Friday, August 3, 2007

The woes of 'affluenza'

In his 1895, novel The Time Machine, HG Wells takes McEnroe’s view of affluenza to its logical (if not hyperbolic) conclusion. The novel centres on a time traveller, who travels forward in time into a world where the previously rich, because of their sedentary lifestyle, have devolved, rather than evolved, into a docile and ineffectual species called the Eloi. Members of the working class, in turn, have mutated into bestial creatures called Morlocks. The Morlocks live underground and toil to keep the Eloi’s world ticking over and bountiful. The twist, however, is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi from time to time to survive. Oddly, however, all have adapted to their roles and the strange world works with a de facto class structure still in place.

Of course, the real world is not as straightforward or as fantastical as Wells’s make-believe world. Many scientists and businesspeople come from wealthy homes and continue to evolve up the prosperity ladder. Some are even philanthropists. Children of high achievers, especially those that have to continue to work hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, are usually very motivated. They are not simply modern Elois. It is equally problematic to paint the working class as inherently brutish.

That said, children born into wealth, who do not need to work to keep their comforts, are, arguably, becoming more Eloi-like. The celebrity world is filled with the offspring of the wealthy who are layabouts with little social utility, typified by Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune.

Now I am not recommending that the working class devour the rich or Paris Hilton, particularly. Publicly endorsing cannibalism seldom wins friends. But McEnroe’s comments and Wells’s novel provide food for thought.

Are sections of the wealthy slowly sinking into Eloi-like uselessness because people are too comfortable? Is the growing wealth gap alienating the needy from the world of cappuccinos and coffee shops, trapping them in a destitute and brutalising world? Will this, in turn, lead to violent revolution? Or is Wells’ two-tier world of haves and have-nots, which ‘functions’ in a perverse cycle of mutual dependence more realistic?

In terms of the latter, I was thinking of writing a science-fiction novel. The story will centre, as unrealistic as it might sound, on a world made up of people who have no choice but to work like slaves for $1 a day. These unnamed individuals work in dark sweatshops to create clothes with fashionable labels on them for others who inhabit air-conditioned shopping malls seldom seen by the sweatshop workers. The people in the malls lust after the clothes with fashionable labels, but only get temporary satisfaction from each purchase so they continually demand more clothes and varied styles. In turn, the sweatshops grind on indefinitely.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.