“Disruptors, it seems, gonna disrupt.”—James Hamblin, A Brewing Problem
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”—Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
In a recent interview with James Hamblin of The Atlantic, the inventor of the K-Cup, John Sylvan, expressed some regret at the current ubiquity of his creation, saying, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”
Invented back in 1997, as a “better, more customizable, more liberating caffeine experience” than the burnt swill offered by the majority of workplace percolators, the company now sells almost 10 billion coffee portion packs a year. Despite the exorbitant cost of about $40/pound (compared to the roughly $6-15/pound for a bag of standard grounds), it seems people have no problem paying for the greater choice and convenience the Keurig machine delivers. In just the last five years, the company’s revenue has increased five-fold to $4.7 billion annually, with plans to now spread into other drink categories, too—recently partnering with Coca Cola in an effort to fulfill its corporate mission statement: A Keurig brewer on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.
There’s just one problem: the K-Cup’s complex design means it is not recyclable or biodegradable.
It has been estimated that if we were to lay out just a single year’s usage end-to-end, it would encircle the earth somewhere between 10-12 times. While this has caused a bit of public outcry and backlash—#KillTheKCup—the company seems unabated (promising to have a solution in only five more years!). However, neither does the demand from the public for more choice and freedom and deliciousness in their coffee-drinking options.
While many have criticized both the producer and consumer of this, there has been little discussion about the mentality that this whole system is premised upon. Capitalism’s main goal (in theory, at least) is to expand choice and freedom as greatly as possible for the individual. However, we no longer care to recognize that the demand for more choice and freedom today is a bi-partisan platform. While the calls may be coming from different sides of the aisle, both economic and lifestyle liberty are based upon the same logic. And in many ways the two are conjoined twins that share organs, which if ever separated, would both whither and die.
It is a basic premise of practically all the Social Sciences (Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, etc)—and of common sense—that Human Beings are by nature “social creatures”: we naturally want to cooperate and thrive on human contact. However, there is a hidden supposition implied in this, as well: Individualism is a historical development. This is not to say that subjectivity and self-interest have not always existed, but rather, that formerly all societies were formed with the “greater good” in mind, whereas now the happiness of the individual is supreme.
Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama, in his recent monumental work, The Origins of Political Order, calls this original social organization the “Tyranny of Cousins,” wherein your entire social world was “limited to the circle of relatives surrounding you, who determined what you did, whom you married, how you worshipped, and just about everything else in life.”
Capitalism, however, radically changed this because it allows for unfettered social mobility. Instead of immutable social classes, society has become fluid, allowing individuals to seek whatever they believe will lead them to happiness. No longer determined by the lottery of our birth, we are now free to move about in search of what we believe is right for us—at the individual level. This frees us from the beliefs and lifestyles of our parents, family and friends, allowing us to better develop our unique gifts and talents in whatever individual way feels right.
But while this free us from the influence of our family and friends, it also does irreparable damage to the communities we were born into. Rather than being forced to use our talents to better the community in which we were begotten, we can take them on the road to whatever locale we believe will best foster them. While this is potentially better in the aggregate for humanity—causing interactions between individuals who never would have had the opportunity in the past—it also affords us the opportunity to cut and run upon the slightest pretense. This not only radically changes the nature of our relationships—making them more tentative and ephemeral—but also impoverishes the communities we leave behind.
2. Needs vs. Wants
Capitalism is based on the philosophic premise known as Materialism. While this term can refer to a whole spectrum of differing ideas, all I mean by it here is a focus on the material necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, warmth, etc). Prior to the rise of Capitalism, societies were usually based around religion or virtue, which taught one to merely accept the material deprivation of life—either out of the hope for eternal life after death or in some sort of Stoic or Buddhistic acceptance of life as suffering. This was flipped on its head in the modern era, though, through the freeing of the Sciences from religious control. It has even been proposed that we can now completely overcome natural scarcity and create a world entirely free from material want.
This new freedom from religious control, however, has also liberated us from strictures that in many ways “saved us from ourselves.” With their prohibitions and unquestionable guidelines, the old belief systems certainly unduly restricted us from many of the things we now enjoy—nonetheless, they also protected us from many of things we now suffer from.
It is truly amazing how fast want becomes need once a certain level of comfort has been obtained. Do we really need air conditioning or iPhones or the choice of 5 different coffees made fresh to order every morning in a matter of seconds in our homes? Nope. But they sure are awesome to have! Yet, every satisfaction of a single need seems to open up the door to ten more wants, leaving us no better off on the whole as we perpetually “chase the dragon” of unrestrained desire.
