Economy

Our Produce-or-Die Culture Is Killing Us -- And We're Idiotically Grinning and Bearing It

We've been reduced to "human assets" in a relentless economic machine. And we can't even complain: appearing cheerful is vital when all of life is monitored by an employer.

Every afternoon when I knock off from writing, after I suck down a Modelo beer and take an hour nap, I step out onto the 400-year-old cobbled street, with its hap-scatter string of vendors lining both sides. All sorts of vendors -- vegetable vendors, vendors of tacos, chicharrones, chenille bedspreads and plucked chickens, cigarros, soft drinks, sopa and suet. Merchants whose business address consists of a card table in front of their casita.

Here in this working class neighborhood on Calle Zaragoza, tourists seldom venture, and the neighborhood merchants' customers are their neighbors. Their goods are the common fare of daily family life in Mexico. Today, at a table less than two blocks away, I purchased a dozen brown eggs, with the idea of making huevos rancheros. The purchase took three quarters of an hour, and included stumbling but cheerful half English/half Spanish conversations with the six vendors between my casita and the table of Gabriel, the old egg and cheese vendor with an artificial leg and wizened smile who assures me that rooster-fertilized eggs make a man go all night. "I am too old to care about that," I half speak, half gesture in that rudimentary sign language understood everywhere. "Hawwww" he chortles and says something in Spanish I cannot understand. An English speaking bystander, a teenager with a backward baseball cap and dressed in "L.A. sag," translates: "He says his pendejo is as hard as his plastic leg. You still alive! You never too old!"

These vendors are not poor people or peasants. They own homes, drive cars, watch cable television, send their children to college and do most of the things North Americans do. But their jobs are their livelihoods, not their lives, and every transaction is permeated with the ebb and flow of daily neighborhood and family life. "Is Maria going to graduate after all? Si! But by just by the hair in her nose! Who is going to sell fireworks for the Feast of Saint Andrew?" (Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Ajijic.)

Behind the plastered brick walls along the street mechanics fix cars, dentists pull teeth and teachers cheer preschoolers onward in a chirping Spanish rendition of Eensy Weensy Spider. The entire street is busily, but not hectically, engaged in making a living, most of the people doing so within 50 feet of where they will sleep tonight. But before they sleep they will sit out on the street, or perhaps the tiny neighborhood plaza, gossiping with the same neighbors who've been their customers all day. The same families into which their children will marry and whose sick elders they will burn candles for in the ancient stone church, founded as a Spanish colonial mission to civilize the Huichol Indians who've since retreated up into the mountains to honor their "god of the opening clouds" in peyote rituals.

Obviously work and commerce have their problems here, just as anywhere else. The peso rises and falls. Cheap Chinese imports crowd out domestic goods. People work hard, especially tradesmen and laborers, but there is a complete lack of obsession and stress that characterizes North American jobs. Which, of course, many Canadians and Americans retired to Ajijic take for laziness.

It may be my bias, or my imagination, or my distaste for toil, but from here America looks like one big workhouse, "under God, indivisible, with time off to shit, shower and shop." A country whose citizens have been reduced to "human assets" of a vast and relentless economic machine, moving human parts oiled by commodities and kept in motion by the edict, "produce or die." Where employment and a job dominates all other aspects of life, and the loss of which spells the loss of everything.

Yeah, yeah, I know, them ain't jobs -- in America we don't have jobs, we have careers. I've read the national script, and am quite aware that all those human assets writing computer code and advertising copy, or staring at screen monitors in the "human services" industry are "performing meaningful and important work in a positive workplace environment." Performing? Is this brain surgery? Or a stage act? If we are performing, then for whom? Exactly who is watching?

Proof abounds of the unending joy and importance of work and production in our wealth-based economy. Just read the job recruitment ads. Or ask any of the people clinging fearfully by their fingernails to those four remaining jobs in America. But is a job -- hopefully a good one -- and workplace strivance really everything? Most of us would say, "Well of course not." But in a nation that now sends police to break up the tent camps and car camps of homeless unemployed citizens who once belonged to the middle class, it might well be everything.

