The economics of immiseration would be impossible without the politics of seduction, and capitalism’s appeal to our unconscious will to power and domination is not easily countered.
“The domain of seduction is the sacred horizon of appearances.”
Jean Baudrillard, On Seduction
” ‘[I]mmiseration’ concerns not just the wages workers’ receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them.”
Frances Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
“[C]apitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Published on http://truth-out.org
The genius of the internal combustion engine engineered by Etienne Lenoir in 1860 was to release the pressure of such combustion to pistons, rotation and movement. Explosion was controlled and detoured; ignition could be repeated and catastrophe avoided each time. Rising pressure and calibrated release equals relief. Psychology responds to this analogy, as does politics. Increased pressure on low-wage workers makes headlines: “The Walls Close In: Low Wage Workers Finding It’s Easier to Fall into Poverty, and Harder to Get Out.” But all wage earners, underclass or middle class, are feeling the pressure. Thom Hartmann reports, “wages have gone down almost seven percent since the recession. And, that decline followed more than three decades of stagnant wages thanks to Reaganomics.”
Neoliberals, moderate or immoderate, pragmatic or crazed, attribute this sorry state of affairs to a number of variables that Liberals agree with, mostly referring to a transition from a low-tech society to a high-tech society, from a manufacturing base to a financial base, from a hunting, farming and manufacturing economy to an information economy. None of this has any drawing power. But the neoliberal steady refrain, from Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Romney’s 47 percent, has seductive power with that pivotal, crucial, voting middle class. The seductive spin is well-known: “The slow degeneration of working-class family life and the creation of a ‘moocher’ class too lazy and indulged to get a job results from ‘big government’ nurturing and coddling.” There is a seductiveness also to other neoliberal reasons as to why immiseration is like the wolf now at every door but those of an elite few. Each “reason” touches a hot spot already fully charged within us. The collapse of a “nuclear family” is the collapse of a patriarchal order that is itself an order preserving male desire. The bureaucracy of public education is no more than the resistance of what is public, governmental and socialist to personal choice and individual freedom. The power of unions resides in a communist-like solidarity that obstructs the free and competitive play of business.
All of these briefs are seductive spins within the American cultural imaginary, not because they rest on uncontested fact and evidence, but because they rest on seductions and repressions already deeply embedded in that imaginary. In other words, the way we think now is so heavily layered in fantasies and illusions that the argument that wins the day does not appeal to rationality but rests on those fantasies and illusions. As I have suggested before, this imaginary and its accompanying fantasies and illusions are not partisan, there being no politics ruling imagination. But there is a political use of the imaginary, what I call the politics of seduction, and that arises from an economics of immiseration. There would be little need for the former if such an economics had not led, as it has, to immiseration for an increasing number and the anxieties that emerge from a fear of inevitable immiseration for many more.
There are numerous varieties of seduction, from Eve’s in the garden to Baudrillard’s sense that we seduce by enacting a weakness that we see in ourselves as well as others. We all harbor a never-fulfilled appetite to eat the world whole, and we choose an individual freedom, a supremacy of self-interests and desires, that urges us, like Milton’s Satan, to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. The fantasies of desire are Janus-faced – as are the illusions of power. They have their weaker side – an impotency of desire, a feckless command and a captured will. Romney’s 47 percent of the population would eat up the world if they could but are totally impotent and cannot do so. The totalizing power that the elite seek can never be blocked by the feckless command of unions. Big government is no more than a ridiculed domain of power, not our own, that presumes to rule us. The fantasy links to male desire and personal choice are too transparent to require exegesis.
Seductions work because the appeal is to what is in us, both the desires and the fears, and therefore connections are made and recognition ensures response. And while both appeal and recognition are felt, they are unthought and pre-discursive. We do not think what is unthinkable. We do not express what we fear to think. Nevertheless, power remains here. Eden’s garden is no more than a confinement we need to go beyond, explore what’s outside; God’s one law, call it regulation, blocks our libertine and liberty-seeking nature. We do not need to be tempted to bite the apple; as unthinkable as this may sound, we were made to bite it. And much more. We have an appetite to possess and not to share. All that we have never quells a desire to have yet more. Mutual sharing and aid has no seductive power in our elemental level of being – but domination does. All other species, according to Genesis, awaited Adam’s naming, their identity and place in the world forever held within the province of human need and desire. Global warming can be conquered just as we have conquered nature all along the way. Global ecology movements thus have little seductive attraction as the rational arguments, especially in regard to human-caused climate change, have not been able to deactivate the seductiveness of what is irrational.
