Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Symbol-Minded Politics

by Anthony Schiappa

Social media users are in a colitic fit over the name “Washington Redskins.”

It’s racist as hell. Everyone knows that, even the “get over it” crowd, which refuses to take its own advice. As a few bloggers have pointed out, the mascot would be racist even if no American Indian found it offensive, though this point itself smacks of white liberal paternalism.

On the other hand, 90,000 mostly white sports fans aping the tribes that their country eradicated is exactly the kind of grotesque image that neatly captures contemporary American culture. Naturally, its sublime truth must be hidden from view. Sweeping under the rug any honest depiction of our grim history—that’s one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree upon.

In fact, if it weren’t for the outrage at racist team mascots, most people, except perhaps gamblers, would never give a second thought to the plight of the American Indian.

So the zeal with which name-changing efforts have been supported by non-Indians makes me wonder about the underlying motivations of these do-gooders. Why the sudden concern for a group that is usually forgotten? Partially, it seems as though nerds are getting some revenge against the suffocating jock culture they grew up in; others seem to get their kicks harassing a sleazy one-percenter like Dan Snyder. Much of it is simply the knee-jerk outrage of the Internet.

There is, of course, more to it. A name change for the Redskins, the third most valuable franchise in the NFL, would indeed be symbolically powerful, but there’s the rub. It would do nothing to address the daily realities of racism, manifested in the universal horror of poverty. Those realities would only be further obscured by a strictly symbolic political victory, because things really aren’t getting better. They’re getting worse.

And to those who would counter that a name change would “send a message” or “raise consciousness,” I challenge you to explain what that means in concrete terms without sounding like an imbecile.

Because the far more destructive consequences of racism can be found in economic statistics on the majority of American Indians who don’t, incidentally, own casinos. Twenty-five percent of Native Americans live in poverty; in non-urban counties, the number jumps to 60%. Reservations, many of which are on isolated sites chosen by the federal government as part of its program of extermination, are among the poorest places in the country, no different than what we euphemistically call “the developing world.” On the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, unemployment hovers at 69%, three times as high as the national rate at the height of the Great Depression. Of America’s high-poverty communities, American Indians have the lowest rate of full-time job holders, at 36%.

This means little or no access to healthcare, education, infrastructure, and other basic services. It also means poverty’s daily indignities and ceaseless toil, born of “crushing necessity,” as CĂ©line put it. Yes, there is the melodrama of the poor’s suffering, but there are also the petty hardships and bad trade-offs that comprise everyday life.

And here we come to the limits of multicultural liberalism, which cannot confront the animating matrix of all forms of social domination, the capitalist economy. It is the economic hierarchy—of the robbers and the robbed—that sustains all other social hierarchies. Equality will not be achieved without a direct confrontation with the objective force of capital. This means a total and unequivocal rejection of capitalism and the formulation of something like an explicitly socialist framework.

This is why the multicultural liberal ethic, of “realizing the possibilities of here and now” and the dismissal of any subjects like economic exploitation as “flattening,” is a dead end. Whatever its alleged good intentions, a strategy of “making do” will never ameliorate the coercive violence of our economic system, nor can it ever fundamentally alter it. It can only democratize access to its bankrupt channels, redistributing poverty more evenly among all demographics, joining exploiters and exploited in shared intersectional identities.

Unable to address capitalism’s structuring of all social experience, liberalism fights its empty battles within the spectacle of symbolism and representation. As a result, nothing is accomplished. And it never will be. Its activity, masquerading as political action, unconcerned with challenging the established order, can only reinforce it. "Multiculturalism" emerges as jargon for academic careerists, whose trash remedies legitimize our current sordid social conditions and freeze them into permanence.

In the case of the Redskins controversy, their approach could have unintended consequences. Such symbolic victories slyly provide cover for continued economic exclusion. Triumph in the realm of appearances means defeat in lived experience. While it may be morally right for these mascots to be abolished, lifting that fight out of the context of poverty and its attendant miseries could cause the plight of the American Indian to further recede into the multicultural fog. They may, in fact, become even more invisible.

