Precarity, 19th Century Style

September 6, 2011

If any single factor dominated the lives of nineteenth-century workers it was insecurity. They did not know at the beginning of the week how much they would bring home at the end. They did not know how long their present work would last or, if they lost it, when they would get another job or under what conditions. They did not know when accident or sickness would hit them, and though they knew that some time in middle age — perhaps in the forties for unskilled laborers, perhaps in the fifties for the more skilled — they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour, they did not know what would happen to them between then and death. Theirs was not the insecurity of peasants, at the mercy of periodic — and to be honest, often more murderous — catastrophes such as drought or famine, but capable of predicting with some accuracy how a poor man or woman would spend most days of their lives from birth to the graveyard. It was a more profound unpredictability, in spite of the fact that probably a good proportion of workers were employed for long periods of their lives by a single employer. There was no certainty of work even for the most skilled: during the slump of 1857-8 the number of workers in the Berlin engineering industry fell by almost a third.


For the world of liberalism insecurity was the price paid for both progress and freedom, not to mention wealth, and was made tolerable by continuous economic expansion. Security was to be bought — at least sometimes — but not for free men and women but, as the English terminology put it clearly, for “servants” — whose liberty was strictly constrained: domestic servants, “railway servants,” even “civil servants” (or public officials).

–Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital (1848-1875)

Piracy is Looting — And That’s OK

August 29, 2011

If you support piracy, you should support looting.

I say this as a supporter of piracy, one trying to come to a consistent position on property as a whole. Plenty of people defend piracy, plenty more pirate secretly, and usually they will have an excuse, like “Pirates buy more music” or “I’m going to the show, so I’m supporting the artist” or “I don’t have money, so the company wouldn’t have gotten me to pay anyway.” They draw boundaries between the good or neutral piracy that they practice, and the bad piracy and theft that others practice. Instead of creating a preserve where the things that I and my friends do is ok, I’m more interested in expanding categories so we can see how what we do is aligned with what others do too.

So what is piracy? It is the deliberate violation of the current system property rights. Our system states that corporations can buy, sell, and own the exclusive right to copy music recordings, films, and books. Anyone else who does so is a criminal. Even though many people possess the means to easily copy and distribute intellectual property, they aren’t allowed. So what happens? We do it anyway. We torrent, we join password-protected communities, we Google music blogs, we upload to YouTube under disguised names, we rip and burn, we violate the laws of property willingly, continuously. We do this because we can. Because it’s easy. Because we know the media companies are greedy exploitative bastards. And because many of us don’t have the disposable income to blow indiscriminately on records, movie tickets, DVDs, and books.

And pay is indeed an important, if neglected, component of piracy. As the SSRC report “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” states,

Media piracy has been called “a global scourge,” “an international plague,” and “nirvana for criminals,”1 but it is probably better described as a global pricing problem. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. If piracy is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, it is because these conditions are ubiquitous. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the price of a CD, DVD, or copy of Microsoft Office is five to ten times higher than in the United States or Europe. Licit media goods are luxury items in most parts of the world, and licit media markets are correspondingly tiny.

It’s piracy or nothing. Or to appropriate someone else’s words, Share or Die.

So what about looting? Looting is the widespread theft of goods on a mass scale. Looters violate property laws, but many people, including pro-piracy people, will tell you it’s different, that taking a pair of sneakers isn’t the same as downloading an mp3. That seems true on the face of it, but it relies on some faulty claims.

First of all, shoes cannot be shared the way I share an mp3 — it benefits only the person who possesses it at the time. In economic jargon, shoes are “rivalrous.” Now, while it may be true in a limited metaphysical sense that shoes are rivalrous, in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced. In fact, if you had $100 to spend, you could go to the store right now and pick out one pair of shoes among many. Very few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase. However, we might not be able to afford shoes at any given time. I myself have had to put off replacing worn-out shoes until I could amass enough money to get new ones. I knew that once I had the money, I would have no trouble buying the shoes. Even if other people bought shoes, it wouldn’t prevent me from getting the exact same, or a nearly identical, type of shoe. So this kind of overproduction of mass-produced goods, combined with the widespread inability for many people to pay for these goods, renders the point about rivalrous goods moot.

