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Why Pride Merch Matters

photograph of multicolored shoes at Pride parade

Target is at the center of a controversy about pride merchandise. After years of offering a wide array of LGBTQ+ affirming products, including displays celebrating the queer community in the month of June, the major retailer has removed and relocated some of its pride merchandise in response to threats and harassment towards its employees. In a statement released near the end of May, Target said that it had “experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work” and that for that reason it was pulling some of its pride merchandise. Some workers also reported that their store’s pride display was moved to a less prominent location.

The conservative ire for Target’s inclusiveness is well-documented, with customers removing pride display signs, accusing employees of being child groomers and promoting a woke agenda, and even threatening gun violence. Conservative podcast host Matt Walsh sparked outrage by falsely stating that particular trans-affirming items were being sold for children, which helped fuel the campaign against Target. Since Target’s statement, the situation has escalated with a group of apparently fake bomb threats on a number of stores, as well as backlash from numerous directions.

In a year when trans rights are on the chopping block in numerous states, with nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in the United States, one has to wonder: Does a display in a store really matter? Corporations have long been dismissed for engaging in rainbow capitalism: showing outward support for the LGBTQ+ community only when it profits them to do so. Support for a marginalized community doesn’t mean much if it lasts only as long as prevailing sentiments in the wider culture align with it. Isn’t backing down just what people have long expected Target to do?

I will argue Target’s actions do matter morally, both in their material effects and in their symbolic ones. First, the material effects. Whatever the motivation may be behind the corporate support of the LGBTQ+ community, the items sold in a store exist in the world for people to see and buy. Target has sold products for gender transition and expression, such as binders and swimwear labeled as “tuck-friendly,” in addition to the more symbolic rainbow-colored or queer-message products. The ability to go to a nearby store — the same place you may go for paper towels, diapers, and shower curtains — and pick up these items is convenient for people who are transitioning. Not everyone has easy access to specialty retailers, so Target provides a real service in bringing these products to their stores.

The pride displays also have a material effect for the LGBTQ+ creators of the merchandise with whom Target partnered. Target is a major retailer, earning a net profit of close to seven billion dollars in 2022. When a designer has their products sold at Target, their products reach a much wider customer base than can be reached with an independent store. Unsurprisingly, the creators of the pride merchandise have expressed frustration and disappointment at having their merchandise pulled. Designer Ash + Chess expressed sadness over having their products removed from stores. The brand JZD similarly made a statement calling anti-LGBTQ+ hate “devastating,” expressing that the experience of having their products pulled after more than a year of working on custom pieces was emotionally draining. While these designers may be getting support within their community as people feel sympathy and outrage for their treatment, the brands are still missing out on an opportunity that they were offered and worked hard to achieve. And seeds of distrust have been planted for LGBTQ+ brands’ prospects of working well with Target in future years.

The display matters to Target’s employees as well. Some queer Target workers have made it known that they do not appreciate their safety being used as an excuse to cave to the demands of people who wish them ill. Someone who worked at Target in part because of the company’s queer-friendly commitments might understandably feel betrayed.

As material forces in the world, pride merchandise in major retailers is worth more than whatever motivation may or may not be behind it. Its continued presence in the face of backlash is not nothing, nor is Target’s pulling some merchandise insignificant to those affected by it.

Target’s pride merchandise also matters symbolically. Symbols help connect us to each other. They allow us to recognize ourselves in each other, express our values or identities, and find common ground. In a society experiencing a noticeable backlash against the LGBTQ+ community, a rainbow pin can communicate a small bit of safety in a public place such as a restroom. I’m like you. I’ve got your back. A pride display similarly communicates acknowledgement and support of the queer community. At least it does so until it is moved out of sight.

But having pride merch and items for gender transition such as binders and tuck-friendly swimwear in major retailers like Target communicates something further. It communicates that being queer is no big deal. It counteracts the pervasive narrative of deviance that has long been wielded against queer people. As a symbol, it thus has meaning independent of the changing commitments of the corporation behind it.

Many have pointed out that the popularity of pride merchandise may be more of an indicator of social acceptance than a cause of it. Be that as it may, companies have a duty not to cave to the pressure of those who are opposed. No symbolic show of support can nullify oppressive laws, restore rights, or keep queer people safe, but symbols that also offer real material benefits can be a small source of support for people living in a society that is increasingly hostile to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both in their material effects and their symbolic nature, pride displays matter.

Woke Capitalism and Moral Commodities

photograph of multi-colored shipping containers loaded on boat

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: “Woke Capitalism.”

Many have started to abandon the usage of the term “woke” since it is more and more used in a pejorative sense by ideological parties – as Charles M. Blow states “‘woke’ is now almost exclusively used by those who seek to deride it, those who chafe at the activism from which it sprang.” What the term refers to has become increasingly ambiguous to the point that it seems useless. As early as 2019, Damon Young was suggesting that “woke floats in the linguistic purgatory of terms coined by us that can no longer be said unironically,” and David Brooks concluded that no small  part of wokeism was simply the intellectual elite showing off with “sophisticated” language.

But when the term rose to popularity in 2016, it was referring to a kind of awareness of public issues, and “became the umbrella purpose for movements like #blacklivesmatter (fighting racism), the #MeToo movement (fighting sexism, and sexual misconduct), and the #NoBanNoWall movement (fighting for immigrants and refugees).” And new fronts are always opening up.

Discussions of “Woke Capitalism” tend to focus on corporate and consumer activism. Tyler Cowen has also pointed out the importance of wokeism as a new, uniquely American cultural export that may fundamentally change the world. And, indeed, despite the post-mortems, “woke” remains in the lexicon of both political parties.

Even though the term “woke” has fallen out of favor, I suspect there is a mostly unaddressed aspect of wokeism that needs reconsideration. There may very well be a new mode of consumption just beginning to dominate the market: commodities as moral entities.

How does this happen? Let’s consider what differentiates Woke Capitalism from more familiar moral considerations about market relations and discuss how products have become moral entities through comparison to non-woke products.

It is not just about moral considerations: In any decision-making process, it is natural for some moral considerations to arise. In the case of market relations, any number of factors – the company’s affiliations, its production methods, the status of workers, the trustworthiness of the company, etc. – may prove decisive. Traditionally, as in the case of moral appeal in marketing – “If you are a good parent, you should buy this shoe!” – there seems to be a necessity to link a moral consideration with a company or a product. With Woke Capitalism, this relation is transformed: an explicit link is no longer necessary. All purchasing is activism – one cannot help but make a statement with what they choose to buy and what they choose to sell.

It is not just corporate or consumer activism: The moral debate about Woke Capitalism mainly revolves around the sincerity of companies and customers in support of social justice causes. And that discussion of corporate responsibility often revisits the Shareholder vs. Stakeholder Capitalism distinction.

Corporate or consumer activism seems to be making use of the market as a way of demonstrating the moral preferences of individuals or a group. It can be seen as a way to support what is essentially important to us. Vote with your dollar. As such, most discussions focus on this positive reinforcement side of Woke Capitalism.

What is lost in this analysis of Woke Capitalism, however, is the production of Woke Products which forces consumers take sides with even the most basic day-to-day purchases.

