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beyond anti-capitalism

Simon Danser

This article comprises six sections, each of which provide largely independent thoughts about 'anti-capitalism', all triggered by reading a half-cooked version of foamy custard and, a few days later, E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common. The reader is required to leap over the chasms that separate these different sections and draw their own conclusions.

Since breaking into wider awareness in 1999 with the 'Carnival against Capitalism' in June and the 'Battle of Seattle' in November, a fairly wide-ranging protest movement has been labelled 'anti-capitalism' or 'anti-globalisation'. Since the start of the thunderous sabre-rattling of the Bush/Blair 'special relationship' at the end of 2001, the movement has also somewhat merged with the anti-war protests, and a broadening anti-American sentiment.

As with all labels that are 'anti-' anything (or, indeed, 'post-' or 'pre-' something) they stand or fall relative to whatever they are dialectically contrasted with. The self-definitions of anti-capitalist protestors (see for example Anti-capitalism: modern theory and historical origins and Anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-everything) leads me to think that their objectives might just as aptly be termed 'anti-hegemony' or 'post-capitalism'. However, if only to fit with the more-or-less established tradition, it is simplest to refer to 'anti-capitalism', even if this should not be used to narrowly define the wider concerns expressed by protestors.

Even if the 'apathetic' and apolitical middle classes of the USA and the UK may have some sympathies with the extent to which modern governments too often support the interests of corporate businesses and not the interests of the electorate, the 'anti-capitalist' movement is far too 'Other' to have wide appeal.

Despite the assertion:

    Anti-capitalism isn't Communism or Marxism – the last communist nations on earth practice capitalism today. It isn't anarchism – it says nothing about government or freedom. It isn't nihilism – it's about improvement and change, not total destruction.
    Anti-capitalism: modern theory and historical origins
the reality is that the rhetoric of the anti-capitalist movement tends towards modified Marxism and/or anarchy. Predictably enough, the mass media will always emphasise such tendencies, knowing that they are essentially alien to 'middle class' ideologies. Without a clear political ideology of its own, anti-capitalism is also wide open for opponents to play the old game of divide and conquer (or, perhaps more appropriately, divide and trivialise).

generalising the problem

By focussing on specific icons – the World Bank, the IMF, MacDonalds, and the like – the anti-capitalists might also be accused of looking at the trees rather than the wood. It is not simply the strengths of capitalism that are the problem but the absence of effective political opposition to the hegemony.

While it is only a decade since Francis Fukuyama regarded the achievements of democratic capitalism as the ultimate evolution of politics and, indeed, The End of History (Fukuyama 1992), we can already see that this 'ideal' is seriously flawed. The major political parties in the USA and the UK have got into power by offering sweetners to the floating voters (backed up by law suits in Florida if necessary) while peddling essentially the same flavour of middle-right 'corporate subservience'.

Political policy making was replaced by focus group short-termism – one of the current Labour government's own spin doctors, Derek Draper, reports that party policy was determined by 'groups of eight people sipping wine in Kettering' (The Century of the Self BBC2 broadcast Spring 2002).

Over the last decade democratic capitalism has proved to be poor at both social equality and planning for the future. These are exactly the two areas that capitalist commerce is never going to address without government coercion. In the USA and UK all other political matters are seemingly secondary to ensuring the electorate consumes avidly and uncritically. Rising poverty levels in these countries and the increasingly removal of welfare (and the consequent increases in crime and prison populations) have little impact on the 'groups of eight people sipping wine in Kettering' so become politically invisible. The effect of 'domestic' political policies on Third World economies are completely beyond the awareness of focus groups and so, like the sweat-shop economies that sustain the international brands, far greater problems can be intensified without any risk of affecting political popularity.

Simultaneously major Western governments have also removed – indeed inverted – the main reason a populace benefit from a democracy. Where democracies should score over monarchies and oligarchies is by providing private individuals with a way of exerting power over corporate businesses. By this definition US and UK government can be regarded as a democracies in name only, as the powers of government are now forced through the hoops set for them by corporate lobbyists. Few if any of the 'pressure groups' based around private individuals can muster more than a small percentage of the budgets devoted to parliamentary lobbying and funding by commerce and industry (and if these prodigious sums of money weren't bringing in the right sort of 'returns' then these budgets would have been cut a long time ago).

