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Morgan Spurlock is dead.

The iconic critic of fast food and capitalism, activist, and promotor of healthy living in books and movies has died of cancer at age 53. I remember seeing his movie Super Size Me (2004), a hard-hitting low-budget documentary in which he offered his own body as an experimental tool by eating nothing but McDonalds food for 30 days.

I remember when the first MacDonalds opened, and also numerous other fast-food franchises. It has taken me years, however, to realize that these businesses were not motivated by the idea of getting food to people – instead, the motive was profit, and many were the problems and sufferings that stemmed from that. I had to live for several decades before I realized that there are two types of morality in the world, or ways of being, and one is almost always on the ascendant. You can decide “whose side you are on” – but acting on it is more problematic.

These two ways of thinking about life: one is “new” and business-based, where the bottom line is numbers, money, and speed, who is “first” and hang everyone else, and the other is “old-fashioned” and slower, taking as its base the optimum way of living for all creatures around one, be they human, animal, or plant.

Recently while reading For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women (revised 2005, by Barbara Ehrenreich et al), I came upon this passage, which outlined the historical rise of The Market especially in the 19th Century. It says in part, “The two spheres stand… opposed to each other… In the Old Order commerce was tainted with dishonor… But The Market… dismisses all moral categories with cold indifference. Profits can only be won by some at the price of poverty for others and there is no room for human affection…human costs make no difference on the ‘bottom line’.” Elsewhere the book says that it was in the last half of the 19th century that the chasm between “rich” (privileged), and “poor” (workers) was at its deepest. (This book was originally written in the seventies. The authors could not have imagined the kinds of inequality that we struggle with now.)

In Japan as well, “commercial” people – merchants – were at the bottom of the synthetic social order imposed in the Edo period (about 1600-1850), but when Western values were imported in the succeeding Meiji period, those values were Utilitarian (business-based), so the country’s values had to change. I once had the job of transcribing a late 19th-century handwritten doctoral dissertation to be submitted to an American university, by a Japanese man, in which he regurgitated perfectly the Utilitarian philosophy – basically, that the planet and all its inhabitants and materials are there to be used by the person who gets there first and sees the potential. It was disturbing reading.

The fact that this “New” morality has taken over just about everything (such bastions of “old” morality as still exist are largely ridiculed and sidelined) and further, that increased automation and loss of human dignity in work are still the order of the day, are very depressing to me.

I have noticed that the most common reaction to talking about my creativity is “Do you sell any?” or “You should market this” as though that were the only reason for enjoying doing something well. Every so often I think about putting my creations on Etsy etc., but I just can’t. It pushes all my buttons. I am disturbed when my husband “talks business” with me, a product of thinking about it in his company. I never subscribed to the business culture, in which every decision seems to be about profit rather than serving humanity. It seems diametrically opposed to everything I am.  

This world is really not how I want to live. But what is the alternative? This disconnect between my ideal life and my real life is very painful, and connects me to many other “disconnected” people throughout history.

We modern people must live in a world where we must send emails and messages, must be connected to the internet, must use money or its equivalent to live, and if we secretly prefer the old type of morality which has as its bottom line “is this good for my body, my soul, and for others?” we must keep it a secret in order not to be ridiculed.

Or worse. The agonized couple in Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin” (based on real people) eventually realized they could not stand by and see their world succumb to the Nazis without doing anything, so they decided to write and plant subversive postcards, with the inevitable result of brutal imprisonment and eventual execution. They wanted the old morality to prevail, but this was not possible at the time. Plenty of people lived in “disconnect” then, not insisting on their morality because it would get them suffering and death, or even going over to the other side, secretly harboring thoughts of rebellion even as they contributed to the “New” ferocious order.

It is still possible to have the “old” morality be your guiding light – and to accept the isolation, the hardships, the toil of such a life as the price. Even in Japan, there are people who have gone “off the grid” and live at the rate of about 300,000 yen ($2000 US) per year in the countryside. I suspect that those of us (aging hippies?) who subscribe to the “old-fashioned” ideas of thrift, minimizing trash, living off the land, etc. – as I do – succeed in varying degrees, but they always have to accept compromise – the disconnect. If I want to eat my own rice, I have to accept that the person who grows it – a neighbor, since we don’t have the machinery to do it ourselves – will be using insecticides, etc. If I want to live an “ordinary” life, I have to accept that a lot of it comes out of that little hole in the wall – and accept the venality of “the grid” with all its injustices, the fact that I am privileged when thousands are in want, etc.

Do I wish to go back to a time when the “old order” was paramount? I wouldn’t even be in Japan, since I came here as a result of tertiary education, which would not have been available to me as a woman in “the old days”. Even if I did live in Japan in those days, I would be suppressed, ostracized, marginalized in a thousand different ways, because of my gender and background. Is my agonizing just another aspect of my privilege?

I suspect that very few people live 100% in accordance with the Market morality; just as that very few live 100% in accordance with the “old” morality. Maybe the ideal of “100%” is itself a number-based, grinding way of thinking about it – like “perfection” it is unattainable, and I have to get used to my life not being “perfect” in this or any other way.

The disconnect is part of all our lives. I imagine it is finally what we ourselves are willing to bear in order to live whatever life we lead. What do you think?

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Intertesting take on this! For decades, I was a reporter covering markets -- mostly forex and bonds -- and I came to think of the markets (and capitalism in general) as something almost as neutral as the weather. People bought, people sold, and outcomes were predictable most of the time -- and when they weren't, this was usually to do either some world event beyond anyone's control, OR due to some human failure. Sometimes people just made mistakes, or sometimes they got too greedy and acted badly on purpose, causing aberrations.

Also, I don't believe resources were always allocated in a moral, more altruistic way in the past. Greed is a common human failing, and I'm sure it's existed throughout…


Excellent piece, Rebecca. I have a lot of thoughts on this stuff--because I read and think about and write about it every day. You might be ridiculed by some for a certain way of thinking--but there are lots of folks (believe me!) who won't ridicule you--and it certainly would be worse to abandon a way of life that you feel works best for you. Also, the very fact that we need food to exist means you can't completely abandon the "business" of life (think Thoreau)--and it doesn't seem so strange to me that communities form and stores (businesses) open. Business in itself, I don't think, is amoral, but when a CEO is making 300 times the salary of the typical…



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