How should we decide between two similarly-priced products according to this framing: a strong stain remover or a mediocre stain remover that helps sick children; a gender-equality supporting cereal or a racial-equality supporting cereal. Each of these decisions brings some imponderable trade-off with it: What’s more important – the health of children or stain-removing strength? Which problem deserves more attention – gender inequality or racial inequality?

Negation of Non-Woke: The main problem with these questions is not that some of them are unanswerable, absurd, or impossible to decide in a short time. Instead, the problem is the potential polarizing effect of its relational nature. Dan Ariely suggests, in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shapes Our Decisions, that we generally decide by focusing on the relativity – people often decide between options on the basis of how they relate to one another. He gives the example of three houses which have the same cost. Two of them are in the same style. One is a fixer-upper. In such a situation, he claims, we generally decide between the same style houses since they are easier to compare. In this case, the alternatively-styled house will not be considered at all.

In the case of wokeness, the problem is that it is quite probable that non-woke products will be ignored altogether. With our minds so attuned to the moral issue, all other concerns fade away.

Woke Capitalism creates a marketplace populated entirely by woke, counter-woke, and anti-woke products. Market relations continue to be defined by this dynamic more and more. As such, non-woke products are becoming obsolete. Companies must accommodate this trend and present themselves in particular ways, not necessarily because they want to, but because they are forced to. And this state of affairs feels inescapable; there is no breaking the cycle. Even anti-woke and counter-woke marketing feed that struggle. All consumption becomes a moral statement in a never-ending conflict.

To better see what makes Woke Capitalism unique (and uniquely dangerous), consider this comparison:

Classic moral consideration: Jimmy buys Y because Y conforms to his moral commitments.

Consumer activism: Jimmy buys Y because Y best signals his support for a deeply-held cause.

Woke Capitalism: Jimmy buys Y because purchasing products is necessary for his moral identity.

This is not just consumer activism whereby customers seek representation. Instead, commodities turn into fundamentally moral entities – building blocks for people to construct and communicate who they are. As morality becomes increasingly understood in terms of one’s relationship to commodities, a moral existence depends on buying and selling. Consumption becomes identity. “I buy, therefore – morally – I am.”

‘Squid Game’, Class Struggle, and the Good Life

image of Korean Squid Game logo

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Netflix’s Squid Game.]

Throughout the fall months of 2021, the Korean series Squid Game was a top ten listing on Netflix. It shares elements in common with movies such as the 2005 Eli Roth film Hostel and the entire Hunger Games franchise — the suffering of the poor and downtrodden serves as perverted entertainment for the incomprehensibly and unconscionably wealthy. By situating the class struggle in a 9-episode hypothetical thought experiment, the series distances the viewer from the reality behind the metaphor and prevents their analysis from being clouded by pre-existing political commitments.

The main idea of the series is that participants compete for a growing pile of cash, contained in a giant transparent piggy bank, hanging over the room in which contestants spend most of their time. Every time one of the players dies, more money is added to the bank. They participate in a variety of traditional children’s games. The winners live another day to compete for the whole pot, while the losers are exterminated and become for the others simply more money in the pile. Often the contestants are put in a position to kill one another and are frequently more than eager to do so.

Hundreds of players choose to participate in the Squid Game, all of them down and out in some way or another. The word “choose” is used loosely here. The candidates enter the competition, are allowed to leave, and then when given the option to participate again, almost all of them do. The common line of reasoning is that life is worse outside of the game — intense suffering is bound to happen, but at least in the game that suffering is more ordered and predictable. In the world outside, a person can follow all of the “rules” or, in any case, the set of norms that we’ve come to expect will point the direction of their lives away from misery and toward happiness. They can do all that and still be hit in the face with the absurdity of lived experience — with the machinations of an indifferent universe that doesn’t care about the rules and deals out misery, suffering, and death indiscriminately to rule followers and rule breakers alike. In the game, players don’t know who will go first or last, nor do they know which skills and abilities will be useful for success in the highly contingent circumstances in which they find themselves. The recognition of the absurdity of their condition is clear to the viewer from the very beginning. As the series highlights throughout and stresses in the final episode, the condition of the human person surviving in the real world is different only in the respect that it is worse while masquerading as better. We have no control over the circumstances into which we are born: whether our parents are kind and supportive or cruel and destructive, whether they have wealth to pass along, whether we are born into environments with stable and fair political systems, whether those environments have sufficient resources, whether we are born a member of an oppressed group, or whether we have skills and abilities that will make us well positioned to survive in the environments into which we are born (to name just a few). If this is what we can expect out of life, why not sign up for a game one stands a fighting chance of winning?

The idea that the characters “choose” to participate in the game motivates reflection on the nature of coercion. To how much misery and manipulation can a person be subjected before their decisions no longer count as truly free? If you think playing a game is your only way to survive another day, or your only chance to protect your mother or your child, odds are that you will end up playing. To do otherwise is to select an alternative that is not a reasonable second option. The viewer knows what is at stake in the game, and we can empathize with the fact that the players end up back inside. No one is likely to think that the characters that finance and run the competition are heroes — they are exploiting the dire circumstances of desperate people. In the real world, the losers of life’s socioeconomic lottery, like the players in the Squid Game, are often trapped in a state of unfreedom. While powerful people wearing the masks of representatives and leaders enact policies to make the rich richer on the backs of the poor, the least well off are often left, through no fault of their own, to “choose” between only bad options. Then we blame them for it. Rather than recognizing the contingency of all of the facts of our existence, we tend to treat those that suffer as if they do so purely as a result of their own life choices.

There is no justice in the game — wrongdoers engage in selfish and harmful acts with impunity. Far from being punished, such people are actually rewarded. The kindest and most empathetic people gain nothing from their good works. If people choose compassion and fellow-feeling, they’ll have to do so in recognition of the intrinsic value of those things rather than because of what they hope to get out of them. In this way, Squid Game is another manifestation of Glaucon’s challenge from Plato’s Republic. In Book Two of this most famous of Plato’s dialogues, the conversants attempt to answer the question “why be moral?” Glaucon makes the argument that, if people could get away with it and avoid the consequences, they would behave selfishly to the point of doing terrible things. He provides the fictional case of a man who is given a ring — the Ring of Gyges — that renders him invisible. Glaucon claims that the man would use it to steal all of the king’s riches and to rape his wife. Why should he care, if he will never be caught? Similarly, participants in the Squid Game either die or live to tell the tale exactly as they prefer with no one to correct them on the more gruesome details. Why shouldn’t participants behave in exactly the way they think will help them win?

Socrates’s rejoinder is that being good is valuable for its own sake, and the main character of Squid Game — Seong Gi-hun — is a Socratic hero. With one notable exception, he refuses to harm or kill other participants and seems to keep the humanity of others in full view throughout the proceedings. When he feels an impulse to deviate from this norm, he is quickly reminded by a friend, “that’s not you.” Though he seems blind to his own virtuous character, his behavior demonstrates an unwillingness to give up on virtue for virtue’s sake or on the inherent value of life and friendships. The game concludes with the Socratic hero as the winner; all of the money is now his and all he wants to do is use it to improve the lives of the people he cares about. Unfortunately, when he emerges from the game, they are all gone. His mother lies dead on the floor of the squalid apartment that they once shared. His daughter has moved to the United States with her mother and stepfather. He is left alone with more money than he ever imagined having in his wildest dreams. Under these conditions, it’s all worthless. What constitutes the good life? Even if we allow (as we should) for a pluralism of views on this topic, most well-considered accounts will agree that it involves delight in knowledge, awe in beauty, joy in hobbies, and the contentment that comes with spending substantial and meaningful time with the people we care about.

