5/2/2013 3:23:50 PM
As marketing to children intensifies, what can society do?
This article is adapted from Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.
A four-year-old arrives at school and starts crying when she realizes her lunch is packed in a generic plastic bag, not the usual Disney Princess lunchbox she so loves. A friend tells her she won’t be able to sit at the princess lunch table—it’s only for girls with princess lunchboxes.
A fourth grader arrives home from school all excited. He has a Book It certificate from Pizza Hut because his mother signed the form showing that he met the reading-at-home goal his teacher set for him. He pleads with his mother to take him to Pizza Hut for dinner that night.
Sixth graders are assigned the task of writing to their principal about something important that they would like to see happen at their school. They decide to ask for school vending machines that sell snack foods and drinks.
Marketing is a more powerful force in the lives of children growing up today than ever before, beginning from a very young age. The stories above provide but a few examples of how it can shape learning and behavior at home and in school. Marketing affects what children want to eat, wear, and play, and with whom they play. It also shapes what they learn, what they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And it primes them to be drawn into, exploited, and influenced by marketing efforts in schools.
What Can We Do?
Many feel that a complete ban on all marketing to children is an impossible dream. But that is exactly what many countries do. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece, and totally banned in Sweden and Norway. Studies have recently shown that children in Sweden want fewer toys, as a result. A study proves what companies already know: advertising to children works. Why advertise if it’s not effective? Similar efforts to restrict advertising were attempted in the United States in the 1970s but, unfortunately, failed to pass.
More restrictions might be on the way in countries like the UK, where a recent investigation into the causes of the 2011 looting found that a culture of consumption, fueled by marketers, played a role in the civil unrest. Early in 2012, the Riots, Communities, and Victims Panel, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, called for action against “aggressive advertising aimed at young people,” citing evidence that “rampant materialism was an underlying cause of last year’s lawlessness.”
The fact that marketing in schools is such an omnipresent and pernicious force in children’s lives makes finding solutions of utmost importance. It is unrealistic to expect that in the current economic times we can make marketing and the influence of marketing in schools go away. But, there is much we can and must do to reduce its harmful impact on children. No one effort can solve the problem; a multifaceted approach is needed. Here is what a comprehensive and meaningful response, directed at children, families, schools, communities, and the wider society, might be:
1. Educate parents, teachers and policymakers about the harm that marketing to children, especially in schools, can cause to children’s development, learning, and behavior. It is only through a change in public understanding of the dangers that we will be able to turn the tide.
2. Protect children as much as possible from exposure to commercial culture. Parents can use strategies at home that reduce children’s exposure to and focus on commercial culture and products, including less dependence on media that has advertising and multiple products associated with it. They can promote their children’s involvement with meaningful real world activities that do not focus on consumption or advertising. One school sent home a letter to parents with ideas for birthday parties that didn’t involve commercial themes like Disney Princesses or fast food chains’ packaged events.
Teachers and school administrators can work to reduce marketing in schools. For instance, they can limit the number of products with logos in school. This might involve setting up rules about what commercial products and logos children bring to school, and coming up with alternative, low-cost strategies to meet the same needs the banned product met. For instance, one early childhood program banned lunch boxes with logos, and sent home suggestions to parents about alternative, inexpensive containers they could use to pack their children’s lunches. One school board created a middle-school dress code that severely limited the size of logos that could appear on students’ clothing because so much bullying and teasing occurred against the children who didn’t have the “right,” clearly visible logos on their clothing.
3. Counteract the harmful lessons children learn from marketing both in and out of school. Teach children about the nature and impact of marketing and commercial culture in age-appropriate ways. Children are unduly influenced by ads and marketing practices directed at them because of how they think and also because of the unrelenting ways marketers capture their attention and loyalty. One teacher designed an activity based on the book Arthur’s TV Troubles by Marc Brown. The teacher asked students whether they had ever been disappointed with something they bought based on an ad. Every child had a story to share. When they wrote these stories down for homework, they produced their best writing of the year! In these days of No Child Left Behind pressures, which have forced educators to focus on the demands of the test rather than on the broad-based learning needs of children, we must convince educational policy makers that children will be more successful learners if they aren’t constantly being lured away from their lessons by marketing.1
Children need to feel safe talking to a trusted adult about what they see marketed at school and beyond and what they think about it, without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished. Only by having such conversations can we learn what children think and, in turn, influence their thinking. This does not mean lecturing about what is right and wrong or good and bad, or criticizing children for what they say and think. It means having give-and-take conversations that show we care about what they think and say, and hope they will care about and listen to what we have to say too. This is the key starting point for influencing the lessons that children are learning from marketing in schools.
4. Enact government regulations and policies that limit marketing in schools. Government and policy makers must play a role in limiting marketing to children, even in these harsh economic times. The best way to make this happen will be by providing adequate funding for schools, so that schools do not need to be so dependent on corporations. Great Britain provides the United States with a powerful example for what we can do: in 2006 it established a ban on junk food in school meals.2
One Organization, Making A Difference
Ten years ago, a Harvard academic, a child advocate, and a puppeteer launched an organization named Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), and it has lead a national effort to police advertising and marketing to children. Based out of Boston, a coalition of educators, health care providers, parents, academics, and advocacy groups take on major corporations that they find are marketing to children, from Pizza Hut and Sunny D to the coal industry and Disney. Started by Susan Linn, a professor, the organization has landed a number of recent victories, including persuading Disney to offer a refund to parents who bought Baby Einstein videos and pressuring Scholastic to stop taking money from the coal industry. Scholastic was forced to drop its curriculum for fourth graders after admitting it was paid for by the National Coal Foundation. The curriculum was, unsurprisingly, one-sided in its endorsement of coal, without any mention of the environmental repercussions or of alternative energies.