Now to get that shoe for free, to steal it, would require committing a crime that seems very different from downloading an mp3. In the eyes of the law, in both cases you have violated someone else’s private property rights. But stealing a pair of shoes requires a different kind of physical activity to pull off. Illegally downloading an mp3 just means I sit behind a computer and type, the same way I check my email or do my taxes. I could do it in a cafe without disturbing a single person’s enjoyment of their latte. But looting will probably entail damaging some property — broken locks, smashed windows, and the like. Some people will find this a tad impolite. They think someone who entertains thoughts of violating property laws — laws governing physical property, they have no problem burning a CD for a friend — morally flawed. It creates a mess. In fact, Rudy Giuliani gentrified New York City using the belief that messes were worse than other types of crimes. People who think this way would prefer that you and I walk around unshod rather than make a mess. In fact, as long as you don’t make a mess, they don’t really care about whether you have shoes, food, healthcare, or anything else you need to survive. That, in my book, is some fucked up priorities, revealing, for all their peaceful coffee-sipping, a profound flaw in moral thinking.

So looting says the same thing that piracy says: we can take it and, by coordinating masses of others, we will. If we could torrent clothes and food using Starbucks WiFi, we would, but until then, we can loot from the vast stores of stuff that’s already been produced. Either way, we damage the industries we take from. And that is good, because these industries are terrible, greedy, inhuman industries that exploit their workers and cheat their customers. You could ask Steve Albini, or you could ask any of these women in a Nike sweatshop.

In the London riots, a warehouse owned by Sony housing materials to be distributed by Pias was burned down. Thousands of DVDs and CDs were lost. My first thought was, “Oh no, independent artists will be hurt!” My second thought was “Who was going to buy all that shit?” In fact, the fire could be a boon to some of the affected parties, since they’ll get insurance payout on stock that a decent internet connection renders worthless, unsaleable. Just a bunch of flat shiny discs that fewer and fewer people want, that fewer and fewer people can pay for. Isn’t this the world of pirates, the world where art doesn’t need factories and warehouses and sweatshops, where everyone can pay according to their ability, where the giant corporations who suck income from us at every turn end up looking like this? This is what our piracy, our looting can do.

Holding up the “indie labels” was a way to try and make us feel bad, to think that looters were hurting nice little companies run by nice indie people. It functions the same as this picture:

A nice old man, rummages through the wreckage of his shop. “I’ll probably have to close because I haven’t got insurance,” and we are supposed to imagine the terrible looters who took “a number of small items, including his kettle and cotton wool” from this poor old man. How could they do this? And we forget that the reason people rioted was not that they hated this old man, but because the police murdered yet another one of them, and then roughed up a teenager at a peaceful demonstration against the killing.

While we don’t know what this man’s relationship was to the people who stole his kettle, we should be aware that looting, like piracy, can harm people who we don’t think deserve it. We can pirate independent art and loot independent businesses as easily as the big name stuff, even more easily. Some music fans adopt an ethical stance, saying they support artists they like in various ways — promising to buy the CD, paying for a ticket, purchasing a T-shirt. There’s no reason looters can’t have the same ethics, against hurting people and against destroying the property of those who contribute to the community. I suspect many already do.

