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Commentary » International

Perhaps the poor can show the way out of consumerism

A 'culture of well-being' has anesthetized us to suffering

Perhaps the poor can show the way out of consumerism

Picture: Shutterstock

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul International

July 25, 2014

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We live in a world made numb by the reality and consequences of violence and deprivation. A cursory look at the headlines in any news report this week would reveal a catalogue of attempts by one group of people to abuse and impoverish another.

The senseless murder of almost three hundred people on Malaysian Airlines MH17 over the Ukraine, the mounting death toll and devastation wrought by fighting in Gaza and the violence inflicted on Christians in Pakistan are merely a few examples of this.

The poignant sight of Christians in Mosul forced from their homes by Sunni militants, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, is a dramatic instance of something shared by the bereft across the world. Yet, if the poor are at the heart of the Gospel, as Pope Francis never tires of reminding us, perhaps they could also represent the hope we have to make some sense of the madness.

As these tragedies and atrocities strip bare their victims, the suffering leads those of us who observe the melancholy realities to the core of our humanity.

Addressing the same issue of dehumanization but beginning from a completely different starting point, Pope Francis sees the condition of unadorned humanity as the key to opening a door to something much more pervasive among us than instances of dramatic brutality.

In his first Encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, he characterizes the financial crisis that engulfed the world from 2008 as having its origins in a perspective that reduces a human being to only one need – consumption. If such a focus prevails, the pope says, then the most valuable guide to a way out of the morass is in the hands of those who live in vulnerable material conditions.

Far from them are the lifestyles that characterize so-called welfare societies. If the market is an octopus that slowly wraps around us all, where the tentacles are the "temptations of pleasure" that distract us from the "real joy", then the only ones who do not fall into temptation are those who just cannot afford them.

The pope believes that the “culture of well-being” anesthetizes us to the point that we "lose our tempers if the market offers something that we have not yet bought". If so, then the poor are the ones to break this vicious circle. They are the ones who cannot afford the process of human modification that has not spared any other social category, especially when the poor are seen as those who are without any property to call their own.

This became sharply apparent to me when I recently viewed the film World War Z, an apocalyptic thriller in which a terrible virus transforms humans, turning them into something like zombies. Though the virus spreads rapidly throughout the world, its origin is unknown.

The hero, played by Brad Pitt, is the man destined to save humanity, the one who discovers the existence of an effective antivirus. He realizes that some people are not attacked by zombies and these are the people who are already suffering from the viral illness.

It is just the hero's hunch, but it is as simple as it is brilliant and is the basis of the immunization campaign: the zombies want to inflict their lethal disease only on healthy subjects, who in turn can proceed to infect others. Immunize the healthy and the zombie virus will be neutralized. In World War Z, Gerry experiments on himself, injecting himself with the serum of a deadly disease in order to survive the zombie outbreak.

The same principle of contagion is the way consumerism operates: market economies are based upon a conviction that for a product to be successful, it must create contagion, or as is often said, it must go “viral”.

Today, those who remain immune from the tentacles of global consumerism are the poor. Poor people, even if they wish to access the "big market" one day, do not have the means to be an effective part of it. So, they don’t become entangled in the market forces that can divide and alienate.

Maybe it is the poor who incubate the antivirus from which we can "extract" an effective and wise method to cope with this global human virus and the daily irrationalities that strip us bare.

As in the zombie apocalypse of World War Z, where the hero must expose himself to the deadly virus via a serum in order to survive, perhaps we also must experience a period of actual poverty, or at least a degree of abstinence from compulsive consumption, to remain safe from its contagion.

Such an experience can create the conditions under which we rediscover our true needs, those true joys that are often hidden from us in this day and age, because we indeed are disoriented and anesthetized by the fleeting temptations all around us.

Maybe the poor will die in poverty, but they may also be the only ones who can still nourish the hope to pass on to future generations a human condition by which we can start to rethink an entirely new model of development.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is a freelance journalist based in South Korea
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