We’re back in the classroom and, among other things, I’m team teaching a large lecture class on “Work, Labor, and Social Justice in the U.S.” My colleagues asked me to give a lecture that introduces the students to the historical component of the course. The previous lecture, by the sociologist on the team, introduced students to various sociological approaches to work and capitalism (Marx, Weber, Durkheim). As I was mulling over my lecture material, I definitely wanted to connect with the current economic drama. It’s a curse to live in interesting times, so the saying goes, but it’s really good for lecture material.
Since Marx’s approach to alienation had been one of the prominent themes of the previous lecture, I took that as my jumping off point. Why, I asked, if workers are so alienated don’t they rise up in rebellion? I started off by showing them the scene from The Matrix where Nemo wakes up in his liquid pod to discover that he’s just part of a massive power plant run to service “the machines.” After he surveys the horrific scene, a machine comes by to disconnect him and flush him down the drain. He wakes up in the rebel ship: “Welcome to the real world.”
It was interesting to query the students on this as an allegory of alienated labor. What is the “work” that Nemo does? Why don’t more people rebel? Since everyone had seen the movie, they knew the answers: the illusion of normal life created by the Matrix, the isolation of each human from others, and the enforcer programs who shoot down any rebels.
No we don’t live in the Matrix. But consider it an allegory for consumer culture. There are certain aspects of our society that we take as common sense, that we never question and just go about living our lives assuming they are so. Until something happens that tears the fabric of common sense, and we get a view of a different reality. These are the moments in history that are often the most interesting, the moments when common sense becomes ideology. And we’re living through one one of those moments right now. As an example I offered a recent “The Word” segment from the Colbert Report. Free market ideology is increasingly seen as just that: an ideology, rather than an unchallengeable truth.
Since then I’ve been collecting similar tidbits that demonstrate the dissolution of “common sense” into ideology. Here are a few examples, which I post mostly for my own note-taking reasons. But you might find them instructive.
The New York Times had a piece Sunday asking “How Free Should the Free Market Be?”. Although this contained a few nuggets of BS, it’s a measure of how far we’ve traveled in a very short time.
The Financial Times (always good to read the real capitalist press) has a piece on the collapse of the Washington Consensus on neoliberalism and the coming reorientation of global capitalism.
And this morning, the Washington Post asks whether the current crisis is “The End of Capitalism?” You’ll be relieved to know that it isn’t, according to the Post. Just the end of totally irresponsible financial free-wheeling that the Post and other mainstream media have been pumping up for the past 20 years.
After this week’s global market collapse there are calls not only for a coordinated world-wide economic plan, but a market holiday or Time-Out while the economic geniuses of the world figure out what to do. Sounds familiar. Also, look for a major demand-side stimulus package after the election (yes, please).
On the theme of pulling back the curtain, consider the search trend for the term “golden parachute”:
The bailout drama, in addition to other things, made Google users are very, very aware of the fact that corporate executives who run their companies (and our economy) into the ground get rich severance packages. Of course, it drops again, but it isn’t something folks will soon forget. The phrase “another Great Depression” is also popular with searchers.
And finally, why has a CIO cartoon from the 1950s become the most viewed image on my Flickr photostream? I only posted it in July and it’s way past much older images.
Strap yourselves in, economically it’s going to be a bumpy ride.