Springsteen’s song in 1992 was “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).”
Now, it’s 570, of course.
Why the plethora of themed channels, but the continuing wall-to-wall reliance on pablum, snoozefests, and re-runs? Why is “Spongebob Squarepants” smarter, better-written, wiser, and more relevant-to-real-life than every single new program for grown-ups?
I was recently elected to be chairman of the Independent Film And Television Alliance, and I ran on the platform of lobbying in Washington to educate the lawmakers and FCC that independent art is under assault in this country—and under a pepper, too, but that’s beside the point. Comcast won’t talk to Troma. We’ve been in business for 30 years and have 800 movies, and they won’t talk to us. If we give one of our movies to some middleman at Time Warner or whatever, then they’ll talk to them, so there’s another layer of revenue that we lose.
The limited access to the marketplace is economic blacklisting. If you’re an independent, you don’t get on TV. And in the rare instances that you do get on, you get a fraction of what that very same movie would get if it came in through Fox or Viacom.
Like every other major dimension of market totalitarianism, this one remains unacknowledged in both the mainstream media and the public utterances of the power elite.
American political leaders, being deeply indoctrinated actual or aspiring millionaires/billionaires, have long equated capitalism and democracy. In reality, capitalism places very strong limits on democracy. Basic economic policy, the allocation of government spending, transportation policy, global governance, serious restriction of wealth and income polarization (income floors and salary caps for everybody!) — all these things and more are very emphatically “off the table” in capitalist democracy, simply and consistently verboten to voting.
Yet that’s only half the story. Consider, meanwhile, what the normal operation of the system does to the very roots of egalitarian self-governance.
Few ever talk about it, but one of the cornerstones of the American way of unrestrained corporate capitalism is the intentional hamstringing, or even outright killing, of public enterprise. Think Amtrak, as compared with the SNCF and the Shinkansen.
Well, the same starvation strategy also applies to the Smithsonian Institution. As reported in this morning’s New York Times:
The new secretary has his work cut out for him. He inherits an institution that has been struggling with how to cover a $2.5 billion shortfall to pay for the maintenance of its buildings, many of which are in dire need of repair. Although the Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its $1 billion operating budget from the federal government, Congress has been pressuring the organization to raise more of its own money.
What this means is not just further intentional starvation of the Smithsonian, but also the further commercialization of whatever activities it can manage to sustain. Where do you think Congress thinks the Smithsonian will have to turn to “raise more of its own money”? It won’t come from Joe and Jane Sixpack, that’s for sure.
This story also has a special connection to those interested in the effort to expose big business marketing for what it is. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has an Archives Center. For a while, the Archives Center had money to collect actual documents and oral history interviews from those involved in planning and executing some major corporate marketing operations. That money and that program — the Center for Advertising History — expired over a decade ago, but the CAH collection nevertheless remains one of the very few places a member of the public can get a direct, comparatively unfiltered, first-hand look at the utterly coercive, dishonest, and dangerous big business marketing process.
Think the mega-corporations to whom Congress is selling the Smithsonian wouldn’t like to “lose” that little batch of stuff?
In Europe and Japan, where they have spent and do spend a fraction of what we Americans have spent and do spend on transportation, they have fantastically fast, safe, pleasurable-to-ride, energy-efficient, and generally ever-improving modern railroads. We, of course, have the intentionally starved, dilapidated national embarrassment of Amtrak, plus the fantastically expensive, wasteful, and locally and geopolitically dangerous autos-über-alles system to which the iron horse was long ago sacrificed here.
Of course, another major marker of our overclass’s extreme hostility to sane transportation priorities is the airports-and-airplanes shuffle that (kind of) fills the gaps left by our scandalous lack of modern inter-city railroads. Like the dictated-from-above cars-first arrangement it (kind of) helps to patch up, that system is not only multiply and generally inferior to the rail systems they have built in Europe and Japan, but, being based on the burning of petroleum, is also under extra-severe stress these days.
