February 13th, 2017 / 11:27 am
Opinion & Technology

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).

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  1. Sean

      “Someone is starving the left’s political imagination.”
      Is the left quite possibly the culprit? Maybe equating the shooting of unarmed citizens with Will Smith or Beyonce not winning enough awards is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  2. Erik Stinson

      serious question, are you a russian infosec human asset or bot?

  3. E.A. Beeson

      Post history allows the possibility of That One Guy from your comp lit classes who used to promote an Ayn Rand reading group in front of the student union.

  4. Sean

      No, not a bot, never been to Russia but I’ve heard good things. Serious question: Are you related to the guys from The Replacements? ‘Cause that would be cool.

  5. Pepito, Abysmal Goat

      what i have read of the left lately seems more starved of pragmatism than imagination

  6. Erik Stinson

      have you seen a protest in person lately? they are extreme pragmatism in IRL political form

  7. Pepito, Abysmal Goat

      not in person no . not much of that going on where i am . can it be the influence or effectiveness of protests has been mythologized in the way the freedom granted by automobile ownership has been mythologized ? extortion by way of so called memetic wrangling . one way to look at it .

  8. Sean

      I’ll defend Ayn Rand (yes Atlas Shrugged is a trainwreck but Anthem and The Fountainhead are legitimate literature, the only reason she isn’t taught alongside the naturalists like Wright, Garland, Dreiser, Crane, etc. is b/c they were lefties and she was conservative), and I’ll also defend anybody promoting a reading group outside the student union. If you’re interested in getting people to read, great, that’s what alt lit (as represented by this website) is about, that’s what independent bookstores are about, that’s what happens at a book fair. Whether it’s Ayn Rand loving objectivists, people who want you to read their zine or lit mag, people who want you to see the Koran as peaceful, somebody promoting their self-published romance novel, the LA Review of Books, they all get a table; that’s democracy, friend.

  9. Sean

      They are people taking selfies of themselves, mostly b/c they didn’t get to raise a fist or hold a sign back in the 60s and they want some sort of simulacra of a real experience, so deep is their desperation. They’re ideologues and not truly liberal. A real liberal listens, gives people a chance, is open-minded. A liberal realizes that just because you and I differ about how to enforce immigration policy, that doesn’t mean you hate Mexicans or Muslims. A liberal realizes that just because you and I differ about when life begins and how to enforce abortions rights, that doesn’t mean you hate women or are a misogynist.

  10. Erik Stinson

      I don’t understand your argument or know any of these references

      i’m not talking about the bill of rights or “democracy”; i’m also not talking about literature or mainstream political thought – those things short of come up a lot on their own people actually care about them & seek them out. i’m not interested in preferential treatment for my political views or safe spaces (thought it does seem like radical conservatives need them to get their message of hate into the public sphere)

      i am talking about the aggressive defunding of both public education (led by radical white nationalist christian conservatives at the state level) and creative marketing (led by public companies seeking to essentially cut all costs that aren’t CEO pay or stock price)

      for me it’s not really so much a question of politics as it is a question of understanding how specific types of political actions have warped the cultural system into something that fucks most people over

  11. Erik Stinson

      again i can’t really follow your argument – it might be helpful to try having a clear thesis, supporting it with multiple rhetorical components

      but i do want to say that ‘real conservatives’ probably aren’t interested in narrowly defining liberalism

  12. Erik Stinson

      “extortion by way of so called memetic wrangling” is a great definition of GOP politics

  13. Sean

      Hey, I respect your position and am trying to have an open dialogue so I’ll just say this. I am far from a radical white nationalist or Christian conservative, and I see public education in America as largely disastrous. Our public schools (elementary, middle schools, high schools) are not at all world class (our universities and colleges still are). Our public schools provide a quality of education that ranks behind poor Eastern European countries like Poland. Why would you want to preserve them? Why not give privatization and school choice and voucher systems a shot? (for the record, I said the same things to conservatives about Obamacare; aka: The system we have is broken, maybe this guy’s alternative isn’t perfect, but give it a shot). And lastly, I don’t think the cultural system has been “warped” into “something that fucks most people over,” I think it’s always been that way. Rich people are always going to get better educations for their kids than poor and working class people. This is true in socialist systems and capitalist systems alike. It’s not like in Soviet Russia the politbureau’s kids were going to the same schools as laborers, right?

