Saturday, 2 May 2015

Measure For Measure: Democracy Is Not About Money

In another Election inspired article, steven harris discusses Capitalism and the myth of modern politics...
Election time approaches in Britain. The media aims every available reporter towards and spends endless screen hours focusing on prominent figures from each of the political parties considered important (by the media themselves). The electorate is presented with an entirely mediated illusion of truth when it comes to what the parties say, what they mean and how it will affect the individual at home. We are also told myths and lies about how power and influence operate within our society.

The current mythology, one which has been more or less in place since the Nineteen-Eighties, would have us believe that economic prosperity - both for the nation and for the individuals who go to make up the nation - is the only meaningful or important scale by which to measure progress or quality of life.

It’s not a new mythology, it is capitalism explained in the most basic of terms. Capitalism has been entrenched into the consciousness and communities of the Western world (and beyond) since at least The Reformation, if not the Renaissance. But in Britain, as in many other countries, the 1980s saw a cultural and subsequent political shift that has effectively emasculated anti-consumerist debate. Business, media, politicians themselves and the very wealthiest members of our society have encouraged and deployed a rhetoric of demonisation when it comes to any socio-political opposition to the totalitarian nature of capitalist culture.

The very language I am using to try to draw your attention to the mythologisation of capitalism as the only sensible, sustainable or empowering culture there might be, is instantly recognisable as a language of opposition containing its own rhetorical flourishes. Fighting fire with fire? Perhaps, but I’d far sooner the flames were extinguished and a more natural, unmediated social formation allowed to grow without it being cropped back again and again by scorched earth politics and napalm journalism.

Modern politics fears the left to such an extent that any hint of socialist thought or, heaven forfend, policy, is hounded across the Westminster lawn by packs of slavering journalists like the frightened fox many on the right of politics would still love to be permitted to chase across the countryside until it is caught and torn to shreds. You doubt my words? Look across the Atlantic and remember the aggressive resistance there was to Obamacare. Republican politicians were so against the pinko-communist, bleeding hearts notion of the state having a social responsibility for the physical welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens that even after the bill had been passed through both chambers of government they had a mass sulk and went on strike in an attempt to prevent it becoming law.

Anti-capitalism does not begin or end with Marx but some understanding of Marx’s critiques of capitalism does help if you want to know why much of what he wrote continues to be relevant in the 21st century even if the present ideological paradigm is one which denies we even have a culturally superimposed paradigm and which suppresses genuine ideological debate by implying that left-wing opinion is inherently antidemocratic. 

It is able to do this not just because media has achieved via digital technology a totality of coverage of which Marx could not possibly have conceived. It is able to do this not because social structures have changed beyond recognition since Marx wrote his first wholly significant critique of capitalism in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto.

Social structures remain similar to the way they were over a hundred and fifty years ago although we are now discouraged from believing that there are separate classes of which the lowest, proletariat class is the least socially empowered. Media existed in Marx’s time. It may have operated more slowly but the pace of life, of debate, of political movement was also slower. The speed of such things is generally dictated by the available technology of an epoch.

The very nature of capitalism has always been such that the populace are encouraged to see themselves as essentially equal, a grand illusion of which the big-faced projection masquerading as the Wizard of Oz would be proud. We ARE still in Kansas if you understand that by Kansas I mean that we still exist within a non-meritocratic society which is sustained by the externally blinkered endeavours of the worker whilst it is simultaneously being controlled and manipulated by an extraordinarily small proportion of the populace who somehow also control a ridiculously large percentage of the country’s wealth.

Marx recognised this illusion of equality in 1848 when he drew attention to the effects of the behaviour of the bourgeoisie, the very class responsible for the emergence of capitalism as the dominant global mode of productivity and cultural structure:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

And what allows for this debasement of diverse and unique skill-sets being classified together as merely different substrata of labour? Capital itself. That’s money, if you don’t want to get too drawn into potentially lefty vernacular. Truly successful capitalism requires gross acceptance of the idea that we are worth however many piece of paper we can accumulate, however many noughts our bank account possesses, however high our credit rating can skyrocket or how expensive our living space was or continues to be to acquire.

