Post Capitalism


Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

USA Network’s Mr. Robot: A provocative start, but where will it go?

By Christine Schofelt and David Walsh
17 July 2015

USA Network’s Mr. Robot, created and written by Sam Esmail and already renewed for a second season, began airing in late June. So far four episodes have been broadcast. The series centers on Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cyber-security engineer by day and a self-described “vigilante-hacker” by night.

Elliot’s opening voiceover is unusual for American television: “What I’m about to tell you is top secret. A conspiracy bigger than all of us. There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about, the guys that are invisible. The top one percent of the top one percent. The guys that play God without permission.”

Mr. Robot

In general, those behind Mr. Robot have promoted the series by appealing to the mass hostility to the banks, conglomerates and government spies. Incendiary ads, for example, read “F–k the System,” “F–k Wall Street,” “F–k Society.” Taglines include: “Our democracy has been hacked,” “Banks own your money,” “Social media owns your relationships,” “Corporations own your minds.” The promise of something hard-hitting for once has drawn some two million people to watch each of the first four shows. Is there a gap, however, between the promise and the actual substance of Mr. Robot?

It does not take long for one’s internal alarm system to go off. Immediately following Elliot’s opening voiceover about “the top one percent of the top one percent,” the series veers off into a sort of individual vigilantism. Elliot confronts the owner of chain of coffee shops, whose computer he has hacked, about his involvement in child pornography. Later, he targets a philandering husband, who has not committed any crimes, and a violent drug dealer.

Generally well played by Malek, Elliot is another in a long and growing list of pathologically anti-social geniuses. Speaking directly to the viewer in a running inner monologue, he explains his sense of justice, his morphine addiction and his methods for getting into people’s personal computer records—which is the only way he gets close to other human beings. Malek (like the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, of Egyptian descent) does manage to convey something about the low-grade depression that afflicts large numbers of young people in the US, mired in difficult economic and personal circumstances, with nothing to look forward to. Certain shots of Elliot passing anxiously and stealthily through subway stations and passageways have something especially disturbing about them.

Mr. Robot

Christian Slater plays Mr. Robot, a member of a group calling itself F-society, obviously based on Anonymous, among others. He makes contact with Elliot through a DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack on E Corp, a client of AllSafe, the cybersecurity company for which Elliot works. Mr. Robot then draws him into a wider plot against E Corp, which Elliot refers to as “Evil Corp,” an all-encompassing tech company.

Through Elliot’s narration, we are presented with a litany of social ills; student debt, corporate power, easily hacked personal information, etc. His feverish list is accompanied by snapshots and clips of recent events—Occupy Wall Street, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, newspaper headlines about growing inequality. In many of the early monologues, however, a disdain for the general populace seeps through—the notion that the people are “asleep” predominates.

The plan of Mr. Robot and F-society to bring down E Corp, which presumably will dominate the series’ first season, is put forward as a “revolution.” The elimination of E(vil) Corp and the debt it holds (largely student debt), including the hard copies of loan documents, no doubt has its appeal.

Moreover, many viewers will identify and sympathize with Elliot and his beleaguered friends, including Angela (Portia Doubleday), who is financially drowning, and Shayla (Frankie Shaw), who has serious problems with drugs. These characters are more or less realistically drawn, and some of the situations, which convey the stress of simply navigating daily life and a general sense of being at sea, pull the viewer in.

Mr. Robot

In other words, there are intriguing aspects to Mr. Robot. However, there are numerous troubling issues. First of all, there are the clichéd characters and situations. The presence of corporate evil incarnate, in the form of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), the senior vice president of technology at E Corp, is not much help. In general, the picture of business wickedness is neither earthshaking nor terribly enlightening. An accounting of contemporary corporate life and practices, which dramatized and shed light on the objective driving forces at work, would be far more intriguing as well as highly unusual. (The presence of an unredeemably monstrous drug dealer also hints at intellectually lazy territory.)