CCFC’s current campaign includes a move to pressure PBS to drop its partnership with the fast-food company Chik-fil-A, in which the channel is paid to present commercials for fast food at the beginning and end of its shows. It also wants advertising to be removed from school buses. In an age when it seems even the most well-respected advocacy groups—from Sierra Club to Save the Children—have begun accepting corporate money, CCFC stands alone in refusing to be bought off.
Although there is tremendous work to be done, and the advertising and marketing industry is a financial behemoth to tackle, we believe that children deserve to grow up free of invasive and unrelenting marketing messages that peddle products known to be harmful to the health and well-being of young people. Children deserve the opportunity to explore their creativity without the interference of do-it-for-you toys. They must be able to develop the capacity to make independent decisions, and to enjoy life free from the insecurities and pressures inherent in marketing campaigns. We hope that the United States will follow the lead of other countries and recognize that restricting corporations’ ability to market to children is a healthy and necessary step.
- Defending the Early Years [online]. www.defendingtheearlyyearsproject.org.
- BBC News. Junk food banned in school meals [online] (May 19, 2006). news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4995268.stm.
Photo by Labpluto123, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/9/2013 12:41:36 PM
Filmmaker Annie Leonard finds people want to be liberated from overconsumption.
Annie Leonard is one of the most articulate, effective champions of the commons today. Her webfilm The Story of Stuff has been seen more than 15 million times by viewers. She also adapted it into a book.
Drawing on her experience investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues in more than 40 countries, Leonard says she’s “made it her life’s calling to blow the whistle on important issues plaguing our world.”
This article originally appeared in On the Commons.
On the Commons recently asked Leonard a few questions about the commons.
How did you first learn about the commons?
I first learned about the commons as a kid using parks and libraries. I didn’t assign the label “commons” to them, but I understood early on that some things belong to all of us and these shared assets enhance our lives and rely on our care.
Like many other college students, my first introduction to the word “commons” was sadly in conjunction with the word “sheep” and “tragedy.” That lousy resource management class tainted the word for me for years, until I heard Ralph Nader address a group of college students. He asked them to yell out a list of everything they own. This being the pre-i-gadget 1980’s, the list included “Sony Walkman…boombox… books…bicycle…clothes…bank account.” When the lists started to peter out, Ralph asked about National Parks and public airwaves. A light went off in each of our heads, and a whole new list was shouted out: rivers, libraries, the Smithsonian, monuments. That’s when I realized that the commons isn’t an overgrazed pasture; it really is all that we share.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?
There are so many interrelated aspects of our current economic and social systems which undermine the commons. Some obstacles are structural, like government spending priorities that elevate military spending and oil company subsidies over maintenance of parks and libraries. Others are social, including the erosion in social fabric and community-based lifestyles. Actually, even those have structural drivers; for example, land use planning which eliminates sidewalks and requires long commutes to work contribute to breakdown of social commons by impeding social interactions. It’s all so interconnected!
A huge obstacle is the shift toward greater privatization and commodification of physical and social assets. Many things that used to be shared—from open spaces for recreation to support systems to help a neighbor in need—have been privatized and commodified; they’ve been moved out of the community into the market place. This triggers a downward spiral. Once things become privatized, or un-commoned, we no longer have access to them without paying a fee. We then have to work longer hours to pay for all these things which used to be freely available—everything from safe afterschool recreation for kids to clean water to swim in to someone to talk to when you’re feeling blue. And since we’re working longer hours and spending more time alone, we have less time to contribute to the commons to rebuild these assets: less volunteer hours, less beach-clean-up days, less time for civic engagement to advocate for policies that protect the commons, less time to invite a neighbor over for tea. And on it goes.
What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?
In spite of real obstacles, we have a lot on our side as we advance a commons-based agenda. First, we have no choice. There’s a very real ecological imperative weighing down on us. Even if we wanted to continue this overconsumptive, hyper individualistic and vastly unequal way of living, we simply can’t. We have to learn to share more and waste less, to find joy and meaning in shared assets and experiences rather than in private accumulation, to work together for a better world, rather than to build bigger walls around those who can. And the good news is that these changes not only will enable us to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier, healthier society overall.
There’s another shift emerging which offers some real opportunities for building support for the commons. People in the overconsuming parts of the world are getting fed up with the burden of trying to own everything individually. We used to own our stuff and increasingly our stuff owns us. We work extra hours to buy more stuff, we spend our weekends sorting our stuff. We’re constantly needing to upgrade, repair, untangle, recharge, even pay to store our stuff. It’s exhausting.
The shift I see emerging is from an acquisition focused relationship to stuff, to an access- focused relationship. In the acquisition framework, the more stuff we had, the better, as captured in the 1990s bumpersticker “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” Having spent a couple decades being slaves to our stuff, we are rethinking. Now it is “He Who dies with the Most Toys Wasted His Life Working to Buy Them and Lived in a Cluttered House When He Could have been Investing in Community with which to Share Toys.
Increasingly people want access to stuff, not all the burden that comes with ownership. Instead of owning a car and dealing with all that comes with it, we get one just when we want through city car share programs. Instead of hiring a plumber, we swap music lessons with one through skillsharing networks. Why buy something to own alone, when we can share it with others? Why signup for an even more crushing mortgage for a house with a big back yard, when we can instead share public parks? From coast to coast, there’s a resurgence of sharing, so much that it even has a fancy new name: collaborative consumption. I’m really excited about this. A whole new generation of people is realizing that access to shared stuff is easier on one’s budget and on the planet, then individual ownership. Now, that’s liberating.
