Like the Air We Breathe 1

Edward Hopper, Excursion into Philosophy (1959)

Like The Air We Breathe. How Capital Achieves Domination in Advanced Societies (Part 1)

Introduction: The Ideology of the End of Ideology.

For the liberal-social democratic orthodoxy that now rules most minds, class and class domination no longer exist. While it is conceded that such unpleasant phenomena may have existed from the Bronze Age through to, say, the proverbial child labour and dark satanic mills of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even up to the Great Depression of the 1930s, they now are simply as good as absent from the scene.

As we know from the various recurring ideologies of the ‘end of ideology’ and ‘end of history’ (read: Marxism, socialism, class) first posited by Daniel Bell in the boom time 1950s, hierarchical class societies have been replaced by something like ‘flattened’ democratic pluralist societies of rising affluence in which various ‘interests’ or ‘lobbies’ now just equitably jockey for ‘position and influence’. In this view, Big Business and Labour lobbies now simply take their pluralist place alongside those of the welfare, farming, environment, indigenous, compassion and other ‘industries’. Democratic government then mediates and balances out these various interests ‘in the national interest’ and to maintain what all obviously want: economic growth and development. Social problems have thus now become mere technical problems to be fixed by more funds, experts and more growth and development. History has mysteriously ended. Power, class, and domination simply no longer exist. They apparently died around 1945. Or perhaps around 1947 when President Truman invented the notion of ‘Development’…

Cui bono? This technocratic ideology of the end of ideology of course suits those in corporate and political power just fine. They become invisible. At the same time, like most ideologies, this particular version also contains an important historical truth.

The nature of class and class domination has indeed changed considerably since the days of Marx, Mill and Bakunin. In the age of the ‘information society’ and cool designer capitalism, the Old Left caricatures of capitalists as cigar-smoking fat men in black top hats no longer quite cut the mustard. While every small-time local drug hoodlum may sport his Rolex, a capitalist can now wear jeans as well as Armani jackets or even assume the persona of a vegan Asian lesbian feminist if need be. Even queer can be cool. Workers are also no longer the slouch-capped burly men of the old Depression era newsreels but more likely to be checkout ladies at the supermarket, call centre workers in Mumbai or IT workers staring at a boring, number-filled screen all day in open-plan offices with staff volleyball and mountain-bike racks. An increasing academic or semi-academic proletariat of nominally independent consultants, part-time professionals and small entrepreneurs (a new white collar
‘precariat’) would also seem to muddy the old bi-polar picture of Capital versus Labour.

In short, domination, social class relations and systems have indeed become much more complex and differentiated in ‘late capitalism’. The significant post-1945 shifts to consumerism and fairly generalised affluence, declining industrial workers and increasing service and professional workers, outsourcing, state welfare nets (to name but a few)…all these have of course radically changed the forms of the old class and domination equations in the advanced economies.

However, whether they have changed the essential substance of these equations is another matter altogether. Globally, it could even be argued that class polarisation and domination have never been so stark: if immense wealth equates to immense power and wage labour to a modern form of slavery, then, in Adrian Peacock’s apposite phrase, we are indeed in a situation of ‘two hundred pharaohs and five billion slaves.’ Such are the bare statistics, but where is the old ‘prime mover’, where is Capital in all this?

Paradoxically perhaps, the more Capital has permeated, informed and reconfigured modern societies in its own image, the more it seems to have indeed become invisible. ‘Capital’ is not a discrete ‘thing’ but shorthand for an exploitative relationship between invested money and labour, a system. And systems, like a society or a forest, can of course never be ‘seen’ but only individually or collectively imagined. What now makes this perhaps even more difficult is the fact that in advanced societies at least, Capital no longer represents the violent cultural uprooting and ‘shock of the new’ it did during its industrial origins (and as it still does in newly industrialising countries like China and India). In Gestalt psychology terms, what was once a sharply visible foreground against a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist background has now become the background itself. There now seems little left with which to contrast it. For most, it has become like the air we breathe: unnoticed, at least until we choke on it. Fish also do not know they swim in water. Until they are somehow yanked out of it. This essay can be seen as a compressed attempt at such a yanking.

It is hardly contested that Capital (also more familiarly known as the mainstream reifications of ‘the economy’, ‘markets’ or the ‘free market’) of course dominates the economy and the workplace, and that this is so whether or not there is any formally countervailing power in the shape of trade unions, for example. However, Capital cannot securely achieve this domination without also dominating in three key areas of society outside the economy itself: (1) individual socialisation, (2) culture, (3) democratic government. By dominating psychologically, culturally and politically in these key areas, Capital gets the individuals, culture and governments it needs. It achieves cultural ‘hegemony’ (Gramsci). These areas are all essential to securing its constant expansion, its minority class interests and social power at the expense of the well-being of current human majorities, future generations and the very ecological viability of the planet as a beautiful living organism on which we and all other life forms so critically depend.

Our points are presented in summative form as rough general guidelines for constructing a social system according to the interests of Capital.