The biggest problem, however, is surely the glaring contradiction between the picture painted of overwhelming corporate criminality and overall social dysfunction, on the one hand, and the meagerness of the possible social responses envisioned by the show’s creators, on the other.

The idea of “revolution” and “revolutionaries” put forward by Mr. Robot is ludicrous. The notion that wiping out one giant firm’s records will bring about “the largest revolution the world will ever see,” in the words of Slater’s character, hardly merits a comment. In general, the series appears to have little interest, despite the references to inequality, in the conditions of wide layers of the population, much less any conception that masses of people will take part in the process of changing things. This is a “revolution” carried out by (and presumably for) a layer of disgruntled computer engineers and other professionals.

In an interview with Slate, Sam Esmail makes some revealing comments. He notes that he was in Egypt “right after the Arab Spring happened, and I was so inspired by that. One of the things that defined Elliot’s character is that revolutionary spirit I saw in my cousins. These are young people who are tech-savvy, who use technology to their advantage to channel the anger against the status quo and try and make a change to better their lives.” Esmail provides some idea of the social change he has in mind. Mr. Robot, he notes is “set in the world of technology, because I think that is a tool that young people can use to bring about change. I mean, look at the LGBT community: What massive changes have occurred in society just in terms of marriage and trans issues being more public and open.”

Esmail later tells his interviewer that “the current mixed economy system that we have in this country is broken. It doesn’t do what it’s set up to do, which is to value the best product made by the best companies.” This is pretty meager, to say the least.

One also has the right as well to be made nervous by the portrayal of the hackers, offered up as uncompromising “revolutionaries.” Slater’s Mr. Robot is distinctly unappealing—manipulative and destructive on a personal level and willing to kill people in pursuit of the plan (citing potential victims of an explosion as mere “collateral damage”). Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is unbalanced and annoying. Personalities aside, the depiction of these people as ruthless or ambivalent potential killers does little to distinguish them from their targets in the upper echelons of the corporations.

Time will tell whether Mr. Robot settles down and tells an important story. The fourth episode was not promising, focused on Elliot’s not very intriguing personal “demons” and the unlikely plan against E Corp. Will the moral of the USA Network series prove to be that what’s needed is a mere “rebooting” of capitalism and a slight redistribution of the wealth through the ascension to power of a more principled group of business men and women? It is impossible to be certain, but one has ample reason to fear the worst.

The scam of austerity explained

This Viral Video Is the Anti-Austerity Poem You’ve Been Waiting For

Yesterday, British Spoken word performer Agnes Töröka release an inspired, three-minute poetic call-to-arms for the austerity generation that quickly went viral, garnering almost 100,000 views by the end of the day.

In “Worthless” ,Töröka masterfully calls into question the unfair social contract inherented by todays youth: from nonstop internships to massive debt to the wholesale gutting of social programs. Underlying the spoken word poem is a biting sarcasm, contrasting the public funding of bank bailouts with the raiding of public trusts. She also wonderfully skewers the patronizing, “realistic” platitudes of austerity, from “cost cutting” to telling out-of-work graduates to focus on “polishing their CV’s”.

It’s a brilliant – and unexpected – piece of rage-fueled poetry that should speak to anyone who’s been tightened, cost-cutted, and left to fend for themselves by a system that glorifies the rich while, time and time again, telling the rest of us we’re “worthless”.

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Season 3: Life goes on in a women’s prison

By Ed Hightower
11 July 2015

Just over a year ago, I reviewed the first two seasons of the Netflix series Orange I s the New Black, a comedy-drama set in a fictional women’s prison. The central character in the series is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a middle class woman who, a decade earlier, was involved in drug running. Chapman is eventually sentenced to 14 months in prison. The series explores the lives and experiences of the various female prisoners.

In last year’s comment, I first noted some figures on the American criminal justice system and its horrific program of mass incarceration. Suffice it to say that the intervening year has not seen the slightest let-up in this feature of everyday reality in the United States. On the contrary, its prominence, and that of state repression more broadly, has only increased.

