Riot of the Hungry Ghosts

Hungry ghosts live in the hell realm. Depicted in Hieronymous Bosch paintings and graphic Tibetan Buddhist texts, they have huge gaping mouths and swollen heads. pencil-thin necks and emaciated bodies with round distended bellies. Or they have tiny mouths the size of a needle’s eye and giant unfillable stomachs. They live in a torment of rage and dissatisfaction, where their all-consuming desires can never be satisfied.

In June in Vancouver and now in cities throughout England, the hungry ghosts have taken to the streets . They are looting stores, setting fire to cars, smashing stuff up. Most of them are young. Most are men, but in Vancouver, young women strode down Granville Street and onto the SkyTrain, their arms loaded with designer handbags. In England many (not all) appear to be of the lower income bracket, but in Vancouver they cut a broad socioeconomic swath, and the most high-profile rioters were comfortable suburban youths in $200 Canucks jerseys.

There are not protesting anything. They cannot articulate any rationale or political motivation for what they are doing. All they can say when asked, is that they were drunk, and swept away by the crowds cheering them on.

Why are people trashing their cities? What is going on?

I believe that the deep motivation of the rioters is they have been beaten into insensitivity by marketing, and goaded into violence by the false religion of consumer capitalism.

It it a stretch for the ideologues of all stripes who are trying to make political hay out of the riots. These riots arn’t about justice. It’s not the haves-vs.-have-nots. It is the HAVES and the HAVE MORES who can never have enough, chaising their tails until they go crazy. The miasma of consumption is the very air we all breathe. We all have everything—in fact we all have too much, and yet, we are suffering. We truly and tragiclly are.

We have ample food and shelter. We have cars and booze and electronic gizmos and overspiced fast food, credit cards and lottery tickets. Here in Vancouver, and in London, we have among the highest living standards in the world—assuming that we allow our standards to be defined by how much we consume. Even the “poorest” among us live a life of privilege unimaginable to a beggar in Calcutta. We have everything the commercials tell us we need in order to be happy and have status, and yet, we are neurotic and unsatisfied. We are hungry ghosts. And deep inside, we feel like losers, with no outlet great enough for the magnitude of our pain. The promise of consumer capitalism is so pervasive and seductive and yet so false and disappointing. It is the one gigantic lie that we have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. A hook, a line, and a sinker do not result in a full belly—only an aching void.

The empty promise of consumer capitalism (with a nod to Lama Marut), is that we can have everything, and we can keep it for ourselves. That we can be happy by depriving others; by pillaging the world for gasoline and cheap electronics. That happiness is solitary and self-contained. That it can be bought in a store.

It is a big fat lie. And it is a gargantuan pissoff.

On the night of the Stanley Cup riot I looked out my East Van window at the pillars of black smoke rising above the city. I was trembling, looking at the smoke, wondering what was on fire. I found out later -cars, of course—cars. What better symbol of thwarted promise?

Car culture may be consumerism’s one most pervasive false promise. Cars bring status, freedom, happiness – don’t they? The car commercials say they do. But, no, they do not. Your car might give you a thrilling ride, and (sometimes) get you to work on time, or (occasionally) get you laid—but the cost of that one car, in human and planetary suffering, is far greater than that momentary high. It is a gross negative on the universal happy scale. And so when that deep disappointment and anger is unleashed, cars are a poetically just target.

So now we have sunk generations of energy into amassing trinkets of every kind. But not only are we deeply unsatisfied, but it is becoming clearer day by day that the window to grab more fistfulls of pretty shiny things is closing…bang. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no economic downturn. We’re not going to get another chance to snorkel the dying coral reefs or view the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, or buy that idyllic starter home in the picture-book suburbs—that particular reality is over, or at least, it is ending very fast. We don’t know where to start now, or what to do. We are waking up to the truth that no regime change will make the absolute difference. Code red: the system is failing us. The promise is not going to deliver. Are we angry? You bet we are.

I do not have any easy answer for what I see as this deep and wide spiritual wound. I don’t believe the riots are symptoms of lax parenting, or that they will be quelled by better policing or community spirit or crowd control. And I also am not sure that what we call “riots”, in all their many and subtle iterations, are wholly negative events. This is all part of the process.

I might suggest that every individual needs to start finding contentment—somewhere, somehow. Right now. Then (and only then), can parents teach their children that they sincerely need little, and that there is enough to share. And we can all start teaching it to each other, by giving things away. That might be the most immediate and maybe the most effective universal balm for the pain.

On a global scale, I don’t know how one begins to counter the corrosive disappointment and violent rage that comes when so much of humanity loses its faith. I do think that as cycles turn and the false religion of consumer capitalism collapses, there will be lots more rocks thrown through store windows, and lots more cars on fire in the streets.

5 Responses to “Riot of the Hungry Ghosts”

  1. Shiraz Says:

    i love it, Carmen…. one of the more balanced and well-informed responses I’ve seen to the English riots… I actually feel like I was educated… will be sharing with some friends…

    Shiraz

  2. Rob Says:

    thanks Carmen, very interesting, sad and probable explanation. Rob

  3. pablo the illustriously understated Says:

    you hit the proverbial pin on the head without disturbing any of the dancing angels. Curiously, I’m reading Michel Foucault, and his take on 20th century power discourses dovetails with your own.

    truth be told, I’ve been disappointed for far too long with the lies, such as those that purport that happiness is entrenched somewhere around the corner, if only I could make my way there… I’d get there faster in flashy sneakers, named after the goddess of victory, or a machine named after wild horses…

    elias canetti’s “crowds and power” has much to say about why people act as they do en masse. they don’t hand out the nobel prize for literature for looking pretty (that is reserved for the peace prize apparently).

    the way to deal with this greater brouhaha is to enter into discussion with people around you, especially those that disagree, and to go dancing, because there’s nothing like being in a big huge crowd whose sole intention is to be silly and have fun.

  4. Mitey Miss Says:

    “We”?

    I think it’s a misnomer to call these street events “riots”. Sure, they have the symbols of a riot, but in reality they look more like — parties. Those people, they’re not angry, they’re having fun. The ones I passed on Seymour street as I pedalled hard to get away were laughing. They are people of our time: safe in a crowd, secure in anonymity, going with the flow.

    They are a mass, and they KNOW they are a mass. The individual is dead.

  5. greg blanchette Says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this post for a while. Seen from here in Tofino, the Vancouver “party” (i like Mitey Miss’s distinction — riots are about anger, parties are about amusement) was more curious than tragic. Despite having lived in Vancouver for the better part of 20 years, i felt no emotional wrench knowing people were trashing it pointlessly. Strange; it was almost like the city deserved it, like this was a natural next step in the path we are on as a civilization.

    BTW, MM, i don’t believe the individual is wholly dead. As a consumer, the individual (or some simulacra of it) thrives; as a moral being, though, the individual is definitely on the wane.

    I think the best response to the sweeping malaise is to live well and be happy. It seems that not too many people know how to do that, or even know it’s possible. Showing that it can be done, that happiness is internal and unrelated to stuff — showing it by living it — seems to me to be one of the more powerful statements one can make in a world awash with unhelpful statements.

    So if you discover the means of doing this, down there in the desert, bring me some back please.

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