New York City is perhaps one of the best places to be a flaneur, engaging in the act of idly strolling through the streets, taking in the little moments that otherwise go unnoticed, appreciating them as pinholes, turning the world as we know it upside down, all the better to see it for what it is. New York City is also perhaps one of the best metropolises to experience alienation in all its rawness — accessible, visible, and celebratory at every turn. One doesn’t have to wonder at one’s own estrangement; it’s plain as day, especially through the camera obscura of everyday details that one stumbles on, repeatedly, endlessly, as a loafer on foot. Somehow this savage rawness makes alienation a tiny bit easier to bear, although in another pinhole effect, likely a whole lot harder to contest.
New York City, too, just might be home to one of the greatest — if not the greatest — concentrations of cultural workers, whether in the form of one’s waged labor or through laboriously endless weight of creating culture in one’s lifestyle and on one’s body. Capitalism retains its basic “cell form” logic of commodifying things — material and increasingly immaterial — but its growth logic has nurtured that capacity to expand from the realm of production (with us as producers), to consumption (with us as spectators), to the very sociocultural fabric of life (with us as way-too-enthusiastic participants). As James C. Scott talks about in a section of his recent Two Cheers for Anarchism, rather than a world aimed at a “gross domestic product,” we’ve moved into the aspiration of “the production of human beings.” Hence, the culture of capitalism isn’t incidental; it’s the pinhole through which we can see who we’ve become in this upside-down world, or what we’ve been reduced to, and may just be the terrain of where social struggle, resistance, and reconstruction in particular is most crucial. For we need to be different human beings if we have any hope of populating, humanely, other possible worlds.
So here’s what I hope is the beginning of photo-word pinholes onto the culture of capitalism, from me as a part wordsmith, part flaneur, part agitator. Perhaps, over time, these fragmentary snapshots will offer a less-dim picture of the present, what we’re up against and what bits of light still shine beyond it.
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Pinhole 1: If utopia is, etymologically, “no place” or “good place,” under neoliberalism, we may have reached a true no-good place, where capitalism holds out the never-reachable “good place” of a purported utopia, achieved through fame, luck, fortune, or simply averting disaster, but always in the form of an increasingly proliferation of micro-commodities to fulfill micro-desires that leave our macro-desires lonely, empty, and empty-handed, materially and psychically. We troublemakers and misfits and rebels are left with only feebly offering representations of apocalyptic dystopias. After all, military-industrial climate change has created a future with no future, and it seems all we can do is offer up notions of a world of “it’s already too late,” even as we try valiantly to make the present a tiny bit more comfortable.
Capitalism in New York City, meanwhile, smiles broadly, and declares, “Don’t say good-bye to life!” Instead: “Come Buy!” Or as a sign declared on the outside of a new micro-niche series of specialty stores in Manhattan, as seen during one of my meanderings: Come inside to our lovely “space where everything you encounter is for sale.”
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, midtown Manhattan, 2013)
People like to poinpoint a certain “time” when capitalism became what it is today. For some, it was when the US got off the gold standard (which was a piece of crap to begin with). For others it was the advent of mass advertising and culture. To me, the capitalism we have now didn’t arise after a certain point but was always in development from the “good capitalism” that was “then”.
I remember talking with some free marketeers who were trying to deflect criticism of markets and all the problems inherent to markets in any way they could. One of them (who is a big fan of Karl Hess) scapegoated the consumer culture and commodification on “big society” and proposed the tearing down of cities into small, dencetralized communities (all with “totally free markets”, of course) as a solution. Sadly, I don’t see how this would resolve the problem. Even small-scale capitalist markets made up of entirely of small-scale producers will commodify everything, since the incentives remain. But I think this mentality shows a blind faith in the market system and a reluctance to look into any kind of alternative.
Either way, capitalism truly messes up our social relations and perceptions of reality. I’m not postmodern but I will admit Baudrillard was correct!
In capitalism competition has become the universal form of social relation….
Has anyone an idea, how, when and why the capitalistic system would end ?