Most people don’t actually like capitalism. Dislike of the jobs we head to each day is quite the norm. Resentment of the power of the corporations we deal with in our daily lives crosses all social lines. Loathing of banks is nearly universal, across the political spectrum.
A sullen resignation to the continual unfairness of the world is pervasive. And yet, “there is no alternative.” Mercenary scribblers furiously tell us so. That this barrage of propaganda ceaselessly flows from the corporate media and other institutions speaks for itself as to the necessity of reinforcing this message; but it doesn’t in itself account for the widespread acceptance of “there is no alternative.”
There is the argument that if we simply ceased to cooperate, it would grind to a halt. Tempting though that argument is — and, in theory, it holds much truth — the puzzle of capitalism’s continued acceptance is a good deal more complicated.
Advanced capitalism is intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, and the capitalists who effectively rule the world possess multiple levers of power and influence to keep themselves in the saddle. There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the livelihoods of millions being entangled in destructive production and exploitation. Nor should the power of modern ideologies, such as nationalism, to provide emotional underpinning be ignored.
Except for the hopelessly cynical, humans need something to believe in, something bigger than themselves of which to be a part. The nation is the object par excellence for this; nationalism to this point in human history has proven stronger than class solidarity or any other more general identification in a common humanity. It has also superseded tribal or other local-community loyalties. Nationalism is a unifying glue holding together what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” — human constructs that are mostly recent in origin.
Professor Anderson, in his classic book with that very name, Imagined Communities, offers this definition of a nation:
“It is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [page 6]
Approaching the question from a different angle, a nation might be thought of as a group with a common ethnicity, cohesive culture and shared language occupying a particular area (diasporas excepted). Most commonly, nations are organized as countries, although some countries (such as the United Kingdom) can contain multiple nations and settler countries (such as the United States) can be organized on an idea rather than an ethnicity, although culture and language are unifying factors. Some nations are colonies of or minorities within a larger nation and some nations are split among adjoining countries.
Nationalism versus solidarity
Religious belief has obviously been, and remains, a powerful force — as Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., political Islam in the Middle East and Hindu chauvinism in India attest, to cite merely three examples. Religions offer answers to life-and-death questions that other systems of thought don’t, not to mention promises of eternal life. It’s hard to top that. But religious belief has declined in most of the advanced capitalist world as science has taken hold since the Enlightenment.
To return to Imagined Communities, Professor Anderson argues that something was necessary to fill the void left by the withering of religious belief, and nationalism became the substitute as it came into being out of preceding cultural systems. He writes:
“What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. … [F]ew things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” [pages 11-12]
The erasure of boundaries (for capital) through “free trade” agreements or entities like the World Trade Organization is a function of capitalist expansion. Globalization advances as competition within a given industrial sector narrows from separate sets of local corporations dominating particular countries or regions to a handful of corporations operating around the world. Yet although the largest capitalists are today transcending national borders, the largest capitalists of the 19th century were an important force in creating unified nations. What is today Germany and Italy were once a myriad of small principalities; capitalist trade required the barriers that frequent borders represent be dismantled.
The rise of books and other printed materials, and the accompanying rise of literacy along with the construction of centralized states, bureaucracies and school systems, brought about standardized languages. Often the dialect in the capital became the standard language, and a common language became a crucial building block for national consciousness. Nationalism became a necessary prop to wage modern war with the need for mass conscription, without which imperialism and colonization are impossible. Few soldiers would fight for corporate profits, but will for “national honor.”
The abject failure of the Socialist International to have any effect on the outbreak and initial enthusiasm for World War I was due not only to nationalism being more powerful than international or class solidarity among social democracy’s constituents but that social democrat leaders themselves were nationalists.
In no sense can nationalism be said to have lost its potency. It remains a durable force to divide the world’s people and block international solidarity — a devastating development when the world’s biggest capitalists are trans-national, conscious of their common interests beyond borders and relentlessly organizing chains of production that span the globe.
Democracy as consumerism rather then participation
We can freely buy whatever we like from whatever corporate behemoth we wish (assuming we are fortunate enough to have a job that provides a living wage). Untold billions of dollars are pumped into advertising campaigns designed to induce us to buy particular products and, crucially, to define this choice as “freedom.” Democracy is reduced to the ability to buy a corporate product as opposed to being defined as the ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes of your society.
That crabbed definition of democracy and the ability to freely vote in elections with little meaning or choice (although the ability to vote is being eroded in the U.S., particularly for People of Color) are promoted as the epitome of political development. But how much freedom do working people in capitalist countries actually have? We have no control over our lives when on the job, which consumes most of our waking hours, nor any control over the corporate behemoths that routinely run roughshod over communities, nor legal recourse against “market forces” that enable the relentless privatization of previously public spaces and services.
