Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Express Yourself! Don't Change.

For anyone who cares about social justice, it should be a sickening fact that an astonishingly small percentage of the people in our country control such a disproportionate amount of the wealth. And even somewhat apolitical figures or what we might call 'progressive' companies take part in this, as SCS suggests in his shrewd post concerning The Fisher Collection of artworks, amassed over the years by the co-founders of The Gap clothing store. While the Fishers 'made their money' by means of ethical wages paid to workers around the globe, the immense value of the collection reflects just how much was systematically (even, again, 'ethically') extracted from these workers, as surplus value, and then used for other means—in this case, to buy art.

Another contemporary company that figures into this problem is the notorious social networking site Facebook. As Jose Antonio Vargas puts it succinctly in his recent New Yorker profile of the founder Mark Zuckerberg, "If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires." I have been grappling for several years with the phenomenon of Facebook (almost more of an epiphenomenon), willingly staying 'out of the loop', as it were. I have a hard time justifying my reluctance to 'join'—it is not like it would be any added expense, and as my friends tell me, I could just choose to limit my time on it, and maintain a very bare-bones profile.

And yet there is something about Facebook that still causes me to resist. Perhaps it relates to a point in Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, when he writes: "Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production." The "consciousness" of Facebook would seem to be all of the things it allows for that are distracting at worst (like constant status updates), and pragmatic at best (e.g. connecting with other people in emergencies). However, the "contradictions of material life" that play out while these things go on are striking: by converting the notion of 'friends' into a commodity, Mark Zuckerbeg becomes worth billions of dollars; the members of Facebook, meanwhile, (re)acquire their friends.

To recast the words of Walter Benjamin, from only a slightly different context: Facebook "sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; [Facebook] seeks to give them an expression while preserving property."

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Contradictions of Modern Libertarianism

I read with great interest Jane Mayer’s illuminating and incisive profile of the arch-libertarians Charles and David Koch in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago. I'm particularly interested in this subject, because as an undergraduate I attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a small private school that requires its students to attend free-market seminars, and where the recommended reading list includes works of Friedrich von Hayek, Frédéric Bastiat, etc. Thus I am well familiar with the strong rhetoric and provocative discourse that permeates the libertarian ethos. The college has a fantastic liberal arts core, but the hovering aura of libertarianism at times seemed to compromise the intellectual rigor of my actual classes.

I appreciated very much Mayer’s exposure of the deep contradictions that run through the heart of modern libertarianism. The promise is that everyone and anyone can rise up and exert individual creativity and independence; however, the real material structure of such a belief system requires that there be a privileged few (the likes of the Koch brothers) who disseminate and regulate these ideals from a position of extreme luxury. Meanwhile and always, a confused multitude is charged to struggle endlessly against mystified forces (such as the “socialist” Obama)—forces that are in fact energetically invented and covertly maintained from within. As Mayer indicates, modern libertarianism seems to require its own secret center, a form of government all the more insidious for its innumerable deceptions.