Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

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Killing ourselves with technology

What do we do when technology spirals out of our control? Or, to put it more bluntly, when does humanity’s ability to build ever more dangerous weapons become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t know what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth would be waged with sticks and rocks. Even that classic of science fiction optimism, Star Trek, had humanity surviving a third world war. (Spock recounted the tolls of Earth’s three world wars in one episode.)

But we wouldn’t, would we? Or we might wish we didn’t. One story that has long lingered in my mind is an early Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” published in 1953, a time when the cold war was looking decidedly hot. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic France, in a world in which nuclear bombs and other equally nightmarish weapons have reduced most of North America and Europe to gray ash, with only a stubby tree trunk or a blasted wall dotting barren, depopulated landscapes.

NagasakiThe West’s governments have retreated to a bunker somewhere on the Moon, with scattered groups of soldiers huddled in hidden underground bunkers on Earth trying to “win” the world war. The land is uninhabitable because of a super-weapon developed by the U.S. — autonomous machines that hone in on any living being and rip it to shreds with whirring metal blades that make short work of whatever they encounter. The Western soldiers are protected by a belt that forces the death machines to back off. This is the weapon that turns the tide of the war into a U.S. advantage after years of “losing” the war against the Soviet Union.

But what is there to “win”? Much of the world is uninhabitable, not only because of the total destruction and residual radiation from countless bombs but from the new weapon. There is no alternative but to huddle in underground bunkers. As Dick’s story unfolds, the nightmare gets progressively worse — the weapons are not only autonomous, they are self-replicating and continually inventing newer and more deadly varieties of themselves. The last pockets of U.S. and Soviet soldiers in this slice of the French countryside are systematically killed as the machines learn to build robots difficult to distinguish from humans; robots allowed into bunkers as refugees, only to suddenly become unstoppable killing machines, and which don’t distinguish one side from the other.

Although shuddering at the mere thought of their deadliness, more than once a soldier tries to justify these ultimate weapons by saying “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.”

If we didn’t shoot first, bomb first, destroy first, they would have. Whatever we do is justified. No culture has a monopoly on such thoughts. But such thoughts combined with the technological progress of the present day, rising nationalism and budget-busting military budgets leave the possible end of the human race a concrete possibility rather than merely a science fiction allegory.

Philip D. Dick was no prophet — no one is — but the nightmare world he created is chillingly tangible. What would happen if a technology of war was given autonomy? Such a weapon would be purposefully designed to kill swiftly and without mercy. The Pentagon has already begun a program designed to create autonomous weapons systems.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

But what if an artificial intelligence decided humans were in the way? Isaac Asimov famously had his robots programmed with three laws that blocked them from doing any harm to any human. The other side of this equation was explored in another Star Trek episode, when the Enterprise encountered a planet populated by advanced robots. The robots had killed their creators so far back in time that the robots couldn’t remember when, but had done so because their creators “had begun to fear us and started to turn us off.”

Technology need not be feared nor is it necessarily fated to escape all control. There are no von Neumann machines swarming everywhere (at least in this part of the galaxy!), and I am inclined to agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil applications of technology. Yet we live in a world where there are plenty of opportunities for technology to be used for evil purposes. We see some of this all around us as workplaces become sites of tightening surveillance and control, from computers that report on us to bosses, to the endless treadmill of work speedups. Technology is today a tool of capitalists, to extract ever more work out of us, to outsource work on scales never before possible and to facilitate ever faster and more numerous speculation in dubious financial instruments.

Technology in these hands also makes waging war easier — a drone operator can sit in a control room thousands of miles from the targets, safe from the carnage rained down on far-away peoples. If autonomous weaponry ever is unleashed, how could it be controlled? It couldn’t. Humanity won’t survive a third world war.

When we think of existential threats to our descendants’ world, we tend to focus on global warming, environmental degradation and the looming collapse of capitalist industrialism, of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. That is properly so, and these do seem to be the gravest challenges that will face us across the 21st century. But technology applied to perfecting military killing machines is within the human imagination. Dick conjured this at the midpoint of the 20th century and he is far from the only one.

