(There are two sides to consumerism: the fun side and the dark side. The fun side is brainwashing people into feeling that the ownership of continuously upgraded communications gadgetry is a necessity of life. The dark side of consumerism is continuously increasing the costs of necessities, namely health care, habitat, and education.)
It’s simple arithmetic: as the income gap grows so large as to price the pseudo-necessities of life and the real necessities, out of reach of the 99%, then where does the money come from to keep the gap growing?
When it comes to funding the increasing incomes of the 1% – no problem. Thanks to the magic of finance, which makes money out of nothing but electronically generated strings of 0’s and 1’s, the wealth of the 1% can continue to grow. No such magic, however, is available to the 99% for feeding its addiction to ever-heightened interconnectedness, its need for health care (some of which is only an imaginary, infomercial-induced need and some of which is real) and its real need for affordable housing, and the education which is required to creep up the consumer bracket a percentile or two.
The 2011 riots in London, although they began as a localized reaction to an incident of police racism, quickly grew into an mass expression of frustration over the inability of the lower reaches of the 99% to afford the latest upgrades of telephones and televisions. That was the social upheaval, quickly quashed and not yet repeated, of the failure of the money-in, money-out equation for fun consumerism. What would the upheaval look like when it began to become impossible for the 99% to afford real necessities?
We could have had social unrest, similar to the London riots but on a much larger scale, both geographically and demographically. We have avoided a cascade of proletarian and bourgeois riots (similar to what Europe experienced in 1848) thanks to democracy. Democracy’s levelling potential, usually regarded as only theoretical, a sort of unrealizable rhetorical trope, has finally burst forth. Even before Brexit, we saw it in Greece, Spain, Hungary, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The election of Donald Trump is only the latest eruption of a world-wide wave of populism born of frustration over the effects of income inequality. This populism appears in different guises and with different political trappings, but the one thing all these political upsets have in common is that they were accomplished democratically, peacefully, through the electoral process.
So I say: Three Cheers for the Eighteenth Century! Three Cheers for the Heroes of the Enlightenment! Three Cheers – well, maybe Two-and-a-half Cheers – for Democracy!