Column: What lasts? Part Three
Artists and Revolutionaries
Allow me a brief tangent about rock music and the Revolution; I am a 1960’s kid and I cannot forget a childhood illusion that my Woodstock Nation would transform our world. Music, love, peace, revolution, all were One, right? As the Eagles put it lyrically, “we thought we could change the world with words like love and freedom.”
The artistic class can make capital gentler and kinder in specific areas, and that is not a small matter. I hold J. K. Rowling in high regard for the way she gave away so much to philanthropy that she is poorer than an artist like Yoko Ono whose wealth grows by investments and interest earned in financial markets.
The successful artists whose lives are comfortable beyond the levels of working people, will not bring the Revolution. This is not a condemnation nor a charge of hypocrisy, I hope. I mean only to explain a failure of ‘60’s Art to start the People’s Revolution.
Neil Young wrote three songs with lyrics very much addressed to rock music and revolutionary politics. Thrasher, Hippie Dream and Walk like a Giant are aimed directly at why 1960’s music didn’t overturn the world. And Rockin’ in the Free World is for all rock musicians whose music sounds revolutionary but is still a sold product. Young is clear about himself and his music: he is not leading anyone to a new world order by political means. His focus is on interior changes; Eisenstein advises each individual to being conscious of the Story living inside your head.
Where do the most successful, colossally wealthy rock musicians, spend their money? They do not just spend it, they invest it. They want it to grow, they find capitalist investment opportunity to earn from their money by projects in real estate development, or in other artists’ musical production, or even found charitable corporations for some pet enthusiasm which may indeed do some good. The same goes for literary or cinematic or any other form of art. Artists do not lead mass insurrections, and though their cultural products might sound or appear to give spirit to the masses who might revolt, the arts are monitored by the ruling class to be profitable but not truly dangerous. Dangerous art is mysteriously hard to find.
To sum up: since they have no desire to see the system collapse, successful artists — no matter their ultra-liberal progressive political stances — are no danger to capitalism. The world of capital privileges artists through the social and material status they achieve. Some become very wealthy indeed – right, Sir Paul?
Art is beautifully, humanely inspiring, and anti-capitalist revolution must be violently carried — and therein lies the conflicted relationship, to my eyes.
The mind of another is a wonderful thing to own: a capitalist manifesto
Let me tell what I think is a parable about ownership and how being an owner is a mighty psychological fact. Today, as I bushwhacked in wild woods north of the Cape Horn bluffs in the Slocan Valley, I walked about an old homestead long-abandoned, and enjoyed myself immensely imagining the lives of the former homesteaders who’d built cabins and tried to go “back to the land,” as we used to say in the Sixties. The 90-something-acre parcel was for sale and I was trespassing on this place where there was no evidence humans had lived there for quite a few years. The forest, the stream, the wildlife, the rocks, the lake … did not mind my trespass.
When I got back to my car by the padlocked gate, I found this note on my windshield left by someone who’d come by: “No Trespassing. Respect other’s private property.”
Property, I thought. Was there not a pop song about signs and Mother Nature? You know the one… By the same band who sang about an E.T. from space who agonized with his human hosts after a tour of Earth, “Oh you crazy fools, don’t you know you had it made? You were living in Paradise…”
The system of property has colonized all minds in wealthy and poor nations alike. There was even a phrase in English common law, for “The Rights of Property.”
The “Haves and have-nots” might as well be different species, in the minds of people who are totally acculturated to the rule of capital. If you are a have-not, woe to you in the world we live in. Your right to life is severely compromised when you have nothing material to bring to the Market but your bare labour power. You have no right to life if you cannot pay the owners who have the material you need for subsistence.
Individual Psychology and Capital
The mind of an individual is the responsibility of that individual to cultivate.
This might seem a trite declaration. But it is in no way an easy thing for the single individual to be self-made within the interior of the mind. Social animals that we are, humans are made — “socially constructed” is the postmodern phrase — by the other humans around them to a very large extent. For example, gender is socially constructed.
