The Landscaping of Neoliberalism

Last summer I traveled the United States with my friend Brian in a beat to shit car sleeping on peoples’ couches. We were trying to find what the United States are right now and make a film about it. Much of what this involved was walking around random towns and cities photographing buildings or their absence.

Though initially expecting the film to be a requiem and an exercise in dreamy bleakness, some part of me also expected and hoped to come to some great eureka moment; to figure out that the situation wasn’t as dire on the whole as I presumed it was. And in some way it did this at the same time as it deepened my sense of the bleakness.

The first thing people ask when you get home from wandering and mention you slept on peoples’ couches is “Wow, weren’t you afraid? There’re a lot of creeps out there.” The people whose couches Brian and I slept on were universally some of the kindest most generous people I’ve ever met. The people who asked me this question would waffle when I’d discuss the place of the police after Baltimore. They’re afraid of each other but not the cops, the banks, the actual predatory vultures in the society.

Obviously this is a problem.

Every place we went to had drastically divided slums and places of wealth except the places where the wealth had all left or pushed the slums to the outside of the town.

I’d describe sacrifice zones like Cherokee, North Carolina or Greenwood, Mississippi. The former is an indigenous reservation I can only compare to a science fiction version of Harlem where the only feasible local economy centered around selling Sambo merchandise. The latter resembles the AP photographs of Iraq after a bombing. And after my description, the listener would invariably say “Didn’t you feel nervous and unsafe there?”

Oddly enough I really didn’t. I felt sad, I felt disgusted with the conditions, but I never felt unsafe.

The place in the country I felt the least safe was in the town near Seattle where Bill Gates lives: Medina, Washington, what could only be referred to as a wealth ghetto. Nearly all the houses are surrounded by giant gates with obvious military grade surveillance systems attached. Despite there being an ostensibly public beach, public parking near it was limited to 30 minutes. There are signs around the town saying “You Are Entering a 24 Hour Surveillance Area”.

Despite all this, Brian and I managed to get two interviews with people on the beach. Wandering through the worst sacrifice zones of the South, the looks on peoples’ faces were mostly those of masked pains. The Medina beach was filled with very well dressed people whose faces projected empty contempt. A man worth at least several million dollars was riding a fancy bicycle attached to two giant floaties in the water. There was no sense of community, of interrelations between people. No sense of purpose or a point. Just paranoia and lawns so perfectly manicured they could only bring to mind the heavy makeup on a corpse.

Like many suburbs, the stringent zoning and landscaping laws are clearly meant to keep out “the rabble.” They isolate themselves so they can’t see the horrors of the world when they are the fount of them.

I suppose the reason I felt far more comfortable around the poor is that they’ve been through shit. They’ve been out in the wilderness for a couple days and know that while it’s not fun they’ll survive. The rich don’t know this and grow anxious for the time they’ll get to lash out at their own shadows. They institute the hallmarks of fascism first as a means toward “security” but ultimately as sport.

THE MICROSOFT CAMPUS

A friend gave us a tour of the main Microsoft campus in Redmond. This, along with similar campuses run by companies like Google etc., displays the logic of the new middle class workplace.

Pretty much the entire town of Redmond is just the Microsoft campus. This is a soft micro-fascist state, a thing that looks like a town but where the mayor can kick you out if he doesn’t like you and leave you in exile. You have to sign in and out to get into it. No one who isn’t financially useful to the literal dictatorship of capital is encouraged to enter. If we hadn’t had my friend there’s no way in hell we could’ve gotten in.

The employees are under just as heavy surveillance as the employees at the Dollar General across the street from me, maybe even heavier surveillance, but the techniques of soft behaviorism are more sophisticated. When we got to the cafeteria all of the options on the menus were coded by healthiness. My debit card stripe had given out by that point in the road trip, so I tried to pay for my lunch with cash and I was told they don’t handle cash there. The only reason you wouldn’t handle cash in a cafeteria like that is because, with the attached risk in dietary habits re: paying out health benefits to employees, you’d want to track what they eat.

The Microsoft Campus is to the workplace as Medina is to the town. Every seemingly positive or “cool” thing given to employees is carefully calculated to maximize profit. The employees, politically, realize that their communications are being read and were mostly entirely silent on the Snowden thing according to my sources who I can’t name because they’d get in trouble and they know it. To think that if circumstances became such that computer programmers had an excess labor surplus, the mechanisms are there to turn it into a pretty ugly place pretty quickly.

This is the landscape of the future-tiny pockets of paranoia and neoliberalism feudalism with nice stuff for the few, vast open wastelands of neoliberal feudalism for the rest.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. All photos by Daniel Levine, copyright 2014, all rights reserved. His first book Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available in paperback.

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