Friday, 5 March 2010

The Noughties - A Solon's Calling.

Living in End Times.
"What would 'September 11th' have been without television?" - Jacques Derrida

In the late 1990s, people were speculating that the new millennium would herald the end of the world. Over 10 years later and Roland Emmerich has made movie with an apocalyptic vision, which might happen in 2012 apparently. We still cannot imagine the end of capitalism, so we imagine the apocalypse because that is easier to envision in this era of mass fear and cynicism. It would be too easy and cynical to simply describe this time period as a decade of shallow consumerism, horrifying atrocities, celebrity worship, impending environmental doom and avaricious excess. The Noughties were paradoxical, in that wondrous luxuries were now available at the click of a button on a keyboard. But all the while there was a sense that we are drifting obliviously into our own destruction - these are the end times. Yes, this occurred in previous decades, but in the Noughties this was taken to an extreme, pressing onwards as if there are no limits except there clearly are limits now. One question comes to mind: How long can we just keep going on like this?

As JG Ballard once wrote "The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th Century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world."
It could be that the ambiguity, born of that "marriage", is present in the undercurrents of our lives today. Botox is an interesting case in reflecting the strange juxtaposition, the horror and the beauty, the nightmare and the reason. It was during World War II that fears of Germany using biological warfare drove the Americans to develop the chemical botulinum toxin, the principle ingredient of botox, as part of a germ warfare experiment. Botulinum toxin is actually one of the most lethal substances in the world, it causes the disease botulism which has a rate of almost 100% mortality. But it was later found that non-lethal amounts could be used to treat wrinkles. It wasn't until the early 21st Century that botox became accessible to those who weren't the rich or the famous. At times it seemed as though there was a desperation to push consumerism further and further, breaking down boundaries and pushing the limit. But at the same time exhaustion, at the notion of very real limitations and there banality, leading to a increasing reliance on the past.

This feeling of exhaustion, limitation and banality is explicitly present in music. As it is evident that the mainstream music industry is increasingly dependent on past genres and eras to recreate itself, leaving the listeners feeling that it has all been done before. This reliance may have been what led to an abundance of goods and services which lacked the very thing which they used consisted of. Examples: decaffeinated coffee, nicotine patches, sugar free drinks, cyber-sex, even warfare and capitalism. Nicotine patches are cigarettes without the little white sticks of death, which you light up and smoke yourself to death with. Cyber-sex is sex without the physical act of intercourse. People talk about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as if no one on our side had to die, is this not a desire for war without war? Since in war, people on both sides inevitably die. What about the "liberal communists" like Bill Gates? Those who want capitalism without the inequality, poverty and enormous suffering caused by market forces, who promote the idea that all inequality, poverty and suffering can be eliminated through capitalism with a human face. However, capitalism is not about equality it is about competition, winners and losers,  and dog-eat-dog individualism. Therefore, it could easily be claimed that the liberal communists want capitalism without the very essence of capitalism.

We've seen the politics of fear, along with the most vile forms of Orientalism, put into action following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which has also reminded us that we're still governed by liars and criminals. The politicians of the West have found a new enemy in "Militant Islam" to replace the communists with, so they can go on increasing defence spending and invading sovereign nations. After nearly 10 years, the "War on Terrorism" has failed to capture Osama bin Laden and bring down al-Qaeda. Though, it has resulted in 80% of Iraqi oil being grabbed by energy corporations and record profits for arms manufacturers - clearly, our leaders have their priorities in order. Never mind the hundreds of thousands who have died. We have seen the Bush administration begin in controversy and end appropriately in controversy. The Bushites were one of the worst administrations in history and has been succeeded by the Obama administration - who were elected by desperation for change. Unfortunately, it appears that the Obama is no dove and that his administration, as they've locked us into a war with Pakistan, are as hawkish as their predecessors. All the while, the media acts as if there should be no casualties of war, again they want war without war.