Material comfort is not identical to the good life, but economic stability is a necessary condition for people to have the freedom to participate in the goods of life. We can’t spend time with our loved ones if we’re constantly pushing a rock up a hill or, what amounts to the same thing, working for exploitation wages. Squid Game provides us with a hypothetical thought experiment to help us to recognize that what’s true in this fictional universe is no less true in the actual world. If we think just conditions of human life require providing a structure in which everyone has reasonable access to the basic goods of life, then we desperately need to make modifications to our current socioeconomic systems. Otherwise, we’re all just playing a rigged game.

Fast Fashion Isn’t the Fashion Industry’s Only Problem

photograph of shelves of shirts in shrinkwrap

Most young Americans have never lived in a world where the latest fashion trends were not available instantly at dizzyingly low prices. Fast fashion retailers like Shein and ASOS offer seemingly endless online catalogs of low-quality clothes, typically about as durable as tissue paper, and in the last few years they’ve broadened their audiences through social media sites like TikTok and Instagram. Influencers purchase a few hundred-dollars worth of clothing, reflecting that week’s micro-trends, and spread these finds out on the floor to be filmed. Most items are only worn a few times before they move on to their next haul. To get a sense of the scope of this problem, we might look at pioneering online retailer ASOS, which aims to add roughly 5,000 items to its virtual catalog every week. As Terry Nyguen, a reporter on consumer trends for Vox, explains, “Garment production has quietly accelerated to breakneck speeds over the past three decades, easing young and old consumers into thinking of their clothes as disposable.”

As a culture, we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around fast fashion for nearly a decade now; for example, Sakshi Sharma and Victoria Jennings have probed the ethical dilemmas posed by fast fashion before here on the Post. Sharma explains how the industry allows wage stagnation and workplace abuse to flourish, and Jennings examines the negative impact fast fashion has on the environment. It is worth noting how extremely difficult it is to quantify this negative impact. The oft-repeated statistic that the garment industry pollutes more than any other, with the exception of oil, seems to come from a study on a single Chinese province, as Alden Wicker explains in his expose on the tangled web of shoddy evidence and unverifiable data that impede genuine research. Misinformation, he argues, poses obstacles for consumers and eco-activists alike.

But regardless of what the exact impact is, the fashion industry is ramping up, not slowing down. A 2019 report published by the Global Fashion Report on the fashion industry predicts a global increase in textile production of 81% by 2030. It’s near impossible to make a case for fast fashion, but at the same time, it’s misguided to focus all of our ire on that specific sector of the industry when high fashion is just as guilty of unsustainability. Is fashion itself, as we currently understand it, inherently unsustainable?

Unfortunately, a designer label is hardly a guarantee of eco-friendliness. Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, while not exactly qualifying as “high fashion,” are certainly on a different tier than Shein. However, these two brands, which are owned by the same company, still use unsustainable synthetic fabrics like polyester, and neither is especially transparent about where and how their garments are made or what steps they plan to take to reduce carbon emissions. Companies that definitely would be considered high fashion, like Versace, have made gestures towards sustainability, but as one sustainability-rating site noted, there is no evidence that Versace is on track to meet its goals.

Paradoxically, fashion is both art and commodity. We think of our clothing as expressive of our true essence and therefore unique, but the things we buy are selecters for us by a cadre of market researchers and boardroom executives, and are ultimately iterations of ephemeral trends that flatten rather than enrich individual expression. Fashion, as essayist Kennedy Fraser noted in 1978, is at its core “materialistic, and holds that appearances are of greater significance than substance. Among the shared limitations are fickleness, a preoccupation with descrying the will of the majority in order to manipulate it or pander to it, and a concern with the accumulation or protection of power and profit. Although all fashion looks mobile and rebellious at times, its roots are surprisingly constant: to think or act for reasons of fashion in any given field is to support that field’s established centers of power.” Fraser rightly points out that fashion in general, whether high or low, requires a base of consumers, so its continuation can only ever perpetuate the aims of capitalism. Even the most daring trend can be watered down and shuffled onto a Target sales rack, fully incorporated into the mainstream culture it once challenged the boundaries of.

At the same time, how impossible it is to dismiss the idea of fashion, to stop our ears against the alluring language of pattern and color, of form and movement. Like any kind of image-making, fashion provides us with metaphors and symbols through which we understand ourselves and our position in the world. Situated at the intersection between private and public, between self and other, these polyvalent symbols allow us to simultaneously articulate, as well as create, our sense of self. The fashion industry capitalizes on these ingrained desires, which is partly why addressing the negative environmental impact of the garment industry is so difficult. Consumers should and must shun fast fashion brands, but that only tackles one small part of the problem. We need to completely rethink fashion, finding a way to embrace the good and discard the bad, if we want to lay the foundation for a more sustainable world.

Saturday Night Live and the Humanization of Elon Musk

headshot photograph of elon musk in a tux

In late April of 2021, the long-running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live announced that Elon Musk, controversial tech magnate and owner of Tesla, would be hosting the show on May 8th. This decision was a controversial one, both for viewing audiences and SNL cast members, who were given the option not to perform alongside the billionaire. Some critics were reminded of when Donald Trump hosted SNL back in 2015, a decision which the showrunners (despite their generally negative attitude towards the president during his four-year reign) never openly interrogated or expressed regret towards in later episodes. But do major pop culture institutions like SNL have an obligation to only give the spotlight to figures who meet certain ethical standards? By allowing deeply problematic figures to dress up in silly costumes and tell milquetoast jokes about themselves, are we normalizing oppressive power structures, or is all this just baseless moral frittering?

Evidence does suggest that SNL has very little impact on our perception of the rich and powerful. In 2012, Oxford University conducted a study on the impact Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation had on voter perception of the vice-presidential candidate. They found that people from both ends of the political spectrum tend to come to SNL with their opinions already fully formed, and that Fey’s impression had little to no real world impact on the voting populace. With that in mind, it’s unlikely that those with a deep-seated distrust of Musk would be won over by his Wario impression.

Even so, SNL certainly made gestures towards humanizing Musk. As one critic for NPR describes,

“[Musk’s] game efforts to keep up with the show’s cast helped lighten his growing image as a callous tech bro — see the public furor when he downplayed and questioned concerns about the coronavirus last year — including a joke in one sketch about how his character once thought masks were dumb, but now believe they make sense.”

This seems a glib attempt to gloss over the very real harm done by Musk at the height of the pandemic, which includes spreading blatant misinformation about coronavirus through Twitter and providing less than adequate access to ventilators. Musk seems determined to embed himself in pop culture, which is part of a larger problem than the Oxford study can address.