The deeply-intertwined hegemonic partnership of corporate businesses, mass media and modern government 'spin doctoring' have ensured that there is no alternative to democratic parties that are (a) dismantling social equality; (b) refusing to plan effectively for the future; (c) taking the side of corporate businesses rather than the populace. The Western world is better described as a hegemony rather than a democracy, at least in any meaningful sense of the word 'democracy'.

intentional ignorance

Early in the eighteenth century Bernard Mandeville wrote:

    To make the Society Happy and People Easy under the meanest of Circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor.… The more a Shepherd, a Plowman or any other Peasant knows of the World, and the things that are Foreign to his Labour or Employment, the less fit he'll be to go through the Fatigues and Hardships of it with Cheerfulness and Content.
    The Fable of the Bees (Penguin edn 1970 p191).
Mandeville went on to write:
    It is impossible that a Society can long subsist and suffer many of its Members to live in Idleness, and enjoy all the Ease and Pleasure they can invent, without having at the same time great multitudes of People that make good this effect, will condescend to be quite the Reverse, and by use and patience inure their Bodies to Work for others and themselves besides.
    The Fable of the Bees (Penguin edn 1970 p292–3).
Since Mandeville's day the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, various socialist and communist revolutions (and their demises), and the rise of a global economy have given his words a significance that now extends well beyond Europe. In recent decades the number of Members who live in Idleness has diminished in number (although certainly not in combined wealth) and the Bodies who Work (with their consequent Fatigues and Hardships, and rarely for more than two dollars a day) now comprise most of the Third World.

Mandeville was explicitly arguing against the lower classes being taught literacy and numeracy. In the nineteenth century one of the attractions of the nonconformist churches in Britain was that they offered Sunday Schools. Quite unlike the Sunday Schools of a century later, when Sunday School meant Bible stories, these provided a basic education in the 'Three 'Rs' for a significant proportion of the population that would otherwise have remained uneducated. The intent was one of explicit 'dissent' – empowering the lower classes with the ability to read 'improving books' (not only the Bible) and newspapers, thereby entering fully into the political debates of the day. The fathers of these Sunday School children could be found discussing recent political events in village reading rooms and at self-help 'institutes' and the formative trade unions. Indeed, the conversation in the local 'tap room' was likely to be far more politicised than it ever has been in the last hundred years. (See Thompson 1963; 1993.)

The dangers of self-educated people talking politics in the pubs were self-evident to the powers-that-be. Rather than try to tell them what to think they very successfully suggested what they should think about. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century spectator sports such as football and cricket were promoted (a few decades later Americans were sold baseball, US football and basketball). The notion of watching sport rather than doing it is itself rather ridiculous, but something even more ridiculous resulted – men and boys spent a large proportion of their leisure time talking about what they had watched or were hoping to watch the next weekend. Newspapers pioneered ways of distracting the 'common man' from potentially seditious conversations. Recognising that men's leisure interests are mostly a continuation of their boyhood, this propaganda was very usefully sown in children's comics such as Boy's Own. Tabloid newspapers and television have now made such distractions a part of 'normal life'. Such endless and peculiarly pointless conversations have of course evolved into an industry of epic proportions selling people over-priced clothing (produced in the usual Third World sweatshops) to be worn while 'supporting' this smoke-screen instigated by the hegemony.

The wives of these men had to wait for TV soaps before their leisure time was equally subverted. In the mean time the middle classes were offered distracting 'pass times' such as golf and motoring, notably through the pages of Country Life which, during the middle decades of the twentieth century, created an invented rural idyll that still pervades modern day notions of the British countryside. (See Roy Strong's beautiful elucidation of the way Country Life has influenced modern thinking in Strong 1996).

As the twentieth century unfolded a plethora of lifestyle magazines, radio, and then television increasingly provided topics for trivial conversations. As ever the hegemonic forces were not telling people what to think, just what they should think about. These days going into a rural pub and starting a conversation about politics rather than football, golf or cars is now the mark of an eccentric, someone who is rather too zealous to be 'one of us'.

Clearly much has changed in the three hundred years since Bernard Mandeville promoted the necessity of keeping the population in Ignorance. Notably the modern industrialised world needs a workforce with basic literacy and numeracy, together with the vocational skills that the education system strives to provide. There is now little risk of seditious conversations in the pubs – the mass media very successfully fills our 'idle time' with trivia. In this way Mandeville's desired Ignorance is attained.