Death of the Airline Industry I knew I was in trouble when I checked in and the Northwest departure board behind the ticket desk said the 5:39PM to Minneapolis was “delayed.” That’s when you know you’re in for an evening of, at least, being lied to and fucked around. Up at the gate, they let it be known that the 5:39 would now leave at 6:08. That was cool. I had a two-hour layover in the Twin Cities for my connection to Duluth. As it happened, though, they didn’t board us until 6:00. We pushed back at 6:30, taxied out to the runway, and then sat there for another hour. About halfway through that wait, the pilot got on the PA and said they were “waiting for their numbers.” A half hour later he came back on the PA and said the plane was “over its weight limit” and we had to go back to the gate and drop some people off. Huh…? This was a small regional jet. There were 12 rows of two across, and there were a few empty seats. So, we get back to the gate and we sit there for another half hour while a technician comes on board with a clipboard and palavers with the flight crew. It’s now two hours past the original schduled departure time. So even if we left that instant, I’d miss my connection to Duluth and be stuck in the Minneapolis airport all night. As it happened, the pilot asked for 13 volunteers to get off the plane. (There was some grumbling about the obvious illogic of a plane designed with 48 seats being unable to carry 36 passengers… but let’s not even go there….) If they couldn’t get 13 volunteers, the pilot said, they’d cancel the whole flight (and then everybody would be fucked, I inferred). I got up with a bunch of other volunteers — thirteen, finally — and straggled off the plane. We hung around the gate for another hour and half waiting to get re-booked for tomorrow, and to get our gate-checked luggage back. The most amazing thing about the whole misadventure is how dim the Northwest employees acted. From the flight crew to the gate agent, nobody really seemed to know what was going on or know what they were doing. I actually don’t know if the plane ever did leave. It was still parked at the gate when I finally left the airport at 9:30. By the time I got home it was 10:00 PM. I have to get up at 3:30AM to make a 6:00AM flight tomorrow. (Sigh….)
Just received some news from a colleague at Washington State University about his research on the history of corporate capitalism’s reductionist “consumer” vocabulary.
As part of the exchange, I put this down about the NERA’s almost-forgotten “production-for-use” program:
During the mid-New Deal years, there was a very short launch of “production for use” programs, in which the government hired unemployed workers to manufacture basic goods, such as women’s dresses. This was by far the most heavily business-attacked of all New Deal programs, and was quickly shut down by the FDR authorities. There’s a short book on it by Nancy E. Rose, called Put to Work. There might be some interesting history of the “consumption” terminology in that lost facet of reality. Even if not, the fact that they called it “production for use” tells you about the connections between economic power and basic economic categories. When industry is public, you get “users.” When it’s private, the users get shrunken down to “consumers.”
[Photo: Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon, built not-for-profit in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration]
Last week, the great Jared Diamond, whose Pulitzer-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is the greatest thing since Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published an op-ed in The New York Times. Titled “What’s Your Consumption Factor?”, the piece hits one of two very big political nails right on the head:
[W]hether we get there willingly or not, we [residents of the USA] shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.
Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.
This is all very true, as far as it goes. But it only goes half-way.
What Diamond is basically saying is that, if we were to use our democracy to end the criminally insane and egregiously outdated reign of the automobile over transportation (and life in general) in the US, we could have a higher quality of life and also finally get serious about genuinely helping the world’s other people live better.
The big problem, however, is the fact that our extremely well-entrenched economic overclass is quite literally and intractably addicted to perpetuating autos-ueber-alles in America. Without the auto-industrial complex’s trillion-plus-dollars-a-year “stimulation” of a huge array of business opportunities, corporate capitalism would quickly implode into an intractable economic depression.
Meanwhile, as Diamond argues, replacing our cars with world-class railroads and towns reconstructed around rails, bikes, and human feet is not only possible and desirable. Thanks to Peak Oil, it is, as Diamond almost says directly, simply the only imaginable way forward to a decent future.
And here’s exactly where Diamond’s rock meets the still-unmentionable hard place: Both because it is certain to be managed as an urgent, profits-NOT-first public project, and because it would put an end to the vast, self-renewing flows of capitalist-friendly economic waste (and investor profit) that inhere in our existing cars-first arrangement, ending autos-ueber-alles is simply verboten as a subject of public consideration. Modern railroads and cities that favor human-muscle-powered locomotion, you see, are exactly as bad for long-term profit-making as they are healthy and vital for the welfare of ordinary Earthlings.
Hence, until we commoners learn to see the light and put our collective foot down, our economic and political overlords will continue to shove the issue of decent survival raised by Diamond down the “un-American” hole. The reason is simple and classic:
“Après moi, le déluge!” [“After me, the flood!”] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society. To outcries about physical and mental degradation, premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: “Ought these to trouble us, since they increase our profits?”
Hence, if we are to do what Jared Diamond rightly says we must, we will have to conduct one hell of a fight just to get the human future onto the public agenda. History’s richest (and, thanks to the “market” structure of capitalism itself, most deniable) ruling class, armed as it is with history’s greatest mass-sedative (TV), is simply not going to permit the choice Diamond highlights to reach the public mind.
It will only do so through our own conscious and militant insistence upon it. Of necessity, a big part of this consciousness will have to be (hold onto your hats!) class consciousness. If we don’t begin to acknowledge, emphasize, publicize, and combat corporate capitalism’s addiction to selling cars, the jaws of historic defeat will finish snapping closed.
This coming struggle is not just a fight for the world’s children and grandchildren, it is, as Diamond says, a literally necessary one. Hence, as somebody on a crashing airplane once famously said, “Let’s roll!”