Social Construction & Ideological Abstraction

The following passages from two books help to explain what is social construction. As society has headed in a particular direction of development, abstract thought has become increasingly dominant.

But for us modern people who take abstractions for granted, we often don’t even recognize abstractions for what they are. Many abstractions simply become reality as we know it. They are ‘looped’ into existence, as race realism, capitalist realism, etc.

Ideological abstractions become so pervasive and systemic that we lose the capacity to think outside of them. They form our reality tunnel.

This wasn’t always so. Humans used to conceive of and hence perceive the world far differently. And this shaped their sense of identity, which is hard for us to imagine.

* * *

Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity:
A Unified Approach

by Elisa J. Sobo
Kindle Locations 94-104)

Until now, many biocultural anthropologists have focused mainly on the ‘bio’ half of the equation, using ‘biocultural’ generically, like biology, to refer to genetic, anatomical, physiological, and related features of the human body that vary across cultural groups. The number of scholars with a more sophisticated approach is on the upswing, but they often write only for super-educated expert audiences. Accordingly, although introductory biocultural anthropology texts make some attempt to acknowledge the role of culture, most still treat culture as an external variable— as an add-on to an essentially biological system. Most fail to present a model of biocultural diversity that gives adequate weight to the cultural side of things.

Note that I said most, not all: happily, things are changing. A movement is afoot to take anthropology’s claim of holism more seriously by doing more to connect— or reconnect— perspectives from both sides of the fence. Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world. Today, the leading edge of science recognizes the links and interdependencies that such thinking keeps falsely hidden.

Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy
by Justin E. H. Smith

pp. 9-10

The connection to the problem of race should be obvious: kinds of people are to no small extent administered into being, brought into existence through record keeping, census taking, and, indeed, bills of sale. A census form asks whether a citizen is “white,” and the possibility of answering this question affirmatively helps to bring into being a subkind of the human species that is by no means simply there and given, ready to be picked out, prior to the emergence of social practices such as the census. Censuses, in part, bring white people into existence, but once they are in existence they easily come to appear as if they had been there all along. This is in part what Hacking means by “looping”: human kinds, in contrast with properly natural kinds such as helium or water, come to be what they are in large part as a result of the human act of identifying them as this or that. Two millennia ago no one thought of themselves as neurotic, or straight, or white, and nothing has changed in human biology in the meantime that could explain how these categories came into being on their own. This is not to say that no one is melancholic, neurotic, straight, white, and so on, but only that how that person got to be that way cannot be accounted for in the same way as, say, how birds evolved the ability to fly, or how iron oxidizes.

In some cases, such as the diagnosis of mental illness, kinds of people are looped into existence out of a desire, successful or not, to help them. Racial categories seem to have been looped into existence, by contrast, for the facilitation of the systematic exploitation of certain groups of people by others. Again, the categories facilitate the exploitation in large part because of the way moral status flows from legal status. Why can the one man be enslaved, and the other not? Because the one belongs to the natural-seeming kind of people that is suitable for enslavement. This reasoning is tautological from the outside, yet self-evident from within. Edward Long, as we have seen, provides a vivid illustration of it in his defense of plantation labor in Jamaica. But again, categories cannot be made to stick on the slightest whim of their would-be coiner. They must build upon habits of thinking that are already somewhat in place. And this is where the history of natural science becomes crucial for understanding the history of modern racial thinking, for the latter built directly upon innovations in the former. Modern racial thinking could not have taken the form it did if it had not been able to piggyback, so to speak, on conceptual innovations in the way science was beginning to approach the diversity of the natural world, and in particular of the living world.