By the 1950s consumerism was promoted by adopting René Girard's ideas of 'mimetic desire', by which he means that we copy our desires from other people. 'Media personalities' seemingly open up their private lives in the popular press so we can desire the clothes, cars, furnishings, gadgets, holidays that they lend their personas to. The required Ignorance simultaneously opens up a capitalist's utopia of consumerism. The hegemony has ever reason to be happy with way the mass media works.

contesting the hegemony

As R.J. Morris has noted, one concept of hegemony is to imply 'the near impossibility of the working class or organized sections of that class being able to generate radical… ideas independent of the dominant ideology.' (Morris 1977)

If the modern world is better described as a hegemony rather than a democracy then one useful measure of ignorance would be to ask how many people in the First World have even a rough-and-ready understanding of the word 'hegemony'. Based on a rough-and-ready survey of my own social world (mostly middle-class people in Leicestershire) the answer seems to be about two percent (and these 'exceptions' are academics in subjects where hegemony is part of their 'jargon'). Friends and acquaintances who do not know the meaning of hegemony include notionally well-educated people who have impressive commercial and scientific careers. Even allowing for the general apathy about politics among middle-class English people, this suggests to me that the modern mass media has succeeded in keeping around 98 percent of the population in Mandevillian Ignorance.

Hegemonies work most effectively when the dominant few have only indirect contact with the source of their wealth. E.P. Thompson has described how this created a three-tier system in the eighteenth century, where the landowning gentry mediated their power through a middle layer of stewards, bailiffs, tenant farmers, dealers and other 'middlemen'. This meant that the landless labourers by and large, 'did not confront the gentry as employers, nor were the gentry seen to be in any direct sense responsible for their conditions of life…' (Thompson 1993: 43). For example, Thompson notes that 'When the price of food rose, popular rage fell not on the landowners but upon middlemen, forestallers, millers. The gentry might profit from the sale of wool, but they were not seen to be in a direct exploitative relation to the clothing workers.' (1993: 43–4) The gentry 'met the lower sort of people mainly on their own terms, and when these were clients for their favours; in the formalities of the bench [i.e. for infringements of the legal system]; or on calculated occasions of popular patronage.' (1993: 45).

Parallels for the 'real powers' (and wealth accumulators) of the modern world also operating through a middle layer are clear (politicians and senior media executives are the more conspicuous examples of this middle layer). Indeed the main difference between the élites of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries is that they are now totally invisible to the populace. Unlike 'media celebrities', their lives do not feature in the press. They are most certainly well removed from the sort of people who might take part in an anti-capitalist protest. The anger of anti-capitalists can only be directed at the 'middle tier', while the 'real powers' have their anonymity protected by their 'middlemen' running the mass media. Apart from Fortune magazine's annual list of the world's wealthiest people, such folk rarely get their names into print or even, and this is perhaps more surprising, onto the pages of anti-capitalist Web sites. As in the eighteenth century, the focus of attention is more on the 'middle tier' than on the individuals who benefit most from the hegemonic system.

Nevertheless Thompson manages to keep an optimistic outlook:

    But while cultural hegemony may define the limits of what is possible, and inhibit the growth of alternative horizons and expectations, there is nothing determined or automatic about this process. Such hegemony can be sustained by the rulers only by the constant exercise of skill, of theatre and of concession. Second, such hegemony, even when imposed successfully, does not impose an all-embracing view of life; rather it imposes blinkers, which inhibit vision in certain directions while leaving it clear in others. It can co-exist (as it did co-exist in eighteenth-century England) with a very vigorous self-activating culture of the people, derived from their own experience and resources. This culture, which may be resistant at many points to any form of exterior domination, constitutes an ever-present threat to official descriptions of reality…
    (Thompson 1993: 86–7)
Although this seems a long way removed from what the anti-capitalist movement has so far achieved, I consider that they could take much useful inspiration from Thompson's remarks.

arenas for contest

Much as the hegemonic processes makes full use the media and the education system to 'implant' an uncontested world view of subordination and powerlessness, the 'blinkers' can be removed and the hegemonies can be contested. The relevance to foamy custard is that what might be regarded as 'contemporary folklore' rather than mass culture provides the arena where such contests are more likely to be situated.

Clearly I am not thinking of such self-conscious folklore as morris dancing or making corn dollies. What I am referring to is the otherwise unnamed category of ideas and activities that are exchanged – and developed – between people who socialise or work together, that is, what folklorists would term 'folk groups' (even though the people concerned would just consider themselves as part of a group of people who met up to share a common leisure interest or merely 'hung out' together).

Equally clearly only a small part of the ideas and activities of such 'folk groups' can be considered to contest hegemonic ideas. Traditionally among the most politicised of such 'folk groups' would be members of trade unions or the UK's Workers' Education Association. During the heyday of folk music clubs in the 1950s through to the 1980s both the content of the songs and the general political 'ambience' of the members was most certainly left of centre. More conspicuous examples of British counter-cultural 'folk groups' since the 1950s include Mods and Rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks, rap music (and indeed the whole hip hop culture), so-called 'New Age travellers', 'rave culture' (with the whole free festival 'scene'), and British Asian bhangra music.