In an article for The New Yorker, Naomi Fry theorizes that Musk’s attempt at relatability signals a dissolution between the categories of “mainstream” and “indie” culture. Nowadays, the hyper-wealthy share memes on Twitter, do drugs, and understand video game references. Musk may hold more wealth than the majority of the population combined, but he can also make jokes about Star Wars on Twitter. In particular, Fry argues that the controversy surrounding Musk’s surprising union with indie musician Grimes, who before dating the neo-colonialist tech giant proclaimed herself to be an “anti-imperialist,” has inspired “a nostalgia for a time when political differences translated more securely into differences of taste, and vice versa.” She asks, “What if ideological distinctions still mattered and were not so easily swept away by a leveling torrent of information and capital?”

At the end of the day, Saturday Night Live is interested in numbers, not ethics. As The Washington Post pointed out, SNL typically draws in the most viewers when the host is at the center of an ongoing controversy; Trump attracted nearly 9 million viewers, and their most highly rated episode of all time was hosted by Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, not long after her entanglement with Tonya Harding. Musk wasn’t selected for his acting chops, but for the boost in ratings that his name would provide. SNL is clearly not an indie show corrupted by the mainstream influence of Musk; this is an instant of the mainstream embracing the mainstream for mercenary ends. At the same time, our collective discomfort with Musk’s hosting gig speaks to our longing for aesthetic and political readability, our weariness with the relationship between media and capitalism.

The Politics of Depression

blurred photograph of crowd on busy street at night

In contrast to the exuberant energy of the 2016 presidential election (for better or for worse), the 2020 election has been characterized by fatigue, anxiety, and even depression. Regardless of which candidate triumphs in the presidential election, many voters on both sides can’t help feeling daunted by the government’s inability to meet the needs of its citizens.

The language of illness has always been a useful lexicon for politics; the metaphor of the “body politic” informed statecraft in Europe for centuries, and enemies of the state have always been described as a disease eating away at that body. But for those members of the body politic struggling with mental illness, the question is how to remain politically active while battling depression, especially when the stakes are so high.

Depression may be the mental illness par excellence for political discourse under capitalism. While capitalism has been linked to schizophrenia (we are expected to be sober workers by day and hedonists by night, as sociologist Daniel Bell points out, which ultimately creates a fractured psyche), Mark Fisher draws comparisons between his experiences with depression and the mindset induced by capitalism. In his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, he writes that “while sadness apprehends itself as a contingent and temporary state of affairs, depression presents itself as necessary and interminable: the glacial surfaces of the depressive’s world extend to every conceivable horizon.” He sees a parallel between the “the seeming ‘realism’ of the depressive, with its radically lowered expectations, and capitalist realism.” As Fisher understands, enacting political change and fighting depression are struggles against a similar opponent.

Depression itself is becoming increasingly political, both in terms of how we conceptualize it and how we attempt to cure it. Danish literary critic Mikkel Krause Frantzen proclaims in an incendiary essay for the LA Review of Books that “any cure to the problem of depression must take a collective, political form; instead of individualizing the problem of mental illness, it is imperative to start problematizing the individualization of mental illness.” He asserts that “Dealing with depression—and other forms of psychopathology—is not only part of, but a condition of possibility for an emancipatory project today. Before we can throw bricks through windows, we need to be able to get out of bed.” This political approach to illness is rooted in a wider politicization of illness. For example, Anne Boyer writes in her recently published memoir about cancer, The Undying, that “Disease is never neutral. Treatment never not ideological. Mortality never without its politics.” Boyer rejects apolitical cancer treatment, noting that “Our genes are tested, our drinking water is not. Our body is scanned, but not our air . . . The news of cancer comes to us on the same sort of screens as the news about elections.” Like cancer, depression is often viewed as purely somatic, not as a condition with a basis in the material reality of the afflicted.

When we acknowledge that material reality, we create the potential to radicalize those with mental illness. However, the fatalistic mindset of depression often discourages political engagement. One study conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, which argues that “that depression is a political phenomenon insofar as it has political sources and consequences,” found that mental illness “consistently and negatively affects voting and political participation.” Furthermore, “depression also has developmental consequences for political behavior. Adolescent depression has the potential to set individuals on a trajectory of political disengagement in adulthood.” The study paints this as a vicious cycle; without adequate mental health care, we become depressed, and then depression inhibits political engagement, which prevents healthcare policies from ever changing. The study concludes that though research into the neurological aspect of depression is extremely important, it is also,

“worthwhile to theorize about depression in terms of the social model, especially because the experience of a mood disorder such as depression is largely rooted in social circumstances. Depression is socially-situated in so far as it is not something that simply ‘happens’ to someone but arises out of the circumstances of life. This is compounded by the fact that traditionally disadvantaged groups disproportionately experience depression.”

So how can the mentally ill break out of that vicious cycle? There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Even recognizing that major changes that need to be enacted in order to create a liveable world isn’t always enough. As Frantzen says, “there is no reason to believe that abolishing private property ownership, or realizing a global and absolute cancellation of private debt, will relieve the suffering of depressed people with a single stroke, as if by magic.” For voters experiencing a sense of hopelessness at the polls, and who fear plunging to an even greater depth of hopelessness on election night, a radical kind of self-care is needed. Many have already pointed out the often vacant politics of “self-care,” which does not always promote social change as much as we’d like it to. But when self-care is able to foster “not competition among the sick, but alliances of care that will make people feel less alone and less morally responsible for their illness,” in Frantzen’s words, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

The Ambiguous Perspective of HBO’s ‘Succession’

photograph of cast of Succession after Golden Globes

Succession, one of the most popular recent additions to HBO’s stable of prestige dramas, dominated the drama category at the 2020 Emmys. But despite critical acclaim, the show inspired complicated and even unpleasant emotions in viewers. Equal parts pleasure and disgust contribute to Succession’s allure, and if articles like “How embarrassed should you be about your ‘Succession’ crush?” are any indication, guilt is the price fans often pay for their investment.

The Roys are a treacherous and amoral clan of one-percenters dominated by aging patriarch Logan Roy, a media mogul who made his fortune disseminating right-wing propaganda through a FOX-esque news network. The central conflict of the show, as its title suggests, is who will inherit his sprawling media empire. The main contenders are Logan’s three children, recovering drug-addict Kendall, cunning political analyst Shiv, and wisecracking playboy Roman. Other possibilities include various cronies and extended family members, like Greg, an unpolished (and impoverished) Roy cousin who stumbles into the family’s orbit in search of a job.

The closer we get to the family, the more our discomfort grows. We’re drawn in by Kendall’s perpetual sadness and vulnerability, Roman’s darkly funny sense of humor, and Shiv’s resentment at being passed over in favor of her brothers. We can’t help but identify with and even pity them, but our identification is constantly challenged by the wickedness of the Roy family. In the show’s first episode, Roman invites the young son of a staff member to participate in the family’s baseball game. When he seems reluctant, Roman writes out a check for one million dollars, offering it as a prize if the kid can hit a home run. Of course, he gets tagged out just inches away from home base. Roman rips up the check with a flourish and offers the boy a fragment, or a “quarter of a million dollars,” as he puts it. In his review of the show, writer Jorge Cotte asks if “As viewers, do we separate our ethical concerns from the conniving and calloused amorality of the Roys’ business machinations? This is related to another question: is there something suspect in feeling for these fictional power brokers who are so similar to those causing actual harm and systemic violence in the world?” In other words, how can we identify with the child and the spoiled billionaire taunting him at the same time?