This much ought to be obvious: racial thinking could not have been biologized if there were no emerging science of biology. It may be worthwhile to dwell on this obvious point, however, and to see what more unexpected insights might be drawn out of it. What might not be so obvious, or what seems to be ever in need of renewed pointing out, is a point that ought to be of importance for our understanding of the differing, yet ideally parallel, scope and aims of the natural and social sciences: the emergence of racial categories, of categories of kinds of humans, may in large part be understood as an overextension of the project of biological classification that was proving so successful in the same period. We might go further, and suggest that all of the subsequent kinds of people that would emerge over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the kinds of central interest to Foucault and Hacking, amount to a further reaching still, an unprecedented, peculiarly modern ambition to make sense of the slightest variations within the human species as if these were themselves species differentia. Thus for example Foucault’s well-known argument that until the nineteenth century there was no such thing as “the homosexual,” but only people whose desires could impel them to do various things at various times. But the last two centuries have witnessed a proliferation of purportedly natural kinds of humans, a typology of “extroverts,” “depressives,” and so on, whose objects are generally spoken of as if on an ontological par with elephants and slime molds. Things were not always this way. In fact, as we will see, they were not yet this way throughout much of the early part of the period we call “modern.”

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Mark Fisher’s Suicide

Mark Fisher died earlier this year. I didn’t even know about it. He wasn’t much older than me. But similarly he suffered from severe depression, having struggled with it for a long time. That is what finally got him, by way of suicide. He was an interesting writer and no doubt his depression gave an edge to his way of thinking and communicating.

His book on capitalist realism was insightful and brought difficult ideas down to ground level. He had a talent for explanation, connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar. His descriptions of capitalism in some ways fits in with Corey Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind, but with his own twist. Here is Fisher from Capitalist Realism:

“When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”

I always appreciate writers who can connect intellectual ideas to pop culture examples. It’s one thing to call something reactionary but it’s a whole other thing to offer a clear image of what that means. That which is reactionary is also dynamically creative in that it can take in anything — not just co-opt but absorb, assimilate, and transform anything and everything it touches (or that touches it). Portraying capitalism as the Thing makes it more real within the imagination.

I just bought his latest book that also just came out this year in the US. I’ll have to prioritize reading it before all else.

In Memoriam: Mark Fisher
by Dan Hassler-Forest, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Mark Bould, Roger Luckhurst, Carl Freedman, Jeremy Gilbert

Mark Fisher’s K-punk blogs were required reading for a generation
by Simon Reynolds

Remembering Mark Fisher
by David Stubbs

“just a means to that end”

Dirty Jobs and Macro Questions
by Patrick Watson, Mauldin Economics

“Serving others is always honorable work. Every major religion teaches this. If the work itself is honorable, why don’t we honor those who do it?”

That sounds nice. The only problem is it’s total bullshit. I doubt he wants an honest answer to his question.

Our society does not value serving others and never has. If you are working some crap job serving others, our society makes it very clear that you are a loser in the game of capitalism and Social Darwinism. This is supposedly a meritocracy and so those on the bottom of society are assumed to be those without merit. That is the entire justification for our society, the story we have to believe in to maintain the social order.

“Answer: Because we would rather spend our money in other ways. When we consumers take our demand signals elsewhere, the market efficiently reduces restaurant wages to match what we’ll pay. It’s the invisible hand at work.”

There is no invisible hand, as if divine intervention were determining the Elect. No more than there is a Santa Claus. If there is a hand manipulating the system, it is most definitely visible and all too human. Get up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and I guarantee you’ll see that it isn’t Santa who is stuffing money into the pockets of the plutocrats.

We don’t have a free market, as is obvious to anyone who pays attention. What we have is a corporatist system where big government colludes with and to some degree is controlled by big business. Some go so far as to call it inverted totalitarianism.

“Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers.

“The robots are just a means to that end.”

Yeah, well…

The feudal rights of the commons didn’t disappear because greedy aristocrats privatized and enclosed land by having replaced serfs with slaves. Plantations turned to slaves because consumers wanted lower prices than could be achieved with free citizens.

The slaves are just a means to that end.