Image: Annie Leonard by annainaustin, licensed under Creative Commons.
"Story of Change", Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" follow-up video.
3/6/2013 11:13:55 AM
Environmental activists can easily come off as preachy, but Reverend Billy keeps it fresh with street theatre and the occasional dose of irony. Here's a glimpse into what's goes through his head as he protests mountaintop removal—from his new book,
The End of the World
originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
There are about 80 of us, Savitri and myself and an eclectic mixed up group of
Europeans, South Americans and Russians.
First, we gather in the courtyard of Barcelona's
Museum of Contemporary Art. Amen? Savitri
announces that the name of our action is "Naked Grief," and that we
will have to learn how to cry energetically -- with tears all the better! -- in
public. We'll do this in Deutsche Bank -- a bank that finances CO2
emissions. As we sob and moan, we will remove our clothing. Then we will
rub ourselves with coal and cry even harder.
So -- we practice crying in that courtyard. Savitri coaches us in our
exercises in public wailing. It is easy for a few seconds, but
out-and-out crying, sobbing, retching, really sorrowing for ten minutes?
It is hard to do. We have to start crying over and over again.
To help the people who are having trouble crying on purpose, we go down into
the politics of this act. Deutsche Bank is among the banks that finance
Mountaintop Removal (MTR). Do you want to cry? Imagine a mountain
in Appalachia. The coal company inserts
dynamite into deep holes, then lifts the whole ecosystem into the air to
die. The cries of surprise and pain range across the mountain.
Nests fall from trees, deer try to run but catapult dead through the air, the
creatures on the forest floor are crushed, the mountain is uprooted and
broken. Then bulldozers with wheels 40 feet high begin to push the dead
"over-burden" into the neighboring valley, into the pristine mountain
streams below, where the fish lay their eggs and the delicate frogs sing
courtship songs. Where Mountain Laurel drops its petals and ferns grow from
hundred year old beds of moss.
Do you want to cry? MTR is a highly profitable but deadly coal-mining
practice. Long sequestered chemicals like selenium, arsenic, and mercury
float down wind, cancer clusters along their flight path. Toxins seep
into the water table... it goes on and on. Do you want to cry?
Yes, we cry, and with ever more feeling, until we are ready to walk to the
bank. Savitri leads us in her tan trenchcoat. We walk through the
narrow streets of the old city, full to bursting with mopeds and bikes and our
throng. When we get to the Deutsche Bank I hold the door open and Savitri
walks out of her coat, emerging all white skin and freckles and dark red
hair. We are weeping. People disrobe to varying degrees. We are
extremely naked, for a German bank.
The inconsolable wailing has a strange power. Among us are many Spanish
folk who know all about cante jondo. They can hurl down the betrayal
of the heart like no rightwing televangelist ever could. The bank
managers walk down to the first floor to see what all the trouble is about.
Read the rest of this post at Reality Sandwich.
10/17/2012 9:24:28 AM
Since the dawn of the internet age, activists have been
talking about going digital. Some of them even pioneered tactics for electronic
civil disobedience. But it wasn’t until a subculture of hackers became
politicized that a popular movement took off. The result is a subversive,
unapologetic, and surprisingly powerful activism. Anonymous may have a
reputation for pranks and crime, but by early 2011 the group’s reputation as an
influential, if loosely organized, hacktivist collective was solidified.
Read Quinn Norton’s history of
Anonymous in Wired, and Molly
Sauter’s background on the Guy
Fawkes mask at HiLobrow.
Keep up with Anonymous at AnonNews.org
NYU Media professor Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous
Zuccotti Raid Footage shot by NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU)
9/27/2012 9:40:47 AM
Have you noticed the proliferation of recent stories on TV, radio, in print, and online claiming there’s a war between the old and the young? Once you start paying attention you’ll see the headlines everywhere. One of the shrillest and most egregious screeds was by Stephen Marche in the April 2012 issue of Esquire. In an article titled “The War Against Youth,” Marche writes:
One thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don’t form a community of interest. One takes from the other ... Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably ... The biggest boondoggle of all is Social Security ... Only 58 percent of Boomers have more than $25,000 put aside for retirement, so the rest will either starve or the government will have to pay for them... Nobody wants this. The Boomers did not set out to screw over their kids. The wind just seemed to blow them that way ... The situation is obviously unsustainable ...
What Marche and the other alarmists are referring to is the aging of the world’s population, especially in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China. Just as the post-WWII generation in the U.S. is larger than that of the Gen-Xers and Millennials, so too is the population aging in China, as a result of the latter’s one-child policy. Novelist Martin Amis quips that this worldwide “silver tsunami’” of increasingly aging people will lead to civil war between the old and the young. His prescription? “There should be euthanasia booths on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal.”
It’s true that young people are being robbed of their futures. But Baby Boomers are not responsible for this theft. We’re all in this together. Since 2008, U.S. workers have lost trillions in savings and millions of houses have been foreclosed. And real salaries haven’t grown in 30 years. People of every age are out of work. Baby Boomers aren’t the enemy of Gen-Xers or Millennials. We are each other’s best and natural allies.
