Junk Sociology from MIT

image of junk on conveyor belt

Dangerously lazy thinking pervades what passes for green politics. Consider the stunning fact that activists leaping straight from worry for their children to “doing something” are about to kill off Portland, Oregon’s lone glass recycling facility, thereby ensuring that whatever glass continues to get used there will be trucked or railroaded to far-off plants. All because the leaders in involved can’t be troubled to think beyond their first reactions.

As TCT readers will know, we here have long tried to convince people that one important taproot of such pratfalling is the continuing replication of stories about “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”

A recent major interation of this awful trope comes courtesy of no less august an entity than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In “A Brief History of Consumer Culture,” Kerryn Higgs advances the hypothesis that “[o]ver the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff.”

There are many things to be said about the dense skein of errors in this little essay.

One point, however, seems most important: Higgs provides no empirical evidence to substantiate her interpretation.

Are ordinary people heedless greed monsters? That’s a rather gigantic claim. Higgs says it is true, and expects us to agree. But she provides not an iota of support for the assertion. No pertinent data of any kind.

And what of capitalism, the force Higgs says unleashed our inner greed monster. How did/does that happen? Higgs refers to various tertiary speculations, yet fails to a single word about the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year branch of big business behavior-management known as “marketing.” Literally, she doesn’t so much as mention it.

This, in a book from MIT, printed in the year 2016.

The upshot of the whole familiar mess is, as always, the rather conventional message that, marketing and corporate power notwithstanding, we have met the enemy is it is us, all of us, co-equally.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Can You Think of Anybody Else?

“They can’t treat our pledges like that.”

Tonight on “60 Minutes,” they are running a piece featuring rightist complaints about TikTok.

Here’s the complaint:

Klon Kitchen: Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and you saw a news report that China had distributed 100 million sensors around the United States, and that any time an American walked past one of these sensor, this sensor automatically collected off of your phone your name, your home address, your personal network, who you’re friends with, your online viewing habits and a whole host of other pieces of information. Well, that’s precisely what TikTok is. It has 100 million U.S. users, it collects all of that information.

And more, like many U.S. social media companies, TikTok asks users for access to their cameras, microphones, photos, videos, and contacts. More obscure data, like “keystroke patterns,” are collected from everyone using the app.

Bill Whitaker: Keystrokes? What does that tell them?

Kara Frederick: The patterns and the rhythms of the way that you strike the keyboard, it can basically say, “This device belongs to this user.” And you can do a lot with that if you are a foreign government. It’s very, very invasive.

Gee, can we think of any other entities that do all that? If you change “China” to “big businesses,” “TikTok” to “corporate marketing,” and “foreign government” to “corporate planner,” nothing else in this complaint changes.

Not, of course, that CBS mentions this screamingly obvious fact.

The other unasked question is who are TikTok’s customers? The answer, again, is the same as it would be for the Columbia Broadcasting Service: big business marketers looking for access to eyeballs and eardrums.

As for China, the obvious question is what a Communist Party of the sort being conjured by clucking American conservatives would ever do with a warehouse full of data about American teenagers. If you can think of any plausible military or ideological use, let me know, because I can’t.

The truth there is what sociologist John Lie says it is: “the Chinese miracle has progressed along the same track as other miracle economies in post-World War II Northeast Asia.” As a result, its elite wants TikTok’s data flows not for politics but for the self-same reason our overclass (or that in Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan) does. It wants to keep selling people doodads, and desperately needs to figure out how to do that.

A Consumer Economy?

Richard Heinberg is a very important scholar and an apparently lovely human being. His books are always penetrating, and both his contribution to and his review of Michael Moore’s corporate-green-censored movie, Planet of the Humans, demonstrate his continuing efforts to speak crucially unheard truths.

self censored image

So, here at TCT, we have to ask: Mr. Heinberg, what’s up with this?:

We have built our national and global economic systems on the expectation of always using more. A successful energy transition will necessarily entail moving away from a growth-based consumer economy to an entirely different way of organizing investment, production, consumption, and employment.

A “consumer economy”? Really? Your analysis is that “consumers,” the aggregated acquirers and users of goods and services, are in charge of “our” economy?

This, of course, is a hypothesis, not an indisputable fact. Its natural and obvious rival is the assertion that we actually live in a “capitalist economy,” i.e., a productive-and-distributional order in which money-investors, not product-users, tend to dominate the course of events.

It remains fascinating (and disheartening) to see even courageous and insightful figures like Richard Heinberg continue to opt for the “consumer economy” framing of reality.