Yes, a warning and not a prophesy. But in a world of vast inequality, of an industrial and financial elite willing to do anything, even put the planet’s health at risk, for the sake of acquiring more wealth, the potential for evil applications of technology are ever present.

One more reason, if we didn’t already have enough, to bring into being a better world, one built for human need and environmental harmony rather than private profit. We then wouldn’t need to endure a mad pursuit of fetishized technological advancement; instead we could harness technology for the greater good as necessary. Barbarism remains the likely alternative.

Trump is a Republican, but is he a fascist?

It’s hard not to chuckle at the hand-wringing going on within the Republican Party. That terrible Donald Trump: How dare he say openly what we only say in code! And, why, Republican candidates have never stooped to exploiting fears and pandering to racism and nativism.

Uh-huh. Richard Nixon attempted to provide federal money for segregated schools as he ushered in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”; Ronald Reagan famously opened his 1980 presidential run close to the site where three Civil Rights Movement workers were murdered in Mississippi with calls for “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list.

So does Donald Trump really represent something new and frightful? Or does his campaign represent the same-old, same-old in more concentrated form? Or, to put the second question in a different way, does he represent a new manifestation of fascism, as many are already proclaiming.

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

Perhaps it might be best to see the Trump campaign as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it.

Fascism is a specific phenomenon, and we should not loosely throw the word around, as if it means anything with a whiff of authoritarianism that we do not like.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”

The Trump campaign’s ongoing violence

There is no shortage of peans to the Constitution or demands for border sealing, true enough, and violence has not been missing from the Trump campaign — to the contrary, the Republican front-runner has been reveling in it. Watching videos stringing together some of these incidents is sobering.

It’s been said over and over again that Germans didn’t think Hitler could ever take power (although he was never elected; he was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg). Let’s set aside that all too easy comparison. Instead, it would be more pertinent to look back to the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign that culminated in a lurch to the right. That was the first one I could vote in. Many people thought Ronald Reagan would never be elected; voters in the end would recoil from his extremism. I was one of those doubters. To this day I remember the chill of horror that ran down my back when I first saw the electoral results, well into the evening, as a television announcer called the latest state to go his way part of a “tidal wave.”

In a year in which even the Democratic primary front-runner, Hillary Clinton, eagerly white-washes President Reagan’s actual history, we should correct the record. To only scratch the surface, he lavishly funded and supported the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador in their terror campaigns against their population through military units and death squads that killed hundreds of thousands; waged war against Nicaragua, mining harbors and funding and directing terrorism through the Contras; opposed civil rights legislation at every opportunity; cut Medicaid, Medicare, school breakfast and lunch programs, and declared ketchup a vegetable for school lunches; refused to lift a finger as AIDS ravaged communities across the country because homosexuals where seen as deserving their fate; and invented preposterous stories of pink-Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” raking in $150,000 per year.

There is a straight line from Reagan, whom the Republican establishment still venerates through a rather creepy personality cult, to Donald Trump. And Mr. Trump isn’t necessarily the scariest or most extreme candidate out there — Ted Cruz, determined to become the second Joe McCarthy, holds that distinction. But Senator Cruz, however much he lusts for a Medieval theological dictatorship and despite the frightening ignorance of his supporters, doesn’t command a following the way that Mr. Trump does.

The culmination of Republican pandering

He’s the front-runner precisely because he says it straight out rather than using code like other Republican candidates. He’s the logical product of 36 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” Or, really, a continuation, if in new packaging, of the whole history of the United States. If he were just another in a long line of demagogues, we would not be throwing around the word “fascism” so freely. But the Trump campaign comes with violence and particularly open hatreds. Alarm bells ought to be ringing.

Let’s return to the definition of fascism offered above: “A dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business.” Industrialists and financiers are firmly in the saddle in the United States. Opposition to the policies there that have created widespread misery and towering inequality certainly is growing not only in intensity but in numbers, yet it could hardly be said that capitalist rule in the U.S. is in any danger whatsoever today. There is no need for capitalists to create and build a corps of street thugs or brown shirts.

