THE COMMODIFICATION OF ALIENATION
©by Joseph Miranda
From the European revolutions of 1848 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world was haunted by a specter, the specter of communism. Now as we turn into the globalized, corporatized and policed world of the 21st Century, we find ourselves confronted no longer by the specter, but instead by a spectacle. This is the spectacle of corporate consumerism.
The spectacle has become a worldview, an ideology, a faith, a Leviathan which sweeps the globe. The spectacle's foes become the enemy of all mankind. Those who refuse to walk along the yellow brick road, or have the temerity to look at the elites behind the mask, are considered out of the loop. The spectacle takes the place that religion once did in controlling the public and justifying the domination of the ruling class. Indeed, the qualifying characteristic of the spectacle is that its very totality precludes any other worldview which might provide an alternative way of lifečand the way of life being promoted is alienation.
According to classical theory, work itself was the alienating experience, as people produced commodities to which they had no connection. But there was at least (in theory) a life beyond this alienation, a life which encompassed family, workers' associations, religion, an intellectual life, metaphysical experiences, or just plain debauchery. But what has happened is that alienation has spread out of the workplace to encompass the very ends of life itself.
It does not seem peculiar to your average American that he or she spends an increasing part of his life on the job (the 40 hour work week has long since passed into history for most workers and, for that matter, managers). Evenings and weekends are spent plunked down in the living room, eyes glued to a cathode ray tube which broadcasts corporate propaganda about what products ought to be bought. The commercials promise basic human needs shall be met by a timely purchase: sex (drink the right beer and nubile females will descend upon you), nutrition (eat fast food three times a day), family (if you use the right household product), security (invest in the right mutual fund), power (buy a car, rule the world), and so forth and so on.
But the reality is that these products can not produce any final satisfaction, indeed, they frequently produce the opposite of the desired effects. Drinking beer is probably one of the least effective ways of attracting the opposite sex, obsession with housecleaning comes at the expense of familial relations, luxury automobiles become a drain on one's resources. But more fundamentally, these commodities do not address underlying human needs and wants for real relations, nor for transcendental experiences. The only choice is to watch more television and buy more commodities in a never-ending cycle of alienation. So alienation now has become the commodity. It's all false fronts. There is something odd, isn't there, about these glowing boxes that are set up in every house in the nation, the new household deity around which all life is organized?
The worst offender is MTV. For all its pretense of hipness and rebellion associated with rock music, MTV is one big show in the interests of vicarious living. It ought to give us pause for concern that people have to watch a television program to live in the "Real World." The rock videos themselves are all part of the spectacle, the illusion--the videos themselves are not shot on videotape, they are filmed on film stock and so over-produced as to be on the level of commercials for major corporations which, of course, is what they are.
And the alienation is not just confined to consumerism. Television also broadcasts state propaganda about why one should hate the marginalized, with Orwellian intrusions into other people's private lives via live action police and hidden camera programs. The message is, do not live a real life for television will expose you as the odd person out. If you seek your pleasures in drugs, sex, or underground rock clubs, the all seeing eye will seek you out and expose you. So back to your television set, citizen! At the same time, the commercials promise participation in a world of splendors and satisfaction, if you just buy, buy, buy.
And it is getting worse, as commercials become more slick, more sophisticated. Watch reruns of commercials from the 1950s and 1960s and you can laugh at their naivete and amateurism. Watch commercials of the 1990s and you will see propaganda worthy of a Goebbels or Mao Tse-tung. Behold the land of the happy consumers! And woe to those who defy this system, for COPS will hunt them down. That there might be another mode of life other than work followed by television is heresy.
Yet none of this would be occurring if a sizable chunk of the public were not willing to march along or, more accurately, stare into their television screens and buy commodities on cue. The truth is that the system works for too many people. Obviously, the system works for the corporate executives and politicians at the top of the pyramid. It works for the guy or gal on the assembly line who can make his or her mortgage payments and enjoy the latest trash television. It works for the university radical who signs up for his/her military-industrial complex financed education (i.e., indoctrination, the campus equivalent of television). And it even works for that impoverished third world ghetto dweller who, by wearing the latest in Nike sneaker rip offs, can convince himself that he is part of the MTV generation. (By the way, Nike encapsulates so many of these themes: a commodity being turned into a fetish, televised propaganda masquerading as commercials, the globalized economy.)
Much of the problem exists because neither the left nor the right truly understands the nature of the system as it exits in the real world. The left, still under the delusions of 19th century Marxism, sees only the corporations and assumes the problem is capitalism and the marketplace. The right, with its own 18th century laissez faire fantasies, declares the problems to be big government.
Of course, neither leftist nor rightist view is correct. For most of the 20th century, state and corporation have worked together to enhance each other's powers. Call it what you like--the managerial revolution (in the school of James Burnham), the corporate state, the mixed economy, whatever. I like to use the term technocracy (as Theodore Roszak did), as this term encapsulates not only the reality of technocratic managers running society, but also the growth of technology as an instrument of state-corporate control.
