All Art is Propaganda

[This is part of the Release the Kraken! series.]

July 17, 2013

In “No Local,” that I just finished reading, Greg Sharzer mentions George Orwell’s book “The Road to Wigan Pier”. Because I almost never buy books any more, preferring to borrow them from the library instead, I checked to see if the library near me had a copy. They didn’t. They did, however, have a collection of essays, that is itself a collection of previous collections of essays, titled “All Art is Progapanda”.

I liked the title right away, especially having delved into the ideological underpinnings of reform movements in this neighborhood. I didn’t think it would deal with art as a means of reproducing the ideology of any particular class, but more in the sense of Althusser’s dictum that ideology is material.

It was nothing of the sort. The title comes from the first essay, on Charles Dickens:

I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his ‘message’, and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.

What I want to quote from here is from an essay titled “Inside the Whale”. He writes about Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, but it’s as if he’s writing about the “East Village”:

During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population — indeed, it has been reckoned that the late twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody’s lips was ‘Quand je serai lancé’. As it turned out, nobody was ‘lancé’, the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there arc not even any ghosts. It is this world — described in, among other novels, Wyndham Lewis’s “Tarr” — that Miller is writing about, but he is dealing only with the under side of it, the lumpen-proletarian fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

Localist Moralism: The Locavore

When localists aren’t listened to, consumers change from being the solution to being the problem. Barbara Kingsolver is scathing about the food decisions of poor people: “we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers.” Meanwhile, “if many of us would view this style of eating (local food) as deprivation, that’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always.” She recognizes that consumption rises to deal with stress of working lives, but “much of it simply buys the services that make it possible for us to work those long hours.” The capitalist imperative to increase productivity turns into its opposite, a personal choice of workers themselves.

A concrete example of localist moralism is food politics. The petite bourgeoisie’s judgments on food stem directly from its habitus.

Food choices are a consequence and not a determinant of class. Thus it is possible to deduce popular tastes for the foods that are simultaneously most ‘filling’ and most economical from the necessity of reproducing labor power at the lowest cost which is forced on the proletariat as its very definition.

Ignorance of this relationship confounds the locavores. The compulsion of wage-labor makes taste “a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams and leave no choice but the taste for the necessary.” Failure to grasp this forced choice allows localists to pose a moral one.

Commodity fetishism, the basis for habitus and its choices, gets erased in favor of a nebulous and ever-present culture, morality and laziness. Food localism becomes the latest sign of “class racism” against the ‘sheeple’ who are too brainwashed to know what’s good for them. There is no difference between criticizing an unhealthy diet and criticizing one that doesn’t come from the proper, local place. In fact, local food is even further from the taste of necessity, since it’s a moral obligation to taste and the environment, not just to one’s own health.

Pierre Bourdieu suggests that the petite bourgeois get disillusioned as “they grow older and as the future which made sense of their sacrifice turns sour.” There’s no impugning the motives of the petite bourgeoisie: their personal sacrifice, creating schemes that are supposed to grow, comes at great emotional cost. The next step of looking for someone to blame seems only natural, and what better target is there than the poor and the working class, who for some strange reason continue to shop at Wal-Mart and eat at McDonald’s?

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 113-119.

Consumers in Capitalism

Before I address the issue of “ethical consumption” in my next post, I need to take on the topic of consumption itself.

According to neoclassical economics, a consumer is an informed individual, making rational decisions in the marketplace to maximize his/her self-interest. There’s no surplus, growth is an accident of production, and capital comes from investors beating the odds for a while. Workers and owners are just temporary categories; we’re really just individuals who come to market to meet our infinite needs, and some of us are lucky enough have extra cash on hand to sell goods to others. By demonstrating a preference for particular goods, consumers can change the way those goods are produced and distributed.

In reality, this doesn’t describe most people, who consume according to standard patterns, socialized through culture and family. However, it does describe capitalists, who come to the market as a purchaser (consumer) of labor power.

Neoclassical economics focuses on consumers, but this reflects reality only for the capitalist. Any economic theory beginning with consumers, consumption, or exchange adopts the capitalist’s point of view. This is flawed in two ways:

  1. Wages don’t create all demand: they’re just one way for capitalists to realize the capital invested in commodities. There are three other circuits that supply public and private goods at all stages of production. Most people encounter the market when they shop, so it seems natural to think that capitalism exists to satisfy their consumer needs. But while the market in consumer goods is constantly on display, exploitation is hidden. Workers matter only as providers of labor power, the source of surplus value: they’re only able to receive and spend a wage if their employer makes a profit first. Moreover, capitalists also create commodities (the means of production), that only other capitalists buy. For example: steel producers buy coal to make steel; manufacturers of coal-mining equipment buy steel to produce mining equipment; mine owners buy mining equipment to mine coal, that they then sell to steel producers. There are enormous areas of the economy where workers’ spending power has no impact at all.
  2. Money capital funds every circuit: it not only provides start-up capital but helps workers’ wages circulate by providing personal credit, increasing capital through banks and corporate self-financing. New forms of credit continue to spawn, both because industries self-finance, and because speculators can suck up surplus value that can’t be reinvested profitably. To influence this process, consumers would have to find some way of controlling investment decisions at all stages of capital circulation, including private investment and state purchase of goods. Otherwise, capitalists would pull investment dollars from the more expensive, less technically-developed, ethical local industries.

