Quo Vadis of the post-modern age is going nowhere, fast

Derek Monroe
Derek Monroe is a writer/reporter and consultant based in Illinois, USA. He has reported on international and US foreign policy issues from Latin America, Poland, Japan, Iraq, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and India. His work appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, Alternet, Truthout and Ohmynews, and has been published in over 20 countries.
Quo Vadis of the post-modern age is going nowhere, fast
Recently Chicagoans and visitors alike were introduced to spectacle of protests as a result of the killing of a 17-year-old black teenager, Laquan McDonald and its handling by the Chicago Police.

While the multi-racial groups of protesters and activists blocked Chicago's premiere shopping district, the magnificent mile, demonstrators were largely peaceful. Varying from dramatic to comic, one scene presented an older white gentleman trying to get into a store and shouting "I got a right to shop," while demonstrators would not let him and others in.

The slow transition of a citizen into a consumer has reached a level of alienation that goes beyond the traditional racial and economic divide. It is now intrinsically personal as the complete lack of humanity and apparent cover-up by the Chicago municipal establishment including the District Attorney's office, resulted in city tension at its highest since the 1960s and its troubled legacy of violence.

Interestingly the consumer worldview has migrated into a personal psyche and with its omnipresence on how we shop, live, educate and even marry. The promised bliss of the "invisible hand" of the market is turning out to be a nightmare and its ghosts are personified by profitable exploitation with grotesque features and dimensions. It is a reality of inverted totalitarianism that makes the Capitalism and market forces it embraces into a de-facto religion based on dogma that cannot be questioned. However the equality of standards forced on us, consumers and citizens alike are no longer sustainable when it comes to equality before the law and the basic precepts of civilized behavior. In a recent series in the New York Times "Beware the fine print", the authors Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery present a new reality of American consumer experience in which we, the consumers, are now robbed of our basic constitutional right such as due process.

Instead the corporations and business entities whose business model is based on serving the general public, have a way to bury the arbitration clause into any type of transaction thus shielding themselves from review by an independent court system. In the world of libertarian bliss the nirvana of governmental absence has now been finally achieved. On a large scale the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have upped this game into international relations. It will effectively do the same thing to sovereign governments just as it did to American consumers. This ultra-totalitarian set-up will bring upon the age of ruthless exploitation by increasingly stronger and global corporations ushering era of Neo-Feudalism. For example the idea of "dynamic pricing" depending on demand and who is ordering the service is already here with UBER, LYFT and other "disruptive service" providers. They configured themselves into business relationships with characteristic creation of appearance of value while being a de-facto ‘nouveau rent’ class exploiting service providers, customers, employees and investors, all at the same time. This parasitic ‘system’ uses metrics of grading both sides as illusion of meritocracy while it is in effect exploiting the relationship as omnipresently Hegelian "the other." In a traditional business world still requiring huge manpower and provision of actual service and product, the companies are also becoming increasingly aggressive and unrelenting in commoditization of the end user beyond its traditional role of consumer, customer and client. Taking the example of airline industry the "brave new world" reinforced classism as its pricing driver is the most evident of this change.

Last spring my family got abused by American Airlines ground staff person during economy class check-in at Chicago's O'Hare airport. When I filed a complaint in regards of the "treatment" that included expletive driven verbal tirade, I received the following phone call from AA customer service manager who stated: "In America you don't make a fuss. You put up with the stuff and move on." It is ironic as the AA's "something special in the air" slogan translates into "on the ground you are nothing" thus treated accordingly.

