A critique on capitalism in popular culture
The collapse of competing economic ideologies by the 1990s, led to the supremacy for an invisible ideology; it believed only in the power of markets, it dissolved our future, and created an existential ennui that has left many of us disjointed from time and alienated from ourselves and our environments. In the video essay, “Hypernormalisation,” Adam Curtis includes a brief clip from an interview with a Russian woman during the late Soviet era. The interviewer asks the woman what her dreams are, she replies, befuddled, “what are dreams? What purpose do they serve?” For Curtis, this is symptomatic of the late Soviet Union, the stagnation of communism produced an existential ennui.
The dreams of scientific Marxism had failed to produce a futuristic, stateless utopia and instead created an oppressive state capitalism that had reduced their lives to little more than ensuring that numbers increase on production charts.
The end of Soviet expansion, the misadventures in Afghanistan (itself a prophetic omen for American imperialism), economic decline, and creative stagnation would come to give Western leaders a false sense of triumph and victory. It will also foreshadow our own creative stagnation that has cast a spectre over the world, which is Capitalist Realism.
With the fall of the USSR in 1991, Francis Fukuyama predicted the “end of history,” understood as the struggle of one civilization against another and the conquest of a single world order. In this vision of the future, liberal democracies would spread to country after country, and would usher in a coherent and copacetic, global vision of economic and political philosophies. Pilloried at the time and even more so after 9/11, various criticisms were levelled at Fukuyama, most popularly that “Western Civilisation” was at war with a new global power, Islam. Media outlets, desperate for a new boogeyman, and with the help of American intelligence agencies, manufactured a single, imperial entity out of numerous disparate factions all claiming religious inspiration. According to these theorists and media personalities, instead of “ending” history, we were being ushered into a new era of clashing civilizations; Islam versus the West. However, they were quite wrong.
In reality what was happening, for Soviet Russia and Western society, was that history was already beginning to end in the 1970s. What was largely believed to be true, was that American capitalism was the true, victorious engine of innovation and progress, but what was actually true was that the spark of American innovation in the post-war period came not from the free market, but from the government sponsored race to land a man on the moon, a vision not of American politicians but of Communist men with utopian dreams of the future.
American belief in progress and the future only took root due to the impulsive desires of American politicians to beat godless Communism. This is not to say that America has ever lacked imaginative dreamers, on the contrary, many important innovations and research was completed by American men and women. What mattered was that the American government also shared those dreams and contributed funding to make non-marketable future visions possible.
Once the Space Race had been won in 1969, President Nixon, never a champion of the NASA program, cut funding for three additional Moon landings after Apollo 17, plans for Mars missions, a Moon base, and a permanent space station went unsupported. Once victorious, American politics reverted to their base impulses; the belief in the supremacy of the market over of all things. From Reagan and Thatcher, to Obama, Trudeau, and Macron, none of the elected leaders of the Western world know how to imagine a world that is not dominated and decided by the mindless “free market,” what is possible is only possible by the whims of an hand that, in theory, is invisible, but is subject to the manipulations and interventions of Mammonist greed of corporate raiders and fund managers.
The prioritization of market capitalism led to two major outcomes. Primarily, the period after the 1970s led to the beginning of wealth inequality under which America is currently suffering. The fetishisation of wealth has lead to American politicians believing that capital hoards are beneficial to society, which they have been proven, time and time again, to be false.
In reality, capital hoards and the rise in prominence of financial institutions lead to worsening conditions for income earners (this includes the invented “middle class” but also for working classes and people living with disabilities). Secondly, while the cancellation of the Apollo missions did not directly cause the end of the belief in future progress, it is symptomatic of this trend. Famously, President Carter asked Americans to believe in a different world in the wake of the Oil Crisis. Instead of embracing the challenge of living in a oil-reduced world.
This pessimism is not content to parasitize our elected leaders, but it pervades across many major areas of our lives. We no longer trust in our institutions to perform, instead we rely on two-dimensional data and statistics to inform us without the reality of context. We have turned our entire life over to middle-managers, people who have jobs without duties; this is the dream realised on neo-liberal capitalism. That the state could largely relinquish control of the economy over to the corporate interests and let them exploit benefits produced by labour. Ironically, the illnesses of market capitalism pervade even among our supposed mortal enemy (at least until their recent destruction), Islamic State. Little else needs to be brought to bear to crush the criticism that Fukuyama was pre-emptive in his analysis.
If what matters is only what can be bought and sold in a “free” market, then the potential progress of the future, cannot be countenanced. We become locked in what has been described as “Capitalist Realism.”
The future visions of our predecessors that the benefits of industry and automation would be shared equally among the people of our society has been stolen from us and instead of attacking those responsible for the theft of our productivity, we are encouraged to attack the weakest among us as being responsible for our collective failure of imagination. Instead of challenging our bosses for greater share in the benefits of our labour, for more time with our loved ones, for more time to engage in personal pleasures, and for more time to attend to our health and well being. We end up attacking those who enjoy even a portion of these benefits.
Instead of envisioning a better world, reimagining the methods of distribution of profits and benefits of labour, we become locked in the sickness of nostalgia and fear of change. We purchase and re-purchase our past in an attempt to relive the future that was lost to us. In the ennui of our period of history, we long for something better, but we have the sickness of nostalgia that prevents us from realising and imagining better futures. We are hampered by the all-pervading sense that there is only market capitalism, that all that has value is determined by buyers and sellers in stock exchanges and commodity markets and that our elected leaders can only tweak tax rates, pull levers, and make mildly inspiring but meaningless speeches.
We no longer believe in change, but in minor iterations of our present reality. Instead of experimenting with alternative societies, we continue the drudgery of capitalism with reproductions of previous aesthetics, failing to reproduce the conditions of more inspirational generations, haunted by previous societies, we fetishize them, we become fully hauntological.
Even our cultural artefacts reflect this; in every version of Sim City, our ability to affect change is restricted to minor bylaws and tax rates. Instead of drawing on our struggles against injustice and inequality, ending slavery, child labour, racial discrimination, banning CFCs, providing pensions and health care, we are reduced to imaging only what is possible through the market, we are reduced to accepting only that which the market has decided has value. Our imagination has been so thoroughly restricted to the current capitalist reality that we can only imagine the end of the world, whether that be from plague (Contagion), zombies (Day of the Dead and countless others), catastrophic environmental collapse (2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Walking Dead), space-borne destruction (Armageddon), or nuclear destruction (Sum of All Fears), even our science fiction visions are capitalist in essence (District 9, Elysium, The Expanse, Cowboys & Aliens, Downsizing (possibly the most egregious film in recent history), The Boss Baby, etc.); they fail to think creatively and imagine a world outside of capitalism. In these various realities, it is as if they are tacitly admitting that we will die by capitalism rather to reinvent ourselves to save ourselves from our own base, avaricious impulses.
The experience of our reality is that not only are we possible of being more than sum total of our market or monetary values, but that we must be able to imagine being beyond value. We must be able to imagine a better future where our health and well-being is not decided for us by middle managers and politicians who fret ceaselessly about the daily, irrational, whims of the market, but also we we must imagine this future for the well-being of the planet and the survival of our species.
We cannot wait for the market to discover whether or not there is profit in preventing climate change, that time has come and gone and the time for action is now. The poor, the people living with physical and mental disabilities, and the workers cannot wait for American insurance companies to determine whether there is profit in providing care. It does not require us to have an Other to improve ourselves. To fail in this endeavour of imagination is not to end the world, humanity will continue to live on and return to history but as misery, not triumph. However, we can do better.