Gandhi’s Followers: Barefoot Mahatma Followers Undermining Capitalism

Gandhi’s Followers: Barefoot Mahatma Followers Undermining Capitalism

RT (2019)

Film Review

This is an odd documentary that tours India “to hear from Gandhi’s modern day disciples.” The title is misleading. I honestly can’t see any way the groups the filmmakers visit are undermining capitalism, especially the group “Bikers Against Animal Cruelty.” The latter use Harley Davidson motorcycle tours to educate high school students about the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.

In my view it’s more accurate to describe the activist groups depicted as working to undermine India’s devotion to global consumerism. All have a strong focus on voluntary simplicity and care of the poor – both heavily promoted by Gandhi.

I also question filmmaker claims attributing the British decision to quit India to Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign for independence. The nonviolent resistance practiced by Gandhi and his supporters occurred in conjunction with a parallel independence movement that included violent tactics such as bombing, targeted assassination, riots and looting. I suspect that latter were far more influential in persuading the British to leave.

Likewise the far majority of Gandhi followers in the film wear shoes.



Why We Want What We Don’t Need

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need

Consumer Protection Hub (2018)

Film Review

This documentary, narrated by Juliet Schor (author of the 1999 book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need), examines the political, economic and psychological forces responsible for compulsive consumption in all developed countries.

The most important factors Schor identifies are

1. The movement of women (starting in the 1970s) out of economically homogeneous neighborhoods into the workplace – exposing them to lifestyles  (cars, homes, clothes etc) of coworkers across the economic spectrum. This would lead to expansion into the working class of competitive consumption. Previously “keeping up with the Jones’s” was mainly limited to affluent neighborhoods.

2. The rapid increase in income equality that began in the 1970s. Corporations strenuously resisted efforts by workers to benefit (through increased wages and decreased work hours) from widespread productivity gains. Instead Wall Street helped fuel competitive consumption via usurious consumer credit (ie credit cards).

3. The tendency of TV dramas and sitcoms to portray $100,000+ annual incomes as average and normal. Schor offers the portrayal of Bill Cosby’s family as typical African Americans and Friends characters as typical mid-twenties roommates (there’s no way the characters depicted could have afforded Manhattan apartments).

According to Schor, the net effect of these influences has been growing demand for mcmansion-size homes, gas guzzling SUVs, brand name athletic footwear and casual apparel and niche coffee.

Satisfying these cravings has led to massive personal debt levels (approximately 50% of US GDP), grueling work schedules, virtual disappearance of family life and growing unwillingness of voters to be taxed for education, parks, libraries and other public services.

The self-help recommendations Schor gives for curtailing compulsive consumption habits are

1. Controlling your irrational desires by limiting mall visits, surfing Internet shopping sites and exposure to catalogues and fashion magazines.

2. Making a conscious choice to downshift to a lifestyle that reduces your consumption (eg Voluntary Simplicity*).

3. Demanding corporate and regulatory policies that allow people to work shorter hours.

4. Lobbying for a progress consumption tax (aka luxury tax).

5. Learning to recognize and question advertising messaging.

6. Learning to connect with people and community rather than competing with them.

*Voluntary Simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’


Radical Voluntary Simplicity

A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity

by Jordan Osmund and Samuel Alexander (2016)

Film Review

A Simpler Way is about an experiment in radical voluntary simplicity in Victoria Australia in 2016 Using donated land, volunteers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK agree to opt out of the money/corporate system and spend a year in an intentional community. The documentary is a record of their experiences.

The premises behind this experiment, called The Simpler Way Project, are as follows:

1. Contemporary civilization has begun to exceed the limits of a finite planet – the fragile Earth cannot support and indefinite increase in people living affluent lifestyles.

2. Technology and the free market can’t save us.

3. We can’t afford to wait for government to find a solution.

4. It’s up to ordinary people to figure out ways of meeting their basic needs that consume fewer resources.

Most of the film focuses on the shelters they erected (after seeking outside expertise) – a combination of tiny houses built from recycled construction materials, cobb houses (see The Revolutionary Mud House Movement) and earthships (see The Earthship Movement: Transforming Garbage into Homes).

Although they would try to grow most of their own food, initially they rely on local organic food from CSA’s (see Top 10 Reasons to Join a CSA). They cook with a combination of open fire and solar and mud overs.

Most find it far more satisfying relying on themselves and other community members to meet their survival needs, as opposed to working at a desk for money. The biggest challenge for all of them is learning the communication and conflict resolution skills necessary to make group decisions. A few become so frustrated with this process they leave and are replaced by new volunteers.

Demolishing the Myth of Perpetual Growth

Life After Growth: Economics for Everyone

Leah Temper and Claudia Medina (2010)

Film Review

The purpose of Life After Growth is to challenge the perpetual growth paradigm in an era in which markets have taken the place of religion in determining major social values.

At present media pundits and policy makers champion continual economic growth as an unquestioned fact of life. In reality, it’s a fairly new phenomenon. Prior to the 19th century and the industrial revolution, all human civilization was characterized by a steady state economy in which both population and productive capacity grew very slowly.

The documentary argues that the urgent crises of poverty, inequality, shortages of water and energy and ecological destruction mean the time has come to explore better ways to design the economy other than infinite growth – especially as the latter is impossible on a finite planet.

At present a “healthy” economy is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 3% a year. At that rate, the size of the economy doubles every 23 years, as do carbon emissions and resource depletion.

