James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Reimagining Democracy for a Post-Consumerist Culture
“Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.”
By Maria Popova
NOTE: This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny.
Three years before E.F. Schumacher laid out his seminal vision for a Buddhist approach to economics, urging us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creative fulfillment, two other titans of thought shone their luminous intellects on the dark underbelly of capitalism and consumer culture. When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in August of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), they explored with great insight and dimension the many factors that shape the forces of equality and inequality in our world — the world of 1970 and doubly so the world of today, for such was the prescience produced by cross-pollinating these two formidably fertile minds.
As Mead and Baldwin weave in and out of the subject of capitalism throughout the conversation, they reserve especial criticism for the mainstream models of success we’ve bought into — models that continue to shackle us to social Shoulds as we race on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism:
BALDWIN: I have never accepted the notion that you keep a Cadillac or a yacht or anything at all, except perhaps for convenience. I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live. People are drowning in things. They don’t even know what they want them for. They are actually useless. You can’t sleep with a yacht. you can’t make love to a Cadillac, though everyone appears to be trying to… I think the great emotional or psychological or effective lack of love and touching is the key to the American or even the Western disease.
Mead considers the origin of this compulsive consumption and how the pursuit of privilege over happiness poisoned the American dream:
MEAD: But most people who came here were terribly poor and wanted things.
BALDWIN: To prove they existed.
MEAD: To prove they could get them all. They had been eating the black bread of poverty, so they came over here and they wanted to eat the white bread that was eaten in the castle. So they instead of eating good, nourishing, whole wheat bread —
BALDWIN: They started eating white bread. Yes, indeed, look at the results.
MEAD: They began eating too much sugar too; thats what the people in the castle had… Old Americans were frugal… I was brought up to untie each package carefully, untie the knots in the string and roll it up and put it away to use again.
BALDWIN: Yes, I still do that too. And I hate myself for it.
Having grown up in Bulgaria during communism, I too had an acute experience of this bread-as-status-symbol phenomenon, as well as of the conflicted self-loathing it produced and still produces. And yet, as Baldwin and Mead both acknowledge, such fallibility is a profoundly human reaction to the oppressive forces of adversity — a testament to the notion of force and counterforce:
BALDWIN: The dream of the starving is to be fed.
MEAD: Yes, that’s it. And the dream of the people who have nothing is to have things…
Echoing Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Baldwin adds:
BALDWIN: The great revolution … that one has dared… The dream of the starving is not only to be fed… One has got to arrive at the point where one realizes that if one man is hungry everyone is hungry.
Indeed, this conversation took place at the height of the New Age movement and the hippie counterculture — a time when Alan Watts admonished that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” In this call for unity, Mead sees as a model for a better dream of our shared human future — a vision resurrected by the sustainability movement of our own age. Today, Mead’s vision seems remarkably prophetic as we enact a great many of her hopes and some of her fears:
MEAD: What I hope is going to happen in the world is a demand similar to the one in this country, the demand for a simpler form of life. Coming up from the kids of the affluent middle class who say, “We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to over-capitalize the individual home this way. We want to make things much more collective.” Then maybe we can invent a style in this country that is viable for other countries. because otherwise what is happening is that other countries are copying this style, so the few educated and elite can get themselves some Cadillacs and big houses. Then all of the rest of the people are miserable. Also we are bleeding the world of its resources and we can’t do that.
This, too, I experienced acutely while growing up in Bulgaria — my mother used to rinse out empty yogurt containers and even previously-used plastic bags, which she reused for various purposes. I was tremendously embarrassed by this practice, which didn’t signify resourcefulness but a lack of resources. And yet by the time I was in my twenties, reusing shopping bags became a status symbol for the conscientious consumer who could, but chose not to, afford disposability. Indeed, recycling today is primarily a political act of the privileged, not a coping mechanism of the poor.