Rather, we have the odd phenomenon of a billionaire “populist” telling his followers that he won’t be beholden to corporate interests because he is too rich to be bought. We have seen this siren song before: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s morbid combination of George W. Bush, Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot. He did not work out so well for Italy. Prime Minister Berlusconi’s reason to run for office was to advance his business interests and stay out of jail. Promoting his business interests is Donald Trump’s motivation. All we have here is a billionaire cutting out the middle man and buying the office for himself instead of buying a professional politician.

Nonetheless, it is impossible not to note the violence and the threats against Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims and, implicitly, to all People of Color, and to social activists of the Left. Any Right-wing movement that has gained a substantial following of people that includes more than a few willing to condone violence must target the Left. History is painfully clear on this. We need not think Trump is a fascist or capable of building a fascist type of movement to mobilize against his campaign. Not that we should minimize the ultimate threat of fascism — all capitalist countries contain the potentiality of fascism, a threat that materializes when capitalists dispense with democracy because they can no longer earn profits in the ordinary ways and working people begin to refuse to cooperate with capitalist business as usual in significant numbers.

I would argue that the Trump campaign is not necessarily fascist today, but that it carries with it the seeds of a future, potential fascist movement. That is more than serious enough for everybody who struggles for a better world.

Belief in capitalism as a material force

Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.

That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.

It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.

Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.

Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.

Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs

But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”

One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:

“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’

‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”

Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.

The hegemony of ideas that serve elites

How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:

“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”

Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:

“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”

A result of this “social hegemony” is:

“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”

Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom

Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:

“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] 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. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. 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. … 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.” [page 106]

Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002 (photo by William M. Connolley)

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)

In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.

Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.

An array of institutions to convey one basic message

There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.

Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.

If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.

The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.

Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.

Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]

High-tech exploitation is still exploitation

In the so-called “sharing economy,” it isn’t the profits that are being shared. What is being shared are ways of putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

“Sharing economy” enterprises designating employees as “independent contractors” so that workers are left without legal protections, and undercutting competition through insisting that laws and regulations don’t apply to them, really aren’t new or “innovative.” But it’s Silicon Valley companies that are doing this — so, hurray!, it’s now exciting and, oh yes, disruptive! Quaint, archaic standards such as minimum wages and labor- and consumer-law protections are so old-fashioned that Silicon Valley billionaires are doing us all a favor by disrupting our ability to keep them.

That “sharing economy” enterprises are focal points of a new technology-stock bubble is another reason to question the hype surrounding them. While waiting for the right moment for an initial public offering, the poster child for the “sharing economy,” Uber Technologies Inc., has had no trouble attracting investors, and is now valued at US$51 billion. Not bad for a company that claims to be nothing but an app — except for when it claims to be hiring drivers when its interests dictate. (More on that below.) To put that valuation in perspective, it is higher than 80 percent of S&P 500 companies — an index selected from among the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. This for a company founded in 2009.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

How Uber’s valuation matches up with its income is impossible to say as the company does not reveal its financial results. A report in TechCrunch says that Uber may be pulling in more than $1 billion in gross receipts per year, and estimates Uber’s cut of that revenue to be about $213 million. (Uber takes a 20 percent cut from its drivers, but some drivers say it takes an additional cut for “fees”) Between its revenue and the $5 billion in funding it has received, the company could afford to hire its drivers as employees, but instead spends its money on attack advertising.

The company launched a multi-media fusillade of attack ads last month when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared suggest regulations observed by others might apply to it, including a bombardment of television ads and robo-calls. (I received two. They didn’t work.) True to form, Mayor de Blasio, the Obama of New York City who is carrying out former billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term, backed down.

Uber vehemently opposed a proposed one-year cap of one percent growth in its drivers (which would have applied to all companies) despite already having more registered cars than all of the city’s yellow-cab companies combined, and in contrast to the hard cap that exists on the number of yellow-cab permits. When not attacking the mayor, Uber’s attacks were concentrated on yellow-cab companies and drivers.

Driving down wages for low-wage taxi drivers

Who are the taxi drivers whom Uber wishes you to believe are privileged and should be subjected to more competition? A New York City yellow cab driver pays the company that owns the cab $100 or more at the start of a 12-hour shift, pays for gas and is subject to consumer regulations. The driver spends the first hours of his or her shift covering these daily expenses. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance summarizes the situation for taxi drivers this way:

“Drivers are earning less and working longer, some days earning below the minimum wage. Right now, after 12-hour shifts, with no overtime pay, taxi drivers make $10-12 an hour in take home pay. More traffic and more cars competing for the same fares will drive incomes deeper into poverty levels. … In its ‘disruption’ playbook, meanwhile, Uber tells drivers to pick up illegally as a way to overwhelm local enforcement and break down regulators, and promises to pay the fines. Drivers desperate for work risk time in jail and for immigrants, loss of naturalized citizenship, while brand Uber claims innovation. Drivers are used and discarded. …

Uber seeks to decimate the regulated taxi industry and replace it with a transportation monopoly of no consumer protections and no full-time work for drivers. For Uber, drivers aren’t just Independent Contractors, they, quite frankly, are not workers at all. Why tip, or require commercial insurance or registration, or comply under federal or state transportation or labor laws when this is ‘just a side thing.’ Low Uber fares — when they are not price surging — are aimed at out-competing taxis and justified by calling the income supplemental. Taxis aren’t the only target, as they also aim their sights on dismantling public transportation, by proclaiming to be cheaper than buses in Chicago and LA and faster than an ambulance. If they gain a monopoly, the purpose of low fares will have been served and price surging will be the norm.”

The “disruption” or “innovation” that this promises is the Wal-Martization of transportation. In fact, the corporate law firm that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used to successfully defeat a discrimination class action (Wal-Mart v. Dukes) by women employees, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has been hired by Uber to fight its California drivers who say they are improperly classified as independent contractors instead of as employees. Not exactly the defender of working-class drivers Uber claims to be in its propaganda.

A San Francisco federal judge and the California Labor Commission separately ruled earlier this year that Uber drivers are employees, rulings the company continues to contest. But when it was sued for alleged text spamming, Uber claimed the messages were legal because they were hiring solicitations. But how can Uber “recruit” if it is nothing more than a software provider as it claims?

The degradation of working conditions through the “sharing economy” is of course not limited to one company. A provider of home-cleaning services, Homejoy, has closed itself rather than contest lawsuits seeking to have its “independent contractors” be re-classified as employees. Grocery-delivery service Instacart and courier Shyp have reclassified some of their workers as employees in the face of lawsuits.

A lottery economy facilitates inequality

The founders of these companies and the speculators who sink millions into them hope to be the winners in what has become a lottery economy. Only a minuscule percentage of inventions become commercially successful — a director of public affairs for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office said a decade ago that 99.8 percent of issued patents are not commercially viable. A small number of those commercially viable ideas are worth millions or billions to its creators. This is similar to the art world, where a minuscule number of artists sell works for millions while the overwhelming majority of artists earn little or nothing.

But are the entrepreneurs who win the lottery really worth so much more than everybody else? None of these corporate lottery winners created their successful company on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies that create the demand for the product. Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete (although most inherited their money through luck of birth).

The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth. But why should Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg amass $18 billion and so many others get nothing? Why should Apple Inc. accumulate unprecedented wealth while conditions in the sweatshops that produce its gadgets are sufficiently grim to cause a wave of suicides?

Why should those who stand to make gigantic fortunes from whatever “sharing economy” enterprise is the one that wins the lottery make fortunes on the backs of working people struggling to survive?

At the end of the day, what computers and apps do is shift consumer spending from one merchant to another. The rider who uses an Uber black car is substituting that service for a taxi; the shopper who buys online is substituting for a local store. Just as Wal-Mart seeks to monopolize low-end retail, thereby sending money into the bulging wallets of the multi-billionaire Walton family instead of re-circulating the money through local spending, “sharing economy” enterprises are seeking to vacuum up as much money as possible, with speculators salivating over the potential profits.