While we can recite all this as a reprehensible darkness relegated to Freud’s Id, it all yet remains the fire that drives us to compete, own and dominate. What most compels us is not what we legislate for a social good, or what disciplines and bounds our own will, but what gives these free rein, a “road of excess” that leads not to Blake’s “palace of wisdom” but to an oligarch’s domain. The power of seduction lies in appearing at barriers that we ourselves have built to restrain our own dark side. The 1956 film Forbidden Planet envisions an extinct race destroyed by their own great and final high-tech breakthrough: They can materialize their own will, including what the film calls “Monsters from the Id.” Because our defenses against our own uncivilizing drives are never as real as our own desires, seductions have no difficulty in passing through. Every rule and restraint made on society’s behalf is never as real as our instinctual appetites and our personal will to power. This is the hidden truth of Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no such thing as society.” Such an assertion means that an economics of immiseration and a politics of seduction now exists – openly ridiculing all civilizing attempts to restrain us from playing out at will our own dark imaginaries.
Capitalism gives us an economics of the Id, an economics that liberates every hidden energy, striving against any confinement, offering a gratification that grows because it is unfettered, releasing instinctual forces that drive competitiveness beyond what commands can organize. The failures of socialist economies lie in their reliance on what is disciplinary in the service of all, command economies that restrain and regulate the full licensing of the Id. In globalized competitive economics, such self-disciplining cannot stand against the full force of a capitalism of the Id. Socialist economics champion the Superego, to enlist another character from Freud, allied with a common and public good, with “One for All” and not “All for One” mentality, and thus has no seductive power. You have to work hard at distancing yourself from your basic instincts, your own will to power, in order to feel the attraction in an economics of the Superego. Immiseration finds no release in restraint. The failure of “Just Say No” rests in this morality of discipline, which the gentrified are pleased to impose upon the immiserated, although not on themselves.
The capitalism of the Id inevitably shapes, as it has done, an economics of immiseration for all those ravaged by an economics of the ravenous, driven over and plowed under by the winners. We are on what is a democratic “level playing field” only in the eyes of those destined to be driven over and plowed under. A politics of seduction emerges as naturally from an economics of immiseration as a steam engine is equipped with a pressure release valve. Some have engaged our open-throttle economics with an equal amount of open-throttle energy or, to put it another way, have extended successfully their own uncontrolled instincts for power and ownership into an economic arena built on those instincts. What are not seductions from outside, but only already energies and appetites inside, now are externalized on the national and international stage. What was inside, as Goethe remarked, is outside.
Because the politics of seduction arises from our economics of immiseration, the two join forces to easily and instinctively create a climate of seduction that diverts critique and spins the immiserated into distracting fantasies and illusions. This is a much more sophisticated version of Roman bread and circuses but just as directly targeting what any moral review would call the weaker side of our natures. Had Louis XVI been a mere figure head, or a president democratically elected, in a capitalism of the Id and a politics of seduction, the pressure release of revolution and the vengeance of the Reign of Terror would have been tampered down daily by seductions and the fantasies and illusions they inspire.
Only a seductiveness that plays into such fantasies and illusions can make the neoliberal case against the poor, against wage earners, against a so-called “underclass” magnetically compelling. Liberals join with neoliberals in pretending that the emperor is not naked, that an economic system that is nakedly exploitative, rapacious and stochastic is fully clothed in efficient rationality. What we have is an economic system that makes the possession of wealth itself the medium of achieving wealth while at the same time making work and workers irrelevant to the country’s needs and aspirations. This is an economic system that puts wealth at the disposal of a few, compounds that wealth like a snowball rolling downhill and solidifies a class divide in which the possession of wealth is the price of membership. The sidling of liberals toward neoliberals in regard to the inviolability and venerability of market rule is simply a result of the sharing of good fortune and the subsequent sharing of lifestyles. Neither wealthy liberals nor wealthy neoliberals are positioned to undermine their good fortune by targeting for demolition – or even prosecution after “The Great Recession” – an economic system run by a financial sector brokering the rising returns of their stock portfolios.