The show’s engagement with wealth and privilege offers no clear moral perch for the viewers to situate themselves upon. The show seems to set up bumbling and well-intentioned Greg as an alternative to the Roys, yet he is purposefully difficult to identify with. His scenes, though invariably funny, are excruciatingly awkward. He can never read a room, and always seems to take up too much space. But over the course of the series, he proves to be as mercenary and self-serving as his cousins, illustrating the impossibility of achieving affluence without dirtying one’s hands. In Succession, we are never allowed to rest too comfortably in one place. The audience is situated everywhere at once, ricocheted from viewpoint to viewpoint.

This discomfort is built into the very fabric of the show. The camera is usually handheld, and its gaze feels shaky and restless. When characters move from one location to another, we often see them from a distance, as if through the perspective of the paparazzi. In this way, Succession borrows much from Veep, another show filmed in a mockumentary style without in-fiction justification. In Veep, the handheld camera is used for comedic purposes. It allows for quick reaction shots and zooms, which provide extra flair to jokes. But in Succession, the effect is disorienting, even nauseating. While the mockumentary style usually suggests verisimilitude, here it suggests voyeurism and instability. There is a fundamental clash between how the Roys see themselves and how they are perceived by the world, or on another level, a clash between how they perceive themselves and how the audience perceives them. We learn that as children, Kendall frequently locked Roman in a dog cage and made him eat kibbles. Roman insists that this was sadistic torture, but Kendall insists that Roman enjoyed it too. Storytelling is central to this family, which made its fortune spinning yarns, but even the Roys can’t agree on their own narrative.

Critic Rachel Syme points out that “While Succession does not glorify wealth, it also makes no apologies for it. The Roys are not like you and me. They have SoHo lofts and trust funds and cashmere everything, and they own theme parks and movie studios and shady cruise lines . . . They have everything anyone could want, but they are all empty and lonesome, neglectful and neglected.” Syme describes the ambiguity at the heart of the show, an ambiguity that is mirrored in audience reactions. While we may cheer them on, we derive equal pleasure from watching them fail. As a character from an equally rich but far more old-money family tells Kendall in season two, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on the planet.” The amoral world of Succession allows for both disgust and identification, which is perhaps a more honest way of depicting the rich and famous than complete disavowal or complete worship.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race; or, How Not To Confuse Efficiency with Expediting

photograph of blurred pedestrians crossing intersection

Efficiency is the credo of a capitalist society. To the average person, “efficient” has a connotation of speed: if something is not getting done imminently, they reason time must be getting wasted. As the capitalist credo, efficiency often seems elevated to the status of a moral value. That is, a thing done efficiently (again, reading as “quickly”) is a positive moral accomplishment.

This confusion—and it is a confusion—is on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. The race to find successful treatments, and hopefully a vaccine, for COVID-19 have institutions rushing the usual procedures for research and development. Animal tests would usually precede human testing. However pharmaceutical research companies like Moderna have taken the step of running such trials simultaneously. While people living under the pall of this novel coronavirus want a vaccine quickly, many medical expertsincluding newly-minted celebrity Dr. Anthony Fauciurge researchers and policymakers to take the cautious route. These pleas, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears with the advent of initiatives like US President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed.

Nor is the desire for efficiency limited to the development of a vaccine. There is a general desire for the legal and political handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to be efficient. Those who are more cautious and who believe the general public health consensus about COVID-19 want efficiency in the articulation and administration of laws and executive orders. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo enjoys impressive job approval ratings, as do most other states’ governors. Some of the governors with the lowest approval ratings are in states who have moved to reopen more of their states’ non-essential business and to do so more quickly (e.g., Georgia’s Brian Kemp). This is likely because, on the whole, Americans are in favor of many lockdown and social distancing measures, worrying that ending these measures prematurely will negatively impact public health. While apparently more newsworthy, the vocal segment Americans who want the lockdown to end (and believe it never should have started in the first place) is a minority.

Enthusiasm for “efficient” executive authority is not universal and has met substantial legal challenges. The legislature of Wisconsin recently successfully sued to overturn that state’s Department of Health Services stay-at-home orders. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled that the orders were unconstitutional and unenforceable. The court’s decision, which relied largely on a close distinction between a rule and an order as defined by the Wisconsin Constitution, was panned by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers as creating a state of “total chaos.” Reactions of other Democratic officials throughout the state echoed Evers’ concerns that an efficient response to the COVID-19 emergency would be hamstrung by the courts’ decision.

This illustrates the crux of the matter. Supporters of broad executive authority in the face of COVID-19 take an efficient response to be one which is centralized and univocal. The executive, along with their advisors and adjutants, should be able to do what is necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court objected that, even in the face of a crisis, statutory limits on executive power must be observed. This objection is of a kind with those made by Dr. Fauci, among others, concerning expedited vaccine development. Just as the statutory limits of executive power cannot be ignored, neither can the ethical safeguards on clinical research.

What this shows is that what counts as efficient is relative to the goal in question. If all that we want is the development of a vaccine that confers immunity to this novel coronavirus, then some of the standard procedures are inefficient. That is, they require the consumption of resources not necessary to produce the desired effect. However, if what we want is a vaccine that confers immunity and also has a low occurrence of significantly harmful side effects, then it is inefficient to rush the job. Likewise if we simply want to stop the spread of coronavirus, we could empower a single person to create laws by proclamation and enforce those laws by force. That is in effect what declarations of emergency by a governor or president allow, within narrowly-defined limits.

Efficiency then cannot be morally good no matter where it shows up. In the terminology of Immanuel Kant, efficiency is not “good without qualification.” In order for something to be good without qualification, Kant argues, that thing must be good in all conditions and circumstances. He says, for example, that pleasure doesn’t pass this test. After all, a sadist takes pleasure from torturing unwilling victims. Using a similar example, it is easy to see that efficiency fails Kant’s test. A sadist who invents a rack across which he can break multiple victims at once, with the crank of a single handle, is surely being quite efficient. He is also doing something quite repugnant. Just as the ends don’t justify the means, the means do not automatically confer any positive moral value to the ends. In fact, efficiency seems to act simply like a multiplier: if an accomplishment is already good on its own merits, doing it efficiently is even better; but if an accomplishment is bad on its own merits, doing it efficiently is even worse.

We want society to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as healthy and whole as possible. However the best ways to do that are likely not fast. Our medical, scientific, and political responses to this crisis cannot be swallowed up by their own sense of urgency. An efficient process is only as good as what it achieves. By casting away failsafes, we set ourselves up to aim unknowingly in the wrong direction.

A Time for Re-Imagining

photograph of empty New York City street at dawn

As coronavirus continues to change the world, and as some places begin to contemplate tentatively easing distancing measures, the implications of this event for societies everywhere are still being shaped. We are learning how to comprehend and respond to this new challenge.

What can we understand about the character of this new, unanticipated world, and what can we decide about how it takes shape from here?

