The Coming Onslaught

Julio Vincent Gambuto is the source of today’s re-post. This is righteous stuff, and as solid as a prediction of the human future can be:

And so the onslaught is coming. Get ready, my friends. What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again.

Pretty soon, as the country begins to figure out how we “open back up” and move forward, very powerful forces will try to convince us all to get back to normal. That never happened. What are you talking about? Billions of dollars will be spent in advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make you feel comfortable again. It will come in the traditional forms — a billboard here, a hundred commercials there — and in new-media forms — a 2020–2021 generation of memes to remind you that what you want again is normalcy.

Here at TCT, we think there are 3 interesting questions about this impending typhoon of normalcy marketing:

  1. Will the overclass commence selling normalcy (they’re already promising it, of course) too soon, sending the underlying population “back to work” (note that work here includes the actions of attending and reacting to normalcy marketing campaigns) before there is a viable basis for keeping the COVID19 pathogen from again threatening a mass culling of our huge medically vulnerable and genetically unlucky populations? Or will they somehow repress their base urge enough to wait for genuine safety? A premature “back to normal” effort might truly unmask TBTP and BAU. It remains to be seen if TPTB can recognize this.
  2. Will corporate capitalism — the overall environment for conducting big business — manage to re-inflate itself back to economic normalcy? Many pundits are opining that this is now impossible. Here at TCT, we lean toward thinking a post-COVID boom is actually pretty likely, if not necessarily extremely near. Corporate capitalism is very resilient, and, as thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter, Baran and Sweezy, and Naomi Klein have argued, it thrives on certain kinds of waste and destruction.
  3. Will there be any coherent push-back to whatever re-inflation efforts emerge? The delusionary nature of libertarian and supply-side dogma is about as obvious as it’ll ever be. Marxian and Keynesian rescues are pretty much the only game in town, as some have said all along, and as the headlines now show. But will this almost-admission of reality somehow trigger a viable campaign to finally end the bipartisan Thatcher-Reagan Consensus, which has always revolved around the core claim that society only improves when the already-rich get their hands on even more of society’s disposable wealth? It is possible to have hope. Here at TCT, we tend to worry that our corporate-pwned media ecology and our atomizing, automobile-centered infrastucture for everyday life render such a thing very unlikely.

The Actual Use of Corporate Capital

Any guesses what this graphic depicts?:

That is the percentage of free cash flow the firms included in the S&P 500 Index spent across the 2010s buying back their own shares, according to Bloomberg Business Week.

This is not an error or an optical illusion.

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.

Compare this fact to your Adam Smith model, pro-capitalist friends.

Life Under Market Totalitarianism

cartoon of consumer trap

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).

This was one of the main points made in The Consumer Trap book, published way back in 2003.

Both that book and the point about market totalitarianism have gone over like a lead balloon, of course.

Sociology, the incubator and natural home to such ideas, remains generally dominated by pseudo-empiricism and specifically — on the subject of power and personal life — intoxicated with its “consumption studies” snipe hunt.

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.

Oh, Shoshana

Shoshana Zuboff contends that surveillance capitalism is “a rogue mutation of capitalism.”

In order to make this argument, Zuboff defines Georgia Tech’s Aware Home Research Initiative as the product of a bygone era when researchers pursued things like this “exclusively” for “the people that live in the house.”

This is, at best, malarkey.

The Aware Home Research Initiative was founded with a grant from the Georgia Research Alliance. Here is a list of the leading sponsors of that organization.

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.

Veritas?

Progress at The Baffler

snake image 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.”

Bingo.

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.