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The Utopias of Capitalism

by Susanne Gaschke Tuesday, May. 16, 2006 at 2:51 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

:Government and freedom exclude one another" Max Barry in "Jennifer Government." In the negative utopia, the dystopia, the fear is over capital interests. Workers are no longer paid because their work is divine service.

THE UTOPIAS OF CAPITALISM

What happens when all the desires of economic bosses are fulfilled? Anglo-Saxon authors look to the future

By Susanne Gaschke

“Government and freedom exclude one another.”

Max Barry, Jennifer Government

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT 20, 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2005/20/Utopien.]

In the past ten or fifteen years, speaking of “left” and “right”, of a contradiction between capital and labor or even only of the interests of dependent workers different from employers was almost regarded as Stone Age in Germany. Globalization provides a tsunami-like argument that what benefits “the economy” – perhaps deregulation, flexibility and privatization – is good, ethical and valuable. Whatever hinders entrepreneurs in their beneficial works (protection against unlawful termination, environmental regulations, non-wage labor costs or wages and taxes) is called bad (euphemistically, needing reform).

In the meantime, in wide parts of the population, there is a deep uneasiness not about “capitalism” in itself but about some of its possible effects – and about the triumphalism of some of its prophets. The question is debated how democracy and culture, everyday life and family will develop if capitalists do not have to pay heed to anyone any more. This uneasiness is not a special German claimant mentality. It has its most witty, most imaginative and wildest expression in a series of novels from the Anglo-Saxon area published in the last years.

Since the 19th century, a strong tradition of the negative utopia, the “dystopia,” persisted in Great Britain, the mother country of industrialization. However unlike George Orwell, there is hardly still a fear about the totalitarian state (as in 1984). In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the fear is over capital interests. Children of the lower classes are conditioned with electro-shock against flowers and books so nothing diverts them from diligent labor and consumption.

That human rights and democracy are harmed or threatened when elected representatives capitulate before the economy worries more than novelists. The great liberal Ralf Dahrendorf recently warned of “theft of participatory rights by the globalized class.” Some of his colleagues already speak euphemistically of a “post-parliamentary epoch,” the Gottingen political scientist Franz Walter decried anxiously.

In his satirical novel “Jennifer Government” (2003), the Australian Max Barry shows how our epoch could appear. In a nebulous future, the world is divided in the American economic block (Canada, the United States, South America, the ex-Soviet Union, India, Australia and South Africa) and a few pitiable remaining states including Europe oppressed by taxes.

In the American block, the longed-for freedom of the economy prevails at last. No one pays taxes; every form of social or health insurance is a private matter (flashing one’s credit card in ordering an ambulance). No unions and worker rights exist any more. However businesses can sue workers for damages who change jobs if their successors prove less competent in the same posts. Employees have the names of their firms (“Thomas Ford”). Children are named after their corporate-sponsored schools (“Kati Mattel,” “Sally McDonald”). The police have completely given up. The government is partly privatized. This means the police take paid murder contracts while government officials can only pursue murder and manslaughter if relatives of the victims finance the investigations.

Marketing campaigns in this society naturally turn out more spectacular than with us. To introduce the new “Mercury” tennis shoes, John Nike, one of the company bosses (“Guerilla Marketing Operative New Products”), shoots a couple of teenagers to prove the desirability of “mercurys.” John Nike justifies his action – others kill for Adidas and Reebok. When the government agent Jennifer Government investigated him on account of this contract murder, John Nike sees a long-awaited opportunity to stage a coup against the president of the United States. “Through the measures against us, the government has shown us that no one can be really free in this land as long as the government exists,” he rants and raves at a summit meeting between the head of state and different corporate executives. “Government and freedom exclude one another. We are persecuted for the `crime’ of earning money. The time for a real new beginning has come. I declare the government dismissed. And you, Mr. President, are out of work.”

ESCAPING MARKETING BY ABANDONING PERSONALITY

Max Barry chose the representative of a popular tennis shoe brand name because “consumer terror”, beside the worry about the future of democracy, is another central critical point in the capitalist way of life. “Selling competition, goods and services has been long transformed into a competition and sale of attractive outlooks on life,” the American philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in DIE ZEIT (Nr 19/05). “The development of the consumer society shows the tendency to trivialize the terms authenticity and personal existence. Style is presented in the media for imitation while development of substantial life goals recedes and pales into insignificance.”

In “Look at Me” (2001), the American author Jennifer Egan tells the fictional story of a woman who as a person with her own life goals becomes a product. After a serious car accident, the model Charlotte Swenson thanks to plastic surgery receives a new face. Her bones are held together by eighty Titan-screws. Her face is beautiful but robbed of its characteristic features in a strange way. Everyone thinks they know Charlotte and encountered her somewhere. In this way, she becomes an ideal projection surface for every lifestyle, every trend and every longing that marketing strategies can awaken.

Charlotte sells her life to a totalitarian Internet-project of the giants Time Warner and Microsoft. She becomes the icon of the modern consuming woman, available 24 hours a day by web cam and net journal to every subscriber of this special information service. A ghostwriter writes Charlotte’s autobiography: “Faceless.” Charlotte advertises for perfume (“incognito”) and develops her own fashion label “Metamorphosis”). “The more famous I was as a result of my transformation,” Charlotte says at the peak of her success, “the more this transformation felt artificial. I was split somehow and the two Is that were left hated each other. I was a ghost enclosed in the body of a success-obsessed ex-model who had to hide all my moods and feelings because otherwise they would have been immediately made into money.” At the end Charlotte is helped by a contractual “identity transfer.” She has to give up the last parts of her personality to fly away from her life in public.

THE ALL-POWERFUL CORPORATION CHANGES INTO A RELIGION

In his unusual novels about the “literature detective” Thursday Next, Waliser Jaspar-Fforde recalls an alternative to the dead or lifeless consumer- and media society is still conceivable (The Eyre Affair, 2001; Something Rotten, 2004). Thursday lives in a fictional England of the 1980s when all people were literature-obsessed in a peculiar way. Thefts of first editions, forgery of the works of famous authors and kidnapping in theaters where disappointed authors seek to force the performance of their plays are the most common crimes. The boundary between fiction and reality is unstable. People can disappear in books. Literary figures appear in real life. Thursday Next does not only grapple with illegal border crossers. In his world oriented more in the intellectual than in the material, corporations are sinister works. The Goliath Corporation – 38 million employees, 14,000 subsidiary corporations, 12 million products and sales equal to the gross national product of three-quarters of all nations wants to snatch economic and political world domination. The corporation follows an original strategy: transformation into a religion. “This is an enormous advance for us,” Goliath’s CEO proclaims at the headquarters: “We will become a complete religion with our own gods, demigods, priests, temples and prayers. Goliath shares are exchanged for member status in our new faith-based Corporate Management System. They (believers) will worship us (the gods) – and receive protection from all evil and a fine reward in the world to come.” In 1983 the French journalist Andre Gorz in “Ways to Paradise” conjectures that the state in “half-dead capitalism” will pay the superfluous unemployed to consume to maintain control over them. Fforde now gives the amusing – and unfortunately plausible – counter-scenario: workers are no longer paid because employers understand their work as divine service.

Socialist utopias, hopeful stories about a future free from exploitation like Thomas More’s stories that could be told in all innocence in the 16th century, have nearly disappeared since the atrocities and destruction of the command socialist regime – for good reasons. However those who see themselves forced in the current debate to side with capital should ask why people who are free and happy so rarely occur in future projections of “capitalism.”

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