Tag Archives: Ethical Consumerism

Cargo Cults, US Fascism, and Where We Go From Here


The 2016 elections centered around how to interpret the post-WWII history of the US. A mixture of panic and nostalgia produced a bizarre confluence of memes in the time leading up to November 8th. Conservatives shared warm memories of Saddam Hussein because “at least he killed all the terrorists for us” and endless memes were spread among the center-left optimistically praying for the second coming of…Dwight Eisenhower? 

On all sides except for the Hillary camp, there was a sense of an order collapsing-nostalgia without any countercurrent is the fork society sticks in an era to confirm that it’s done. Like the infamous Cargo Cults, they fixate on the external trappings of the US post-war boom as a way to avoid confronting the larger set of events that made it possible. The Sanders followers grew from a progressive left that had been saying since 2011 or so “If we bring back the New Deal tax code/financial regulations, everything will be back like it was.” The Trump followers said “If we go back to being as racist and sexist as we were then, the post-war boom will return.” 

Of course neither of these options will actually bring the boom back, even if a return to New Deal checks would be welcome. The US economic miracle was a result of being the world’s only uncontested superpower and having endless contracts to rebuild Europe for 20 years and those circumstances coinciding with the peak of Fordist manufacturing. Those conditions aren’t going to happen again. 

Hillary Clinton’s projected nostalgia, being for the last 8 years/the 1990s, was even less convincing and added insult to injury by using tired tricks on an increasingly politically aware population. Clinton was perhaps the most pragmatic in that she saw the 1950s weren’t coming back no matter what. However, she also offered a fatally unconvincing vision of what to do going forward.

The stories of election tampering taking root in the digital hive mind  serve as proxies to speak about 3 primary suppressed anxieties shared by the majority of the population:

1) If advertising analytics/data crunching voodoo actually works then it by nature can’t coexist with actual Democracy. Our individual fantasies of being master of our own destiny, built up for decades by trying to label whatever it is we’re buying “the alternative” don’t hold. We know that our decisions are no longer entirely or even substantially our own. This isn’t a result of Russian etc. interference but simply a fact of surveillance capitalism/web 3.0.

2) Everyone knows that the wealth gap is increasing and will continue to increase due to the basic math that Thomas Picketty laid out: the rich getting richer and everyone else being left out to dry is what capitalism is. Capitalism as we imagined it up to this point is a withered carcass; all that’s left is the accumulated money at the top. No one besides maybe a couple die hard Hillary hold-outs seriously thinks capitalism can continue much further. The whole border wall thing is a ghost dance for a capitalism that isn’t coming back.

3) Climate change is real, and furthermore climate change is something we’ve done to ourselves and that we could conceivably rein in. I believe the part in italics is what actually scares much of the population and particularly the wealthy/religious as it punctures the idea a God is watching over us or an invisible hand is strategically grabbing the market by the pussy.

The upper middle class and aspirant classes beneath them been circling these tire fires for the last 9 years since the 2008 crash. Trying to “detoxify” ourselves and the uglier parts of our way of life by buying more expensive groceries and/or obsessively revisiting the markers of youth and trying to get double equity on them by reselling them as important political events (this is as true of the right wing ad campaign for the Seth Rogen vehicle The Interview as it was for the new Ghostbusters). These campaigns advertising everything from cars to movies to vegetables all had a heavy shaming element. This was because their actual social function wasn’t primarily to “save organic farming” etc etc but to preserve the social markers telling people as their wealth shrunk that they weren’t actually poor, that their college educations still made them meritocratically superior and not just deep in debt. Artisan hamburger restaurants and craft beer were similar manifestations. Of course, eating the right vegetables and other acts of symbolic ethical consumerism won’t pay off your student debt.

These 3 anxieties correspond with the death of an economic system, the collapse of the primary controlling social narrative (Horatio Alger etc), the rapid cold decimation of an entire way of life that existed before computers, and the potential deaths of hundreds of millions of people/loss of all of the world’s coastal cities. Everyone going crackers at the same time is a predictable if dispiriting response.

The way forward from here can’t be a nod backward. Automation’s arrival leaves two paths open for the US-either an equitable and liberal welfare state, or a society obsessed with ignoring/removing society’s “disposable” elements-the migrants, the poor, minorities, and anyone standing in the way of the disposal (the left basically.) The US is currently heading down the latter path. 

We need to aim big if we’re going to have a future. We can’t simply shoot for reforms. The tools and infrastructure for a futuristic, equitable and sane society are in front of us. Automation’s impending destruction of the global jobs market could be a positive thing if the tools of automation were seized for the general population. Many platform economy systems could be replaced by open source software updated with tax payer money. There is little about Uber’s app that couldn’t be replicated fairly easily and certainly nothing about it that warrants the size of the single company. Austin Texas already has their own replacement app just for Austin that’s been working fine.The e-commerce platforms could become a dynamic unified e-communism without too much tweaking.

These are the sorts of demands we need to be making. This isn’t the same world it was 10 years ago. And this time we can’t just make demands-we need to be willing to fight for them.

The Narcissistic Charisma of Donald Trump

I grew up in a household defined by parental narcissism. I only figured this out roughly a year ago while on the road. Browsing random things on my phone, I stumbled on various pages describing theories and self-help literature revolving around what are called “adult children of narcissists”, or ACoNs. Going through various message boards and articles, I managed to untangle much of the complicated series of nonsensical events and outbursts which gave my upbringing much of its dada trainwreck aftertaste.