Billionaire Silicon Valley libertarians are attempting to become wealthier at the expense of working people. That’s not disruption, that’s capitalism as usual.

Civil rights marches versus the right to puke

It was a day of vivid contrast. One the one hand, tens of thousands marching through the streets, angry over a lack of justice and appalling inequality; on the other hand, the arrogance of privilege distilled in an alcohol-fueled invasion.

The Week of Outrage did meet SantaCon in the streets of New York City. “Taking the streets” has seldom meant such different things.

Despite the raw anger still felt in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and so many others), the December 13 Week of Outrage march in New York City was a model of peacefulness. A multi-cultural multitude, there was a real respect shown toward others throughout. Time and again, when somebody accidentally bumped into someone else — regardless of who bumped who — both would quickly say “excuse me.” I was even thanked for being there after gently bumping into someone else. I appreciated that, but I was only doing my duty as a human being.

Marching in the streets of New York City

Marching in the streets of New York City

Then we have SantaCon, where yuppies and other privileged White people in their 20s act out their “right” be as drunk as possible, to overrun neighborhoods and vomit on the sidewalk. In past years, New York’s edition of this annual spectacle of drunken obnoxiousness took place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that has become the poster child for gentrification — once a center for artists and non-conformists, it is now completely overrun with bars and chain stores.

Even there, bar owners and bartenders were fed up with it, and faced with a community unified in its opposition, SantaCon decamped for the Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods to the north, at least based on the numerous sightings of drunk Santas as the Week of Outrage march passed through those areas.

The SantaCon revelers were frequently encouraged to join the march; the reaction was almost invariably a slack-jawed uncomprehending look as if they couldn’t conceive of doing such a thing. Likely they couldn’t. The one notable exception I saw was when I suggested to one frat boy-looking character who probably works on Wall Street that he forget about SantaCon and join the march. He responded with a fusillade of expletives. Ah well, the stock market had just had a bad week; perhaps he wasn’t able to throw any grandmothers out of their homes and was in a bad mood because of it.

Claiming drinking as a “creative” activity

The flavor of SantaCon participants was captured by the Village Voice:

“Doug Bunton, owner of [a Lower East Side tavern], says he allowed Santas into his bar one time and quickly vowed never to do so again. ‘A guy poked me with a candy cane and said, ‘Santa doesn’t pay,’ and from then on I make no exceptions. I think their purpose is to take over the bar and make you do what they want,’ Bunton asserts. ‘I think they should try doing it in the Bronx, and see what they get there.’ ”

That would be interesting. But as one can not have privilege without an ideology justifying it, an anonymous SantaCon representative offered this nonsensical gem in the same Village Voice article:

“SantaCon’s New York organizer, the one who gives his name only as ‘Santa,’ feels SantaCon is merely misunderstood. He says outsiders are uncomfortable with such an unconventional and creative celebration. He insists the event is not a bar crawl, but rather an excuse to dress up, go caroling, and spread holiday cheer. ‘It draws criticism very easily from people because it’s rare to see so much unbridled joy and optimism outside,’ the man called Santa tells the Voice.”

There you have it: Getting drunk and vomiting in the streets, and doing so while wearing corporate products symbolizing consumerist excess that were almost certainly manufactured with sweatshop labor in a poverty-stricken corner of the world is “unconventional” and “creative”!

It is impossible not to see links with the runaway gentrification washing over one New York City neighborhood after another. SantaCon goes naturally with this. Gentrification is part of a process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Undoubtedly, the SantaCon revelers, dressed alike and pursuing the same activity organized by someone else, believe they are rugged individualists, boldly displaying their “creativity.” That is what the corporate media tells them when they add a personal flourish to a corporate consumer product. Gosh, the corporate media wouldn’t lie, would they?

Corporate media get cold feet

The corporate media has begun turning against the fightback against the systematic police killing People of Color sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That is a sign of its effectiveness. The ludicrous under-counting of the size of the December 13 marches and the “reporting” of a Brooklyn Bridge incident later that evening by local newspapers that read like police department press releases indicate that those authorities who had hoped the ongoing demonstrations would have died down by now may be preparing more repressive approaches.

