I watched a talk by Salvoj Zizek the other day on the RSA network (have you seen the RSA talks? They are a wonderful blend of illustration and discourse). Zizek claims that we have moved from late capitalism into cultural capitalism. This argument is an old one, and Zizek does not claim this idea as his own; he actually credits Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” with pinpointing the fundamental problem we encounter when trying to “solve” world hunger, homelessness and so forth. We cannot use the system that caused these problems to solve these problems. Cultural capitalism uses capitalist systems to solve the very social ills that capitalism caused in the first place.
We feel badly about such and such problem and so we throw money at it. We join websites that collect points based on what we buy or what advertisements we click on. For example, these points can be used to buy clean water for someone. What can be wrong with that? Like Zizek and Wilde state, such a system is better than the alternative, which is to do nothing at all. The point is that the reason another community does not have clean water or enough food (and so forth) is due to a pathological economic system, in which the lowest common denominator is not human relationships but profit.
I think the impulse to “feel badly” about someone or something is a huge part of the problem. I am not talking about actual empathy here, but sentimentality as a structure of feeling that is closely associated with how North Americans, in particular, structure a moral universe. North Americans shed tears over a particular event and then proceed to invest in mass-market commodities to solve the problem. I fully believe that our investment in objects (“things”) as a means to know ourselves and our place in the world plays a large part in the movement to cultural capitalism. We do not value things; things value us. We take this odd logic into the wider world and feel very badly when others lose their “things.” We want to replace what others have lost rather than deal with the human element and complex contextual problems that caused such loss.
Think about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which has just entered into its seventh season.The shows rating are currently in decline, but it still ranks 39th overall in terms of popularity. As well, the show is in syndication, the First Lady is involved in a project or two, and it has received a “seal of approval” from the Parent’s Television Council as being beneficial to child development (say what?). The show centers around a destitute and struggling family who are usually at a loss financially and emotionally. In fact, the financial and the emotional are linked in the show. The deserving family will feel better if the show builds them a new home and stocks it with lots of lovely things. The stuff in the house and the family’s emotional health are inextricably linked together. Who cares if they can’t afford to heat and maintain the luxury homes the show builds? Who cares if the problems that plagued the family are not mitigated by expensive furniture, video games, and kitchenware? A contractor who gets free advertising builds the house; the community donates a bit of time and feels good (with little in the way of emotional involvement); the family gets new stuff; the network makes a fortune in advertising spots…where is the wrong? The problem is clear: we create relationships with inanimate objects that elides the real world difficulties that are best solved through time, communication, and community engagement.
One of my favourite criticisms of such approaches to righting social ills is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled, “The Lovers of the Poor.” (Click the link to hear her read the poem)