I’ve been thinking a lot lately about late capitalism as a form of political control, especially in unconventional environments. We talked on Sunday at brunch about how the sale of the experience and the sale of “individual identity” is a form of control peculiar to our day and age. There are a couple of disparate things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to this.

I.

I remember being in China two summers ago, a couple months before the Beijing Olympics, and wandering through the botanical gardens with my dad. We saw a young couple running through the gardens with their toddler-aged child. It was cute. The dad was laughing, taking pictures of the mom and the kid, wobbling around next to some flowers.

“People here look so happy,” he said. “They can buy clothes, food, cars, in the colors and styles they want. They can express themselves through the consumer goods they buy. Five, ten years ago this was not true.”

I remember talking to some other students at Peking University, who told me that people were content so long as they could have the material goods they thought of as part and parcel to the material wealth of the West. The right to assembly was not as important culturally as the right to a Chrysler 300.

II.

What constantly weirds me out about the “green” movement is how consumption-oriented it is. I don’t mean that in the sense that it is concerned with our consumption, because obviously anybody concerned with the state of the environment should be worried about our consumption. What I am constantly struck by, and grossed out by, is the co-opting of the rhetoric of the “green” movement to sell products. New products. Products that are manufactured using traditional methods. Products that may or may not have any positive impact on our “carbon footprint” at all.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that “green” marketing is anything but marketing. And the weird thing is that we’re willing to buy the experience of feeling like we’re making a difference in the world. We might each have our own reason for doing so, but we’re buying it. The selling of an experience, as opposed to an item, is something peculiar to late capitalism. I have been thinking about this since Zizek lectured here at the beginning of the semester.

III.

Yesterday in my class we talked about the development of society and economy in Second Life, and what that means for our society and economy in our first lives. I think one of the things that always strikes me is how mad excited everyone gets about the economic opportunities and innovation that come along with Second Life growing as a kind of “3D internet,” as one of my students called it. Nobody is really discussing the way in which Second Life is actually run. (Which is the way the vast majority of virtual worlds are run, through an administrator oligarchy.)

Now I understand that some people will say, “Wait a minute, Cayden, Second Life isn’t about forming a government. After all, it’s run by a company that is interested in using its software to make money — and to enable people to connect, to create things, and to play.”

At the same time, in Second Life you can be anybody and do pretty much anything you want. Except liberate yourself. What’s easy to forget about it is that you’re being sold an experience in an ultimate way — people spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on ethereal piles of pixels in order to have an experience in the game. You’re being sold a deeply consumeristic experience, no less. The main tabs on the Second Life website are “What Is Second Life?” “World Map” “Shopping” “Buy Land” “Community” “Help” and finally the join button, which emphasizes that joining is free. Which is funny. Considering two of the six main tabs are about spending money.

IV.

So what does all this mean? I think these three things are symptoms of a bigger issue. Something about how too much wealth begets complacency. Or that our priorities aren’t quite what they used to be, or rather that our priorities were never what we were made to think they were. And also something about capitalism as culture, not just as economic system.

The symptoms speak to an environment where economic freedom is mistaken for individual and political freedom. Think about it.

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