Consumer spending is a form of distribution, it represents the reproduction of workers’ own labor power, not control over the entire process. The idea that workers could control the circuit of capital repeats Ricardo’s error by assuming workers receive the full value of their labor, rather than the value of their labor power in production. Even if localist advocates convinced all workers that local consumption could change the world, workers could, at best, change the conditions of production for their own housing and durable goods, a small portion of the overall capital circuit.

Pro-Market Localism

Localism has developed into many different streams which can be roughly grouped into localists who support capitalism and those who want to overcome it. Pro-market localists suggest that market regulation can create ethical local capitalism. Some build small businesses, while others promote non-profits and cooperatives. Locally-owned businesses are supposed to keep money in the local communities and, since they’re small, treat workers and the environment better.

Pro-market localists say that if the economy is just a collection of use-values, then we can make capitalism better by producing fewer, high-quality goods. Markets are good things and they can be regulated, providing they are operated according to principles of social justice. The answer is to make the economy less efficient.

They also claim the small scale of local business makes it more ethical. Big business separates owners from those who work and consume; bring them together, the localists say, and business will be more personal. In these circumstances, labor exploitation no longer matters: “even autocratic control is no serious problem in a small-scale enterprise which, led by a working proprietor, has almost a family character.” As long as the business is small, “private ownership is natural, fruitful, and just.” Capitalism is fair as long as it’s done correctly. Profit can be made optional by caring about the proper, local size.

This points to a key confusion at the heart of localism: it conflates the size of ownership with the size of production. The two are very different: while larger production needs concentrations of machinery and labor power, larger ownership doesn’t. Confusing facilities with ownership allows localists to echo Adam Smith’s promotion of small, equal capitals. Opposed to a capitalism controlled by monopolies, Smith believed that markets could be self-regulating and competitive if producers and consumers were kept small. Smith had the benefit of describing his own historical period: during the 18th century, small companies battled it out to control local markets. Not today: small business is less important to directing economic activity.

Idealizing small business is simply a form of nostalgia for earlier forms of capitalism, which weren’t necessarily any better. Small, family-owned businesses also pay poor wages, price-gouge customers, and destroy the environment. As of 2010, U.S. small business owners were 83% white, married, older men. That figure shrank only 4% from 2000. This means that the small business culture localists defend is also fairly exclusive.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 20-23, 29.

Localism and Community

[F]aced with the unpalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t out-compete or destroy capitalism, localists cling to a fierce faith in communities to band together and do it yourself.

Localists yearn for community, freed from the uniform mediocrity of anonymous, corporate-controlled spaces. However, the petite bourgeoisie’s way of life precludes a community, since members of the class rely mainly on themselves for economic progress and emotional support. Community members are either fellow petite bourgeois competitors or customers demanding lower prices. Perhaps this is why so many localists have such a strong nostalgia for community as an ideal place where business happens and values take shape. Farmers markets aren’t just a place to shop, but a place to socialize: since “consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as the do at supermarkets… You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant.”

Why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversation? Alternately, you could appreciate the anonymity and speed of supermarket transaction if you have other ways to socialize. But it makes sense that the petite bourgeois, trying desperately to succeed in the marketplace or gain control on their own merits, would feel lonely. They try to re-forge the social connections lost in the marketplace in the same individual way they advance. Consumption is where they compete to achieve the symbols of habitus. The desire for friendly consumption is as close as the petite bourgeois get to stepping outside their daily antagonisms.

Just as ideology is a single class’s way of life generalized to all of society, community for the petite bourgeois becomes community for them alone. Wendell Berry criticizes corporations, governments and schools for concealing a “private aim (which) has been to reduce radically the number of people who, by the measure of our historical ideals, might be thought successful: the self-employed, the owners of small businesses or small usable properties, those who work at home.” This persecution of petty capitalists sets local community advocates against “Communists and capitalists (who) are alike in their contempt for country people, country life, and country places. They have exploited the countryside with equal greed and disregard.” The local community are “small farmers, ranchers, and market gardeners; worried consumers; owners and employees of small businesses; self-employed people; religious people; and conservationists.”

The inference is clear: the working class isn’t part of the community. [Emphasis mine.] The images are of the town square, the main street where everyone knows your name, the butcher, baker and small shopkeeper. These evoke market towns where residents distributed commodities made elsewhere. In contrast, industrial towns were often centers of intense class struggle between owners and workers. Not coincidentally, industrial towns created close community networks forged in that struggle. These close-knit communities of workers also demonstrated all the values of collective self-sacrifice, yet localists never mention them, preferring fuzzy invocations of consumerist fantasy.

The problem lies in how malleable the term community is, including capital, the state, and workers — groups whose interests are fundamentally at odds. By suggesting workers are at most another group making demands on the state, the designation of community hides power relations. It replaces class with innumerable differences of income, culture and other sociological categories, bounded by geography rather than a common exploitation. This blurring of conflict is fundamental to localism. By invoking community, localism attempts the political equivalent of Proudhon’s fair markets for small artisans, imposing a false social peace by eliminating the working class rhetorically.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 98–101.