What is the opposite of beauty?

“When I ask my students, ‘What is the opposite of beauty?’ they very quickly respond, ‘ugly.’ That’s what society tells us. But what if I say it’s glamour? We start seeing that glamour is the most dangerous thing because it disguises itself as beautiful, attracts us to it, ensnares us in false hopes and superficiality, and in that process takes us away from real beauty…”
~ Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu

Glamour is a charade, a deadly charade. It is superficial, a show, an entertainment. It is numbing, deadening. It is an image that seeks to replace reality.

Beauty, on the other hand, is the human soul laid bare. It is the essence of meaning, the expression of authenticity.

The peddlers of glamour would like us to believe that beauty is ugliness, that ugliness is beauty, to forget what is real. The point I take from the quote is that ugliness, as mainstream society defines it, isn’t the opposite of beauty.

That is why I chose this image by Banksy. The image shows the truth of cultural imperialism, of the military-capitalist complex. It is an image that subverts the image of consumerism. What is really being sold and at what cost? The line between advertising and propaganda is so thin as to be non-existent.

The girl running from the Napalm bombing represents much of what our society calls ugly, expressing pain and suffering, fear and desperation. But in reality the images of capitalism are what is ugly for what they seek to hide, the dark and violent underpinnings of the system of power and profit.

That is what we don’t want to face. That is what entertainment and infotainment is meant to distract us from.

Consumerism, Poverty, and Economic Mobility

There is an article from the New York Times that points to a distinction made before. It is “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off, but Far Behind” by Annie Lowrey. The author also includes a nifty graph that starkly portrays the data, which should definitely check out.

She begins with an observation that many on the right have brought up to question that poverty is a real issue.

“Is a family with a car in the driveway, a flat-screen television and a computer with an Internet connection poor?

“Americans — even many of the poorest — enjoy a level of material abundance unthinkable just a generation or two ago. That indisputable economic fact has become a subject of bitter political debate this year, half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty.”

In a consumerist society, wealth is defined as access to consumer products. Is that actual wealth in any meaningful sense?

“Indeed, despite improved living standards, the poor have fallen further behind the middle class and the affluent in both income and consumption. The same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.”

From the perspective of the poor, consumer products don’t likely make them feel all that wealthy. The poor are struggling today, just as they did in the past.

“For many working poor families, the most apt description of their finances and lifestyle might be fragile. Even with a steady paycheck, keeping the bills paid becomes a high-wire act and saving an impossibility.”

Not just struggling, but living on the edge. They aren’t faced with mere poverty. They also have to fear life getting much worse, such as losing their homes and not being able to keep food on the table.

“Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.”

More federal programs to make being poor relatively less desperate and uncomfortable. And more access to cheap consumer crap from Walmart.

“Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared. Ms. Hagen-Noey, for instance, does not treat her hepatitis and other medical problems, as she does not qualify for Medicaid and cannot pay for her own insurance or care.

“Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

““The average annual cost for infant care in the U.S. is $6,000 or $7,000 a year,” said Professor Ziliak of the University of Kentucky. “When you look at the average income of many single mothers, that is going to end up being a quarter of it. That’s huge. That is just out of reach for many folks.””

What isn’t available to the poor is opportunity to be anything other than poor. Economic mobility has decreased these past decades. Poor people in the past were worse off in many ways, but they also had more opportunities in many ways for economic mobility (cheap housing and college education, high paying jobs with good benefits, etc). Most poor people don’t want to be poor, don’t want to rely on federal programs, and don’t want cheap consumer crap from Walmart as the only appeasement for a life of misery and desperation.

“And many poor families barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. For evidence, economists point to the fact that children living in families with food stamps eat more calories at the beginning of the month than the end of it.

“Economists pointed out that many low-income families struggled to use even the assets they had: keeping gas in the car, paying for cable and keeping the electricity on. Many families rely on expensive credit. And even if those families sold their assets, often it would only provide them with a small buffer, too. “

Owning a car was once a luxury. Now a car is a necessity and a burden. Traveling further distances to work and shopping has become more common, for the small local factory and corner store have become rare. Meanwhile, public transportation hasn’t grown with the need for it. Poor people need vehicles, even when they can barely afford to pay for gas and repairs.

Sometimes the forced choice is between a tank of gas and buying groceries. But if there isn’t a tank of gas, a person can’t get to work and might lose their job. So, basic necessities such as food get sacrificed. Skipping meals isn’t healthy, but it won’t kill you right away. People can survive on very few calories, when they have to, although most people would like more than mere survival.

“In the end, many mainstream economists argue, the lives of the poor must be looked at in light of the nation’s overall wealth and economic advancement.

““If you handpick services and goods where there has been dramatic technological progress, then the fact that poor people can consume these items in 2014 and even rich people couldn’t consume them in 1954 is hardly a meaningful distinction,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “That’s not telling you who is rich and who is poor, not in the way that Adam Smith and most everyone else since him thinks about poverty.””

There is the rub.

Many things have become cheaper. But the most important things have become more expensive, specifically the very things that help people get out of poverty. It costs more to not be poor than it once did.

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: