CAPITALISM, RACISM, AND ENTROPY
this essay is dedicated to the hope that, if there is an afterlife, Daniel
Moynihan, Mickey Kaus, and all the other black underclass pathology demagogues
will spend it on welfare in a public housing project, trying to find a job
and to avoid getting beaten or shot by the police.
The Heart of Whiteness
Judeo-Christian culture has long had a problem with dirt and darkness. Whiteness has been Europe's symbol of purity, goodness, life, order, and the divine. (By contrast, consider classical Chinese culture, in which whiteness symbolizes death, and is worn at funerals.) Blackness or darkness, on the other hand, have traditionally connoted impurity, evil, death, disorder, and the satanic. For centuries, the dominant European ideal of human beauty stressed white skin. The most obvious reason for this is that reddened or tanned skin meant exposure to sun, wind, and rain. Since feudal society was agrarian, such exposure in a young person (or in a woman of any age) implied work commonly in the fields. The arbiters of taste were aristocrats, for whom the absolute avoidance of work was crucial to class self-definition. The aristocratic ideal of beauty, still current today, was shaped by all the signs of distance from work the build athletic rather than massive in a man, narrow-boned yet voluptuously fleshed in a woman, the hands small or at any rate narrow, with tapered fingers, and so forth. Distance from work in a mainly agricultural society also meant distance from dirt, from contact with the soil. To this day, soiled means dirty, just as dark means evil or threatening. (Signifiers of class and wealth still underlie our aesthetic and moral values. Consider the terms noble and base as applied to human conduct, the derivation of our word villain from vileyn, serf, and the convergence of vileyn with vile through the Latin vilis, cheap.)
This cultural complex allowed Europeans to enslave and slaughter Africans and Native Americans with a clearer conscience than would otherwise have been possible. Of course the expansionist and exclusive character of institutionalized Christianity was the ideological linchpin of the Age of Discovery, as it had been of the Age of the Crusades. (In fairness, it is worth remembering that during the Crusades Christian culture was fighting a severe challenge by another expansionist and much more sophisticated culture, Islam.) Christianity divides human beings into wheat and chaff, Saved and Damned, allowing them no middle ground once the Word of the One True God has been preached to them. This absolute division of the world, with its own white/black symbolism, was superimposed on the aristocratic dualism of white = noble, dark = base.
Underlying the Christian and aristocratic dichotomies was another more ancient one, the Graeco-Roman division of humanity into civilized versus barbarian or savage peoples. (The derivations of the latter put-downs are, respectively, people whose speech sounds to us like animal noises and people who live in the forest instead of cultivating fields.) For several centuries before the Age of Slavery, the European ruling classes had been convincing themselves that they were the civilized and that the Arabs and Persians, despite their splendid architecture, literature, science, and mathematics, were the barbarians. Encountering the tribal peoples of West Africa, Eastern North America, and Mexico, who neither used the wheel nor smelted iron, the Discoverers could feel sure of their superiority and God-given right to exploit. Better yet, these peoples were possessed of more melanin in their skins than most Europeans, and so could be fitted into the cultural slot labelled black or dark which meant at best chaotic, ignorant, dirty, and impure, at and worst menacing, vicious, and evil.
The wealth looted from the land, artifacts, and bodies of Africa and America provided the fuel for the lift-off of commerce in Europe. The gold and silver mined by Indian slaves in Mexico and Peru, the cotton, sugar, and tobacco harvested by African slaves in the Caribbean, created the wealth that was used to buy pale-skinned wage labor. It was in the seventeenth century, when the slave trade was soaring, that the notion of Europeans as white first appeared. The aristocratic signifier had been spread to include all Europeans, whether noble, base, or in between. Thus, alongside capitalism, twinned with it, was born modern racism.
As Europeans and Euro-Americans lived with African slaves and fought Native Americans for undisputed control of the continent the process of stereotyping and otherizing advanced rapidly. By the middle of the nineteenth century Euro-Americans seem to have been almost incapable of seeing African-Americans, slave or free, as human beings. Even Mark Twain, conceiving a sympathetic figure in Jim, can only show the runaway slave as a pathetic victim. Jim's very speech is misrepresented, and by the writer who first set down varieties of Euro-American vernacular with such care. Yet describing the episode when Huck listens to the white raft-men talking, Twain gives the game away. It's the raft-men's game, a ritual of trading hyperbolic and poetic boasts, and it comes straight out of West Africa. The repressed returns, announcing that Twains blindness and deafness are willful; they are necessitated by guilty awareness of slavery's intimate and inextricable role in the founding of a free nation and by the fact that, as Albert Murray observes in The Omni-Americans, American culture . . . is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.
In his White Racism: A Psychohistory, Joel Kovel has shown how U.S. racism bifurcates between North and South. In the South, where whites grew up in intimate daily contact with black slaves and servants, the signifier of difference is supposed relative intelligence and development: Africans are childlike and must be ruled by whites for their own good. They are not feared or loathed as such, except when they get uppity and don't know their place. Racial contact pollutes in only one way: through sex. Euro-patriarchy must not be challenged, either by the legitimation of mixed-race offspring (though children from a long-term liaison with a female slave may be treated with the kindness due pets) or above all by sex between a black man and a white woman. In the North, where despite the historically better legal status of black people the races have actually had less contact, a subliminal fear of dirt and pollution is characteristic of what Kovel calls aversive racism. Studies of Northern racist whites reveal bizarre fantasies of black skin color rubbing off on them when touched. The psychodynamic connection between these two forms of racism can be intuitively grasped when we remember that dirty in Anglo-American culture is a synonym for openly erotic.
Nothing I have said so far is new. Less easily recognized is the relationship between how European or Euro-American culture understands dirt and the thermodynamical principle of entropy as applied to political economy and culture.
