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.
Here at TCT, we occasionally bestow our widely un-coveted Golden Hicksie Award on highly deserving individuals and groups.
The GHA commemorates the late comedian Bill Hicks, who once said this:
“Here’s the deal folks: you do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story, OK? You’re another corporate fucking shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang. And if you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head, everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.”
Bill Hicks, 1961-1994
The newest GHA recipient is the one-and-only Spike Lee, who is apparently now making mega-commercials for no less a sociopathic, ecocidal, petty-bourgeois thing than the Cadillac Escalade.
Automotive News reports:
Spike Lee is slated to introduce the redesigned Cadillac Escalade during Oscars week in Hollywood next month with the premiere of his latest short film centered on the fifth generation of the Cadillac flagship.
The Oscar-winning actor, producer and director’s film — called “Anthem” — highlights the innovation of the 2021 Escalade with a filming technique that heightens the sense of motion for viewers, according to a Cadillac statement. The film will be shown at the Escalade reveal Feb. 4.
Due to its special achievements in the area of assisting TPTB with courting carmageddon, Mr. Lee’s GHA is being co-awarded by TCT and our sister site, Death by Car.
“I’m honored to be part of the next generation of the Escalade, which embodies style, luxury and prestige conveyed without pretension.”
Notwithstanding this claim, here is the main selling point for this monster, according to your friend and mine, the General Motors corporation:
Among the features the sweeping film highlights is the new Escalade’s industry-first curved OLED screen technology, which offers bold imagery, perfect blacks and the largest color range of any automotive display in production today.
For those keeping track, that’s a brag about a new-and-improved TV in the car. You know, “innovation.”
Lee, of course, has long sold his skills and reputation to corporate marketers. This newest project, though, is truly Hicksie-worthy.
Ordinary people — not even “middle class” Americans — did not spontaneously demand the material infrastructure that is, as it continues to enrich its primary beneficiaries and true designers, presently killing the human biosphere. They just did not. Acceptance and adaptation are not the same thing as invention, design, and promotion.
Nonetheless, the harebrained concept of “consumer culture” still easily addles the minds of those who claim to want to demystify and rescue the world. Consider, for instance, this august statement. Every single work cited there is a positive offense to the cause of rational explication of pertinent relationships and processes.
To say it again, here’s why: “Consumer culture,” as a concept, is irretrievably terrible at both ends.
Ordinary people are product-users, not consumers. The destruction of goods and services — “consumption” — is neither our intended purpose nor something that is in our interest. Eliding this point is eliding a huge swath of reality.
Meanwhile, saying our problem is “culture” implies that pre-existing popular desire usually draws forth capitalist planning and investment, rather than the reverse.
Although it is anathema to say so, the simple fact is that, in the making of the modern material world, right from the start of the corporate epoch, capitalist planning has consistently, easily, and probably (given the stakes and we-should-know-better-now factor) increasingly dominated popular desire.
Among greens and what passes for a left, Annie Leonard is much praised as a serious and liberating guide to the would-be politics of product use, i.e. our topic here at TCT. As has now been definitively proved by this interview with Transition Towns frontman Rob Hopkins, she is no such thing. Leonard blithely steps onto all three of the conceptual banana peels that have long stymied left/green progress in this crucial area:
1) Perpetuation of the “consumer” vocabulary
“Consumer” is a rank capitalist bias, logically akin to the word “nigger” amongst American slave-owners. The neutral, appropriate-to-democracy term is “product-user.” Any politics that misses and/or buries this point is off to a terrible start at best.
Leonard is utterly unaware of this rather simple politico-linguistic history and logic. “What I do,” she says, “is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption.”
Consumption, not product use. It’s like Frederick Douglass saying, “What I do is I work to free the niggers.”
The error, of course, compounds itself. What is the nature of our society and our product-use problem, in Leonard’s terms? “We’re in this crazy situation in our hyper consumerised society.”
Which leads to the next problem:
2) Avoidance of the c-word
Hyper-consumerised society? Not just that, but OUR hyper-consumerised society?
“Capitalism,” meanwhile appears zero times in this lengthy interview. “Capitalist” appears once, and does so with Leornard explaining why she’s upset that Glenn Beck hates her:
Glen [sic] Beck went crazy, and every day for weeks on his show, he would show a clip from The Story of Stuff and he said that I was spreading communism in schools under the guise of recycling. The thing he was particularly upset about in the film, he said it was anti-capitalist because I said we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, and he also didn’t like the part where I said “it’s the government’s job to take care of us”.
I have clarified so many times, I didn’t mean to remind us to brush our teeth and tuck us into bed at night, I meant it’s the government’s job to make sure rules are fair and products are healthy. I believe there’s a very crucially important role in government to make sure that our economy is fair and healthy.
Leonard, in other words, is a practical liberal, in C. Wright Mills’ terms. She is not willing to say capitalism is the problem, because she presumes that is something to which nobody will listen, and because she is an intellectual and political wimp. She’s quite clearly not willing to herself use the word “capitalism” in her analysis. That’s rather like Frederick Douglass steering clear of the word “slavery,” isn’t it?
Which brings us to the third problem:
3) Patrician pandering
Look again at Leonard’s head angle in the image at right above. The tilted mommy-head is a giveaway. Leonard thinks ordinary people are uninformed dolts who could only be liberated by cleverly engineered baby-talk.
In her analysis, words like “production and consumption” (which she is forced by her own liberal practicality to use as euphemisms for “capitalism”) are too hard for the masses:
What I do is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption. But making, using and throwing away stuff is a lot more accessible.
The end result? The usual. The problem, Leonard would have us see, is us, all of us, our whole culture:
Hopkins Q: What do you think this relentless treadmill of accumulation and pressure to consume and debt accumulation, what does it tell us about the deeper underlying psyche, do you think?
Leonard A: I think it tells us that something is hurting inside us as individuals, and as a society. We are tribal animals and we want to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community and a tribe. If we don’t have that through strong family ties and healthy social relations and participation in different civic activities, then we go buy that sense of belonging through a shirt that has a particular logo on it. To me, when I see people spending 50 or 100 dollars on a t-shirt that has a particular logo on it, I feel sorry for them that they feel the need to purchase that social proof or social access.
The proper answer to Hopkins’ typically ruinous question is this:
“Mr. Hopkins, you seem to be laboring under the assumption that the products we end up getting under present arrangements are called forth by the wishes and pathologies of ‘consumers,’ which you describe as ‘underlying.’ You seem to have spent rather too little time pondering the nature and logic of the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year reality of big business marketing and the underlying pattern of socio-economic inequality it exists to perpetuate. You also seem quite insensitive to the very substantial and probably growing gulf between existing public preferences and the operation of our dominant institutions and political processes. Have you considered the degree to which the corporate overclass dictates ordinary people’s product-use options and choices? Have you asked yourself what would have to change in your own thinking and efforts at movement building if you were willing to talk directly and appropriately about corporate capitalism? Obviously, you have not. Why don’t you get back to us after you have made such efforts?
“Glenn Beck is quite right: We oppose capitalism, as any sane, genuinely conservative person must. Capitalism is institutionally addicted to producing — yes, I said producing — more and more waste, which means inevitable ecological and social catastrophe. If we want decent survival on this planet, we need to overhaul our dominant social relationships and economic decision-making arrangements, and we need to start very soon. Green shopping and half-hearted consciousness-raising is not nearly enough.”