Monday, November 23, 2015

There is no virtue in doing without things that are unavailable

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the ridiculousness of claims that the West is more materialistic and, therefore, somehow less virtuous than the old Communist system was.
Let us look at the argument: at least they are not obsessed with materialism and consumerism. To start with, what is the basis of Communism and Marxist Socialism but materialism, dialectic or otherwise? The whole political ideology, the whole basis on which state and society are to be built, purport to be materialistic, discarding religion, spiritual entities and "empty" intellectualism. Not only were the ideas discarded and banned, their proponents and practitioners were arrested, exiled, murdered or forced to convert to the worship of Materialism. Socialist Realism from which the artists in this exhibition fled one way or another is the glorification of materialism in art and its apotheosis heralded (or was meant to herald) the trampling down of all non-realist, non-materialist expression.

So much for the underlying ideological basis of Communism. The problem was that it could not provide the material goods that materialism promised to all. While theoretical materialism remained a good thing, its practical assumption had to become a bad thing since it did not exist in the workers' paradise. In particular, it had to be pronounced as bad by Western supporters (at a distance) of that non-materialistic materialist workers' paradise as they could not hide indefinitely behind the lie that consumer goods in the West were available to very few people. In fact, there is an odd correlation between growing contempt for consumerism and materialism and the wider spread of the actual goods.

Were people in Communist countries really not interested in consumer goods? Were they heck. No-one who has ever lived in those countries especially the Soviet Union and managed to communicate with the indigenous population can forget not just the queues for goods that might appear or might not but also the obsessive discussions of what might be available and where, what might be acquired at home or - blissful idea - abroad.

In Soviet cities directions were given by shops. Get off the bus at such and such a shop, turn right, walk to another shop, then right again and it's the second entrance. That sort of thing. Naturally, one had to ask the driver where such and such a shop was, which would cause great excitement on the bus: why were you going to that shop? Was there anything being sold there?
There is another aspect of the question that I recall explaining to a few people who talked rubbish about consumerism was one I recalled when reading a book entitled Medieval Tastes by the eminent Italian historian of food and food culture, Massimo Montanari. (One cannot spend one's entire time on the EU and Russia.)

In the chapter on monastic cooking (a fascinating subject) Professor Montanari discusses the question of fasting and ascetic rigour, explaining:
It should immediately be made clear that deprivation does not mean absence. On the contrary, one can only deprive oneself of that one has, of what one is accustomed to having: "privatio praesupponit habitum", Rabelais ironically remarks. On this, monastic culture is in agreement: there would be no value or merit in a renunciation that was obligatory in some way because of circumstances; it is necessary to renounce an available pleasure so that the choice acquires value and meaning. 
There is no virtue in eating nothing but cabbage and potatoes by way of vegetables with pickled cucumbers and tomatoes in the winter if the shops have no other vegetables.  This would be a virtue if people, say all those people who are advocating the consumption of nothing that is not local and seasonal, did it by choice. I have noticed that they do not ever do so; I have also noticed that as soon as it became possible in former Communist states to eat a more varied diet people immediately started doing so. Of course, they still pickle and salt cucumbers, tomatoes and mushrooms for winter but I do that quite often as well, adding jars of chutney and other home-made preserves. I happen to think they are better to eat than most shop-bought stuff but the important thing is that it is  my choice to do so.

Well now, which of all the economic systems that have existed throughout history in the world has made the making of those choices possible?

1 comment:

  1. Materialism is not a problem as such but a society that is entirely dominated by materialism, that reduces everything to materialism, will be a shallow and empty society. You need to believe in other things as well.

    Modern capitalism makes the same mistake as communism - it's based on the assumption that nothing matters aside from materialism.