The real culprits are the One Percenters: the Wall Street bankers, the corporate polluters, (especially big coal, oil, and natural gas), and the politicians and media who serve them. Boomers are no more responsible for mortgaging the future of the young than blacks are for the loss of poor whites’ jobs, or women for the loss of men’s jobs. The Haves (the One Percenters) will always try to turn different segments of the 99 Percent against each other. That’s how they hold onto their power, even as the System itself runs increasingly out of anyone’s control.
So who’s trying to stir up this age war, and what’s their motivation? According to Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive think-tank, it’s a deliberate campaign:
There is a well-funded effort in this country to try to distract the public’s attention from the massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades by trying to claim that the issue is one of generational conflict rather than class conflict... Billionaire investment banker Peter Peterson is the most well-known funder of this effort, having kicked in a billion
dollars of his own money for the cause.
One of the best sources of on-going coverage of all things age-related, including this invented generational war, is the daily blog Time Goes By, by Ronnie Bennett. In her June 25 issue, Bennett takes New York Times’ Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to task for his June 24 article, “Old vs. Young.” She writes, “In Leonhardt’s world, the average $1,100 per month Social Security check is way too much, and if young people can’t have Medicare then old people shouldn’t have it either. It doesn’t occur to Leonhardt (or anyone else who blames elders for everyone else’s ills) that the better solution all around would be to expand Medicare to everyone along with paying all workers a living wage and seeing that the wealthy among us pay their fair share in taxes.”
Baker acknowledges that young people are not doing well. “But this is a story of Wall Street greed, corruption, and incompetence. It has nothing to do with the Social Security and Medicare received by the elderly.”
Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by this manufactured conflict between the old and the young. Find out more about this concerted campaign from sources like the CEPR and Ronnie Bennett. And, whenever you find stories in the media that perpetuate the deception of the generational war, contact the authors and their publishers and advertisers, and let them know the truth.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader
Image courtesy of bobboo_77, licensed under Creative Commons
9/24/2012 4:06:28 PM
Philip Belpasso playing the flute at Zuccotti Park, Wall Street
Protest March, September 26, 2011, Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.
This post originally appeared on Shareable. Introduction by Neal Gorenflo, Publisher of Shareable
One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna”
in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city
available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing
widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This
undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the
world’s most livable city in 2011.
Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering
the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear
about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market,
pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of
capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown.
The Floridas and Glaesers
of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never
happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future
will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode
well for the future.
What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commons
is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is
no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square
inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie
of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal
off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver,
there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is
literally born out of commons.
Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the
solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization
is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade
regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons
and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural
populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums,
rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical
opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.
Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.
Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities tempted
me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in
creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban
processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from
And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities
offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons
advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as
American as apple pie—cities by the people, for the people. I will
stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever
you call them.
I asked my friend Chris Carlsson, a co-founder of Critical Mass, to interview Harvey as he explored similar themes in his book, Nowtopia.
Below is a recent e-mail discussion between Carlsson and Harvey which I
think you’ll find fascinating no matter your political persuasion.
Alone, Harvey is not the complete tonic, but I hope the interview
broadens your view of cities like Rebel Cities did for me.
The gentrification blues at work on a Noah's Bagels in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Tedeytan. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Chris Carlsson: Who did you write Rebel Cities for?
My aim was to write a book for everyone who has serious questions
about the qualities of the urban life to which they are exposed and the
limited choices that arise, given the way in which political and
economic power asserts a hegemonic right to build cities according to
its own desires and needs (for profit and capital accumulation) rather
than to satisfy the needs of people.
In so doing, I wanted to provide indications of the kind of
theoretical framework to which I appeal and I, therefore, use seemingly
abstract (often, but not exclusively, Marxist) concepts. But my aim is
to use these concepts in such a way that anybody can grasp them. (I
don’t always succeed, of course.) I then hope that people might become
interested to seek a deeper knowledge of the sort of framework that I
use. For example, in “The Art of Rent,” I use a seemingly arcane concept
of monopoly rent, but I hope by the end of the chapter people can
understand very well what it might mean and wonder how it is that a
society that lauds competition as foundational to its functioning is
populated by capitalists who will go to great lengths to secure monopoly
power by any means and how they capture unearned rents by resorting to
If people want a broader understanding of my framework, they can use
many resources including my own Enigma of Capital, and A Brief History
of Neoliberalism, and my website lectures (including those on Marx’s
Capital and the Companion to Marx’s Capital). I hope, however, that
Rebel Cities is understandable enough without going through all of those
materials first. In my view, one of the biggest problems for
anti-capitalist social movements in our times is the lack of an
agreed-upon framework to understand the dynamics of what is going on; if
I can somehow incite activists to think more broadly about what they
are doing and the general situation in which they are doing it (and how
particular struggles relate to each other), then I would be very happy.
You write: “The chaotic processes of capitalist creative
destruction have evidently reduced the collective left to a state of
energetic but fragmented incoherence, even as periodic eruptions of mass
movements of protest … suggest that the objective conditions for a more
radical break with the capitalist law of value are more than ripe for
For many people, targeting the “capitalist law of value” is
terribly abstract. Can you rephrase that in terms that people can see
and feel in their everyday lives?
I could substitute the phrase “capitalist law of value” with the
phrase “the maximization of profit in a context of global competition”
and then point to the devastating history of deindustrialization (more
destruction than creation) from the 1980s across city after city, not
only in North America, but also Europe and elsewhere (e.g. Mumbai and
But I wanted to use the term “value” very explicitly to raise the
question of what it is that capital values and how radically that
contrasts with other ways of thinking about the values that might
prevail in another kind of society. The capitalist law of value is what
animates the activities of Bain Capital, etc. and we have to see that
value system as profoundly opposed to human emancipation and well-being,
that there is a distinctive “law of value” that capital internalizes
and imposes that overrides all other values that stand in its path.