It’s yet another trade-off that the wretched continually confront. For the symbol-minded, it’s a trade worth making.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Jack London's Crucified Mind

by Mike Ferraro

         The primary objective of mechanical labor is to make the laborer an unfeeling, unthinking instrument of capital. This is done in order to achieve capital's chief aim—namely, the endless pursuit and accumulation of wealth for the ruling class. The definition of mechanical labor here includes both white and blue-collar work, any type of mind-numbing, repetitious labor, that is, where the outcome of enforced docility and alienation is achieved.

The task of mechanical labor, then, is to rend and dull the senses, to degrade the worker into a state of permanent docility and vegetative dependency. This debasement has two main components: physical exhaustion and cognitive debilitation. In both, the desired effect is foremost a functional dehumanization. In this way, the underclass of mechanical laborers is reduced and alienated. For the vast majority in a control society, this defiled existence is the summation of life. So much for maximizing human potentials, that great fairytale, and purported goal, of liberalism.

             Unfortunately, I know this torment firsthand, as does anyone who has had the misfortune to work for a living. In this dehumanized state produced by enforced mechanical labor, as Jack London observed in his “alcoholic memoir” John Barleycorn, the active or awakened mind suffers most acutely. In relating his time at a steam laundry, London deftly delineates “the misery of stagnancy and inaction” of the active mind in harness. From Chapter XXIV:

                               At the laundry, I was suffering physical exhaustion again...But
there was a difference. When I went coal-shoveling, my mind
had not yet awakened. Between that time and the laundry my
mind had found the kingdom of the mind. While shoveling coal,
my mind was somnolent. While toiling in the laundry, my mind,
informed and eager to do and be, was crucified. (1053)

Here London succinctly articulates the effects of toil on the awakened mind with lyrical precision and blunt force. As noted earlier in the steam-laundry chapter, London accessed “the kingdom of the mind” through his acquaintance with books, and this acquaintance triggered his “informed and eager” mind “to do and be.” But this awakening is short-lived, immediately thwarted by toil. As the passage indicates, under the conditions of mechanical labor, physical exhaustion is customary and expected. Far worse and unexpected, however, is the new torment the awakened mind experiences and endures. In fact, where the somnolent mind merely endures physical exhaustion as a result of enforced toil, the awakened mind, in addition to experiencing physical deprivation is, according to London, “crucified.” In this way, a new state of persecution and torment, previously unimagined and unknown, is introduced. Further, the vacillation between these two states—the elation of awakening and the torment of persecution—is embedded in the syntax where this awakening occurs, specifically the involution of the last line of text: “While toiling in the laundry, my mind, informed and eager to do and be, was crucified.”

Notice, too, the subjective and stylistic shift from “I” to “my mind” above. Here London writes of his mind as a distinct entity, the anthropomorphized object and vehicle for both his enlightenment and eventual torment. This anthropomorphic shift is crucial, precisely locating the intensity of the joy of the mind's awakening. In rhapsodizing his awakening in this way, London magnifies the intensity of joy experienced. Conversely, the intensity of the tragedy of his suffering is also located and amplified by this technique.

London’s anthropomorphized and crucified mind, then, is an apt metaphor for registering the intensity of this crisis experienced by the awakened mind forced to toil. Yet the metaphor implies an end. A crucifixion can’t last forever after all, eventually the degraded object, mercifully, expires. And that is where the metaphor falls short. In reality, the alienated worker is afforded no such luxury. What she knows, instead, is more, and increasingly bitter, toil.

A life of toil then lasts interminably and obscenely long, much longer than the verb “crucify” implies or allows. Thus, the extremity of emotional suffering conveyed by the verb is accurate, as is the degradation produced by such toil, but the articulation of the temporality of everyday suffering is off. Again, this condition—the pervasive alienation felt—is closer to prolonged vegetation—the byproduct of senses dulled and coarsened through years of mind-numbing, repetitious servitude. This, then, is the essence of enforced mechanical labor: it is a unique type of perpetual degradation, an unending crucifixion onto itself.

