Capitalism, Class Consciousness, Consumerism, Corporate State, Crass, Empire, Financial Elite, Gross Inequality, Inverted Totalitarianism, Laissez-Faire Capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, Marx's 'Capital', Mass Media Manipulation, Meritocracy, Nick Cave, Pemberton Textile Mill Fire, Poison Girls, Poverty, Punk Rock, Rana Plaza Garment Factory, Ronald Reagan, Slave Labor, Sweatshop Factory, Tanzeen Sweater Factory Fire, The Elite 1%, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Vi Subversa, Walmart
Do they owe us a living- of course they f*cking do!
White Punks on Hope
The fine art of visualization has always been the domain of the artist, savant, musician, and others ostensibly outside of the obfuscation of bourgeois economics. Unfettered by the crushing gravitational pull of media propaganda, mainstream thinking and the lure of cash for the “right” perspective, occasionally an individual, a group, or infrequently, a culture emerges that can shed the blindness of false class consciousness and reveal what is hidden.
Some emergents are forgettable, some pedantic and clichéd, but all can be admired for at least daring to speak freely.
Reconstituted from the false promise of the ‘60’s hippie culture, and responding to the nihilism that infected an entire generation of Reagan and Thatcheresque refugees, a dissident core began to emerge.
The natural format given the disappointments of the ‘60’s was a hardened, cynical and violent counterculture vehemently opposing the peace, love, psychedelics, and innocence doctrine of the earlier eras.
Isolated from the mind numbing bombardment of institutionalized media messaging, alienated by the false promises of a decaying wage labor economy, and profoundly impacted by the specter of diminishing social mobility, the coming of age young adult was left with an inchoate rage against an unknowable and seemingly undefinable malaise.
It is said that the root of anger is fear. Fear of the unknown and unknowable, fear of denial of sustenance income, fear of failure, but mostly fear of prospects of mandatory participation in a system consisting of equal parts alienation, exploitation, and the active and unwilling transfer of wealth from those that produce to those that are the ownership class.
Lacking the clarity of class consciousness, what we are left with is fear and anger.
While much of the mainstream society is content with empty promises of lottery winnings, Las Vegas flights of fancy, and stores stocked with useless goods giving the perception of abundance, choice and liberty, those that are fearful and angry see other perspectives, and from these perspectives we can formulate a different narrative.
One such example was the ‘80’s punk collective Crass, consisting of Steve Ignorant, Penny Rimbaud, Eve Libertine, and Joy DiVerve and artist Gee Vaucher (whose work is featured here). This group was noteworthy as they had a reasonably well organized collective, and took particular satisfaction in critiquing the then active Falklands War, exposing the Thatcher administration as capitalizing on this act of State violence to bolster her home image.
They raised the ire of the US government as well as MI5 when they concocted a staged phone call between Reagan and Thatcher purporting to disclose US targeting of Europe with nuclear weapons as a response to the Soviet cold war threat.
Unfortunately, such antics that reach the highest forms of power are rare, and mostly we are left to view the world through the right side of a telescope, with a viewfinder supplied by the dissident.
From Her to Eternity
In the same vein as Crass, and at the same time, the punk band Poison Girls emerged from the collective with its unlikely front person, radical feminist and middle aged housewife Vi Subversa.
Vi Subversa provided vanguard class consciousness to young women of the day, as well as instructive peer examples questioning authority and male dominated counterculture. Illuminating and ridiculing female subservient expectations were (and still are) important steps to overturning bourgeois politics.
Venom laced vocals coupled with a whiskey toned, gravelly delivery were the hallmarks of the ska infused sound.
Our metaphoric viewfinder gives multidimensional focus to our predicament, a field dimension of time, space, geography, and focal plane, and while connected to a large scale telescope from the vantage point of the proper end, we can see the interconnectivity of capital over space and time, the diffuse tendrils of exploitation and alienation as they span continents.
The heft of the knurled wheel belies its frictionless connection as we spin the focusing knob through a dizzying kaleidoscope of images rapidly scrolling past the optic.
The wheel slows, the images in the telescope coalesce, and we can bring into focus a strange scene of dust, smoke, and the smell of charred wood and bodies. The date is Jan 10th 1860, and the location is Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the Pemberton Textile Mill, which has just collapsed and killed 145 workers, mostly immigrant women and children. In what will become a disturbing scene of repetition throughout the next 1 ½ centuries, the factory was expanded in a frenzy of production, with new floors added to substandard codes. The floors were supported by iron pillars, and the new floors were promptly laden with heavy machinery. During that fateful January day, the machines were all running simultaneously, and the cumulative harmonics of the machinery started a destructive oscillation in the iron support beams- and they failed catastrophically, bringing the entire structure down in seconds and trapping nearly 600 people.
