Friday, January 19, 2024

Our Cultural Revolution: Or, the Enshittification of Culture

Thanks to Ron Schmidt for this image 

In John Maynard Keynes essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" one can find the following formulation of the cultural transformation of post-capitalism:

"I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin. 

For a least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair, for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight."

Keynes formulation of course draws from a long history of the virtues of vices stretching back to Mandeville and Smith, in which it is vice not virtue, selfishness not selflessness, that drives social change and progress. Where of course he differs from both is in seeing this as an unfortunate state of affairs, a necessary evil, and a temporary one. Keynes prediction has proven to not come true, not for the grandchildren of his era at least, and we are no closer to his cultural revolution than we are in the fifteen hour work week he envisioned.

I would like to even go a step further and suggest that not only has Keynes prediction not come true, that the foul gods of avarice and usury not only continue to reign, but also that they have deposed any other rival ideals. In order to understand how this is true, it is necessary to extract a descriptive dimension to Keynes' pronouncement. We can argue that much of the twentieth century, at least in capitalist countries, there was something of a split between two cultures, one that could claim the name culture in the pursuit of art, literature, and philosophy, and the other dedicated to profit. The divide between these two can be seen in multiple places. In the university for one in which the real divide is not between science and the arts, but between the majors that have an immediate practical and profitable application and those that will always elicit the question, "what are you going to do with that?" This includes the sciences especially in their more research oriented and fundamental dimension, biology, physics, astronomy, zoology, etc., The divide can also be seen in popular culture, especially in film, which oriented around a calendar divided between blockbusters and prestige films, between films that make money and films that win awards.

This divide between doing good for oneself, in the financial sense, and being good, divided knowledge and culture, imposing, as Marx put it, two separate yardsticks, two measurements. To go back to the college example, the person who pursued the ideals of "truth and beauty," to put it in the classic sense, would always have to answer the question of how they were going to make a living, and the person who pursued making a living might, upon reflection, have a nagging sense that they are missing out on something more. If this example does not hold up then think about the world of movies, split between the person who enjoys blockbusters and the person who enjoys not only prestige films, does anyone really like blatant Oscar bait, but what we used to call "art films," the category encompassing foreign and independent movies. This is also a split between two different yardsticks, two different measurements, one is assessed in terms of profit and the other in terms of some artistic merit. (If one wanted to put this in more sophisticated terms, those of Deleuze and Guattari, we could say that it is a matter of axioms and codes, but I will leave that aside for now)

Contradictions have a way of resolving themselves and one of these two standards had to give (a very un-Deleuzian point, I know). What we have seen, contra Keynes, is not the return of the lilies of the field but the mowing down of everything in terms of profit. The rise of the Marvel movie is not just the dominance of a new genre, that of superhero films, but of a new standard in which box office is the only tool of evaluation. I remember reading somewhere that Disney was at one point unique among film studios in that it did not have a prestige division, a Sony Searchlight or whatever. Why bother releasing prestige films in December to possibly get an award that no one cares about when you could make more money releasing a new Spider-Man or Star Wars movie? I also think that the current conflict over the university is one of the revenge of the business majors against the rest. It is an attempt to impose one standard on the university, that which makes a profit, removing anything that would be concerned with anything else.

It is hard to finish this line of thought without mentioning Trump, who stands out among Presidents in his absolute disinterest in anything resembling art or truth. Part of Trump's appeal to his voters is in his constantly saying again and again, who cares about art? who cares about literature? just stupid, and un-American nerds, as the following clip makes clear. (Oh, and for the record, I doubt he has seen Gone With the Wind, but he knows enough to know that it has the right nostalgia, and the right racial politics to appeal to his audience)

Trump does very well among a particular class of capitalists, what some call lumpen capitalists, the small business owners, franchise owners, and, more significantly, entire fringe industries that border on scams. With respect to the latter, I just finished reading this book, Get Rich or Lie Trying, and the chapter on Trump University was truly shocking. I knew it was an multilevel marketing company, but I did not expect it to be such a transparent scheme. Ultimately, this might bring us to an economic explanation of this particular cultural revolution, what has made the business class more brazen and more transparent. I think we have to see this as a particular kind of class composition, not, as in the classic version aimed at the working class, at understanding its technical and political composition, but at the ruling class, or at least a segment of it. (Our current cultural battles over DEI and the like are really conflicts within the ruling class, between those companies that need to expand their customer and employee base, and thus their interest in diversity and those that see all such things as challenges to their regional control and fiefdoms.) A full analysis of the intersection of economy and culture in this transformation is more than I have space for, it seems enough now to say that we are in the grips of a different cultural revolution than the one Keynes predicted, and our lives, and those of our grandchildren, are possibly all the worse for it.

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