Okay. So, I guess that means everything is perfectly fine and morally justified. Quit your complaining. It’s the invisible hand responding to market forces that stole your job. It’s no one’s fault that, as surplus labor, you are now a worthless human and a useless eater. Progress marches on, with or without you.

This attitude is strange. It’s a fatalism built on capitalist realism, which is no better than communist realism. The attitude is that we are helpless before forces greater than us. All we can hope to do is adapt to the inevitable. But if failing that, then we better get out of the way or else get run over as we deserve.

Oddly, after all the clueless blather, the author almost comes to a decent conclusion.

“I think our twisted ideas about money, work, and education are the real problems. They’re distorting supply and demand. The root causes aren’t so much economic as cultural and psychological.”

Sort of. The problem is that people like this author hold such ideas and will defend them, no matter the costs. He isn’t suggesting we fundamentally change our thinking, just maybe tinker a bit around the edges.

Otherwise, the system itself is just fine. The real problem is the people, which is to say all those poor people complaining. Sure, the root causes are cultural and psychological. I’d add that indeed they are also economic, as all of it is inseparable. Improving the bad attitudes of poor people isn’t going to solve the systemic failure.

“This year’s US election, contentious though it was, brought important issues to the surface. Ditto events around the world, like Brexit. The economy isn’t working like we think it should. People are tired of asking questions and getting no good answers.”

That is to put it lightly. Important issues were brought to the surface, in the way that magma is brought to the surface when a volcano erupts. Just wait until that volcano really blows its top, turns the sky black with smoke, blocks out the sun, covers the land in ash, and sends the population fleeing in all directions. Then questions and answers will be moot.

“I don’t have all the answers. I suspect no one person does. But the answers are out there, and we won’t find them unless we look for them.”

At least, he is admitting this much. After writing all that, he states he doesn’t actually have all the answers. Yet, as an economic analyst writing for a investment newsletter, it’s his job to have answers or else pretend he has answers. He belongs to the upper class intellectual elite who are supposed to be telling the rest of us losers what we should be doing.

“That awkward, uncomfortable search will be the global macro story in 2017 and probably beyond.”

Well, it will surely be continuing into the coming generations, assuming mass catastrophe and collapse doesn’t happen before then. What is up ahead on the road might not be a pothole to easily drive around. That very well might be a sinkhole that could swallow us whole. Society continues to move forward. Some think this means progress. But what are we moving towards?

Maybe we should slow down a bit and get our bearings.

Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.

 

Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.

Capitalism as Social Control

Some people have talked about actual functioning communism. It was the understanding that we have to deal with what we have, rather than what we wish we had.

Soviet communism, for example, had nothing to do with what Marx wrote about. Nonetheless, Marx was irrelevant for someone living in the USSR. Someone could point to non-authoritarian examples of socialism and other left-wing politics, but that was besides the point. The Soviet citizen had to deal with the reality before them.

That is the situation we find ourselves right now with capitalism. Despite all the rhetoric, actual functioning capitalism doesn’t operate according to theory and ideal. It relates to what some have come to call capitalist realism—this is the belief that no matter how bad it is there is nothing better, that in some basic sense this is as good as it can get, and even that it is inevitable. Capitalism, in this view, is merely human nature. It’s pure cynicism and it shuts down imagination.

This is why it is all the more important to look at a social system for what it is. And, indeed, capitalism is first and foremost a social system. Economic ideology is window dressing.

This was made clear to me by recent data I was looking at.

There is one report from the UN. It looked major industries and specific externalized costs related to the environment. It was determined that many of these major industries either broke even or made a net loss. It was only because of externalization that they made any profit at all. To consider how massive is that externalization, all you have to is look at how wealthy and powerful are the corporations in these industries.

Those costs still are paid. Just not by the big biz. They are paid for by governments through subsidies, tax breaks, below market price resource extraction, public clean up of environmental destruction, etc. This is to say that all of this is paid for by the public taxpayer and by public natural resources.