The values that capital internalizes do not contribute to the
well-being of people and indeed may threaten our survival. The more
people come to recognize the value system of capital the more we can
mobilize “our” alternative values against it. To see the fight against
capitalism as a fight over values is very important. It has, at various
times, animated a theology of liberation that is profoundly
anti-capitalist. It is for this reason that the capitalist class does
not want to talk of or admit to the distinctive “law of value” that
animates its actions. Apologists for capital claim they are for family
values, for example, while capitalism promotes policies that destroy
families. They claim they are in favor of freedom, but omit to say the
freedom they favor is that of a few to exploit and live off the labor of
the many, of the Wall Streeters to be free of regulation to gain their
inordinate bonuses through predatory practices.
Many people joined in to help make the protest signs used for the
march on Wall Street, September 26th 2011, Zuccotti Park,
Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.
Most of the people reading this website are involved in
various types of co-ops, collectives, and projects that are proudly
based on values beyond mere monetary profit. But you don’t think this is
enough. You argue: “… attempts to change the world by worker control
and analogous movements — such as community-owned projects, so-called
“moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and
barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which
today would be that of the Zapatistas) — have not, so far, proved viable
as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the
noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going
in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions … Indeed, it
can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of
collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that
which capital imposes …”
You properly point out that efforts to create socialism in
one country, let alone one city, or one small enterprise, have always
failed. Why do you think people ignore this overwhelming history and
keep trying to make it work anyway?
This is one of the most difficult paradoxes embedded in the history
of the left (its thinking, its project, and its activities). We can all
understand the urge to control our own lives, to achieve some degree of
autonomy at work, as well as in the neighborhoods we inhabit; and that
basic urge which is, I believe, both widespread and broadly acceptable
to many elements in society, can be the basis for a broader politics.
When capital collapses as it periodically does, then workers frequently
mobilize (as in Argentina in 2001-02) to save their jobs, and there are
some long-lasting examples of cooperative systems and of worker control
that are encouraging (e.g. Mondragon).
The problem is that these operations operate in a context where the
capitalist law of value (Yes, that is why this is so important.) remains
hegemonic such that producers are subject to the “coercive laws of
competition” that eventually force such independent efforts towards
autonomous forms of organization to behave like capitalist enterprises.
This is why it is so important to eventually think and act in such a way
as to challenge the hegemony of the “capitalist law of value”.
Lefebvre thus notes that heterotopic practices (spaces where
something radically different happens) can only survive for a while
before they are eventually re-absorbed into the dominant practices. This
says that, at some point, we have to mount a challenge to the dominant
practices and that means challenging the power of a deeply entrenched
and thoroughly dominant capitalist class and the law of value to which
it adheres (as represented by, for example, Bain Capital). You are right
that this is a somewhat abstract idea; but if we cannot embrace it,
then we will simply be ruled by other abstractions (such as those of
“the market” or “globalization”).
You dismiss Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons with the
point that he is studying cattle herders with privately owned herds,
undercutting the very presumption of a commons in land and resources.
But you also look critically at Elinor Ostrom’s ideas about the commons,
mostly because of her relatively small samples of communities
self-managing common resources.
short-circuits the banal opposition of state and market, she ducks (as
do most anarchists and autonomists, as you argue) the problem of
organizing complex, territorially dispersed economic relationships. “How
can radical decentralization — surely a worthwhile objective — work
without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is
simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of
decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and
Do you think the state, currently a wholly-owned project of
“the existing democracy of money power,” can be made to serve other
interests than capital accumulation and economic growth?
The state is not a monolith, but a complicated ecosystem of
administrative structures. At the core of the capitalist state lies what
I call a “state-finance nexus” which, in our times, is best represented
by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and I think it was deeply
illustrative that these two institutions, in effect, took over the U.S.
government entirely in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It is
notoriously the case within the state that the Treasury has the final
say over many projects in other departments.
In parallel with the state-finance nexus is the military industrial
complex which is a bit of a misnomer because it is really about the
concentration of military and police powers backed by a justice system
that is shaped in support of capitalist class power. These make for a
distinctively capitalist class state apparatus. Obviously, that form of
state power has to be confronted and defeated if we are to liberate
ourselves from submission to the capitalist law of value.
But, beyond that, there are many aspects of public administration
providing essential public services — public health, housing, education,
and the governance of common property resources. In our own society,
these branches of government often become corrupted by capital, to be
sure, but it is not beyond the power of political movements of the left
at the local, national, even international levels to discipline these
aspects of the state apparatus to emancipatory public purposes.
Ironically, neoliberalism, by turning the provision of much of this
terrain of state action over to NGOs, has opened a potential path to
socialize these aspects of the state to the will of the people if the
limitations of the NGO form could be overcome. The frontal attack from
the left against state power has to target the state-finance nexus and
the military/police complex and not the sewage department or the
organization of the Internet and air traffic control, even as it has to
be alert to how all departments of the current state are likely to be
used as vehicles for furthering capital accumulation. The current
situation is that the capitalist class is heightening its powers of
control through militarization and the state-finance nexus while not
bothering with much else.
The first day of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2011. Wall Street
barricaded and Zuccotti Park taken. PhotobyDavid Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
At the end of your book you write, “Alternative democratic
vehicles such as popular assemblies need to be constructed if urban life
is to be revitalized and reconstructed outside of dominant class
relations.” How do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement evolving in
the absence of public space?
