Culture vulture

Find the price of freedom
Saturday afternoon found self and the lovely I. Daphne St. Brie perched in the back row of the sold-out Pageant Theatre munching popcorn and watching the anti-Wal-Mart documentary film The High Cost of Low Prices. The audience was an interesting blend of senior citizens, high school and college-age people, a rather vocal baby and a few middle-aged folks. The film is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in economic responsibility. It presents a variety of points of view from people who have been Wal-Mart employees—from top management down to sweatshop laborers—as well as staunchly patriotic American small-business owners who have had their sometimes generations-old businesses crushed into oblivion by the Wal-Mart juggernaut.

Reflecting on the movie this morning, I was reminded of a quotation I’d encountered somewhere to the effect that, “The majority of work in this world is done by people who aren’t feeling very good.” I don’t recall the source of that quote—if it is a quote and not just a random insight brewed up in the Culture Vulture subconscious—but it has the feel of something that might have come out of The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s examination of the cumulative, misery-inducing effects that capitalism and the industrial revolution were having on the working class of England in the 1930s.

Orwell’s examination of the squalid lives of underpaid coal miners and chronically unemployed factory laborers is hardly the stuff of uplifting Thanksgiving essays—which is what I’d originally intended this column to be—but while searching through it in hopes of finding the above-cited quotation I ran across another that is as illuminating of today’s socio-economic state of affairs as it was of the time and place that Orwell was writing about: “Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate, the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute maneuver by the governing class—a sort of ‘bread and circuses’ business—to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process—the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.”

In terms of beneficial societal evolution, very little has changed since Orwell wrote the above. Perhaps, if feeling a bit cynical, one could add a footnote to the effect that it now appears that the governing class has gained the “intelligence” to consciously manipulate the working class into accepting their downtrodden lot in life as not just inevitable but, “not that bad, I could win the Lotto, and even if I don’t, I just got five two-for-the-price-of-one burger coupons when I bought my groceries, and besides, Trader Joe’s is opening in a couple of weeks, so calm down. Everything is fine.”

Thank goodness for cheap comforts.