The wife and I attended our first wedding as a married couple last weekend. I told my friend the groom that, speaking from three months experience, he would love married life. The wedding was in South Bend, so Alison and I spent some extra time exploring Amish county, which included some tasty food encounters and the wonderful discovery of two Indiana Maple Sugar Groves (where maple syrup comes from.) Anyway, while in Nappanee, Indiana learning about the history of the Amish in the United States, the phrase “slavery to the consumer culture” kept popping up.
This phrase struck a chord with me for I have recently been reading the works of John Ruskin, a 19th century art critic, philosopher, prime mover of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and (I’m increasingly convinced) prophetic voice crying out against all that ails our society. To wit, in On the Nature of Gothic Architecture – which is a good place to start if you’ve never read Ruskin before – Ruskin writes:
And now, reader, look around this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished….Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African or helot Greek….Let me not be thought to speak wildly or extravagantly. It is verily this degradation of the operative [man] into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature of themselves…..it is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.
Ruskin’s strong condemnation of the rising capitalist economy of England is grounded in moral – explicitly Christian, actually – values concerning the dignity of work and the value of production.
All this relates to another book I purchased many months ago but never got around to reading until recently – House Thinking by Winifred Gallagher. Gallahger explores, room by room, the American house past and present. She raises good questions about the expanding size of American homes, even while family size shrinks. But more importantly, she questions the cycle of consumerism in which we’ve entangled ourselves. In short, our pursuit of convenience and wealth have made us – all of us – both slaves and slave-drivers to an unsustainable economic system.