Twenty years ago, journalist Douglas Rushkoff produced The Merchants of Cool, a documentary for PBS’s Frontline. It captured the height of the corporate world’s pre-911 hubris. Rushkoff described the relationship between teenagers and the corporate media of the time as a feedback loop, where teens adopted the aesthetics sold to them by the media and in turn, the corporate world seemingly answered consumer demands when they were only peddling the goods they themselves architected the demand for. In-person focus groups were a highly relied upon tool of the trade. A little over a decade later in 2012, Rushkoff produced a follow-up of sorts to his previous film, Generation Like. Social media had firmly established its hegemony in the realm of marketing and public relations, not to mention popular culture in general, and was providing what superficially appeared to be platforms for teenagers (and most other people, for that matter) to express themselves and dictate the direction of cultural trends. This was the emergence of the now ubiquitous “influencer.” Rushkoff’s film, however, revealed that corporate influence over kids had become far more insidious. Gone (to a large extent) were the turn-of-the-century focus groups. Now, the tsunami of data produced by social media gave marketers and advertisers a literal direct insight into the behavior of their target demographics. Ads were now generated via algorithm, drawing from the monitored online behavior and self-volunteered personal information of social media users and presented to them individually.
This shift from the marketing and PR world’s expensive guesswork and trend chasing of yesteryear to a direct connection between themselves and the desired customer was as dramatic as the evolution of wartime weaponry from unguided bombs to cruise missiles. Some tried and true techniques of building brand recognition not only survived, however, but became even more commonplace. The aforementioned influencers monetized their social media accounts, frequently entering into sponsorship deals with brands. More recently, influencers have faked sponsorships in hopes it would translate into the real thing, only to end up providing free advertising for the brand or product in question. Even then, the illusion of having inked lucrative deals with high profile companies was arguably beneficial in its own right, projecting an inflated image of the influencer’s clout to their followers. “We are all prostitutes. Everyone has their price,” Mark Stewart of the Pop Group howled on their 1979 single of the same name. In this case, the companies did not even need to pay a price. So driven in their mindless pursuit of fame, the influencers just purchased the products themselves, hoping for reciprocation from the manufacturers. “And you too will learn to live the lie.”
Between The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like, Rushkoff also produced The Persuaders (2004), examining the same realm of PR and marketing, this time also addressing its function in the political arena. Veteran PR man and political consultant (and all-around scumbag) Frank Luntz is seen watching the real-time results of a focus group with the kind of fervor usually reserved for horse races. All three documentaries arguably draw the same conclusion: the entities tasked with persuading us to buy or vote a certain way are deeply powerful and amoral forces, seeking to make their operations as opaque as possible by insinuating themselves into our environments to the point where we’re unable to identify when we’re being sold to. Along with Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self (and the unmistakable influence of DeBord on both men), these films make clear the framework of social and economic liberalism that’s needed in order for the kind of crass and venal public relations machine described here to function. The propaganda of an authoritarian state is needed only to a point. Any noncompliance on the part of the citizenry is simply met with force. In a more democratic (and liberally democratic) setting, robust PR efforts are essential in order for commercial and state entities to exert influence over the general population.
Western individualism and liberalism, particularly its manifestation in the US, is a sick pathology wherein there is a tacit acceptance of cruel competition and elevation of the self and personal interests above all others. The individual views himself as morally justified in pursuing his interests at the expense of everyone else. This is not a Hobbesean assessment of nature, which identified the endowment of man with equal abilities, physical and mental, as the source of unending conflict (rectified via the creation of an autocratic state). The proudly ignorant selfishness of the developed world is equal parts social Darwinism and Ayn Rand: pseudoscience filtered through pseudophilosophy and market logic. In the midst of the worst disease outbreak in a century, the toxicity and danger of this attitude has been made excruciatingly clear. In the US, with a man who can’t comprehend anything except through the lens of persuasion, manipulation and personal gain occupying the highest office, the federal response to COVID-19 has been abysmal. Similarly, equally venal and corrupt state officials have been firmly on the side of commerce, reopening their states (most of which never went into full ‘lockdowns’ in the first place) long before any containment or meaningful reduction of the virus’s spread had occurred. Through it all, a terrifyingly large number of Americans invoked individualist rhetoric, decrying social distancing and mask wearing as violations of their rights. The US death toll from COVID-19 is now more than 180,000 with dire predictions for what is still to come.
It is easy to categorize everything described up to this point as mostly in the domain of the political right and liberal center, neoliberal business interests and an ignorant, brainwashed petty bourgeoisie and working class. This is a grave misreading of the situation. The self-serving nature of the “die for the Dow” cohort and the PR industry’s social engineers is endemic amongst those in progressive and leftist circles as well. The terms “political correctness,” “culture wars” and “cancel culture” have been excruciatingly overused, but they describe phenomena that are all too real. Identity politics, across the entire political spectrum, has Balkanized political discourse and organizing the world over. Rather than providing an allegedly “intersectional” analysis that clarifies the overlap of economic inequality and discrimination both racial and sexual, it has served mainly as a vehicle for the self-advocacy of individual groups (race-based, sex-based and otherwise) for their own advancement, tossing aside any authentic considerations of pluralism or egalitarianism. This has served as a bridge between the ostensibly radical left and the liberal center in addition to alienating scores of people who otherwise would agree with the fundamental economic critiques of traditional socialist and leftist theory.