Thermodynamics defines entropy as a measure of the disorder in a closed thermodynamical system. Since no system is 100% efficient, some energy must eventually become unavailable for work (meaning here the self-reproduction of the systems order). Energy that is not available for work causes disorder. To maintain order, therefore, a system must expel this disorder. For example, exhaust products (carbon monoxide and dioxide and waste heat) are entropy expelled by a working auto engine to maintain its order as a system. The living human body sheds entropy as heat, as excreta (carbon dioxide, sweat and urine), as mucus carrying dead bacteria and other rejected matter, as dead skin cells, and of course as shit.
Human societies are organized self-reproducing systems. In principle, then, this thermodynamical model can be extended to cover any society. What changes from one to another is the mode of order, and therefore what each one defines as work and energy. Capitalist industrial society, which engendered thermodynamical theory in the first place, defines real work as activity that gives rise to profit and is performed in exchange for money. Activity necessary for social reproduction that fails to meet one or both of these criteria is experienced as a drain on the system. This includes all the work of government, all paid nonprofit work such as public education or health care, unpaid cultural activity like writing poems or playing music for oneâ€™s friends, and of course unpaid domestic work.
Activity that gives rise to profit has evolved as capitalism has developed. To begin with, such activity was virtually synonymous with the production and distribution of material goods. Marx, however, was quick to see that production for capitalism means above all the production of capital, which in turn (and more profoundly) means the reproduction of capitalist social relationships: paid work and the universal market. What is more, said Marx, because profits plateau and decline as industries mature, this reproduction depends on growth. It cannot maintain itself in a steady state. Growth for capitalism means more profit for capitalists, more work done, more commodities sold but this depends on more people being wage earners and commodity consumers, more areas of the world and of social existence being brought into the cycle of work-pay-sell-buy-profit. Capitalism must, therefore, convert more and more kinds of human activity into work.
While constantly redefining work, capitalism also constantly strives to reduce the amount of work-time taken to produce any given commodity and to shorten the time capital needs to circulate from work done, via merchandise sold, to profit taken. Consequently capitalism is, as its publicists never cease to remind us, always creating technological revolutions. This technological dynamism means that capitalism continually redefines energy as well, which in a thermodynamic sense means not only power sources but raw materials.
A global system that must perpetually expand and change in order to survive, that is continually creating new technologies, and that defines work at once so narrowly and so broadly, is likely to generate many forms of entropy. Most obviously, this means all sorts of industrial waste: traditional emissions like heat, carbon dioxide, and soot, an ever-widening rainbow of toxic chemicals, and various radiation hazards. Increasingly such pollutants are rivalled in destructiveness by consumption waste such as packaging and disposables of all sorts, carbon dioxide and nitrous/nitric oxide from car exhausts, and toxic household cleaners.
This entropic Niagara produces other lethal disorders, not least in the human body. Work-related illnesses from silicosis to carpal-tunnel syndrome, the cancer clusters blooming around refineries and nuclear plants, join the traditional diseases of malnutrition and overcrowding triggered by three centuries of market forces shoving people off their land or out of their jobs. And as everyone knows, the disorder spewed out by the frantic global search for profits is ripping huge holes in the ecological fabric holes in the ozone layer, holes in the rainforests, holes in the webs of animal and plant species, and holes in the census figures around places like Bhopal or Chernobyl.
Beyond these, capitalist economics also generate behavioral and social forms of energy unavailable for work in the other sense of social reproduction. These include property crime from car burglary to securities fraud; violent crime caused by poverty and frustration; and, in a feedback loop with these, drug and alcohol addiction. Shifts in land and labor prices also engender forced migration and homelessness immense disruptions in demographic patterns and in people's daily lives. The other immense disruption, of course, is war, whether fought directly over markets and resources, or over some ethnic rivalry with economic shock and stress as a contributing cause.
Yet any thermodynamical system actually has two options in regard to energy that becomes unavailable for work: dumping it, or recycling it.
Just now, capitalism is not doing very well at recycling much of its entropy, especially the chemical varieties. At recycling people, however, capitalism has always been unsurpassed. In the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rich English landowners turned many of their tenants loose because the shift from diverse farming to the more profitable monoculture of sheep required more range and fewer workers. They also expelled freeholding peasants from traditionally common land they had enclosed for their own use. This dumped surplus population wandered the countryside as beggars and thieves, causing a perpetual problem for the rural social order. Some drifted into the towns, where they were likewise experienced as entropic. But gradually, nascent manufacturing began recycling them as wage-workers. Once capitalism in both agriculture and industry got off the ground in the late eighteenth century, the flow of work-energy from the land to the cities became a flood, which continues to this day.
Capitalism is so effective at recycling work-energy because it treats work as a commodity and therefore as abstract. Kinds of work are interchangeable, valued solely according to their ability to produce profit. (Thermodynamics, as the Midnight Notes group has pointed out, originated during the same epoch as Frederick Taylor's scientific management, which aimed to break industrial work down into small, mindless units for greater efficiency.) In fact, Harry Braverman, David Noble, and others have shown how the whole history of capitalist technology and management techniques is the effort to make labor more interchangeable and thereby to make workers more dispensable and less powerful. However, capital's recycling of work-energy runs afoul of the systems periodic crises. Theorists differ as to the inner cause of these crises. All of them, though, appear as a situation in which there is plenty of plant and equipment on one side and plenty of workers on the other, but in which the liquid capital cannot be found to bring the two together. The result is very high rates of both unemployment and corporate bankruptcy.
If the crisis is short enough, the effects for the system can be quite beneficial; and today, governments are able through fiscal and monetary policy to manage crisis to capitals advantage, even to bring on recessions at will (as the Federal Reserve did in 1979-82). Perhaps the most important benefit of a controlled crisis is its disciplining of workers. High unemployment makes resistance to intensified exploitation difficult, and wages can be reduced because workers are desperate. Once the new cycle starts, moreover, there is a large pool of labor available for new ventures and for expansion. But if the crisis becomes too deep and prolonged, like the Great Depression of the 30s, the human energy made unavailable for work becomes violently entropic. The unemployed and the poor demonstrate and riot; and if they form alliances with the employed, as they did then, there is potential for mass strikes and even insurrection. Keeping the entropic energy of the unemployed and the poor from contaminating the employed working class is a continuing project for the system.
Dealing Dirt & Getting Shit
Having outlined something of the range of socially generated entropy and the ways capitalism deals with it, I would like to stretch the notion a little further to cover the realms of culture and the personality. Once again I must retrace some familiar ground. Capitalist culture, as the likes of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney have demonstrated, rests on the Protestant revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which adapted the basic structures of Judeo-Christian patriarchy to fit new psychosocial needs. Protestantism, especially Calvinism, exalts thrift, the accumulation of wealth, and hard work. That is, it favors the exchange of living time for congealed dead time in the form of commodities and money, which are then accumulated. As a corollary, Protestantism preaches sexual continence, the conservation of erotic energy. Patriarchal cultures have often been anxious about the release of sperm, the Hindu theory of prana is one example. But in bourgeois-Protestant culture, sperm is viewed as a form of capital, which must, in the seventeenth-century phrase, be spent productively in begetting children. And if sperm is capital, the womb for patriarchy has always been land, the realest of real property. By making the womb-soil fruitful, the Protestant bourgeois not only continues his bloodline the aim of all patriarchs but invests in the future, founds or continues a family firm.
All this requires strict discipline. Thus, mainline Protestant culture from Luther on inculcates hierarchical obedience to ones elders and betters, beginning with the State so long as the State permits one to worship the Protestant God and accumulate a Godly fortune. It also demands, as Freud saw, deferral of gratification to a degree rare in precapitalist societies, and thus much emotional and sensual repression and rechanneling. The personality created in this image is controlled primarily through guilt, though shame is also an important spur. To inculcate and reinforce self-discipline, violence is often necessary. As in most patriarchies, death and mutilation are a State monopoly, but lesser violence such as beating are the prerogatives of every father-husband.
For this configuration, which I will call accumulationist, cultural entropy consists first of all of wasteful or unproductive behavior: free spending rather than saving, sexual promiscuity and sensuality, the open expression of passionate feeling, and of course laziness. Female sexuality is viewed with fascinated dread, since it can lead to all the other forms of cultural disorder, beginning with illegitimate children. Sex between men is an abomination. Since the accumulation of property is the chief goal of life, lack of respect for property, such as trespass, is crime on a par with violence against ones betters, and theft must be savagely punished. The flouting of hierarchy (once feudalism and the Church of Rome have been defeated) is likewise a dire threat, as is the unlicensed use of violence.
One common way for cultures and individuals to deal with anxiety about forbidden traits or behaviors is to project them outwards as defining attributes of some demonized Other. As capitalism developed through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the European and Euro-American bourgeoisies came to project entropic characteristics onto the poor of their own cities as well as onto the peoples of Africa and India they were colonizing. Half devil and half child, Kipling would call these peoples in The White Mans Burden; but nineteenth-century manufacturers said much the same of their workers (many of whom up to the 1860s were actual children). Poor people were viewed by the propertied classes as lazy, promiscuous, larcenous, drunken, and spendthrift.
There was truth, of a kind, to the stereotype. Long hours of repetitive toil produce boredom, exhaustion, and consequent sluggishness. People who live from week to week cannot save their money even if they had the incentive. Poverty and forced migration in search of work disrupt familial and communal ties and drive people to theft and prostitution. Drunkenness and senseless violence are consequences of deprivation and despair. Unlicensed forms of sexual behavior offer some of the few pleasures that can be had without money.
This unruly proletariat, mostly only one generation removed from the countryside, was only converted into a stable and respectable working class through a long acculturation. It also involved enormous State violence. In the end, relative stability was only achieved by introducing machinery that made it possible to squeeze more production out of workers without lengthening the working day.
Once the respectable working class was established in the U.S. during the last third of the nineteenth century, the same entropic characteristics were projected onto other Others: onto the lumpen proletariat or criminal classes; onto the Irish; onto immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; onto Indians and Mexicans; and above all and continuously, onto black people. And, as in the case of the earlier projection onto the poor, the projective fantasy was partly self-fulfilling, a materialized ill-wish or exorcism.
There is one crucial component to this exorcism that I have not mentioned: dirt. As we have seen, feudalism defined dirt (at least on face, hands, or clothes) as a signifier of low social status. The rising capitalist class, by its nature, had to be a lot closer to work than had the aristocracy and it had to reverse the polarity of the aristocracy's disdain for money-grubbing. It developed an even more passionate aversion to dirt, summed up in the famous Victorian maxim Cleanliness is next to Godliness. But feudal dirt differs from capitalist dirt. Feudal dirt is the sign of closeness to work and the earth. Capitalist dirt, being mostly industrial effluent or the grime of destitution, is likewise associated with work but also with poverty, waste, and the absence of Protestant bourgeois values. It is, one might say, visible entropy. Like the poor themselves, dirt is a product of capitalist accumulation that the capitalist class does not want to see or smell.