Money is the yardstick by which we measure status and thus how we measure the worth of every single individual within a capitalist society. What those individuals do to acquire their capital becomes secondary in importance to the amount they can acquire.

In such a society political rhetoric is obsessed with economics. The state of the national economy is elevated to a pseudo-importance which makes it appear worthy of frequent news bulletins in and of itself. The economy, stupid, somehow transforms into an entity apparently disconnected from what was once considered the most important measure of national success: the commonwealth.

Two things need recognising about the word commonwealth. Firstly, I do not mean the loose interrelation of those countries formerly held under British Imperial dominion, I mean the overall well-being of the people of a country. Secondly, the presence of the word ‘wealth’ within the term ‘commonwealth’ must not be defined by materialist, monetary parameters: it means the overall well-being of the people of a country.

“Economic growth liberates societies from the natural pressures occasioned by their struggle for survival, but they still must be liberated from their liberators. The independence of the commodity has spread, to the entire economy over which the commodity now reigns. The economy transforms the world, but it transforms it into a world of the economy…”

Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle 1967

With a few standout exceptions, so rare that the people I mean are commemorated with statues, plaques or (ironically) with representation on banknotes, the rich and the powerful are generally unlikely to care very much about the quality of the lives being lived out by those who possess far less wealth and influence. An independently wealthy politician might very well try to tell the nation that we are all in it together when it comes to a period of austerity measures meant to counteract the effects of a global financial depression but that same politician is virtually guaranteed to be culturally incapable of understanding the ways in which austerity beats down like a punishment on the poor even as it is barely noticeable to the rich. 

In a state of hyper fear and panic the poor begin to believe that the only answer is to accept the rules as laid down by the wealthy - if you can’t beat them, attempt to join them via the quite dubious notion of upward social mobility. In other words Orwell was wrong,;hope does not lie with the proles because the proles are unconsciously driven towards the same measurement of self-worth and individuation by which the bourgeoisie quantify their own existences.

These are the ways in which anti-capitalist opinion is demonised as antidemocratic, even unpatriotic. What the electorate ought to be asking themselves before they approach the polling booth on Thursday is “Does my life today feel more or less meaningful and worthwhile TO ME than it did prior to the last election?” What most will instead unconsciously be repeating like a socially-indoctrinated mantra is a variation along the lines of “Will I be better off financially if I vote for this party or for that party?”

These two questions do not amount to the same thing. They are not synonymous with one another. So long as we are encouraged to deploy material, monetarist criteria through which to measure our own worth as well as our apparent contentment and status within society then we will continue to confuse worth and meaning with capital acquisition. Business, media, politicians themselves and the very wealthiest members of our society will not give a good goddamn about this confusion of the lower classes; they will continue to employ biased statistics and psychologically emotive linguistic tools to maintain the myth that class no longer even exists: we’re all equal because money is equally available to those willing to attempt to acquire it.

On Thursday you should vote for yourself. You should not vote on behalf of your bank account. You should not vote in accordance with a bourgeois mythology you’ve probably never thought to question but which nevertheless has been passing off social custom as concrete fact since long before you were born.

When Marx encouraged the workers of the world to unite and throw off their chains he was not talking of physical manacles or even of necessarily unified political opinion. He was attempting to make readers aware that there is nothing natural about the social structures we inherit as a result of being born and, if there is nothing natural about those social structures, then genuine thought and true recognition of the societal formations of and power relations in the world around us might lead us to reappraise the ways in which we value ourselves.

It might lead us to believe that money, for all its allure and apparent power, is simply one measurement of human worth. In case it has not already been made abundantly clear, in my opinion capital is the very least meaningful criteria we can use by which to measure individual and social worth.

steven harris is adverse to putting his name in capitals because names aren't that important. Also, lower case is sexy. steven writes all sorts of stuff including fiction, poetry, songs, opinion pieces and shopping lists. He does not write on lavatory doors any more. his blog has writing in it and can be located at He lives in Devon with an imaginary cat called Kafka.

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