Saturday, April 24, 2021

Woke Capital and Twilight of the Bourgeoisie (How is that for a title?).


For anyone who has any historical memory whatsoever the controversies around woke seem like just a remake, or possible a reboot, of the panic around political correctness a generation before. It is a matter of the same fears, the same threats, and the same bad guys and good guys. College campuses and postmodernism are once again to blame, and the same hallowed traditions are threatened. On one reading, and it is a fairly plausible one, is that this is just a repetition. The only reason that the names have been changed, the only reason terms like "woke" have replaced "political correctness" is that repeating the old name would be admitting that this new threat is quite old. Political correctness came and went, but the skies did not darken and the rivers did not run red with blood. New logo, same package. There are, however, some differences and these differences have something to say about the changing nature of culture and power.

The first thing that comes to mind, illustrated stunningly by this hilarious editorial on Disneyworld (unfortunately now behind a paywall) is that there is a fundamental shift in what is under assault. It is no longer the hallowed classics of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Milton that are under attack but Mr. Potato Head, "Trader Sam," and some of Dr. Seuss forgotten books. Woke is what happens when the canon wars go low, threatening the detritus of junk culture. This also changes the nature of the defense from this assault. Whereas the defenders of the classics could write The Closing of the American Mind and make a claim for the universality of western culture, the contemporary defenders of toys and theme parks have to embrace the irreducible particularity of their claim. Jokes about headhunters, "eskimos," and African savages only seem fun and harmless if you are not affected by them. What is being defended in many of these cases are the pleasures of casual racism.

The second difference is that while college professors and their duped students are still the primary purveyors of woke culture the list of villains now includes corporations. All of the decisions referred to above were made by the corporations themselves. In fact what is often bemoaned as a "woke" decision is really just marketing. What the ardent Disney fan above seems to miss is that Disney is in the process of making a film based on its ride, and the retooling of the ride will eventually match the film. Disney seems to excel at this particular kind of cultural recycling, making live action films that are adaptations of its animated films and so on, becoming a kind of cultural perpetual motion machine. 

Who did Emily Blunt piss off?

Often what is bemoaned as the excess of woke capitalism is nothing more than an attempt to expand markets. This is the universalizing aspect of capital that Marx recognized as revolutionary. To cite Marx, 

I have my reservations about Marx's confidence in the universalizing and demystifying aspect of capitalism, but I will just note them here. 

Moving beyond the passionate defenders of junk culture, and turning our attention to more important matters, the recent limitations to voting passed in Georgia, restrictions that disproportionate affect urban, working, and minority voters, have been met with boycotts and condemnations by corporations from Major League Baseball to Delta airlines. This has created the odd effect of politicians, the very same politicians who take in millions of corporate donations chastising corporate America for its influence in politics. 

Taken together these two aspects of the current battle against the "outrage industrial complex" to use McConnell's term, which I must admit I kind of like, are part of the twilight of the bourgeoisie. By decline of the bourgeoisie I do not mean the decline of the power of capital, of those who own the means of production, nor do I necessarily mean, as others have argued, a neofeudalism. Rather following Balibar, I mean the creation of a "class of the super-rich which no longer have any pretension of distinction other than consumption."  To which I would add that the decline of pretension of distinction is also a decline of universalism. Part of what sustained the bourgeoisie as a class, and as form of rule, was not only its distinction, the culture and norms which supposedly made it better, but its universalism, that anyone could acquire this culture and norms. Hence the importance of education and the ideology of meritocracy during the heyday of its rule. The contemporary ruling class claims no particular distinction. As much as I hate to bring him up, Trump was perhaps the first post-bourgeois president, or at the very least the presidency in the decline of the symbolic efficacy of the bourgeois. 

Trump eschewed the norms and conventions of bourgeois taste at every possible turn. This was a sharp distinction with Obama who openly embraced bourgeois conventions as precisely those things which everyone regardless of race or background could acquire. Obama was both the first black president and the last gasp of the bourgeoisie, and the latter because of the former. This contrast led some to see Trump as in some odd sense working class, but there is a big difference between the decline of symbolic efficacy of the bourgeois markers of distinction (to use a term I picked up from reading Jodi Dean) and an actual class transformation. Most importantly, Trump of course never made any pretension of being anything other than rich, but his capital never passed through the mediation of cultural capital. His wealth was tacky and without the slightest hint of distinction. One could argue that this carried an even more universalizing message, one that passed not through cultural institutions, the state, and education, but through the universality of fast food, as something that offers the same product to everyone.  A table covered with fast food combines opulence and accessibility: it is both a symbol of unimagined wealth and approachability, or, to use the parlance of our times, it is "relatable." However, to identify Trump, and, more importantly, the current ruling class, with the ersatz universality of the Big Mac is to overlook the point that I began with. The critics of "woke capital," or to use a more absurd term, "corporate communism," are not espousing the universality of brands like Disney and plastic potato heads, but are clamoring for their right to enjoy these things in the irreducible racial and gendered particularity. 

This seems to be the moment we are living in, a moment in which corporations have more stock in universality and equality, even if it is only the universality of exploitation and equality to consume the same products, than the state and its politicians, which openly embrace racial hierarchy and patriarchal gender norms. It is a moment of reaction and regression to hierarchies and exclusions that we believed to be left in the past. The task, it seems to me is to not only avoid the market revivals of "freedom, equality, and Bentham," to embrace our new corporate sponsors of human rights, but also to construct an actual universalism from below, opposed to both that of the market, which is only the equality to be exploited, and the bourgeois state, which is increasingly surrendering equality to maintain the power of a select elite. 

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