The phenomenon of market induced savagery is more subtle but still omnipresent when it comes to international scenario as well. For example when taking a flight last month from Tokyo to Hong Kong on Japan Airlines (JAL) while sick, I was assured that since I couldn't take my liquid cough medicine on board it will be made available to me on the plane. It turned out it wasn't, making the 4.5 hrs ordeal one of the worst experiences ever. "Please take candy and peanuts to make yourself feel better" was the response from JAL's flight attendant when asked for help. However when I mentioned that I am a writer and don't appreciate this type of sarcasm, I was subjected to the show of cultural prostitution masquerading as sorrow. The flight director showed up on her knees and to the amazement of my fellow passengers went into the ritual of ‘dogeza,’- a theatre-like performance of deep apology without substance. The ritual of fake contrition that has been so perfected by Japanese government officials and the Tokyo Electric Power Company for their string of failures in the Fukushima disaster has now been lowered to the level of meaningless and no cost appeasement as some type of perverse in-flight attraction. When I told her to stand up and not to make a fool of herself she explained: "your Japanese is flawless so I thought your will feel better if I lower myself to you in the name of the company. I thought it would work on you." On the contrary it actually made me feel worse and angry while reinforcing the image of JAL culture as ruthless to the point of using dignity and humanity of its employees to avoid any compensation.

That is why the flat system of monetary valuation that values money as the ultimate arbiter of humanity has transcended into a zombie-like state of subservience of those who serve it. It often treats people who give it business as a commodity that is unable to think or critically analyze the circumstances they happen to be in. This phenomenon creates its own dynamics of fake empowerment that instead of paying its employees decent wages substitutes existing institutional perversity into an incentive that costs it nothing. For instance when I visited a Sony showroom in Tokyo's exclusive Ginza district, I was specifically told not to touch anything as I attempted to try functionality of a Sony Experia phone sold only in Asia for now. As someone that has been buying Sony products since the 1980s I asked the salesperson on how is the consumer to know about functionality if not by touching it. "Is it a museum or a showroom?" I asked. There was no response as I am quite sure that paying someone to say no to the consumer as only form of interaction is definitely well built into the existing business plan of the once mighty Sony Corporation. The common sense question of whether the consumer would purchase the product after this type of interaction was probably lost on the way to Sony headquarters in Shinagawa, several miles south of the Ginza showroom.

In the American context, the profit motive is grotesquely brought to bear on each employee as to their responsibility to the corporate bottom line and seemingly nothing else. Several months ago I took Staples Inc to court over rebates I never received and which the company refused to provide despite all conditions being met. After a trial that lasted only 20 minutes in a Waukegan, IL court, I obtained the judgment against the company. Sometime later the judgment was paid without any acknowledgment of guilt or explanation why this situation could have not been rectified earlier. Last week I stopped at a Staples store in Highland Park, IL to purchase some software as it has a policy to match pricing with Amazon.com and other retailers. After I presented the printed out ad I was confronted by an assistant store manager who informed me that the item was not the same therefore the price match was not possible. When my argument was confirmed with the online screen shot afterwards and proved the explanation given by him was fictitious, the moment of truth crept up in his response: "look, I am just doing what I have been told."

The American version of ‘dogeza’ without actual apology has the deception built-in regardless of form as it fits its own societal circumstance. The fact of Staples Inc. selling expired medicine that I unwittingly purchased and was then offered a goodwill coupon for $20 instead of a refund was to cover the system. Being unable to produce a refund for product sold illegally is the best example of institutional perversity equals employee empowerment. Ironically enough Staples Inc wants to be a monopoly in the US market by purchasing its only retail rival, the Office Depot/Office Max and whose customer service is truly first rate.

This attempt at creation of the newest monopoly has been temporarily stopped by a Federal Trade Commission's lawsuit. However the mindset of monopolist behavior is alive and well as the growth can only be achieved by scale rather than decreasing content of consumer wallets.

FTC lawsuit to block Staples-Office Depot merger has repercussions on recently merged Albertsons/Safeway chains that in 'Chicagoland' include the Jewel-Osco grocery chain. It results in bad customer service and abuse that customers are subjected to. When I witnessed a blatant example of discrimination against a black shopper in its Buffalo Grove, IL store I reached out to the company for explanation from its executive team. Instead what was received was a form letter: "At Jewel-Osco it is our mission to ensure all customers have a wonderful shopping experience. We address each individual issue, and are constantly teaching, training and coaching our associates to improve customer service."