(Cautionary note: this Machiavellian approach of course certainly does NOT mean to imply the near-lunatic notion that the social structures of domination by Capital are consciously developed and implemented by some global conspiratorial cabale of capitalists plotting in the backrooms of some anonymous skyscraper near Wall Street. That kind of personalising village-scale subjectivism is at least two to five hundred years out of date and is simply absurd in a world totalised and objectified by Capital. There is no simple linear or intentional causality at work here. Seen systemically, people as specific individuals do not matter very much at all. Specific people can be replaced, as long as their systemic roles and functions remain intact. These complex structures of domination grow and differentiate under the whole historical momentum of the capitalist and industrial System itself as it develops. They simply ‘go with’ or ‘constellate as’ the system that is driven by the core, unchanging logic of Capital: self-accumulation and domination. Although the interlocking webs of the System function in the interest of Capital and specific holders of wealth and power, no one ‘rides’ this particular beast. As both Marx and Emerson noted even at a much earlier stage of Capital, ‘THINGS are in the saddle and ride mankind.’)

1. How Capital Socialises the Individuals It Needs

Our core argument here is that Capital-as-consumerism needs mal-bonded, unvalidated, neurotic, ‘other-directed’ (David Riesman) individuals with low self-esteem (psychoanalytically: weak egos). Such weak egos will attempt to fill or compensate this inner sense of inadequacy, hollowness or emptiness with various bought commodities (including ‘experiences’) that can, however, never completely satisfy the unconscious need to be loved or validated and thus have to be frequently exchanged for new ones.

At the same time, Capital-as-domination needs mal-bonded, neurotic, ‘other-directed’ individuals with low self-esteem who will internalise core capitalist values and thus conform, obey and not question their order-givers but rather identify with strong leaders as unconscious parental figures who promise to protect them and fix their problems for them.

In short, Capital needs ‘kidadults’ (Patrick White), i.e. individuals ‘stuck’ in infantile patterns of response and unfulfilled needs for love, recognition, validation. Advanced Capital needs the generalisation of the psychological personality disorder known as ‘recognition hunger’ (Eric Berne) or ‘narcissism’ (Freud). Maternally malbonded, abandoned, misrecognised or unvalidated in a critical (‘narcissistic’) phase of infantile development, such individuals later have problems building strong, secure identities and relationships and are prone to a generalised sense of meaninglessness, emptiness, loneliness, anxiety and/or depression. The foundations of the basic neurotic and ‘other-directed’ character structures the system needs are built up throughout the socialisation process from the early perinatal period to adolescence.

(a) Perinatal Separations and Mal-Bonding

• Discourage empowering natural birth processes and midwives
• Strengthen fears in mothers-to-be about their inner capacity to give birth
• Isolate mothers in hospitals away from traditional support networks
• Medicalise birth: redefine birth as a medical ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by doctors
• Interfere with and complicate natural birth processes as much as possible through cascading chemical and/or surgical interventions (contraction modifiers, epidurals, caesareans etc)
• Separate the newborn and mother as much as possible to impair the innate mammalian bonding process and further separation anxiety and anxious attachment
• Encourage bottle feeding as soon as possible to minimise breastfeeding and impair bonding, encourage maternal re-entry into the paid workforce asap and sell formula
• Encourage separate rooms and prams for babies and infants to lessen holding-bonding, increase sense of isolation and self-loathing and sell more baby products
• Propagate infant rearing theories that discourage meeting its needs for unconditional love and attention (‘spoiling’) and increase its sense of self-loathing and isolation, e.g. ‘controlled crying’, ‘toddler taming’

(b) Pre-School

• Make it financially difficult and socially unappealing for women or parents to intensively care for children for first 2-3 years
• Continue the perinatal mal-bonding and dis-validation process by profitably ‘outsourcing’ child care as soon as possible (e.g. from 6 months onwards)
• Encourage a for-profit pre-school industry run on industrial lines: maximum throughput/revenue (children) with minimised input/costs (staff).
• Fund research supporting ‘no harm’ theories regarding institutional pre-schooling

(c) Infants and Primary School

• As in pre-school, under-fund staff and resources so that class sizes remain large and attention given to individual children’s needs is restricted
• Set curricula that emphasize the abstract/intellectual skills (needed in advanced capitalist job markets) as soon as possible to further disadvantage working class children, diminish natural-practical, sensory-imaginative learning and the development of relational/emotional intelligence
• Structure the school and classroom system to run mainly via individual competition and extrinsic motivation and achievement (grades) rather than via cooperation, process pleasure and intrinsic motivation
• Begin the internalisation of the industrial ‘hidden curriculum’ (Ivan Illich) of schooling: the experience of powerlessness and the belief in the experts/authorities (teachers)

(d) Secondary School

• Continue the under-funding and the under-valuing of teachers, especially in the public school system
• Cement class structures by having a public-private, hierarchical and/or meritocratic system in which dominant middle class values, curricula and people are the gate keepers to social opportunity
• Isolate schools from the community and work
• Fragment learning into tightly separate subjects and divorce them from interchange and from the practical and socially useful
• Continue to habituate students to extrinsic motivation and achievement (grades), individual competitiveness and the industrial rule of abstract clock time
• Continue the ‘hidden curriculum’ of schooling: the internalisation of powerlessness, non- or token ‘participation’ in school management and belief in experts (teachers)
• Strengthen the emphasis on abstract/intellectual skills and ‘information’ rather than holistic learning and the development of understanding/knowledge
• If at all, give the development of critical thinking and the creative imagination only secondary or decorative roles within curricula and the school structure


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 28, 2011.

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