When people speak of culture wars today, they refer to issues like gender identity, race, and religion, as factors individuals have a right to choose. The affluent West is the home of this ultra-liberal, progressivist narrative. “I am a non-binary person, using they-them pronouns, and I identify as an indigenous Buddhist” is a statement comprehensible only in certain parts of the world. In other places, it might be dangerous to make such a declaration. The whole world does not share the West’s penchant for tolerance and acceptance of self-determination for each individual.
It is the very purpose of culture to inculcate basic conformity in the individuals who constitute society. How else can masses of people live together peacefully, in co-operative ways, without some “common denominators.” As the ideal of Freedom and Choice becomes more and more developed in an individualist direction, people feel their truest liberation is in possessing a unique identity, not a community role. Better even than a unique individual would be to have others call you a celebrity.
Perhaps readers recall a scene from the film, Fight Club? “You are not your car” etc.
[view it here:
But a lot of us seem to believe we are indeed the things that our money can buy and we can possess. Obituaries are a telling clue as to what constitutes identities now.
Being You, Being Free
Capitalism in Western liberal democracies has no problem with any hyper-individual perspective. It is no threat to the system. It gives more market opportunity to any capitalist who can sell a product or service to consumers who need them to assert their identity. Social critics and intellectuals decry our individualism as narcissistic, an obsession with self abetted by the internet and cellphone, but their elite critique from the wastelands of academe do not change foundational consumer behaviour.
[Christopher Lasch was such a critic. He was an early witness to how modern market society shaped a particular psychology. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_of_Narcissism]
The Market is the arena of freedom that capitalists defend, and no other part of culture matters as much to capital as this freedom, the freedom to sell and buy. And so in the West, for the only time in history, the power of commerce to shape, mould, massage, engineer, or construct minds for the express purpose of bringing individuals to the Market has been freed from the constraints that all foregoing societies took for granted to be normal and natural. Advertising for the commodities offered in the Market is amazingly pervasive, invasive, and powerful in capitalism.
Again, I refer readers to Charles Eisenstein’s essays and videos on the meaning of happiness in materialist modern-market conditions. Each of us is presumed to be “a bubble of psychology” in capitalism, each pursuing happiness in a Market of materials and experiences — which we expect to deliver identity and a good life.
Societies of the past all had some fundamental structure to ensure children became “socialized” and to make adults conform to a set of cultural common grounds of behaviour, speaking and thinking. Schools were a modern institution to promote this. Governments now regularly speak about some “values” that all citizens share, like “Canadian values.” We still have a lingering idea of Canadian community.
But the rights of capitalists to sell us their goods and services supersedes the older social norm of a community regulating the influences brought to bear on members’ individual minds. Desire and appetite are essential to the Market, therefore, the sellers in capitalist normalcy can legitimately create desire, need, insecurity, or anxiety in the service of selling their goods and service. Constantly-produced novelties need new appetites to create demand, and the powers of “marketing science” respond; this is a science that pays talented practitioners very well.
[Modern capitalism inhabits our psyche in subtle ways, as this writer/author argues: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/pandemic-burnout-society/ “In the battle for survival, the question of the good life does not arise.” ]
Advertising has become less and less about the material on offer for sale, and more and more about the interior of the consumer’s mind. A truck is not a truck, it is a visible sign of virtues, like loving spousal behaviour or caring parenthood, proud responsible community service or an adventurous free-spirited independence. A financial plan is not about saving, it is about securing the future – which any loving parent/spouse/child must want for the sake of the people who depend on them. A virtuous person can buy their way into a good life for self and others.
[Here is a straightforward article against manipulative advertising. It is posted on a site which is pro-capitalist. Capitalists are always willing to criticize their peers in the name of pleasing consumers and giving them the impression that the critic is on their side, protecting them from other marketeers. But capitalists can all agree their system is impervious to change. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/29-psychological-tricks-to-make-you-buy-more/?fbclid=IwAR2T12GJE2GZbJJKe8ov0kzE-ZMsluxMMC4kHIbsb5jdxYDZ5ihWMwgJLPw]
The contribution of science and technology to this power of capital over our minds is pretty self-evident. Since the invention of radio, the tools never stop improving.