We’re not talking about mad-dog Murdoch media outlets, but rather newspapers that had reported on continuing unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere with minimal malice. The New York Daily News, for example, breathlessly declared: “Police said Sunday that they had arrested a hooligan who assaulted two police officers during protests on the Brooklyn Bridge overnight.” The paper made sure to stress that the arrestee had written poems containing “disdain for the cops.” Quelle horreur!

And lest we are tempted to chalk that up to tabloid excess, The New York Times, although too genteel to use a word like “hooligan,” dutifully presented the police version of the incident as undisputed fact, making sure to note the police allegation that the arrestee’s backpack was found with a sack of hammers a day after uncritically citing the police department’s obvious under-counting of the size of the main march.

The Brooklyn Bridge activists wound up marching to the Brooklyn housing project where another young Black man, Akai Gurley, was recently killed by police in a stairwell. (The officer who shot Mr. Gurley, instead of calling for help, texted his union representative.) A moment of silence was held for him. Although no time was lost in condemning activists as “guilty” following the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, the murder of Mr. Gurley was swiftly declared an “accident” by the corporate media and by Mayor Bill de Blasio without even the pretense of an investigation.

I was not on the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can not definitively say what did or did not happen. (A two-minute YouTube video shows a struggle underway, but not what might have precipitated it.) But the use of provocateurs by police to justify crackdowns is hardly unknown, so newspaper reports ought to be read with considerable caution. The uniform use of police violence against peaceful Occupy protestors and encampments should be borne in mind.

I will note that the sole example of anything violent I witnessed was when one person slapped the side of a police wagon with a hand, and several people immediately admonished that person not to do that. And this was on a spontaneous march after the main march in which the very point was to walk in the street to bring traffic to a halt in a symbolic gesture of “no business as usual.” Dozens of motorists stuck in traffic nonetheless honked their horns in solidarity, several putting their hands out their windows for the marchers to slap a “high-five” in support.

Besides a demonstration featuring parents and other family members of people killed by police in Washington, there were demonstrations in Boston, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other places. In Oakland, anti-racist activists followed up by chaining themselves to the city police headquarters.

Taking aim at systems of repression

The continuing nature of these protests — they have been nearly non-stop since August and the December 13 events likely saw the biggest single-day total of demonstrators yet — has led some people to ask if this is the beginning of an uprising. It is far too early to say, but the ongoing willingness to disrupt “business as usual” through civil disobedience tactics certainly merits serious attention. Any movement serious about effecting a change has to aim squarely at the system in which individual police officers, or district attorneys, or courts, operate.

As Angela Davis said in a lengthy interview with The Guardian, the recent police killings are part of a long chain of repression. She said:

“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice. … The problem with always pursuing the individual perpetrator in all of the many cases that involve police violence, is that one reinvents the wheel each time and it cannot possibly begin to reduce racist police violence. Which is not to say that individual perpetrators should not be held accountable – they should.”

Capitalism was built on slavery and the “triangular trade” in which which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. The North American plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying the genocide of Native Americans.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

Divide-and-conquer techniques, whereby we are set at one another’s throats for the scraps left to us by capitalist elites, are indispensable to the maintenance of massive inequality. No police officer says to him or herself, “I’m going to shoot this Black man to keep capitalism in place.” Nonetheless, the mixture of fear and loathing of Black men and women on the part of a White police officer from the suburbs with no connection to the community being patrolled is a product of structural racism. That racism, along with sexism, national hatreds, anti-Semitism and other backward ideologies, are propagated through a variety of social mechanisms, and survive partly because some people receive benefits from them and/or enjoy believing themselves superior to others through supremacist ideologies.

As long as working people allow ourselves to be divided, pointing figures at designated scapegoats, the economic structure that locks in inequality will remain untouched. That will require many people to examine and question their privileges. It would be unrealistic to expect SantaCon participants to do that, but the number of civil rights marchers greatly outnumbered SantaConners. We should not under-estimate the length of the task ahead, but that is a good start.