An NPR story about looting (related to Katrina hysteria, where we discovered that white people never loot), argues there can be ethics of looting. “Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one’s own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?” Anita Allen asks. These silly conditionals are a middle class affectation, designed to obscure the fact that it doesn’t take a catastrophic emergency for needs to go unmet. Take that part out. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

The people that say information wants to be free don’t say that shoes want to be free. Or that iPhones want to be free. Or that food wants to be free. Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. To say so is to disavow the truth: we want information to be free, because we know that is the way it should be. That art, knowledge, and formulas to life-saving medicines shouldn’t be commodities, but should be available on different terms, not exclusively on something as capricious as our ability pay. This is not some special preserve of art. This is true of clothing, of food, and of gadgets. It is true of survival, and of pleasure too.

Pirate Capitalists will tell you there are new business models out there, that piracy can reinvigorate a moribund media production and distribution system. I think they are wrong, that they are mostly hucksters, and that very few people will end up profiting much from a pirate media economy. But very few people benefit from capitalism at all, though for a while we fooled ourselves into thinking that plenty of people would do just fine under it. Our task is not to find new business models for the current system. What we need to do is realize that the art and social relations we want cannot be supported by the current system, and that the current system needs radical change. This change will come from the gravediggers that the current system of private property produces, the people who don’t benefit from it and have the power to destroy it. Pirates. Looters. Us.

Lenin on “the struggle against petty-bourgeois revolutionism”

July 3, 2011

It was, however, different with Bolshevism’s other enemy within the working-class movement. Little is known in other countries of the fact that Bolshevism took shape, developed and became steeled in the long years of struggle against pettybourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter and, in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle. Marxist theory has established—and the experience of all European revolutions and revolutionary movements has fully confirmed—that the petty proprietor, the small master (a social type existing on a very extensive and even mass scale in many European countries), who, under capitalism, always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness. A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another—all this is common knowledge. However, a theoretical or abstract recognition of these truths does not at all rid revolutionary parties of old errors, which always crop up at unexpected occasions, in somewhat new forms, in a hitherto unfamiliar garb or surroundings, in an unusual—a more or less unusual—situation.

–Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” (1920)

For my money, there’s plenty to recommend in left anarchism at this conjuncture; while it’s often reflexively anti-Bolshevik, there are plenty of Marxist anarchists with quite cogent analyses of the contemporary condition. However, it’s the petty bourgeois variants that you really have to watch out for, especially in the capital of middle-class individualism, the U.S.A. Knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism, individualist punk nihilists, and most alarming, the libertarian and “anarcho”-capitalist ideologies popular among self-styled rebel economists and dissident political scientists — these have a more immediate hold among a (white) America increasingly disenchanted with neoliberal empire. These are the ideologies (and “infantile” is still as apt a descriptor as any) that need to be fought as much as — perhaps more than — liberalism, whose hypocrisy and impotence are already on full display to everyone.

Hoping for a Chinese Century?

June 25, 2011

According to the official statistics, about a quarter of Chinese college students who graduated in the year 2010 were unemployed. Of the students who graduated in the previous year, about 15 percent remained unemployed. Those college graduates who are “employed” often have to accept a wage that is no higher than that of an unskilled migrant worker. About one million college graduates (compared to the current annual graduation of about six million) are said to belong to the so-called “ant tribes.” That is, they live in slum-like conditions on the outskirts of China’s major cities. The surge of housing, health care, and education costs have further undermined the economic and social status of China’s existing and potential petty bourgeoisie, forcing them to give up their aspiration to “middle-class” living standards.

One of the darker parts of this excellent Monthly Review article on the contemporary political situation in China.

Here are the stats for the U.S. via a NYT article entitled “Outlook is Bleak“:

Not quite as bleak as China — no ant tribe infographics yet. But we have another problem: we haven’t given up middle-class aspirations. Instead, we’re content with the dream neoliberalism continually offers up: a future crappier and more difficult than the past, but bearable.


Still, today’s economy will force many graduates to settle, says John Irons, policy director at the Economic Policy Institute. Young people who start their careers in a bad economy tend to accept jobs at lower wages, and that leaves them at a disadvantage with their salary for about a decade, he says.