The dirtiest dirt, of course, is shit. Shits meaning in capitalist culture, however, is profoundly ambiguous. In The Ontogenesis of Money, the psychologist Sandor Ferenczi suggests that the anal retentive stage of infancy lays the foundation for the accumulationist, exchange-oriented bourgeois personality. When the child being toilet-trained deliberately holds her shit back, she gains attention and rewards for releasing it at the set time. Thus she learns to retain, to delay gratification, and to exchange one pleasure for another. She also becomes more self-contained, more aware of her own desires as distinct from those of others. To the bourgeois unconscious, then, shit is wealth but only when you cant see it.
Bourgeois wealth grows out of shit, and produces shit. Capitalism, Marx says, creates wealth at one pole of accumulation and poverty at the other. One could paraphrase this by saying that capitalist accumulation produces order at one pole and entropy at the other or else organized shit (capital) at one pole and disorganized shit (misery and pollution) at the other. The symbolic shittiness of wealth is the dirty secret of white-capitalist-patriarchal culture. Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, says that kitsch is the denial of shit. In the Stalinist Czechoslovakia of which Kundera was writing, shit meant secret police, political prisoners, few choices, shortages, stupid jobs, pollution; kitsch meant red flags flying, patriotic songs and icons of Lenin, hymns to industry and progress. In market-capitalist societies shit means violence, apolitical prisoners, meaningless choices, poverty, stupid jobs, pollution; kitsch means shopping malls, sitcoms, blockbuster comic-book movies, advertising, telectoral pseudopolitics. In either case, kitsch formulaic, sentimental, one-dimensional, cosily reassuring even at its sexiest or most brutal serves to conceal shit, which is why it is one-dimensional.
Besides the usual late-capitalist shit, white kitsch in the United States is also, as noted earlier, a denial of original crime genocide and slavery and of the fact that, as Harold Cruse put it in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon in America has nothing in his native American tradition that is aesthetically and culturally original, except that which derives from the Negro presence. White (not European) American accumulationist culture is defined by its utter blandness and avoidance of controversy or risk, by its cleanliness-as-absence.
This blandest-common-denominator culture is, notoriously, the behavioral and stylistic norm of the suburb, to which even the older, run-down exurban developments aspire. It is, besides, the ambience of the modern corporate office, where niceness rules or rather, is the means of rule. In the white-collar workplace everyone must act white: quiet, polite, cheerful, emotionally masked, sensually numb, perpetually busy, willing to tolerate any humiliation as long as its done with a smile. Controversial topics are rigidly avoided, and the ultimate taboo is discussing salaries. The excremental significance of money is apparent from the fact that good corporate citizens would rather tell you how much they get laid than how much they get paid.
The truth of wealth, however, is made historically manifest in the proletariat, the class of shitworkers. These are the people who are supposedly only fit for what the sociology texts call supervised routine tasks, which means numbingly dull, frequently health-damaging drudgery not only in the factory but at the keyboard and behind the counter. Their energy is made available for work only by fierce economic compulsion backed up by a never-ending bombardment of ideology, beginning in schools whose function is to convince them they are incapable of anything else. You ainâ€™t shit, the American insult goes, meaning you are the lowest of the low. Eat shit and like it. Shit is processed or disposed of by inferiors who are contaminated by it, who metaphorically eat it, and who metonymically (by association) become it.
No surprise, then, that black people have always been at or near the bottom of the proletarian heap in the US. Occupying at best the next level up or in many places the same level are Indians, Mexicans, Central Americans, and Puerto Ricans, also in the racist mind shit-colored. Just above them are the poor white trash, another entropy-word. All are to this day routinely represented as dishonest, loud-mouthed, lazy, lustful, stupid, booze-and-drug sodden brutes. The psychic consequences of this projection onto working-class people, and especially onto women and African-Americans, are devastating. Yet these despised creatures have been a prime source of capitalist wealth.
This wealth is not only economic but cultural. To give only the most familiar example: black people, working from the African traditions they were able to retain, created the country's most important some might say only indigenous musical forms.
Recycling In Mass Culture: The Case of Black Music
There is no need to rehash the vast and continuing expropriation of African-American music to the profit of (mostly) white-owned capital and for the entertainment of white audiences. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of U.S. music history can cite examples, from the bleaching of Ellingtonâ€™s and Basieâ€™s orchestral jazz into bland Glenn-Miller style big-band pop in the 30s and 40s to the endless recycling by white guitarists of blues riffs lifted from Robert Johnson or B.B. King. White baby-boomers howl with outrage when the rock anthems of their adolescence are converted into commercials; but this is much the same experience that black musicians and audiences have been having for nearly a century. (Michael Jackson represents the paroxysm of this process: an African-American who tries to eradicate from his face and body the traces of race while producing a color-blind dance music ingeniously constructed out of all the hot pop trends of the moment and then recycling it almost immediately into ad jingles.)
Viewed from a cultural-thermodynamic perspective, this expropriation appears if anything even more horrific. We see a dominant culture and political economy that imported Africans as slaves, worked them to death, bred them like animals, tortured them in every conceivable way for two centuries. Then for another century and a half this culture and political economy systematically exploited the descendants of the slaves as the lowest shitworkers, denying them economic opportunity and political rights wherever possible, meanwhile projecting onto them its own repressed fears and furies, loathings and longings. At the same time, this social order extracted from African-Americans the brilliant music and language they created as a way of surviving their misery. It is as if the Nazis had, while gassing the Jews and extracting their gold teeth, sold off the artwork they had created in the camps, and marketed recordings of the string quartets they had formed there to entertain the guards.