It is clear that the vicious police response to Occupy Wall Street is
an indication of the paranoid fear of Wall Street that a popular
movement might arise to threaten the power of the state-finance nexus
and, as has happened in Iceland and now in Ireland to indict and
eventually jail the bankers.
Militarization is, for them, the necessary answer, and part of that
militarization is the control over public space to deny that the Occupy
movement has a public space for its operations. In that case, the
liberation of public space for public political purposes becomes a
preliminary battle that will have to be fought. The assemblies provided a
brief whiff of what an alternative democracy might look like, but the
small scales and limited arenas make it crucial to experiment with other
democratic forms of popular governance capable of looking at the
metropolitan region as a whole … how to organize a whole city like New
York or Sao Paulo.
A street scene in Berlin's Schöneberg district showing the interplay between blight and gentrification. Credit: Sugar Ray Banister. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Going beyond physical space, you helpfully point out that,
“There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. […] At the heart of
the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between
the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a
common shall be both collective and non-commodified—off-limits to the
logic of market exchange and market valuations.”
How do you see this logic of “commoning” emerging from the
actual social movements of our time, which seem preoccupied with ethical
shopping on one hand, or addressing racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and
other identitarian questions on the other?
The essence of a great urban and civic life, for me, is the free
intermingling of all manner of people opening up the possibilities of
all manner of encounters. If, for often good reasons, women, LGBT youth,
or other so-called “identitarian” groups cannot freely use the public
and supposedly “common” spaces of the city, then it is critical that
movements emerge to liberate those common spaces for their
participation. Such movements can provide a vital opening for a broader
common politics. The problem comes when that is the only preoccupation
for that group and what begins as a demand for inclusion becomes a
movement for exclusions. Alliances are needed and the more it becomes
acceptable to liberate public spaces for all public purposes, the more
open become the democratic possibilities to go a-commoning, to build a
commons and achieve a politics of the commons throughout the city or
metropolitan region as a whole. But there are counter-movements that
have to be combated. Right now, exclusionary fascist movements (like
Golden Dawn in Greece) are precisely occupying space by space urban
neighborhoods (e.g. in Athens); they are occupying spaces in the name of
an exclusionary politics. This is an extreme case, of course, but I
think it critical that the relation between the commons and the balance
between enclosures and exclusions, on the one hand, and openings and
free uses, on the other, be perpetually open for discussion and
political struggle. These are the sorts of battles in which we all have
to be involved. There is no automatic harmony to be had and I actually
think a certain level of perpetual conflict around urban life is a very
Artists and “culture workers” have historically been leading
voices of dissent, but we see a lot less of that now. Most people are
beholden to one or another institution of the “nonprofit industrial
complex” as the Incite! Collective put it in The Revolution Will Not Be
Funded. The types of dissent remain safely within boundaries that do not
challenge the logic of markets and money.
You write, “It is one thing to be transgressive about
sexuality, religion, social mores, and artistic and architectural
conventions, but quite another to be transgressive in relation to the
institutions and practices of capitalist domination that actually
penetrate deeply into cultural institutions. […] The problem for capital is
to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural
differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate
monopoly rents from them.”
How do highly individualized and competitive artists and
culture producers find common ground to fight for a world beyond
I don’t quite agree with the view that the cultural workers are
passive. The context has changed (which is what I am pointing to as
culture becomes an industry and a vehicle for capital accumulation and
building asset values) which means that dissidence has to take a
different form of expression. Subversion, rather than confrontation, has
to become the main tactic and I see quite a lot of evidence of a
willingness to do that. We have, incidentally, very much the same
problem in academia. My colleagues have quite a lot to learn about how
to go about that and, in the cultural world, that sentiment for
subversion is far more widespread.
You write, “The struggle for the right to the city is against
the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from
the common life that others have produced. […] Capitalist urbanization
perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political, and
livable commons.” Americans are fairly religious about the idea of
private property. Even progressives don’t like to challenge the
prerogatives of property ownership.
Do you think there can be any meaningful way to halt
gentrification and the debasement of thriving urban neighborhoods that
it brings, short of creating collective ownership of neighborhood
The thing that often amazes me is the wide array of instruments
already available for left experimentation in all manner of arenas of
social life. This is very true of housing with all sorts of possible
property arrangements that offer ways to secure housing for low-income
populations. Yet these instruments are neglected and underutilized, in
part, I suspect, because of ideological barriers but also due to lack of
political and other forms of support for them.
Much can be done within existing structures, but, again, the problem
is how, for example, limited equity co-ops might be reabsorbed into the
dominant practices unless there is an active social movement to keep
them in place and expand them. Otherwise, we are in the situation of
winning a skirmish here or there (e.g. against gentrification) but
losing most of the battles and having no impact on the anti-capitalist
war. So when and how are we going to learn to fight the war against the
You point to the need to integrate an understanding of the
process of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general
theory of the laws of motion of capital. Other writers have analyzed
the breakdown of Fordist mass production and the evolution of capitalism
into a system based on a “social factory.”
I think we should get away from the imagery of the factory entirely.
The issue of the urban is quite different because it is not only about
production, but about realization of values through consumption,
consumerism, spectacle (e.g. Olympic Games which have sent many cities
into economic difficulties and played a key role in the Greek collapse
of public finances). One of the things I get from Marx’s theories is the
relation between production of values and the realization of values
through exchange in the market and both are equally important and the
urban is “where it all comes together”.
A public square in Helsinki offers plenty of space for activists to gather. Credit: La Citta Vita. Used under Creative Commons license.