Just give it ten years! The American Dream is still available, you’ll just need to get a cheaper model. And you might have to lie about that master’s degree you spent 40 grand on.

But now [Berenzweig] sometimes considers that degree she paid so dearly for a liability, at least when it comes to some jobs. She takes it off her resume when applying for waitress jobs.

Meanwhile China has other some advantages: a class-for-itself.


In the words of a prominent Chinese worker-activist, compared to the working classes in other capitalist states, the Chinese (state-sector) working class has developed a “relatively complete class consciousness,” based on its unique historical experience in both the socialist period and the capitalist period.

…and at least one proven method for stemming neoliberal privatization:

When the Jianlong general manager threatened to fire all workers, the enraged workers beat the manger to death. Although the provincial governor and thousands of armed police were at the scene, no one dared to intervene. After the beating, Jilin Province was forced to cancel the privatization plan. The Tonghua Steel workers’ victory was a huge inspiration for workers in many parts of China. Workers in several other steel factories also protested and forced the local governments to cancel privatization plans.

Of course, the glum resignation you so often find in the declining U.S. petty bourgeosie is not exactly the mood required for this task:

Worker-activists in other provinces saw the Tonghua victory as their own and regretted that “too few capitalists have been killed.”

Almost makes you want that Chinese Century the newspapers keep talking about!


extraction of surplus value has become the ultimate ethical horizon

February 25, 2011

From that same term paper:

If these moral arguments for authenticity, leveled against the profit motive, held sway during a time when art and commerce had a more fraught relationship (roughly the same period during which Adorno was publishing his screeds against the cultural commodity system), under neoliberalism any ethical appeal must carry an economic logic with it as well. Those fighting against the culture industry definitions of property do so in the name of increased profits, not necessarily increased freedom. Lawrence Lessig defends certain types of copyright infringement as creative use, positing that an ebbing of certain copyright provisions could increase income. “Less control here could mean more profit” (283). Matt Mason argues that “Pirates are taking over the good ship capitalism” in order to “plug the holes, keep it afloat, and propel it forward” (239). Profit, the extraction of surplus value, has become the ultimate ethical horizon. These writers, postmodern combinations of activist and business guru, propose that the authenticity of commodities, the horizon of significance, follow potential profits, not established law. Their only difference from the culture industry discourse occurs when they speculate about where the largest profits might lay, and their books are devoted to convincing the culture industry that surplus value will be best realized through actions currently considered piratical, inauthentic. They feel the pressure of a new constellation of economic and technological forces, and they hope to shape the general will, the social contract, and thus the contract that establishes the authenticity of the commodity. In the work of Lessig and Mason, the commodity stands in for values such as transparency, free speech, creativity. It is a fetish.

I think that this actually might be a tactical move by Lessig, since he’s constantly trying new initiatives and approaches to change IP law. Unfortunately, he seems cursed to continually, perhaps compulsively, repeat his failure before the Supreme Court: an enlightened courtesan vainly appealing elites for reforms. Here he’s trying to convince CEOs that piracy will help their companies, but I’m not sure he actually cares about such things. His latest project, Change Congress, drastically widens his scope as it deepens the hole in which he finds himself — choosing institutional channels that undercut his goals. Of all his organizations, this one is at once the most ambitious and the least likely to meet with any kind of success. I kind of feel bad for the guy.

Adam Smith and Collective Bargaining

February 18, 2011

Adam Smith, for all the considerable flaws in his thinking, wasn’t stupid. He understood the class conflict inherent to the economic system he was describing.

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

He also understood that this wasn’t an even match-up. Under 18th Century capitalism, not only were most workers living hand to mouth, organizing was expressly forbidden by law. It’s pretty clear that Smith thought this was an unfair state of affairs.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

Of course, workers organized and fought anyway, were beaten, killed, thrown in prison, and vilified in the capitalist press. But their “masters,” the owners of the factories, organized themselves as well. These organizations operated with the consent of the law to do what it is masters always do, the very aspect that unites them as a class: lower the wages of the workers. But this operated out of sight.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.