But how did African-American culture become at least in watered-down forms not merely acceptable to U.S. commercial mass culture but central to it, its semi-occult driving force? As I have tried to show, the accumulationist personality structure is profoundly hostile to Blackness as white people read into/project onto it shamelessly sensual and hedonistic, incipiently violent and uncontrollable. It is also hostile to the culture black people have themselves experienced and created. This culture is a far more complex amalgam of traits, one that varies widely by class, caste, and region and that includes distinct patterns of emotional revelation and concealment, anger and tenderness, community and individuality, reason and intuition. One major factor underlying its common differences from Euro-American cultures may be the preservation of African cultural traits, in particular the communal and ecstatic character of West African religion. But black culture is not simply or even at this point primarily transplanted African-ness. As Stanley Crouch has controversially pointed out, it is, like U.S. culture in its entirety, a mulatto phenomenon.
Black culture has been created under the pressure of African-American people's situation within the U.S. within whiteness. Under this pressure, exerted at first through slavery and later through institutions such as schooling, African-Americans have continually transformed what they have been able to preserve of their own heritage: for example, shifting African linguistic forms into English to create black vernacular. At the same time they have absorbed influences and materials not only from Euro-America but from Native people and from Mexico and the Caribbean, producing one of the richest and most complex cultures in the world. The pressure has also taken commercial form, the more so as institutional racism has become subtler in its strategies. Countless black musicians, dancers, actors, and even writers have had to flavor their work to white tastes in order to survive, often concealing subversive content through a signifying process.
A complex and revealing example is the various uses made of the myth of Staggerlee, the footloose, fearless, defiantly individualistic black man who hustles his way through life, loving women, siring children, and dealing ruthlessly with his enemies including, in later variants, the white sheriff. This figure, of course, is the ultimate racist nightmare and justification, the specter looming over a thousand lynchings and behind the phobic prose of contemporary conservative and neoliberal pundits. Yet the image is also vitally important to African-American tradition and has been attractive to a minority of whites. Numerous versions of the Staggerlee tale appeared in blues of the 20s. Muddy Waters classic urban blues Rolling Stone represented a less violent version of this character, inspiring not only the name of one of the most famous bands in rock history and that of the pioneer counterculture-corporate fusion magazine, but also numerous lesser rock songs of the 50s and 60s, of which The Wanderer is as good an example as any. Greil Marcus points out in Mystery Train that Staggerlee-Rolling Stone appeals positively to whites as well as blacks because he is a crudely antithetical but powerful image of freedom both for adolescent boys and for shitworking, shit-eating men of any color. The popularity of ultraviolent, misogynistic gangsta rap among white suburban teenage boys probably stems from analogous causes, including the excruciating boredom of their milieu and the dismal future most face as adults.
Breaking Loose vs. Hanging Tight
Such sensational use of negatively signed images of black life merely tips an iceberg. Blackness, in the dual sense in which I have employed the term, has been appropriated more broadly by the culture industry. In my view this is owing to a profound and deepening contradiction in capitalist culture and economy since the 20s. In order to expand after World War I, U.S. business needed new mass markets for consumer goods. To create these markets within the U.S. it had to stimulate in huge masses of people what John Maynard Keynes, the great economic strategist of mid-century capitalism, called the propensity to consume. The most immediate aim was to sell the consumer durables that could now be turned out cheaply en masse using the assembly-line methods developed by Henry Ford. This strategy, known to many analysts as Fordism, aimed at a car in every garage and a refrigerator in every kitchen, bought with the wages earned producing the cars and refrigerators.
At first, Fordist consumerism could be consistent with the accumulationist social personality (as it still is to some extent). Every worker could assume the trappings of Property, hallmark of virtue. As Stewart and Mary Ewen have shown, advertising between the wars (and well into the 50s for some products) played on the insecurities in this social personality: anxiety about dirt and pollution, work ethic, desire to emulate the next income level up, need to conform. Ford cars (always black) were initially sold as a more efficient form of transportation, refrigerators (always white) as promoters of hygiene and order.
But already another set of buttons was being pushed. In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, George Orwell noted how English working-class youth were opting for colorful, stylish, if shoddily made clothing rather than the somber but durable uniforms worn by their elders. Though they wore out quickly, such glad rags were cheap enough that new and fashionable ones could be bought easily. Like their U.S. counterparts, these young people liked to dance, mostly to jazz and big-band swing, and their dancing was becoming increasingly wild. They went to the movies and did their best to imitate the images of glamor and romance they saw there.
The new consumption and leisure habits growing among late Depression-era young people foreshadowed the direction merchandising was to take after World War II. The sober accumulationist consumerism of the previous generation was no longer enough to absorb the vast output of increasingly automated mass production, which had learned unprecedented efficiency while making weapons. To achieve the necessary speed of turnover, consumer goods generally had to become matters of fashion, as they had always been for the aristocracy and the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie. By the late 50s, this meant the application of planned obsolescence, previously confined to items like nylons, light bulbs, and razor blades, to durable goods like automobiles and vacuum cleaners. At the level of advertising, it meant that desire of all sorts had to be stimulated. Accumulationist repression was loosened, and the exploitation of hedonist impulses, begun cautiously in certain market sectors before the war, accelerated.
This hedonist ascendance can be viewed as a partial reappropriation of shadow characteristics banished from the white accumulationist social personality more open sexuality and sensuality, orientation toward immediate rather than deferred gratification, flaunting rather than reticence in personal style, propensity to spend and consume rather than save and acquire. But such tendencies were in sharp contradiction to the accumulationist values that still dominated political, religious, and civic discourse as well as much advertising.
The collision between accumulationist and hedonist messages helps to explain the sheer weirdness of later 50s mass culture: the heavy, finned cars like space fortresses in pastel colors; the demurely sexy TV moms mopping the kitchen floor in tight sweaters and high heels; and of course Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show with his gyrating hips blacked out. Another indicator of the change was the literally Biblical circulation enjoyed by Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, which advocated accommodation to the child's own physiological and developmental rhythms in toilet training rather than the rigid timetabling practiced by previous generations.