The truth of free-market fundamentalism has come out in the form of a financial crisis and a series of bailouts after the "liberalisation" in the financial sector. Once their policies began to fail, the Bush administration in the US and the New Labour government in the UK acted in direct contradiction to their rhetoric. In reaction to the monumental hypocrisy surrounding the financial crisis, there has been a rise in reactionary populism on both sides of the Atlantic. It's easier to scapegoat a minority and traditionally the far-Right have always benefited from economic turmoil. Though, in this case the vast majority of Europeans demonstrated maturity in not resorting to anti-Semitism - as Europeans have traditionally. The emergence of some form of racist populism seems inevitable, but at the same time it is certain not to be a return to fascism, as we have seen nationalists gain seats in the European Parliament. Instead, you should expect to see an shift towards increasingly racist immigration policies, as the environment deteriorates and people start to migrate to escape the consequences. The faces of such "moderately" racist policies are Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, not Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nick Griffin.

The Age of Pleonexia.
"Selfishness does not mean only to do things for one's self. One may do things, affecting others, for his own pleasure and benefit. This is not immoral, but the highest of morality." - Ayn Rand

Here are some interesting statistics about the world from the last decade. Between 1997 and 2009, in the UK, wages for low-earners increased by 45% while wages for high-earners increased by nearly 300%. Under the Bush administration, tax-cuts for the wealthy led to 1% of the American population accumulating over $1.5 trillion in less than a decade. 5% of the world's population owns nearly 90% of the world's wealth and consumes around 30% of the world's resources. $54 billion is spent on feeding every child in the world for a year, but we spend $97 billion on pornography. We literally spend more money on watching strangers have sex, than we spend on feeding the children of strangers. OPEC put $3 billion a year towards research into ways of decreasing damages on the environment every year, but we spend over $4 billion just on erectile dysfunction every year. Just compare the $1.5 trillion we in the West spend on aid, climate change, preventing deforestation, charitable givings and so on, to the $7 trillion  the state has spent on waging wars for oil and bailing out banks. There is clearly something perverse with all of this. Though, when you read of Alan Greenspan's objectivist beliefs or the fact that Peter Mandelson is a fan of Macchiavelli, it all seems to make a bit more sense.

During the financial crisis of 2008, we saw the emergence of previously invisible men who had been raking in millions as they drove the economy towards destruction. In the UK, we had Fred Goodwin who left RBS with a retirement package of £16 million. In the US, Dick Fuld ran Lehman Brothers into the dirt - to the point that it was losing $8 million a minute - and then walked away with $500 million from that year. And then there was Bernie Madoff, who soon became the favourite punch-bag of the media. Bernie Madoff, the man who illegally accumulated $65 billion. The media soon turned Bernie Madoff into the embodiment of the "irresponsibility" and insatiable greed which triggered the financial crisis. As Slavoj
Žižek explained, to simply blame Madoff, and others like him for this crisis, is to ignore the fact that Madoff merely took the logic of the system to its extreme. Žižek views Madoff as the ultimate postmodern capitalist, who ruthlessly speculates up to the limit while half of your profits go to different foundations, charities etc. No different than Bill Gates, just taken to excess. But without the system, such an excess would not be possible or encouraged.

The Greeks of the ancient world had a word "pleonexia" used to describe that insatiable desire to own things which rightfully belong to others, in those times this was viewed as a sickness and even a form of enslavement. Pleonexia is similar to the Marxist concept commodity fetishism, which could be described as when people believe that a commodity has an innate value as opposed to the value subscribed to the commodity through labour. That in some way consumption of particular goods is a form of expression, that particular goods symbolise something about your identity. Thus, the obsession with the accumulation of things. If you're living to make money, you have fetishised money, and in a sense money rules you. You are not free as you are bound by that which you fetishise, whether it be money or shoes it doesn't matter. Though, this is not a new phenomenon, but once again it seems that it has definitely been taken further in the last decade. Never before has a crisis of such magnitude been caused by the spending of money which we don't even have. I am, of course, referring to credit. Not only do we want to shop till we drop, but we don't want to spend any money at that time. Shopping without shopping. It was new practices in the way of credit cards, loans, mortgages etc. which brought about this crisis.

