Are We Consumers or Citizens? Neither, We are a Social Force!

Isn’t it true how recent events have jolted us into considering how we should contribute to something bigger, grander than ourselves? Haven’t you, in one way or another, asked something like, “how am I to act, to be with all of these events, politics, movements, and dynamics whirling around outside of my control?”  It’s times like these that prod us to think about what it means to be human and a member of “society.”

Modern Choices

And in these thoughtful times, we are offered choices.  We can play the role of consumer, choosing what and how we purchase goods and services.  Better yet, we can act as “conscious consumers.”  We can buy only those things that adhere to our lofty values. Those sustainably harvested hemp climbing shorts; that guilt-free message from a Burmese refugee.  

We can also act as citizens. Behave as socially responsible members of what some call a “representative democracy”, but which is really more of a “corporatized theocracy.” As so-called citizens, we can donate our money to reputable organizations like the ACLU, Amnesty International, or the Nature Conservancy.  We could also use our free time to repeat dial our Congresspersons (and what fun it is!) or run for local—or higher—office ourselves (ah, no thanks?).

Many of us are showing our “citizen identity” these days. This suggests that something has suppressed this way of seeing ourselves for a while now.  To paraphrase Robert Reich, dominant political and economic forces empower us as consumers while weakening us as citizens.  

Rise of People as a Social Force

Yet by our human nature, we are neither consumers nor citizens. Alone, we are human.  Together, we are as Ivan Illich asserts, a “social force.” If we are to thrive—indeed, if we are to survive—the economic, social, and ecological crises of our time, we must rediscover what it means to act as a social force.

By this, I mean to say that we humans, yes, even you and me, are capable of arranging our lives without the aid of institutions, governments, and corporations. We are that crafty.  

Not only that, we must rearrange our social contract to start living life with one another again.  For each time we rely on an institution or a corporation or a government, we deny what it is that makes us human: our social potential; our innate ability to collaborate and problem solve.  

Institutional Creation of Needs

To borrow from our friend Illich’s wisdom again, “institutions create needs faster than they create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the Earth.”

Consider, for a moment, the governments, corporations, and institutions that create, control, and manage our transportation system.

  • The interstate highways and wide avenues and land use patterns that cut through our towns and cities create the need to cover really long distances that people’s incessant use of the automobile has created.
  • As a result, most of us see the automobile as the savior of our predicament. Yet automobiles never wholly satisfy our need to get places.  With white knuckles and grimaced faces, we fight other drivers and suffer through the start-stop rhythm of congestion. We pay the ludicrously high costs of owning and operating vehicles, all while contributing to the pollution of very own air and water.
  • Finally, in the process of trying, aching to satisfy our need to cover vast distances, automobile manufacturers, oil companies, governments, auto-supportive industries, and millions of drivers mindlessly consume the Earth.

Life in a Professionally Managed World

No less troubling than the destruction of mother Earth is the decimation of our human souls. Each of us, to one degree or another, lives in a world not of our design.  The inhabitants of cities never see, hear, smell, nor touch anything in the environment that someone else hasn’t developed, engineered, planned, or sold.  

Even nature comes to the city-dweller in the form of professionally manipulated street trees and manicured parks.  Illich was right to say that “man has become the plaything of scientists, engineers, and planners.” What are we to make of our freedom in such managed spaces?

social force in the field and in managed nature
managed natural beauty

How and where should we begin to restore our dignity and humanity?  Do our self-appointed leaders really think we’re satisfied choosing between buying “sustainable” Patagonia gear or pulling an epic all-nighter for a Democratic phone-a-thon? 

A Journey Toward Rediscovery

Let’s send a message to our leaders. Inform them that we’re on a different path. One that involves rediscovery.  More specifically, let’s tell them we’re on a journey to rediscover: 

  • the tribe that is our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Together, we are a social force, a force built upon unconditional, trusting relationships.  We offer others the surplus of our gardens.  Play music and prepare meals and dance together. Teach each other useful skills like knitting, carpentry, sewing. Take care of each other.
  • the distinction between hope and expectation. Hope trusts in the goodness of nature and of natural processes. Expectation relies on results which are planned for and controlled by predictable, managed processes. Let’s release our grip on expectations and hold onto the hope that the important people in our lives will discover their way too.
  • our own power as agents of change. Each of us possesses a strength that springs from our inherent goodwill, a virtue that exists and thrives outside the management of institutional processes.
social force bread on a cutting board made from spalted mulberry wood
convivial, homemade oat and sunflower seed bread

It’s true, we live in chaotic, uncertain, bewildering times. It’s natural to ask, “how am I supposed to act and be?”  Let’s use this time to carry out some soul searching. I’ll bet you’ll find buying sustainable cotton shirts and casting your vote for the “least worst” candidate utterly unfulfilling. For our purpose and that which makes us feel alive stand outside our consumer and citizen selves.  Purpose and vitality thrive within us and in the spaces between us.  Here’s hoping enough of us rediscover this simple and intuitive truth.

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