Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Selling Out or The Organic Capitalist

Update:  This essay was recently featured on the following blog: http://louisproyect.org/2015/01/22/ivory-tower-the-internets-own-boy-the-story-of-aaron-swartz/

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be brought out into the open and clarified.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for afford-ability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent's, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital's tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attained all that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital's interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee's expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.