Filmmakers also explore what the transition from a growth economy back to a steady state economy might look like. They do so by profiling a number of “DeGrowth” groups that have opted out of “corporate” society:

• The voluntary simplicity (aka voluntary simplicity) movement launched by Vicki Robin’s 1992 book Your Money or Your Life – where members vastly improve their quality of life by working 1-2 days a week, living more simply and consuming less.
• The Transition Towns movement – involving communities throughout the industrialized world collectively organizing to downsize their lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint.
• The Catalan Integral Collective in Spain – funded by the civil disobedience of Enric Duran, in which he used credit cards to “borrow” 492,000 euros from 39 banks, an amount he couldn’t possibly repay. (See Spain’s Modern Day Robin Hood )
• Ecuador’s Keep the Oil in the Soil campaign – in which the president of Ecuador pledges to not to mine Yasuni National Park (one of the most biodiverse places on earth) for oil provided developing countries commit to replace Ecuador’s lost income.
• Bhutan’s decision to measure their country’s success through Gross Happiness Index (GHI) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
• The Church of England’s God is Green program dedicated to reducing Britain’s carbon footprint.

The Addiction of Compulsive Consumption

overspent american

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need

by Juliet Schor (Harper Perennial 1998)

Book Review

The Overspent American is a study of the psychological and sociological factors that drive Americans’ compulsive consumption. In the mid twentieth century, we all believed that a big boom in mechanization and productivity would translate into a significant increase in leisure time. Instead the 21st century found Americans working harder than ever. Growing income inequality, with a bigger percentage of our work product, going to corporate profit, is a big part of the answer. Another important part is compulsive spending patterns that have trapped Americans into in painful desire-debt-spend-overwork cycle.

In many, compulsive spending is an addictive behavior. Many shopaholics regret their purchases once they get them home and never use them.

According to Schor, around 80% of Americans feel that US society is too materialistic, while simultaneously under-estimating their own compulsive consumption and indebtedness. In 1998 (when Schor published The Overspent American), 80% of Americans had personal debt beyond their home mortgage. Across the entire population, average debt was the same as average annual income.

Schor’s purpose is to examine why the promise of greater leisure time due to greater mechanization and productivity never materialized. In 1998, when she wrote the book, Americans were working twice as hard in the fifties. In her few, this is only partly due to corporate exploitation. Many Americans are forced to work more hours than they would really like owing to the compulsive spending parents, especially if they get hooked into the desire-debt-overwork cycle.

Competitive Consumption

I had always blamed Americans’ obsessive consumerism on their constant bombardment, by the media, with psychologically sophisticated pro-consumption messaging. According to Schor’s and others’ research, the problem is far more complex.

Overspending, according to Schor is based in competitive consumption, i.e. the achievement of social status based on what you spend, rather than what you earn. It’s a very old phenomenon. Adam Smith mentions it in Wealth of Nations.

Schor’s research primarily concerns the middle class. Individuals with a strong working class identity tend to be less susceptible to competitive consumption pressures, in part because they have little or no discretionary income and limited access to credit and reject bourgeois ideals in favor of non-consumerist values (eg solidarity).

She also examines two specific groups that are oblivious to competitive consumption pressures. I found this particularly valuable in understanding my own lack of desire to consume and acquire material goods.

Defensive Spending

According to Schor, middle class Americans spend defensively for fear of losing status. The fear of falling behind and ceasing to be middle class became particularly intense in the 1970s, when US companies first began shutting down and moving overseas. Between 1980 and 1995, the upper 20% of the US population experienced an increase in income. Everyone else got a reduction in income. By 1996, the middle class was noticeably shrinking, despite the entry of women into the workforce.

People who were downsized between 1980 and 2000 incurred massive debts to preserve their middle class status. Unlike the fifties, middle class spending expectations no longer revolved around comfort but around conspicuous consumption of luxuries. If you couldn’t afford a four bedroom house, two cars, cable, a VCR, microwave, blender, coffee maker, computer, printer, expensive vacations, massages, personal trainers, lavish gifts at Christmas and other special occasions (one third of which gift receivers neither want nor use), you borrowed money on your credit cards to pay for it. Once you maxed out your credit cards, you ceased to qualify for middle class membership.

The Effect of TV

I was very surprised by the lack of hard research that TV ads stimulate consumption in adult spenders. In Schor’s studies, she found that consumer desires were mainly generated to by exposure to the lifestyles of a reference group, ie the group closest to us in the social hierarchy (workmates, family, friends). Where TV (and films) most influence spending is by offering an inflated view of how other Americans live and what they buy and own. This occurs because the vast majority of TV characters are upper middle class. With growing social isolation, TV itself serves as a reference group for many people.

Downshifters and Simple Livers

Schor classifies people who are resistant to compulsive consumption pressures as either downshifters or simple livers. I found the distinction she makes to somewhat arbitrary, especially when she refers to Quakers, Shakers, Transcendalists and hippies as downshifters. By her own definition, I would tend to call all these groups simple livers:  they resisted material accumulation out of moral conviction and were supported by a reference group that shared these values.

According to Schor, downshifters are more likely to be individuals who have given up compulsive consumption due to a debt crisis or intense work stress. They would prefer to have more money and time, but are forced to opt for time due to some personal crisis. Between 1990 and 1996, 20% of Americans downshifted voluntarily. Twelve percent did so involuntarily due to job loss or wage cuts.*

Simple livers reject the notion that material goods determine status. They set a low level of sufficiency income (some set it as low as $6,000 – 15,000 a year). Beyond this level, spending is no longer positive because it creates clutter, harms environment and alienates them from their peer group. They reject the notion that material goods determine status.

Voluntary simplicity circles first started in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. Thanks to immense popularity of The Simple Life by David Shi and Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, they are now widespread across the country.

*Thanks to ongoing recession, in 2014 the percentage of Americans involuntarily downshifted is nearly 50%.
**According to Schor’s classification system, I’m a simple liver. It’s something that seemed to come naturally because my parents were non-college educated simple livers who rejected conspicuous consumption in favor of non-material values. Most people in my current reference group (the Green Party) are also simple livers.