Monday, June 28, 2010

counterculture says give up

Great synthesis of ideas gleaned from Marxism, Christianity, and postmodern ideas from the movie, the Matrix. All of these belief-systems argue that to see reality, one must reject the false illusions of the "system." Ultimately, these belief-systems imply that a revolution in human consciousness and awareness is necessary--reform only moves the chairs on a sinking ship so to speak. Revolution, not evolution.

However, as Potter argues, taking this sort of stance throws the baby out with the bath water. Genuine reform has worked (workers' rights, progressive taxes, environment regulation, minimum wage laws, social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance have all improved the situation of the working class and poor. In fact, regulated capitalism has produced in excess the greatest level of prosperity for its participants than any other political-economic system (ie: South Korea vs North Korea, China vs Soviet Union, West Germany vs East Germany). However, regulation is key because free-market capitalism often leads to extreme inequality and financial instability.

Counterculturalism is giving up. Do drugs, don't work, meditate, don't desire, give your life to God--these are short-term and unsustainable solutions. Be the change you want in the world. Reform the system, don't reject the system:

The world that we live in is not real. Consumer capitalism has taken every authentic human experience, trans­formed it into a commodity and then sold it back to us through advertising and the mass media. Thus every part of human life has been drawn into "the spectacle," which itself is nothing but a sys­tem of symbols and representations, governed by its own internal logic. "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image,"
Debord wrote. Thus we live in a world of total ideology, in which we are completely alienated from our essential nature. The spectacle is a dream that has become neces­sary, "the nightmare of imprisoned modern society, which ulti­mately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep."

In such a world, the old-fashioned concern for social justice and the abolition of class-based society becomes outmoded. In the society of the spectacle, the new revolutionary must seek two things: "consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness." In other words, we must try to discover our own sources of pleas­ure, independent of the needs that are imposed upon us by the sys­tem, and we must try to wake up from the nightmare of "the spectacle."

In other words, when it comes to rebellion and political activ­ism, there is no point trying to change little details in the system. What does it matter who is rich and who is poor? Or who has the right to vote and who doesn't? Or who has access to jobs and opportunities? These are all just ephemera, illusions. If commodi­ties are just images, who cares if some people have more of them, others less? What we need to do is recognize that the entire cul­ture, the entire society, is a waking dream—one we must reject in its entirety.

Of course, this idea is hardly original. It is one of the oldest themes in Western civilization. In The Republic, Plato compared life on earth to a cave, in which prisoners are shackled to the floor, seeing only shadows flickering across the wall from the light of a fire. When one prisoner escapes and makes his way to the surface, he discovers that the world he had been living in was nothing but a web of illusions. He returns to the cave bearing the news, yet finds that his former companions are still embroiled in petty disputes and bickering. He finds it difficult to take these "politics" seriously.

Centuries later, early Christians would appeal to this story as a way of explaining away the execution of Jesus by the Romans. Prior to this event, it had been assumed that the arrival of the Messiah would herald the creation of the kingdom of God here on earth. The death of Jesus obviously put an end to these expecta­tions. Some of his followers therefore chose to reinterpret these events as a sign that the real kingdom of God would be not on this earth, but in the afterlife. They claimed that Jesus had been resur­rected in order to convey this news-- like Plato's prisoner returning to the cave.

Thus the idea that the world we live in is a veil of illusion is not new. What does change, however, is the popular understanding of what it takes to throw off this illusion. For Plato, there was no ques­tion that breaking free would require decades of disciplined study and philosophical reflection. Christians thought that it would be even harder—that death was the only way to gain access to the "real" world beyond. For Debord and the Situationists, on the other hand, the veil of illusion could be pierced much more easily. All that it takes is some slight cognitive dissonance, a sign that something's not right in the world around us. This can be provoked by a work of art, an act of protest or even an article of clothing. In Debord's view, "disturbances with the lowliest and most ephemeral of origins have eventually disrupted the order of the world."

This is the origin of the idea of culture jamming. Traditional political activism is useless. It's like trying to reform political insti­tutions inside the Matrix. What's the point? What we really need to do is wake people up, unplug them, free them from the grip of the spectacle. And the way to do that is by producing cognitive dis­sonance, through symbolic acts of resistance to suggest that some­thing is not right in the world.

