Saturday, December 29, 2007

Not My Idea, but I'll Take the Check, Thank You.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
-T.S. Eliot

I've just watched Naomi Klein on her Charlie Rose book flacking tour, and I must say, while there's no doubting her good intentions, (here I go again), it amazes me how what passes for insight and incisiveness is "just another white liberal's discovery of (fill in the blank)."

Her take on "disaster capitalism" (I can see her editor chiding her, "You need a buzz phrase! You know, like, "The L word," to make it stick), which basically boils down to a catastrophe (natural or human-made), posits that when a population is in calamitous shock that it is a prime time for monetization, baby. So, bomb the fuck out of the Japs and then bomb them with credit cards.

What dope can't see that? What dope hasn't seen that, a loooooong time ago?

It gets better, folks. In 2005 she was evidently on some big fat list of "world's leading intellectuals" or some such poll taken on the net. Whoopee friggin' doo, now brainiacs have an Oscar show cum People's Choice Awards. And although Chomsky came out on top, Camille Paglia, I see, is still around, although she did come in behind Wolfowtiz. Gotdam, I don't think I could live with myself if the world said Wolfie was smarter than me. Oy.

Given her lineage, Klein's prominence is just the natural growth spurt of a pre-ordained chain of events. In fact, one would have been surprised if she had not been successful, what with her blue blood.

Her forte, evidently, is globalization, and I thought it amusing in the least when she was going on about the WTO protests in Seattle a few back. She said, and I paraphrase, that "the irony of it all was that protests were happening worldwide, facilitated by globalized networks... that the protests were really about the march of corporations..." And other such horseshit.

I suppose this marks the latest litcrit fad as a conflation of the mundane and the obvious. My, how out of touch I am.

It also points out how certain people have opportunity before them, and how most people these days really have nothing to say, then plagarize, steal and co-opt. Gladwell's "Tipping Point" is a perfect example; what marketer worth their salt isn't familiar with what he talks about? Even more pernicious is the way in which recycling takes an evil bent, as with Herrnstein & Murray's "The Bell Curve." (Which couched 17th century "scientific" eugenics in a modern-day take and aims its scope at "inferior" mud peeps. Stephen Jay Gould, god love him, blasted Murray [Herrnstein died shortly after publication from intellectual dishonesty] to smithereens. Ah, Gould, where are those who have sipped from your golden cup?)

To her credit, Klein talked about the way Bechtel was monetizing water (I believe in Bolivia) and the way water prices rose 300% and the evil way it was claiming unfair competition when citizens were capturing rain water! What she failed to deconstruct are the ways in which, when corporations install themselves, they are aptly positioned to lobby and institute the system of payoffs in order to leverage their monetary interests into political reality and then subsequent leverages. Talk about unfair competition.

But even more egregious, she passes this "discovery" of hers off as if she were Columbus. The truth is, Alan Snitow produced and directed an excellent doc, Thirst, in 2004. While Klein told Rose that she had been laboring for four years on her book, anyone who's produced a movie -- especially one as auspicious as Thirst which spans several countries -- knows pre-production not to mention research and then raising money (unless one is rich) begins way before production, much less release, the latter sometimes occurring years after production.

I don't fault Klein for putting the topic out on the table for discussion and in fact appreciate it; I do fault her not citing Snitow's work. Surely a non-fiction writer as acclaimed as her ("No Logo") must do hardcore research. How could she not mention Snitow's film? It's not like it was relegated to the doc ghetto, after all, in perfect poetic/ironic symmetry, it aired on PBS's POV, Rose's own network!!!

$ = $ = $ = $ = $ = $ = $ = $

Now the conversation on my part will shift gears, although it relates to Klein's theme, because I want to talk about recent history; the rise of global capital and, specifically, the way it was enacted via its audience. Is it wrong for Klein to say that corporations go forth and run roughshod over the world in the pursuit of capital expansion and profit? Of course not, but one of the "problems" of her kind of analysis is that she falls into the trap of examining symptoms, or re-labeling symptoms as causes, while positing the wrong things as causal agents. Yes, corporations are "bad" and "do bad things", but they are only the expression of what enabled them to do so - an American capitalist system.

For the individual, dis-empowered as they may be, I think it can be persuasively argued that macro arguments such as these obfuscate and further the illusion that there's simply nothing to do. Thus, the, "What can I do, I'm just one person?" syndrome remains unchallenged.

Now drill further; by what means have these corporations extracted their booty from the laity? For my money, that's the trillion dollar question.

First, we have to understand an axiom; that as a basic principle, and insofar as it concerns global capital, nothing is reified in this world without an audience. Global capital as mass consumption defined in absolute, demands large common denominators.

Second, what are the means of capturing said audience?

A brief historical look back is first in order. (I've actually mentioned this before in this blog) It's a favorite question of mine to ask friends, "Only 3 or 4 decades ago, the baby boomers protested against and helped stop a war, ousted an evil president, fought for civil rights, and women's rights. But in the 80's all of that began to radically change with the rise of the Yuppies, Wall Street and the `greed is good' zinger, paving the way toward the present day march of globalization. How did that happen in such a short span of time?"

