By Bosoletti in Bergamo, Italy.
The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.
The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.
The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”
But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)
So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?
The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.
While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.
For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.
Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.
How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.
In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?
So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?
Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.
The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.
Fracking. Could there be a more perfect model for how we’re getting rinsed by this current conspiracy of government and commerce? In a world turned upside down, “conservative” now means the absolute opposite of “leaving things as they are”. Conservative means changing everything. It means dismantling things and selling off the bits. It means drilling into our lives and extracting the marrow.
Conservatism and conservation are now about as far apart as it’s possible to get. Friends of Conservation are the ones protecting the countryside. The ones who stand around self-consciously in terrible fancy dress, holding passive-aggressive placards in praise of the noble, selfless badger. Or basically any mammal that looks good in a waistcoat.
Friends of Conservatism, on the other hand, are the ones who roll up on heavy machinery like a pissed Ukrainian militia. The ones who drill deep beneath that area of local countryside whose only “use” so far has been as a picnic site. And who then pump into the ground powerful jets of high-pressure hydrogunk, splintering rock as easily as a walnut. And who, having sucked up a sky’s worth of valuable gas through a massive crack pipe, then pack up and lumber off to fracture and steal someone else’s underground treasure.
Welcome to capitalism’s late late show. If you can power-hose the last drop of value out of something, you now have an amoral imperative to do it. Fracking is the chief inspiration for today’s entrepreneurs, those “heroic wealth creators” so admired by Andy Pandery Burnham and half the Labour party. Everything is up for grabs now. The age of the racketeer is over. It’s all about fracketeering now.
Here is a recent example. A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression fee”. Yeah, ha ha, the cheeky peaky blinders are leeching an extra grand and a half out of buyers just for accepting their offer on a property. Imagine that. Charging people for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.
It’s almost as if the property industry is a pirate economy serviced by unscrupulous thieving bastards drenched in melancholy duty-free fragrances. Let’s face it, estate agents have pretty much perfected the art of taking the piss with a straight face. One former estate agent told me the other day he was always instructed to make admin fees “whatever you think you can get away with … go high, then drop as a favour”. Classic surcharge frackery.
I had decided that of all the agents – sports, double, biological – estate agents were definitely the worst. Then I asked people on Twitter how they had been fracked over lately and they reminded me about letting agents. And about how every single person I’ve ever known who has had any dealings with a letting agent has had to recalibrate their view of the human race as a result. Has anyone ever got their exorbitant deposit back in full without an exhausting argument pointing out that three years of normal wear and tear can’t be classed as catastrophic damage? I’ve been hearing about people being charged a £90-per-person “reference fee” when moving between two properties run by the same agent, “so that’s £180 to ask themselves how we were as tenants”. Or being charged £50 for printing six pages of a rental contract. “I asked them to email it so I could print it. They said no.”
The world of fracketeering is infinitely flexible and contradictory. Buy tickets online and you could be charged an admin fee for an attachment that requires you to print them at home. The original online booking fee – you’ve come this far in the buying process, hand over an extra 12 quid now or write off the previous 20 minutes of your life – has mutated into exotic versions of itself.
The confirmation fee. The convenience fee. Someone who bought tickets for a tennis event at the O2 sent me this pithy tweet: “4 tickets. 4 Facility Fees + 4 Service Charge + 1 Standard Mail £2.75 = 15% of overall £!”. Definitely a grand slam.
It’s amazing to think of a world that existed before the admin charge. It almost makes you nostalgic for a simpler and more innocent time, when racketeers would work out what it was we wanted and then supply it at an inflated price. You remember racketeers. Snappy dressers, little moustaches, connections to organised crime. Some of them did very well and went on to become successful publishers or peers of the realm. Quite a few old-school racketeers went into the “hospitality and leisure” business, where these days fracking is in full effect.
Restaurants charging “cakeage” fees of up to £9 a person if diners want to bring their own birthday cake. A “blockbuster” surcharge on cinema tickets for popular films. The “tray charge” on a room service dinner that already costs as much as the room. And a particular favourite of mine – any hotel that charges for internet access, as if WiFi were some fancy extra like a massage chair, or clown therapy. “Congratulations, you may now surf the world wide web,” says the drop-down box from 1996. It might as well add: “We would ask that you keep your visit to the internet as brief as possible as reception may require the telephone line for incoming calls.”
The problem for fracking capitalism is finding new territory. It is an immutable law of economics that the rich have to keep getting richer, otherwise the whole system collapses and then what happens? Nobody knows, but the rich drop hints from time to time that if their margins are eroded we might all find ourselves in some Riddley Walker dystopia where humans have to hunt food again and keep wild dogs at bay and it’s raining all the time and people tell wistful stories about the old days when there were ships in the sky and pictures on the wind, so to stop this happening keep making us richer.
But once you’ve mined the earth and milked the service industries, what is there left to frack? Us, that’s what. Heard of Kwasi Kwarteng? He’s a rising star in the Tory party. Always a danger signal, this. To qualify as a rising star in this context you have to make Judge Dredd look like the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Kwarteng’s suggestion, which has gone down very well with literally everyone I hate, is that a young person who hasn’t got a job and therefore hasn’t paid any national insurance contributions should get their unemployment benefit in the form of a repayable loan. Even if someone was out of work for the entire seven years between 18 and 25, he says, “the total sum repayable would be £20,475 – considerably less than the tuition fees loan repayable by many of his or her peers”. The clincher, there. You might be unemployed, but think yourself lucky you’re not going to university.
Redefining citizens as frackable units is precisely where all this current terrifying unpleasantness with the NHS is leading. Once you apply the laws of fracketeering to the NHS it’s a short step from monetising cataract operations to privatising them. Procedures that are highly profitable for shareholders, however, may be out of reach for the poor. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement. You owe us for restoring your eyesight, but you can’t seriously expect to seeand get a full state pension …
Nearly everyone had an NHS dentist once. God, it’s been years since you were in with a shout for one. What did they look like, can anyone remember? I’ve got this image of a Victorian gentleman, top hat and cape.
Nowadays the poor just put up with bad teeth. It’s the same with physio. GPs round my way now simply advise you to book privately to avoid a months-long waiting list, but even a short course of sessions costs over a ton. It might as well be a grand if you’re on a tight family budget.
I’ve been getting free prescriptions for years. Of course I’m incredibly grateful. The meds are keeping me going. Indeed, they’ve kept me going for longer than was originally anticipated. I’ve paid in all my life; now I’m being looked after. It was always taken for granted, this arrangement. NHS. Free for all, paid for by everyone, from each according to their means to each according to their needs, let’s have a knees-up, God bless us all, boom bang-a-wap diddly bosh.
But I can’t be the only one on regular meds thinking, “how much would they cost me without an NHS?” and Googling the market price.
I don’t want to sound overdramatic but fracketeers are faceless evil wizards and algorithms are their flying monkeys, dispatched from the anonymous castles of corporate service providers. You can’t tell me the people frackers aren’t looking at the meds people are on, too. And wondering how quickly the UK can be shunted into an American reality, where “unpaid medical bills” is now the number one cause of bankruptcy.
We are already living in a capitalist sci-fi horror story, where masters of the universe are trading stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. Future grain harvests in Canada, milk yields in Wisconsin, next year’s batch of Japanese whisky. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a wide variety of “weather derivatives” available for trade if you’re interested including “temperature ranges, snowfall amounts and frost”. If fracketeers can think it, they can monetise it. There are no moral boundaries. The only limit to fracketeering is imagination.
For all I know, there’s a cabal of trillionaires sitting in a Jacobean library somewhere discussing how they might trade futures in trading futures. Or trying to fix the odds on farmed stem cells, or fat-burning nebulisers. Whatever’s round the corner, though, you can be sure humanity will be the harvest. People are the basic material of an economic world. Of course the frackers will drill into us.
Aspects of our physical existence will be divided as spoils. One day there will be a giant respiratory multinational that will own all new lungs. Babies will be born with their pulmonary systems on a lifetime leasehold. When they grow up they’ll face severe penalties for breathing polluted air. The manufacturers of cigarettes and vaping devices aren’t going to like that much, so maybe it’s Big Tobacco that sees where the future’s going and cleverly snaps up all the lungs in advance.
Sex, sunshine, sleep, singing. The best things in life are currently free. We’d better make the most of them, because in a frackable future they’ll all be metered and chargeable. Libido International or whoever would be alerted to any sexual activity via, I don’t know, some sort of monitored hormonal “thinkernet” and would shut it down after 60 seconds unless you authorised a debit or had a prepaid sex account.