Regardless of how winners of both political persuasions maintain and protect market rule, the pressure is building in the lives of about 80 percent of the US population. A number left astray on this stage in the United States are gathering in protests from the 1999 Seattle WTO protests to Occupy Wall Street. They threaten the order of inequality and an economics of immiseration. The coordinates of attack on unions are recognized in the 2011 Wisconsin protests while the Google bus protests in San Francisco put gentrification, a plutocratic and not egalitarian creation, in the sights of the “ungentrified.” These scattered but continuing outbreaks are signals to an order established by Market Rule that there is limited release of such opposition in a politics either imposed or self-restraining. Hypocrisy is transparent in asking many to expect nothing and live with less when surrounded by those profiting from an economics that knows no restraint. The jobless are each day less likely to assume personal responsibility for being jobless. Those always on the edge of hunger or on the edge of sickness, or already over that edge, are each day less likely to assume personal responsibility for their hunger and their sickness.
The functional and successful release valve brought into play is a steady campaign of seductions distracting the immiserated from their misery, a steady campaign to repress former solvency, on the part of the middle class, and continuing hardship on the part of the underclass. According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, market rule has set up a relentless disparity in wealth in which the owners of capital will expand their wealth while wages stagnate. The case made here is solid but not seductive. It implies that release could be organized democratically but what hope is there of that if we are already entrapped within fantasies and illusions that arrive already packaged to turn reality, even the most visible and defined, into even greater diverting seductions. What hope is there of that if we are already allied with such seductions, already self-seduced?
An End to Self-Deception and Self-Seduction?
“From now on your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.”
The Hunger Games
“The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.”
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
The toughest trick in magic is to make the mark feel that he knows what he sees and sees all there is to know. Of course, the magician is in charge and sets the stage to make you know what he wants you to know, to make you see what he wants you to see. We are now unfortunately set up in the United States to believe we design the set of conditions we live within and that creation, change and consequences are subject to our choosing, are in short, within our own self-empowered control. Every incidence of hardship then is supposed to trigger this self-seduction. In response to all aspects of immiseration, from impoverishment and ignorance to insecurity and servitude, and a real need of remedy, the self-seduced individual has only to personally choose and design his or her own resurrection.
This posture follows through on below-living-wage employment, unemployment, job loss, underwater mortgages, lack of health care because of lack of health insurance, credit card cancellations as well as the deterioration of family and neighborhood living because of such assaults on both material and psychological well-being. Any failure to choose and design one’s own resurrection is a failure in an Ayn Rand-type “will to win.” And regardless of the circumstances of failure and loss, self-seduced individuals must acknowledge personal responsibility, thus absolving and disconnecting others and the arrangement of forces outside themselves from their immiseration. As long as you believe you are the final arbiter of what happens to you, you will neither seek to determine what conditions are actually forming the context of your immiseration nor will you act to change those conditions. Instead, you might make a public confession, which are very popular with politicians, celebrities, preachers, or march on Washington to ask forgiveness. One of the most encouraging aspects of Occupy Wall Street is that no one showed up on Wall Street to confess.
Our seductions are truly in the sacred horizon of appearances, as Baudrillard tells us. We need only extend this to what appears on a computer screen or a smartphone and thus multiply the conduits or transmitters of seduction, distraction and repression. What we now face is a supplementation in cyberspace of the classical seductions of self-seduction and scapegoat seduction. What cyberspace offers is an alternative reality that, unlike “real” reality, responds to self-design, thus enabling you to spin yourself into a realm of your own choices, never ending as long as your choices remain yours. Unless you choose what is counter to your preferences, what deconstructs your reasoning, what denies your fantasies and illusions, you will remain in this self-spin, one in which what you search for must adhere to the same preferences that initiated the search. What you do not choose therefore lies outside and is different from what you choose. Thus, the vicious circle that cyberspace offers, one that confirms self-seduction.