Neoliberalism and corporatism also comes with many other costs that are harder to calculate: destruction of communities, loss of social capital, destruction of culture of trust, and similar things. Actual functioning capitalism puts immense pressure on every aspect of society. And it is very much personal. The biggest producer of pollution is big biz. That pollution is responsible for 40% of the deaths in the world. Not just deaths, but also shortened lives, disability, suffering, and healthcare costs.

The UN report was rather limited. It only took into account a few easily measured externalizations. They barely got at the reality of the situation which is much starker.

As a more specific example, consider Walmart. It has received a lot of attention and so its impact has been studied thoroughly. Walmart is the single largest employer in the United States. Their employees are the single largest group of welfare recipients in the country. And Walmart itself is the single largest beneficiary of the use of welfare such as food stamps. Walmart is the ultimate Welfare Queen.

It’s worse than only that. When a Walmart comes to a community, it is a net loss to the local economy. It forces out most of the local businesses. This leads to the death of downtowns which were the hearts of these communities. Walmart stores also decrease the number of employed, which is to say they either force more people into unemployment or to move out of town to look for work. For those who still are employed, Walmart drives down wages and so increases poverty even among the employed, which necessitates higher rates of welfare.

It occurred to me that Walmart isn’t being run as a normal for-profit business. It’s sole role is to externalize costs and redirect wealth upward while keeping the masses just barely comfortable enough with cheap food and cheap consumer crap, similar to the Roman plutocratic tactic of social control through bread and circus. But the only reason the masses need all that cheap stuff is because corporations like Walmart have put so many people into poverty. Their communities destroyed and their lives made desperate, consumerism becomes the new religion and Walmart the official state church.

As such, Walmart is the perfect expression of actual functioning capitalism, in the United States and increasingly around the world. But Walmart is far from alone. The UN report shows that many major industries aren’t being run like normal for-profit businesses, considering they aren’t really making profits when externalized costs are included. Capitalism is simply another name for corporatism. The reality has nothing to do with the rhetoric about competitive free markets.

Like the political system, the economic system is rigged. It’s social control by another means.

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

I’m always fascinated and frustrated about the relationship of ideology to ‘realism. There are all kinds of ways for realism to manifest: race realism, communist realism, capitalist realism, religious realism, etc. But all of them share the same basic mentality.

The realism I’ve been most focused on lately is capitalist realism. But in our society it goes hand in hand with race realism. The two then give birth to a third realism: Social Darwinism.

Realism as an ideology forms a reality tunnel that declares nothing else is possible. This isn’t a passive lack of insight and vision. Rather, it is an active occluding of perception and an active suppression of alternatives. Realism taken to its extreme becomes dominant over all else.

In capitalist realism, scarcity is a central tenet of faith, the wall of ‘reality’ beyond which we don’t speak of, beyond which we don’t even know how to speak of. But if you step back for a moment you can see how much scarcity is self-imposed and so artificial.

Diamonds are a famous example as one company controls almost all the mines in the world and you know they are using some devious means to maintain that control. A less well known example is how the US Fed used hard money policies to suppress wages. Another less well known example is how Reagan used an artificially created Starve the Beast strategy by unnecessarily creating a permanent Federal debt.

This scarcity never applies to the rich. It is always the rich who are forcing scarcity onto the public. And it is the media and politicians owned by the rich who spread the scarcity message.

We live in the wealthiest country in the world. We have enough money to house, feed, educate and give healthcare to every American citizen. But our government chooses not to do so. Instead, the plutocrats choose corporate subsidies and the building of a military-prison-industrial complex.

A different kind of realism exists in China and another in North Korea. Those are more obviously oppressive, but in the big picture the US-style realism is more oppressive across the globe. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which ideological realism you choose. Oppression is oppression is oppression.

All forms of ideological realism have their preferred scarcity for that is just the other side of concentrated power. Behind any ideological realism, concentrated power will be found. Scarcity of all other things is determined by the scarcity of power, i.e., the hording of power.