Out of all this, the same Machiavellian mindset of the PR agencies and Madison Avenue has infected the activist left. Empty sloganeering, pious proclamations in support of justice for racial and sexual minorities (I.E. public health experts justifying the mass protests against the killing of George Floyd during a pandemic, proclaiming American racism to be a ‘public health emergency’) and the overall diversion of the discourse away from issues of material wellbeing are in the same mode as the attempts by marketers to seduce the individual into choosing their product or candidate, feeding on emotional responses and deep rooted desires for both personal recognition and identifying with a group that is essentially an echo chamber for one’s beliefs and desires. This is disturbingly reminiscent of the identity politics associated with the political right, asserting their status as the “silent majority” who refused to any longer be subject to the horrors of secularism, ethnic diversity, gay rights, the welfare state, and any Americans who dissented from their pea-brained nationalism. Witness also the Western Zionist, superficially supportive of numerous social causes and social liberalism, but absolutely recalcitrant when faced with admitting to Israel’s brutal ethnonationalism, declaring everyone who disagrees with him an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew (the essential coup against former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the similar treatment of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar are two notable instances of this.)
This begs the question, as Lenin asked in 1902, what is to be done? Well, definitely not what Marx or Lenin proposed, for a start. Neither is the answer the utopian libertarian socialism that has gained mainstream visibility recently via the spectacular failure of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Neither is, of course, the answer the kind of supposedly benevolent market liberalism I have been critiquing. In 1844, Marx wrote the following in his treatise Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property:
The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour – your capital. The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being. Everything which the political economist takes from you in life and in humanity, he replaces for you in money and in wealth; and all the things which you cannot do, your money can do. It can eat and, drink, go to the dance hall and the theatre; it can travel, it can appropriate art, learning, the treasures of the past, political power – all this it can appropriate for you – it can buy all this: it is true endowment. Yet being all this, it wants to do nothing but create itself, buy itself; for everything else is after all its servant, and when I have the master I have the servant and do not need his servant. All passions and all activity must therefore be submerged in avarice. The worker may only have enough for him to want to live, and may only want to live in order to have that.
On one hand, Marx’s thesis is still applicable. Capital endows its owner with greater access to luxuries (and the securing of access to basic needs) than ever before. Wage labor and consumerism as a substitute for self-expression and the fulfillment of a range of human desires, however, has become so deeply internalized in the minds of people across the world, the distinction is irrelevant to them. The influencer eagerly engages in avarice to obtain superficial celebrity and financial gain. Too many carrying the banner of social justice, however, do the same. The mainstream discourse around anti-racism (a profoundly necessary and vital cause) is being led by charlatans who mainly stand to either profit from their book sales or increase their standing in their social circles.
It is not a stretch to attribute many of today’s social problems to a narcissistic indifference and navel-gazing solipsism. Christopher Lasch identified it more than forty years ago. It is shared by adherents to most political ideologies, but has become strongly associated with the left. This is disastrous. In every contemporary battle worth fighting, whether for economic justice, social justice (the two are inextricably intertwined) and so forth, the only acceptable leader of the battle is the left. It is imperative that the self-serving con artists and radical liberals be alienated from the left. Their lifestylist approach is merely another form of consumerism and narcissistic liberalism. They are the greatest friend to the predatory PR machine, who co-opts social movements and integrates them into brand identities. The commercialization of environmentalism and gay and women’s rights are some of the most maddening examples. The recent calls to abolish law enforcement, framed as the collective demand of minorities in the US, are diametrically opposed to their actual majority opinion. Thus, the contemporary movement for police abolition is largely an opportunity for upper-middle class leftists and liberals (many of them white) to spout yet more ultimately self-aggrandizing empty rhetoric (always in the guise of self-flagellation in acknowledging their white privilege and defending an oppressed people).
What is needed (in the United States at least) is a movement away from the toxic and narcissistic identity politics of the modern left and instead a cultivation of a social democratic movement that places material need at the forefront. The improvement of material conditions tacitly includes the erosion of racial and sexual disparity. This is a movement that must be fundamentally anti-capitalist (anti-capitalist social democracy is not a contradiction in terms as some would argue) but recognize that the movement beyond a capitalist global economy is one of the most herculean and long-term tasks imaginable. A former Wall Street regulator once defined the breaking up of massive corporations to me as creating giants out of monsters. The level of autonomy amongst states in the US necessitates a focus of political action on the local rather than national level. The national legalization of same sex marriage in 2015 barely more than a decade after its initial implementation in Massachusetts is demonstrative of the progressive nature of social change in America. An emphasis on collective bargaining and work towards increasing union membership (which is currently at record lows) is crucial. The disempowerment of organized labor in the US was one of the harshest blows dealt to the left. In other words, the movement that Bernie Sanders set in motion needs to be transformed into a truly egalitarian movement based on solidarity and unrelenting demands for economic justice and social justice in the most substantive meaning of the term. Of paramount importance is that democratic socialism always be the long term goal. The movement and the result are everything.
As many of us learned to live the lie, we now must un-learn to live the lie of a radical social (and economic) liberalism that imperils rather than emancipates us and divides rather than unites us. This is not Mao’s Combat Liberalism. A limited, or as I would argue, a sane social liberalism is a necessity in any authentically free and democratic society. This manifestation of social liberalism is part and parcel of the sort of social democracy and democratic socialism we need (a point brilliantly delineated by Carlo Rosselli in his seminal 1930 text, Liberal Socialism.) True personal liberation is not found in egoism or hyper-individualism. It is achieved via transcendence of the former and a realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. This is collective liberation, and that is something that must be tirelessly fought for in an atomized world of rancid social norms and mercenary self-interest.