Maybe people will be fitted with retinal paywalls to allow in sunshine, which will be owned by a solar consortium based somewhere tax-efficient and warm. Sleep would be traded on the international sleep exchange – imagine the premium new parents would pay for an hour of ultra-deep oblivion. And all human singing would be automatically Shazammed to a central licensing bureau for billing, the days of “out of copyright” having long gone. Everything out of copyright will be automatically the copyright of Singinc, who own “trad” and “anon” now, too. And your vocal cords.
In the future it will probably be best to stay celibate, in the dark, awake for as long as possible and quiet. So let’s live a little now, before we’re all fracked.
The campaign to remove Confederate flags and other symbols of slavery from public places, following the murder of nine African Americans by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina two weeks ago, has accelerated.
Since South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, called June 22 for the removal of the “stars and bars” from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, state politicians and members of Congress of both parties from across the South have followed with demands that flags and other emblems of the Confederacy be taken down. This push has expanded to include statues of Civil War figures such as Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee. Democrats and Republicans in a number of states have called for a ban on Confederate emblems on specialty license plates.
This sudden rush to take down symbols of racism and slavery that the American political establishment has kept in place for decades is a defensive response to an outpouring of public horror over the Charleston killings and popular hostility to racism. This powerful reaction has taken the political establishment and both parties by surprise, forcing them to reckon with vast changes in popular consciousness of a broadly democratic character, particularly in the South.
They fear this development, particularly as it follows protests across the country against police killings and other signs of social discontent. By removing symbols of slavery and racism, they are seeking to preempt the development of a broader, deeper and more politically conscious movement of the working class.
US Representative Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina, gave an indication of the outpouring of public anger against symbols of the Confederacy, saying last week that legislators’ phones, including his, “had just been blowing up” from constituents demanding that the flag be taken down. “I’ve never seen South Carolina politics move this quickly,” he said.
A Rasmussen poll published June 24 reported that only 21 percent of likely US voters want the Confederate flag to keep flying at the South Carolina capitol, compared with 60 percent who want to see it removed.
These are indications of a vast change in popular consciousness in the United States, in contradiction to the insistence of “left” and liberal purveyors of racial and identity politics that there has been no significant change since the heyday of Jim Crow segregation and that American society is steeped in racism. The South, in particular, has undergone huge demographic changes, with an influx of Asians and other nationalities, a shift from the countryside to the city, and a development of industry and growth of the working class.
The reaction to the Charleston church killings is very different than the popular response in the South to atrocities carried out by segregationist forces half a century ago. When Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, killing four black girls—the fourth such incident in that city in less than a month—nobody was prosecuted and there was little open opposition within the white population.
There was a similar response in the South to the 1964 Klan murder in Mississippi of three civil rights workers: Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
But despite the rightward lurch of the entire political establishment over the past 40-plus years and its efforts to pollute public consciousness with all forms of social backwardness, xenophobia and militarism, the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s had a lasting impact and racial attitudes in the general population have changed dramatically.
The public response to the Charleston shootings increased the sense within the political establishment of the immense chasm that separates it from the broad mass of the people, and its own isolation. The removal of symbols of slavery and racism is a tactical measure aimed at broadening its support within the population.
At the same time, it is accompanied by renewed efforts to remove the issue of racism from its real social, political and historical context, in order to obscure the fundamental class divisions in society and present racism as something pervasive, ineradicable and deeply embedded in the American psyche.
In his eulogy for slain pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, President Obama continued to spearhead this ideological campaign. Having the previous week called racism part of the DNA of Americans, in Charleston on Friday he spoke of it as America’s “original sin.”
He hailed the removal of the Confederate flag as “one step in an honest accounting of America’s history.” Such an accounting is urgently needed and would be most welcome, but if it were serious, it would produce results very different from what Obama wants.
It might start with an explanation of why the political establishment kept noxious symbols of slavery and racism in place for so many decades. The public display of the Confederate flag is not a relic of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. It was first hoisted above South Carolina’s Capitol in 1962 by Governor Ernest Hollings, a Democrat who later became a US senator, as a demonstration of defiance of Supreme Court rulings against Jim Crow segregation. In Alabama, the display of Confederate flags outside the Capitol in Montgomery dates back to the 1990s.
The political establishment kept the flag flying in the South for definite political reasons. Racism has always been an ideological tool of the ruling class. Under slavery, it was used to justify a socioeconomic system that brutally exploited people of African descent. Later, with the rise of industrial capitalism and the transformation of the United States into an imperialist power, it was used as a weapon to divide the working class and impede the development of socialist consciousness.