Within the United States, the corporate-state alliance has been growing throughout the 20th Century, taking a leap forward with the New Deal and World War Two. "Power to the People" took on a new aspect as the government initiated the Tennessee Valley Authority. Meanwhile, industry got into the government act, running military production in World War Two. The Cold War saw the rise of the military-industrial complex, a complex which was replicated as virtually every other major industry got into bed with the state. Like it or not, the airlines, transistors, computers, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, the interstate highways, the universities, all the underpinnings of the modern economy, were underwritten by the state. The recent growth of the prison-industrial complex is but one more stage in this process.
And corporations and government do a good job of working together. Threats to the corporate order--as in Guatemala 1954, Chile in the 1970s, and Iraq in 1990-91--are met with the full force of the United States government and its global allies. More recently, the CIA has supposedly taken on a new mission, conducting espionage in the interests of US corporations abroad. At the same time, the corporations enforce state policies over the once free citizenry. Most notables of these policies is the corporate support for the US war on drugs, via corporate propaganda and sanctions against worker use of drugs. No real mystery what is going on here, other than to those whose worldview is still rooted in the pre-20th Century world.
Yet we have the charade of leftists still demanding a workers' revolution when the industrial working class is fast becoming obsolete, at least in the United States. Capital long ago figured out how to deal with worker agitation. The corporations now operate on a global level, shifting plants, jobs and markets worldwide, pulling the rug out from under local labor organizers.
Similarly, it is absurd for the right to talk of a national economy and defending "American jobs" when the very corporations that the conservatives have glorified have long since abandoned their national roots. And why shouldn't they? If the working class, the radicals, the conservatives have all abandoned their own interests for the spectacle, why should we expect the technocracy to respect them? Perhaps it was inevitable. For a modern economy to work, it has to go global--resources, jobs, consumers, manufacturing in the 20th century are too complex and too interdependent to be restricted to single nations. The corporate elites have recognized the situation and acted realistically. Everyone else is too entranced by the spectacle to recognize what is being done to them, much less take effective action. The communists had every opportunity to organize the globalization of the world economy. They failed and now the corporations are doing it, in partnership with government.
The United States government, through the expansion of NATO and the internationalization of its law enforcement agencies, is also going global. Together, the government-corporate alliance will become the World Empire, sold to the public as the expansion of the "market" and the defense against the dread threat of terrorists, gunrunners, drugs and other threats to the American way of life (i.e., threats to the state-corporate global alliance).
And this is why the war on drugs has become the centerpiece of US domestic and foreign policy. It is not because of the problems of drug addiction (in reality, drug related crime is only a fraction of the crime generated by corporate crime and state violations of human rights). Drugs are not a commodity as is everything else produced by the corporate-state technocracy. Drugs are an internal experience. They create an alternate perception of reality beyond that produced by the world of the corporate-state spectacle. Of course, many of the partisans of the 1960s drug revolution, such as Dr. Timothy Leary, openly advocated the use of psychotropics as a means to break through the boundaries set by technocratic society. Leary presupposed an educated approach to the drug experience. But even the negative experiences generated by drugs are revolutionary insofar as they are, again, not accounted for by the comfortable world promised by the spectacle. The creation of any state of consciousness other than that demanded by the technocracy is a threat insofar as it allows people to realize there is a world beyond the parameters of work plus consumerism.
The recent US inspired United Nations declaration of war against drugs is really a declaration of war against those peoples who refuse to be plugged into the globalized consumerist technocratic system. The war on drugs is an excuse to intervene anyplace where there is resistance to the technocratic world, and, indeed, this is demonstrated by the well established fact that much of the American military aid that is supposed to be allocated to anti-drug military operations is being used to support counterinsurgency operations against the peasant and radical sectors in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
It's all in the interests of democracy and the market we are told. But the truth is, there is no "market". We have, as Noam Chomsky points out to no end, a system which is a marketplace insofar as it brings benefits to the corporations and can be used to discipline the public by threat of job loss. At the same time, the system is socialist insofar as the public is forced to pay for corporate subsidies and national bailouts. Competition is ruthlessly crushed under the aegis of national security and the war on drugs (if we really had a marketplace, of course, illicit drugs would be allowed to compete with corporate pharmaceuticals).
The system is now being applied on a global scale. What kept countries honest in the past was the existence of hostile states. A nation that got too far from reality would be destroyed in the next round of wars or trade competition. To a degree, this is what happened to the old Soviet Union. The Kremlin kept the borders locked down, kept the Gulags running, tried to suppress the flow of information and capital, and what was the result? The communists could not compete with Western consumerism and the Soviets came crashing down in the end. But as the reach of the technocratic system grows to encompass the entire world, there will be no alternative that can challenge the system.