To me, this is one of the astounding facts of life in Canada, that our individual psychology is so subjected to messages whose purpose is to change our behaviour in the vastly-expanded arena of Market choices, to take our money – which is to say, the time from our lives to labour to earn money – from us by selling.
Of course we expect government to protect us from malicious advertising, and there are indeed “codes” and “standards” marketing has to adhere to, by law. If you expect government protection from brain-washing, and good corporate citizenship, then none of what I said about how the State serves capital has made an impression on you. Capitalists are the ruling class. The State is their instrument. Politicians are their servants; politicians are absolutely of the mediary classes.
Spiritual improvement and Capital
It is not absolutely a fact that all of us in capitalism are materialists with a narrow focus on our own consumption of things and possession of goods. Very many of us also pay attention to non-material aspects of life, our interior development of wisdom, spirituality, character, and “right thinking.” These cannot be bought.
Or can they? Truly, it is easy for anyone to quickly bring to mind how the Market promises services and products that will indeed expand your mind and nourish your soul, ameliorate your thoughts and character, and of course improve your love life and relationship skills. Books and educational services are two universally-tried-and-true ways members of creative-cultural mediating classes can earn comfortable livelihoods while offering goods and service to each other and to the masses lower in the social pyramid. Fortunate gurus who love to impart knowledge and art, can monetize their passion. Follow your bliss.
Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, referred to the way in which Western people in particular seem to identify themselves with, to “possess,” experiences such as meditation practice, spiritual adventures in exotic locales like Mount Everest or Bali. He called it “spiritual materialism.”
There is little more to say to make the point, that capitalism is never going to be materially transformed by individuals who seek the inward path of purifying the heart, mind, or soul and attempt to “transcend” the grubbiness of secular life in capitalism. Only a self-denying hermit existing in self-sufficient isolation (a dream many Sixties kids experimented with, in remote areas of Canada like the Kootenays) really escapes the Market’s dominion — the rest of us, pursuing happiness in its realm are subjugated to manipulation of our finest impulse to be good people.
Buddha, Jesus, LaoTzu: these are not a type of individual we should ever expect now to appear, propagate their unworldly wisdom, transform human consciousness, in the system we’ve constructed. Some phenomena of the past are forever in the past. Saintly people still exist, but not the world-forming variety.
I’m copping out on forming my own conclusions, substituting instead a lengthy quote from a novel; I leave my readers to intuit why I think this is an appropriate summary of the theses about capitalism and our yearning to good human being.
“One of the curiosities of anger, of course, is that the more you focus it outward, aiming it at the injustices of the world, the more it parses your own self-pity and resentment. So: what was so enraging? Her own life.
“She thought of the multitude.
“Trillions of human beings wrapped like a fog about their home star. The mind collapsed at the scale and the numbers. But if ethics meant anything at all, it meant not letting the largeness of the human population overwhelm our moral knowledge that life is lived individually and that even when agglomerated into billions and trillions they deserve better than being used as tools. That the overwhelming majority of this vast mass of humanity was poor, living precarious and subsistence lives in leaky shanty bubbles, eating ghunk and drinking recycled water – this fact made this more, not less, true. These were the people least able to help themselves. They should be helped, not exploited….
“If we are powerful, we can make things better,” sang her parents, “but we are made unclean by the fact that we have power. If we are powerless, then we remain clean, but we cannot make things better.”
“…Iago, I’m sorry,” said Diana. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you.”
Iago replied with characteristic obliqueness. “Of course it is not comfortable to feel that human beings, who breathe and feel and hope as we do, are a resource we exploit. It is a very terrible thing. But the alternative is, to live a hermit life.”…
“You wanted me to be angry. You wanted me to feel that so that I would confront this fact of power, that to rule means to treat people in that way.”
“The stakes are very high.”
“What? Overthrowing the Rulers?”
“Ha! No, no. That would be power politics, a very desirable outcome, I think – overthrowing tyranny. But that is the oldest currency in human affairs. Power politics, I mean. It happens or – it doesn’t happen, and Homo sapiens carries on.”
— Adam Roberts, Jack Glass [edited]