The ultimate scarcity, though, that this leads to is a scarcity of freedom and imagination, the disempowerment of mind. To imagine other possibilities is to that extent to make yourself free. It is the force of vision that is behind any genuine claim to freedom. There is no greater revolutionary act.

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Corey Robin, as usual, writes an insightful post. He explores neoliberalism, the dream and the reality:

“In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

“The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.”

The complexity of modern life, especially modern American life, is no accident. It is an intentional component, maybe even a cornerstone to the entire project that we are all living in. It is the dream of capitalists and plutocrats, of libertarians and conservatives, of Republicans and more than a few of Democrats. But I would point out that this neoliberal vision is a liberal scheme (a distorted and depraved liberalism, but liberalism nonetheless) and some self-identified liberals are on board with it or have submitted to it in compromise of dreaming small dreams. Many liberals, however, are increasingly waking up from the dream, some conservatives as well. But radical liberals and left-wingers have been awake for quite a while now.

I maybe first came across a good explanation of this issue in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

But it isn’t just neoliberalism for the monster has another head, neoconservatism (Fisher, pp. 60-1):

“In her essay ‘American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization’, Brown unpicked the alliance between neoconservatism and neoliberalism which constituted the American version of capitalist realism up until 2008. Brown shows that neoliberalism and neoconservatism operated from premises which are not only inconsistent, but directly contradictory. ‘How’, Brown asks,

“does a rationality that is expressly amoral at the level of both ends and means (neoliberalism) intersect with one that is expressly moral and regulatory (neoconservatism)? How does a project that empties the world of meaning, that cheapens and deracinates life and openly exploits desire, intersect one centered on fixing and enforcing meanings, conserving certain ways of life, and repressing and regulating desire? How does support for governance modeled on the firm and a normative social fabric of self-interest marry or jostle against support for governance modeled on church authority and a normative social fabric of self-sacrifice and long-term filial loyalty, the very fabric shredded by unbridled capitalism?”

“But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

Between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the dominant worldview becomes an all-consuming vision. It preoccupies our media and our politics, our minds and our time. It defines our possibilites and choices, often giving us a forced choice and denying all else. As long as one thinks within the rules of this game, one can’t win for the entire worldview is a trap and its only purpose is to perpetuate its own social order, its own power and authority, to subsume all of reality into its narrative (Fisher, pp. 16-17):

“Needless to say, what counts as ‘realistic’, what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly , neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, and the current political-economic landscape (with unions in abeyance, utilities and railways denationalized) could scarcely have been imagined in 1975. Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic. ‘Modernization’, Badiou bitterly observes, ‘is the name for a strict and servile definition of the possible. These ‘reforms’ invariably aim at making impossible what used to be practicable (for the largest number), and making profitable (for the dominant oligarchy) what did not used to be so’.”

Corey Robin, from the same post linked above, offers a common critique from the left which brings the issue down to the human level:

“In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

“What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.”

This reminds me of two things.

First, I’ve often doubted the claim that the free market just gives people what they want. With PR, as with propaganda, the so-called ‘free’ market more often tells people what they want (and I would add punishes those who would seek something else). Actually, it goes further still. Through commercialized indoctrination of a corporate media that is society-wide infiltrates every nook and cranny of our lives, the capitalist worldview shapes our desires and fears from a very young age. The more fundamental wants and needs that are inherent to human nature continue to exist. No amount of PR can destroy that fundamental level of reality, but it can obscure it and misdirect our attention.

Second, what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Corporations are part of the structure of capitalism, but they are merely the outward form of the deeper social order. They express that deeper order. They are the results of it, not the cause.

This directly relates to issues of structural racism, specifically in terms of the New Jim Crow. Our prison-industrial complex isn’t just a system of social control. It is also a system of privatized for-profit companies. The connection of those two isn’t accidental, no more accidental than the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. It is a system designed to be unequal and to continually reinforce that inequality. It isn’t a byproduct of the system. It is the modus operandi.

