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Social/housing protesters won't defeat capitalism

My friend Boaz Gaon wrote a beautiful longing prayer for the day after the citizen uprising around the country, outlining a progressive’s fantasy (posted on the Hebrew women-issues web-zine Saloona). In his day-after scenario, cultural and intellectual professions will earn dignified salaries, the money-based professions will be out of fashion – non-materialism will prevail:

An Israeli who parks his jeep at the entrance to a restaurant will be viewed as anti-Israeli even if he voted Likud. It will be justified to cover his car with tar and feathers. Children will point to him when he leaves the restaurant and whisper.

This was followed by a litany of other ideals: Racism will disappear because of social shame, Israelis will embrace a civilized “gentleman’s debate,” to argue among basically legitimate left and right worldviews. A clear solution to the conflict, one-state or two-states, will be set squarely on the table for Israelis to choose…

Wait, back up to that first part. Are we really headed towards a post-materialist dawn?

It’s true that the housing/social protesters wave cute slogans like “money isn’t everything,” and “people come before profits.” It’s true that they are asking for greatly expanded or revived social services and even calling for a welfare state. But do these young temporary tent-dwellers realize that in the past, the serious socialism they seem to desire was grounded in a dogmatic, ideological anti-materialism?

I wonder. Ever since the early 1990s, the country has been on a bender of decadence, obsessed with material comforts.

It began with the loosening up of market regulations, privatization, the budding hi-tech industry, and the advent of disposable income. Simultaneously, the electronic window to the world at that time – television – was thrown open. The single state-run television station suddenly faced private competition, and programming for the private Second Broadcasting Authority was in fact provided by three competing companies. Cable burst in, offering a consciousness and consumerism that ripped through former spartan Israel like an explosion.

By 1997 when I arrived from America suffused with 20something anti-consumerism, McDonald’s had been open for four years and was the subject of many heated debates among me and my new Israeli friends who thought I was naïve. They loved it, despite the crippling expense of America’s favorite cheap food. Starbucks too had recently opened to great fanfare.

But Starbucks failed. I gloated. My new home, for which I had moved halfway across the world to find the non-materialist values I had learned to love in my socialist summer camp, had proven itself.

Starbucks Revenge

Was I naïve. Within a few short years, there were no fewer than six distinct coffee chain companies, at least, blissfully muscling out the little places. Two or three major supermarket and convenience store chains, with their identical products, are leading the extinction of the greatest of all Israeli institutions – the tiny crammed grocery shop known with great local affection (and now nostalgia) as the “macolet” – there’s even a song about it.

Israelis made a sharp right turn away from the early-Zionist ethos of non-materialism, and went on a deep binge, stuffing their homes with items, bursting their credit limits, spending with little relation to their salaries.

We occasionally get huffy about consumer gouging. Recently, I read something surrounding the cottage-cheese protest saying that prices are high here because Israelis are suckers.

I don’t agree. We pay astronomical prices because we are desperate to own things and eat out, and increasingly, drink. We love Ace, Office Depot and Zara. When Ikea opened in Netanya, the stock was permanently sold out and for many months, people lined up weekly in the wee hours on the day when new stock arrived; when that Ikea recently burned down, it was covered as a national tragedy akin to the loss of beloved astronaut Ilan Ramon.  When H&M opened last year, there were riots as frenzied shoppers could not wait one more second to live without their shmattas. Think I’m kidding?

The Jerusalem Post reported:

Immediately after the count down [to the Tel Aviv opening], dozens of customers ran into the store, practically trampling two baby strollers in their rush to enter, Channel 2 reported. Passersby managed to save the babies while shoppers continued to flow into the store. “This place looks like the site of a terror attack,” one shopper told the television station.

We absolutely love chatting on our mobile phones and we’re willing to pay inflated and totally fraudulent costs (as anyone who has dealt with our cell cartel knows) – because in a rather charming way, Israel maintains vestiges of the communal society and people must be connected all the time. My friends call mom at least once a day, and that’s after fielding three of her calls. We love having more children we can’t afford, because who calculates finances when children are at stake?

Liberal, mugged.

This post is not an anti-materialist tirade. It’s acceptance. I too own an apartment now, a car and two computers, although not much else. But I travel to many European capitals and watch the throngs in the malls, pawing at the same cheap plastic knock-off brands as in every other mall, or else I stroll through the luxury shops with the same identical made-in-China thousand-times mark-up shirts, and I have learned something: people, everywhere, love consumerism. The bars, cafes and kiosks near Rothschild seem to be raking it in these last two weeks. Will the tent protest turn the clock back?  Judging from the harmonious co-existence between the enormous welfare-state demonstration last Saturday night, and the great unscathed symbols of consumerism (see below), I doubt it.

