Long story short: the principles of market competition, supposedly the root of competitive excellence in our society, in fact degrade and ruin most forms of human achievement. Most, that is, except those aimed at making money.
I’m not the first person to notice this, obviously. Now perhaps you have concluded that I’m a Marxist, but you would be wrong. My politics are not “socialism”; my politics are “screw capitalism.” I’ve had moments of intellectual infatuation of various forms of neo-Marxist cultural theory, had my flings with Adorno and Jameson (hey, it was the 1990s), but at the end of the day, Marx isn’t the most interesting way to look at the stuff I care about.
Marx, to me, is the great theorist of “that’s how they getcha.”
Capitalism is a great three-card monte trick; the characteristic moment where you feel you have just brushed up against capitalism is where you feel some money flying out of your pocket as you realize, just a hair too late, that they’ve done it to you again.* What Marx did was to take all the bazillion-and-one moments of deception, petty chiseling, and legalized theft, and perceive the vast shapes that emerge from their swarming multitudes. My problem is that Marxists, having been shown these shapes, get a little too excited in the rush of “it all makes sense now” — a kind of hermeneutic sublime where the whole System arises (as Jameson writes) dripping and convulsive into the light of day — and come to believe that these shapes constitute the basic grundgestalt of all human life and artistic creation. This is the kind of hermeneutic overreach beloved also of hardcore Freudians, post-structuralists, neo-Darwinian materialists, and other determined monists. I distrust monisms. There is no one idea that explains everything and leaves no remainder. To get around the block, you need at least two ideas. Preferably more.
But still, screw capitalism. Corporate hotel chains of the sort where one attends academic conferences are particularly good places for cultivating the experience of being had. A couple of years ago I booked a hotel room for AMS and the clerk taking my reservation over the phone got the date wrong, giving me an extra night on the Wednesday before the conference started. I showed up on Thursday and the check-in clerk told me I had missed the first night of my reservation and would be obliged to pay. I pointed out that I never reserved Wednesday night. She pointed out that it didn’t matter: they had sent out a confirmation email that, had I read it, would have informed me of the mistake in enough time to change my reservation. And that’s how they getcha. Of course I didn’t read the confirmation email; neither do I read the 90-page terms-of-service agreement for which you have to click “agree” before your new update of iTunes (or whatever) will run. Neither I nor anyone I know has the time to read every piece of responsibility-evading legalism spewed up in the course of any average daily negotiation of commercial civilization. Most of the time it still wouldn’t matter even if I did, because I would need a lawyer to explain what any of it is saying. You can only give full informed consent to everything that demands it by belonging to the class of person who erected the whole system in the first place. You have to be “good at capitalism”; you have to be in on the trick.
And since no-one wants to be cast as a loser in the story of their life — the yokel left gaping as the card he chose in the three-card monte game turns up in the wrong place again — you will internalize the values of our casino capitalism. You will value the low cunning that is constantly being practiced on you.* Which is (I suspect) how you get a lot of people who are obviously on the losing end of the neoliberal deal who nevertheless expend an astonishing amount of emotional energy defending it — the people who yelled “get a job” at Occupy protestors when their own jobs were mean, miserable affairs. The logic appears to be “I may be stuck in a shitty job I hate, but I’m no dummy.” And also, “I have to work this hateful job, but that’s OK so long as everyone else has to as well.”
I think you could reasonably argue that I was a moron not to check my reservation confirmation email carefully, but hotels obviously make their money on similar kinds of tricks. There’s the familiar hotel mini-bar wheeze, where you pay $15 if you eat the little can of cashews they leave in your room. An obvious trick and one easily avoided, but it works just often enough to be make money. But by now even the dimmest of customers have caught on and won’t fall for it, so apparently (so a friend tells me) some hotels will hit you with a fee if you so much as pick up an item from the minibar. And if you complain, I’m sure they’ll tell you the same thing: we informed you in our official documentation. It’s actually the exact same trick we’ve adopted for the maximalized syllabus I’ve complained about before. In the end, the only reason these horrible things exist is to cover asses: all they really say is “you can’t say I didn’t warn you.” We in the academic profession, too, have internalized the values of casino capitalism. If you wrote it down somewhere, you can get them. No wonder our students deploy the same kind of low cunning back at us: if you didn’t write it down, I don’t have to do it.
And finally, when you are left in the hotel lobby, feeling $149.00 fluttering out of your wallet and winging its way towards people you will never meet and for no good reason you can think of (aside from “well, I guess you got me pretty good this time”), you might feel just a bit of anger. But (here’s the really clever part) there’s no-one for you to blame, nowhere your anger might reasonably go. The person who took your order is some wage slave who may not even live in your country and made an honest mistake in the course of doing an unpleasant job that you, in your privilege, can scarcely imagine doing. The desk clerk? She didn’t screw you; she just delivered the bad news. (Though if you make enough noise — if you’re a big enough cheese that someone somewhere realizes they messed with the wrong guy — it’s that hapless person, another loser in the neoliberal casino, who’s probably going to be sacrificed to your anger.) Who’s to blame? That’s the genius of the system: no-one is. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.** wrote in The Vital Center (1949),
A static and decentralized society, based on agriculture and handicraft, was a society dependent on personal ties and governed by a personal ethic. Industrialism shattered the ties and consequently the ethic. A new code arose to cope with the remote and statistical units of the modern economy; and the gap between economic practice and personal morality widened swiftly and alarmingly. The industrial manager dealt, not in familiar personal relationships, but in impersonal magnitudes over great stretches of time and distance. The corporation was almost as much a device to solve moral as economic problems. It gave the new impersonality an institutional embodiment; a corporation, as the saying went, had neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. “Corporations will do what individuals would not dare to do,” the richest man in Boston wrote with candor a century ago. “Where the dishonesty is the work of all the Members, every one can say with Macbeth in the murder of Banquo ‘Thou canst not say I did it.'”
So your anger in that moment where you have somehow been screwed and yet there is no tangible human entity that has done the screwing — where does it go? You either (a) scream at the unfortunate person whom the corporation is deploying as a human firewall; (b) say “I know this isn’t your fault, but . . .” and then go on a long-winded and ultimately impotent speech about, like, the system, man (this is what I did); or (c) let the anger curdle inside you, where it sours and twists around so that somehow it becomes an anger at the people who point out that you got screwed. The collective psychological condition of present-day life in the USA is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: we deal with our abjection by associating ourselves with the power that keeps its foot on our necks.
Chuck Klosterman once pointed out that ads work even though we know they’re ridiculous precisely because they’re ridiculous — it’s just that we want to congratulate ourselves on being in on the trick. In such a situation, writes Klosterman, we think “That’s a good idea. It’s ridiculous, but I see what they’re doing. I’m willing to associate myself with this gimmick.” He continues, “It’s the difference between a magician performing a trick to impress his audience and a magician trying to sell that trick to other magicians. There’s nobody left for advertisers to fool. We’re all magicians.“***
Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat: The Mark Inside.****
*Of course, for a small minority of my potential readers (maybe, oh, 1% of them) your characteristic experience of capitalism might be the moment where my money flies, more or less against my will, into your pocket. I congratulate you on your cleverness (and, despite what you might think, your luck), but I won’t compliment you on it.
**Not exactly a socialist.
***Chuck Klosterman, “It Will Shock You How Much It Never Happened,” in Eating the Dinosaur.
****William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch.