Image Source: Daily Mirror.
Advent is taken from the Latin word Adventus, and refers to the coming of the Messiah. It is a period of waiting; in Christian terms, it refers both to the Hebrews waiting for the coming of the Messiah and to the Christians waiting for Christ's Second Coming, which ties the season to various eschatological fears about the end of the world. It is, in fact, a great religious countdown; and in this countdown, some introspection is expected from the faithful on how things will change once the Messiah appears.
We are almost at 2012, the year that has become popularly associated with the Second Coming, the end of the world, and other apocalyptic predictions, omens about time running out, and fears of even greater cataclysmic change. As a result of this spiritual tradition, Advent is also a further memorial for those who are gone and for times gone past. We remember, so that we may move forward with renewed spirits. That is why Advent is also associated with ghosts, as with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Given that, perhaps this first day of Advent could be spent thinking about what has been left behind, on the Ghosts of Christmas Past.
The 20th century is almost 12 years past. It was a horrible, blood-soaked century, with maybe four decades that provided reprives: 1900s; the 1920s; the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s; and the 1980s. In retrospect, the 1980s were the last time a large portion of citizens of wealthy countries really believed in materialism.
Times are hard. Occupy Wall Street and ugly pepper spray footage make it easy to forget how wildly popular materialism once was, and how bankers' greed was once lauded in popular culture. Even people who had second thoughts about greed being good still found the comforts of prosperity to be highly seductive. This was a New World standard that became entangled with a revival of Old World values and traditions. Of course, the 80s had a huge global counter-culture that rejected that perspective.
Last gasp of the 19th century. Video Source: Youtube.
But even with loud detractors, conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. Take the royal wedding in 1981. A lavish, pro-British imperial tone emerged out of the 'wedding of the century.' 750 million people watched it. In that moment, it seemed like the dawn of a new era. Instead, it was the last gasp of Britain's Victorian imperialism. It was a high water mark of a certain kind of materialism that would never be seen again, at least in the Anglo-American world. At the time, it truly looked like a magical fairytale come true. Now, the commentators' hushed reverence at the gushy opulence is cringe-worthy.
The royal wedding was also wildly popular in America. By the 1980s, Cold War Anglo-America was shaped by materialism and revived conservatism, and both looked back upon the empire in positive terms, while constantly acknowledging that wealth and power were deeply problematic to a host of deconstructionist postcolonial critics. A typical example was the broadcaster Alistair Cooke, who positioned himself firmly as the low-key spokesman on mid-Atlantic attitudes, and revived the empire on PBS's Masterpiece Theater every Sunday night in the United States and Canada. This was not an isolated example. All kinds of nostalgia for excess were everywhere you turned in the 1980s and early 1990s: from Ralph Lauren's Polo brand, to Indochine, to Out of Africa, to The Last Emperor, to E. M. Forster becoming impossibly popular.
Cooke's commentary on how materialism would play out in terms of values was unambiguous. He saw it in old-fashioned conservative terms as a source of personal responsibility, idealism, honour, duty, mutual morality and social order - but also social greatness. It was a seductive vision simply encapsulated in Masterpiece Theater's introductory music and opening imagery.
Times have changed. Unless you have your head in the sand, associating old school virtues with material wealth is ludicrous. Running out of money provokes a lot of soul-searching and blame casting. It is easy to forget with the current blame laid at the feet of bankers, corporate fat cats and politicians that a lot of people were living a debt-driven high life in the early 2000s. This was a temporary turn-of-the-century renewal of 80s' values. Perhaps a retrospective on Sex in the City pre 9/11, or NYLON relationships, or Wallpaper magazines when Tyler Brûlé was still editor in the late 1990s and early 2000s would bring it back. Or maybe this would. Or this? Or this. It was decadent. One of my friends thinks that when times get better everyone will go right back to the trough, no lessons learned.
Wallpaper (December 2000).
Even among conservatives, it is hard to imagine undiluted materialism gaining currency now as a basic virtue. Either they've degraded themselves with populism and pepper spray, or they simply can't believe in capitalism as they once did. After the royal divorces, the royal deaths and remarriages, the wars, the terrors, and the entire Western world on the verge of bankruptcy, the fairytale is ended. Poor Mr. Cooke's bones were sold on the underground body parts Black Market.
In Europe, a brief flirtation with imperial materialism in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the EU had the Continent dizzy with the promise of (yet another) new Roman Empire - which survived all of ten years. At least this time, it was fun while it lasted. The Euro crisis is a final reminder that lavish lifestyles for all apparently come at too high a price. Ultimately, that price is not economic. It's spiritual.
This was one of Osama bin Laden's stated aims in orchestrating 9/11, especially the huge symbolic attack on the World Trade Center (see here, here and here). Bin Laden believed that driving the United States into expensive conflicts would bankrupt the country. Far more important than the economic harm inflicted, he thought that bankruptcy would break the spirit of the Americans and other decadent Westerners who subscribed to capitalist materialism, because consumption apparently lay at the core of their values.
On whether bankruptcy would break the spirit: bin Laden must have taken his theories on capitalist materialism from basic personal memories of swanning around Europe as a youthful playboy from an arriviste family. With that starting point, he missed a few things. First, despite the fabled Protestant Ethic thesis on the rise of capitalism in the West, material wealth was only superficially ever the source of Western moral values. Second, materialism can be separated from capitalism. Materialism can also be disengaged from capitalism's associated ideologies of liberalism and conservatism. And that means that running out of money will in the end not spark defeat, decline and despair, but a massive transformation.
It is true that old habits die hard. Capitalist material prosperity is still desired by many, which is evident in the jumping markets which keep trying to recreate inflationary bubbles at the slightest sign of improved financial conditions. No lessons learned. But the bubbles don't inflate: the failing economy hinges on a crisis in consumer confidence. People have stopped buying things. It is not just because they have no money. Their hearts aren't in it.
Materialism is increasingly seen once and for all as a source of soullessness - an empty shell, whereas once it could be dressed up to appear to have redeeming qualities, such as general prosperty and mutual civic benefits. Nor can socialism claim to be the virtuous alternative as an anti-materialist doctrine, because socialists are high-maintenance materialists as well. But when it comes to rejecting materialism, there's hope for them too.
Gorbachev's dismal Louis Vuitton ad (2007-2008). Is it ok after all because it had some subliminal messages?
At the very least, the material wares that symbolized wealth and grandeur in the 1980s are now a pathetic laughing stock in the 2010s.
AUDI Goodnight Old Luxury Commercial (2011). Video Source: Youtube.
That takes us back to Advent, to introspection, a farewell to the past, and waiting for the future. Despite the main arguments of Occupy Wall Street protesters, one thing that has happened due to the events of the Great Recession is that conservatism and capitalism have been pried apart and are no longer synonymous with one another. For that matter, liberalism and capitalism have also been separated, like a pair of Siamese twins who secretly despise each other. We are left with capitalism in intensive care, on life support, disconnected from its 18th, 19th and 20th century justifications, and above all, disconnected from materialism - but not from capital?
Technological innovation, with its inchoate ideology, is the one main alternative to capitalism and socialism. The Tech Boom and the culture surrounding it are intensely liberal and progressive, but they also have very strong conservative or retro elements. We anticipate the future, while continually using our means to get there to look to, and revive, the past. This time, unlike the 1980s, the revival of the past is not wedded to the material world, but is radically mated to virtual realities.
-This post is for -C.
NOTES FOR READERS OF MY POSTS.
If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.