Eventually the time came when it was clear the situation was not going to get better and I had to cut my father off entirely for the good of the both of us. Searching online for guidance on how to confront this situation, I googled “adult children abandoning parents.” Bizarrely, I found that all of my results turned up websites and message boards relating to organized support and legal action groups put together by groups of parents claiming they were abused and neglected by their narcissistic children. Going through these threads, I noticed, insofar as you can diagnose such a thing based on a pattern of logic presented in message board posts, that most of the posters were in fact pathological narcissists. Their stories about their children had the consistency of Swiss cheese. They had projected the accusations of narcissism onto their estranged children. They’d come to a mutually reinforced unconscious conspiracy of enabling-as-solidarity.

It was utterly fascinating. A community based on shared support of a pathology.

A short while later I ended up at the home of a friend whose mother was an ardent watcher of Fox News. We ended up in his living room watching her watch TV. I noticed that the appeal of the network’s shows was similar to that of traditional hero narratives in the sense that Otto Rank and later Ernest Becker had framed them-they maintained the position of the viewer as the hero in their own personal narrative against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary inherent in their living situation. His mother was very much like Bill O’Reilly in her behavior. She couldn’t have conversations without constantly interrupting the person she was speaking with and making vague aggressive accusations against groups of people she had no direct knowledge of. She chose these people specifically because she had no knowledge of them and could more comfortably create a self within a closed feedback loop of a gerrymandered space of not-knowing. Attempts at introducing unknown variables into conversation were met with temper tantrums.

Marshall McLuhan once said “Charisma is looking like a lot of other people.” On TV and the internet, charisma becomes to the heroic presentation of common psychological profiles defined by decisive forward motion. Trump’s lack of concern about releasing policy papers is telling, as is his unorthodox choice not to apologize for social gaffs. He represents “self”, pure for its emptiness, decisively pushing forward. He is Nietzschean will to power without the complications. America wants to be sure of and proud of themselves, not right about things. Much as Americans will drift into the fantasy self of the heroic character in a TV program, or one of the actors in a pornographic film while handling themselves, so they see their projected fantasy self in Trump. Trump is the popular collective wish of one morning waking up on a giant pile of money. Like the male pornographic film performer (think Ron Jeremy), his clumsy ugliness is part of what makes the fantasy seem accessible.

A different friend once told me a short brilliant anecdote of dysfunction in his own childhood. “My dad was really drunk and started screaming at my mother. He shouted ‘You’re a fucking retarded Pollack!!!’ at my mother and stormed out. The thing is, he’s Polish, she isn’t.”

Most literature in the 20th century psychological tradition analyzing the roots and causes of fascism emphasizes the comforts fascism provides to the wounded narcissistic identity. Because the greatest fear of the pathological narcissist is the possibility of confronting the void of the self, a void which they’re constantly attracted to contemplating but can only contemplate in the projection of this wounded self into paranoia regarding their surroundings and always under the guise of talking about something else, the vague “national identity” becomes a perfect means for both their own projection and the construction of remarkably simple and cleanly efficient propaganda.

Fox News uses very simple psychological techniques to funnel the empty self-affirmation of a mentally ill populace toward the desired targets. Fox News is simply another manifestation of the desire in the TV viewer to see a recognizable version of their self in a position of exciting heroic swashbuckling. Endless websites, articles, and organizations attempting to point out blatant lies that Fox has told miss the point-the viewer goes to Fox to outsource the difficult work of bridging cognitive dissonance. They watch Fox because Fox is willing to confidently lie to them and never back down.

Donald Trump is the child of this dynamic; as a brand he represents little beyond the presentation of white wealth. That he represents little else is his public relations strength. His unapologetic nativism symbolically represents, for the victim-identity obsessed white population of this country, the most appealing redemption narrative-the one where they have to admit no wrong doing and can shift blame entirely onto the powerless.

I’m not sure a better object representing collective narcissism could be conceived than a giant wall built around a country that has no actual invaders.

Insofar as Trump would, in an earlier culture paradigm that the majority of commentators are still using to analyze the present, a parody of a traditional candidate, a cultural actor even more ludicrous than Reagan the cowboy actor was, he makes perfect sense in the context of the present. The political process has been dangled in front of the public as a lighthearted extension of the popular culture for so long, a toy that wasn’t supposed to played with, that Trump’s treatment of it as a toy that he can play with strikes a chord with those who admire him ironically. The importance of the sale and presentation of the item sold, be it a toilet cleaner or a presidential candidate, has come to far outweigh the traditional “use value” of the object itself.

As Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, the experience of the consumer and the resolution of the neurotic condition created by the obvious irrationality of capitalism that cannot be acknowledged mixed with the desire to live an ethical life is now a dialectic tension that expands the surplus value of certain products. While Zizek mostly focuses on it in the context of “ethical consumerism” associated with the middle to upper class US left, the same cultural logic is pushing the response on both sides. Neurosis is defined by the urgency of its need to be resolved or sated. Trump and the modified fascism he represents offers the hope that this neurotic condition of the wounded narcissistic identity of his numerous followers can be repaired in projecting their empty selves into the exuberant narcissism of a man who does in fact understand their deepest problems from the inside.

God help us all.