The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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Make Your Predictions

Time to call it: I’m predicting 292 electoral votes for Mr. Barack. Leave your predictions in the comments. Whomever guesses closest is a communist gets some sort of prize. The prize may or may not be a personal dinner with Pres. Obama, or an Obama Candy Bar, or just bragging rights.

Also, this is amazing: Alan Greenspan has admitted that the free market sucks ass. Or something similar. I wrote in Cedars a couple weeks ago that this current economic mess should cause a crisis of faith for freewheeling free market fundamentalists. I’m glad Mr. Greenspan is a fan of my column.
“You know why the ‘invisible hand’ is invisible? Because it doesn’t exist.”

My new Cedars articles (due Oct. 30th) are uninspired, but sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles. One piece is a review of Illuminated World’s “The Book: New Testament”. The other is an article begging students not to vote based on complete lies: Obama is a Muslim, Obama has a fake birth certificate, Obama hates the national anthem, and so forth. I ended by suggesting they utilize sites like Political Compass to find out which candidate more closely shared their own views. All I’m looking for is one person to say “Hey I’m still voting for McCain, but thanks to you I’m no longer voting based on blatant lies about Obama.”

“Democracy is always a hindrance to the market plan.”

That title is a quote from Naomi Klein, whose Shock Doctrine perfectly explains what is currently going on America right now viz. our incredible economic upheaval. According to Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” The ideas lying around are accurately described by Klein as “disaster capitalism,” which is the modus operandi of neo-conservatives who love to capitalize on crises – actual or perceived – to implement policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. Even Newt Gingrich seems taken aback: “Watching Washington rush to throw taxpayer money at Wall Street has been sobering and a little frightening.”

They’re throwing taxpayer money at Wall Street via the “Paulson Plan,” a plan so enormous (851 words) that as of Tuesday Sen. John McCain still hadn’t even read it. When he gets around to it (a timeout might help), I suggest he pay particular attention to:
Sections 6 and 10: raise our debt limit by 3 trillion and hands Sec. Paulson $700 billion to play with. Where’d they get this number from? According to a Treasury spokeswoman, “”It’s not based on any particular data point. We just wanted to choose a really large number” (emphasis mine).
Section 8: lets Sec. Paulson do as he wishes without any real oversight – “Decisions by [Paulson] pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency” (emphasis mine). Comforting, eh?

In other words, we supposedly can’t afford $150 billion for universal healthcare but $700 billion for Wall Street fatcats is simply A-OK (not to mention the $400 million per day we’re spending on the unjust Iraq War). I swear off credit cards and my only debts are from school… I get no help whatsoever, but Washington’s corporate drinking buddies can have whatever they need when their own sorry asses get in trouble. It’s enough to convince me that when Vermont secedes I’m definitely going with ’em.

I opened with Naomi Klein and so I’ll leave you with the full text of her analysis of our market meltdown: (more…)