Massive social/housing protest demonstration in Tel Aviv, 30 July, 2011 - Sign (on right) reads: "Netanyahu's piggish capitalism is costing us dearly!" McDonald's in background (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

Demonstrators at mass social/housing rally in Tel Aviv, 30 July, 2011 - sign reads "Women before profits" (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

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    1. Philos

      Dahlia, you have touched on the great conundrum facing all socialists: how to reconcile consumerism with human desires?
      The classical socialist line would be that if Israel did become a socialist state then it would need to export its politics to neighbouring countries. Greece, Spain, Iceland and Ireland look like ripe pickings 😉
      The other problem concerns the rather patronizing idea of “false consciousness.” Sadly, for all its patronizing qualities, there is something to this scientifically. Children who are not exposed to TV adverts lose almost a complete interest in consumption and this is reflected in teenagers too (a term devised by marketing companies like “tweens” recently). So if Israelis were to turn back the consumer culture adverts would have to be abolished or reduced to their bare minimum, i.e.; a text stating some facts about the products.
      That would be my ideal. I despise advertising.
      No more trying to sell you nappies through emotional manipulation coupled with the sickening sexualization of infancy:

      ACME Nappies = 33% absorbency & 77% mobility * verified by the Infant Protection Agency

      No pictures of babies. No good looking women. No voice telling you that you don’t want to give your baby a rash. Just the facts.

      And the result: people will consume less and not be conned into paying a premium on the same crap. Think medicine and their generics.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Deïr Yassin

      ” one-state, two-states, will be set squarely on the table for the Israelis to choose …”
      Yes, because the Palestinians should of course not have their word to say.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Anthony

      I think this article is right – it’s for the people to choose how they live and where they spend their money.

      The state can provide a safety net for low-earners, it can ensure competition in markets to help consumers have a good living standard, and it can provide infrastructure like housing and transport.

      It can’t and shouldn’t try to force people to forego material pleasures, or to force companies to forego profits and still employ people.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Nancy R. Shurka

      Great piece and I share the same sentiments 100%. I too came here for less materialism than NYC, but Israel is catching up and quickly. I too admit I enjoy consumerism but, I have eased up the passion since living in Israel. While the Tent Protestors will not bring an end to consumerism (and I do not think its their objective), they could possibly make it more affordable or accessible for themselves and others.

      Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      Why does it have to be either or? A supermarket in which the owner actually works opened in my town just over a year ago. Many of its much smaller array of items are cheaper than the big chains that stuff your mailbox with coupons and ads, the cashiers are more courteous and efficient, the choice of goods is different and it’s open way past the closing times of its competitors. It’s not the corner makolet, but it’s not a hypermarket that you need a car to get to either.

      Public transport that’s on time, works and is reasonably priced can be the future. Government aided crèches that don’t bankrupt parents in full-time employment can be the future. Schools that stay open in the afternoons, from which students emerge enriched and broadened, can be the future. Ethical codes of conduct for firms and controls that reduce rampant exploitation could be the future. Bicycles for rent are already the present in TA. More vehicle-free streets could be the future. And with the new empathy that allows adults to show children by example how not to litter and to respect nature, will come also an awareness of, if not identification with, the other, making it possible for us to interact frankly enough to discuss the real problems. No-one is asking for things to go back to what they were, they’re asking for things to be better, much better, than they are.

      Thanks for Kaveret/Poogy. The best group we ever had.

      Reply to Comment
    6. ruth winestock

      This article brings up a very valid point. Israel and the world at large will need to ask itself this questions in decades to come. Was it more important to make the life of the ‘Ultra Consumer’ the ideal lifestyle. With SHRINKING RESOURCES AND OVER POPULATION we will fast be creating societies where we slowly move backward to the scenario of the ‘peasant classes supporting the wealthy'(o f actually less than 200 years ago in most first world countries…of course in third world countries this is still the reality)….or do we choose to organize ourselves differently. Israel is no exception to this dilemma.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Is it true that there are “shrinking resources” and “overpopulation”? I had heard that world population growth was levelling off.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Adam

      Oh come on, this is a bit much.

      Ok, so you’re anti-materialist. The protesters aren’t, and this article feels a bit like you’re trying to hijack their agenda… or at the very least use it as an excuse for a blog post.

      Capitalism is good. While it does create greed, and inefficiency, and corruption, and – yes – materialism, it does not have exclusive jurisdiction over their distribution in societies. Capitalism also creates competition, increases efficiency, drives innovation, distributes wealth – for everyone – and raises the standard of living.

