Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anglo Spring: It is time for this unseemly circus to stop.

Downton Abbey (2010); Irascables (1950)

The painter Jasper Johns famously observed that, “artists are the elite of the servant class.” What Johns fails to note however, is exactly which servant artists most resemble. In the BBC series Downton Abbey we are reminded how clearly the roles of butlers, footmen and maids were defined. Each has very particular expertise and places within very old and explicit hierarchies. The only premodern equivalent to role of the modern artist meanwhile is a class of servant that withered away at just about the same moment as the first modern artists were appearing. Artists are jesters. 

Unlike the nameless artisans of the ancient and medieval world, the job of the modern artist is to misbehave, to speak out of turn, to tell the truth. It is a position with plenty of perks but also contradictions. I enjoy sitting at diner parties discussing politics with members of the chattering classes and at times even the super-wealthy decision-making classes. I regularly socialize and do business - directly and as an equal - with men and women who make hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of dollars more than me. As a modern artist I can only enjoy that proximity to the elite because they are an elite of a consumer culture, we drink the same brands of soda (Coke), watch the same films and listen to the same bands. But as the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider in the USUKCanada, and Australia, the few remaining points of contact between the richest and poorest citizens of the English speaking world have been reduced to either servility or criminality. Those are roles I cannot abide, but more importantly, those are roles that I can't abide seeing my fellow servants forced into.
The Duke of Crowborough; Dominique Strauss-Kahn

If you are a super-rich man who has helped gut the global economy and triggered a Great-Recession (as opposed to having the gall to steal from your fellow super-rich) you can reasonably expect to face little or no punishment. If you are an immigrant woman and have the misfortune to work in a super-rich man's hotel room as a maid (even if he is a Gaul), you are presumed to be a prostitute and the burden of proof falls on you to prove otherwise. When Nafissatou Diallo's made her last ditch efforts to convince prosecutors to give her her day in court, Dominique Strauss-Kahn's lawyer complained that, "It is time for this unseemly circus to stop."

It is very easy for the rich to paint the poor as unseemly, to dismiss their actions as a circus, and that is exactly what those who believe most fiercely in free market capitalism have made it their business to do. This is a precarious position for democracies to find themselves in however, especially democracies that are so heavily invested in consumer culture. In defense of free market incrementalism democratic institutions are painted as contemptible, the poor as little more than vermin leeching of those institutions, civic duties like paying taxes and not polluting the shared spaces of our skys and water ways have been characterized as coercions equivalent to physical violence, and most troubling consumerism itself, the source of super-wealth, as nihilistic hedonism.
Mary please: The vanity of Downton Abbey and David Koch

Those who value the mechanism of capitalism as an end in-and-of-itself, have endlessly rehearsed the rhetoric of patriotism, freedom and religious moral superiority, and have done so to great effect. Laws have been bent and broken, and global markets manipulated and corrupted, all in the cause of weakening the few remaining institutions with the power to check the desires of elite super-consumers but that is what they still are: consumers. The danger appears to be that they will succeed in transforming themselves into an inherited aristocracy, because that will put an end to the radical experiment in equality and prosperity (and unseemly vulgarity) that is consumer culture. It may be that limited freedom and a permanent elite will be "good enough" conditions to sustain the economies of innovation that have produced the super-wealth of consumer culture, but I doubt it. 

Already a generation of young English consumers raised within this environment of self-contempt, acted on that contempt. But unlike their super-wealthy counterparts who are "too big to fail," valorized as "job-creators," their acquisition of billions as "wealth-creation;" when the young Brits acted on their contempt, stealing down-market shoes and flat screen TVs, they were harshly punished, their desire for material good dismissed as "compulsive consumerism," and the only possible motives attributed to them was mindless nihilism. It is worth remembering however that Adam Smith wrote about the Wealth of Nations, not of corporations, families or individuals. That those who believe in pure capitalisms might pause to consider what kind of world they are making for themselves - I am afraid it is one where they are served their meals by maids who are sick, dressed by valets preoccupied by debt, and surrounded by jesters who are no longer laughing. 
Dowager Countess of Grantham; Rupert Murdoch

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