We’re living in weird times. Contemporary capitalism is nasty. And it seems like the number of winners shrinks each year, just as material inequality continues to grow. Yet opposition – albeit strong in fits and starts, here and there, now and then – doesn’t seem to get anywhere. The political process shows up the state for what it is: a capitalist-friendly state. A capitalist state. Small in number are the serious and strong political parties of the left that promise anything other than minor reforms. Opposition emerges – a brave and committed Occupy This or That, a vision of an alternative that comes in on a tide of pressure to seek out something better, but always seems to leave with nothing in hand. Still capitalism persists and its neoliberal form, so brutal and violent in its subtle ways that call for freedom for all but ultimately freedom to profit and avoid taxation, charges on.
What is going on? Why is it that we have widespread dissent amidst widening shitness, but actually-existing effective opposition gets nowhere? What’s going on depends on the place at issue. What explains Ireland, say, can’t necessarily account for the U.S., the U.K. or some other place. But yet there have to be – and there are – some general features that we can consider.
Here’s one. Look, contemporary capitalism doesn’t work for lots of us, but in its cultural reproduction (that is, in the sorts of state- or firm-sponsored cultural interventions that seek to entertain us all while also selling the goods that need to be sold to keep capital circulating) enough of us are tempted to stay on its side. And look again. That’s all it needs to do: keep just enough people on the side of the conservative trades unions, or voting for reformist rather than radical political parties; keep enough people believing in the promise of a shiny better future, such that the marches or protests of the disaffiliated don’t attract the mass support that, say, headed out to the streets when Mubarak’s regime fell (remember those scenes? That awesome sight of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egypt’s poor and oppressed cheering his downfall? Have we really, truly, seen that sort of mass anger on the streets of Europe, on the streets of Dublin?).
So how is this happening? One standout aspect is what we encounter in between the drivel (and, yes, occasional brilliance) on TV, on radio, and online. What’s in between? Things like the lottery. Sport. Commercials for perfume. Or the advertisements telling us that, if we save or spend or dream, we too can afford to buy private versions of once-publicly-owned services, such as care for our elderly parents. I’m sure you know all this already, but I’ll continue anyway.
Take the lotto. It opens up a thought somewhere in our minds, even in those who don’t ‘play’, that millions of euros might actually fall upon us one day. And one effect of this dream is that we’re then led to question how much we would want that bounty to be taxed. Wouldn’t we – like the Michael O’Leary’s or Richard Branson’s – also want to keep the bulk of it to ourselves? Doesn’t the lotto dream subtly and quietly encourage enough of us to find sympathy with the rich? Yes. The lotto dream works in contemporary capitalist society (and is therefore embraced, absolutely loved, by the capitalist state) because it breeds in enough of us some potential solidarity with the O’Leary’s and co. The same sort of high rate of tax that might hit our millions is the same rate that right-wing parties rail against. Sure, its reduction over the years has fallen on all of us wage- or salary-earners, whether identifying as ‘working’ or ‘middle’ class; but with the lotto dream there’s the possibility that those millionaires might be us one day, after all, why are so many people ‘playing’? Hence the thought, however dream-like: ‘Might that higher rate of tax that progressive discuss hit me one day?’ In this way, the lotto works by encouraging an implicit (and, for some, explicit) antipathy towards a truly progressive tax system and by extension an equitable society, capitalist or not.
Sport plays much the same role (and yes, I know, it’s also a major distraction, a way to avoid reading about what’s happening in Syria or Liberia or processes closer to home). The time when I might have dreamt of playing professional sport has passed, but now there’s my kids: ‘Might one of my sons somehow buck their genetic fate and be decent at something? Might they play for Barcelona and earn the big wages?’ What then? Am I, or enough of my parenting peers, sufficiently committed to notions of equality to support a properly progressive tax rate? Or does this dream, this slight chance, keep me open to the idea of a regressive society, even one like Ireland with a ‘best in OECD class’ progressive income tax structure (but also an easily-forgotten sales tax structure that raises two-thirds of what income taxes raise but which does so by hitting the poor and the stinking rich at the same rate)? Sport leaves the door open. Besides its success in keeping us in front of the TV for long enough that we absorb the ads on the side of the football pitch, on the shirts, or at half-time; it serves a purpose today because it offers a glimmer of a hope that we, too, might one day be the family swimming in cash. And if we are, would we really want our incomes taxed sufficiently to cover society’s needs? Would we support effective taxes on inheritance? Isn’t inequality inevitable and, well, natural and, well, acceptable?
As for ads, nothing is as striking today as the J’adore perfume advertisement with its beautiful and determined star striding into a room, grabbing dangling silk sheets, and then climbing to a higher place, to a stunning urban architecture with its soaring skyscrapers and glistening glass where only a few can take in the phallic view and appreciate the ‘success’ of consuming luxury. The future is gold. Dreamt up in agencies, tested on audiences, bought into and agreed upon by well-paid executives living lives most of us cannot imagine – although contemporary TV shows such as the Apprentice make sure we capture the odd glimpse of the spaces they occupy and the material goods and power that surrounds them – these ads tell us: you, too, can dream; the 1% is open; just reach up, aspire, ditch the past, and believe in the structures and processes that gave us our wealth. Enough of us are buying this crap, both the perfume and the dream.
But it doesn’t need to be luxury goods. In the selling of goods and services of the most basic kind – in the way they seek to attract us and insofar as the owners of (and decision-makers behind) these products believe we will buy based on how we encounter them – we also meet up with a cultural side of capitalism that stinks to the core but yet seems to give enough of us a sense that, yes, maybe this is what I really need and will want and should support.
Nothing smells so foul here as the sorts of advertisements for private home care for the elderly. Once a public good, once something we would have hoped the state would provide to us all in our old age, it is now increasingly privatized, regulated to some extent (of course? for how much longer?), but offered by firms with clever names and concluding jingles that make us dream of becoming elderly in their care – consider here the Irish radio ad for Home Instead, which ends with a jungle sung by someone who you might think will feed you your soup, brush your hair, cut your toenails, and then wipe your back-side whilst gently humming the jingle in your ear, reminding you of bygone days. We needn’t really think it all through. We needn’t dwell on the fact that the care workers will be harassed by line managers, told to get to the next house asafp, paid pittance and maybe only able to work for such low pay because the state’s stepping in with family income supplement. But in hearing these ads and in thinking through the life we (or our [grand]parents) might have without them, we are tempted (and encouraged) not only to buy their services but also to buy into, and then support, a state-market relation under contemporary capitalism that bolsters the entrepreneur, wants to see them do well, and ultimately believes in their innate right to create a market, and indeed profit. Not only: ‘Maybe Home Instead will improve our family’s quality of life.’ But also: ‘Maybe I’ll be the entrepreneur one day. Maybe I’ll find a way of delivering a once-public good. Maybe the market is a good thing.’ That these sorts of ads are played during the all-too-pervasive ‘business’ sections of radio shows, with all their celebrations of the wonders of entrepreneurship and their job-generating powers… well.
So look, through ads for such services as care for the elderly, or goods such as perfume, but also via technologies of distraction and consent such as the lotto and professional sport: contemporary capitalism creates a world in which it can survive. It sucks enough of us into a dream that the upper echelons in society – the world of business class and comfy seats and penthouse suites on a luxurious city break (hey Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, I’m looking at you) – are open to us all, just so long as we use our ultimate loyalty card, refuse to believe in any sort of alternative, and shut (the ____) up.