One would hope that academia would function as a counter-point to the excesses and ravages of capitalism and the non-sensical, frequently destructive and flatly unethical, inhumane, policies it purveys. This Benjamin Barber quote is quite fitting:
“How is it that when we see politics permeate every life sector we call it totalitarianism and when we see religion everywhere we call it theocracy, but when commerce dominates everything we call it liberty?” ― Benjamin Barber
The facile conflation of commercialism and liberty (that masquerades as "choice") is the very brainwashing of which Haque speaks. Read on.
Why You Can Have Predatory Capitalism, or You Can Have a Thinking Society — But You Can’t Have Both
by Umair Haque | Oct. 31, 2019
Yesterday, Jack announced that Twitter would ban all political advertising. “Hallelujah!”, cried the pundits. Isn’t that we’ve all been waiting for — given Twitter and Facebook’s dismal history of legitimizing and promoting and spreading extremism, hate, and fascism? Not so fast.
Jack’s decision is hardly the panacea — or even the step forward it appears to be. It’s net effect won’t be some kind of great boon to democracy. In fact, it’s a perfect mini-case study in how America came to have the worst, most foolish, most asinine public sphere in the world. Yes, the world. Nobody even in Pakistan or Ghana “debates” whether arming teachers is the correct solution to school shootings…whether people should have healthcare…whether those who’ve worked hard all their lives deserve retirement.…whether billionaires in fact deserve to be taxed. America’s public sphere is uniquely, spectacularly dumb — and that should give us all pause.
How did we end up here? Because, my friends, in American society — uniquely — there is a class of people who are paid fortunes, large and small, to be something like capitalism’s intellectual janitors: to brush its ugly truths and dirty secrets under the rug. The result is that anyone who wants America to move up the ladder of development of a society is at a severe structural disadvantage.
Let’s me use Twitter banning ads to explain how all this came to be. All political advertising being banned means — first of all — all political advertising. So there go all the good guys, too. Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and so forth. We can disagree about politics, sure — but I don’t think we can disagree there’s a kind of clear moral line between bad guys and good guys at this juncture in history. But now the good guys won’t be able to advertise, either. And that, my friend, puts them at a severe structural disadvantage, relative to the bad guys. Why?
Because the bad guys will do what they’ve been doing for decades now. They’ll reframe all that “political advertising” as “science” or “economics” or “social issues” or “psychology.” And those ads will slip through the net untouched.
Now, to do that — to legitimize crackpot politics as science and reason and intellectualism — the extremists have built an infrastructure of social control as sophisticated as any hardline Islamic society. In America, there are thinktanks by the dozen promoting ideas as bizarre and outlandish as no healthcare for anyone, making kids go hungry at school, or letting hedge funds “raid” people’s retirement. These aren’t ideas that pass muster anywhere — anywhere — else in the world. I could go on. Here are some more of those crackpot ideas: arming teachers, letting billionaires and corporation pay no taxes,
So how is it that in America, these crackpot ideas have come to be accepted, normalized parts of everyday discourse? Well, like I said, there’s a sophisticated infrastructure for doing just that. It works like this. A thinktank writes a “paper.” Sometimes, it gussies it up with pseudoscience, carried out by a ‘research institute” at a university. That “paper” turns into a press release. The press release is bombarded at journalists and newspapers. They see the glitz — not the substance — too often: a university, a think tank with a fine, officious name, maybe a professor or two with a grand title.
Bang! The next thing you know, there’s a column in the New York Times about it. Did you know that arming teachers reduces violence at schools? Did you know that making billionaires pay no taxes increases GDP? Wait — did you know that taking rights away from people makes them more “productive”?! My God! What a breakthrough in human thought! Amazing! We have to inform the people!
In other words, pseudoscience turns into punditry. That’s step one in the degeneration of American public discourse.
And then the next thing you know, this little factoid, this irresistible soundbite, this incredible, counterintuitive piece of “news” is everywhere. Jake Tapper’s got a “panel” discussing it on CNN. Who’s on that “panel”? People called, mysteriously — bizarrely — “surrogates.” Wait, a sane person might ask — what the blazes is a surrogate? Well, in American media, a “surrogate” is something like a pawn or tool or flack, who we all know is one, and yet we have to buy into the masquerade that they’re not. So a “surrogate” isn’t a person with any real expertise…credentials…any legitimate basis to discuss the issues they’re opining on. They’re just people being paid to put forth a certain political position, no matter what.
Now, thoughtful people might ask: hey, why don’t we get to hear from the professors and thinkers and writers and artists directly? Why is it that there seems to be…a class…in the middle? A class made at its lower end, of pop pundits and “surrogates”, and at its higher end, of mega-pundits and fake professors and thinktankers with fine titles. Do you see how strange this is? Such a class doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, really — although it’s beginning to, as American-style public discourse invades the world. What is this class even called, anyways?