With the exception of hippies and hip hop, which were essentially imported form America, all the others are to all intents and purposes 'home grown' popular cultures. Their formative phases were in no way mediated by TV or newspapers (although the mass media were quick enough to subject them to the usual hegemonic processes of trivialisation if they were recognised as subversive threats; Will Brooker has described these very effectively [Brooker 1998: 66–8], drawing upon the ideas of Dick Hebdige (1979). Interestingly, bhangra is the only one of these examples that has not been trivialised, perhaps because it is not regarded as subversive, although diluted versions of 'Bollywood' (one of bhangra's 'roots') have been promoted by the media recently.

In the last five years the definition of a 'folk group' has to be expanded to incorporate the idea of 'Web communities'. I use this term very loosely to include, for example, people who regularly visit counter-cultural Weblogs (such as MetaFilter) as well as people who more actively take part in UseNet discussions, email forums, or chatrooms. Internet chatrooms are infamous for contesting sexual 'norms' and, at a more overtly political level, objections to G W Bush's plans to attack Iraq have mostly been disseminated over the Internet rather than in the mass media. Equally, far-right ideas and Holocaust-denial sites also proliferate on the Internet. While not sharing the views expressed on these sites they are, of course, equally valid examples of attempts to contest the hegemonic processes.

While 'folk groups' such as hip hop artists or chatroom users are considerably different to the anti-capitalist movement (which comprises of a large number of loosely-connected 'folk groups') they show that those who look for hegemonic opposition amidst 'mass culture' are looking in the wrong direction (unless they are simply interested in the way the media trivialises such opposition).

This can be seen quite clearly in the way the anti-capitalist demonstrations have entered the annals. Demonstrations are excellent 'street theatre' but are dependent on the mass media to publicise them, and therefore subject to misinterpretation or gross simplification of the motives of the demonstrators (e.g. being presented as Marxists or anarchists).

The groups organising protests will always be prime targets for CIA and MI6 undercover agents, who will encourage extremism and violence, but this is saying nothing new as this is a tradition which has been well-honed since the Jacobite rebellions of the seventeenth century, and was widely used by the Special Branch in Britain in the 1960s. Even if violence is not promoted by 'moles', the reaction of the establishment is to respond to such subversive threats with excessive violence – a tradition which dates back to the Diggers and Peterloo, and was well-rehearsed in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher in setting up unprovoked pitched battles with the miners, Poll tax protestors, and New Age travellers. (American readers might relate more to the shootings at Ohio State University in May 1970.) Little surprise that the same tactics were exported to Gothenburg and Genoa during 2001.

Beyond the anti-

Anti-capitalism, post-capitalism, anti-hegemony or what thou wilt contains political ideas that could potentially appeal to a wide cross-section of voters who currently feel that the major political parties have established policies that bear little relationship to their needs or wishes. However the movement needs to move beyond a merely dialectical 'anti-this', 'anti-that' or even 'post-whatever' and create an identity which is not merely dialectically-opposed to the existing hegemony. Above all it needs to establish clear channels of communication with the wider public. The Internet has the ability to reach people (and to create communities or 'folk groups') once they are 'in the know', but not to create the initial awareness. For that independent 'magazines' – preferably ones with a strong sense of humour to them – are essential. Private Eye and Viz run in ruts that are too deep to cross over into a wider readership. Popular music magazines such as Mixmag are in many ways more counter-cultural than Viz or Private Eye but clearly not overtly political. Such magazines have existed since the 1950s (although their activities of the more conspicuous ones have – reportedly – been consistently compromised by funding stemming from the CIA).

In essence this means that 'folk groups' (as defined earlier in this article) which exist among readers of one or more 'counter-cultural' magazines and associated Web sites are potentially a more valuable way of developing 'anti-hegemonic' ideas than trying to get exposure in the mass media through street protests and other 'newsworthy' events. The 'powers that be' and the middle tier of media owners, business directors and politicians are too expert at semiotics (or at least use spin doctors and advertising agencies who are) for 'mass culture' to be capable of more than a diffuse and undirected contest to their hegemony.

bibliographical references

BROOKER, Will, 1998, Cultural Studies, Teach Yourself.
FUKUYAMA, Francis, 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, Hamilton
HEBDIGE, Dick, 1979, Subculture: The meaning of style.
MORRIS, R.J. 1977, in Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History Autumn 1977 pp62–3; cited in Thompson 1993 p85 fn1).
STRONG, Roy, 1996, Country Life: 1897–1997: The English arcadia, Boxtree.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1963, The making of the English working class, Gollancz; revised edition 1980.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Customs in Common, New Press.

 

copyright © Simon Danser 2003

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