In one of those divine moments of synchronicity writers pray for, I just saw reinforcement of the above. Checking my email web browser, one of those annoying ads masquerading as advice, popped up. It reads: "Doing good work is no longer enough! Ten tips to keep from being laid off your job." Shown is a cheerful young woman at a desk, feeling deliriously safe about her job, judging from her hysterical bug-eyed smile, thanks to "These Ten Tips!" from a commercial jobs agency. When personal employment fears, job terror and insecurity, can be captured and turned into a job for someone else, there's not much room left for the general spirit of commonality, or a sense of a shared commons (such as this Mexican street) of the nation's work-life. Not when any of us could become indigent at a moment's notice.

But you won't hear anyone complaining. America doesn't like whiners. A whiner or a cynic is about the worst thing you can be in the land of gunpoint optimism. Foreigners often remark on the upbeat American personality. I assure them that our American corpocracy has its ways of pistol whipping or sedating its human assets into the appropriate level of cheeriness.

Appearing cheerful is vital in a society where all of life is monitored by an employer, a credit rating bureau or the media's projection of the world, and mediated by the financialization of life's every aspect. Every action and movement is a transaction, some as large as the mortgage, others as small as the purchase of a bus token, or the cost of a cell phone call, gasoline, vehicle maintenance and parking costs for movement within the sprawling asphalt grids we call communities. Even respite from work with its vacation "leisure destinations" put on the credit card, and even the greatest commons of all, nature, has a cost of access, whether it be admission to national parks or the cost of camping and other "recreational equipment."

In the background a tabulator relentlessly calculates our bill for the thoroughly transactional and mediated life. Quit paying the bills and you are disappeared. Erased from the screens of a society of watchers watching each other -- or watching celebrities, those godlike creatures dwelling on the Olympus of the most watched ... and dreaming of perhaps being watched on Oprah by even more watchers than already watch us for some fleeting few seconds.

There is a flickering screen or monitor in front of and between every citizen of the mediated society of watchers. Whether we watch television or other media matters not, we dwell among the watchers in a surveillance society of our peers. We dress appropriately, speak middle class English, not urban street slang or redneck, and look as prosperous as possible, or as hip as possible, or as learned or pious or whatever within our peer groups, and for outsider groups. No jokers, smokers or midnight tokers allowed in Mainstream American society and culture, which consists of working, consuming and "appearing to be," but never purely being.

We flow willingly through the transactional circuitry of the wealth economy like ghosts, optimistic and eerily cheerful, encountering one another through the hierarchical commodity affinity groups we call our peers, people who consume the same things we do, and have the same purchased identity and "lifestyle" we do. Swimmers in a sea of mass produced goods and mass produced identities through consumption of those goods, we strive for uniqueness, but not very hard, lest we lose the commodities we've acquired.
This is stamped deep within our American being by the greater forces of commodity capitalism; we seem to carry it with us wherever we go. We want to experience uniqueness. Thus Americans and Canadians complain that there are now "too many gringos" in Ajijic," implying that they are different than the rest of their own kind.

But the truth is that we are all very commonly issued products of a profit driven workhouse where no human commons is allowable, lest the workers find meaning and joy in each other as human beings, and perhaps become less work driven, less productive and less profitable. Best that their lives remain mediated, disembodied from the great commons of the human spirit, unmoored from the great natural commons binding all living things called Earth --

images of which will be provided for your delight on The Nature Channel at 9 PM tonight.
Until then, stay cheerful.
Pay your bills on time.
Good night!

Meanwhile, night is falling in Ajijic. Next door a child protests his nightly bath. A Chihuahua yips in the casita across the courtyard, the flickering blue light of a television shatters like harmless lightning on the face of a very large old woman fallen asleep in an armchair beneath a hanging tapestry of Christ feeding his lambs.

Which reminds me. Tomorrow morning I must make those huevos rancheros.

Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (Random House Crown), about working class America. A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his website.