To say it again: From 2010 through 2019, U.S.-based big businesses, as a group, spent more than half their net profits buying back claims to their own future profits — i.e. helping their future shareholders extract even more wealth from forthcoming corporate endeavors. More than half.
Corporate capitalism is totalitarian. By its very nature, it drives its constituent organizations and primary beneficiaries to pursue activities that, without being centrally planned, lead, in the aggregate, to increasing, increasingly effective rentier-class dictation of both the flow and the details of all three spheres of modern life (paid labor, personal life, and politics).
Marxian thought, meanwhile, barely exists any more, and, to the extent it does, remains as prone as ever to favoring arcane and/or insane mastications of “what Marx said” over investigation of new ideas and perspectives, no matter how huge and overdue and unfathomed in 1867.
In any event, the fact remains that corporate capitalism yields market totalitarianism, and this process could and should be carefully explored and explained, with an eye to transcending it.
Toward this end, TCT would like to mention this short essay in The Atlantic. Its author, Judith Shulevitz, is onto something. In its own rambling, shambling, yet exactingly micro-planned way, our prevailing social order is doing to the fabric of social life what state totalitarians did in different, cruder ways:
It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.
If you believe that Georgia Tech’s Aware Home laboratory is, was, or ever will be anything but a marketing research platform, you are — again, at best — wildly misinformed.
The corporate capitalist thirst for automated surveillance on prospective product purchasers was large and voracious way before 1998, the year in which Georgia Tech’s entrepreneurs-as-professors launched Aware Home.
Zuboff once suggested that the automation of the corporate workplace might lead to the reskilling of work and the diminution of managerial power. Now, she wants us to see market totalitarianism as a mere anomaly that we might easily regulate away.
The Baffler, as evidenced by its very title, has generally promoted the Frankfurt School’s haughtily flippant approach to issues of so-called “consumption.” The core premise of this now-classic analytic style is the hypothesis that corporate capitalism’s ever-expanding commodity galaxy has, by establishing something called “consumerism” or “consumer culture,” made us all equal and all insane.
In his hugely influential and immensely over-rated 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse set the basic terms of this particular escape from realism. Here is the core presumption of modern “consumption studies,” the foundational axiom I think of as “Marcuse’s Big If”:
If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population.
By treating this always-preposterous “if” as an established fact, the task for the would-be anti-consumerist expositor becomes not explaining how the sphere of product design and product use works, but rather pointing out how crazy people are for participating in prevailing “consumer” activities.
I mention all this because The Baffler has just published a very useful essay that goes some distance toward breaking away from Frankfurtian “consumer studies” tail-chasing. Though he still uses the word “consumer” too blithely, Alex Pereene, the essay’s author, points out that, when it comes down to it, there has been a general failure among supposed experts “to account for the social and psychological context of consumer spending.”
Pareene adds that, while everybody keeps promoting and swallowing Marcuse’s If, the reality is that ordinary people are made to “settle for LCD TVs as a new generation of robber barons shot cars into space because they couldn’t figure out what else to do with the staggering amount of money they have.”
Well said, Baffler, and may you continue to get less baffled and baffling.
Both ever-expanding data scraping and treatment of products as sales-maximizing, behavior-conditioning stimuli were elementary marketing priorities from Day One of the Marketing Era. Both pre-date, clearly and massively, the inevitable emergence of AMGAF.
Funny, then, that in this book’s 531 pages, Zuboff does not discuss big business marketing! I mean, the word “marketing” does not appear in the book’s index!
Hence, despite the many useful arguments and facts Zuboff provides in this work, the thing is a giant red herring, an effort to make hair-splitting look like brain surgery.
Big business marketing is really a rather amazing institution. The main engine of national and global culture and a plain and direct outgrowth of our socio-economic order, it is somehow so ideologically well-insulated that almost nobody can bring themselves to mention, let alone analyze, it.
As TCT has long argued, big business marketing only ever grows. Hence, unless and until we create a new social movement capable of perceiving, analyzing, and countering it, market totalitarianism will also only grow.
Consider the case of AT&T, the corporation just now releasing new services that will allow corporate advertisers to achieve, in the still hugely important activity of “linear TV” what is known in the marketing trade as “attribution.”
AT&T, of course, is a venerable corporation, dating back to the early days of the Corporate Revolution, in which, under elite lobbying pressure, U.S. states began, in the late 1880s, granting investors charters stripped of prior “grant theory” limits on conglomeration and cross-ownership.
As of 2018, AT&T was #9 in the Fortune 500, and also, according to Wikipedia, “the world’s largest media and entertainment company in terms of revenue.”
In that capacity, the bigger-than-ever behemoth is now promulgating Xandr, the private-sector espionage operation that will “provide a premium option for advertisers and publishers looking to reach specific audiences at scale in premium and brand-safe environments”: attribution.
Attribution is the ability to know, rather than merely guess, how individuals respond to advertising delivered via conventional television broadcasts. It is the computerized tracking of specific individuals’ real-world behaviors. With such capability, big business marketers gain ground on two major fronts in “Audience Targeting”:
Segmentation Use consumer insights from various trusted and secured data sources to better connect with current, lapsed or future customers. Identify particular patterns to predict future intentions and connect those individuals with the most relevant advertising.
Identity Mobile, TV and broadband customer relationships create a holistic view of consumers and their various touchpoints. By continually cleansing and normalizing IDs across channels we maintain a high-quality data set. This process provides deterministic household and device mapping with the ability to add probabilistic scoring to expand reach.