  14. Sean

      On this one, my thesis is simple – the left has privileged feelings over logic. They go to these rallies and protests to “feel good.” It’s an extension of solipsism, narcissism and groupthink. You’re either with us or against us (the same mindset the left properly criticized in the second George Bush presidency; Manichean logic). Also, I think most things should be narrowly and precisely defined. That’s how you get accuracy. When definitions become overly flexible, you have chaos. What’s wrong with being precise and narrow and specific and focuses in our definitions?

  15. deadgod

      Ayn’s hero-worship is a lesson in the insipidity of ‘self-creation’ as a political-economic ideology, but she isn’t taught along with “naturalists” (or any other grouping of writers) because her version of turgid didacticism punctuated by febrile humidity is unpleasantly bad writing.

  16. deadgod

      In the 30 years after WWII, middle-class and working-poor families had a much more even playing field in public high schools. It’s defunding primary and secondary public schools that’s been the disaster since (at least) Ronnie and Prop 13. (Yes, public tertiary education in the US is still the envy of the world, but private colleges and universities are so well propped-up socialistically as to be concrete mockeries of the public/private distinction.)

      Crippling the institution, then exaggerating its decline and saying, ‘Let’s destroy it completely by trying something new!’: yes, that’s the playbook. Charter schools don’t ‘work’. They pluck the students with the most intact, education-oriented families from devastated neighborhoods and leave the rest of the kids in those neighborhoods to the schools that’ve been allowed to become overcrowded and physically dangerous. Even then, test scores have to be KGBized to prestidigitate a ‘miracle’. Neutron-bomb education, by way of Flint-water values.

      —privatizing public goods always leads to higher costs and lower quality. It’s not just schools: military procurement and operations, prisons, HeritageFoundationcare, I could go on.

      (What was said to conservatives about HeritageFoundationcare was, single-payer: off the table. Public option: torpedoed. It’s your idea! 160 of your amendments! GrOPe’s answer? Kenya! Muslim! Socialism!)

      Calling the Soviet Union “socialism”: that is an education fail.

  17. deadgod

      Do you have evidence of a demonstration in the past few weeks where, say, a tenth of the demonstrators at a time are taking selfies? (Yes, a demonstration is a public display. Like a Make America Great Again cap, or a Confederate flag.)

      The real progressive realizes that blaming 40 years of corporate executives deciding to export factory jobs on the gardener, the maid, the dishwasher, the construction worker, and—incredibly—the stoop-laborer, is unambiguous race baiting.

      The real progressive realizes that real conservatives who want to stop the EPA from regulating abortifacients in the drinking water don’t really care about real fetuses, real mommies, or real babies — real conservatives are motivated by restricting reproductive liberty because they care about controlling the real pleasure real women get from real sex.

  18. deadgod

      Here’s Robert Reich discussing education reform. Where’s the privileging of feeling over “logic”? Where is such a thing anywhere in Reich, or Solnit or Klein or Krugman? Remember: not impassioned argument, but privileg[ing] feelings over logic. Surely with such a “precise and narrow and specific and focus[ed]” claim, you’ve got evidence.

  19. Sean

      Just for clarity, and since you used an absolute (“always”), what do you think qualify as “public goods”?

  20. Erik Stinson

      as a rich person who went to public school for everything but high school (by choice!), i find this argument to be nonsense

  21. Sean

      Yeah, but that’s my point. Of course, rich neighborhoods are going to have good public schools. If you grew up in the northeast in particular (NY, NJ, New England), yeah, there are still some damn good public school systems. In the south, though? If you go to public school in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas; you’re getting a shite public education. Nevada is atrocious. Even California is provably awful.