Anybody who does this does, ipso facto, two rather remarkable things:

  1. They radically de-emphasize capitalists and capitalism as causal factors. Indeed, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that “consumer culture/economy/society” theorists more or less adopt the quasi-official capitalist view of reality. Capitalists, after all, have always claimed that, notwithstanding both their own command of strategic assets and their multi-trillion-dollar-a-year marketing endeavors, they are mere servants of pre-existing, independently-arising “consumer demand.” Talking about a “consumer culture/economy/society” all but concedes this extremely self-serving and debatable claim.
  2. They ignore the long, if not very well-known, body of thought on the various ways in which “our” capitalist economy does not, in fact, embody and serve the basic interests of product users. Names like Thorstein Veblen (whose most-read [only-read?] work is his first and by far worst one), Vance Packard, Baran and Sweezy, Marvin Harris, and Giles Slade? In the “consumer culture/economy/society” frame, such seminal iconoclastic thinkers are all flushed away, as is the crucial question of how their works might be extended and refined.

My own guess is that, by choosing “consumer” over “capitalist,” well-meaning and important thinkers like Richard Heinberg somehow imagine they are making their ideas more palatable to a wider audience, on the thesis that talking about capitalism is just too radical.

But reality is reality, no matter how fearful of describing it we’ve all been trained to be. And we aren’t likely to sweet-talk our way around human history’s richest and most deniable power structure. Either we start talking about the Emperor and His Old/New Clothes, or we don’t.

“Consumer economy” is a way of doing the latter.

Goodbye Keystone?

rock arch photo

Televised sports is, as Chomsky always says, an especially important institution in our corporate capitalist, market totalitarian order. Not only does it attract large numbers of eyeballs and eardrums, but it absorbs crucial amounts of intellectual and emotional energy that might otherwise flow in dangerous directions.

Hence, TPTB are starting to get pretty antsy about what COVID-19 means for such a socially crucial activity, which relies on lots of personal physical interaction.

In today’s New York Times, none other than Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has Mr. O.J. Simpson to thank for his own rank and revenue, voices this concern:

“I don’t think we are going to see huge arenas full of people for a long time,” [Garcetti] said in a telephone interview. “I do think you can have games without audiences. We watch much of our sports through television. I think you can create some bubbles. We are hungry for it. It’s a necessary step to build our confidence.” [emphasis added]

Whether or not TPTB can work out a product that doesn’t implode and can attract eyeballs and eardrums might very well prove to be one of the major determinants of the fate of the overclass effort to restore “normalcy.”

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.

COVID Reaction: The Triumph of Ethics

Lots of folks have been wondering if the COVID-19 pandemic carries any legitimately hopeful meanings. Here at TCT, we think there’s at least one, and that it’s a doozy. Permit us to explain.

In his classic (though admittedly pretty hard-to-read) book, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi argued that, despite official doctrine, no sane person really believes that human beings and natural objects are actually commodities, actually things that can be bought and sold, up to infinifty or down to zero, without regard to underlying physical and ethical realities.

Under certain conditions, Polanyi argued, certain groups of people can get away with pretending that land and labor really are merely salable things. But not always and not forever. When things get over- or under-heated, as they inevitably do, capitalist theory falls away, as people sense the truth of what Polanyi called, on page 76 of The Great Tranformation, “the commodity fiction”:

Now, one of Polanyi’s main subordinate hypotheses was that, despite the efforts of TPTB, society — meaning the democratic majority — would often be forced to defend itself against the commodity fiction by creating “welfare” policies based on the reality that land, labor, and money are not, in fact, infinitely salable quanta, but rather precious, ethically primary, qualitative realities of their own.

With this in mind, TCT would like to suggest that social distancing is, among many other things, a very major proof of the Polanyian “self-protection of society.”

As the most hardcore and/or naive capitalists among us are trying to point out, we could quite easily go back to letting the commodity fiction organize our everyday affairs. Doing so would undoubtedly be very good for capitalism.

But we are instead doing something else, aren’t we?

Why is that?

It is because we are choosing human life and human ethics over market valuations.

Just as Karl Polanyi predicted we would.

And, the news might be even better than this. We seem to be doing this astounding thing with little serious resistance. This may speak to the gradual improvement of our culture, in Polanyian and later culture-war terms.

We are voting with our feet, marching in the direction of the basic pragmatic point that, ultimately, in the real world, economic “markets,” as some have said, can be great servants, but are always, at the end of the day, terrible masters.

A big question now is whether we will somehow become aware of what we are, in fact, doing, and then use our new level of self-clarity to keeping stepping toward the other kinds of self-defenses we pretty obviously need to enact against our other impending realities, which promise to make COVID-19 look like, ahem, a tea party.