And that, too, is exactly London’s point. In describing the condition of the awakened mind in this barbarous way the image of that most famous crucifixion is, of course, evoked. In appropriating this imagery, London imbues the plight of all awakened minds caught in mechanical labor with the mythic status and weight of Christ’s end, and by extension this allusion situates and enfolds the plight of such workers into this shared, aggrandized suffering. And this is as it should be. For in the old ancient moral sense, whose mind was more awake, and as consequence, more persecuted than the Christ’s? And, as retribution for this corrupted grace, has a harsher punishment been met, or a higher price paid or exacted?

               After all, persecution of the strong by the weak is a timeless practice. And vanity orders and misshapes the world. Everyone implicitly understands this and is complicit in this knowledge. Yet, for reasons known and unknown, we cling to our imprisonment, and imagine ourselves safe, rather than buried, by our chains.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Irresistible Parallels: DSK, Diallo, and the IMF

by Anthony Schiappa

An entry written in August 2011, posted for the first time on OWG.

This week, prosecutors dropped the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the IMF and French Socialist Party member, who in May was accused of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a maid working in his hotel. With an irony usually reserved for satirists, District Attorney Cyrus Vance said, “Our job is to seek justice, not convictions at any cost.” While in many cases lack of evidence hardly prevents the prosecution from “seeking convictions at any cost,” this case would be a “classic he said-she said” scenario, thus difficult to prosecute. Others in the DA’s office insisted they were dropping the case due to lack of evidence, stopping short of saying they believed he is guilty.

DSK is rich and therefore likely to walk from any charges, and Diallo has what has been quaintly termed “credibility problems.” There is evidence that she lied on her application for political asylum, claiming she was gang-raped in her native Guinea. Her family in New York implied that she was a victim of sexual violence before immigrating but had exaggerated the circumstances—apparently she was only “regular” raped.

The prosecution, as well as few columnists, rushed to insist that the dropping of the case did not mean that women who have lied in the past have no recourse to the courts if they are raped. Perhaps they were compelled to reassure us in this way because many women do not, in fact, have recourse to a legal system that accepts the “once a lying bitch, always a lying bitch” defense. It's used all the time.

Furthermore cases like this further legitimize the entirely justified mistrust of the legal system held by many non-whites. The fraud should be obvious, from the lower criminal courts, where the state strong-arms money from poor people who have committed meaningless offenses, to the endless stories of black and Latino men essentially held in storage in the federal prisons—doubly  dehumanized, first as superfluous labor, then as commodities in the for-profit penal system.

In the meantime, for bravely stepping forward to face down her attacker, who happened to be one of the most powerful men in the world, Diallo will not only face perjury charges, but will also likely have her asylum application reviewed and may be deported.

It’s a predictable end to this battle and its irresistible parallels: a woman from Guinea, a country metaphorically raped by the IMF, came to the US in an attempt to improve her lot in life, only to be sexually assaulted by IMF’s managing director. She escaped the unbearable hell of everyday life endured by millions of forgotten people under the world’s economic arrangements, only to be personally, directly assaulted by one of the men who manage these arrangements.

No, she didn’t get justice. But was that ever really in the cards? She may win her civil trial, in which case DSK will have one of his accountants fetch her a shovelful of cash out of his giant stash —chump change for him, more money than any of us will ever see in our lifetime. And she’ll need it simply to stay in the country, in much the same way that countries beholden to the IMF must do anything just to stay in the global economic game.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Libertarianism and The Great American Scam

by Anthony Schiappa

For a long time, I took the Libertarian party line at face value. Though they seemed to have respectable views on social issues, they also seemed to be true believers in the myth of the free market. I couldn’t figure out why it never dawned on them that when the investment class—mainly banks and insurance companies—runs the economy into the ground, the government must resuscitate it with public funds, lest the country finally keel over for good. I was convinced that Libertarians just don’t realize that if they eliminated the stabilizing role of the state in this dynamic, the whole Ponzi scheme of the American economy would devour itself in no time. 

Chalk up my misunderstanding to some vestigial Lefty haughtiness; they know full well what they’re doing. The Libertarian program is a classic bait-and-switch.