In addition to consumers being reduced to the role of ‘sheeple’, the companies are increasingly using their database for surveillance and data tracking, thus mimicking the homeland security state. In many return transactions that sometimes include a return with/without the receipt, many companies require consumers to produce an ID. Walmart, Walgreens, Target and Meijer, among others, have customized their point of sale terminals to scan any state-issued driver license and IDs to the point of being able to keep a very large dossier on their customers just like East German state police, the Stasi. However the systems holding the information are not perfect and companies from time to time become victims of hacking putting consumer’s info at risk of fraud.

However the thirst for collecting data that is a power in itself is sometimes stronger than common sense. I recently approached CVS Pharmacy, America's second largest drug retailer about its policy and was amazed to find that despite the provision of CVS own issued extra care card with consumer database sufficient to address quality/loss prevention issues, the chain wants the real IDs anyway. Interestingly enough even after its database including consumer info has been already hacked.

"Our policy for returns without receipt requires valid customer identification, which can be a driver’s license or other Picture ID including a US Passport. A CVS ExtraCare card is also accepted if the customer is a member of our loyalty/rewards program," said Michael DeAngelis, CVS PR director.

However contrary to this statement I found out that numerous CVS stores require state IDs even with return accompanied with receipt. One store manager in Lake Forest, IL, a wealthy Chicago suburb told me last week:"I just spoke with our loss prevention guy yesterday and he made it very clear we must collect IDs. People are ripping us off all the time so we have to protect ourselves in this way."

It is not clear who is protecting consumers as we are reduced to the mere data points in what effectively is the electronic plantation. The surveillance for surveillance's sake sounds non-sense unless of course there is a bigger picture of things to come.

The National University of Singapore's work on psychological experiments that shape human behavior of the past is nothing compared with a new and improved reality of constant spying, manipulation and control. In Poland, the consortium of companies and academia including the Polish-Japanese Academy of Computer Technology based in Warsaw has been doing a social engineering experiment in southern Polish city of Gliwice that smacks straight of the movie Minority Report.

In order to analyze public behavior in a public space and how to control it, Gliwice a city of 200,000 has been wired to a system of analytical monitoring. People who live there are unaware of it and according to the report by local newspaper Nowiny Gliwickie, the SAVA system uses the video data stream feed to recognize and classify human behavior, all by itself. It is as if the 1984 reality has been thrust upon leftovers of democracies everywhere and now the idea is to support the facade of the state while administering any corrective action by user friendly and privatized system of social and political control. All in the name of our collective security.

This seemingly unconnected chain of pathology has an explanation. It is coming of the new world order based on complete reconfiguration of society into something unparalleled in history. It is a vision of the future recently unveiled by Tyler Cowen, the darling visionary of the corporate elites and columnist of the New York Times.

According to the latest and final version of "trickledown economics," the new order of things to come is a throwback from the depths of feudalism with the addition of technology oriented flavor du jour. Cowen's vision is as follows: the corporate, super intelligent class, 10-15 percent of the population, is owed the majority of resources due to their skill, clout, connection and unquestionable status as de facto aristocracy.

The enabler class (middle class) or what can be referred to as entourage class is given the role of the 15-20 percent due to the necessity of having a professional maintenance class to support a status quo. Even intellectual pursuits such as education or arts are reduced to a role of mere "motivators" for the aristocratic class. This class is to thrive only due to its pivotal role as an entourage economy. And the rest of the people are just the road kill on the way to prosperity of the upper castes above. This callous vision of society is widely supported as viable by the Koch brothers, mainstream media and a variety of think tanks that are major cheerleaders for it. However the author also presents his human side for the less fortunate among us.

Cowen states that the working and not working poor should just move out of the way to locales where the costs of living are low i.e. live in small dwellings and be beneficiaries of the only good the state should provide as welfare: free Wi-Fi. This vision of grotesque inequality can only be reinforced by a militarized police state that along with basic education system can perpetuate a devolution of humanity into a state of voluntary servitude. The Snowden revelations point to the direction of surveillance as tool to achieve it with a point of no return reached long ago.

Staples Inc did not respond to request for interview.
Parago Inc (Staples' subcontractor) did not respond to request for interview.
Polish-Japanese Academy of Computer Technology did not respond to request for interview.
JAL did not respond to request for interview.
Chicago Police Department did not respond to request for interview.
Sony Corporation did not respond to request for interview.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.