Comrades, the end of capitalism is at hand, and Expedia.com will be the vanguard of the revolution.

Morgan Morel

If I may condense one of the most important sociological works in history to just a few sentences, Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism” explains how modern capitalism emerged from the combination of the Protestant commitment to personal labor and discouragement of lavish spending. Unable to spend money on themselves and, unlike Catholics, their churches, Protestants had no choice but to reinvest their earnings into their businesses. Money was not made for spending, but for the sake of making more money.

Availed of the puritanical guilt of leisure spending, our generation has turned fun seeking into the driving force of our country’s economy. This can be seen in the way young people look for a job after college. Observing the urban migration habits of college graduates, sociologists like Richard Florida contend that young adults choose a residential location first and then search for nearby jobs. A city’s bar scene, concert venues and mountain bike trails take priority over its career opportunities. If the spirit of capitalism was that one only lived to work, today we have shifted to a cultural context where we only work to live.

Therefore, have we put an end the spirit of capitalism?

If the 1980s were dominated by a yuppie Gordon Gekko style of greed, today we exhibit a granola-hippy style of greed. We lust not for material, but cultural capital. We measure success not by our annual income, but by how many European countries we have visited, how many concerts we’ve heard and how many bars we frequent. We no longer seek streets that are paved with milk and honey but instead those that flow with caffeine and cocktails. We want the bourgeois lifestyle, but consider anyone actively seeking that status shallow.

In the face of mountainous student loans caused by skyrocketing tuition costs, the only way young people can maintain the desired lifestyle is the credit card. We expect more than instant gratification – we expect perpetual gratification. According to the Federal Reserve, the average credit card debt for 25- to 34-year-olds has tripled in the last 20 years. Yet our Atlas-like burden of debt still doesn’t stop us from buying cruise tickets or shopping online. There is a torrent of books on the subject, where we are called “Generation Me,” “Generation Debt” and just simply “Strapped.” If you want to know more, these books are available on Amazon.com. Be sure to use your frequent buyer’s discount.

Karl Marx told us that modern people only truly live in those brief hours between work shifts. It seems we listened to him and are now determined to not let work dictate how we live our lives. However, our retreat from capitalism has not been supplanted by an increased dedication to social activism. The corporate self-advancing businessman is considered selfish, yet we take no action to ameliorate concentrated poverty. One has to wonder: Where do we invest those enlightened ideas obtained through all our book reading and globetrotting? Do we do these things only to spur our conversations at the bar?

If there is a virtue in the capitalist spirit, it is that it necessitates empowerment and a local civic discourse. A market economy forces the capitalist to interact with his neighbors and therefore acquire a societal awareness. You have to know what people want if you’re going to sell them anything. It is in a capitalist’s self-interest to be an active member of the community and although the capitalist doesn’t necessarily feel a social responsibility, he is at least a social participant.

Socialism, capitalism’s historical alternative, also fosters civic awareness. Communal living, by definition, requires social consciousness. In an egalitarian society where one’s livelihood depends on others, guiding the course of the community’s future is not only a right, but an obligation. The archetypical young socialist has a faith in his ability to better his surroundings. His resources are spent toward both learning about and ameliorating the problems within his community.

However, neither of these terms applies to our generation. If we are neither capitalists nor socialists, then what are we?

The only ideology we subscribe to is ourselves. Consequently, we isolate and disenfranchise ourselves from the decisions affecting our communities. We spend so much time and money enlightening ourselves in order to be more aware of society’s ills, yet do nothing about them. Of course, as long as there is pleasure to be had, we don’t care about being politically apathetic. If this is a depressing thought, don’t worry – buying that new album online will cheer you right up. Man, it certainly is a brave new world.

Butler can be reached at bulters@umich.edu.

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