A large minority of the generation of whites that grew up in consumerist (relative) abundance partly absorbed the hedonist messages but by and large rejected the accumulationist ones. That is, they synthesized from pleasure-oriented advertising and the imaginary of rock-n-roll a notion of freedom that implied the absence of hierarchical accountability (say, to a parent or a boss) or customary commitment (say, to a spouse). Perhaps even more important, they absorbed images of satisfaction that focused on abandonment to experience rather than acquisition of goods, on the present rather than the future. To paraphrase the old ad-mans saying, they wanted the sizzle without buying the steak. In the context of the times, this hedonist gestalt fused temporarily with social idealism and a will to experimentation in daily life to help create what Theodore Roszak called the counter-culture.
Alongside the ascending curve of hedonism rose another, in complex relation to it. Ever since the Jazz Age, the appropriation of African-American music and style into U.S. mass culture had been on the increase. This appropriation, to be sure, was mediated by the culture industry, which bleached it for Euro-American tastes. However, significant minorities of whites always managed to gain access to the real thing. In this way they served unwittingly as feeders of new trends to the industry, rather as Bohemian types open up marginal neighborhoods to gentrification. They also consistently projected their own hedonist values onto black culture, in a partial inversion of the psychic shit-dumping practiced by the majority. The '20s Bohemians who flocked to Harlem saw jazz as exotic, wild, primitive, an image of the escape they sought from white bourgeois mores. In the 50s, the Beats who congregated around bebop musicians admired the spontaneity in their improvisations, but often failed to recognize the mastery of an entire musical language developed over generations that made the spontaneity possible.
At about the same time, working-class Southern whites like Elvis were blending with white country music the jump blues they heard in black juke joints while still talking about niggers. As Greil Marcus puts it, Even if Elvis South was filled with Puritans, it was also filled with hedonists, and the same people were both. Rock-n-roll was born. Black-derived music (and music by actual black performers) was providing the soundtrack for hedonist marketing strategies; and the soundtrack itself was becoming a hugely lucrative commodity in its own right.
The new energy of post World-War-II black popular music, though, was in part political, or at any rate pre-political. Even as rhythm and blues evolved in complex feedback loops between Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago, the ground was being laid for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955 and the decade-long explosion that followed. This explosion, the Civil Rights movement, was the other force that created the counter-culture. To some extent the transmission was direct, via the white student veterans of the Southern voter registration campaigns. For many more young middle-class whites, it came via the televised images of thousands of black people standing up to clubs, dogs, firehoses, bullets, and firebombs and refusing to back down. These images, contradicting everything they had been taught, not only filled them with anger and a desire for social justice, but offered them, however vaguely, a model of revolt, of another way to be. Even where this revolt took off in quietist (Orientalizing-meditative) or self-destructive (drug-abusing) directions, it was given much of its initial kick by African-American rebellion anticipated and transmitted in the mulatto music of rock-n-roll.
From the early rock-n-roll period through about 1970, the two curves, hedonism and black influence, moved intermittently close together, exchanging energy via figures such as Chuck Berry, Elvis, and later Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Yet despite its partial rejection of white accumulationist values and behavior and much superficial admiration for spades the counter-culture remained overwhelmingly Euro-American. Its music, while still blues-based, was leagues away in feeling from the black pop of the period, typified by Motown, which smoothed out Gospel into sweet, danceable crossover tunes. Sly and the Family Stone were virtually alone in synthesizing the two strains of cultural energy, in a string of hits that carried the band to Woodstock in 1969.
Then, in 1971-3, fueled by the last surge of Black Power and the politicizing of the white counter-culture via the anti-war movement, black musicians briefly took over the pop airwaves with exciting, challenging, politically potent songs: Edwin Starr's War, Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues, Wars The World Is A Ghetto, to name a few. Among these songs was the Temptations grim, eerie Papa Was A Rollin Stone, which brilliantly critiqued the Staggerlee myth even as it acknowledged the myths basis in reality. In the song, a black mother gathers her children at the grave of their absent father, and they want to know more about him. When he died, all he left us was alone, she replies. At a cultural node where white notions of Blackness and white men's escape fantasies fed on actual black experience and black men's fantasies about themselves, the Temptations were cutting one pipeline while pouring truth down another. Hitherto, the culture industry's selective appropriation of black culture had mostly been limited to those features that could be fitted, however incompletely, into the hedonist gestalt. The cultural-political surge of the early 70s both allowed black artists to speak and perform more freely and opened a channel wide enough that their newly undiluted music directly touched more whites than ever before.
This breaching of the cultural firewalls was preceded and accompanied by a massive breakdown of work discipline. The postwar boom was the first (and only) period in which capital had tried to manage labor under conditions of generalized abundance, in which the spur of destitution was softened by near-full employment and by social welfare programs. The experiment failed. From about 1967 on, the colorful revolt of the counter-culture, Black Power, and the mass movement against the Vietnam War both concealed and helped propagate a revolt on the job. Beginning mainly in the auto industry, waves of sabotage, absenteeism, and wildcat strikes spread through the U.S. economy. These waves were initiated especially by black workers, who had formed their own semilegal shop-floor organizations to resist the racism of both their supervisors and their unions and the superexploitation to which they were often consigned. They were increasingly joined in their rebellion by newly urbanized white trash workers, as well as by urban working-class freaks who had drifted back into the factories. Hedonist mass culture and its countercultural offshoots had combined with African-American revolt and the weakening of economic compulsion to make more and more social and cultural energy literally unavailable for work. Fordism was shattered.