Orange Is the New Black, Season 3

The murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore— the most notorious instances of police violence—aroused widespread public outrage. Botched executions and the relentless efforts of various state governments to find ways, no matter how savage, of putting people to death have also dominated the headlines.

In February of this year, reports emerged of a police-run “black site” torture facility in Chicago. In March, US prison officials denied access to United Nations torture inspectors. Simply put, a great deal of water has flowed under the bridge in the span of just one year.

How does this process and the social crisis in general find artistic expression?

Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black deserves some credit in this regard, especially in its compassionate portrayal of inmates in a minimum security federal prison. Violence, grinding poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, depression and suicide, solitary confinement, poor food and living conditions, a lack of educational opportunities and even of books—these issues receive serious treatment, often with powerful results.

As in the previous two seasons, the inmates generally come across as human beings. Season 3 continues to explore the back stories of their incarceration and, in the best cases, sheds light on the social component of those stories.

A central theme in the new season is corporate domination of American life, addressed through the privatization of the prison where the story is set.

When mismanagement and corruption threaten Litchfield penitentiary with closure, assistant to the warden Joe Caputo pulls things together as best he can to make the facility look like a good investment for private prison firm MCC. Celebration about the subsequent takeover is short lived. Though Caputo has saved his colleagues’ jobs, a host of changes makes conditions intolerable for both the inmates—who eat pre-cooked food shipped in large plastic bags—and the guards, who lose half their hours, all of their benefits and union representation.

Caputo’s new boss Danny Pearson (Mike Birbiglia) assumes the title “Director of Human Activity.” With the insincerity, arrogance and indifference of a young Silicon Valley hotshot, Pearson undermines safety standards and any other perceived impediments to company profits. In a telling scene, Danny interrupts a use-of-force training session for the new guards (correction officers, or COs) because he does not want to pay for it.

As a result of the lack of training, a new CO pepper-sprays inmates having a nonviolent disagreement about a card game. Another CO refuses to intervene when several inmates harass and beat up a transgender inmate. The latter, Sophia (Laverne Cox), ends up in solitary confinement, punished for threatening a lawsuit against the prison for gross negligence. MCC executives refer to this as “protective custody.”

Another of Pearson’s projects involves selecting inmates to work at the new on-site sweatshop for “Whispers,” a reference to lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. The inmates generally express excitement at the prospect of employment, and a competitive spirit surrounds the written test whose results will determine which inmates will go to work making women’s underwear.

When Caputo expresses to Pearson his concern about how the women were selected, the latter provides a remarkable answer. He simply pulled 40 applications out of the pile at random. The test that everyone was so concerned about was something he found on the Internet.

The depiction of Pearson and MCC in Orange Is the New Black also touches on something familiar in the contemporary workplace: the everyday, omnipresent verbal falsification of reality. Every cutback, speedup or other attack on employees is mystified and shrouded in euphemism. Nowadays, a disciplinary action is a “dialogue.” Being laden with unpaid additional responsibilities is called “being empowered,” etc. In this regard, the series hits the nail on the head.

As more and more inmates request kosher meals because they hate the new boil-in-the-bag food from MCC, Pearson struggles with how to eliminate this increased cost. He eventually asks Caputo, “Who are the Jews?” Caputo replies that the authorities are no longer allowed to make Jews wear little stars on their uniforms, ever since World War II.

Orange Is the New Black, Season 3

Like previous seasons of Orange, Season 3 has definite weaknesses. The ratio of sex scenes to non-sex scenes approaches 1:1. While a precious few of these actually advance the drama—the romantic encounter of the young Tiffany Doggett, aka “Pennsatuckey,” stands in sharp relief to her earlier prostitution and subsequent rape by a CO—the overwhelming majority of such scenes seem aimed at the viewer’s baser instincts.

