Sunday, July 16, 2023

Who Can Criticize Capitalism: Or, When Can We Eat Salmon Mayonnaise?


Given that Bob Iger is in the news (and maybe the executive named below)
I thought that I would use this image from the Disney Strike of 1941

One of the strange contradictions of living in a country where union membership is so low, something like six percent in the private sector, is that some of the professions that we associate with fame and fortune are unionized; major league baseball, NFL, and actors and writers for Hollywood all have unions. This combined with the fact that there is very little labor reporting in this country means that most people will no more about strikes of the (supposedly) and famous than any other labor actions--an entirely different sense of labor aristocracy. 

So when Ron Perlman went viral with a video responding to a statement by an (unnamed) studio executive that the strike would come to end when writers and actors started losing their houses and running out of money, it was only to be expected that there was a response pointing out how much money Perlman makes, or actually, his net worth (which is not the same thing). I should say that I do not know anything about Perlman's politics, aside from this line and that he has a cameo as himself in Ken Loaches Bread and Roses. That is beside the point. I shared the first clip and mocked the second post because I believe in speaking out about exploitation and mocking bootlickers online. 

A lot can be said about this, and has been said. First, there is the assumption, almost axiomatic, that people should only struggle for their own personal interests. That only racialized groups should care about racism, women about feminism, LGBTQ people about homophobia and transphobia, and so on. Politics is nothing other than a series of interest groups clamoring for their individualized interests. Such a conception of politics is not only anti-social it is ultimately anti-political. What it excludes, I would argue without sounding too Badiouian, is the very idea of a principle, of an idea, such as justice, universality, or equality, the thing which is the very matter of politics.

However, there is another all too common aspect of this criticism, which I imagine that we will hear more of as actors and celebrities join picket lines. The claim that every wealthy, or well off, person who criticizes exploitation in capitalism is a hypocrite, biting the hand that has fed them so well, is mirrored by the opposite claim, that every poor or less well off person criticizing capitalism is a bitter and sore loser. Of course this second aspect of the criticism is a consequence of the first: it is because all of politics, all of life, has been reduced to individuals striving to maximize their own interest than any criticism of capital is suspect. The wealthy cannot criticize capitalism because it has served them so well and the poor cannot criticize it because it has failed to, or, more to the point, because they have failed it. The end result is that no one can criticize capitalism.

I am reminded of one of the jokes Freud recounts in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. 

An impoverished individual borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance, with many asseverations of his necessitous circumstances. The very same day his benefactor met him again in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise in front of him. The benefactor reproached him: "What? You borrow money from me and then order yourself salmon mayonnaise? Is that what you’ve used my money for?" "I don’t understand you", replied the object of the attack; "if I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?"'

Like the salmon mayonnaise in the story, which honestly sounds gross, the critique of capital becomes an impossible object. The wealthy should not do it because they have benefited from it and the poor should not because they have not. I will say by way of a conclusion that this reinforces my idea that when it comes to the critique of ideology Freud's discussion of jokes has more to offer than any metapsychological theory of human nature or humanity. Ideology, like the unconscious, does not know contradictions. Its ultimate logical model is that of the borrowed kettle, multiple and contradictory arguments for the same thing, in this case, for the idea that no one, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, should criticize capitalism. 

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