Going back to the perverse factoid, that we spend around $44 billion more on pornography than on feeding impoverished children in far away lands, there is something more at work here. First of all, pornography is actually a deeply conservative genre, it is not as some may think a symptom of the permissiveness of our times. The fundamental prohibition, as
Žižek points out, that as we cross one threshold - accessing close-ups of penetration, full frontal nudity etc. - but the price is the narrative, which acts as a justification for sexual activity, cannot be taken seriously. The screenwriters are not so stupid that they believe that such vulgar fairytales, misogynistic and even racist stereotypes can be taken as seriously as films or even TV dramas. This is because they not intended to be realistic, emotionally engaging or believable - this is the price of the "filth" on offer. Whereas, in emotionally engaging dramas, which screenwriters have clearly laboured over, always skip over the sexual act. What is most significant of all this, is the almost all pervasive influence of conservatism, as an ideology, parading as the product of permissive liberalism. Another example of this would be "Gangsta Rap" which could be seen as promoting the Hobbesian view of human nature, laissez-faire capitalism, as well as misogyny and racial stereotypes.

Spectators of Life.
"Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." - Guy Debord 

The Situationist, Guy Debord once said "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles." Debord, and those of the Situationist International, thought that the capitalist structures, of the late 20th Century, would be based upon images and spectacles, as opposed to the production of goods. In the consumer society, experiences themselves would be commodified and we would be encouraged more so to express ourselves through what we consume. Reducing individuals to mere consumers, fragmenting society along the way, and leading us into passive consumption. We become spectators to life. In the case of pornography, reality television shows, cookery programmes and soap operas this is literally true. This seems almost exactly true of a certain advent of the early 21st Century, think of social networking sites like Facebook and how they could function to replace social interactions. Social gatherings without social gatherings. Friendship without friendship, almost. This is an explicit development in late capitalism, which the Situationists detected in the late 1950s and continued to rail against until the early 70s.

If the Noughties is the preface to the trajectory the 21st Century will take, what is the significance of the worship of celebrities? The attention the media gave to the speeches at the G20 protests, they were mentioned in passing, wasn't anything near the kind of coverage seen at the funerals of Jade Goody and Stephen Gately. The media were sure to give the public access to speeches by mourning relatives. Of course, the magnitude of celebrities in our world is demonstrated best by Michael Jackson, the man who's fame drove many of his loyal fans into denial of his descent into drug addiction and the evidence of his sexual depravity. If their denial, and the failures of justice, is not evidence enough of our celebrity obsession one can find plenty of examples. Just like social networking, the obsession with celebrities is really a fixation over spectacles. Though, celebrities only affect our identities in terms of the opinions we have of them. The obsession with celebrities does not even appear to be an obsession with fame or the reason these people are famous. It is an obsession with the flaws and dysfunctional lives which make celebrities human to us. Deaths and births, marriages and break-ups etc. are all ordinary occurances of life today. To some, such things are represented more in the lives of the famous than in their own.

Take X-Factor, the reality tv-show which simultaneously feigns elements of grass-roots democracy whilst it churns out celebrities for us, as a target market, to fetishise and fixate over. The depth of this fascination the public has developed is evident in the fact that more people voted for Joe McElderry in X-Factor 2009 than they did in 2005 for Tony Blair. Though, at least Rage against the Machine beat McElderry to Christmas Number 1. Then again, either way Sony won. Even the increasingly shallow and cynical nature of democracy is being extended to reality tv-shows, the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils - e.g. RATM over McElderry and Simon Cowell. The most disturbing thing about reality-tv is that it is almost the modern version of going down to the mental asylum to mock the mentally ill, as many did for entertainment in previous centuries. It should be noted that in the television industry many shows are referred to as "filling", whereas adverts are referred to as "content". It seems quite likely that the one-hit wonder machine that is X-Factor, is merely a bone thrown to the rabble to ensure they'll keep on consuming. After all that was said and done in the decade, it seems that we desperately need radical change to resolve many of the problems that now plague our civilisation. Before we drift off of the edge.

On Orientalism - Edward Said

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