      If Israel hadn’t gone on it’s ‘bender of decadence’ ( 🙂 come on!), then we’d still be living circa mid-1980s – 1 black and white tv station, lines to use the local phone, basic access to goods and hyperinflation. We’d have to be content with living the bulk of our lives in the same tiny community, and wonder if perhaps there was a world out there we were missing.

      Yes, if not for Capitalism we’d all probably be dancing the Hora a lot more back in our respective yishuvim. But I for one prefer the dialogue of the global village. Perseverance, innovation, competition – these are all things Capitalism rewards, and all things that Israel has in spades, and has benefited in deploying them.

      I’ll be the first to suggest that Israel’s socialist past was glorious – but our capitalist present and future is just as glorious and we shouldn’t lament its existence, but rather work on making it better.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Adam and others, there have been several comments on this piece that make me think my point was misunderstood, for which I take full responsibility. So let me clarify: I am not anti-materialist. I wrote this at the end, and I meant it – yes, my first dreams of israel involved a romantic desire for a less consumerist society but as I observed, I have long accepted that consumerism is the way of the world and I too partake in it (although critically); moreover I think most Israelis are consciously pleased at the consumer developments and expansion of choice in this country and not at all prepared to give it up. My point was NOT to romanticize the spartan past, rather to observe that (some) of the protest themes seem to be doing so – look at Boaz’ article at the top. I was trying to show that one look at Israeli society shows that this rhetoric seems rather contradictory to the reality of what most Israelis want – which is more, not less consumerism. I might add that in general, we might try to avoid over-romanticizing in favor of clear, realistic policy demands on precise issues, which is now starting. And we should be careful to avoid things we DON’T want to bring back about the country’s earlier years.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Philos

      Consumption was the name for the disease of gout which is caused by being a glutton and a drunk. For over indulging. It saddens me that people think a social protest should be about lowering the prices of jeans.

      The fact is our global capitalist civilization is over. We’ve melted the North Pole and nobody cares; all we want are the resources. The acidity of the sea is increasing at such a rate that in some places there will be no sophisticated life-forms. Forest cover is being stripped away. The air is being polluted. 300 million years worth of carbon that went into the ground so we could have the perfect atmosphere to flourish is being pumped back into the atmosphere. All in the name of what? Consumerism? “Capitalism is good”? Yea democracy is “good” too. It doesn’t matter if only white-males over the age 30 are its only participants because democracy is good. Never mind capitalism drove the slave trade, drove the peasants of Europe into the cities to work to death (pre-industrial peasants had longer lifespans than Industrial Age proletarians; proven fact from bone sample analysis’)

      But it’s all okay. Sooner or later the system will collapse from its own over consumption (who would have thought “air” is a finite resource? Not the genius economists of neo-liberalism) and internal political contradictions. I don’t think this is necessarily a negative thing although it is sad that many people will perish. One can only hope that the archaeologists of the next human civilization will puzzle what went wrong before repeating our mistakes.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Adam

      “… We’ve melted the North Pole and nobody cares; all we want are the resources. ”

      I’d suggest that this is your critical mistake. Resources are not ALL we want. Resources are what we want FIRST. What’s strange about this? Get this, I just looked up ‘Resource’ on Merriam-Webster and the third definition is listed as:

      c : a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life

      Improving the quality of our life might be the meaning of our existence. We have sent men to walk on the moon. We have examined the nature of our physical existence down to the point of postulating that other dimensions could reasonably exist. We have unlocked our past back billions of years and down to the very basic elements of the universe to suggest that we are the descendants of nothing more than dust and gas. Where did we get the resources, the wealth, the free time away from the all-encompassing task of simply surviving if not capitalism.

      Capitalism has created wealth that has lead to some of the greatest insights and wisdoms of our history. It’s also created environmental awareness, and – to varying degrees of success – awareness of our own actions and the likelihood of our own mortality. Can we say that we cared more about global climate change during the Renaissance? Is it really a coincidence that the US is by far and away the top holder of Nobel prizes and not China, Russia, Africa or the Middle East?

      Capitalism is flawed, of course, by definition. But it’s also the best, most successful, most beneficial and rewarding system of society and governance that we have known. It can be improved upon; it should never be thrown out.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ruth Winestock

      Adam – you seem to be confusing ‘Capitalism’ with ‘democratic representation’ – also you do not give a realistic account of how all of the wealth that capitalist societies enjoy has been created. There is no FREE LUNCH. This wealth has been created mainly by stripping the world of natural resources. young people of today have been misled to think that technology has created this wealth, but technology has only enabled us to more quickly exploit the earths natural resources. And by the way over population IS a BIG reality. I suggest you get an accurate graph from google on the statistics for the last 100 years.

      Reply to Comment

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