Whatever its roots, the modern Libertarian party is in practice an attempt by a right-wing that has lost the “culture wars” to re-brand itself as a group of laid-back, gay-friendly ganja hounds in order to drain the youth vote from Democrats and to convert those who profess to be “thoroughly disgusted” with party politics—conservative-minded people too hip for the GOP’s morbid Calvinist positions on social issues. After poaching enough of these people by leaning left socially, they can push even harder right on economics, dismantling what few barriers remain preventing Wall Street from gobbling up absolutely everything.

And that’s it. Like any group of elites, all they really want is more for themselves and less for everybody else. The song-and-dance about liberty and freedom only provides ideological cover for a ramped-up program of legalized theft. They will get right to work on the agenda that the far right has been pushing for years: dismantling Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, keeping that cash for themselves, and then slapping a price tag on every aspect of social life. Those galvanizing moral and social issues will be left to the states, where they can be quietly ignored.

But this kind of scam—hawking “freedom” to convince people to willingly participate in their own exploitation—is hardly new. It is, in fact, quintessentially American. Just take a close look at those heroes always evoked by Libertarians, the Founding Fathers. 

And make no mistake, those stodgy old WASPs do indeed represent perfectly the Libertarian philosophy, the real one.

The Founders were for the most part an elite class of businessmen born or married into the colonial aristocracy, who expanded their fortunes and thus their political power by the sweat of their slaves’ brows. In a scheme to get out of paying their taxes to the Crown, they convinced the landless peasants to fight their war for them by feeding them a line of shit about the struggle for liberty against tyranny, co-opting the revolutionary propaganda of proto-socialist radical Thomas Paine. They then created on the one hand an American ideology in which people were convinced it was their duty as citizens to participate in civic life, and on the other, a political system into which they placed as many barriers as possible to truly democratic governance, thereby consolidating and protecting their class power. 

It's ingenious in its own way. And like saps, we fell for it. Hard.

Thus the fantasy of Libertarianism is part and parcel of the American fantasy. Over 200 years later, most of us are still true believers in an American Dream that was never meant to be taken literally, but forever chased like a rabbit at the economic dog track. We were never intended to have equal opportunity this Grand Republic; it has always been by and for the owners. The inspiring moments in American history have been those attempts to force this country make good on its false promises, and the price for those meager concessions has always been paid in blood. 

The Libertarian project is but another attempt to roll back those hard-won privileges, preparing us for a more complete takeover.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Unremarkable Massacre

by Anthony Schiappa

What else can be said about the attack on Boston? For all its carnage, it just confirmed what we already knew.

It reminded us that real legacy of the Bush years is very much alive, namely that the distinction between war and peace has disintegrated and will eventually become meaningless. For over eleven years now we’ve been fighting a war with no clearly defined enemies or objectives or battlefields. In many cases there are no obvious weapons—instead, we now have pressure cookers, ball bearings, and airliners. War is always happening and it is everywhere, a fact we are continuously absorbing into our everyday lives. And we’ll keep on getting used to it. Eventually it will become mundane. 

Within twenty years, Boston-like massacres followed by a martial lockdown will become little more than a nuisance, slightly more inconvenient than a traffic jam. 

Of course, this kind of violence has been a fact of life for millions of people for decades on end; the only thing new is that this violence is now happening in America. The history of the global role of the United States in the postwar years is well-known and no longer controversial. Even the most reactionary right-wingers accept these bland truths. The Long War, to borrow Rumsfeld’s ingenious phrase, has been raging on the periphery for years. On 9/11 it came home, becoming visible on our turf. Nothing more, nothing less.   

And it’s here to stay.

Without a strong, organized, and truly unapologetic Left, there is no reason to expect things to ever be different. What we have instead is more pleading from liberals for tolerance of Muslims and immigrants, and reminders of continuing horrors abroad. Many find it impossible to critique such a sentiment that on its face seems like a well-meaning message of understanding, but we must do so, because ultimately these sentiments miss the point. They reveal a tacit acceptance of an intolerable situation—namely the infinite violence engendered by the exercise and expansion of power through the marketplace—simply wishing to manage this repugnant, unholy state of affairs in a more human, multicultural way. We’re not exhorted to resist but admonished into superficial empathy.

