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My Religion

Shopping does not change the world

By Annalee Newitz

MY BODY IS a corporate playground. Let me give you the gory details--a description that will raise your progressive hackles, if you have any. Right now, I'm wearing Sketchers sneakers, matched with a pair of Gap khaki capri pants, underwear from Old Navy and a vintage shirt I stole from an ex-boyfriend, or my father, or some other shady male figure from my past. My socks are also corporate. They're from Costco. Elsewhere on my person, you could find a Nokia cell phone and a PalmPilot. In other words, over 75 percent of my body is covered in products from multinational corporations.

And yet, philosophically, I'm a Marxist. I believe that capitalism is a fundamentally unjust system that rewards the rich, destroys the poor and helpless, and ruins social relations with its obsessive compulsion to convert everything--even ideas--into private property.

Marilyn Manson, a highly underrated sensationalistic icon, once said, "You cannot sedate all the things you hate." I think his observation applies here. The point is, when your entire social system is being shaped by forces you find morally repugnant--well, you just have to make compromises. I can't escape from capitalism and go live on an unpopulated island. Capitalism is everywhere, and probably coming to an island near you in the form of a reality TV show.

I know there are purists out there, people who boycott the Gap, or only use GNU-Linux as an operating system, or refuse to listen to records produced by major labels. But I'm not a purist, and I won't feel guilty about it. I don't want to do penance. I want the world to change, and I just don't see how changing my shopping patterns is going to break the back of the system.

While attending a recent geeky event involving lots of tiny robots, I met another sort of impure ideologue. He was a charming and fiercely smart dotcom immigrant to San Francisco. In one of those long, meandering conversations one sometimes has with strangers, he revealed to me that he had adopted a new religion because he could not logically disprove the existence of God. His religion provided him with ethics, and he didn't drink or take drugs because his god forbid it. And in an interesting twist, he had spent the last several years working for godlike tech companies Microsoft and Sun. "I work for the enemy," he admitted with a sardonic grin. He was even willing to defend the functionality of Windows NT.

But he believed in the usefulness of distinguishing good from evil. And so he was disturbed when his landlord in a working class district of San Francisco gestured at his Hispanic neighbors' house and said offhandedly, "Don't worry about them. Their house is on the market and will be sold in a matter of months."

Should I have boycotted this dotcommer? He was, after all, the "enemy" for a godless commie pervert like myself. And he liked NT. But after he had explained more of his religion to me, I realized we had a lot in common. According to many people in his faith, he was breaking the rules by having sex out of wedlock, and for befriending queers.

"Basically, I try to follow as many rules as possible, but I don't do all of it," he said. Despite his straight-edger edge, he was a sinner. He had to compromise his beliefs in order to exist in the real world.

And so I discovered --and not for the first time--that I have more in common with a religious, dotcom capitalist than I do with many Marxists and progressives. It wasn't that I agreed with his politics or ethical choices. But I liked the fact that he put limits on his obedience --whether that was obedience to ethical principles or to his employers (since, after all, he did admit that he worked for "the enemy").

So this is my anti-purist faith: I am a Marxist who shops at the Gap. The point, as a great philosopher once said, is to change the world, not philosophize about it. So I can philosophize and quibble over whether or not to boycott Nike this year, or I can do something. Shopping--even if done "correctly"--will not inspire action. Period.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who drinks Starbucks and likes it. She can be reached at shop@techsploitation.com.

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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