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism each form a bar of the Iron Cage. Together, they imprison our minds and bodies, our individualities, our families, our communities. But it is a prison of our own making. It exists because we believe in it. It demands our belief and we acquiesce. But what if we lost our faith in this system, not just partly or temporarily? What if looked beyond the bars and saw that a whole other world existed, a better world full of promise?

Since Nelson Mandela is on everyone’s mind, I’ll end with words by him that contain a moral force that is the antidote we need. There is no quibbling in his naked demand for justice:

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

“While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

Antidote to Capitalist Realism

What to Say When They Say It’s Impossible

Here are ten smart responses you can use when people tell you
there’s no alternative to the capitalism that’s cooking the planet.
posted Jun 13, 2013
Raining exclamation points
Photos from Lana N/Shutterstock and Yes! Magazine

Those committed to building a more just future must question the taken-for-

granted “truths” that support the beliefs that capitalism is the only common-

sense possibility and that there is no alternative. We can’t leave this task to

the pages of peer-reviewed journals and classrooms of social theory—these

conversations can start with family and friends but must spread until we

create a new common sense. Here are conversation starters to address

some standard defenses of the status quo.

1. Alternatives could never work.

Does capitalism “work”? Even by its own indicators, as we’ve become

more capitalist—deregulating finance and promoting “free trade”—

economic growth and productivity have actually declined. Capitalism

does work for accumulating wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Is that what we want, or do we want a system that works for all?

2. Today’s globalized world is too complex to organize things any differently.

Of course the world is complex. But some things are also quite simple

—we live in a world where 1 billion people go hungry while we dump

half of all food produced. The gift of today is that we have the ability to

reflect and draw upon many forms, past and present, of non-capitalist

social organization, and to creatively experiment with blending the

best of these possibilities.

3. It’s either the system we have, or it’s no progress at all.

Doing away with capitalism doesn’t mean resorting to primitivism,

denying the poor their right to development, or abandoning all of our

washing machines. There are limits to the Earth’s resources, but we

can organize a productive, equitable, and sustainable social order that

includes many of the comforts of modern life and the benefits of technol-

ogy. In fact, getting rid of capitalism gives us the best chance of having

time to organize a sustainable system of consumption before it is too late

—staying hooked into capitalism may be the quickest route to primitivism.

4. Freedom can only be realized through a free market.

Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not just dehumanizing.

It also fails to recognize how one person’s “freedom” of economic choice

is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There

is no possibility for true freedom until we are all free, and this will only

come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom

than one that consists of going to a grocery store and “choosing”

between 5,000 variations of processed corn.

5. Capitalism is the only system that encourages innovation and progress.

Progress toward what? And how does enclosing common knowledge

through intellectual property rights, or excluding most of the world from

quality education, or depriving half of humanity of the basic life-sustaining

goods needed for health lead to greater innovation? Just begin to imagine

the innovative possibilities of a world where all people had access to every-

thing they needed to live, to think, and to contribute to the common good.

6. Things could be worse.

They could. But they could also be better. Does the fact that we’ve lived

through bloody dictatorships mean that we should settle for a represen-

tative democracy where the main thing being represented is money? Fear

of change is a great tool to limit our imagination about human possibilities.

7. Things are getting better.

Can we really say that things are getting better as we head toward the

annihilation of our own species? Sure, the United States may have our first

black president and be making small gains in LGBT rights or in women’s

representation in the workforce. But let’s not neglect the fact that capital is

more concentrated, centralized, and in control than it has ever been. I think

we should give ourselves more credit than to settle for this “better.”

8. Change is slow.

Slow is not in the vocabulary of the corporations that are stealing our common

genetic heritage, or financiers who are getting rich playing virtual money games

that legally rob us all. The enclosure of our commons and the concentration of

capital is not happening slowly. Whether we acknowledge it or not, change is

happening— what is up for grabs is the direction of that change.