It is easy enough to discern the familiar motivation behind the liberal reminders of the world’s ongoing horrors. It seems to come not from a genuine solidarity with the victims but from a desire to shame our fellow Big Dumb Americans for their narcissistic compassion. It’s a group surely worthy of scorn, but I have my doubts that anyone really cares about the Syrians, the Afghans, the Iraqis, or any of the other groups routinely blown to bloody smithereens, either by us or our donated weapons, but plenty of people are happy to use those same victims to embarrass Uncle Sam, the fat, ignorant maroon that he is, and the Diet Coke-guzzling, church-going, gun-fanatic proles that love him. This is not radical emancipatory politics, it is snobbery. The rancid class-prejudice Orwell identified way back in the 1930s still permeates the coddled and comfortable Left, a whole generation that has never had to put anything on the line for its alleged ideals.

This is why I harp so much on Left. It’s not around when we need it the most.

So it continues: a fearful and vain population more completely subsumed into the world of postmodern, everyday warfare of the “network,” endless power games waged across our bodies in ball bearings and shrapnel, on and on, until there's no more money to burn.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Uncle Cracker's Ethical Fantasy

by Mike Ferraro

       As is customary in our age of disposable trash culture and celebrity expert opinions, people fell all over themselves to laud Cracker-man David Lowery’s response to some NPR intern regarding the alleged ethics of file-sharing and the cost of “free culture,” whatever the fuck that is. Myself, I couldn’t get through the thing. Lowery commits the only unpardonable sin for a writer: boring the reader. I did, however, skim enough of it to get the gist of his position. After all, as he is quick to point out, he is an Important Artist, a producer of vital cultural artifacts, so his words matter deeply. As a self-proclaimed progenitor of “first-generation Indie Rock,” they must. Or so he desperately wants us to believe.
          How exactly Lowery figures this distinction I leave up to the reader’s imagination. I mean, by the time Cracker rolled-up “indie rock” was in its third or fourth iteration, at least. This would be akin to Mark Hoppus anointing Blink-182 the godfathers of punk. More importantly, the fact remains that when Cracker’s one-hit pop triumph landed, all meaning beyond anything but the vaguely stylistic had been evacuated from the term “Indie Rock.” Whatever vestiges of useful classification or description the designation once held or implied—principally, signaling a state of “independence,” as in an act not signed to a major label—were long gone.
            “It’s so overblown,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sang about Seattle on the Singles soundtrack. That was in 1992, at the height of the “grunge” explosion, which would, temporarily at least, catapult underground indie losers into the strata of bona fide music stars, foisting yet another dose of rabid youth culture onto the hapless masses. Yet the seismic cultural shift grunge purportedly heralded was just another shuck and jive, little more than the next spin of the hamster wheel of popular culture. That these fantasies of hipster rebellion promulgated and sold were of the predominantly white, middle-class variety is of course axiomatic. These kids, like their vapid counterculture parents before them, marshaled their disaffection as if it meant something profound, signifying something other than their own vanity and endless privilege. This faux rebellion is their cultural legacy, wasted and misspent for all time—and doomed to untold generations of continued impotence. The Occupiers of today are their direct descendants.
            Goddamn. Had nothing changed since white negro hedonism appeared all those decades ago?    
            Before you sniveling indie purists throw a fit, let me add that I know all about Lowery’s tenure in Camper Van Beethoven. That storied history is precisely the problem. Much as the desire for an impossible synthesis between creative integrity and commerce plagues his overarching argument, a similar ideological clash emerges here in Lowery’s vaunted self-appraisal. Similar because, at bottom, they are one and the same, and stem from an overwrought sense of entitlement and self-aggrandizement. Let’s be clear: Lowery wants it both ways, seeking to preserve his indie-cred while simultaneously maintaining mainstream success and visibility. But these things do not sit well together. In fact, in most respects, especially economically—the central concern of Lowery’s article—they are diametrically opposed. His real grievance then is—what else?—money, specifically his stanched revenue-stream. Lowery sees significant encroachments on his financial gains and “intellectual property,” with greater losses imminent, and he’s pissed. His cultural grandstanding is a put-on and beside the point—a smokescreen for this primary objection. Worse, this playing of both ends reinforces his preposterous self-mythology, namely: David Lowery, indie-folk hero. If you’re buying into this iconographying bullshit you’re an even bigger sucker than I thought.
