Starving the Left’s Political Imagination
In the USA, the political left survives not on the wages of raw fear and liquid capital but on a pleasant wealth of public imagination that must be constantly updated to reflect changing political and economic circumstances. It is a mild sort of collective futurism with very murky outlines that propels everything from political art to individual vocation to government legislation.
In the contemporary moment, two strains of discourse backfill the cisterns feeding the left’s imaginative powers.
The first is progressive public education. At one point in US history, it was not taken for granted that all children should go to school and learn basic skills that would suit them later on, no matter their course in life. As the radical Christian-corporate right (Betsy DeVos) attempts to cripple public education–especially in areas with low tax bases and a proud tradition of systemic inequality–perhaps we are returning to that dark place. If we can’t strive to imagine a cultural system with decent public education at the center, we certainly can’t build or maintain such a system.
This is bleak. But I do think most 2017 progressives understand the need for a broad, free education to prop up the discourse in a civic-minded society. It’s straightforward enough to be a political anchor (a few other issues come to mind in this same register). Voters need a level of education to swim through the treacherous, swirling discourse that enables a representative democracy. To vote well one needs a bit of historical and organizational background, a level of understanding that most children won’t seek out clandestinely. Much less charitable things could be said for adult political education.
The second wellspring of imagination is not typically an area of… serious interest for the left. Ad Busters comes to mind, and their small political design victories. Usually when the left considers marketing and advertising, it’s limited to an opaque nod economic participation, or an outright condemnation of “the merchants of cool” (Frontline, 2001) without really squaring the non-negotiable role of mass information systems within a science & technology-based society (until recently a given for the USA). Can we actually deny the role of mass ideological purusation? Must the left be against all public articulations of power?
But the political left isn’t always so blinded to the philosophical dangers (and opportunities?) of non-state propaganda. Indeed, the left in Europe has gone to great lengths to limit the lies corporations may tell to market themselves, especially when children might in front of the TV, mobile device, or computer. In Norway and Quebec, advertising to children under 12 is illegal. In many other jurisdictions it is highly regulated. This is either a gross overreach of government or a brilliant social policy designed to protect the minds of young people from the corrosive rhetoric of adult life, capitalism and sugar water.
I’m not advocating an end (or even curtailment) to marketing in the United States–quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that the political imagination of USA actually relies on the psychological tropes and artistic side effects of advertising in the broadest sense. In the same way that public education gives people a foundational tools for basic intellectual curiosity, marketing (the powerful bastard of capital and higher cultural forms) deeply influences our sense narrative and psychology, from cradle to grave. This is my concern: the twin deterioration of both quality public education and quality corporate propaganda. These two fields represent complementary nodes of narrative imagination, relatively good partners in generating political and cultural discourse, a pair of lovely 20th Century muses, dimming slightly in their golden years, begging to be revitalized by a young vanguard.
Political austerity becomes marketing austerity becomes (virulent, violent, fascist) cultural austerity, quickly.
Branding and advertising were once a source of–if not moral clarity or ethical redemption–at least a reliable feed of abstractly glamorous inspiration: the dreamy spectacle of smoothly-functioning, non-homicidal capitalism. A bit of sex appeal. A promise (often broken) of comfort and fairness and the rule of law. We thought the simple, positive and mostly untrue stories related in highly-produced advertising narrative did less harm that good, and provided a sort of glossy sludge from which TV watchers (radio listeners, and now mobile/web browsers) could gain other media treats. Against this vast background of radioactive slime narrative, the critical business of high drama, art, politics may proceed with an appropriate level of intellectual freedom.
Why has advertising declined? Why is a gruesomely modulated mass spectacle (McKenzie Wark) dangerous for the left, an ideological block typically suspicious of the market’s moral delinquency?
The diminished quality of corporate propaganda arose from a combination of Great-Recession era cost-cutting, and specific corporate strategy related to the political environment of Reagan Era culture. Not only did corporations marketing to the public want to pay less and save more (always!), their interest in political involvement (on a brand and PR level) has decreased as avenues for the public to react to corporate policy have increased. The public eye, moving wildly and not finding the traditional polish of 20th Century corporate art, tends to destroy brands. Corporations with strong political instincts often stumble or take stands that anger their customers; corporations that spend enough money on advertising often are unable to measure success, even when their efforts probably have broad cultural impacts; this tends to result in a creative direction that favors bland, gutless marketing. Unambiguously, less money is spent per ad than in the era before the Great Recession, in part due to digitization and media fragmentation, but in part, I believe, due to a lack of bravery, leadership, guts, and common sense. These budgets aren’t being spent with gusto on lurid, obvious, economically-frivolous cinematic marketing–it’s being hoarded by preferred-stock shareholders and senior executives.