9. The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism.

This belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism,

businesses can prioritize anything over the bottom line. But businesses that

commit themselves first and foremost to being fully ethical and green will find

it difficult to stay in business in the current system. There are great models of

ethical business— worker-owned organic farms, for instance—but these

cannot become the norm within an economic structure that concentrates

wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support

these alternatives, we need to recognize that we can’t shop our way to a

better world. We’ll only change the structure and scale up existing

alternatives through collective political struggle.

10. People don’t care.

People may be distracted by consumerism, may not have time or energy

outside of struggling to pay their bills, may be fearful, may lack access to

good information. Those things are different from not caring. The charity

industry is thriving precisely because so many people do feel implicated

in the revolting manifestations of capitalism. But this is part of the problem

—much of our outrage is being channeled away from collective political

action and toward “green consumerism” and charitable donations, as if

more capitalism could save us from capitalism. Despair, guilt, disempower-

ment— these are all symptomsof living within a system that rewards greed

& self-interest over our innate desires for compassion, care, and cooperation.


Andrea Brower wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse,

the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Andrea is a Ph.D.

candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland.

Adapted from an article originally published at commondreams.org.

—————————————————————

Reprinted under a Creative Commons License.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism is one of the drains around which my mind slowly revolves. My mind revolves around it for that stinky dark hole is the center of our society. I poke and pick at the detritus clogging up the works until whatever lay hidden oozes out.

You get the picture. It’s a fun game I like to play. Join me, if you will.

Let me begin with obesity. We Americans are fat and lazy. I almost feel stupid to state such an obvious fact. Everyone knows this simple truth. It’s no big secret, pardon my pun. 

It’s a good thing we have a morally superior elite to tell us what to do (and to sell us the products to help us cover up our failures and lessen our inadequacies). And we know they are morally superior because they aren’t fat like all us poor schmucks. The elite may consume more than everyone else, but they go to the gym regularly to work it all off. The poor could work it all off too, if they weren’t lazy and morally inferior.

To continue with the obvious, we Americans are a hungry people ready to devour all of the world at the first chance we get. Our military and our consumerism is an endless gaping maw, ever hungry and waiting to be fed. We are the Borg… blah, blah, blah… assimilate… blah. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s the natural order for the lean and mean to prey upon the fat losers.

To put it in more prosaic terms, here is a sampling of an article that lists all the excuses for being obese (i.e., ugly, disgusting and generally worthless):

The obesity era
As the American people got fatter, so did marmosets, vervet monkeys and mice. The problem may be bigger than any of us
By David Berreby
Aeon Magazine

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

[ . . . ]

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

To put it in proper context, next up is a passage from the book where I first learned of Capitalist Realism. Reading this book has misled me from the true path of profit. I think I may have been brainwashed into socialism. Read the following at your peril!

Capitalist Realism:
Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher
pp. 18-20

At this point, it is perhaps worth introducing an elementary theoretical distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis which Žižek has done so much to give contemporary currency: the difference between the Real and reality. As Alenka Zupancic explains, psychoanalysis’s positing of a reality principle invites us to be suspicious of any reality that presents itself as natural. ‘The reality principle’, Zupancic writes,

is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real( s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.

Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market (In the end, Wall-E presents a version of this fantasy – the idea that the infinite expansion of capital is possible, that capital can proliferate without labor – on the off world ship, Axiom, all labor is performed by robots; that the burning up of Earth’s resources is only a temporary glitch, and that, after a suitable period of recovery, capital can terraform the planet and recolonize it). Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

In part, I have chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becoming increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalist realism: education.

Ah, education. I was just discussing that earlier today. In that post, I labeled it as a Dangerous Pragmatism.

Everything must be measured by profit and transformed into capital. To blame the individual, society must create the individual. Education in capitalism, first and foremost, is about manufacturing this product of individuality. In Capitalist Realism, individualism is defined by freedom, both the freedom to accept the system and the freedoms denied by the system. We are free when, where and how we are told to be free. You are completely free within the reality tunnel, just as long as you play within the boundaries and draw within the lines.

