Tahrir Square’s ‘conspicuous’ flaw

International Herald Tribune/ Daily News

June 16 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Jack Welch built what became the most valuable company in the world making tangible things. Welch was a kid with hope in his heart and an empty pocketbook when he left community school. Today, his net worth is more than $700 million.

He grew GE from a $12 billion American company in 1981 to a global mega-corporation in 2001 manufacturing $280 billion of goods worldwide — 20 years never cutting a single job in America.

How, he was asked a few days ago. Vision and desire, he replied. On your own? No, my workers did it themselves. Every day they woke up thinking: How can I find a better way?

Opinion polls find Egypt’s revolutionaries mostly hoping for prosperity. Few put democracy at the top of their wish lists. Analyzing the national psyche requires understanding the realism of people on the street.

An expert on the subject Dr. Rachel Bowlby, Professor of English at the University of York, is the world’s foremost authority on why people want more money to buy stuff. She’s the author of a slew of seminal works such as “Just Looking”, “Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping” and “Shopping with (Sigmund) Freud”, who explored the connection between psychoanalysis and consumer psychology.

She, like many serious historians monitoring the changes in human behavior, says the droves moving to cities all over the world in the mid to late 19th century marked a watershed: the seminal transformational experience when urban centers in Europe and America exploded into major metropolitan areas.

As Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, until last year the executive director of UN-HABITAT, the UN’s Human Settlements Programme, points out London went from 800,000 in 1800 to over 6.5 million in 1900. Paris grew from 500,000 to over 3 million and by 1900 the population of New York was 4.2 million. The masses became serial shoppers.

Cairo’s population explosion came later, gathering momentum over the last 20 years. From 250,000, according to the official census in 1882, to 13 percent of Egypt’s population in 1960, Cairo and its contiguous collar counties now stands at 18-20 million, nearly a quarter of the nation, and an eye-popping density estimated close to 30,000 per square kilometer, threatening to topple the slum league-leaders in India and the Philippines.

Back in 1899 the venerable Norwegian-American sociologist and economist Professor Thorstein Veblen studied the Second Industrial Revolution’s pre-World War I trends, coining the phrase conspicuous consumerism. By that he meant your current condition could be transformed by creating a new identity by spending on new clothes, shoes and the like.

Before then most people shopped for necessities such as a bar of soap. Then along came the first international advertising blitz shilling a branded product: More doctors proscribe Ivory soap than any other.

Waterfield Scott, one of the earliest writers on advertising, explained that people started buying particular brands such as a bar of Ivory soap for its ‘spotless elegance’ ignoring the soap’s properties, which he described as ‘a prosaic chunk of fat and alkali.’ (From the Arabic al-qily, salt ashes).

Spool forward to Tahrir Square January 25. Everyone knew the Mubarakites were rapacious rapscallions, bombasts – braggarts with bulging, bloated billfolds. Most of the country could put aside their differences, coalescing around ‘freedom and liberty’ to dunk the doppelgänger.

Rachel Bowlby and her ilk, experts on social change, point out that liberty to most people means freedom to satiate unsatisfied desires. Instead of buying clothes to cover up, folk want to spend a few pounds in a department store on a new outfit in what Emil Zola in Au Bonheur des Dames called the cathedral of modern trade.

The anthropologist Victor Turner likened this shopping to a religious experience, a ‘liminal moment’, suggesting that people crossed a department store’s threshold to slough off the mundane for exquisite pleasure, even aspiring ecstasy.

The nation had come to the end of its tether, fed up with unrequited promises — window-shopping with empty purses.

As clothes embroider a new identity, in other words indulging in conspicuous consumerism, today Egypt yearns to strut a brand-new, crisp demeanor, a purposeful plurality joining the world’s democracies.

The fly in the ointment — the pauper’s predicament. The Mubaraks left the cupboard bare.

And there are too many Cairo kleptomaniacs at large including, it’s said, 400 pussyfooting in Belgravia, immune from extradition or the illegal rendition and torture they once aided and abetted.

There’s another angle. The euphoria in Tahrir Square was glorification in the bulletless booting out of Mubarak by the peaceful protesters. They hung together in harmony and stood their ground.

Among them people who are determined to define the new era positively. In a textile factory I know, the workers told their boss they wanted to down tools and take off for Tahrir Square on January 25.

So do I, said their boss, an Englishman. I’ll come with you. But, what shall we tell our customers in Europe? If we stop work and don’t deliver, we’ll lose them and then we’ll be out of work.

The workers met. Here’s the plan, they said. We’ll step up production so that we can leave early. Great, their boss said. And the plan worked.

There’s a new spirit in the stitching-thread sheds. The customers in Europe are thrilled. The workers have their jobs. They have lambent pride, the country cleansed of tyrannous martinets.

They don’t feel the Revolution was to further Mammon’s march. Neither do they covet a better life in the consumer society. Or that acquirement is a cult impugning Egypt’s cherished culture. They say productivity, quality, reliability and service should be the quintessence of the national endeavor. They’ve lit up an inner strength that counters bouts of disillusionment.

These Nasr Citizens are the revolt’s unsung heroes. Greater buying power is a freedom for individuals to determine which goods they can buy to save effort, be useful and meliorate self-esteem.

Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress participated in the recent symposium at Cairo University on The Nonviolent Revolution in Egypt: Learned Lessons. Home, she wrote in the Washington Post the pertinent question is can Egyptians keep the spirit of Tahrir Square alive and transition to a pluralistic democracy?

She concludes: The Egyptians taught the world a lesson about how to use nonviolent direct action to effect massive societal change. The Middle East, and indeed the world, needs them to succeed with their transition to democracy.

To do so demands a more laudable purpose than money grubbing. The 18th century Romanticist Movement’s leading light William Wordsworth is bethought lovingly, for Daffodils written in 1804:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils

Social historians, particularly those who study the evolution of humongous cities, render even greater courtesy to the poet Wordsworth’s thoughtful treatise the Lyrical Ballads co-authored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge who contributed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth addressed what he saw as the negativity of consumerism in a sonnet The World Is Too Much with Us:

Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
We lay waste our powers.
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away,
A sordid boon!
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at pjwcairo@yahoo.com or twittered @mohendessin.

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