You note, “Public spaces and public goods in the city have
always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such
spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make.” How can public
spaces become a commons?
Language is a commons and part of what political life is about is
changing the languages we use to relate to each other and to understand
the world around us (which is why I want to talk about the capitalist
law of value). But the commons has to be materialized and objectified
(e.g. in print) and discussed (e.g. in an assembly or a chat room).
Commoning embraces all of these features. It is not only a physical
space, but bodies on the street still have a political priority (as we
saw in Tahrir Square) and this is particularly important to the degree
that the capitalist class has almost total power over all other forms of
political power (money, the repressive apparatus, key elements in the
state apparatus, political elections, the law, etc.).
Finally, you argue that “Decentralization and autonomy are
primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through
neoliberalization.” How do social movements fight this trajectory while
holding on to their own autonomist and egalitarian practices?
What is so odd in these times is that much of the left agrees with
much of the right that decentralization and opposition to all forms of
centralized power is the answer. This is why I talk of the “fetishism of
organizational forms” that prevails on the contemporary left. The
market is, of course, when individualized, the most decentralized
decision-making system you can imagine and it is exactly the
organization of such a competitive decentralized market that produces,
as Marx so clearly proved, highly concentrated capitalist class power.
It does so because “there is nothing more unequal than the equal
treatment of unequals.”
If all the world were organized into a series of independent and
totally autonomous anarchist communes, then how would the global commons
(e.g. biodiversity) be preserved, and what would prevent some communes
from becoming much more prosperous than others, and how would the free
flow of people and goods and products from one place to another work
(most communes have some principles for exclusion)? Interestingly, most
corporations are into networked models of administration and there are
all sorts of parallels between left and right which pass unrecognized,
as well as overlaps between corporate practices and anarchist visions.
There is a lot to be said for a decentralized basis for political
action. But, at some point, it has also to jump scales and organize at
least at the metropolitan bioregional level to take on those wretched
dominant class practices that seem to survive unscathed in the midst of
the current plethora of oppositional social movements.
David Harvey (born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge
in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors
in the humanities. In addition, he is the world's most cited academic
geographer, and the author of many books and essays that have been
prominent in the development of modern geography as a discipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate; most recently he has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism. He is a leading proponent of the idea of the right to the city, as well as a member of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.
co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a
wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org), is a writer, publisher,
editor, and community organizer. He has written two books (After the
Deluge, Nowtopia) edited six books, (Reclaiming San Francisco, The
Political Edge, Bad Attitude, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant
Celebration, Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-78, and
SHIFT HAPPENS! Critical Mass at 20). He redesigned and co-authored an
expanded Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay. He
has produced Shaping San Francisco’s weekly public Talks and conducted
its award-winning bicycle history tours since January 2006. He has given
hundreds of public presentations based on Shaping San Francisco,
Critical Mass, Nowtopia, Vanished Waters, and his “Reclaiming San
Francisco” history anthologies since the late 1990s, and has appeared
dozens of times in radio, television and on the Internet.
6/25/2012 2:47:06 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom
As between the
natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm
distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles
per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII,
who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over
which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a
restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by
the witches in Macbeth.
Nor do I
separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy
spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a
television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders
technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor
plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.
This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a
faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect,
guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of
enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe’s tragical drama Doctor
Faustus because his dreams of “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of
omnipotence,” are the stuff that America
is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation
devoutly to be wished when America
was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present
at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher
and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian
New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.
It was an age
that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on
the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe
Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as
the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior
150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian
Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in
hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of
Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller,
the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and
world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and
a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The
Anatomy of Melancholy, found the air “not so full of flies in summer as it
is at all times of invisible devils.” To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a
departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land
that “aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom,
drunkenness, oppression, and pride.”
Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries
In both the
skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as
were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the
orbit of inquisitive “intelligencers” centered on the wealth and patronage of
Henry Percy, “the Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate
in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed
with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh,
court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the
riches of El Dorado.
The earl had
amassed a library of nearly 2,000 books and equipped a laboratory for his
resident magi, chief among them Thomas Hariot, as an astronomer known for his
improvement of the telescope (the “optic tube”), and as a mathematician for his
compilation of logarithmic tables. As well versed in the science of the occult
as he was practiced in the study of geography, Hariot appears in Charles
Nicholl’s book The Reckoning as a likely model for Marlowe’s
During the same
month last spring in which I was reading Nicholl’s account of the Elizabethan
think tank assembled by the Wizard Earl, I came across its twentieth-century
analog in Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American
Innovation. As in the sixteenth century, so again in the twentieth: a
gathering of forces both natural and supernatural in search of something new
under the sun.
Telephone and Telegraph Company undertook to research and develop the evolving
means of telecommunication, and to that end it established an “institute of
creative technology” on a 225-acre campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, by 1942
recruiting nearly 9,000 magi of various description (engineers and chemists,
metallurgists, and physicists) set to the task of turning sand into light, the
light into gold.
were encouraged to learn and borrow from one another, to invent literally
fantastic new materials to fit the trajectories of fanciful new hypotheses.