“As ignorant of the world as of the subject” is a phrase I’ve had occasion to deploy more than a few times today. Smith realized that part of the invisibility was ideological. Implicit to the capitalist system was that owners would try to pay their workers as little as possible, so it didn’t seem worth remarking upon. He also saw how this secrecy was a great asset to owners, who could maneuver out of sight until they were in a better position to thwart worker aims. So they worked behind closed doors.

We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter 8

So Smith would have understood what is happening in Wisconsin right now, and he would have expected most news to look like this. The “masters” are trying to revert back to those glory days when workers had no right to organize because it will allow them to better lower those workers’ wages. Why? Not to balance the budget, but to shift wealth — in this case, public funds — into the hands of those in the ruling class. And Adam Smith knew what the result of that was:

Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities.

Or as Krugman says:

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

the conditions of connectivity

October 1, 2010

What is sometimes misunderstood is that though new communication technologies, exemplified by satellite-linked internet cafés in small cities in Africa and South Asia create an equality of access to information at the level of the subject, the socio-structures and cultures of circulation also, and at the same time, engender an objective dependence that inhabits the very conditions of connectivity itself, so that individuals’ acts of subjective freedom are always self-annulling at another and higher level. The conditions of connectivity, which permit someone, living almost anywhere, to download medical information to help diagnosis for a relative in need of medical care, to read a report on human rights and political detainees that the state would better like unread, or to correspond regularly with a friend living overseas, are also the conditions of encompassment and domination by circulatory capital and the infrastructure of the metropole generally.

–Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (2004)

Reality TV and the Secret Rejection of Neoliberalism

July 29, 2010

I recently came across Nick Couldry’s article Reality TV, or The Secret Theater of Neoliberalism (regressive university paywall, sorry y’all) cited in an article by Henry Giroux. Reality TV is one of those tangential intellectual interests I have that I haven’t yet incorporated into some overarching field; suffice to say it’s pretty much the only television that interests me. Not only does the well manicured narrative fiction of Mad Men and Sopranos (to say nothing of matinee-level pablum like Lost) bore me with big budget soap opera antics, but they feel like such a throwback to a kinder, simpler era of teevee, full of Important Themes, Upper-Middle-Class Characters You Should Desire/Identify With, Blandly Generic Characters… the whole Large Studio Operations Creating Mandatory Mass Culture. Nostalgia for Fordism, I say. Reality TV feels like the avant-garde of the boob tube, the edge of culture that reveals the near-future (and its mode of production — contingent, contract-based, no unions, just-in-time — certainly better resembles the current dominant labor conditions). And the near-future ain’t pretty, suffice it to say.

Couldry’s article ties reality TV to a neoliberal labor regime of affective labor. Just like Walmart employees are required not only to help customers, but to actively enjoy it (recalling Zizek’s parable of the postmodern superego father — or hey, here’s the TV version at about 1:45). There is a continual recourse to authentic feeling, “being yourself” in the self-help jargon that so permeates our common sense. This requires perpetual surveillance.

The result is a permanent monitoring in work of authentic performance, justified by overarching “values”: “the ‘colleagues’, as staff are known, are exhorted to exhibit ‘miles of smiles’. ‘It’s got to be a real smile’, says Smith [head of Human Resources at Asda’s UK headquarters].”

As soon as you bring surveillance into the picture, reality TV wants to sneak in there too, as it’s predicated on continual surveillance of the contestant/characters. In this vein, Mark Andrejevic’s Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched is about the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. And I think Courdry is on to something when he identifies how unpopular characters are often the ones who refuse to “play along” or don’t socialize well with others. According to Couldry, these people are punished and the obedient rewarded.