Later that evening, in the process of extricating the trapped women and children, who were singing to console each other as the rescuers labored to clear the wreckage, a lantern was kicked over and ignited the oil soaked floor material, incinerating the trapped women.
Capital from the very beginning has sought access to immigrants, minorities and other disenfranchised and marginalized members of society to fulfill its boundless needs for low cost labor, and as a bonus, it prefers those that cannot protest or defend themselves.
The Mercy Seat
Another whimsical spin of the viewfinder knob advances us to March 25th, 1911, in New York City, where once again we image a collapsed building and smell the arid stench of burning flesh. 50 years of Industrial Revolution has changed very little it seems, robber barons are in their ascendancy and the accumulation of profits at enormous social cost is in full swing.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory has just burned to the ground, extinguishing the lives of 146 immigrant women and children. Once again, capital has attached its tentacles to the downtrodden and dispossessed, with wide spread deployments of factories incorporating abominable working conditions- hastily constructed with regard only for profits, blocked safety exits and locked fire escapes, where they existed at all, no doubt to minimize any theft of materials or unauthorized leaving of the workspace, no matter the circumstances.
The conventional wisdom of the 19th and early 20th century was that the working class was essentially a criminal class, particularly children were deemed to be vagrant and much better off in the throes of a 14 hour work day in the factories than “running the streets” getting into trouble. The narrative continued to adult males, who were portrayed as alcoholics, deadbeats, and candidates for debtor’s prisons if not “gainfully” employed in the service of the factories.
In this fashion, capital had begun its now time honored strategy of concocting false narratives meant to valorize and link its banal pursuit of profits at the expense of others, to peer reviewed social behavior “worthy” of the eager to please citizen. At various points the narrative linked religion, purity of purpose, and virtue with populating the various factories at the beck and call of capital.
The impressive aspect of this sham is the degree of acceptance that the calculus of exchanging wage labor for sustenance income is able to achieve. Tens of thousands are drawn off small farms for work in the factories, unwittingly substituting self dependence and true independence for wage servitude.
It is tempting to dismiss these tragic events as anomalies, but in fact the conditions in these factories were widespread, and a good representation of typical conditions.
We’ll close this vignette with a chilling account from Nick Cave (of Birthday Party fame)
as he recounts his appointment with the electric chair.
…….In Heaven His throne is made of gold
The ark of his Testament is stowed
A throne from which I’m told
All history does unfold.
Down here it’s made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away.
Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied……….
War to the Palaces, Peace to the Huts
It came by mail wrapped in cellophane like some type of indiscreet porn magazine, the spring issue of Jacobin magazine. You can of course get it online, but I prefer the hard copy, the artwork, the acid smell of high quality paper and above all the irony and hypocrisy of receiving such a publication in my predominantly Republican neighborhood.
Emblazoned though the wrapper was the large font, bold lettering from the heading above, the other side a schematic of a guillotine with the notation “some assembly required”.
You might be tempted to think that advances in material science and structural engineering over the last nearly century and a half would preclude the chances of such a disaster such as happened in 1860 Massachusetts from ever happening again, but you would be wrong.
On April 24th of this year, the eight story Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, trapping more than 3000 people, and ultimately killing more than 1100, mostly women and children. The building collapsed due to the improper addition of new upper floors necessary to accommodate production expansion. A power outage occurred on the day of the collapse, and when the power generators restarted the machinery oscillations precipitated the building collapse. Sound familiar? Serious structural cracks were observed the day before the collapse, but the recalcitrant workers were threatened with the loss of one month’s pay if they did not enter.
So they went in.
Just a few months prior, the nearby Tanzeen sweater factory caught fire and 117 workers were burned to death.
Bangladesh has about 5000 garment factories, employing about 4 million workers, 90% whom are women. The Bangladeshi workers earn about $37 per month compared to the “extravagant” Chinese wage rate of $350 per month. Because of this wage disparity, Bangladesh is the second largest manufacturer of textiles (and growing) as they displace the more expensive Chinese competition.
The vast majority of these exports are shipped to the US and the UK. A growing percentage of these garments are part of the West’s recent obsession with the so-called “fast fashion” movement, wherein consumers purchase what amounts to disposable clothing items which knock off the latest high couture fashion look at bargain basement prices.
Much of the remaining garments are T shirts and other undergarments for which consumers will not spend money.
About 2 dozen of the Bangladeshi members of Parliament own garment factories.
These facts illustrate the connectivity that the bourgeoisie political economy demands between capital, the levers of government, the exploitation of workers, and to the point of this post, the complicity of the consumer who can’t be bothered if children are being roasted alive in the manufacture of their underwear.
