Discussion with students in this term’s grad course on theory has been educational for instructor and students alike: for the former, in developing a critical vocabulary for contemporary capitalism that foregrounds its postcolonial contexts.
1. Frontiers and futures
In discussing the documentary The Corporation, two students wrote:
As opposed to traditional colonialism … corporate colonizers no longer require the local population to give up their beliefs in order to change their loyalty. They simply have to spend their dollars, pesos, euros etc., and with no value system outside of a growing bottom line, corporations are free to change their identity to adapt to the culture and beliefs of any market. … advancing capitalism pays a special eye to frontier thought, behaviour, and organization as these spaces create new areas to be exploited and appropriated by the system. (my emphasis)
In comparing corporate business to colonialism, the students referred to the work of Andrew Potter, who with Joseph Heath wrote The Rebel Sell, which investigates the frontier prospecting of capitalism, its ability to commoditize even the most resistant counter-cultural forms (e.g. Adbusters): “there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations … In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers.” (Potter qtd. in MacLean)
Potter and Heath’s argument relates to Fisher’s idea of SF capital, mentioned in my last post, in which futuristic speculation in culture becomes a renewable resource for economic exploitation by capital. But if the “rebel sell” thesis reproduces something of the core-periphery model of capitalist growth, in which the imperial core co-opts the “authentic” periphery, it also problematizes this model by assigning some responsibility for co-optation to consumers — the co-opted — themselves.
2. Casino capitalism: wheel of misfortune
After I mentioned “casino capitalism” with reference to a student’s commentary on Max Weber’s idea of the “spirit of capitalism,” the student asked, understandably, what I meant. Which made me realize I didn’t, actually, know precisely what I meant; so I did a bit of digging, then replied:
It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the past two years with reference to the US sub-prime mortgage bubble and the ensuing global financial chaos, and it made sense, on a broader historical view, as a characterization of the postwar global economic dispensation of postmodernity … a dispensation characterized by rapidly changing IT in the service of increasingly mobile, flexible, and “financialized” capitalism.
Turns out it dates from 1986, in a book of the same title by Susan Strange:
“The instability and volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional economies. Susan Strange (1986) calls this instability ‘casino capitalism,’ a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and the shift to self-regulation by banks (pp.9-10). (“Shifting”)
Maybe the term’s been re-circulating with a vengeance in the wake of the global economic turmoil, evoking not just the infrastructural features of the postwar global economy but also, now, the widespread sense that postmodern capital has indeed been running like a casino — meaning that most who go there to play will lose.
In addition to the scholarly literature on the casino capital thesis, it recurs from time to time in popular discourse, like editorials, about actual casinos. A decade ago, Toronto playwright and former Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin shared a problematic, provocative postcolonial angle on “lotteries and gambling” as a “sign of the times,”
a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life’s normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we’re seeing its spread as a way of life — and hope. The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in native-run casinos such as Ontario’s Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair. (“Who owes”)
Salutin was writing of casinos as a then-recently legitimized socioeconomic institution; since then casinos have moved from legitimacy to centrality as a staple source of government revenue, and an ever more symptomatic “sign” of neoliberal hegemony’s dominion). Gambling and casinos fund all kinds of public programs in Alberta, and it’s money many see as ill-got from the exploitation of people with addictive disorders. In 2005, Salutin followed up:
Governments of all stripes are hip-deep in promoting and advertising gambling and in effect encouraging addiction to it. Of course, not all gamblers are addicted, though addicts are central, since a huge cut of the revenue comes from a small tranche of heavy gamblers. But the real addiction problem belongs to governments, who’ve grown addicted to the returns, and turned into pimps and pushers. … the job of an institution like government should be to increase the odds — if you’ll pardon the expression — of hard work receiving a fair return, rather than reinforcing the message that you have to be rich or lucky to succeed. (“My gambling problem”)
3. The weirdest Western?
These critical models of late capital, with their disjunctive postcolonial contexts, together start to make the interlocking institutions of global capital seem a lot like a weird Western. As one film critic argues, the globalized culture industry of Hollywood has not shown itself to know how to make this kind of movie well. When it does, in films like Serenity — to say nothing of non-weird, ultra-naturalist Westerns like Deadwood, for that matter — what I’d suggest we encounter is an image of late global capital, in all its frontier freewheeling and monopolizing machinations: “The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets … in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there’s something out there, but chances are it doesn’t care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train.”
Just the laws of infinite growth and the bottom line.
Lamar, Cyriaque. “Dear Hollywood, you absolutely suck at making weird Westerns.” io9 19 Jun. 2010 http://io9.com/#!5567908/dear-hollywood-you-absolutely-suck-at-making-weird-westerns?comment=24778688
MacLean, C. “Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell.” Torontoist Nov. 2006 http://torontoist.com/2006/11/tall_poppy_andr.php
MAIS 601 Group Two. “The Group TwoPoration” (group response to The Corporation). MAIS 601, Athabasca U, 23 Mar. 2011.
Salutin, Rick. “My gambling problem, and ours.” Globe & Mail 5 Aug. 2005: A15.
—. “Who owes what in a racist world?” Globe & Mail 24 Aug. 2001: A15.
“The shifting nature of capital: exhilaration and anxiety.” Representations of Global Capital. Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Portland. n.d. http://legacy.lclark.edu/~soan370/global/casino.html