            Whatever the case, such shameless self-serving dreck is emblematic of Lowery's rhetoric and approach here, the principal effect of which is incessant hectoring. This is how adults behave, he admonishes throughout.
            But forget his pomposity and ridiculously inflated sense of himself, the basics of Lowery’s argument are what matter and they make no sense. His biggest mistake in this regard is that he frames the “problem” of file-sharing as an ethical one. It isn’t. But let’s pretend for a minute that it is. Let’s pretend that if we wise-up and follow his prescriptions we will abolish all forms of file-sharing, thereby righting the grievous “social injustice” at the heart of the artists’ rights matter. Who knows, a more just and democratic world might be just around the corner. We could wake-up one morning and find ourselves free of other social blight as well, world hunger ended, the environment saved. Listening to Lowery, the emancipatory potential unleashed through judiciously exercised individual ethical responsibility is seemingly limitless. As long as that responsibility finds expression and investment in the modes of pre-digital production and exchange, we’re all good.
            What world is he living in? You’re never going to eradicate piracy, neither on nor off the net. How, under our current economic arrangement, could you? The ethical argument Lowery posits runs counter to the very basics of capitalist relations, which, for the brain-dead among us, are so successful precisely because they exploit the very worst in people. Further, Lowery’s position presupposes that the regular functioning of the system, specifically the means of production and operating channels where everyday transactions occur, is principled, fair in both design and practice. They are not, nor were they intended to be. Centuries of abject exploitation instantly confirm this. Just look outside your window if you’re not sure.
            Yet, to bolster these bad assumptions—and his superhuman ego—Lowery provides a staggeringly facile and myopic overview of the last couple hundred years of cultural production. Listen to this shit:
                        The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets
                        to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for
                        hundreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has
                        the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time...
                        By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the
                        artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has
                        worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to
                        undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to
                        compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible
                        for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their
                        permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to
                        continue to let these companies violate the law without being
                        punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality
                        and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical
                        business models.
Is this guy for real? There’s so much wrong here, so much taken for granted, it’s hard to know where to begin. Most egregious, however, is his absolute faith in the system’s operations, manifest in the glib assertion that “the system has worked very well for artists and fans.”
            As apologists for the reigning order must, Lowery’s got the fundamentals between the relationship of morality and commercial exchange ass-backwards. The bankrupt principles that constitute bourgeois-morality are the cause of the current predicament, not the other way around. The “immoral and unethical business models” he condemns are merely an extension of this reality, the latest wrinkle in the ongoing global capitalist nightmare, of which music industry decline is merely one facet.
            Which brings us to the main event: When has the music biz, or any business for that matter, been ethically, rather than profit, driven?
            It’s no shock that the music business is a particularly ruthless industry that eats its young. In fact, like the Hollywood-mindset it is an outgrowth of, its business model is by necessity predicated upon this predatory habit and exchange. But this state of affairs simply mirrors and magnifies the intrinsic macro-dynamics of capital where the illusion of merit-based rewards maintains the everyday reality of exploitation. The major difference now is the extremity of the carnage, exacerbated, in the case of the music industry, by the advent of digital media.
            The omission of all this makes Lowery’s veneration of the pre-digital age all the more perplexing. Yet the truly extraordinary thing about Lowery’s assessment of music industry decline is that such rudimentary connections to global developments, and a critique of political economy in general, are conspicuously absent from his appraisal—a truly astounding fact for an economics lecturer. Instead, he readily assumes the mantle of elder statesman of rock, alternating his barbs between playful crotchetiness and outright hostility disguised as self-deprecation. It’s all an act, a sideshow. No amount of false modesty or sanctimony can conceal his supreme contempt for and condescension towards the odious file-sharers among us.