The mortal enemy of capital is transparency. As has been the case since the publication of “Capital” in 1867, the primary weapon of obfuscation is the focus on the means of exchange, e.g. the free market, and to hide the means of production where the atrocities reside.
But beyond this is the ugly, unspeakable truth. The consumer must have 3 for $5 T shirts, $.59 burritos and $1 cheeseburgers- because this my friends is sustenance survival. This is how the capitalist economy stair steps its way down the death spiral. Alternating between investing in production efficiencies in the form of machine automation, labor beat downs in the form of union busting, and dismantling the regulatory environment to further externalize costs, the last rung on the ladder is reducing sustenance costs of the worker. Why? Because profits are determined not by supply and demand as bourgeois neoclassical economics would have you believe, but by labor value. And in the face of an oversupply of willing workers, wage labor is largely determined by how cheaply the worker can be sustained. It is no coincidence that Walmart is the world’s largest company (measured by employee headcount), the capitalist economy makes room for any firm that works hard to globally reduce the sustenance costs for the US labor pool.
The Feeding of the 5000
I often get dragged into dinner party ruminations with libertarians, a hopeless ideology if there ever was one, particularly the Austrian version, and I am regularly subjected to patience shearing metaphors illustrating liberty and a tiny, impotent government as a way to correct the improprieties of global capitalism.
One of the more popular metaphors is the illustration of a marathon race, such as the Boston marathon. It goes something like this, our intrepid racers have a personal responsibility to train for the race, and based on the efficacy of their training and dedication, expect to race against a field of peers. The role of the race organizers (government) is simply to layout effective course markers and to administrate the race, prevent cheating, etc. The government must not interfere with the race, may not assist weaker racers, and may not impede stronger participants.
It’s a meritocracy, where one succeeds or fails on the merits of their own preparation, strength, and moral character. (Note the strong moralistic sub text)
Having put forth such a compelling case for self reliance, the argument quickly reverts to familiar claims of moral decay, lack of self sufficiency, and reliance on a nanny state for prosperity as causality for the contemporary tribulations of capital.
But due to the voluntary nature entering a race for the sole purposes of recreation, I think we can see this is a false narrative.
A better descriptor of the real world might be more accurately likened to the running of the bulls at Pamplona Spain.
With one exception- and that is that the race is now mandatory, and everyone must run. Run until you can run no more and are trampled or gored.
So the masses flee in terror, inches ahead (or sometimes behind) the sharpened point of the bull’s horns. It’s everyman for himself in this valorized blood sport, the low frequency rumble of cloven hooves just behind you, the hot breath of flared nostrils and the spray of animal spittle on the back of your neck. You run.
To the side of you a woman falls, immediately trampled under the cascade and fury of hooves, muscle and fur. A blur of sinew and flank, she disappears amid screams and dust. You run.
Like a bad Camus novel, one by one they fall around you, stricken, stumbling from exhaustion, they fall, as this race has been going on a long time, and will continue until you die. If you should be so lucky as to pull ahead of the masses, pushing and elbowing your way to the fore, you soon learn that you do not have to be faster than the bulls, just faster than the guy behind you. Jostling and pushing- tripping others to buy precious time, the bodies consumed under the stampeding livestock slow the herd so you may advance.
Once ahead you can run unhindered, free of those who would grab your shirt before they are pulled under, selecting short cuts and back alleys, gaining first yards, then blocks of advantage. Some get so far ahead they may stop to enjoy respite in a side café, but the rumble on the horizon, the rising dust, and the distant screams makes these stops short and full of worry.
When you see the tip of the horn and fully appreciate the nature of the race, you will never forget. It damages you in such a way as there is no recovery, remove yourself from the carnage and you will still run reflexively, in fact you will always run reflexively, from this point on.
And a very few get so far ahead they can never be caught by the herd, they are miles ahead in different cities and different countries, some do not even know there is such a race.
And so they buy their own bulls.
Travesty in the Garden of Gethsemane
But the hypocrisy is noticed by the mailman when he delivers my magazine. He chuckles at the irony. The interconnectedness and extant participation in the bourgeois economy cannot be subverted by hollow protest, not rectified by reading or writing.
The focusing wheel on our telescope is spun once more with a mighty thrust. It freewheels, and in the optics we see clouds, oceans, and continents. The continuum in time is passed through, the geography changes, the images begin to settle down.
We see a town that looks familiar. Your town. The focus sharpens and we see a house that seems familiar. Your house. We see a bedroom that seems familiar. Your bedroom. And in the dresser we see a neatly stacked pile of T shirts with blood stains on them. Your shirts.