The historical and documentary evidence is voluminous and indisputable, and it would take several volumes to outline the history of racism in relation to the struggles of the American working class.
It can be established, however, that the use of racism as a political weapon to defend capitalism against the threat of working-class rebellion goes back to the first mass upsurge of the American working class, the great railway strike of 1877. A study of the strike in the city where it first broke out before spreading across the country, St. Louis, includes the following passage:
At an early strike meeting an eloquent address by a Black speaker asked whether whites were ready to support demands made by Black workers and received a resounding “We will!” in reply. One of the five early Executive Committee members was Black… Integrated crowds were the rule in St. Louis. Just after the strike, a WPUSA (Workingmen’s Party of the United States of America) leader advocated unity of the races behind labor demands and shortly thereafter S. Louis had one of the few Black sections of the Socialist Labor Party in the United States. (“’Not Only the Ruling Classes to Overcome, but Also the So-Called Mob’: Class, Skill and Community in the St. Louis General Strike of 1877,” David Roediger, Journal of Social History, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter, 1985).
The response of the authorities was to dispatch black troops to attack the strikers.
Henry Ford employed the same tactics in an unsuccessful attempt to break the 1941 United Auto Workers strike for union recognition at his massive Rouge complex in Detroit. Ford imported African-American workers from the South to serve as strikebreakers. Socialist militants within the union had, however, championed the rights of black auto workers and insisted on the need to unite across racial and ethnic lines against the common enemy. This was a major factor in the victory of the strike.
The anticommunist purges and witch-hunts of the post-World War II years were bound up with the defense of Jim Crow segregation in the South and racial discrimination in the North. The government at the national, state and local level identified opposition to segregation with communism, and repeatedly attacked activists in the South who advocated integration as communists and agents of the Soviet Union.
This form of political repression, in its own way, reveals the function of racism as a political weapon of the ruling class against the unification of the working class and its conscious struggle for socialism.
Particularly after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education) outlawing racially segregated public schools, the anticommunist witch-hunt was expanded in the South, focusing on socialists and leftists who opposed Jim Crow. Show hearings and trials were carried out by Democratic Party officials who controlled the South, with the tacit support of the Republican Eisenhower administration.
According to a 1996 study by Sarah Hart Brown published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly (“Congressional Anti-Communism and the Segregationist South: From New Orleans to Atlanta, 1954-1958,” Vo. 80, No. 4, Winter 1996):
After the Brown decision in 1954, the search for southern subversives intensified. Because the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) had advocated civil rights for black southerners at least since it led the fight for the Scottsboro defendants in the early 1930s, and since many Communists had supported the presidential candidacy of Progressive candidate Henry Wallace, who refused to speak before segregated southern audiences in 1948, identification of integrationists with the Communist Party made sense to many southerners. In addition, most southern politicians found it logical, convincing, and profitable to combine red-baiting with race-baiting…
State and federal grand juries reinstated investigations connecting local Communists to integrationism in Miami and New Orleans just after theBrown decision. In addition, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Virginia, Georgia and Arkansas all established or strengthened anti-radical laws and investigatory committees of the legislatures between 1954 and 1958.
The article notes that the US Senate Internal Security Subcommittee held three hearings in the South and the US House Un-American Activities Committee held four between 1954 and 1958. It quotes a leading member of the Louisiana legislature as saying: “Communism and integration are inseparable and…integration is the southern expression of the communist movement.”
Racism and anticommunism were used to defeat unionizing drives after World War II and keep most of the South relatively union-free. The CIO and then the AFL-CIO played a critical role, subordinating the working class to the same Democratic Party that controlled the South and upheld the Jim Crow system.
On this basis, the South presided over the most brutal levels of exploitation and poverty wages, so as to create the most favorable conditions for corporations to amass profits. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, summed up the underlying agenda, declaring: “Private property and the free enterprise system are under attack by the liberal-socialist-communist crowd. It’s not the business of government to tell a businessman how to run his business.”
Socialists have always fought against racism. But they have done so by exposing its roots in a society grounded in the exploitation of the working class, and on the basis of a revolutionary program to unite all sections of workers against their common capitalist oppressors. This must become the basis for the development of a mass movement in defense of the democratic and social rights of the working class today.