31 March 2007

There's a reason that pill was RED

It's an observation made several times that The Matrix can be seen as a very Marxist movie. The basic idea: there is a vast system which relies on exploiting us for its fuel. It creates an illusion of reality that encourages its victims, not only not to fight it, but not to even see that it's there. (To misquote C S Lewis: "Capitalism's greatest triumph was convincing the world that it didn't exist" - or that it was the same thing as nature.) And, of course, that there could be a small but bad-ass organisation of people who have broken free and are determined to break everyone else free too. I actually own a vinyl dress and have been called "Trinity" on occasion.

And then there's this fellow. Now, to see where I think he's going wrong, remember what the Marxist definition of ideology is - "an imaginary solution to a real problem". Because on one hand, Mr Draven has certainly got a hell of a lot right:

The Matrix, here, IS real: but here, it is the societal construct that in fact creates, maintains, and controls the collective 'reality', and forces people to accept their own limitations.

But here is where the ideology kicks in. The dude mistakes the map for the territory. He is seriously attempting to live in the metaphor. And - crucially - this has led him away from making revolutionary change in order to promote a religion - a kind of private "opting out" of what he sees as the Construct:

The point - there or here - was never, ever to destroy the Matrix. To destroy the System. I wish, wish, wish that people would see that, hear me say that so desperately, before they go forward and judge my words based on the PC[films]... even Morpheus was wrong... God forgive me for saying so again. "As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free..." No. Wrong. The Matrix, the Construct, the System, is not evil. Blowing up the prison isn't the point. They'll just find another one, as they must. And even within its walls and its bars - as within its pods and programs - the System sustains life for those who cannot live without it.

Opening the door, showing those who want to see the sky that they certainly can, if only they look this way, shed their fear... giving them the choice to make that decision, to define their reality, for themselves, and letting the System CHANGE AS IT MUST as more and more of them realize that the door's not locked after all...

This fellow has all the passion that could have made him a great revolutionary. But his central mistake is one of his basic axioms:

Reality is subjective, not collective.

In a word, bullshit. Tattoo the very opposite on the inside of your eyelids. Once you accept that - an idealist, rather than a materialist analysis - you are no longer a threat to the system. You are lost inside your own head and can only build a castle in the air which has nothing to do with the real world. Just because you might persuade other people to live in that castle doesn't mean diddly-squat. You could have changed the world and instead you just invented a new painkiller. To make people happier in their slavery rather than to help liberate them. To offer escapism instead of escape. Way to go, Neo.

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.

10 March 2007

Old Possum on the tactics of magick

Eliot's poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight. When Raine enquires of a couple of lines in one of Eliot's poems whether we are supposed to be in a brothel, the only answer which would be true to Eliot's own aesthetic is that we are in a poem.

Emphasis added. Terry Eagleton, a Marxist critic, points out correctly that a poem - like a person - is what it does, not the ideas that it contains. It is a material thing, a collection of phonetic, phonemic, semantic and semiotic signals that produces an ideological as well as biochemical effect on the human consciousness.

Is it very wrong for a Marxist to love a reactionary like Eliot? As Eagleton points out in the above review, it could have been worse. He could have been his mate Idaho Ez and actually ended up snorkelling fascist sausage.

04 March 2007

Proles and animals are free

George Orwell's political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four is rightly lauded as a brilliant skewering of Stalinism and Fascism in particular and all administrative/bureaucratic power systems in general. But as Randall said in Clerks, I never noticed something about it until now.

All the horror in the novel - continual and total surveillance, witchhunting of thought criminals, etc - only happens to the middle class. The "Outer Party", what we would call today the people with jobs in information and marketing, are the ones continually terrorised. The ruling class - the Inner Party - are allowed to turn their home telescreens off. And no-one gives a crap about what the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Oceania - the working class, the "proles" - think or do. The Party considers it impossible that the proles could ever revolt on their own - so as long as they prevent any potential rebellion within their own ranks, everything should be sweet.

There's more to this, of course. When our hero Winston Smith goes into the proletarian part of town to try to find someone who can remember what things were like before the Party took over. The old guy he talks to honestly doesn't seem to notice any difference. You can't get beer in pint jugs any more, and top hats seem to have gone out of fashion, but apart from that... Winston assumes that the old man is senile and confused, but perhaps there really is no difference between life under Big Brother and life under capitalist democracy, for the proles.

Noam Chomsky apparently said that it's always the middle-class intellectuals who fall easiest for propaganda. Perhaps our own rulers think like Orwell's big brother - that the solution is to keep the middle-class sweet and then they won't need to worry about anything, because proles can't think for themselves. Under globalised competitive capitalism, of course, this entails far more carrot and far less stick than in Orwell's vision. But these people really seem to think that if they keep the 25% of the population who create ideology and media in shiny cars, designer salads and broadband internet then the majority won't even be able to think of rebelling.

And then they wonder why in the "less economically favoured" areas every major city in the world there is a continual slow-motion riot in the form of steadily increasing levels of crime against person and property, often exacerbated by the trade in illegal drugs and the occasional hostile meme such as racism or homophobia. You just can't keep this shit in the Third World or the domestic third world known as "the suburbs where nice people don't go". It ends up crawling into the downtown areas and the leafy suburbs, in the form of panhandling, burglary, etc. As Maurice Gee said, there are not two worlds with a bridge between. There is only one world.

Crime, properly understood, is a spontaneous inchoate rebellion against the economic deprivation, alienation and polluted infosphere in which the majority of us live. Another thing our rulers perhaps haven't thought about is that if they insist on enriching themselves too much, some of the "creative class" are going to drop off the bottom end of the scale and find themselves becoming proles themselves. When people trained in theory get into contact with masses of people itching for practice, that's when you get serious mass movements. Big Brother might have just lost control of the Outer Party.