I was sitting around talking with two friends when one of them asked me this question. He was talking about the ridiculously low minimum wage, cost of housing, unavailability of rentals, wealth inequality, biased tax code, dissolving social safety net, billions spent on our war machine, and the general ways in which the average citizen today gets screwed. He didn’t mention all these things, but I knew what he meant
The masses of people, whether we want to call them citizens or consumers, have tremendous power, but almost never use it. A mass boycott of a specific product, company or even industry would produce an economic tremor felt across the world economy. Even a short-term boycott, if widespread into many tens of millions of lives, could send a wake-up call across the bow of America’s economic and political ship of state. So why does it not happen?
My first thoughts were about fear, and for many this is certainly true. Being identified as part of any mass movement risks exposure, and fears of repercussions. Just as union workers must collectively apply pressure to an employer, so the individual fears being isolated and victimized; part of the answer is related to the sense of risk for oneself or one’s family.
I then moved on to laziness and self-centeredness. Again, many fall into this group, the “what’s in it for me?” contingent. America’s undue focus on individuality has many people convinced that greed is good. Some work crazy hours making money to pay down credit cards, other gamble or buy lottery tickets. All of us, in some ways, are either too busy, too narrowly focused or too greedy to be bothered with changing the world.
Occasionally in America, we see mass demonstrations intended to influence policy or legislation. Occupy Wall Street ignited something, but it fizzled out. Conditions before the demonstrations were not appreciably different than those after, except perhaps in adding “the 1%” into our lexicon. So perhaps the answer to the question lies in sustaining commitment, sticking with opposition over the long-term no matter how difficult or exhausting. Gandhi’s effort to liberate India from the British Empire comes to mind.
The it came to me, the answer that is. It happened when I opened the refrigerator, and it hit me hard. People put up with all this crap because people have never had it so good. Let me explain.
The human race is very old, and for most of its history life was brutal and hard. Think of how easily you can take a hot bath, and then for a moment reflect on what it took to take a hot bath merely 200 years ago. The same goes for almost everything else about our modern American life. My refrigerator, constantly kept cold and running on publicly provided electricity, holds foods from all over the world. If I need clothing, I don’t have to go hunting or shear sheep. If I need to communicate instantly with people across town or the globe, I can text, email or call them on my cell phone. Each of us, even the poorest, generally have access to many systems, goods and services unimaginable even 50 years ago.
So I think this is the answer: people put up with all this crap because our nearly magical service economy keeps us lulled with satisfaction, if not happy.