Mead peers backward and forward in time to examine the origin and outcome of these cultural forces:
MEAD: So what is the American dream? The American dream has been the dream of the immigrant. The dream of old Commodore Vanderbilt. What did he borrow? Two hundred dollars from his mother and started bringing potatoes over from Staten Island — who ended up building palaces. But they were not palaces of kings. They were palaces of people who had had nothing and wanted things. And then I go back to my Manus people in New Guinea, who said, “When you have plenty, then you can afford to begin to think about human beings. And when you don’t have, you don’t think about human beings.”
BALDWIN: Well that is both true and not true. I don’t want to be sentimental about poverty, which is a hideous condition. I once flew from Istanbul to Switzerland. Istanbul is exceedingly poor. But the people will give you anything they have, and there is a kind of human warmth which you do not find on the streets of Lausanne.
MEAD: Where everybody is well off.
BALDWIN: Yes. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anybody for the time of day.
MEAD: Well, you can produce a kind of private-property-oriented society, where they also have the private property, where they don’t have any free energy for anyone else at all.
Later in the conversation, Mead and Baldwin revisit the general problem of capitalism and the particular problem of our consumerist dependence on cars, once again presaging the buildup of brokenness that would lead, decades later, to the success of solutions like Tesla:
BALDWIN: Mass production has made human life impossible.
MEAD: No, not really. We never could have things for everybody until we got mass production.
BALDWIN: And what are we going to do with it now?
MEAD: Well, something else. You know, just because the Ford car and the idea of Mr. Ford did give enormous freedom to people in this country, it doesn’t mean that we have to —
BALDWIN: It didn’t give them any freedom, it gave them tremendous mobility.
MEAD: Well, Americans think mobility and freedom are very close together. If you take Detroit, now… A study has just been made that compares somebody without a car only a few blocks away from somebody with a car. The one with a car is not twice as mobile, he is over ten times as mobile.
BALDWIN: This I discovered to my horror when I was living in Hollywood… Human feet have suddenly become obsolete. There’s no point in having feet, except to drive the car. I guess I am badly placed in this society, in many ways. But I see what you mean. I know we had to have these things, we had to have them. I know that it was at one point in human history a tremendous advance for the human race. But now mass production, the consumer society, seems to be one of the things that menace us the most, because we have become so dependent upon it.
MEAD: The automobile in its present shape is a monster. But to envisage a society without automobiles, with the number of people that we have, is also very difficult, We will have to make some new inventions.
BALDWIN: Then we have got to find a way to control this… this monster we have created.
MEAD: That’s right. We have to find different kinds of automobiles, set them up differently.
BALDWIN: And keep them out of the cities.
And yet changes of this magnitude, Mead and Baldwin agree, require that we unmoor ourselves from some of our most basic assumptions about how the world works. They consider the exploitive models upon which capitalism is built and envision a more just alternative:
BALDWIN: It is very difficult to ask people to give up the assumptions by which they have always lived, and yet that is the demand the world has got to make now of everybody.
BALDWIN: One has been avoiding the word capitalism and one has been avoiding talking about matters on that level. But there is a very serious flaw in the profit system which is implicit in the phrase itself. And, in some way or another, one can even say at this moment, sitting in this room, that the Western economy is due to the fact that in a way every dime I earn, the system which earns it for me — I don’t mean the fact that I write books, but the way the system works, the base — is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa, and he is going to stand up presently. Now, if we don’t anticipate that, we will be in terrible trouble. Because he is not going to be bending under his weight ten years from now. And if we don’t understand that and let him stand up, the whole thing is going to be a shambles.
MEAD: I agree. But I also think … that if the systems, whether they call themselves private power or public planning, don’t learn to think ahead further and include all human beings more, they are contributing to the shambles.
Ultimately, such a shift away from exploitive profit requires — then and, even more urgently so, now — that we reimagine what democracy itself might look like if all human beings are to be elevated and none exploited:
BALDWIN: It demands — especially here and now because we are here and now — a vast amount of passion and some courage to attack the forces which menace everybody’s life. The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places. If the democratic notion has led us to where we now find ourselves, some kind of radical revision of the democratic notion is needed.
Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.
Published May 6, 2015