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Malls, Mass Culture, and Parasitism. (Or: Humbug)

December 26th, 2003 · No Comments

Christmas is the time of year that brings out my least liberal, most elitist instincts, because it’s one of very few times each year I end up forcing myself into a mall to try to find gifts for miscellaneous relatives in the minimum possible time. (I couldn’t quite stomach it this year—I left after a few minutes and resolved to do all my holiday shopping online.) Via the Crescateers, I see that that Tim Sandefur has a Randian take on the season, blasting those:

who can go to the glittering world that is the American shopping mallâ??full of abundance, full of families, full of strangers who exchange peacefully value for valueâ??people who can see the great wealth that on Thursday will make so many childrenâ??s faces light up with joy; who can relish the warmth provided by the mallâ??s climate control technology, and eat at their choice of restaurants and even have fruits out of season; who can see the magnificent cathedral-high ceilings we build, safely, in mere weeks, by modern technology (rather than extorted from the labor of serfs over miserable generations the way actual cathedrals were); who can see fantasies come to life on 24 screens of a movie theater for no other reason than to give people a little joy; who can see their friends aid their suffering with medicines that were unavailable to any previous generations; who can see all of these genuine miracles before their very eyesâ??and rather than shaking with joy, and embracing the wonder of these things, can spit at them; curse them….

Well, guilty. I find the whole thing revolting. There’s a tiny, nasty, highly illiberal part of my psyche that says: if this is what brings you joy, a just universe would deny it to you. I can riff on the familiar rhetoric about markets satisfying everyone’s preferences as well as the next guy, but my visceral enthusiasm about that line of argument (as opposed to my abstract commitment) varies inversely with the scrutiny I give the content of most of those preferences. Maybe, like Peter Bagge, I’ll stop being a “self-righteous blowhard” about malls when I’m older, but whenever I hear them held up as some sort of apotheosis of capitalist society, I find myself thinking: “Jesus, then why not just do it by central planning? Some Soviet commissar could probably have come up with Love, Actually or The Gap.” And don’t malls run counter to one of the things Rand (rightly enough) liked about Christmas? The practice of exchanging gifts is most meaningful when you’ve thought about the recipient, gotten halfway into his head, and come up with something that the other person would like, but (ideally) might not have thought to get for himself. The choice of the gift is a statement about the relationship.

Now, I guess you can do that at a mall. But generally, if I’m at the mall in the days before Christmas, it’s because I’ve gotten lazy and I’m wandering around hoping that something will jump out at me for all the various people I’ve got to get something for. It’s tailor made for the generic gift-giving-as-formality that Rand seemed not to like so much.

Anyway, reflecting on my snobby distaste for malls got me thinking that Hayek had it partly backwards, or at any rate, that there’s a converse corrolary to one of his familiar arguments. Hayek said that mass society benefits in unpredictable ways from economic and cultural liberties that only a few (eccentrics or wealthy or whatnot) make use of. But it works the other way too. You can see Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center for about half the price of tickets to Melissa Ethridge at the 9:30 Club. You can see the Shins at the Black Cat for half that. And that’s a funtion of raw social surplus. If we could only afford one musician, it would probably be Britney Spears or whoever’s got her throne right now. If millions of people weren’t snatching up her albums, we wouldn’t have cheap mass produced compact discs and players for stuff with narrower appeal. In other words, I suppose I’m a cultural parasite on an economy that, like a kind of inverted digestive system, is primarily devoted to producing crap but churns out some nutrients as a byproduct.

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