[By the way, I'm no Marxist and think Marx ultimately got it wrong. And while I think some of his critiques of capitalism are spot on, there's no way Marx - or anyone then - could have foreseen the current manifestation of global capital and the rise of the mega-corps.]

Think about this before you read on for my take, because it is one of the most serious things to consider in our lifetime. It encompasses everything; colonialism, the rise of multi-nationals, foreign policy, co-opted mass media, group-think, mind control (seriously)....

Over the years I've heard many different answers, but the one thing I noticed amongst them all was that they never boiled down to specifics; how this system was funded. (Let's leave the system of state-funded corporate welfare and theft via taxes alone for now. For a roiling critique of that, see: David Cay Johnston's "Perfectly Legal" - highly recommended, although a tough read.)

Here's my take, and it's simplicity itself; I remember being in school in the 80's and walking down Bruin Walk at UCLA. Then, Visa and Mastercard and probably AMEX had tables with freshly scrubbed people handing out applications for credit cards. And they were easy to get.

Fast forward to today, and we can now see the residue of that insidious scheme; record numbers for credit card debt, and a system of slavery so far-reaching that it touches virtually every facet of modern life.

Eighty percent of American households have at least one credit card.

Total credit card debt in the United States has reached about $665 billion on bank credit cards and about $105 billion on store or gas credit cards. According to the Fed's G19 release, the total is roughly $800 billion.
-Sources: and the Federal Reserve

I remember one spring, just before summer break, talking to a friend and asking what her plans were for the summer. "Oh, travel. Europe or Asia." I asked how she, a student, was going to fund such a trip. Her answer pre-figured this entry; "Oh, I'll charge it. You know, us college students, we're the privileged poor..."

And there you have it - too simple, you say?

On the face of it, yes, but when you think about the insidious way credit hooks each and every one of us consumers into the mix, I don't think it's a leap to see how the consumer conditioning finds fertile ground in this scenario.

What I really mean is, Marx got this completely wrong as well; religion isn't the opiate of the masses, it's the ability to get something, and get it now, "painlessly" ... that's the ultimate drug.

This is why it's much easier to punish the laity these days. Commit all kinds of horrendous shit and be the worst administration in history, but as long as the people have cable, McDonald's and their SUVs, they may groan and bitch, but they will not revolt. They will medicate by ... SHOPPING!!! Wasn't it dumbya himself who, after 9/11, urged Americans to go out and shop fer god's sakes? Read: suck on that crack pipe, and even though things are horrible, at least you'll feel better. The Boomers hadn't drunk the Kool Aid - yet - which helps explain why in the halcyon 60's/70's they got up off their asses and did shit, not just talked about it.

That addiction to a "vastly improved" consumer lifestyle provided the impetus for mass marketing on an unprecedented scale. Take Nike, for example. Their timing couldn't have been more perfect, pioneering out-sourcing in the 70's (cheap imports were already an American staple, marked by the, "Oh, `Made in Japan?' That's cheap," signifier), first in Japan, then all throughout Asia, because once the standard of living rose, labor became too expensive in Japan. Which raises another interesting question: What happens when labor has become too expensive everywhere? It's not like there are an unlimited number of undeveloped countries - we may not and probably won't see the end of this string in our lifetimes, but it has built in obsolescence.

The naysaying absolutist Friedman/Rand free-marketers point to raising standards of living for developing countries, completely ignoring business metrics such as total cost of doing business, a highly subjective but, necessary analysis when talking about something as impactful as out-sourcing. In an elementary equation, they'd say having a car(bon)-based transportation system, such as LA, is worth it because it raises standards of living. The immediacy of being able to get somewhere, pick up loads of stuff, then cart it back is, a high luxury. Despite terrible air. It's like saying you can have an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but every day someone is going to show up and piss in it. BUT, you've got an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The problem is now exacerbated by longevity and intransigence; simply, the familiar. Go into the hood to any Walmart (China's largest customer, the world's largest corporation and with all of the heirs in the top ten richest people in the world) and you'll see the drug-addicted going crazy. Why? Because they can buy a sweatshirt for ten bucks.

And while everyone's implicated, you can't fault the working poor for wanting to pay less, but you can point fingers at mega-corps like Walmart for extracting capital out of local communities and concentrating it in a tiny fraction of the population.

The implications spread out further; schools and an educational system that's simply incompetent insofar as educating kids into the real world with even a basic understanding of real-world economics, mass media (who suck on Walmart's crack pipe) and politicians who are intellectually dishonest about the way globalization wreaks havoc, both here and abroad.

I've gone on too long here, but if you're still with me, the only way to fight back is to consider your dollars as votes, or even, as JT said the other day, as a representation of your energy. Where you place that energy is something to consider.

Beyond a ten buck sweatshirt, and beyond the Klein-esque macro view of globalization, and in an ironic twist, it really does boil down to agency.

Much to Ayn Rand's chagrin.