            While beyond hackneyed, the crotchety old guy routine he adopts is apt, the perfect trope to express the particularity of his position, that of beleaguered small-time capitalist, which, artistic trappings aside, he unequivocally is. In fact, there is no screen there; he is that neighborhood grump keeping eternal vigil against them no good kids, protecting his hard-earned property from the vandals. 
            Unsurprisingly, Lowery’s position of relative privilege and prosperity blinds him to the realities of the situation, particularly the plight of those lacking his good fortune. When he extols the virtues of the “old” system, you wonder what the hell he’s going on about, exactly who are these beneficiaries? He means, of course, those like himself, members of that infinitesimal percentage of artists who make it commercially, the big winners of the music sweepstakes. But here’s the thing: the music industry always relied on a stupid business model, unsustainable and grossly mismanaged by intention and design. It’s only stupider now. The advent of digital media hasn’t changed its essential character, it’s only accelerated its cycles of obsolescence, elevating its superhuman tastelessness to ever more ponderous heights. In fact, with a renewed emphasis on hit singles over albums proper, the industry’s come full-circle in at least one significant way. It’s the same old story in any event. The relentless search for the next big thing to run a profit on, only to discard for the subsequent abomination, animates “industry trends.” So let’s not forget how this model actually functions: Then, as now, a few megastars subsidize the entire industry while everyone, in their infinite fear and folly, scrambles to find the next hot property or bankable clones of the current hash. The focus has always been on the superficial and disposable—the main difference is that the overall quality of these phenomena has dipped to its current abysmal level.
            But that’s the youth culture business. No use lamenting its loss or dissolution since it was dead on arrival. Same holds for the rest of the insipid dream-manufacturing enterprises our mangy popular culture grovels before. All of which exist, first and foremost, to support themselves in their primary pursuit: the endless accumulation of wealth, culture be damned.
            The real ethical dilemma in all this is the same one it’s always been, and concerns the material conditions and attendant ideology of capitalist relations—specifically the generally uncontested hegemony of the ruling order. At bottom, then, the problem of file-sharing and its ethical dimension hinges upon a critique of political economy. It is what this argument, and every one regarding “free culture,” is fundamentally about, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Typically, as it is here, this crucial component is the missing piece to most popular critiques of the subject.
            Like it or not, the stakes are much higher than any one group’s diminishing rights and financial returns. The setbacks for musicians represent the new reality for subjects under digital capital, a reality that will worsen as the global financial crisis intensifies. A return to the halcyon days of music industry returns is surely a fantasy. The crucial thing to remember here is that this shift does not occur in isolation, but rather reflects a global trend regarding the degradation of intellectual workers. Thus, the decline of the music industry is simply one result of the disastrous consequences of digital capitalism.
            This returns us to the “undoing” of the old model that Lowery characterized above. Again, he’s got it all assed-up. Not some aberration that blindsided and upended the smooth and equitable functioning of hundreds of years of cultural production, this critical rupture was instead precisely the recalibration required to sustain the endless circulation and self-reproduction that is capitalism’s goal. The breakdown of the old model of commercial exchange that Lowery laments, is not, as he would have us believe, some secondary, correctable development—the nefarious work of greedy individual corporate-entities—but rather represents the principal and essential shift of the digital capital revolution. In fact, to the extent that it was a revolution at all, this transformation of the distribution and commercial system is the revolutionary aspect of digital capitalism, its worldwide explosion marking the next step in the inexorable march of capitalist accumulation. What Lowery does in this moment amounts to the basest subterfuge since, while acknowledging the global scale of the problem, he conveniently fails to locate its relation to global socioeconomic developments.
