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.

Welcome to the Beacosystem

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Corporate capitalism fuels an ever-expanding marketing race, which means a competitive, ever-expanding effort to study and profitably re-design off-the-job behavior.

Today’s New York Times carries an interesting story by Michael Kwet on what Kwet calls “the beacosystem.” This is the growing deployment of movement-tracking-and-recording Bluetooth beacons in retail and other spaces. The practice is known in the trade as “geomarketing.”

The means of accomplishing this immensely valuable form of behavioral monitoring is, of course, the cellular telephone. Apparently, many apps have deals to build undisclosed beacon tracking capability into their products:

The makers of many popular apps, such as those for news or weather updates, insert these toolkits into their apps. They might be paid by the beacon companies or receive other benefits, like detailed reports on their users.

And, of course, the story gets even worse. According to Kwet:

There is no easy way to determine which apps on your phone have the beacon location tracking built in. Even if you did know which companies have access to your beacon data, there’s no way to know what kind of data is collected through the app. It could be your micro-location, dwell time or foot traffic, but it can also include data from the app, such as your name, and your app data can be combined with other data sets compiled about you by data brokers. There is simply no transparency.

Games and the System

Bosch image According to Nielsen data reported by Advertising Age, in the year 2018, “live sports generated 89 of the year’s 100 largest audiences” on “live plus one” TV in the United States.

This explains why there is so much money flooding into professional and quasi-professional sports now. The inherent suspense and ease-of-understanding in live athletics is now pretty much the only thing that can get large numbers of people to watch television on advertisers’ preferred terms — meaning with low control over their own exposure to ads and in-broadcast marketing messages.

Noam Chomsky is a doubly good source for making sense of the huge meanings of this news about the evolution of big business marketing, which remains by far the main engine of American off-the-job culture, aka “free time.” First, the Herman-Chomsky model of corporate capitalist media has much to offer anybody trying to figure out the filters that affect not just news reporting, but also broadcast entertainment content. Second, Chomsky has sharp and powerful things to say about the socio-political logic of sports fanaticism.

Biden in a Nutshell

trickle-down imageHarry Braverman classically observed that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s refinement and promotion of the principles of scientific management was “nothing less than the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production.”

In a system as forceful and predictable as this one, this system-speaking happens quite often, if you listen for it.

One figure who has managed to voice the regime is none other than good ole Joseph Robinette Biden, presumptive seller of the Democratic Party brand, 2020 edition.

In a May 8 address to the Brookings Institution, Biden revealed his theory of social class:

[W]hen the middle class does well, everybody does very, very well. The wealthy do very well and the poor have some light, a chance. They look at it like maybe me, there may be a way.

So, to clarify:  When the wealthy do “very well,” the middle does “well,” and the workers get “some light, a chance.”  And this is the ideal — the way the system is, in Biden’s world, supposed to work.

This premise is exactly, precisely the disguised content of all the “middle class” talk that has always been the Democratic Party elite’s proffered reply to the Reagan Revolution.

Upon Millsian translation into plain language, this, of course, IS the core claim of the Reagan Revolution: Say’s Law, a.k.a. trickle-down economics, a.k.a. the timeless maxim of the masters of mankind, a.k.a. Douglass’s rule.

The Trump Effect

stork carrying baby One important impact of the scum-floating-to-the-top phenomenon that is the Trump Presidency is its addlepation of the political left.

Here, for example, is the meat of an email I just received from Truthout:

“We live in an age where lies can be used to justify pretty much anything: revoke a press pass, deny thousands of people asylum, change laws affecting people’s basic rights. This is somewhat ironic, considering that we live in an age of technology more sophisticated than ever before.”

The proposition here is that, with Trump’s election, we have entered an “age of lies,” with the features listed above.

This is multiply precious.

First of all, the triumph of Trump has been foreseeable, if not predictable, since at least 1987, when The Art of the Deal consolidated this megalomaniacal rentier cretin’s Reaganite fame. Certainly, the thesis that government should be run like a business has always been at the heart of the ongoing Great Restoration/Reagan Revolution.

Et voila, this knownothing TV terminator.

Meanwhile, what kind of age do Truthout‘s people think we lived in before the wonderful Electoral College seated this mentally ill, proudly ignorant election-loser?

Here at TCT, we have always been impressed with the power of this observation by the late Robert L. Heilbroner:

“At a business forum, I was once brash enough to say that I thought the main cultural impact of television advertising was to teach children that grown-ups told lies for money. How strong, deep, or sustaining can be the values of a civilization that generates a ceaseless flow of half-truths and careful deceptions?”

Heilbroner said that in 1976.

Finally, how cute is it that Truthout supposes that modern technology somehow supports, rather than clashes with, truth-telling? Has the climate for realism and democracy ever suffered a more fateful blow than the one struck by the continuing ascendancy of electronic audio-video machines? That a lefty operation with “truth” in its name can possibly miss the deep importance of the old tech of print literacy and direct human conversation is, I fear, a true sign of the times — times which did not begin in November of 2016.

Internet of Spying Things

eyeball Not surprisingly, it turns out that “smart home” stuff is just another advance in the techniques of big business marketing/corporate capitalist totalitarianism.

Gizmodo has a fascinating report on this topic. In it, a journalist and a computer whiz figured out how to spy on the “smart home” spies. By building a special router, the computer whiz arranged to port to himself a copy of the outgoing behavioral data sent from the journalist’s “smart home” back to the journalist’s ISP (and associated big business data harvesters). Here is what the computer whiz found:

I had the same view of Kashmir’s house that her Internet Service Provider (ISP) has. After Congress voted last year to allow ISPs to spy on and sell their customers’ internet usage data, we were all warned that the ISPs could now sell our browsing activity, or records of what we do on our computers and smartphones. But in fact, they have access to more than that. If you have any smart devices in your home—a TV that connects to the internet, an Echo, a Withings scale—your ISP can see and sell information about that activity too. With my “iotea” router I was seeing what information about Kashmir and her family that Comcast, her ISP, could monitor and sell.

There was a lot to see. Since the router was set up at the beginning of December, there hasn’t been a single hour of complete silence from it, even when there was no one in the house.

Of course, given how we have allowed our media ecology to be devoured by corporate entities and interests, the masses are never going to get adequate, coherent information about this mind-blowing Orwellianism and its obvious connection to TPTB in our flailing, catastrophe-courting society and world. Nonetheless, have a read, TCT folks. It’s what’s happening, behind the curtain.