Without the weird, creepy, inspiring glow of highly-produced corporate art, America loses a potent source of eerie magic. Does anyone remember the periods following 9/11 (and again following the 2008 market crash) when car advertising virtually disappeared? These potent artifacts of corporate culture cost million of dollars to produce. A single TV show may feature several :30 car ads. Car ads are fun, stupid, and the critical an outgrowth of a massive consumer-centric industry. Car ads create their own small economies and convey a sense of optimism in an artistic format that undergirds important American myths (complicating the almost totally negative role fossil fuel has played in our politics). Car ownership might lead to home ownership. The purchase of a car might signal something. The brand of a car might become a (stupid, naive?) message gradually coded into the broader cultural ecosystem: a bigger conversation, a deeply felt discourse that ties industrial production to personal politics. If cars represent freedom, what might be the cost of that representation, long term? There’s nothing insignificant about advertising, even if irresponsibly deployed, even if mocked as ineffective. It is the horrific meeting place between the ideas of individuals and entire economic systems. It MUST impact imagination, on the left as well as on the right.
Just because we on the left find something violently odious, doesn’t mean we can ignore it to death. The 45th president proves this. Advertising, like social media and reality TV, is a social technology that must be understood in order to be guided away from the nihilistic philosophical precipice. It’s a responsibility of people in power to avoid the weaponization of culture, and to grow the parts of the cultural system that reproduce human qualities beneficial to all.
Education and marketing–these are the two areas of political imagination most radically eroded in this era.
At one point, religion offered a third well of imagination, but as American technology and capital grew dominant, our want for a deeper understanding of cosmic issues appears to have diminished. I’m not saying religion can’t serve this purpose, I just feel that the dominance of Abrahamic religions–outside of certain specific American communities–presents a problem for understanding religion as the sort of thing that you’re allowed to make flexible. A few of the US’s biggest religions lack elements of… cosmopolitan spirituality found is much of the world. The best practices of Christian traditions have become sidelined by mass-heretical belief systems, as part of a fairly visible effort to use religion as a means of explicit political control (and even terrorism), especially in majority-white communities experiencing prolonged economic decline. Much religious dogma emanating from this White House is purely against actual religious teachings, understood–by everyone one with any more sense–for thousands and thousands of years.
We, on the left, are confused about the role of religion, both in politics and in our own lives. After decades of fighting against religion in government, we’re hesitant to explore the role of religion within the mass cultural drama (s/o Young Pope).
We see other elements of culture competing in a space once belonging to religion and government.
When Americans think of powerful human institutions capable of unifying aesthetics and intention, they think of global American brands. Without understanding the legal and financial technologies employed by corporations, people understand that corporations function at the highest level of society, nearest to the interests of the world’s elite. Every aspect of culture and industry have coalesced around this other set of twin mechanisms: public corporations and public government. In the same way that our rivers of discourse must be fed by the opposing, mixing narrative streams of thought flowing from education and the raw fecal spectacle of human enterprise (advertising), the gruesome anti-state leviathan of private capital interests wolfishly dominates the sublime, yet fallen architecture of constitutional government built on a vague concept of equal opportunity under law. It’s almost as if the conflict should be simplified further. Ha.
There now exists a mood of deadening, a crippling of ideas, of science, of rhetoric. The key to understanding our political moment is not to lean on granular issues of congressional procedure, electoral policy, redistricting–though these issues are key areas of political action (a great investment for anyone looking to stabilize our political economy). I want to think at the level of daily public life. This is a time when the moral fiber of democracy will be tested by a giant pair of rusty shears. We will put our bodies (see biopower in Wayward Productions, Alys Eve Weinbaum) between the most vulnerable and most abusive in our streets, but we also need to understand that this indolent landscape is the result of broad, sustained efforts to destroy the minds, the hopes, and the normal rational thinking of regular Americans. This effort targets voters on both sides of the political spectrum, but particularly the center-left. Politicians and business leaders actively pursue this degenerate ideology for the benefit of ultra-conservative capitalists.
It has obvious, brutal political logic. Taking away public education keeps us too broke and ill informed to demand justice. Rendering the monstrous power of corporations into dull, lifeless images makes us complacent. It dims the lights above the more instructive parts of our capitalistic drama. We are invited to ignore the howling, seething spectacle, to normalize it, to forget all the dangerous signs of an emergent terror. We should do the opposite, we must, we will. There’s an artful, human way to have an epic bar-brawl. The prize: a vision of what this country can look like if it survives political polarization, economic corruption, and climate change. We’re not doing that yet.
Someone is starving the left’s political imagination. A class of people align themselves against the cultural systems that can produce (and have produced in the past) outcomes that won’t existentially endanger the country, the world. We are being choked to death by an ancient rival, an antagonist within and without. We see this perverse three-headed demon of race, class, gender–the lies (slippery with blood) and hard facts of national socialism. It has many other names.
To let this famine spread is to succumb, to ignore a deadly cultural disease. A campaign to attack collective imagination does not misplace hope so much as murder it. Freedom of thought and expression must include the freedom for any person or entity to relentlessly oppose this malicious government. To paraphrase religious dogma, death is the wage of sin (interested Christians see Romans 6:23).