Yet, in Couldry’s account I think there’s something crucial missing from the appeal of reality TV. Who watches it for the people who get along, who work well with others, who fulfill their duty? You watch it precisely for the huge assholes, the fights, the backstabbing, the confrontations — without the villains, the people that break the rules and cause trouble, you’re stuck with the meager game show offerings from the producers. Which is not the point at all.


Now, most people avoid open conflict with their peers, especially when, as is so often the case in reality TV, you live with them. As Courdry points out, we have to put on that happy face, even in the “private” world of our social interactions. The passive-aggressive backbiting and gossip that is so characteristic of contemporary sociality — that makes for shitty television. To get people to authentically lash out in front of the televised surveillance of Big (Br)Other, you have to do a couple things: you torture people, and you get them drunk.

Almost all reality TV takes place in situations that are the very least uncomfortable — mass bunking, the removal of communication and entertainment devices, challenges and reveals designed, not to promote sociality and teamwork, but rather to push people to the breaking point. Put people in front of cameras, force them to live together, deprive them of sleep, put them through humiliating “challenges” (one show obscenely refers to this as “taking [the host’s] tough love”), all under the rubric of competition. Why? Because at some point, someone’s gonna snap, there’s going to be a fight, shit will get broken, and you will have a successful reality TV moment. The extreme measures are necessary: a jaded audience knows that the contestants know they are under surveillance. We know they monitor their behavior — indeed, on competitive shows, one of the most damning criticisms is that a contestant is “playing the game” too cravenly by “being fake.” If we want authentic emotion, the kind that pop psychology tells us is buried just beneath the surface, we have to put participants in stress positions so they let down the facade of performance and explode. Authentic emotion on reality TV is not the seamless performance of an amiable Walmart greeter, but precisely its opposite: a no-holds-barred insane catfight.

Occasionally reality TV is upfront about how much boozing facilitates the interaction seen on the show. Top Chef contestants commiserate over wine and beer when the challenges are done, and the producers seem to revel in hinting at the epicurean pleasures of such a lifestyle (indeed, the glorification of a difficult and low-paying service-sector occupation is perhaps the show’s chief function). The Real World and Jersey Shore practically make consuming alcohol a plot point in their series. Other shows are far more subtle — a half-covered Miller Lite can in the corner, an empty wine glass — but rest assured, the interaction you see on a lot of reality shows is powered by booze. This is a convenient short-cut, and a particularly American one, through the messy terrain of social anxiety caused, not only by the preponderance of strangers, but by the cameras themselves — no one wants to watch people titter awkwardly, it’s too real. And no one’s going to be fucking on camera without being intoxicated, same as porn. So ply the contestants with as much alcohol as they can drink, reality TV’s dirty little secret, as this charming NYT expose reveals.

“If the question is, ‘Has there ever been a reality show producer who has used alcohol to get more out of their contestants?’ I would say yes,” said Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of the Oxygen Network show “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency.” “And I’d be willing to bet my mortgage on that one.”

Encouraging alcoholism? Well, yes, but this can be turned into a plot point as well. A Tool Academy contestant was forced off the show when it was revealed he had alcohol problems, something the producers displayed with dramatic slow-motion clips of the man holding the beer the show gave to him in endless quantities. The show then took credit for this intervention into the contestant’s addiction that it had enabled. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, reality TV, the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.

Now, narratively, the shows always contain these outbursts by mediation, public and private apologies, and the occasional (and routine) expulsion of a contestant, to blanket the inappropriate with appropriate moral garb. But this is clearly a feint — the actual drama is not in the rote apologies, but in the outbursts themselves. This is the true drama of reality TV and its true appeal. And perhaps this is because, under a neoliberal labor regime that, as Couldry notes, requires the increasing discipline of our emotions and behavior on and off the job, we relish seeing someone just fucking lose it every once in a while. To watch a seamless performance is not the desire of the reality TV audience — that’s the desire of the bosses, of the assholes watching footage of his employees counting cash and helping customers. Maybe we’ve internalized a bit of it, and we’re certainly encouraged to by the narrative devices of reality TV. But it’s not our desire, not structurally. We identify with the people on the wrong end of the surveillance footage because that is us in our everyday life. And we want to watch someone rebel.


July 4, 2010

In news that should not actually be shocking to anyone, since a lot of this started to surface a couple of years ago during the crisis, when narcodollars provided the only liquidity in the global financial system:

Banks Financing Mexican Gangs Admitted in Wells-Fargo Deal

By the laws of neoliberal finance large pools of capital cannot be impeded in their movements, even if they come from such illegitimate sources as one of the world’s largest industries. “These criminal empires have no choice but to use the global banking system to finance their businesses,” admonishes one official, but the lesson of the article is the converse: these banks have no choice but to use criminal empires to finance their businesses. Indeed, they have incentives to do so, since “too-big-to-fail” laws protect them from prosecution. “They seem to be willing to do anything that improves their bottom line, until they’re caught.” Or even after, since share prices rose after the Wachovia indictment. This is of course the iron law of fiduciary responsibility to one’s shareholder, encoded in our legislation, in which — theoretically, formally, and in practice — share prices determine all values, including social ones. Laundering money for drug cartels may be illegal, but it is not sufficiently illegal, just as negligently drilling for oil may be illegal, but not sufficiently illegal to prevent it from being done. The logic of deterrence behind the law completely breaks down. Pay a token fine, perhaps fire a token executive, and get on with the business of business — crime. In fact “crime” may not even be an appropriate term, since nothing these companies do is against the norm or even really against the rules.

This has become apparent to me in Mexico, a place where the lines between legal and illegal, criminal and legitimate, have become completely illegible. News reports discuss criminals who “wear police uniforms,” but everyone knows that the reason the criminals wear police uniforms are because they are the police. (The same reports come from Iraq and Afghanistan, where death squads “wearing police/military uniforms” are responsible for numerous atrocities.) Just like any hired gun, they can be contracted by narcos to provide muscle for cartel operations. In some cities, police openly sell drugs. The government is implicated too: by some accounts, the violence between drug gangs maps — unevenly and chaotically — to the struggle for power between the neoliberal PAN, the old PRI party dictatorship, and any number of smaller parties jockeying for a share of the pie. That current President Felipe Calderon stole the last election is simple common sense among mexicanos, but, as is so common, and obvious after the Bush elections in the U.S., the laws are designed not to stop crime but to enable its continuation.

“For four years, Mexican authorities have been fighting a losing battle against the cartels. The police are often two steps behind the criminals,” the story bemoans, but these simple dichotomies, practically obligatory for the Manichean mentality of Americans, simply make no sense in Mexico. The distinction between law enforcement and law-breakers becomes hazy, shaky, a relic of language more than a coherent representation of reality. And so it goes for the rest of the world, whose trajectory is shaped ever more completely by a financial system fueled by crime. This is not crime in the sense of leftist “capitalism is crime” rhetoric but crime in actual fact, and under the norms that any reasonable person would recognize. And yet it is crime that cannot be punished on the rare circumstances that it is evenly known, much less openly acknowledged as in Wachovia’s case — to punish it would be to “cause panic in the financial markets,” which of course, would cause misery to us all. Multinational crime in its disregard for life, law, or morality, is the perfect embodiment of the neoliberal logic of total deregulation — neoliberalism reveals itself as crime and crime becomes neoliberal.

And so the material basis for our lives, conveniently summed up by “the economy,” runs on crime; crime is irrevocably bound up in global political economy that to cordon it off makes no sense. Forbes magazine understands since now it places cartel leaders in its list of the world’s richest individuals: the ruling class is criminal not in the sense of Marxist rhetoric, but in point of fact. And crime, whether or not we ourselves break the law, interpenetrates our lives. But this is a thought for a later post.