Since the entire culture is nothing but a system of ideology, the only way to liberate oneself and others is to resist the culture in its entirety. This is where the idea of counterculture comes from. The inhabitants of Zion, in The Matrix, are a concrete embodi­ment of how countercultural rebels since the '6os have conceived of themselves. They are the ones who have been awakened, the ones who are free from the tyranny of the machines. And the enemy, in this view, is those who refuse to be awakened, those who insist on conforming to the culture. The enemy, in other words, is mainstream society.

Morpheus sums up the countercultural analysis perfectly when describing the Matrix: "The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

In the '6os, the baby boomers declared their implacable opposition to "the system." They renounced materialism and greed, rejected the discipline and uniformity of the McCarthy era, and set out to build a new world based on individual freedom. Whatever hap­pened to this project? Forty years later, "the system" does not appear to have changed very much. If anything, consumer capital­ism has emerged from decades of countercultural rebellion much stronger than it was before. If Debord thought that the world was saturated with advertising and media in the early '60s, what would he have made of the 21st century?

In this book, we argue that decades of countercultural rebellion have failed to change anything because the theory of society on which the countercultural idea rests is false. We do not live in the Matrix, nor do we live in the spectacle. The world that we live in is in fact much more prosaic. It consists of billions of human beings, each pursuing some more or less plausible conception of the good, trying to cooperate with one another, and doing so with varying degrees of success. There is no single, overarching system that integrates it all. The culture cannot be jammed because there is no such thing as "the culture" or "the system." There is only a hodge­podge of social institutions, most tentatively thrown together, which distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation in ways that sometimes we recognize to be just, but that are usually manifestly inequitable. In a world of this type, countercultural rebellion is not just unhelpful, it is positively counterproductive. Not only does it distract energy and effort away from the sort of initiatives that lead to concrete improvements in people's lives, but it encourages wholesale contempt for such incremental changes.

According to the countercultural theory, "the system" achieves order only through the repression of the individual. Pleasure is inherently anarchic, unruly, wild. To keep the workers wider con­trol, the system must instill manufactured needs and mass-produced desires, which can in turn be satisfied within the framework of the technocratic order. Order is achieved, but at the expense of promoting widespread unhappiness, alienation and neurosis. The solution must therefore lie in reclaiming our capacity for sponta­neous pleasure—through polymorphous perversity, or perform­ance art, or modern primitivism, or mind-expanding drugs, or whatever else turns your crank. In the countercultural analysis, simply having fun comes to be seen as the ultimate subversive act. Hedonism is transformed into a revolutionary doctrine.

Is it any wonder then that this sort of countercultual rebellion has reinvigorated consumer capitalism? It's time for a reality check. Having fun is not subversive, and it doesn't undermine any system. In fact, widespread hedonism makes it more difficult to organize social movements, and much more difficult to persuade anyone to make a sacrifice in the name of social justice. In our view, what the progressive left needs to do is disentangle the concern over ques­tions of social justice from the countercultural critique—and to jet­tison the latter, while continuing to pursue the former.

From the standpoint of social justice, the big gains that have been achieved in our society over the past half-century have all come from measured reform within the system. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement have both achieved tan­gible gains in the welfare of disadvantaged groups, while the social safety net provided by the welfare state has vastly improved the condition' of all citizens. But these gains have not been achieved by "unplugging" people from the web of illusions that governs their lives. They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic political action—through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. We would like to see more of this.

Less fun perhaps, but potentially much more useful.

Cool by its nature can not be a force for reform because by definition, Cool is to not care:

Cool is never directly political, and politics, almost by definition, can never be Cool. To get anywhere in politics you need to care passionately about something, whether it is a cause or merely the achievement of personal power, and you need to sacrifice present pleasures to the long and tedious process of campaigning and party organization. Nor has any party yet, outside of the lunatic fringe, proclaimed the pursuit of Cool as its election platform - such a platform would presumably have to include legalizing all drugs, abolishing all taxes and yet simultaneously paying generous unemployment benefits, which might make life tricky for the first Cool treasurer.

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