Well, it doesn’t have a name — so let’s give it one. Let’s call it the punditocracy, for want of a better word. Marx would have said the point of this class is to create a false consciousness — to convince people, essentially, that everything but capitalism is to blame for their growing problems, their despair, fear, rage, and anxiety. Quick — let’s blame our poverty on those dirty immigrants, those filthy Jews, those subhumans! They’re the reason we never got rich like the capitalists promised!!
He would have said their job is to do the intellectual labour of sanitizing capitalism of its greatest contradiction of all: it promises to make the proles rich, but has no intention whatsoever of delivering. In other words, the job of capitalism’s class of intellectual labourers is to forever hide the lie. They’re like janitors, forever sweeping the ugly truths and dirty secrets of capitalism under the rug. You didn’t get rich — not because of the immigrants or Jews or gays or women — but because capitalism was never going to make you rich. You were always just an expendable, disposable commodity. Someone must hide that truth — or a capitalist society would rip itself apart.
(And to do that, it would have to legitimate and normalize exploitation — because above all, capitalism can’t exist unless people are willing to either exploit themselves, or exploit others, or better yet, both.)
The job of this class of upper-level proles is to create a food chain of intellectual horseshit, and shovel it all the way down. At the top, chaired professors and crackpot thinktanks and research centers, who shovel it down to junior grade pundits, down to PR agencies, who bombard it at journalists, sometimes working at whole fake news organizations, who repeat the latest factoid a thousand times a day on Twitter, where it then finally ends up in the loving arms of the NYT and CNN. Nope — no advertising here. Just…crackpot ideology…masquerading as deep, profound, often “scientific”, truth.
Now, if you doubt that, consider for a moment just how effective the punditocracy has been at…exactly the job above. Of being janitors for capitalism’s ugly truths and dirty secrets. You’ll hear endless “debates”, every single day, on whether or not the following are to blame for America’s problems: immigrants, foreigners, refugees, the poor, women, gays, anyone different, the vulnerable, the weak, the powerless…not to mention all kinds of veiled and not-so-veiled celebrations of greed and violence and aggression and selfishness.
But you will never — ever — hear a serious debate about whether America’s problems are caused by too much capitalism, too hard and too brutal, its values of cruelty and selfishness and acquisitiveness and domination. (Sure — you might read a piece about it now and then. So what? That’s not a public debate or discussion. It’s just an outlier, a fluke, the exception which proves the rule.)
So if we looked at America sanely, we’d say that the class which does the intellectual labour of sanitizing capitalism, the janitorial work of brushing it’s dirty secrets and ugly truths under the rug, has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Now, that’s only predictable. Because the truth is that capitalism pays this class obscene amounts to sanitize it. How much does a Jake Tapper earn? And he’s one of the good guys. How about a Tucker Carlson? So what this infrastructure really is is a kind of welfare system for extremists. Yes, really.
If you want to get rich in America, there’s no better way than to suddenly promote yourself as a right-wing intellectual. Money will suddenly be showered upon you. From nowhere, you’ll start receiving offers for all kinds of things, from book deals to news appearances to profiles to articles. Just think of a Ben Shapiro. Who is he, again? Just a foolish extremist. Why do you know his name? Why is he rich now? Because it pays to be an extremist. There is a very real welfare system, and it promotes the bizarre and outlandish ideas of the American right.
That is because the “ideas” of the American right aren’t really new or even interesting or controversial in the slightest. They’re just the things capital has championed for centuries. They’re the same things that capitalists campaigned for in Edwardian England, in Victorian England — those Dickensian cartoon villains — and then robber barons did in America, later, too. Sending people to workhouses…debtors’ prisons…no collective bargaining…no taxes for capital…keeping the proles in their place…none of these things are remotely new. What’s different is that Americans think they are — because the punditocracy has successfully tricked them into believing they have never been tried before in history.
Hence, we should “debate” them — instead of seeing, instantly, that not only have they been tried, but that they failed miserably, both economically, socially, morally, in every imaginable way.
So America’s system of promoting the interests of capital is a complex and intricate one. But it’s also a vastly successful one. It created a class of intellectual janitors that exists for one purpose — to hide capitalism’s ugliest truth, that it promises to make the proles rich, but has no intention of delivering whatsoever. That class successfully did the job of brushing that dirty secret under the rug — so successfully that the average American has been deluded into believing that his or her interests are the interests of capital. He thinks of himself as a capitalist in waiting — not as a prole forever. Hence, the average American has spent a lifetime voting against things like healthcare, retirement, education, transport…which he can’t afford to begin with. What the?
