Courtesy of Daryl Mitchell/Wikimedia Commons

The Whole Capitalism Cult: Part One

No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one.

— Christopher Hitchens

“Lean!! Leeeeeean!!”

And lean we would, every time my mother screamed it. She had the timing down, and always called it at just the right moment. Three of us seated comfortably would suddenly become a single pile of giggling humanity, leaning into each other, squished up against the side of the Tilt-A-Whirl car. And because we all followed my mother’s command, that car would spin wildly, without fail, every single time.

My favorite ride on the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk was always the Tilt-A-Whirl. Every summer my parents would rent a beach house in the South Jersey seaside town for a week — before my brother, sister and I became teenagers — and we would spend our days in the surf and sand, our evenings on the boardwalk. The personal highlight of most days for me came in the evening on the boardwalk, squished tight with my mother and sister, spinning and dizzy, on the Tilt-A-Whirl at Gillians Wonderland Pier.

I still remember that feeling of momentum on the Tilt-A-Whirl — the butterflies it caused in the pit of my stomach. Contrary to anxiety it was a feeling of excitement, and I looked forward to it every day during our vacation week. The same feeling surfaces each time I achieve something new — when I speak on a topic I’m really passionate about in front of an audience, or get a promotion, or attempt to launch a new product or service at work, or even successfully draw full-room attendance at a simple lunch and learn. I can feel the momentum building, and I think to myself, “Lean!! Leeeeeean!!” It’s about making something happen. I learned how to build that momentum, and that lesson never left me once I’d gained the confidence to try it out in the real world.

When I was a pre-teen on the Tilt-A-Whirl, I didn’t know anything about real life. I knew every music video on MTV inside and out, studied and dog-eared every new issue of Rolling Stone, worshipped idols like Kurt Cobain, and dressed for high school like D’arcy from Smashing Pumpkins. It took me a long time to see it for what it really was — to understand the cult that all of it was enshrined inside. It finally dawned on me when a fiercely anti-corporate punk in bondage pants with a red-tipped mohawak tried to convince me to try a cigarette in the high school parking lot one afternoon. That fiercely anti-corporate belief wasn’t really a belief — it was mostly about being cool and fitting in with a preferred group or tribe. It was a brand, much like the Marlboro he offered me.

For many of us, that realization eventually comes. Next to nothing is sacred, nearly everything is a contradiction, and almost none of it is real. And then we go on to learn how to use that awareness to play the game, hopefully with ethics in mind and in the most honorable way possible.

The contradictions are omnipresent today. Our tribes are more, not less—many in the name of individuality and freedom. And though we may like to critique Capitalism in general — or more specifically Wall Street, big business, consumer focus groups, marketing and advertising, and the steady churn of new and largely unnecessary products in the name of innovation — if our critiques are making us money or earning us followers, we should be self aware enough to understand that we are very much a part of the system we’re critiquing.

To be continued…

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