It seems that we are being shifted, by big political, social, and environmental forces, into a new way of being. What we can understand and what we can decide about it will depend upon what we can imagine.

Fredric Jameson said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Interrogating this idea yields different possible interactions between acts of imagination, the end of the world, and capitalism. If the point was a rhetorical one, it was also always a serious charge: that capitalism may be such a reckless, powerful force because it is simultaneously ruinous and desirable. It may now seem not so much rhetorical as a statement of fact. If we can truly imagine the end of the world more easily than the end of capitalism, this is a grave fact. They are of course connected–we are forced to imagine the end of the world because of our failure to imagine the end of capitalism. If the operative concept here is not capitalism, but imagination, then the problem surely is that we have failed to sufficiently imagine both the end of the world and the end of capitalism.

The global pandemic has been a massive disruption to global ‘business as usual.’ But the climate and ecological crisis is still bearing down on us. So what does this global disruption mean for us in the era of climate and ecological emergency, and what are we going to do next?

Rebecca Solnit writes in, Hope in the Time of a Crisis, that, in the altered reality brought on by global pandemic, we are “adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.” Our task, she writes, is to “understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.” I think we could reflect on Rebecca’s questions in the context of the role of the imagination in comprehending and solving the bigger crisis we face (and, therefore presumably imagining the end of capitalism).

We appear to be entering a paradigm shift–a process which was beginning, I think, before the pandemic but which is now, as a result, accelerating. This is a time of great existential danger, and of great change; the social, political, and moral concepts within which we operate are at issue in fundamental ways. We need to redress these failures of imagination to critically examine the concepts with which we have become used, in the current status quo, to order our world.

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to understand how scientific work is conducted at any given time and how science/scientific knowledge progresses, especially through big, revolutionary discoveries.

A paradigm is the prevailing conceptual structure within which scientific work is practiced; it is the whole set of assumptions according to, and by virtue of which, the scientific activities of experimentation, theory-building, evaluation, and verification take place; and which, taken together, constitutes the ‘world view’ in which science operates. The ‘everyday’ activities taking place within the overarching set of assumptions, Kuhn calls ‘normal science’. Normal science works within and further articulates or elaborates the paradigm. Anomalies can exist, but they are small or disparate enough not to put pressure on the whole system.

There is a clear application of this concept to a social paradigm, where a set of prevailing concepts, norms and values–which might be political, moral, economic etc., constitute the paradigm in which ‘normal life’ is conducted.

As with scientific paradigms, if anomalies multiply or magnify, if experimental outcomes, or experiences, can no longer validate the core assumptions, the integrity of the conceptual structure is weakened. When the overarching set of norms or concepts is put under strain, a crisis can emerge in which it is apparent that the paradigm is no longer supporting, or supported by, normal science or normal life. The resolution to the crisis is a shift to a new conceptual structure–a paradigm shift.

A ‘scientific revolution’ takes place when the old conceptual structure is replaced by a new one.

A crisis in the conceptual system of our social paradigm has been coming for some time, and gathering pace as we see the realities of the climate emergency begin to unfold; the conceptual system of, the (let’s call it) neo-liberal capitalist, neo-colonialist paradigm, has been experiencing pressure and disruption as normal life comes increasingly to seem impossible within its conceptual structure. The global pandemic has created a rupture in the system, so significant that normal life will not be able to resume.

If the breakdown of one conceptual structure is going to be followed by the adoption of new or re-ordered foundational concepts, we have to be able to imagine a new reality capable of replacing the old one.

A core part of this is the concept of value itself. The current socio-political paradigm, and its attendant economic paradigm, tends to be constructed around the economic unit as the fundamental anchor of value. Therefore, in our society economic values have been taken as foundational. But economic rationalism only serves a very shallow concept of well-being. Solving the climate crisis will require a renegotiating of these fundamental concepts of value, and will require a grounding of value in environmental and social goods. Solving the climate crisis calls for a ‘re-evaluation’.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is instructive here: the re-valuation of values must occur when the realities that hold them in place shift. A restructuring of the moral, social, political concepts of value that hold our worldview, of the norms and practices in which we operate in normal life, is needed if and when the ground shifts.

Nietzsche endorses a kind of radical acceptance, which I read as a moral orientation to the world, and as the antithesis to resignation. We can take control of our destiny but only if we let go of our illusions. The point for Nietzsche is that we orient ourselves within the world as we find it.

Letting go of illusions is difficult, and the neo-liberal, colonialist/capitalist paradigm is largely built upon them. It is difficult to shake off a worldview in which we have been comfortable, and the fact that so many of us recognize this while also recognizing that it is ruinous, is disquieting. And there are two distinct failures of imagination at issue here–the failure to imagine the worst excesses and also the solutions to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world into a dramatic encounter with large-scale response to an existential threat of global proportions and it is instructive. There are things happening right now, which would have to happen to address the climate emergency. A new paradigm that was post-carbon, post-capitalist, post-emergency would necessitate a general powering-down of life, slowing of travel and activity, shrinking of production, contraction of the economy around sustainability rather than growth.

Events that create an interruption to normal life, a disruption which can not be adequately described or accounted for within the conceptual structures that ground the norms and habits of normal life, bring us glimpses of something else: of what altered reality looks like, forcing us to confront the adequacy of our understanding and actions. An episode such as the global shutdown offers an opportunity to reflect upon what is really important. And these glimpses, these reflections are vital for the task of re-imagining.

Mindfulness, Capitalism, and the Ethics of Compassion

photograph of person meditating before dawn

Mindfulness, a meditation technique lifted from Buddhist practice, has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the corporate world, as a means to combat stress and improve personal performance. The practice promises to relieve anxiety associated with the pressures of modern life. Indeed, not only are our work lives often more demanding and less secure, we live in a 24-hour news cycle and among frenetic social media activity from which many people are finding it increasingly difficult to retreat. All this activity has negative consequences for our concentration, mental acuity, and general well-being. We also live in a time of rising inequality, of epidemics of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues; and in which politics is bitterly divided and people’s trust in politicians is at very low ebb. We live in a time in which the problems caused by neoliberal capitalism’s rapacious activity are coming home to roost as we sit at the brink of ecological collapse. It is natural for people to seek succor.

Practicing mindfulness involves focusing one’s attention on one’s immediate surroundings, sounds, and sensations, with the purpose of drawing the mind out of its busy chatter, and its anxious worry, and focusing only on the immediate present and the immediate surroundings: “To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”

But what are the ethics of something that promises succor without addressing the destructive injustices of capitalism that are causing the problems in the first place?

Take the climate emergency – we are at the beginning of, and falling increasingly into the grip of, a man-made catastrophe. Here in Australia the summer has barely begun and already a drought ravaged area the size of Albania has been razed by fires, more than eighty of which are still burning as Sydney, the largest city, is blanketed in toxic smoke. If we aren’t feeling anxious we should be – and if we aren’t focused on the future, we ought to. Used as a method of easing the anxiety of climate catastrophe, mindfulness threatens to contribute to the problem by shifting the focus from action to management; from state responsibility for action to individual burden of amelioration.