I can think of my experience at Occupy Wall Street, the encampment of which was close to my place of employment. Invariably, anytime I happened to mention that I was handing out fliers or engaging others near to where I was employed while on lunch hour or after the end of my workday, the response was always concern that I would lose my job or get in trouble should my employer discover my participation. I wasn’t discovered, but the commonality of such reactions speaks for itself on the topic of democracy.
Political control in a capitalist society is hidden in a way that it was not in a country like the former Soviet Union, and the contrast in the manner of social control in capitalist versus Soviet-style societies became an invaluable tool undergirding capitalist triumphalism. Because the power held by capitalists in a capitalist society is secure through a myriad of institutions upholding their ideologies and deferring to them, bolstered by the appearance of democratic assent provided by elections, there is far more elasticity to capitalist régimes than Soviet-style régimes (which should more properly be called “post-capitalist” than “socialist” as their form congealed far short of any socialist ideal.)
The illusion of democracy
The historian Isaac Deutscher, in a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967, outlined this difference. He said of freedom in a capitalist country:
“[I]n bourgeois society it can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. … Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … In a society like the Soviet, freedom of association and character cannot have so formal and illusory a character: either it is real, or it does not exist at all. The power of property having been destroyed, only the State, that is, the bureaucracy, dominates society; and its domination is based solely on the suppression of the people’s liberty to criticize and oppose.
Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power. In post-capitalist society no automatic economic mechanism keeps the masses in subjection; it is sheer political force that does it. … Capitalism has been able to battle against its class enemies from many economic, political and cultural lines of defence, with much scope for retreat and maneouvre. A post-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship has far less scope: its first, its political line of defence, is its last. No wonder that it holds that line with all the tenacity it can muster.” [pages 106-7]
(“Property” in the above quote refers to large enterprises and other economic entities in private hands.) The Soviet bureaucracy could maintain its privileges only through undisguised direct political force. Capitalists, in contrast, maintain their rule by virtue of owning the means of production, able to maintain power through decisive influence over a range of social institutions and thus diffusing and mystifying the roots of power.
There is no dictator, no party in permanent power, and the ruling capitalists and their political servants have conflicting interests that are debated in public. Thus the illusion of democratic accountability can be maintained, on a separate track from the pervasive advertising that reduces democratic choice to consumer selection of corporate products.
There are more flavors of cola to choose from than ever before. What more could you want?
Show your individuality by buying the same product
Marketing has become so sophisticated that consumption of corporate products is equated with individual expression. Individualism must be continually stimulated to counter the development of social solidarity, without which change in the structure of any society is impossible, yet consumerism-dependent production requires the fostering of mass taste to facilitate mass production.
Consumers are encouraged to “rebel” by decorating their smartphone or buying a copy of the latest recording by a “transgressive” musical act, a work of intellectual property owned by a corporate behemoth and carefully calculated to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Today’s cultural rebellion is tomorrow’s marketing campaign. The use of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” in a Nike commercial is but one example; more recently, 1960s icon Bob Dylan starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler extolling U.S. patriotism.
The word “revolution” has been reduced to a corporate slogan; the selling back to us of rebellion has attempted to shrivel the popular imagination to the point that the only change that can be imagined is an upgrade to a consumer product. This is no less true of the food we eat — as eating organic becomes more popular, large food corporations that have foisted on us unhealthy, over-processed foods are increasingly entering the organic field, both by creating new brands and taking over existing ones while being careful to not signal those corporate ownerships on the label.
Some of the largest multi-national corporations that spend millions of dollars to defeat genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling initiatives own some of the best-known organic brands. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream may claim it is an “autonomous subsidiary” of its owner, multi-national conglomerate Unilever, but the profits it earns go to Unilever headquarters. Those profits fund a corporate parent that opposes GMO labeling, has been cited for making false health claims, has used its market power in tea to bully tea farmers in India, and promotes the World Trade Organization. Slick marketing keeps people buying the ice cream and obfuscating where the profits are going.
Yet even if a particular company stays true to a particular value, consumerism is an individualist gesture incapable of effecting change. All the more reason for it to be equated with “democracy.” In the 1970s, a frequently run public service announcement (PSA) featured a Native American man shedding a tear when a bag of garbage is thrown out of a car and lands at his feet, ending with the tag line that “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In a discussion of this PSA in his article “On the emotional terrain of neoliberalism,” Tim Jensen writes:
“Funded by beverage bottling corporations, the campaign was intended to lessen political pressure on manufacturers to stop producing non-refillable bottles and more generally be held accountable for creating the products that create litter. By placing the onus on the individual consumer, who is positioned as the cause of the problem and thus the solution’s origin, too, these corporate interests successfully deflected growing concern about pollution away from themselves. …
The PSA performs an emotional orientation focused on guilt, an emotion that is critical to our current landscape. What makes its rhetorical strategy effective is not simply the evocation of guilt in the consumer, but a specific form of guilt that is coupled with a pathway that channels the desire for atonement—one that does not put profit at risk. Asking why harmful bottles are being made in the first place and to what degree their manufacturer should be held accountable is trumped by a framework of consumer culpability, individualized responsibility, and ineffectual chores. It marshals the potential forces of transformative collective action and individuates them in an atonement strategy.”
If it is our own fault, then the system that actually compels such waste is blameless, beyond questioning.
Blow up that mountain or be out of work
Even when we are cognizant of the waste and destructiveness of capitalist production, it is not a simple matter to de-couple. Millions of jobs, and the communities where those jobs are located, are dependent on environmental destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. Faced with dismal, or no, prospects for alternative employment, the workers in such industries naturally oppose efforts to reduce the damage done — a market economy doesn’t offer new jobs for those put out of work.
The relentless competition of capitalism mandates that costs be steadily cut, so jobs are steadily lost anyway. Individualist ideology comes into play here as well: Something must be wrong with you for losing your job. And when that fails, there is always the strategy of finding scapegoats.
Scapegoating is not unique to any system, locale or time. But when a small elite commands the mass media and possesses decisive influence over educational, military, religious and other institutions, it possesses the means of shaping public opinion. The very fact of private ownership of the mass media contributes significantly to the effectiveness of the media in shaping public opinion. If several different media outlets report more or less the same thing, then those reports tend to be widely accepted.
It is surely true that the corporate owners of various publications and electronic news sources did not consult with one another, and in a capitalist formal democracy no government official tells you what to report. But the corporate plutocrats who own the mass media have a common interest in promoting a system that benefits them and thus narratives that reinforce those interests.
Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass-media decision-makers are quite likely to be men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered.
Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.
No collusion is needed. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure.
The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.
Nor does the structure of corporate-dominated mass media exclude sometimes vigorous debate — as long as the positions being debated fall within the range of “acceptable” ideas that don’t challenge corporate orthodoxy. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology than the media of a closed society. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.
A network of institutional reinforcement
A web of institutions are necessary to maintain belief in a system, or to block to the extent possible, opposing narratives to the dominant belief system.
Educational institutions have been reduced to job-training facilities. University presidents and board members are increasingly prominent business leaders who seek to make educational institutions more “business-like” — pursuit of knowledge for personal intellectual enrichment is almost an after-thought. Educational initiatives at all levels are increasingly funded directly by corporate elites — instead of education being funded by the public through accountable institutions managed by education professionals, it is instead adapted to the needs of corporate-elite donors who seek to produce students grounded in technical skills without exposure to the types of courses that encourage creative or independent thinking.
Militaries in capitalist countries frequently function as enforcers of corporate prerogatives in weaker countries; militaries also underwrite corporate and university research and development, and are heavy buyers of corporate products. Politics cannot be anything but a significant corporate transmission belt because corporations provide campaign donations and give jobs to office holders when they leave office — those with money are those who get access, and thus provide the perspectives that will be heard.
The modern corporation also employs an army of lobbyists to influence politicians’ thinking. Corporate executives additionally create a network of auxiliary institutions — research centers and “think tanks” that can leverage lavish funding to disseminate class ideology through various channels. Bankrolling right-wing street movements, such as the Tea Party in the U.S. or outright fascist fronts in Europe, is another methodology for creating the appearance of popular support for anti-social tendencies.
Corporate institutions are competitors with sometimes sharply different interests — in terms of antagonisms between suppliers and buyers of raw materials and component parts; in divergence of the optimum conditions sought by different industries; and the ever present fierce fight over the sharing of profits between industrialists and financiers — yet these conflicts and antagonisms are contained within the perpetuation of the system within which they operate. As this collective power grows, it will steadily be wielded in harder forms in the absence of serious countervailing pressures in the form of mass movements.
Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.
“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.
Ongoing belief in capitalism, despite the widespread disapproval of its concrete results, rests on multiple pillars, none on their own decisive. The perceived lack of an alternative, however, is a linchpin. Cooperatives and other social forms of enterprise management, successful in significant numbers, would provide such an alternative — if people see examples of something better, “there is no alternative” would lose its force. But much organizing will be necessary to bring forward that day, for the massive force that capitalist society can bring down on alternatives hasn’t been, and won’t, be held back.