What Andrew Potter and I were arguing against, in The Rebel Sell, was a certain political idea, which originated in the 1960s, but remained enormously influential during the punk era as well. The thought was that, in order to have a truly revolutionary politics, it was not sufficient to oppose just the capitalist economic system (as previous generations of communist revolutionaries had done). Capitalism was thought to be just one manifestation of a larger problem, which affected all aspects of society – the education system, the military-industrial complex, the church, the family, in fact the entire culture. In order to be truly revolutionary, one needed to oppose “the system” in its entirety. The central characteristic of the system was taken to be its fixation on order and discipline. If the entire culture was repressive, then liberation was possible only by forming a “counterculture,” which would celebrate the disorderly and the anarchic. This had a huge impact on left-wing politics. It explains how, as we put it in the book, “the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, came to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than a civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment.”
The countercultural analysis, unfortunately, turned out to be mistaken. There’s no other way to put it. The idea was that if certain forms of discipline broke down – for instance, if people overcame their sexual repression and discovered free love, or if people began to reject the soul-destroying conformity of the suburbs, that a new era of freedom and individuality would break out, as a result of which, people would no longer tolerate the exploitative conditions of assembly-line labour, or military conscription to fight wars of imperialism. In other words, it was genuinely believed that countercultural rebellion would undermine and destroy “the system.” In the end though, it turned out that “the system” doesn’t actually require mass conformity, or sexual repression. So all that “rebellion” just became a new source of competitive consumption. The sexual revolution, for instance, immediately gave rise to the pornography industry. And clothing companies are just as happy selling leather jackets as they are grey flannel suits. So countercultural rebellion immediately became a part of the system that it believed itself to be opposing.
This is not to say that art cannot change things. But it cannot change the fundamental nature of commercial society. Artists have been condemning bourgeois society and its values for well over 100 years, and all they have succeeded in doing is showing how deep and liquid the market is for anti-bourgeois products.
getting and spending
So, what aspect of pop culture are the philistines running the Socialist Realism rule over today?
Is there any other production house operating today that is more obsessed with narratives of the workplace and employment? The basic Pixar story is that of an individual seeking to establish, refine, or preserve their function as an instrument within a system of labor. The only way Pixar is able to conceptualize a protagonist is to assign them a job (or a conspicuous lack of one) and arrange the mechanisms of plot to ensure that they fulfill that job. This is why Joy can only accept Sadness once she comes to understand what it is she does.
Pixar’s debut film organized a scenario involving sentient toys as a narrative about two men fighting for the same job. In not one but two sequels, it revisited those same characters in a narrative about how bad retirement is, and how awful it is to be made redundant. In Monsters, Inc., it developed a parallel universe populated by monsters and powered by childrens’ screams to tell a story about a workplace duo striving to be the most efficient employees. Up is ultimately a film about how unthinkable it is to retire; even elderly widowers must find a new vocation. In film after film, Pixar presents narratives chiefly concerned with characters trying to be the best at what they do, or otherwise prove their usefulness.
This excess, epitomized as the complete entanglement of an individual’s private life with their employment, is at the core of Pixar’s conceptualization of what it is to be a person: In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise. For Pixar, to live is to work. Cars is a film about an ambitious racecar who is forced to chill out and not be so competitive, except he really just learns that chilling out and not being so competitive is the key to being an even better competitor. This is coming from a workplace culture that, under the guise of compassion, has erased the distinction between free time and labor time, and expects their employees not to notice that they working that much harder.
At its bottom, this is the logic of pure capitalism. In an economy structured around limitless growth, dynamism must become the natural state of things. Idle capital is unproductive capital and an unproductive worker is a waste of resources. The virtuous citizen cannot only consume but must produce, an imperative that finds its current (and particularly American) incarnation in the entrepreneur, the boot-strapper, the rags-to-riches hero, who is too busy pulling themselves up by their laces to notice that there’s no top to reach. The natural and profitable ideological by-product of this fixation is an abhorrence of collectivism—and therefore organized labor. To be collective, to be one among many, is to no longer be a special individual producer, which is its own kind of death. This is why Toy Story 2 abhors the idea of Woody becoming part of a box set.
The choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.
But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.
The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.