The origins of mindfulness are in Buddhist practice, where letting go of the ego’s desires and worldly attachments opens one to a greater connectedness with the world’s other beings. The form of this connection is compassion. Yet the popular Western-appropriated version of mindfulness being practiced increasingly in the corporate world appears to be moving in the opposite direction of compassion. Mindfulness is touted as a cure for modern ills like anxiety, yet rather than cure them, it is a technique of evasion; rather than being focused on connectedness, it reinforces ego by centering on self-improvement.

The use of mindfulness as stress relief in corporate institutions helps corporations avoid responsibility for the environments, detrimental to mental well-being, they create; and tries to shift the burden away from the toxic system back onto the individual. It is therefore unsurprising that mindfulness has been appropriated by the corporate world.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken Western Buddhist monk, has warned that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”

Compassion is not central to post-enlightenment Western philosophy in the same way it is in some religious ethics such as Buddhism. The Western tradition tends to distrust emotion in morals, because the moral life is taken to be is centered around decision-making and emotions are thought not to be a solid basis for rational action.

But compassion can be found in different kinds of appeals to the universal nature of ethics that most normative theories make. There is a form of the ‘golden rule’ – the moral rule that states one ought to treat others as one would want to be treated – present, for example, in both deontological and utilitarian styles of normative moral theory.

This indicates the presence of a general principle of ethics – that it is universal. In Utilitarianism this principle dictates that each stakeholders’ preferences are considered equally. In deontological theories, such as rights-based ethics, it dictates that rights are universal and inalienable. These demands of ethics are other-centered, and require us to make decisions in the interests of, say, justice rather than in the self-interest.

In terms of western normative ethical theories, mindfulness in its original Buddhist form is akin to virtue ethics in which the agent’s character is at issue, and ethics is centered around the virtues of good character which enable and contribute to the good life.

As David Loy, in a famous article called Beyond McMindfulness, wrote:

“mindfulness is a distinct quality of attention that is dependent upon and influenced by many other factors: the nature of our thoughts, speech and actions; our way of making a living; and our efforts to avoid unwholesome and unskillful behaviors, while developing those that are conducive to wise action, social harmony, and compassion.”

Here we see that mindfulness is meant to be an ethical position, which one takes up in order to develop, but to develop in an ethical, that is, other-centered direction.

Mindfulness should be about a quality of awareness, a kind of attunement that is by its nature ethically in the world. Using it for self-improvement, without compassion or social conscience, distorts its nature.

Perhaps mindfulness creates a much-needed reflective space in life. But perhaps, rather than use that space for the avoidance of thought, it should be used for a reflective kind of attention than everyday life permits.

Buddhist philosophy is about overcoming ego – and ego is at home in capitalism – or rather, capitalism is at home in the ego. Capitalism depends upon the restless ego seeking and finding momentary satisfaction of desire by consumption; and it depends upon that satisfaction being soon superseded by another desire that can in turn be satisfied by another consumption. But capitalism is in crisis as we reach the endgame in the climate and ecological emergency. Corporate mindfulness is a way of easing the anxiety without interfering with the capitalist machine. Then individuals can feel better, and business can carry on as usual. But it is a case of merely treating the symptom while allowing the disease to run rampant.

If, as I believe it is, the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism, the role of alienation is central – alienation from each other and from the natural world. From this point of view, our alienation from these spheres is what has caused the crisis in the first place. Compassion is a possible way back to the ethical dimensions of our interconnectedness. But that cannot be found in the western-appropriated practice of mindfulness.

The Deeper Significance of Women Presidential Candidates

Kamala Harris giving a speech, smiling and speaking into microphones, with people crowded around

Women presidential candidates are appearing in unprecedented numbers for the 2020 election. So far, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard have announced their intentions to run. This surge corresponds to the 2018 midterm elections, which also saw record numbers of women obtaining seats previously held by men. In the wake of the 2016 election, when the presidential confirmation of a Donald Trump won the day over an eminently qualified female candidate, it seems that more women are ready to run and more people are eager to elect them.

 From the stoic prudence of Angela Merkel to the fallen humanitarian Aung San Suu Kyi, it is clear that women are as capable and complex as their male peers in positions of leadership. Women are leaders around the world, though recently they constituted only 6 percent of international leaders compared to male heads of state.  

American voters believe women score equally or higher than men in terms of valued leadership qualities, but women still lag behind men in positions of power, including their most glaring omission in the role of the US presidency.

Reactionary streams in American politics likely bear some role in women’s lagging parity. The most recent iterations include the conservatism of the neo-Nazi movement espoused by Richard Spencer, the unlikely stardom of Jordan Peterson, purveyor of 19th century psycho-social truisms presented as original contrarian theories, and the backlash to the #MeToo movement among Republican leadership exemplified in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after his histrionic confirmation hearing.

At the same time, these reactions to change suggest that unparalleled changes are occurring. Among them is a redefinition of character norms.  

Our very notion of “virtue,” a core term in philosophical discussions about character, has gendered connotations. The word “virtue” in English derives from the Latin word for “manliness.” While the ancient Greek term for virtue is gender-neutral, i.e. excellence (arete), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics treats personal greatness as the birthright of a very few men. Aristotle speaks of courage and justice, but also liberality and magnanimity, character traits which reflect a superior social standing. Aristotle, like so many of his successors, demarcated virtue and public life as the space for the few males who belonged to an emancipated, land-owning, citizen class. This separation was made possible by setting aside manual and household labor or “economy” – literally, household management, as the province of women, slaves, and the non-citizen class of men. It was this vast majority’s task to create value which would accrue to the men in charge. It is thus no surprise that “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul” (characterized by a sense of entitlement) also figures largely among Aristotle’s virtues.

Because women, slaves, and non-citizen men performed the labors of life, Hellenistic aristocratic men enjoyed leisure or “paideia,” which permitted education and a public life that are essential for political participation. This primary division of labor and leisure justified an oligarchic and patriarchal logic: might equals right. This is the circular logic of power: those who are in power must have managed it by being somehow superior (an argument Aristotle makes in his Politics) or conversely, those who are in power determine the rules because they can enforce them. The latter is put forward by Plato’s Thrasymachus in the Republic (Thrasymachus, incidentally, may be one of the most socially-realist characters in early philosophical literature). This ancient rationalization of “might equals right” has enjoyed a surprisingly long shelf life. America’s founding fathers similarly opted for a “republic” rather than a democracy, ensuring that only a very few, adult, European-descended, property-owning men could vote. Even today, the fundamental logics of white supremacy and extreme capitalism can be parsed in very similar lines.

Given that women, persons of color, and LGTBQ individuals have been running for office in record numbers since Trump, it will be interesting to see the kind of politics that arises from communities that are not accustomed to power and representation as their birthright. Figures like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and the Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggest visions for a more inclusive distribution of power, labor, representation and compensation. In the long, painful stages of late capitalism where a middle class has all but disappeared, and the majority of Americans are carrying most of the burdens of contemporary life while only a very few enjoy its rewards, it seems that voters are ripe for a new kind of politics.

Should Pointless Jobs Exist?