If the self-seduced and self-designing lot went on TV’s Dr. Phil show, they would soon face the question “How’s that working for you?” How long will such self-deception work before you realize that the world has no obligation to respond to your self-design?
Self-seduction pre-empts the need for what Robert Reich calls an “Inequality for All” society to seduce and distract the have-nots and have-less-every-day and thus release a growing discontent that such inequality generates. The self-seduced are their own pressure release valves, or, more precisely, they continuously draw the pressure inward, back into themselves, and suffer the consequences, tragically ironic, personally. While the gentrified shape their lives toward healthful longevity, the immiserated consume their own health, physically and mentally. Their life spans grow shorter – but perhaps not before breakdowns leading to violence, crime and incarceration occur. Nothing more clearly indicates the inhumanity engendered by our economics of inequality than a “reform” that increases the age of Social Security retirement measured not by the lifespan of the immiserated but by the lifespan of the gentrified. What we have here is an offer to increase the age of Social Security entitlement made by those who statistics show will live to receive it but will not at any age need it. And the offer is made to those who statistics show will need such benefits but will not live to receive them. There is a heartless absurdity to this, a tragic irony.
Although self-seduction is a powerful seduction within the American cultural imaginary because it fits in nicely with the “super-memes” of individual freedom and personal choice, we are yet surrounded by supplemental forms of seduction, distraction and repression, available on an “as needed” basis. Although we delude ourselves that we are “the captains of our own fate” and so on and therefore positioned very far from attending to the “real conditions of the ground,” the sheer number and types of hardships become hard to ignore. Such hardships are visited not only on the bottom “underclass” but a middle class living on the fumes of former middle-class contentment. These hardships are sufficient to cause even the most devout “navel gazer” to look up and see what’s going on. It is at this moment that the self-seduced cease to self-vent.
Where previously they chose to ignore “Obamacare” and, along with that, President Obama himself, they now question whether putting their wishes “out there” is enough to change things. People begin to wander outside their own minds and into the world. At whose doorstep can their troubles be laid? Perhaps at the doorstep of these new immigrants? Or the 47 percent “moocher” class who are too lazy to work? Or liberals who destroy individual incentive to compete and win? When the illusion that the immiseration of their own lives would be refreshed, rather like refreshing a computer screen by tapping F5, dissolves, what seductions, distractions and repressions fill the need to avoid cataclysmic explosion?
The next-most-prevalent form of seduction is one in which the middle class, the class that votes and is therefore addressed in every election, sees the bottom 40 percent, the “underclass,” as the cause of their own hardships. Closely tied to this is idea that the federal government works hard to funnel middle-class tax money to the undeserving bottom 40 percent. Call this scapegoat seduction.
Thus, the greatest victims of our society of inequality, those under the greatest economic pressures and therefore potentially the most explosive, become the enemy of those also under increasing economic pressure. If the two were to join forces, if the middle 40 percent who vote were to oppose and not abet seduction of the botttom 40 percent to vote, the outcome of all democratic elections would rebalance our inequality, most likely doing so by amending the economics of distribution. If the middle class were to lobby the federal government on behalf of the bottom 40 percent and stand behind all legislation seeking to redress their economic hardships and counter the devaluation of wages and wage earners, the rising pressure felt by both classes would be released, not deflected by seduction, distraction or repression.
Once again, any review of “the real conditions of the ground” would indicate that we are very far from these conditions ever being realized. The paths of distraction are many and increasing each day. The intensity of seductions rises to the level of addictions. And meanwhile what is really going on remains repressed as well as what memory and history would reveal to break the spell of such distractions and seductions. The mechanisms of release via seduction seem to be working – and sometimes so amazingly well, that it is possible to conceive of a future social “stability,” call it a “new norm,” a kind of chemical equilibrium in which all aspects of immiseration are displaced by all manner of distractions, seduction and repression.