The early-to-mid-70s, in fact, marked a point of real danger for capitalism in the developed countries. But crises are the other thing capitalism has always been good at recycling. The threatening entropic energy of the oil shock and the Third World debt crisis in 1974-6 was turned, with the aid of computers and telecommunications, into a global reorganization of the system. The oil-price recession of 1974 began the process of restoring work discipline, especially though the hysterical atmosphere of scarcity created by the mass media and by such measures as gasoline rationing. Meanwhile, U.S.-based multinationals intensified their export of capital and of what had been high-wage manufacturing jobs to the Asian Pacific Rim and Latin America. Still, inflation, bane of the accumulationist mindset, continued to eat away at U.S. capital assets until the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in 1979, causing unemployment to soar as several jolts of recession shot through the economy.
The result was that millions of workers, especially black ones, were tossed out of the factories while the remainder were bullied into line, their already sclerotic and corrupt unions broken. Hedged in by new legislation and hostile courts and bureaucracies, strikes were made virtually illegal. The centers of industrial power that Fordism had created were scattered one after another, as the Smokestack Belt became the Rust Belt. Second-wave feminism, which had started out with radical criticisms of the ruling order, had already been sidetracked into opportunity ideology for professional-class women on the one hand, and cultural feminist separatism on the other. Now the brief surge of woman-oriented office-worker organizing that began in the late 70s was halted. A ferocious assault on entitlements and social programs was launched. Real wages fell, even as housing prices soared. The shift of capital from industrial investment to frenzied speculation began. Capitals bipolar shit-machine went into high gear, spewing money and obedience out of one end and every sort of entropic foulness and horror out of the other.
Cultural control was also being re-established. A version of the accumulationist social personality was set up as the norm by closing the loop between accumulation and pleasure, by making the process of accumulation the supreme pleasure. Like the miswired psychopath in The Terminal Man, who gets an orgasmic rush from the implant in his brain whenever he murders, the looter-heroes of 80s casino capitalism shuddered with ecstasy as they made killings on the market. Most white proletarians, their solidary links with fellow-workers weakened, terrorized by the prospect of homelessness, fell easy prey to vertical identification with the rich and with the nation-state. The Reagan's presided over this Scheissfest as the wish-dream of the ageing white suburban middle classold but looking good, rich but relaxed, stylish but virtuous.
The Global Dump
The new phase of capital accumulation that began around 1979 is characterized, as theorists like David Harvey have noted, by its great flexibility and unprecedented global reach. These are made possible by the new power and cheapness of computers and by the speed of worldwide telecommunications, as well as by the breaking of working-class power in the developed countries. Capital, in the form of money, materials, and product specifications, can be switched around the planet so fast that no existing worker strategies or organizations can keep pace. As Harvey puts it in The Condition of Postmodernity, The same shirt designs can be produced by large-scale factories in India, cooperative production in the Third Italy, sweatshops in New York and London, or family labor systems in Hong Kong.
Capital's new freedom of action generates unprecedented amounts of social and ecological entropy. Developing countries have not been able to afford much in the way of environmental or worker protection, because their industries have lacked the economies of scale and technologically based productivity that would allow them to compete successfully with transnational corporations even in their own markets. Now, desperate for investment, they are permitting the transnationals to draw on their pools of underemployed cheap labor while benefiting from the lower operating costs imposed by their largely unregulated economies. The result is the pollution and hopeless overcrowding of places like Mexico City or So Paolo on one side, and the deforestation of Southeast Asia or the Amazon Basin on the other.
Both the sale of toxic or hazardous commodities and the disposal of wastes are often referred to as dumpingin the U.S., also a slang term for shitting. Dumping is a central process of post-Fordist capital. The developed countries relationship to the periphery (including their own underdeveloping regions and populations) is not merely exploitative and extractive, but excretive. Peripheral countries are used for particularly hazardous kinds of production, like the pesticides Union Carbide was making at Bhopal. Also, they are sold discount merchandise no longer saleable in the countries of its manufacture because of toxicity or other hazards; and they are bribed to become disposal sites for toxic waste. More subtly but just as devastatingly, they have been victims of the economic entropy dumped on them by a global system convulsing itself in the effort to boost profit rates and locate capital for investmentas artificially depressed prices for raw materials, as mountains of debt, and finally as IMF-imposed austerity plans. This translates to the dumping of millions of former peasants into the shanty-towns that ring Third World cities.
Each of these excretive processes has its analogy in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Not only are toxic-waste sites and polluting factories concentrated in or near them, but the misery and poor education of many of their residents is being exploited by drug merchants legal and illegal, who are dumping their merchandise principally tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine there as middle-class suburban markets soften. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Great Society period under Lyndon Johnson, these neighborhoods have been systematically starved of resources as Federal housing-loan policies virtually bribed whites to abandon the inner cities while deliberately preventing blacks from doing so, as industry followed the whites into the suburbs over the next twenty years, as financial institutions redlined the neighborhoods into slums, and as social programs and public education have been sliced to ribbons over the last decade. Finally, it is much of the black and Latino working class itself that has been dumped, flushed down the toilet, as its unreliable work-energy has been expelled from the wage system. Now these workers are recycled as low-octane fuel in the sweatshops that bring one final excremental insult to the inner cities shit jobs.
All this, following on other adaptations forced by the history of slavery and then by the constant brutal pressures of poverty and discrimination that followed, has allowed white projections a limited basis in reality the materialized ill-wish I spoke of earlier. To grasp this idea, suppose a woman's face has after repeated beatings healed with a bent nose, accretions of scar tissue, and broken veins. Suppose also that understandably, her habitual expression is one of bitterness and anger. Then suppose that the woman is forced by her abuser to wear a translucent mask that grotesquely exaggerates every result of her injuries to create a laughable and frightening caricature, obliterating the beauty and strength that persist under the scars.