Together with the manufacture of the laser and the transistor, the labs derived
from Boolean algebra the binary code that allows computers to speak to
themselves of more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the
philosophies of either Hamlet or Horatio.
attributes the epistemological shape-shifting to the mathematician Claude
Shannon, who intuited the moving of “written and spoken exchanges ever deeper
into the realm of ciphers, symbols, and electronically enhanced puzzles of
representation” -- i.e., toward the “lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters”
that Faustus most desired. The correspondence is exact, as is the one to be
drawn from John Crowley’s essay, “A Well Without a Bottom,” that recalls the
powers of the Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century mage who
devised a set of incantations “carrying messages instantaneously… through the
agency of the stars and planets who rule time.” Bell Labs in 1962 converted the
thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to
heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, Bell Labs produced so many
wonders both military and civilian (the DEW line and the Nike missile as well
as the first cellular phone) that AT&T’s senior management was hard put to
correct the news media’s tendency to regard the Murray Hill estate as “a house
of magic.” The scientists in residence took pains to discount the notion of
rabbits being pulled from hats, insisting that the work in hand followed from a
patient sequence of trial and error rather than from the silk-hatted magician
Eisenheim’s summoning with cape and wand the illusions of “The Magic Kettle”
and “The Mysterious Orange Tree” to theater stages in nineteenth-century Paris,
London, and Berlin.
fell on stony ground. Time passed; the wonders didn’t cease, and by 1973 Arthur
C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer believed by his admirers to be the
twentieth-century avatar of Shakespeare’s Prospero, had confirmed the truth
apparent to both Ariel and Caliban: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.”
As chairman of
the British Interplanetary Society during the 1950s, Clarke had postulated
stationing a communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator in what is
now recognized by the International Astronomical Union as “The Clarke Orbit,”
and in 1968 he had co-written the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The opening sequence -- during which an ape heaves into thin air a prehistoric
bone that becomes a spaceship drifting among the stars -- encompasses the
spirit of an age that maybe once was Elizabethan but lately has come to be seen
as a prefiguration of our own.
The New World’s Magical Beginnings (and Endings)
philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of
technological advance -- celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal -- overrun the
frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America’s liberties, their sensibilities born of
the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the
volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural
sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist,
Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.
enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of
discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves
of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St.
John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters
from an American Farmer to express gratitude for the spirit in which
Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod -- “by what magic I know
not” -- was both given and received: “Would you believe that the great
electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and
our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply
approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new
nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two
centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian
Henry Steele Commager named “the empire of reason.” An empire that astonishes
the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but
one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.
Like England in
the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a
vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous -- the lines and
letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA,
Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the
cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s
scientists come away from Stockholm
nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes
by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system.
The record also
suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been
accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and
mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological -- nuclear, biochemical, and
genetic -- gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as
the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic.
We find our new
Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon
and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself
more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution
of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies
escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the
rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become
the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and
entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.
How else to
classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at
alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of
the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the
ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the
Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling
Faustus, "Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of
Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the
jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for
the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the
fall six months later of the World Trade Center:
is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new
realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”
So again four
years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass
destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The
Vanishing Lady.” The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld emerged from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and
implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press
conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are
things we know that we know. There are known unknowns… but there are also
unknown unknowns... The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
What Desperate Enterprise
message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration’s
current purpose in Afghanistan,
which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a
civilized and law-abiding government that doesn’t exist. Choosing to believe in
what isn’t there accords with the practice adopted on Wall Street that brought
forth the collapse of the country’s real-estate and financial markets in 2008.
of the losses measured the extent to which America assigns to the fiction of
its currency the supernatural powers of a substance manufactured by a
compensation committee of sixteenth-century alchemists. The debacle was not
without precedent. Thomas Paine remarked on the uses of paper money (“horrid to
see, and hurtful to recollect”) that made a mess of America’s finances during its War
of Independence, “It is like putting an apparition in place of a man; it
vanishes with looking at, and nothing remains but the air.”
the “emissions” of paper money as toxic, fouling the air with the diseases
(vanity, covetousness, and pride) certain to destroy the morals of the country
as well as its experiment with freedom. A report entitled “Scientific Integrity
in Policy Making,” issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned
Scientists, advanced Paine’s argument against what it diagnosed as the willed
ignorance infecting the organism of the Bush administration.
Signed by more
than 60 of the country’s most accomplished scientists honored for their work in
many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics,
zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to
present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data
bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the
40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their
examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn’t fit with the
administration’s prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.
regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile,
ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of
logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military
intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River,
the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the
science didn’t prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been
tampered with by Satan.
spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but
it didn’t attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the
provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication
have brought with them not only the illusion of “The Magic Kettle” on Wall
Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would
enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.
To the extent
that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt,
they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to
supernatural machines. To wage the war against terror the Pentagon sends forth
drones, robots, and surveillance cameras, hard-wired as were the spirits under
the command of Faustus, “to fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all
ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will.”
clerks subcontract the placing of $100 billion bets to the judgment of computer
databanks that stand as silent as the stones on Easter
Island, while calculating at the speed of light the rates of
exchange between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. By way of
projecting a federal budget deficit into both the near and distant future, the
season’s presidential candidates float cloud-capped towers of imaginary numbers
destined to leave not a rack behind.
body politic meanwhile dissolves into impoverished constituencies of one,
stripped of “profit and delight” in the realm of fact, but still sovereign in
the land of make-believe. Every once and future king is possessed of a screen
like the enchanted mirror that Lady Galadriel shows to Frodo Baggins in the
garden at Caras Galadhon; the lost and wounded self adrift in a sea of troubles
but equipped with the remote control that once was Prospero’s; blessed, as was
the tragical Doctor Faustus, with instant access to the dreams “of power, of
honor, of omnipotence.”
Lapham is editor of
. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the
author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater
of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces "Magic Shows," the
Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
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Image by Walter
Stoneburner, licensed under Creative Commons.
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