A more pervasive weakness is the tendency to reduce the histories of and relationships between the characters to the workings of individual psychology, or at most, to family dynamics. Broader social forces occasionally show up but appear, for the most part, beyond the grasp of the writers of Orange. This, despite the massive overall expansion of the prison population, especially the number of female prisoners.

An ACLU report in 2013 observed that females were the fastest growing group of incarcerated persons in the US. The study commented: “In the past 25 years the number of women and girls caught in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed. There are now more than 200,000 women behind bars and more than one million on probation and parole. Many have been swept up in the ‘war on drugs’ and subject to increasingly punitive sentencing policies for non-violent offenders. … The toll on women, girls, and their families is devastating.” This social atrocity is bound up with the sharp polarization of American society and the impoverishment of wide layers of the population.

Social conflict finds expression in Orange Is the New Black in a distorted and misleading manner, in the form of the prison guards’ efforts to organize a union. This is typical of the film and television industry’s effort to paint police and guards as “regular working guys.”

At an organizing meeting, one boorish, overweight CO bursts out with “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” an ostensibly revolutionary anthem, from Les Miserables. How realistic is this? Is it not more probable that a real CO would sympathize with Inspector Javert instead of the persecuted Jean Valjean or the Parisian masses?

Caputo is the central figure in these scenes, wavering between careerism and taking a role as union organizer. The juxtaposition between the two absolutes—pure egotism and pure, heroic selflessness, especially when a member of the prison staff is concerned—simplifies far too much. Contemporary life poses more than this banal dichotomy.

To make a decisively realistic and compelling film or series about a prison, it would help to have some idea about the social function of such an institution and the general character of the state machinery. One has the sense that although the creators and writers of Orange Is the New Black are genuinely sympathetic to the prisoners, they would be hard-pressed to offer any alternative to the penal system or explain its cancerous growth.

Season 3 of Orange is the New Black digs into a number of important matters, but more than an artist’s intuition is required.

Beware inspirational online images – they may be more insidious than you think

A photo of Daniel Cabrera, a homeless Filipino, is being used to support the rightwing narrative that there are no excuses for failure or poverty
This handout photo taken on June 23, 201
‘Someone has turned the picture into an inspirational postcard with the caption: “If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”‘ Photograph: Joyce Torrefranca/AFP/Getty Images

Moved by the scene, Torrefranca took a photograph and posted it on Facebook. “For me as a student,” she wrote, “it just hit me a lot, like, big time.”

Torrefranca wasn’t the only one inspired by the nine-year-old boy without a home. Since Daniel Cabrera’s house burned down, he has reportedly been living in a food stall with his mother and two brothers. His father is dead. Reports also say he owns only one pencil. A second pencil was stolen from him.

As the story went viral, people emerged to help the boy, giving him books, pencils and crayons. He also received a battery-powered lamp so he would no longer have to do his homework in the car park. A fundraising page was set up to help cover the costs of his schooling.

This is far from the first inspirational story to attract attention online. Whether it’s a limbless man surfing, a cancer survivor climbing some of the world’s highest peaks or a homeless woman making it all the way to Harvard, we are easily touched by these stories, and there’s nothing strange or wrong with that. But we might want to examine some of the reasons why we – or others – love them so much, or at least question the conclusions some of us wish to draw from them.

One tabloid newspaper has recommended parents show the picture of the hardworking boy to their children next time they are moaning. In a similar vein, someone has turned the picture into an inspirational postcard with the caption: “If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

In these interpretations, the picture is used to suggest that there are no excuses for failure or poverty. Even if you are poor and live in a makeshift home, you have the choice to work yourself out of that predicament. All you need is determination, willpower and the right, can-do attitude. Private troubles, whether poverty or unemployment, should remain private troubles. They should not be regarded as public issues because that is merely a way of trying to find an excuse. Such is the lesson we should teach ourselves and take from this.

It is depressingly easy to find other examples of this mindset today, the idea that we can all rise above our circumstances – however difficult – through a programme of self-improvement.

