Monday, April 3, 2017

Depths of alienation (2003)

Book Review from the April 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Culture of Make-Believe. Derrick Jensen, New York, Context Books, 2002
The Future of Success. Robert B. Reich, New York, Knopf, 2001

The stream of books coming out of America on the Holy Global Empire of capitalism continues unabated. The tale is of two classes: arrogant winners and collateral losers, private wealth and public poverty, triumphalist insecurity for the elite and traumatic insecurity for the mass. The system is enthusiastically praised, superficially criticised, but never seriously opposed. There Is No Alternative - or, if you prefer the sporting metaphor, capitalism is the only game in town.

With Derrick Jensen's 700-page blockbuster you get more or less what it says in the blurb: “the atrocities that characterise so much of our culture - from . . .  modern slavery and corporate misdeeds to manufacturing disasters, death squads in developing nations and the destruction of the natural world”. The text is discursive, even gabby. There is no index, which suggests that the author wants you to read it as a novel for entertainment, not a polemic for study.

To give Jensen his due, he's good on slavery:
“. . . the power relationship between slaveholders and slaves can be broken into three components. The first is social, and involves the use or threat of violence by the slaveholder to control the slave. The second is psychological, and has to do with convincing the slaves to perceive their slavery as actually being in their own best interests. The third is cultural, and has to do with transforming force into a right of the powerful and obedience into a duty of the powerless. . .”
He can't bring himself to explicitly oppose wage slavery and the capitalist system of which it is an integral part. Instead he seeks to shock us with the revelation that his solution is to get rid of civilisation. On the last page we get a sanitised biblical story: the appropriately-named Ham, rather than being condemned to perpetual enslavement, feels a happy, fecund sense of freedom.

As an economist, Robert Reich is more upfront about capitalism, which he takes for better and for worse. The good news is for consumers, who can "shift allegiance with the click of a mouse" because they live in "the age of the terrific deal". But the bad news is about quality of non-consuming life: more frenzy, less security, loss of time and energy for friendship, community and self.

Reading through Reich's prose, with its chapter heads like “Of geeks and shrinks” and “The sale of the self”, gives the impression that the author is writing about and for people very much like himself. Of the 6 billion people in the world only perhaps a billion or so have regular employment, and by no means all of those worry about their CV and how they present themselves at interview. Yet Reich asserts that:
“In the new economy, you get ahead not by being well liked but being well marketed… Talented people are even selling shares in themselves… Once, the worst thing that could be said of someone was that he had sold out. Now the worst thing that can be said is that he's not selling”.
By this reckoning, capitalism has plunged depths of alienation that Marx could only have had nightmares about.
Stan Parker

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