Ticky-Tacky Existence: Malvina Reynolds' wickedly subversive 1962 song Little Boxes (which later became the theme of the HBO hit series, Weeds) captures to perfection the one dimensional nature of existence in "advanced industrial society". Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man (1964) further elaborated the ideology of "ticky-tackiness". Sadly, New Zealand continues to experience the social and political effects of one dimensional living.
THERE’S A CERTAIN TYPE of New Zealander, I’m sure you’ve met him – or her. Pinched, unsmiling, always angry: the sort of person who is quick to condemn (and eager to punish) an ever-expanding list of social and political “deviants”. The “normal”, “right-thinking”, “decent” sort of Kiwi who writes letters to the editor of the local newspaper.
If you visit these New Zealanders’ homes you’d find order and cleanliness. There’ll be a flat-screen TV in the living-room, but no books; evidence of money and “success” everywhere you look, but hardly a trace of life, or love, anywhere.
There must be an enormous number of these angry and loveless New Zealanders because both of our major political parties pander to them shamelessly. Our politicians’ knee-jerk recourse to increasingly punitive (but evidence-free) “solutions” and its inevitable corollary, the steady dilution of our civil rights, is directly attributable to the electoral clout of this sad, mad segment of the population.
The radical German sociologist, Herbert Marcuse, dubbed this cruelly diminished variety of human-being “one dimensional man”.
Driven from his homeland by the Nazi takeover in 1933, Marcuse came to rest in the uttermost west of the United States; Los Angeles, California. As it would do so often in the decades to come, California in the late-1930s was pre-figuring the culture of mass affluence. In LA’s sprawling suburbs Marcuse discovered human-beings defined not by what they were, or even by what they did, but by what they owned. In the mass consumer society which California anticipated, people’s sense of self was determined by the things they possessed. Happiness had ceased to be something they discovered, and was fast becoming something they acquired.
New Zealand’s post-war social development followed closely Marcuse’s one dimensional model. In Auckland, particularly, the sprawling “ticky-tacky” suburbs, snaking motorways and ubiquitous private automobile paid imitative homàge to the USA’s consumption-driven society.
The big question, which even Marcuse struggled to answer, is: what sort of human-being is likely to emerge from a consumption-driven society whose members have known nothing else?
We hear a great deal from the Right about inter-generational “welfare dependency” and how it threatens to exclude citizens from the paid workforce and the socially integrative functions it performs. We hear much less about inter-generational “consumption dependency” and its effects on individuals, families, and the planet it is devastating.
If “one dimensional man” can overcome the personal challenges of everyday life through the acquisition of things, then surely social challenges can be met in the same way? If the answer to personal unhappiness is to surround oneself with more commodities, then social ills should similarly be curable by “more”.
Pervasive “welfare dependency” can be overcome by providing more “incentives” to return to the workforce. More crime by more police, equipped with more weapons and invested with more coercive powers. And if more policing doesn’t do the trick, then more laws, more punitive sentences and more prisons must be the answer.
In a political order dominated by one dimensional men, the state increasingly assumes the role of a glorified supermarket or shopping mall. If one dimensional individuals’ hunger for authenticity can be assuaged by simple consumption, then one dimensional society should be capable of healing itself with solutions of equal simplicity. This has to be true because complexity is the one thing that one dimensional society can neither acknowledge nor tolerate.
Why? Because if there are some hurts that things cannot heal; some wrongs that simple solutions cannot right; some qualities, like wisdom, compassion and solidarity, that stockpiling commodities will never confer; then the implicit bargain at the core of the our consumption-driven society, you work for things, and things make you happy, breaks down.
At that point books suddenly become more important that flat-screen TV sets, and the notion that simply by giving your vote to a political party you can solve all of society’s problems stands revealed for the nonsense it always was. At that point anger and the urge to punish are acknowledged as lying at the core of our problems, not applauded as the necessary precursors to fair and just solutions.
And surely this is the explanation for the peculiar distemper of contemporary society? That the continued accumulation of things is palpably insufficient to the maintenance of our own (let alone the planet’s) happiness, but that no one (with the noble exception of the Greens) is offering anything resembling an alternative. Behind the anger and the sadness of New Zealand’s one dimensional citizens, and the intellectual poverty of one dimensional political parties peddling simplistic non-solutions to ever-more-complex problems, lies the frustration of the consumer whose happiness-creating commodities have stopped working.
In the end, what’s the point of offering three-dimensional flat-screen TVs, if all they reveal is the ever-expanding quantum of happiness our one-dimensional citizens have yet to acquire?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 March 2012.