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  • damariszehner

Convenience, Community, and Late-Stage Capitalism

Updated: Jun 6, 2020


Yesterday I went to the post office to mail a package to my daughter overseas. She’s been in the military for years, so I’m familiar with the process. Hauling the big box on my hip, I greeted the post mistress and asked her for a customs form.

“Oh, you have to do that online now,” she said. “Because of international regulations, we aren’t allowed to use paper forms anymore.”


So I wrestled the box back out to the car and drove home, to spend an hour of stroke-inducing frustration figuring out how to find and complete the form. I succeeded eventually; I filled out the form, took the box down to the basement, where I keep a rusty produce scale that I use for canning, weighed it, and printed the form on our home printer. Then I drove six miles back to the post office. Once more I handed the box past the pandemic plastic sheeting.

“Is this all I need?” I asked.

“Looks good!” she told me and took the box.

I thanked her and left.

This little interaction has made me reflect on the three Cs that I’ve used for the title: convenience, community, and capitalism.


We’re told that things are online now “for our convenience.” To be fair, I suppose that in the future it will be convenient to just reprint my daughter’s mailing address – presuming I can remember the byzantine username and password that were required, and I have ink in the printer, and my scale hasn’t rusted through, and I don’t know, the Kessler effect hasn’t taken out the internet. Sure, it’ll be convenient, and I’ll be saving a tiny bit of a tree by using only one piece of paper instead of eight.

But what is the cost of this putative convenience? One cost is a loss of community. In fact, convenience as we understand it today is in direct opposition to community. It’s practically a law that the more inconvenient something is, the more it engenders community. For example, the convenience of the internet allows me to look at and do things my neighbors will never know about; the inconvenient party telephone ensured that everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Food delivery versus farmers’ markets, ebooks versus visits to the library, manufactured houses versus barn-raisings – these conveniences all contribute to the loss of the kind of community, for good or ill, we used to have. Even central heat, a convenience we take for granted, has allowed families to be isolated in their own rooms all winter, rather than gathering around a source of heat.

At the post office, normally I would have chatted with the post mistress, who’s a nice woman. While she was weighing things and I was filling out the form, she might have asked about my daughter, and I would have inquired about her family. I would have appreciated her skill and been grateful for her answers to my questions about customs, costs, and insurance. She would have felt herself to be an expert valued by our community as a result.

As it was, she served two functions in our interaction, both of which could have been fulfilled by inanimate objects: she told me she couldn’t help me, which a piece of paper taped to the window could have done, and she received my box, which a bin would have managed just as handily. Her years of experience with the post office and our community, and her cheerful and authoritative demeanor, were all unnecessary. How long will she have a job when she can be replaced by things that don’t require a paycheck?

And that brings me to late-stage capitalism. The term is vague and means different things according to who is using it, but it generally refers to unsustainable absurdities and injustices in our current business practices.


I don't know why forms have to be filled out online, but whoever made the decision probably thought it was justified for reasons of cost. They might claim that the postal service can’t survive if it doesn’t turn a profit, and the only way to turn a profit is to cut costs, right? We know the postal service is struggling financially for many reasons, but one big reason is that it is expected to be a business and not a service. The attitude that everything in a society, even public services, should pay for itself and in the process enrich its stockholders is typical of late-stage capitalism. This attitude affects our institutions of higher education and even public schools, more and more of which are being turned over to private charter companies. It affects health care, where hospitals have to make money off sick people for their parent companies; it affects infrastructure – every summer I see neighbors driving down our road on the back of their pick-up, shoveling gravel into the latest crop of potholes, doing the job that the county no longer does.

The way late-stage capitalism reduces costs is by shifting them to the consumer. Last year, all I needed in order to mail a package overseas was a pen, and even then I could have borrowed one from the clerk. Now I need to have my own computer with internet connection, my own printer, and my own scale, as well as some basic familiarity with using the internet to do business. I know perfectly well that there are people in my community who don’t have all of those things but who are of the demographic group most likely to have children in the military. How are they going to send packages to their sons and daughters? The “convenience” of doing other people’s responsibilities at one’s own home is just a lie to induce compliance while services are removed, more people suffer, and a few people get rich. And a passing "Thank you for your service" is supposed to compensate for this injustice.

The result of the spread of "convenience" is atomized households, each with its own printer and scale, its own wheelchair and hospital bed, its own road paving equipment and computer for online education – for those who can afford them. No one ever has to leave home again – except the poor, and where can they go to get services? Because of the tyranny of late-stage capitalism, we lose community and gain a spurious convenience that weakens our connections and drives a wedge ever more deeply between the haves and the have-nots.

image from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/12/us-states-with-the-highest-levels-of-income-inequality.html


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8 Comments


h.r.thoman
Jun 08, 2020

Excellent post. My husband and I were recently discussing this issue and he brought up the example of video games. He was a teenager not that long ago but since he's left that community of gamers it has changed dramatically. When he was playing video games all of his friends would gather in a basement together and, while eye contact or deep conservation might be lacking, were at least physically spending time together. Now most popular video games are played "together" online. There is no reason to gather together to eat junk food on a squashy couch anymore. He and I were both lamenting this-what does it say about our society that even video games, hailed by so m…

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awilliam
Jun 08, 2020

> At the post office, ...


There is a quote I use to describe this, I don't recall if I have shared it here: """[When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumb…


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djf
Jun 07, 2020

Capitalism with generally accepted practices combined with unhindered price discovery in fairness between parties with secure private property is a higher value. In this world of competitive cooperation capitalism has led to a globalism driven by more affluence at a lower price. If a product or service is cheaper and has more value it wins. The gate keeper of human meaning found in behavior is in the back seat. This cannot compete on the global scale because global cooperation says you have your meaning and I have mine. Cooperation allows this because lower price for more is better when meaning is relative from globalism. The insidious part of this is we tie our hands in resisting cheaper for more things…

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djf
Jun 07, 2020

We pay a price for convenience and its relative efficiency. These two traits are not bad in the abstract. What happens is humans take them beyond their best practices. We use them today for the idea of them. Modern marketing promotes them as the understood good. Technology is usually referred to as more efficient and convenient. More convenience is not bad until it crosses a threasholds of what is wise. What is wise is based upon the knowledge we hold as meaning. If convenience, efficiency, and their platforms built into technology become the driver than these traits erode meaning and our lives actually degrade. When they become the meaning our lives are lost.

This perfectly illustrated by the car culture.…

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pastorjimelliott
Jun 06, 2020

Sounds something like a movie Kubrick would produce, doesn't it? I've expressed before that while technology in itself is fascinating, since the 1980's the main effects have been to erase jobs, isolate us, and create more tension (as the post office experience demonstrates).


While i can't imagine having gotten through the last 80 days without the internet, i have to remind myself that humanity survived for thousands of years by interacting together and entertaining each other (i.e. "community"). This would happen in the evenings among family units, and during the day in public forums.


Maybe the Amish are on to something?

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