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Voltairine de Cleyre on “Thing-Worship”

One of my favorite anarchists and writers of all time was recently featured by actress Mary Tuomanen. Tuomanen read an excerpt from perhaps my favorite essay by de Cleyre called The Dominant Idea and it was presented during the 2015 Voices of a People’s History at Plays and Players in Philadelphia.

Just for some background, the main point of de Cleyre’s essay are to, in many broad strokes, see what ideas most resonated with people in a given era. With the Egyptians Voltairine claimed their dominant idea was about “…enduring and to work enduring things, with the immobility of their great still sky upon them and the stare of the desert in them…”

Voltairine goes through other ages but eventually comes to the time period she lives in and declares that the dominant idea of her time period is “thing-worship” or:

…the Much Making of Things, — not the making of beautiful things, not the joy of spending living energy in creative work; rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving, wasting and draining of the last lit of energy, only to produce heaps and heaps of things, — things ugly, things harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.

Tuomanen cuts corners here and there in her reading but this is basically what she says:

And certainly the presence of things in abundance, things empty and things vulgar and things absurd, as well as things convenient and useful, has produced the desire for the possession of things, the exaltation of the possession of things. Go through the business street of any city, where the tilted edges of the strata of things are exposed to gaze, and look at the faces of the people as they pass, — not at the hungry and smitten ones who fringe the sidewalks and plain dolefully for alms, but at the crowd, — and see what idea is written on their faces. On those of the women, from the ladies of the horse-shows to the shop girls out of the factory, there is a sickening vanity, a consciousness of their clothes, as of some jackdaw in borrowed feathers. Look for the pride and glory of the free, strong, beautiful body, lithe-moving and powerful. You will not see it. You will see mincing steps, bodies tilted to show the cut of a skirt, simpering, smirking faces, with eyes cast about seeking admiration for the gigantic bow of ribbon in the overdressed hair. In the caustic words of an acquaintance, to whom I once said, as we walked, “Look at the amount of vanity on all these women’s faces,” “No: look at the little bit of womanhood showing out of all that vanity!”

And on the faces of the men, coarseness! Coarse desires for coarse things, and lots of them: the stamp is set so unmistakably that “the wayfarer though a fool need not err therein.” Even the frightful anxiety and restlessness begotten of the creation of all this, is less distasteful than the abominable expression of lust for the things created.

Such is the dominant idea of the western world, at least in these our days. You may see it wherever you look, impressed plainly on things and on men; very like if you look in the glass, you will see it there.

But the dominant idea of the age and land does not necessarily mean the dominant idea of any single life.

And now, to-day, though the Society about us is dominated by Thing-Worship, and will stand so marked for all time, that is no reason any single soul should be. Because the one thing seemingly worth doing to my neighbor, to all my neighbors, is to pursue dollars, that is no reason I should pursue dollars. Because my neighbors conceive they need an inordinate heap of carpets, furniture, clocks, china, glass, tapestries, mirrors, clothes, jewels and servants to care for them, and detectives to, keep an eye on the servants, judges to try the thieves, and politicians to appoint the judges, jails to punish the culprits, and wardens to watch in the jails, and tax collectors to gather support for the wardens, and fees for the tax collectors, and strong houses to hold the fees, so that none but the guardians thereof can make off with them, — and therefore, to keep this host of parasites, need other men to work for them, and make the fees; because my neighbors want all this, is that any reason I should devote myself to such abarren folly? and bow my neck to serve to keep up the gaudy show?

Behold these same idealists then, successful business men, professionals, property owners, money leaders, creeping into the social ranks they once despised, pitifully, contemptibly, at the skirts of some impecunious personage to whom they have lent money, or done some professional service gratis; behold them lying, cheating, tricking, flattering, buying and selling themselves for any frippery, any cheap little pretense. The Dominant Social Idea has seized them, their lives are swallowed up in it; … And so the cancer goes on rotting away the moral fibre, and the man becomes a lump, a squash, a piece of slippery slime taking all shapes and losing all shapes, according to what particular hole or corner he wishes to glide into, — a disgusting embodiment of the moral bankruptcy begotten by Thing-Worship.

The essay doesn’t entirely revolve around this one concept or only commentary on de Cleyre’s then modern age. There’s also quite a bit of proto-existentialist thought and much to be digested and analyzed besides her comments on consumerism.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that not all feminists agree that consumerism is as ghastly as de Cleyre portrays here.

A last word and warning to those listening with ear-buds or loud sound systems, the reading can get a bit loud at times.

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