Photograph of people at a booth in front of a partially obscured sign that says "Welcome Business Advisors"

Editor’s note: This article contains use of a vulgarity.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen published “A Theory of the Leisure Class.” Veblen was a Norwegian-American economist who coined the famous term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen argued that the ostentatious freedom from useful occupation and its symbols, such as excess possessions and elaborate hobbies, established and organized one’s power and status within a social hierarchy. Conspicuous consumption signals social status by displaying one’s dispensation from productive labour.  

One manifestation of such status for high-ranking persons (or organizations) is the proliferation of decorative underlings. These are “specialized servants…useful more for show than for service actually performed…[their] utility comes to consist, in great part, in their conspicuous exemption from productive labour and in the evidence which this exemption affords of their master’s wealth and power.”  

Veblen’s unflinching analysis contrasted with optimistic predictions for social and economic progress in his time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Marxian and capitalist theories foresaw a reduction of labour in the future which would free up workers for self-directed, human-centred pursuits.  

Unfortunately, these prophecies have not been fulfilled. Marx’s proposed six-hour day was never implemented by Soviet regimes. Contemporary capitalism similarly shows little sign of diminishing work hours, flatly contradicting John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that the twenty-first century would usher in a fifteen-hour work week.  

Instead, Veblen’s anthropological observations have again become relevant. Labour has not been reduced commensurately to technological advances, in part due to an increase in service industries. David Graeber, in his recently published book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon and Schuster, 2018), notes that despite increasing automation of many fields, new service sectors have emerged. These include financial services, academic and health administrators, human resources and public relations professionals, managers, clerks, salespeople, members of traditional service sectors, and what Graeber calls the “subsidiary industries.” Subsidiary industries maintain service sectors by providing still more specific services, such as all-night pizza delivery or dog-washing, for example. All of these fall under the definition of what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”

A bullshit job, according to Graeber, is generally indicated by the secret belief of the person who does the job that their work is unnecessary. He acknowledges that this definition can be somewhat subjective – as “there can be no objective measure of social value.”  But Graeber expands his definition. He notes that ill effects to society would be felt fairly quickly if nurses, garbage collectors, teachers, mechanics, and even fiction writers were disappeared. But, he asks, would anything change – or change for the worse – if administrators, public relations personnel, hedge fund managers, subcontractors for subcontractors, sales representatives, telemarketers, and many service industries were eliminated?  

In making his analysis, Graeber highlights the inverse proportion between the social utility of work and its financial recompense in a move that is reminiscent of feminist economic critique (regarding the unpaid or underpaid work of women in health, education, and caring work). The most essential workers – i.e. those who do jobs without which society could not function – are generally underpaid and under-respected (with the notorious exception of doctors). In contrast, many of the “bullshit jobs” Graeber describes are well-compensated. This phenomenon could certainly be read in light of Veblen’s analysis that inessential workers are luxurious expenses designed to prop up the reputation of their employers, corporations, or clients.  

Graeber attributes this state of affairs to a still more disturbing explanation – class division to maintain the power structure of finance capitalism:

Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.).  

This account is reminiscent of that of philosopher Iris Young, who noted a “professional class,” i.e. those who benefit from the exploitation of the working class and yet are not a part of the capitalist class.  According to this part of the theory, bullshit jobs would function as a buffer between the capitalist and the working classes.

While many who belong to this “bullshit job” class could be considered as privileged relative to most essential workers (always saving the exception of doctors), the existence of bullshit jobs points to a spiritual malaise that Graeber discusses in his text. “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

While Graeber and others point to power structures as the root cause of “bullshit jobs,” like Marx, he ascribes an ideological component that justifies them culturally.  The cult of work for work’s sake is one such cultural idea, which Graeber also links to social power structures as their root cause:

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. (Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.) And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.” (Graeber, page xviii).

While Graeber’s analysis of “bullshit jobs” deserves further analysis, this lens provides a deep look at the distribution of power, labour, capital, leisure, and prestige in contemporary economies. This lens strongly indicates that nineteenth-century observations on capitalism, classism, and consumerism continue to be relevant in theorizing and strategizing solutions to contemporary inequality and to the problem of alienated labor.

The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited

Photo of Karl Marx bust on a plinth in a small park

The socialist calculation debate preoccupied some of our finest economic thinkers in the first half of the 1900s. The debate revolved around how to best solve society’s resource allocation problem—as in, how do we best allocate society’s scarce resources? In the attempt to answer the question, two camps emerged: the right-wing free-marketers and the left-wing socialists. The right’s answer to the allocation problem was a decentralized pricing system, whereas the left’s answer was a centrally planned economy. While on some level this debate died with the 20th century, glimmers of its return can be seen today. Continue reading “The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited”

In Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, the Ethics of Reporting Human Progress

A painting of Enlightenment scholars talking in a park.

In 1995, Alan Sokal famously (or perhaps, infamously) wrote a manuscript full of rubbish sentences giving the impression that scientific theories are no more than social constructions. His article was written with the typical pompous (and largely nonsensical) language of postmodern philosophy. He sent the manuscript to the academic journal Social Text, and it was published. Sokal then informed the wider public that he had written the manuscript deliberately as a hoax, in order to expose how far Postmodernism had gone in Western academics. Sokal wanted to prove that, as long as authors wrote in incomprehensible language, gave the appearance of criticizing the scientific establishment, and took a stand against the powers that be (capitalism, patriarchy, Western civilization, etc.), postmodern academics would welcome such writings, regardless of how absurd their claims were.

Continue reading “In Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, the Ethics of Reporting Human Progress”

Can There Be a Democratic Socialism?

A photo of Salvador Allende waving to a crowd.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro recently said that he is willing to become a dictator in order to ensure “economic peace” in his country. This is very strange, as commentators have widely argued that Maduro has already been a dictator for quite some time. Latin American countries had long endured dictatorships, but for the most part, dictators acknowledged their condition. They rarely pretended to be democratic. The only exception was Cuba. There, a leftist dictator pretended to be democratic, ala the German Democratic Republic, which everyone knew was democratic only in its name.

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Fearless Girl, Charging Bull… Sketchy Dog?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Wall Street standoff between the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull sculptures. It’s quite clear that Americans are still split between Team Girl or Team Bull, but now there is a new player in the mix.  Recently, Charging Bull gained a new ally in the form of a temporary installation named Sketchy Dog, who spent his few hours of fame urinating on the girl.

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Reimagining the Government Safety Net

This year will mark a variety of experiments in alternatives to standards models of welfare in the West.

Traditionally, revenue collected from taxes is devoted to programs that provide particular services to citizens in need of assistance. Some form of credits or relief from paying for groceries, rent, school tuition, and medical assistance are standard areas of government aid.

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Rebellion and Passion in India’s Indie Music Scene

The world only knows Indian music from Bollywood’s “filmy” ballads and cinematic love songs. Music in India seems to enter the world in few forms other than through the cinema industry.  However, Bollywood does an incomplete job of representing the music of India just as the iTunes charts would to Americarepresenting only the big, mainstream record artists. Under the wraps of a Bollywood-obsessed entertainment scene, there is a burgeoning independent Indian music industry that is teeming with life and passion. It is young, determined, and rebellious. This indie music industry surfaces many interesting questions about art’s longstanding struggle against capitalist values and the role of anti-establishment industries in societies like India’s.

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