In Los Angeles, for instance, the New Village Charter High School is using transcendental meditation not just to release stress but also, in the words of itsprincipal, Javier Guzman, “to combat poverty”. This may help some of the children to achieve better results at school. But the problem is not personal when the bottom income quartile in the US make up only 5% of enrolments in top universities.

Another proposal to fight poverty comes from the US Republican politician Paul Ryan. Inspired by the writer Ayn Rand, he recently presented an anti-poverty plan in which he proposed poor people should sit down with a life coach and develop an “opportunity plan”.

This might sound a uniquely north American venture but Sweden, popularly known as the land of equality and welfare, is probably the country that has come closest to achieving Ryan’s dream.

In the course of only four years, the Swedish state paid out 4.7bn Swedish krona (£360m) to job coaches. The actual benefits of this initiative have proved modest, and the methods used by these coaches, including healing and therapeutic touching, have been called into question.

But more problematic than their questionable usefulness is that these methods implicitly encourage socially vulnerable groups, whether poor or unemployed, to stop looking for answers in the public sphere. They are told instead that the barrier lies within themselves.

One US study, which followed unemployed white-collar workers who attend support organisations, found that jobseekers were encouraged to stop reading the newspaper and go on a “news fast”. They were also asked to stop using the word “unemployment”, since that would betray a negative attitude.

Similar observations were made in Ivor Southwood’s auto-ethnographic account of UK jobcentres, Non-Stop Inertia, in which he describes how jobseekers are told to do “three positive things per week” or else they might be disciplined.

In his recent ethnography of the Swedish equivalent of Jobcentre Plus, Roland Paulsen describes mandatory humilating exercises, so-called brag rounds, in which the long-term unemployed are encouraged to show off in front of their fellow jobseekers.

In a distressing article recently published in Medical Humanities it was suggested that these types of exercises, intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, have become a political strategy to eradicate the experience of social and economic inequality.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being moved by a picture of a young boy concentrating hard on his homework. But we should remember that pictures of this kind may serve more sinister purposes when paired with “inspirational” messages. Serious discussion of external circumstances – including a proper understanding of inequality – is not helped by the suggestion that the only thing holding a person back is their attitude.


The “Fight of the Century”: An orgy of wealth and profit


By Joseph Santolan
6 May 2015

On Saturday, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. and Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao boxed for twelve rounds in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. The bout had been billed as the “Fight of the Century.” At the end of the 36-minute fight, Mayweather defeated Pacquiao by unanimous decision by the three fight judges.

The fight was the subject of extravagant media hype. It was broadcast in the United States and many countries internationally by Pay-Per-View (PPV) television. Some poorer countries, such as the Philippines and Mexico, broadcast the bout without charge, subsidized by advertising revenue.

The figures involved in this one boxing match are mind-boggling.

The fight had a $300 million purse. Mayweather will make around $180 million while Pacquiao will pocket an estimated $120 million. But these figures pale before the total revenue that the fight generated.

The final figures have not yet been released, but the Wall Street Journalreported that Pay-Per-View industry executives have estimated there were three million paid viewers in the United States. HBO and Showtime charged viewers $99 to watch the fight in high definition and $89 for standard definition. Total PPV revenue in the United States is now estimated to be $300-$400 million.

But the money does not stop there. The fight brought in profits from ticket sales, hotel bookings, gambling, promotional merchandise and advertising. For the promoters and profiteers of the boxing and entertainment industries, the bout was a bonanza of over a billion dollars.

Ostentatious amounts of money oozed from every pore of the event. The shorts that Pacquiao wore in the ring displayed seven advertising logos that netted Pacquiao $2.5 million. A two-square-inch space on Pacquiao’s rear end cost Nike $416,000. Burger King paid $1 million to have their mascot walk in Mayweather’s entourage as he entered the arena, displacing the pop star Justin Bieber.

The bout was quite the fashionable to-do. Hedge fund managers and A-list actors and celebrities rubbed elbows as they posed for selfies. Many were there to be seen and not necessarily to watch the match. They spent a total of $80 million on the 16,000 tickets available for the event.

Ringside tickets sold for $250,000. About six rows back could cost anywhere from $85,000 to $100,000.

According to ABC News, the fight was “one of the most exclusive boxing events the destination has ever hosted. Only 500 tickets were offered to the public, and they sold in seconds.” To get your hands on a ticket you needed connections.

Celebrities of Hollywood and the music industry were there in droves. Music moguls Jay-Z and Beyoncé were in attendance as was billionaire heiress Paris Hilton, Robert de Niro and Michael Jordan, Clint Eastwood and Nicki Minaj, and real estate billionaire Donald Trump.

Long-time Democratic Party operative and charlatan purveyor of identity politics, Rev. Jesse Jackson, was seated in a section that averaged at least $10,000 per ticket. There were so many celebrities that many could not find space on the floor level and had to sit among the ordinary folks in the $4,000 nosebleed seats.

The multimillionaires and billionaires flew to Las Vegas in their private jets for the fight and turned McCarran International Airport into a parking lot. Pictures posted on Instragram and Twitter show the tarmac covered in hundreds of Gulf Streams and Cessnas and Lears, the exclusive air transit of the extremely wealthy. The tarmac was so crowded that McCarran had to temporarily close the terminal. Forty members of the National Guard were brought in to ensure that no one would disturb the arrival and departure of passengers for the fight.

Some late arrivals jetted in for the fight from the Kentucky Derby horse race. The Derby ran at 6:26 pm Eastern time. According to the Washington Post, they raced in police-escorted limousines from Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs where they had just watched a horse named American Pharaoh win at the races, to the airport. From there they boarded private jets, which flew them to Las Vegas to round out the day with the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight.

Less prominently featured in the press, but very much in attendance, were the billionaire managers of the world’s leading hedge funds. The Pacquiao-Mayweather bout had been scheduled to take place the day before the opening of the annual SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) convention in Las Vegas.

The SALT convention is an annual gathering of around 2,000 executives from the world’s largest hedge fund companies that collectively control the majority of the planet’s wealth. This year’s convention has a speakers list that includes former head of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, former head of the NSA Keith Alexander, former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former director of the CIA David Petraeus, and former secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The former prime ministers of Australia and Greece, Julia Gillard and George Papandreou, were among dozens of other world leaders and CEOs.

What better way was there to kick off a convention of the financial aristocracy and its war criminals than watching a high-ticket gladiator bout?

Then there was the money to be made off gambling. Early estimates predicted over that $80 million would be placed in bets in Nevada alone. Celebrities Mark Wahlberg and P. Diddy announced to television crews that they had each bet $250,000 on the fight.

Many working people gathered on Saturday night in homes with a friend who happened to have cable or DirectTV, and they often pooled the money to pay the $100 cost for the pay-per-view. But then pay-per-view broke. Cable companies across the country, unable to meet the demand, displayed blank screens. HBO and Showtime delayed the bout as cable companies tried to restore service. Most customers were denied refunds.

Todd DuBoef, the president of fight promoter Top Rank Inc., threatened to carry out legal action against video-sharing companies and individuals who used smartphone apps and other technology to watch the fight for free.

Nevertheless, the promoters of the fight are understandably pleased with the result. The inconclusive character of the bout lays open the possibility of the “rematch of the century,” and there are again immense sums of money to be made.

The entire farcical affair was the athletic equivalent of a derivatives swap. Obscene amounts of profit were extracted from a spectacle that had little connection to any real event.

Professional sports have always labored under the deadening influence of too much money and the rapacious pursuit of profit. Nowhere has this been more evident than in boxing, with its intimate connections with casinos, gambling and organized crime. The competitors come from the most oppressed layers of society, and the vast majority have been exploited and then beaten to a pulp.

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.