Against hedonism

The modern obsession with self-indulgence is bad for the individual and even worse for society

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that we live in the Age of Hedonism. An age in which people’s lives, or at least the fictitious online manifestation of them, seems to be dedicated primarily to the obsessive pursuit of pleasure with no attempt at restraint. That the 2008-09 global financial crisis not only failed to contain this excess but perhaps even amplified it is all the more surprising and unprecedented. In 2009, the cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote about “capitalist realism”, the idea that capitalism had so permeated every aspect of our existence that we have been unable to imagine a future without it. One can easily argue that our cultural self-indulgence, so tied in with capitalism’s image of how we must look, think, and behave, is part of this phenomenon, producing the contradiction that the more individualistic we are made to be, the more we become like everyone else.

To me, one of the most visible manifestations of how the Age of Hedonism is upon us is the rise in popularity of music festivals. Granted, music festivals are hardly new, but it’s the “festival culture” that is now inescapably attached to it that is more notorious. It seems that festivals are less about the music nowadays and more about the “experience”, this being the pleasure in dressing in obnoxious boho chic, rave, or cybergoth outfits, behaving equally obnoxiously and taking as many pictures of oneself as possible. In a sense, festivals are now three-day long fancy dress or stag/hen parties, music be dammed. By far the most egregious offender is Burning Man, which nowadays resembles a hyper-sexualized Mad Max carnival filled not with marauding gangs but very affluent tech bros and Instagram influencers. If capitalism has ever had its greatest cultural victory, it is by perverting the original intention of this festival from an experience in communal self-reliance, to an orgy of Silicon Valley excess. Continue reading

The Internet is for whining

Behold the new breed of professional whiners ruining common sense

I have come to the conclusion that the internet is for three things: porn, cat videos, and whining. The first two are not the subject of this piece though. It’s not hard to see how whining has turned to the cybersport of choice: since dawn of the World Wide Web, whiners have been able to expand their audience beyond mere family and friends (assuming they have any of the latter left), in the process assuming a self-importance that transcends normal human egotistical limits. Now, there are various types of whiners, from the semi-literate morons which turn any YouTube video into the inevitable anti-US/pro-US political troll-fest to the more educated ones, some of which actually write for major publications. These generally take the form of condescending, holier-than-thou liberals/leftists, making mountains out of molehills out of any perceived offense or indignity (disclaimer, I’m a liberal/lefty myself). Recently, they’ve been on a roll.

The Ice Bucket whiners

Do not disturb (sensibilities)

Do not disturb (sensibilities)

Until the past month or so, a lot of people had never heard of ALS. It is an awful disease, not just for the way it turns a healthy body into a muscle-less pulp of skin and bone in a matter of just a few years, but for the fact that it is incurable, untreatable, and unpreventable. It is a randomized death sentence for all but a minuscule and statistically insignificant few (astrophysicist Stephen Hawking being the most famous case). That has not stopped a legion of internet whiners from finding reasons to gripe about the Ice Bucket Challenge. That it’s slacktivism. That it wastes water. That ALS is rare and there are other diseases that kill many more people. That we must prioritize our charity to the most needed.

Ok, first argument to be debunked: that it wastes water. Well yes, it does. You’re pouring a bucket of water that could probably be more useful to a starving, thirsty African family. Problem is, you’re not in Africa, and pouring or not pouring that water is therefore irrelevant to that African family’s well-being. Are you actually going to export it to another continent so that they don’t starve? Of course not. Wasting a bucket of water will not make people on other continents less thirsty because there’s no way of sending them that water. In other words, water is a resource that has very limited transportation potential because you need so much of it that it’s logistically impossible (or prohibitively expensive). It’s a regional resource, not a global one. Continue reading

Reversing inequality

Governments caused this mess, now it’s time they got their act together
A more fair alternative to the new gilded age

A fairer alternative to the new gilded age

Of all the economic problems of the Western world in our day and age, the rise of inequality is undoubtedly the most pressing one to solve. Even if one chooses to ignore the dimensions of social justice and fairness that inevitably accompany the debate (and which are not the focus of this piece), there are plenty of concrete, measurable reasons why more egalitarian societies are better off. Egalitarian societies tend to be happier, healthier (both physically and mentally), better educated, and more cohesive. They often work less and produce more. The fact that many of them consistently beat out some of the more unequal societies in areas such as competitiveness and productivity trump the argument that inequality is inevitably needed for economic progress. Boris Johnson, the clown-haired Conservative major of London, summarized this perverse view best when he claimed a few months back that inequality was essential to fostering “the spirit of envy” and that greed was “a valuable spur to economic activity”. Clearly he wasn’t speaking to a German or a South Korean crowd.

Unfortunately, despite the near consensus on addressing the issue of inequality by anyone other than full blooded Reagan/Thatcherites, Chicago School economists or libertarians, there is nothing even remotely approximating a set of universally shared public policy recommendations to achieve this. Occasionally, hardcore leftist proposals come to the fore on the op-ed pages of major newspapers but these are often hard to take seriously. And even the more sensible of the lot are brought down by the inevitable broadside from an indignant Right, which immediately lambasts them for not having market logic, or for villainizing the rich, or for any other excuse that comes to mind. Just a wee bit of extra regulation here and there at the margins, coupled with a dash of redistribution (but not too much!) and markets will take care of things in the long run (Lawrence Summers, one of the intellectual architects of deregulation, dixit).

Oh, if only things were so simple. Continue reading

There goes the neighborhood

Actually, it never existed except on a map and on a planner’s desk
If Canada Water really looked like this, I'd have stayed

If Canada Water really looked like this, I’d have stayed

A society can be judged by many things but few are as insightful and immediate as the physical spaces where we live. Be it the houses and apartments that house us, the public areas where we engage as a community, or the transportation networks that take us to where we need to go, the image of the city is a window to a society’s soul. Not all would agree, though. For Margaret Thatcher and the conservative revolution which she spawned, there was no such thing as society in the first place. But in Britain, the ritualistic destruction of society through bad urban design began well before the “Iron Lady” spoke that infamous line. This destruction, of course, was not limited to Britain: it was through the noxious spread of Le Corbusier modernism which blighted urban landscapes across the world with monolithic and brutalist obscenities whose only saving grace was that it they were one small step ahead of the slums which they replaced. But I’m not here to rant about the failure of social housing (I recently read the wonderful “Estates: An Intimate History” by Lynsey Hansey, and I doubt one can find a better left-wing critique out there), I’m here to rant about the failure of the private housing which replaced it in the 80s. And there’s no better place to start, than the little corner of London where I lived for three of my four years in Britain: Canada Water. Continue reading

Hello world!

Welcome to my new, English-language blog. It’s been a while in the making but I finally had the time and the dedication to launch it (mostly because I spent months thinking of a name for it). Expect witty, provocative and no-nonsense posts on the state of the world and other stuff that I find interesting in life (which hopefully you will too). And if that’s not good enough, go back to your boring yoga/indie band/gadget blogs…