(But all of that should be utterly predictable. Why? Because guess who’s funding all this stuff? From the thinktanks to the university research centers to the publishing houses and so forth? Billionaires. Capital. They’ve created this welfare system for extremists, where any hardline right-winger can suddenly get a job and a title. They’ve built a crackpot army, peddling pseudoscience and fake economics and nonsense thinking — but it bombards society with it, and ultimately, it’s legitimized and normalized by sheer force of repetition and reiteration.)
Of course capital is going to promote its own interests. The problem is that in America, it’s been astonishingly successful, because it’s met with no real resistance.
Note what hasn’t happened on the other side. The good guys didn’t build an opposing infrastructure to fund…well…the truth. Decency. Humanity. Civilization. All those billionaires who purport to be the good guys? The truth is that they don’t invest nearly enough in an opposing system. They don’t fund this intricate food chain of thinktanks, research centers, PR agencies, “news” outlets, and so on. Not only is there nobody to create the echo chamber — there’s no message in the first place. There’s no intellectual army here — there’s a few lone soldiers, waging desperate, futile battles in trenches.
Marx wouldn’t have been surprised by that, either. Why, exactly, would capital fund a class consciousness that went against its own interests? Why would it invest in things that made the proles smarter and tougher and more sophisticated?
It wouldn’t. He was right — and America’s vivid proof. The quickest way to get rich is to be a right wing extremist — you’ll have a job, a title, and a media profile before you know it. But the quickest way to get poor is to be vocal about not particularly liking racism, fascism, bigotry, hate, or violence. Those things just might make you unemployable for life.
So what’s going to happen on Twitter’s predictable. The bad guys will simply dress up their messages the same old way. “Everyone that’s not a white dude is bad, scary, and dumb!! The point of human life is to exploit and abuse people!! That’s not politics, man. It’s science! This study says so! It’s moral philosophy — this book says so! It’s careful, thoughtful reason — this thinktank says so! Hey — are you going to disagree with this research institute, dummy?” Do you see what I mean a little bit?
And on the other side, there will be silence. Jack is hardly likely to be able to rein in all of that. Yet nor is Jack out there funding thinktanks and endowing university chairs and using those billions to create an intellectual army of good guys. See the problem? But of course Jack wouldn’t — for the same reason most billionaires don’t. It’s not in their interest to do it. So the good guys go on being at an enormous structural disadvantage, because there’s no echo chamber to endlessly repeat nostrums and nonsense. The problem isn’t really just Jack’s, though. Let me crystallize it.
Capitalism, like any absolutist ideology, believes it is the only force a society should want, need, or have. That is, the point of human existence is to exploit your neighbour, planet, world, self. Capital created an army of proles to brainwash the rest of the proles into believing that. It paid them well and gave them status and esteem and fine titles, putting them above the rest — so they’d buy into the con. Today, that army of people doing capitalism’s intellectual labour is a social class unto itself, manning the echo chambers and idiot bubbles that have become American public discourse.
Capitalists have created a welfare system that’s an infrastructure for the hard right, which pays people fortunes, small and large, to effectively ideologically brainwash — if not bully or terrorize — society. If we don’t bail out the banks…if you tax billionaires…all hell might break loose!
And yet capitalism’s been telling these foolish lies for centuries — only other societies are smart enough to understand that, and that history’s disproven them time and again, too. No, we’re not better off with debtors’ prisons and workhouses. In America, though, this class of capital’s intellectual labourers has come to have a monopoly over truth and opinion. Nobody else really is allowed to have much of a voice at all. So the playing field of public discourse is tilted hard and extreme to the right. Capitalism’s class of intellectual servants exists to go on tilting it. The job of this class of people is to create an ideological monopoly for capitalism — and capitalism pays them well and rewards them with status and power to do it.
But the result of all this is a public sphere that’s denuded. Not just of ideas. Not even just of truth. But also of dignity, humanity, grace, wisdom, courage. There’s a reason that the American public sphere is now basically pundits shouting at each other, bullies screaming at one another, all rage and fury and resentment. That’s because America is a society that still “debates” things the rest of the rich world — and increasingly the poor one — stopped believing in long ago, since they were disproven. But because there’s no room for anything in American public discourse but capitalism’s promoters predictably, endlessly repeating little factoids that reinforce the false idea that capitalism is all a society should need, want, desire…there’s nowhere for America to go, either.
Now, if all that sounds weirdly Soviet to you…it should. The point of a pundit is to brainwash you into believing in an ideology. The only difference is that in America’s case, in capitalism’s, the belief is that exploitation, violence, greed, and selfishness are good. But when you believe that — what, my friend, is the point of you?