One example of this caricatured semi-reality is black extended family networks, in which children have been somewhat more likely than their white counterparts to be raised by a relative other than their biological parents, and in which fathers have (supposedly) been more often absent. This difference is routinely inflated by racist demagogues, starting with the liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan, into the irresponsible, licentious pathology of the black family, responsible for most ills of the underclass. Yet as similar sorts of prolonged economic dislocation, insecurity, and hopelessness hit white working-class people, their family structures and childrearing practices have begun to alter in the same ways. (There are certainly more white deadbeat dads than black ones.) What's more, the pathologist commentators make little mention of the evident familial loyalty and devotion of black alternative childrearers like aunts and grandmothers.
Another example is the higher per capita rates of crime by black people, asserted by these same apologists to be part of the underclass pathology; a more reasonable explanation is the decrepit public education in the inner cities and the catastrophic levels of unemployment faced by young black men. (At the height of the Civil Rights movement in the early to mid-1960s, in a surge of hope and social solidarity, crime fell by as much as half in many black communities.)
Both the fatherless or matriarchal black family and black criminality have been the raw material for countless movies and TV shows during the last twenty-five years, in what Ishmael Reed aptly calls black pathology entertainment. This is how poverty-entropy and crime-entropy are recycled by capital as social and ideological terrorism. The revived Staggerlee image of the ruthless, sociopathic black criminal, most recently personified in Willie Horton, has proved a reliable way to drill white working people into alliance with their exploiters and to suppress the possibility of a cross-racial class alliance. Audience-participation verité cop shows like America's Most Wanted, whose viewers work as snitches to turn in alleged criminals, promote vertical identification with the State and the police. The LAPD trial, depending as it did on a negrophobic and authoritarian reading of the Rodney King tape, can be seen as an extension of these shows into the courtroom. In the stop-motion ritualistic dance video the prosecution made of the tape, violence was slowed down until the viciousness of the cops faded and was replaced by the threat conjured from Kings every movement.
Conclusion: Fucking Shit Up
Where a margin of profit or political gain is foreseeable, capitalism tries to reabsorb or recycle energy that has become unavailable for work. The waste recycling and pollution cleanup industries are the most obvious example, but the ways deviant subcultures are recycled into commercial fashion are probably more economically important. When recycling does not seem desirable, capitalism does its best to make the energy unusable for any alternate system or order that, is, an order outside the circuits of corporate power and money value. This tendency is visible in a thousand petty and gross acts of waste, from tearing the covers off unsold books to destroying surplus agricultural commodities that could feed tens of thousands of hungry people.
The single most dangerous form of entropy for capitalism is large-scale organized revolt, typically provoked by (and provoking) economic and political crisis. But even this energy can be harnessed, if its own internal organization and scale does not carry it beyond the terms of capitalist social relationships. The long and bitter struggle of nineteenth-century wage-slaves to shorten the working day proved a huge spur to mechanization, which in turn made possible the opening up of vast new markets and, arguably, the survival of the system for another century. Likewise, the containment of the industrial revolts of the 30s within the CIO unionization drive facilitated the shop-floor discipline needed to produce for World War II and the Fordist deal that came after, in which intensified work and longer hours were traded for wage increases.
The case of the black rebellion of the 60s and 70s is more complex. To some extent, the U.S. capitalist class has been able to channel the rebellions energy into a spectacle of equal opportunity and tolerance built on the civil rights legislation passed between 1959 and 1975, with additional use being made of a suitably edited icon of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But this spectacle masks a vicious if politically useful division of the African-American population into middle-class workers on the one hand and ghetto poor on the other most of whom are still working for wages, but much lower ones. Also, of course, money is being made off the resurgence of Black Nationalist ideology among rap groups like Public Enemy. But by and large it is the second tendency that has been followed: to make surplus African-American proletarians unavailable for any other order by allotting them social conditions so intolerable that they collectively self-destruct through addiction, alcoholism, psychosis, hypertension, internecine violence, and imprisonment. Both the success and the limits of this strategy can be seen in the L.A. uprising.
As various black radicals have long pointed out, the systems treatment of black people is the extreme case and testing ground of what it is doing to all of us, and has been doing to all working-class people for generations. Conversely, African-Americans provide countless brilliant examples of how people can recycle the shit dumped on them into an alternate order for themselves, as speech, as art, and as strategy. African America's unabsorbed, vivid, rich, poor, damaged, surviving presence is a constant reminder that capitalism depends for its daily perpetuation on brutalizing people in every conceivable way and that this brutalization can be resisted. Capitalism's central brutality consists in forcing people to choose between giving up most of their lives to mind-numbing, body-destroying toil or scrabbling for scraps like rats in a garbage heap. This choice is what the LAPD and all its kindred bodies exist to enforce, and this choice is what we must collectively refuse.
How can we refuse it? The history of black people in the U.S. also teaches Euro-Americans that their whiteness is not an ethnicity but a dominance category and a denial mechanism; in other words, that it is empty of everything but power and forgetting. This forgetting really only benefits the few at the top of the social pyramid, and must be reproduced by a constant blizzard of white noise in the mass media, as well as by every mechanism of geographical, educational, and economic segregation the system can bring to bear. Whenever whiteness starts to break down, as it did during the Sixties, danger looms for the system, because new forms of order, involving the refusal of work and the direct assertion of collective need, tend to appear. The young whites in their reversed baseball caps and baggy shorts who ran furiously through the streets after the LAPD verdict was announced, who cheerfully looted supermarkets alongside their black and Latino neighbors, had for the time being ceased to be white. To me they are a source of pride and hope, an emblem of the fruitful disorder to come.