But when it comes to consumer convenience, we need to consider whether easier really is always better. Online shopping, for example, is already so effortless that we often don’t remember we’ve ordered something until the package arrives at our door. What happens when consumption becomes even less of a conscious process — when, say, our smart cupboards and refrigerators, empowered to monitor what we’re using, start making buying decisions autonomously?
…As important, might it be possible to make things too easy? Systems like Amazon’s Dash are attractive because they let us skip routine tasks, such as managing the household, which gives us more time for things that are more important to us. But when we eliminate even a mundane task, we also lose some of the mental skills that the task required. Granted, losing the mental skills needed to compile a shopping list hardly seems a cause for worry. But we should consider that loss as part of the broader “de-skilling” of everyday life with the spread of automated conveniences.
As propaganda, the video seems more like a condemnation of consumption than a celebration of it. All that stuff, the same stuff, used and discarded day after day. It’s the kind of montage that a movie director would use to show just how sad and soulless a character’s life was. And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.
…But what if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.
Just to be clear: these guys are making like Amish elders evaluating what are essentially little wi-fi buttons you can put around your house that will allow you to add everyday-use household items to your Amazon shopping cart. I mean, you could still do it the old-fashioned way, like we did back in my day, and walk around the house with a laptop or a smartphone to make a shopping list. But in our slave new world, you will still get an email to confirm that you did intend to add that item. Your kids cannot accidentally order 700 boxes of dryer sheets by playing with the button. There would seem to be little danger that this will somehow prove to be more addictive than using Amazon’s already-existing one-click option. No one is going to turn into a hoarder and bankrupt themselves ordering 20,000 jars of Peter Pan peanut butter and Welch’s grape jelly because it’s “too much fun” pressing this button. If anything, this would seem to be marginally more useful than those smartwatches that the tech geeks have been fapping over for the last couple years, and I don’t remember anybody seeing those as harbingers of dystopia.
So, yes. Roberts asks if technology like this will “make us stupid”. Crouch, when he’s not standing outside the Dollar General wearing a cilice and urging shoppers to repent, seems to think that most people normally fill in the lacunae in their hectic days by contemplating the essence of the good life, rather than cursing the shitty luck that caused them to run out of trash bags and detergent now, of all days, for chrissakes. Like Calvin’s dad, both sound eager to remind harried consumers how stress and hard work builds character. If this sounds awfully familiar, why, yes, we were just talking about this.
Everyone should be reading Capital in the 21st Century. Especially if you are broke and working hard just to stay afloat and your self-esteem gets caught up in it, you wonder, why can’t I just afford to live in a city that I like, what is wrong with me, why am I failing at being a person? Explanation here.
That’s weird — Crispin, who normally has nothing but scorn for the platitudinous advice genre, seems to be using a weighty book about economics to shield the self-help book she’s apparently got tucked within its pages. Erotic intensity, indeed:
Piketty’s terror at rising inequality is an important data point for the reader. It has perhaps influenced his judgment and his tendentious reading of his own evidence. It could also explain why the book has been greeted with such erotic intensity: It meets the need for a work of deep research and scholarly respectability which affirms that inequality, as Cassidy remarked, is “a defining issue of our era.”
Maybe. But nobody should think it’s the only issue. For Piketty, it is. Aside from its other flaws, “Capital in the 21st Century” invites readers to believe not just that inequality is important but that nothing else matters.
While we’re on the topic, this related article in the Nation is also worth reading.
But this job was different from any I’d seen before. We wore jeans. We piped in Hall & Oates. We told a lot of jokes while cranking out a lot of assignments. The designers weren’t aggrieved by the concept of labor. Rather, they wore sneakers and Walkmans, they drove crappy little Hondas that rattled with old cans of Tab, and they all talked of things—were defined by things—other than the work before them. Music and friends, hiking and television, babies and dogs and tacos. I remember thinking: now this is what work should be like: something you don’t loathe or love, but like well enough.
Gen X had witnessed what its parents had done in the name of Mercedes or making ends meet (depending on economic class), and we pledged to set our sights on careers that we weren’t beholden to. We wanted jobs that helped us to live but weren’t life itself.
…So now, here we Gen Xers are, more or less in our 40s, with neither fame nor fortune, just the freedom that comes with what we do being quite different from who we are.
“Hey, Joe. How’s work?”
