On Balance: Lessons to be learned from old, new books

If you tie a baby elephant to a tree with a length of rope and keep it tied there while it grows to full size, all the while feeding it and catering to its perceived wants and needs, it will never realize that it has the ability — and the strength — to break the rope.

That is a story about “learned helplessness” told in a new dystopian novel by Rob Hart titled, “The Warehouse.” By the end of the first chapter I was so enthralled — and horrified — by recognition of its not-so-subtle message that, on a hunch, I searched whether an option on the book had yet been purchased to turn it into a movie. The book was just published a month ago, so the odds were not great, but yes, it had already been optioned — by Ron Howard. (I offer this information as an implied recommendation to read the book).

The book tells of a not too distant future when the average temperature on the planet is making areas of the U.S. uninhabitable; coast lines are being battered by rising seas and record storms, clean water is at a premium and jobs — any jobs — are very hard to find.

In this setting a large and growing company — Cloud — has managed to rise to the challenge. It has successfully anticipated the demands of the marketplace and has emerged to become a behemoth-like presence in people’s lives. It has replaced most brick and mortar establishments. It has taken over the airwaves and all communication networks and it hosts and secures all of the government’s vast data collection for the CIA. It provides accepted members with coveted jobs, food, shelter and a plethora of consumer goods to keep them satisfied. Non-members ... well, they get access to 24-hour drone delivery from Cloud’s warehouse for whatever their heart desires and their wallets can still afford.

What made this glimpse into the future quite sobering for me were the memories that came boiling up from the past as I read each chapter.

Long ago, while still in college, I had been assigned to read “One-Dimensional Man” by philosopher Herbert Marcuse. It was a wide-ranging critique documenting the apparent decline of oppositional behavior in contemporary capitalist and communist societies; how the ability to think critically was gradually being replaced and subsumed by consumerism and the false idea about happiness that materialism can insidiously perpetuate.

Marcuse’s view was that advanced industrial societies had learned to stimulate their economies by creating “false needs” with targeted advertising to achieve a flawed notion of growth (today called GDP). The wealthy class easily profits from such ramping up of production and it has the added benefit of distorting citizens’ views of freedom as their media-created wants are met and they become unwitting cogs in the machine.

Meanwhile, the illusion of comfort and freedom created by the urge to acquire more goods and services — even when it’s just window shopping — serves to disguise the actual exploitive nature of the system. Consumers are driven to work longer hours than is required to fulfill actual basic needs, and, stuck in a world of consumerism and competition with the Joneses, they become system integrated and one dimensional in their pursuit of happiness. Unable to even imagine a viable alternative, and, oblivious to the harm being done to the environment — not to mention their humanity — they become blind to the criminal waste of the earth’s resources and dismissive of the damaged legacy they are bequeathing future generations.

There is another story told in the book; the parable of the rich man.

When he dies, the man finds himself being tormented in Hades for his avarice while Lazarus, the beggar who waited for scraps from his table sits by Abraham’s side in heaven. When he asks for mercy he learns from Abraham that his personal fate is immutable. So he makes one last desperate plea: “Then I beg you father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”

Abraham replied, “They have the Prophets; let them listen to them.” Then the rich man said, “But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

And Abraham said to Lazarus, “If they do not listen to the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marcuse was heralded as “the Father of the New Left.” In today’s world, not so much. His ideas have been mostly forgotten and ignored. But there is one idea that I have never forgotten, and Hart’s book is an ironic reminder of it. Imbedded in Marcuse’s thesis was this very scary inference: that Capitalism had already acquired the capability to effectively not only co-opt all dissent, short circuiting opposition in the guise of free speech before it gets off the ground, but also make a profit on it.

No doubt, “The Warehouse” will make a lot of money for Amazon.

Dan Gomes is a resident of Schenevus. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star or CNHI.

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