18 March 2007

Why Corporate Memetics works (a 50th post special)

People buy or otherwise consume things because they meet some kind of "use value" - either they fulfill a physical need or desire, or some kind of psychic need/desire. The latter consists - crudely - in making someone feel better about their life, their place in the world, their identity. The two are not distinct, of course - if you have enough physical goods you are less likely to need psychic goods. What kind of psychic goods you need depends on what kind of dependencies were induced in you by your formative experiences. Some things - like sex - are "a little from column A, a little from column B".

Marxists see ideology as "an imaginary solution to a real problem" - a psychic good (or "meme") which compensates for the lack of another psychic or physical good. Marxists see the capitalist system as automatically creating "alienation" - a kind of negative psychic good. We base this on the idea that being able to change your world through your own efforts is part of being human, and that's precisely what isn't allowed under capitalism.

In late capitalism, as the conditions of semi-permanent slump continue, the general level of physical value (goods and services) that it's possible to distribute to the workers stagnates or even falls. Real wages in the US are less than they were 30 years ago, for example. Therefore the consumer engine must continually produce more ideological value to make up for it, or else the system will lose the consent of the masses. The gap in the cupboards must be filled with a feeling of security, of superiority, or of involvement in another world where things are better. (These other worlds can be religious, or fictional, or even geo-political.) Less bread means more circuses. Identity is part of what they create and attempt to sell.

The New Middle Class are those employed to smooth out the frictions between capital and labour. A very few are those who physically maintain order in behaviour and in the distribution of goods and services. A major section are technicians and administrators - the people who count the beans, the people who draw up the blueprints and the labour plans, the people who create and distribute the information which relates to some objective reality.

But the section I am interested in are the type who interpret and manipulate subjective reality. These are the people who create ideological goods and market them successfully, who fill the psychic and physical gaps created by the exploitative relationship at the basis of capitalism. They know they've won when the product sells better, or the single hits #1 in the charts, or the candidate wins, or the meme spreads, or people join the new religion. They create ideological goods which can be sold as products in themselves, or can be used to "package" physical goods. People go to a movie or buy a CD for - essentially - the same reason they buy something or vote for someone marketed by a particular campaign. It tickles some psychic need - which often makes up for their feelings of alienation, or even their lacks in a physical area. A variation of this is creating a negative psychic good (eg "terrorism"), and associating it with some kind of action which they want to discourage.

But it also includes management and bureaucracy. These fields are concerned with encouraging consent to the process of exploitative labour by selling the psychic good labelled "being a valued member of the team". Generally, the more psychic validation is handed out the nastier the actual financial and other concrete benefits of the job are. This is how volunteer organisations of all kinds work - and it's visible in, say, the really nasty conditions of labour in software or animation firms where "a cool company culture" makes up for insane long hours and no benefits. At a lower level, this is why Starbucks calls its frontline wageslaves "partners" rather than employees.

This section of the New Middle Class are paid - usually very well - from the surplus of labour exploitation to create the psychic goods that keep all of society content or at least channels their resentment into harmless areas. Not just the workers - the ruling class need to consume ideologies which tell them that they deserve to be where they are and it's right to do what they do. All marketing and mass-media consumption goods can be described as Corporate Memetics - especially mainstream, institutional religion (as opposed to "subversive religion").

Management and politics consist partly of Corporate Memetics, and partly of "brute force" - offering or withdrawing goods, services or money, threatening to fire you, put you in jail or the loony bin, etc. Gramsci realised that the reason the revolution succeeded in Russia is that the State there knew only brute force - and that Corporate Memetics were what would have to be defeated in the West.

It is well known that modern governments and employers lie much more than those of thirty or forty years ago. They have to. They can't afford to hand out carrots and they don't dare use the stick too much. So they have to invent very convincing imaginary carrots, and cross their fingers that the masses don't catch wise in time.

Our goal of creating a new society will be to create a world where not only will every human's real physical needs and desires be fulfilled, but alienation will be abolished and there will no longer be that yearning lack at the basis of the human spirit which needs to be filled by consuming psychic goods - or, at least, everyone will be producers as well as consumers of such memes. Marx described this as "the abolition of the distinction between mental and physical labour".

But here and now, our only antidote to the ideology sold to us by Corporate Memetics is to create and promote an ideology of struggle, of becoming fully human, of building not only communities but teams or combat formations which can actually accomplish something to change the world. It's not enough to expose the fact that our enemies are lying - people will continue to believe in lies when they have a physical or psychic need that can't be assuaged otherwise. Orwell called this doublethink.

We need to build a culture of struggle. But this cannot be allowed to turn into a sneering Mandarin dismissal of corporate popular culture, any more than it can be allowed to turn into an atheist-snob dismissal of religion. Pop culture is the modern religion, and the New Middle Class are the modern priests. The heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless condition, the painkiller of the masses. You can't take someone's trash-TV or girly magazines away from them any more than you can take away their God or their seasonal observances. But we can attempt to reclaim them for our side. All this corporate bullshit - however much we might hate it - sells because it assuages a psychic need. Until we have our own, revolutionary psychic goods that can do that for a mass audience, we have to learn how to include popular culture in our own strategies.

I'm sorry to have to say this, but this means that we have to find some way to use Britney Spears and reality TV for our side. We could perhaps start by trying to decide how much of celebrity culture is actually "sneering at celebrity idiocies" culture - "ha ha, that person might be a zillion times richer and more beautiful than me but they're a total fuck-up". Perhaps it subverts itself and we need only figure out how to use that.

Now, I'm not usually one who supports the idea of "how we fight now determines what the new world will look like" - that's like saying that you need a beautiful, artistic chisel to sculpt Michelangelo's David. It lends itself to pacifist and lifestylist conclusions. But certainly, an organisation which aims to destroy alienation, can start by destroying the division between mental and manual labour in its own ranks - by encouraging all members to get involved in producing not only plans, not only ideology, but the cultural artifacts of struggle.