A bit further on in the book (pp. 73-74):

There’s no doubt that late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programs like You Are What You Eat, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the ‘consentimental’ regime.

Freedom to seek pleasure. It is in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

We have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, endlessly pursue it. Some might say it is our civic duty to never stop pursuing happiness, like the man lost in the desert following a mirage in the distance. But sometimes it isn’t even about the happiness or even the pretense of seeking it. As Dubya famously said, 

“Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

Happiness is just the selling point. The real purpose, though, is what is being sold. It’s not just a product being sold. The entire system of capitalism must be sold to the American people… hook, line and sinker. We the People must buy into Capitalist Realism or the American Dream will die and the Terrorists or Commies will win.

When you buy, you are bought. You buy to consume and you buy to solve all the problems of consumerism. The only thing that can’t be bought is your humanity, but it can be sold very cheaply.

To learn more of my deep insight and profound analysis, explore the wonders of my previous blogging about Capitalist Realism:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-unimagined-capitalism-and-crappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/pkd-vs-the-american-mythos/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/symbolic-conflation-empathic-imagination/

A Dangerous Pragmatism

How often pragmatism leads to or belies shortsightedness and narrowmindedness. Or rather how often claims, justifications and rationalizations of realism undermine greater pragmatic results, capitalist realism allied with realpolitik cynicism often being the worst.

The question as always: Pragmatic toward what?

In education, what is sought to be achieved and created? Not just for the individual. Not just for the workforce and economy. But for all of society. What makes a morally and intellectually well-rounded human being? What makes a good citizen, both of a nation and of the world? What makes for the public good?

These questions are even more important in a democracy. When democracy is given short shrift, when democracy is devalued or made secondary, if not tertiary, that bodes not well for the long-term survival of a democratic society. Nor does it offer much hope for moral results of any kind. Freedom of the individual, freedom of markets, freedom of all of society is dependent on how each generation is raised and acculturated, trained and educated.

Every society seeks pragmatic results, as defined by their political structure and cultural traditions. The Nazis and Stalinists all sought to be pragmatic toward achieving their desired end. They were as caught up in their fascist realism and communist realism as we are caught up in our capitalist realism. How about some plain old civic-minded democracy instead?

Let us be pragmatic about something that truly matters, something that can inspire and benefit everyone. Let us be pragmatic about democracy in all of its forms.

Let us create and sustain a democratic system and citizenry. Let us create and sustain a democratic economy and democratic markets. Let us create and sustain a democratic education system.

Let us do all of this pragmatically, not just with rhetoric and propaganda, but with real world results. Let us finally for the first time in history take democracy seriously, both on the large-scale and for the long-term. Let us together build the practical infrastructure and the grassroots culture of democracy.

Let us begin with a new generation by preparing them for a new era of democracy. Let us fulfill the democratic promise of education for all.

Illiberal Arts
‘Is College Worth It?’ and ‘College (Un)bound’
By Andrew Delbanco
The New York Times
Published: June 21, 2013

The colleges that survive will be those, in Selingo’s words, that “prove their worth.” Fair enough. But there’s a problem with this formulation, which presumes a narrow definition of worth that can be captured in data like rates of early job attainment or levels of lifetime income.

In times of economic stress, it’s entirely reasonable for students and families to demand evidence that paying for college makes sense. Bennett construes college as a business proposition, but Selingo allows himself to reflect on what’s sacrificed in such a view: “I worry at times about what might be lost in an unbound, personalized experience for students. Will they discover subjects they never knew existed? If a computer is telling them where to sit for class discussions, will they make those random connections that lead to lifelong friends? Will they be able to develop friendships and mentors if they move from provider to provider?”

These are the right questions. In striving to “prove their worth,” America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young ­people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults. Such a loss could never be compensated by any gain.