            This is of course no accident, but rather a calculated elision, of which the motivating self-interest is already apparent, as is the fallacious logic that his position implicitly demands. Again, such manipulations demonstrate how Lowery’s sense of entitlement matches that of the petite-bourgeois. The “problem” of file-sharing, much like the insufferable middle-class mindset that spawned it, is a luxury we can no longer afford if our objective is to re-imagine social relations in a truly radical way. In fact, the bulwark of middle-class entitlements needs to go if we’re to seriously contemplate new ethical relations of exchange and a social order based on radical emancipatory politics in a real sense that exceeds the lip-service Leftists pay to the idea.
            But Lowery’s not talking about a radical transformation of any kind. Far from it. To make such demands would require us to reorder all our priorities and commitments. And lord knows we don’t want to do that. That would require a tremendous act of will we simply do not possess. I mean, is an economics instructor, a preeminent representative of reified bourgeois society, prepared to do that? Fuck no. As long as Uncle Cracker’s fat royalty checks keep floating in, he’s happy. Screw the suffering of the truly exploited underclass. If only they were more talented, then maybe they, too, could rise above the peril of their predicament.
            Right. Lurid and pandering as they are, the dead rocker anecdotes Lowery provides make the point well enough, underscoring, as if additional reminders were needed, the harsh reality of life in the arts. Most artists do not see much money, nor gain sizable recognition, from their life’s work, and they do it full well, and in spite of this fact—if they are artists. If it’s material riches you seek, don’t bother. There are far easier ways to make a buck, and woe is the individual who embarks on a creative life under any delusions of grandeur, financial or otherwise. In fact, by the fucked-up standards of the popular imagination, these woeful examples, contrary to Lowery’s romanticized depiction, are success stories of a certain type. After all, people know who they are—they are written about and listened to. Further, they received recognition and found audiences for their efforts during their lifetime. That’s artistic achievement of a not inconsequential kind.
            Under our current economic system no one is entitled a livelihood, least of all the artist. It is the relations of capital themselves that need abolishment if things are to improve for everyone, not just our artists. Rather than use these music biz casualties to highlight the universal hideousness of poverty, we get more tear-jerking moralizing regarding the erosion of artists’ rights and the alleged singularity of the individual travesty at hand, with Lowery indulging the exact behaviors—shaming and finger-pointing—he denies are his motivation and intention.
            If he sounds like a relic that’s because he is. Simply put, the struggle for artists’ rights in the digital age is a struggle for mass rights of the permanent excluded underclass, same as it’s always been. And it is with this exploding population that our sympathies must lie. In fact, through the mobilization of this group, and nowhere else, does the latent potential for a more just world reside. If the plight of musicians is not seen for what it is, and does not work to mobilize these forces, it is a dead issue and serves no purpose. Further, if it continues along the lines it has—as a cause of identity politics, fragmenting the solidarity of class-struggle and leaving the essential power-structure of the capitalist edifice intact—it deserves abandonment.
            The point here is that under our current economic arrangement none of this will change. The very notion of ownership and property rights is the problem, the biggest delusion and barrier to personal emancipation. We are slaves to this delusion, and the bondage of its attendant ideology shapes the economy of everyday life. To avoid this fact is to only further avoid the obvious fundamental realities that order our world, and to further entrench the stranglehold of this diabolical and life-denying system.
            It is an ideological war, first and foremost. Always has been, always will be—and you can’t afford to cede an inch. After all, as the ongoing global catastrophe exemplifies, everyday reality is nothing but theory put into practice, and enshrined through the centuries. Everything follows from our thinking. That is, in a very fundamental way, what and how we see shapes the world. Not in theory only but for real. To think otherwise is pure folly. But people don’t want to see the world clearly—they want American Idol and hope to hit the lotto. On the latter score I can’t blame them—fools’ game that it be.
            Eventually we must admit: it is precisely these things, the things we don’t face, that constrict and paralyze us. The thing we lack, the thing that we are most closed off from is our irreducible nature; the pervasive alienation we all feel is a direct result of the means of capitalist production and exchange. The truth and clarity of this realization terrifies us, just as the denial of its power destroys. The objective then, same as ever, is to see clearly what is in front of your nose. In the struggle of excluded subjects, the only question that matters is "what next?" All the rest is child’s play.