On a recent drive across the country, I was awestruck by the constant stream of tractor trailers I passed filled with goods being transported from ports on the coast (which probably originated in China) across the country everyday. I had never really stopped to think about the insane logistical nightmare it must be to fill every shelf in America with the amount of goods that we simply take for granted/accept as the norm these days.
But what was even more insane to me was that this process is almost entirely decentralized—no one directly oversees it, rather it miraculously functions through spontaneous organization and cooperation (setting aside monopolies and government regulation, of course). And because this process has no overarching absolute control, people are free to create whatever they want if they believe someone will buy it.
However, because this process is so diffuse, so irrational if you will, there is a lot of redundancy and surplus—thus waste. Is a Walgreens across the street from every Rite Aid, a Dunkin’ Donuts facing every Starbucks in any way necessary? Not in the least, but that is what the logic of choice demands—the logic that Capitalism is built on, fosters and re-enforces.
The alternative would be some sort of governing body that decides our true needs, what is absolutely necessary for society, which restricts access to those goods only. While it would unquestionably cut down on needless surplus, the problem is that all institutions and societies are unavoidably conservative: it is better/easier/more rational go with what one knows to work, to not implement radical change that can undermine the system. So while capitalist competition can be pointless and wasteful, it also serves as a great bulwark for freedom.
Every couple months or so I get this overwhelming desire to move from Baltimore to NYC. While I love Baltimore for its creativity, uniqueness and people, I sometimes find it incredibly limiting as an artist. There are so many awesome galleries, show spaces, theaters and neighborhoods here, but, the thing is, little of the art it fosters ever really leaves here to make a wider impact (all exceptions granted).
Baltimore is more like a small-town (its nickname is Smalltimore for a reason) that just so happens to offer all the amenities one finds in a city. I really enjoy this because I get the best of both worlds, but at the same time it lacks the dynamism one finds in a city like NYC or San Fransisco—that energy that’s created when the higher you can go, the further you can fall, where you feel that something real is at stake.
My favorite observer of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in his still unsurpassed 1835 work, Democracy in America, about this phenomenon and what he feared would happen if it ever disappeared. He called the opposite of this dynamism the “Middling Mediocrity,” where the only desire left would be comfortable self-preservation (think the humans in Wall-E).
He warned, “It would be extremely dangerous to seek to impoverish and to repress ambition over-much. [Instead] we should attempt to lay down certain extreme limits, which it should never be allowed to outstep.” While, today, we have certainly allowed many to “outstep” the proper limits of ambition, I believe we also under-estimate how much the daring we now value in the arts comes from the same attitudes that fuel Capitalism. Adventure seekers are ubiquitous; artistry is not. Sometimes these passions express themselves as a beautiful painting, other times as a daring business venture. The extreme disposition, however, in both cases is the same.
5. The Internet
The Internet is the most disruptingest disruptor of all time. All industries and media are being crushed by the freedom unleashed by this new medium of exchange for goods, services and information. The world has been united in ways that were once unimaginable, cultivating cross-cultural dialogues while undermining the meaning of “nation-state.”
Despite first being developed as a government program, the internet’s truly revolutionary potential would have never been realized without the free market. From Twitter to Amazon to Wikipedia, every venerable (and not so venerable) institution has been brought to its knees by the connective power of this “series of tubes.” And across the board, the gate-keepers are being deposed and “the people” are storming the castle.
HOWEVER, without these gate-keepers, we have also lost many of the standards that once elevated and enriched our cultural discourse. For instance, I have to write about the nature of Capitalism as a listicle in the slight hope that it might actually break through all the diffuse noise vying for your attention right now.
In this new globalized world that the internet has created, our attention is relentlessly being competed for, causing a race to the bottom of sensationalization and marketing. Great new ideas have been birthed by this, but just as many—if not more—have been killed/forgotten. I may now have the opportunity to speak directly to the whole world, but that doesn’t mean anything if I can’t get you to actually stop and listen.
Life, I believe, is a series of trade-offs: what are you willing to give up for what you wish to gain? And Capitalism is the ultimate trade-off: If you want freedom, you must be willing to give up stability; if you think custom, tradition and conformity is your problem, then Capitalism is your answer. While Capitalism is certainly in many ways “evil,” and the Republican evangelists defending it today are far too doctrinaire (and, really, just corporate puppets), they do have at least part of the equation right: without it we can not be “free.” The real problem is that we have forgotten the meaning of the word:
“Men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their own fetters.”—Edmund Burke