The Hunger Games depicts a future that is an amalgam of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The audience of these games is like spectators at the Roman gladiatorial games. It seems, however, that cyberspace soon will offer a virtualized reality for all, so that every individual engages in whatever virtualized distraction he or she chooses. Thusly, even the socialized aspect of seduction conflates to the private and personal. Self-seduction is facilitated in a way that the real world, “the great outdoors” of life outside oneself, surely would tamper with.
We may be transitioning to a future in which the exploited and victimized, the castoffs of market rule, live in a feudalist poverty that is etherized by virtualized escapes ready-to-hand. We seem to be moving more quickly into this scenario than one in which underclass, working class and middle class form an alliance. One would even have to ask “Against whom?” because all three mechanisms of release – seduction, distraction and repression – seem to be at work in fashioning an admiring and envious view of the elite, the winners, whom we are all always, in this seductive scenario, only a few steps from joining.
Interpreting a present situation, in this case, the economics of immiseration and the politics of seduction are neither presumptuous nor irrational. However, extending what seems evident now into a future that only a fool or a madman believes he sees turns interpretation into prophecy. Dismal prophecy is the worst, especially when the present is so full of variables, so interwoven with complexities and ambiguities that make every assertion indeterminate. Dark scenarios of the future sap the recuperative energy so needed at this moment. And yet ignoring the intensity of seduction now and the power of virtualized seductions of the future does more than sap our optimisim.
There is truly zilch that we can see of the future, but those who will be in that future are among us now. Neither the Millennials nor the cybertech world they clearly prefer to be in now make clear to us what they will become. On one hand, the “social” aspect of social networks is a mockery of inclusiveness as we orbit within the solar systems of our own like and dislikes. The public space collapses into a private space; society into solipsism. On the other hand, cyberspace networking can shape solidarity and activism. Every flash mob aroused for a lark can turn into smart mobs with serious political intent. And the headlines since the Arab Spring revolutions show us this can happen. And while NSA spying is made possible by cybertech, the secrecy of such can be leaked and made public instantaneously thanks to cybertech. In all this, the seductive power of cyberspace is countered by its own failure to serve any one oligarch, hedge fund or master builder. The impossibility of any seduction or repression remaining unchallenged or unexposed is cyberspace’s greatest power. And that is observable now.
Paul Taylor’s The Next America describes the Millennial generation as politically independent, more clearly understood I think as independence from political parties and the organization of doing politics in ways that ignore personal self-empowerment. There is a debit side to this, similar to cyberspace’s debit side. Everything about cyberspace and cellphone technology nurtures self-design and choice; a YOUniverse shaped by both is not only satisfying, marvelously absorbing and entertaining, but there seem to be no dire repercussions. High-tech literacy is set to make literacy itself obsolete as voice-activated systems leave the alphabet and the keyboard behind. The problem with alternative realities that enclose what we like and exclude what we do not like is that the real world comes knocking, “the world of hard knocks.” Because we are clueless as to how things go on outside our own province, we are like the ineffectual Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, victims of the degenerate Moorlocks.
That is the downside. It is as impossible to rest on a downside with the Millennials as it is with cyberspace. The independence of Millennials means that all the mechanisms that keep the immiserated and powerless ineffectual in response to their own plight may lose hold. For instance, when history is a long scroll down Facebook, repression of historical memory is an empty exercise. When desires are fulfilled in cyberspace at will and a YOUniverse is already owned by you, what seductions can work if seduction itself is over with, superfluous? Consider also that if Thomas Pikkety is right and we are experiencing a relentless widening of wealth disparity, we can expect that the wealthier will grow wealthier while the Many will either become inured to their immiseration or distracted from it or retaliate. A Millennial of today immiserated in the future is a loose cannon with cybertech at his or her side. If cyberspace is a space where the imagination is exercised, those who possess such imagination can overwhelm what William Blake called “the Mill” where “Humanity shall be no more, but war & princedom & victory!” (Jerusalem, I:32).
Belief that any one person can accomplish anything and that one’s imagination cannot be bounded by any order of things is a powerful possession that may cause both the economics of immiseration and the politics of seduction more than a headache.