What is remarkable is that the very groups which are the targets of the technocracy's policies embrace them the most. Corporate downsizing does not evoke the public interest that the sensationalized trials of media stars does. The current state assault on the underclass under the guise of "law and order" does not spark protest demonstrations in the streets as they might have a mere generation ago. (Student protests can still be seen, though, when the demands are for affirmative action or higher salaries for teaching assistants; in other words, student radicalism in the 1990s is organized around the desire for inclusion in the technocracy. The older radical objective of smashing military-industrial domination of the university has long since been abandoned.) Illegal toxic dumping, malicious prosecutions of dissidents, military interventions abroad, corporate violations of labor laws, all these are swept away by the overarching spectacle of the commodity and the satisfaction it promises.
The obvious answer is that the media is being swallowed up by major corporations, with Disney owning ABC, General Electric NBC and Westinghouse CBS, and the corporations understand their class interests and generating propaganda accordingly. Again, one must look at the bigger picture and start asking some questions. The decline of organized labor, the government assault on civil rights, the growing incarceration of more Americans for trivial crimes (while corporate criminals and pathological law enforcement agencies run unchecked), the apathy among student radicals, all these can be connected to the industry of alienation. If it can not be purchased then, in this worldview, it does not exist.
In order for there to be mass support for political activism, let alone revolution, there has to be a perception of deprivation, a sense of of injustice reigning against the individual. There must also be a radical cadre which understands the political situation, and usually, there must be divisions among the ruling classes that can be exploited. But insofar as alienation has become the central feature of technocratic managerial society, these impetuses to revolution are not visible on the public horizon.
As briefly demonstrated, most radicals (of both the left and right persuasion) have not the faintest clue of what is going on. Indeed, there is something pathetic in the rantings of conservatives about "liberals" dominating America when the United States is in one of its most reactionary and capitalist eras. Unable to recognize the real ruling class, conservatives must look for the scapegoats in the long vanished dream of social democracy. For conservatives to take action would require them to acknowledge that it is the very corporations and national security state that they provided the ideological justifications for during the Cold War that are at the root of the problem.
And it's not much better ion the left. While the 1960s are often viewed as the rise of student activism, the truth is that the 1960s were the end of revolution. Those who grew up at Berkeley and Selma and Woodstock are now in power in the America of the 1990s. And the result? The United States is (again) in one of its most reactionary, bigoted, imperialist, and dare I say stupidest periods in its history. The 1960s were a false dawn. The radicals of the era had every opportunity to win, yet they threw it away because, in the end, they allowed themselves to be sucked up by the very technocratic system they claimed to have abhorred, most notably that of the universities which are the central feature of statist-corporate indoctrination. (Of course, the repressive state-corporate policies to suppress radicalism must also be acknowledged here. The destruction of much of the radical leadership via programs such as COINTELPRO was also a significant factor in the decline of the left.)
The real question is, where is this all heading? Can we continue to go on forever watching television, buying commodities, and jailing everyone who refuses to march along? There is a certain franticness in the ruling classes these days, manifested in it inability to win the war on drugs, in the passing of ever more laws, in the unending banality and slickness of television.
And the system needs to keep people bedazzled. The groups on which the technocracy once relied are no longer needed--workers (to produce the goods), civil rights activists (to give the system legitimacy), teenagers (the big market), all have become expendable, or too dangerous to keep around. Even corporate executives are known to grumble about the endless hours they must spend at managerial jobs which are increasingly disconnected from any real life. So we have downsizing to destroy organized labor, and law and order to keep the underclass in line. While the ruling elites globalize and go international, the old symbols still have their uses. Nationalism, xenophobia, fear of terrorism and crime, all can be used to justify increasingly repressive measures at home and intervention abroad. So the spectacle sweeps on.
Or maybe not.
The obvious point is that any revolutionary movement which wants to succeed would have to have as its core a non-alienating experience. It would have to abandon the dead ghosts of "workers' revolution." And it would have to reach out to the critical class in technocratic society,the class that includes the managers, the computer operators, the cybernetic scientists. Many of these people are quite fed up with the spectacle, and are in a position to do something about it. Consider for a moment the impact that a strike of computer programmers would have in bringing down the system. Then realize that these are the people whom we ought to organizing.
The failure of the left and the right to challenge the supremacy of the technocracy was in the failure of traditional political radicalism to understand that the industrial revolution was coming to an end. The world is now headed for the information age. The Internet, and other developments in cybernetics (virtual reality, nano-technology, related developements in bio-engineering) will allow us to change not only our perception of reality, but to change reality itself. As I have expounded upon elsewhere, the key to the next revolution will be in seizing the means of information. By recreating ourselves in the image we desire , mankind can end alienation. That is a goal worth fighting for.