasure.’

Make affluence history, I say. Do we really believe our standard of living has been raised by more and more consumerism? That cleverer technology means a better quality of life? What standard is that measured by? The Gospel?

Dare we suggest, for example, that good roads are a bad thing? Sure, everyone deserves a good road. But consider for a moment how roads have facilitated the breakdown of rural communities – the better the road, the quicker and more thorough the breakdown. As mobility and transport have got easier we have seen more and more services become centralised, abandoning places like here in the Hokianga. The immediate consequence is unemployment leading to a lifestyle of consuming but not producing. Add to that the increased time that people spend on the road (because it is so quick and easy) to get to those centralised services – time no longer spent in one’s own community.

Next come the moneyed tourists and opportunist businesses springing up to cater for them creating a very closed economy that benefits only a few. Local councils go to greater lengths to attract them, building even better roads on the tourist routes. Then some of the tourists want holiday homes, the land prices go up, rates are raised, locals can’t afford the new prices and move out and we all bemoan the good old days when everyone lived and worked together and helped each other out.

Very few like the trend – but even fewer resist it. ‘That’s life, got to go with the times, there’s money in it’ are some of the typical responses.

A few months back our local paper carried a small headline on the court news page ‘ Rebels with a cause’. The cause was to challenge the local community about the commercial and consumerist direction we’re heading in. The form of their rebellion was to dig up selected pieces of the sealed road as a symbolic action to that end.

After a campaign spread over several months, they allowed themselves to be arrested. The response locally was some outrage, a lot of non-understanding and some support. The rebels were Abraham Land of St Francis Farm and his cousin Sam. Protests don’t often result in immediate changes but they do sow seeds and re-enforce an idea or movement.

The danger of protest we know is of somehow being tarred with the spirit of that against which we protest and becoming bitter in the face of injustice or grasping when confronted with greed. And so in the spirit of Peter Maurin, Catholic Worker co-founder, (Strikes don’t strike me! Work more for less pay! Back to the land!), we prefer to spend most of our energy in seeking and living that alternative way ‘where it is easier to be good.’

However, for us this action has meant that when people connect with us they may wonder what lies beneath the surface of our lifestyle. They may even glimpse the underlying subversive radical statement it is meant to be. To end affluence, we must embrace Lady Poverty.

For some like St Francis this embracing of voluntary poverty is taken to the limits of survival. But for most of us lesser mortals it means a spirit of wanting less (or at least no more) than we already have. And paradoxically we gain a real sense of sufficiency, not to mention justice and integrity. Affluence requires an army of slaves or near slaves to maintain itself. In our modern world, less and less wealthy folk are requiring more and more ‘slaves’ to maintain them in the manner to which they (or should I say we) are accustomed. The long term sustainable answer is a return to small scale sustainable farming communities for most people.

For a number of reasons, Peter Maurin and the likes of the Distributists and others saw this as an imperative back in the 1920s and 1930s. Their vision was to restore the dignity of manual labour and manual labourers, to end unemployment, to save the earth from the abomination of agri-business (including Queen Street corporate farmers), to grow and distribute enough food for everyone, and so on. These goals are all attainable – if we kick our addiction to affluence and take these creative options among others.

Their analysis and vision of was true then and it is still true now. Now there is a far greater need for urgency but with a lot less ability or opportunity around. Let’s learn the skills and do it now – while we still can.

Dorothy Day wrote that ‘the fundamental means of the Catholic Worker are voluntary poverty and manual labour, a spirit of detachment from all things, a sense of the primacy of the spiritual. Love is the reason for our existence. It is what we all live for.’

Is this not a sober reminder of where Christians need to be in the face of creeping consumerism and increasing affluence. We are among the richest nations in the world. Yet, our soul as a nation appears so often to be dead. The reason is we are following the wrong god – the god of consumerism, which will never satisfy our inner spirits. We can never have enough! Ask the people on the rich list. Enough is never enough. Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, was recently given a state funeral paid out of tax dollars. This was a man who, in a hungry world, could gamble millions in a single night at the casino. Talk about worshiping at the altar of mammon.

If we take Lent seriously then surely the area of affluence is an area of primary concern. If indeed it is affluence that leaves us spiritually bereft, how can we change this? Lent could be a good time to think, reflect and pray about this all-pervasive dimension of our consumer lives.

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