…Is “hapathy” a word? I don’t know. I just think the overarching theme for Gen Xers is one of happy apathy. The whole Buddhist approach to living teaches non-attachment, in that “attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”
Well, Generation X sure got its Zen on by watching marriages dissolve, the Berlin Wall fall, the stock market crash, a president get shot, the Space Shuttle explode, and Fonzie jump the shark. We grew up accepting that nothing was permanent—not the economy, not the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, not even the lead singer for Van Halen. To top it all off, all of our music has been ripped apart and remixed. All of our movies remade. Even Twinkies had to be resuscitated and I hear they taste different now. Because of this, we’ve learned not to get too attached. And because of this, we’re content.
Finally, some generational analysis I actually have use for.
The notion of husbanding the human race as though we were game or livestock horrifies on multiple levels — moral, religious, and philosophical, not to mention legal. To suggest applying principles of wildlife management to our own species conjures abominations such as humans being culled like deer. Although we famously aren’t good at remembering history, attempts at thinning our ranks — otherwise known as genocide — are among our most indelible historical memories.
Yet although we strive for the heavens, as Pascal noted, we are still mammals who, like all other earthly creatures, require food and water — resources that we are now outstripping. Our seafood is down to dregs scraped from the ocean floor; our soils on chemical life support; our rivers fouled and drained. We squeeze and shatter rocks, mine frigid seas, and split atoms in risky places because easily harvested fuels are nearly gone. Like Kaibab deer, every species in the history of biology that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash — a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species. In a world now stretched to the brink, today we all live in a parkland, not a boundless wilderness. To survive and continue the legacy of our species, we must adjust accordingly.
Inevitably — and, we must hope, humanely and nonviolently — that means gradually bringing our numbers down. The alternative is letting nature — the new nature we’ve inadvertently created in our own image — do that for us.
It’s a fascinating and frightening book; thank goodness the only kids I’ve ever wanted to have are the canine kind. Still, after reading this, I think I’ll go get a second vasectomy just to be safe. Yeah, go ahead, doc, tie everything off even tighter, please.
The only criticism I have is that he doesn’t call for a reconsideration of the ethics of cannibalism, but I bet we’ll get there sometime this century.
But I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how troubling this and other recent dust-ups regarding some giant corporation’s “feelings” about the gays really are on closer inspection. I’m by no means the first person to say this, but being offended (or for that matter, flattered) by an entity whose sole purpose is to sell things, maybe to you or maybe to someone else, is to unavoidably endorse and enliven the insidious concept of corporate personhood. Barilla is not your enemy and Absolut is not your friend; they are just businesses with PR departments that are at different points along the road toward realizing that influential, “taste-maker” minority groups are worth courting, both for direct patronage and easy image-boost-by-association. It’s unfortunate, I guess, that Barilla (or at least Guido Barilla) is behind the times on this matter, but the earnest anger I’m seeing online about that fact is perplexing. I mean, are you really so starved for approval that you need it to come packaged with pasta?
I realize that the previous paragraph probably makes me sound like an Occupy Wall Street, anti-capitalism type, which is really not the case. My concern with this increasingly common “the gays are for/against X corporation” trope is far more basic than that: I simply resent being told I should change my shopping list every time some old C-suite dude runs his out-of-touch mouth or offers to sponsor my next parade.
All this is one of the reasons that I see the city as pointing the way to the future. We know we need to learn to do without greed, if we’re going to survive on a planet with limited resources, but perhaps we need to learn to do without ambition, too. I know it sounds boring, not to mention unrealistic, but when I look around at what the human ego has wrought of late, I’m not sure how much more ambition we can live with.
Why isn’t the most important financial threshold in the inner lives of many, rich or poor, the subjective notion of fuck-you money, the first thing to study? Why isn’t there a major UN study tracking what people consider fuck-you money? Why aren’t Nobel-winning behavioral economists designing clever experiments to tease out how we think about this quantity? It is, after all, our main subjective measure of how not-free we perceive ourselves to be.
Nobody, other than bureaucrats who fund research and economists, asks the question “how much income is needed to be happy?” We already know that talking about happiness without talking about what trade-offs we are making to pursue it is meaningless. The rest of us real people ask the question “how much wealth is required to be free of scripts that dictate what trade-offs you are allowed to make?”