BP’s underwater oil geyser, now that we have video coverage, no longer remains invisible. It competes for Prime Time. And yet while visible, it remains unrecognizable – a strange, amorphous reality persists in our memory.
The horror of this event, this environmental debauchery for profit, isn’t evident from the “live video,” but from the expressions of anguish on the faces of those directly affected, which is why the corporate media show us the puffed faces of executives, government bureaucrats and the ever-present politicians.
These are the “serious people” who, it is hoped, will assuage our outrage and contain our disgust. They assume the role of experts in a drama we know too well. Don’t they, or their clones, appear at all the disasters visited on modern society? And like the actors who portray concerned physicians promoting a new medical breakthrough on TV, we all know it’s phony. Their well-rehearsed lines meant to deflect our attention to technical data, or regulatory defects, essentially serve to stupefy us, to relegate our outrage to the basket of previous affronts and demonstrate again that we have no power to influence the course of events.
The first step out of our disempowerment, it seems to me, entails a clear recognition of the predicament that we find ourselves in with the BP oil geyser. This catastrophe, possibly the worst in a long train of similar disasters, is not adequately addressed by a simple environmental response. To call for clean energy, for example, essentially betrays our powerlessness, as does a regulatory response and even a criminal one. Throwing one corporate bastard in prison brings more lasting satisfaction than the other remedies, but it is still a symbolic gesture of futility. Did Bernie Madoff ‘s incarceration serve as a deterrent? One bad player in the game of socially approved thievery needs to be sacrificed occasionally to keep the thieving on track.
We have to search deeper into the nexus of issues that this disaster reveals. We need, in fact, to recognize our complicity, beyond electing corporate lap dogs to Congress and beyond driving our cars. Our co-conspiracy, unwitting as it may be, revolves around our acceptance of the economic system as a monolithic given. Its not only the castle on the hill, it’s the system of obedience – the fiefdom.
The economy encompasses the daily transactions we accept without thinking, but also, more importantly, it seamlessly defines our dreams and visions. The pervasive effects of the economic imperative on our consciousness, let’s call it the Performance Principle, subverts our natural, biologic desire – the Pleasure Principle – to establish and attain personal goals and to work in harmony with others. The desire to transcend perceived human limits transmutes into the baser motivations of the Performance Principle under the influence of money and power. Scaling mountains may be one of the more lofty examples of the Pleasure Principle. Doing it with a corporate logo on your ass and with the prospect of future advertising contracts amounts to nothing more than a job, the first rung of the Performance Principle.
The Performance Principle prods us to overcome obstacles to human attainment, not in the pursuit of testing human skills, but to conquer the obstacles – the quest becomes a superhuman power trip. The architect designing a mile-high skyscraper is essentially no different from the oilman drilling a mile down underwater. A thorough recognition on our part of the allure of the Performance Principle, and its collusion with wealth and power, releases our critical faculties to contend with the manipulations of corporate media.
Mass media stupefies our perceptions. Faizal Shahzad’s failed attempt to blow up Times Square, for example, provided the perfect excuse for Obama to engage in the Politics of Fear at least as well as Bush and Cheney. Shahzad’s klutzy car bomb triggered well-timed hawkish rages from the White House to rally an increasingly skeptical public to support the war in Afghanistan, the containment of Iran and to extend surveillance at home. What is this Politics of Fear? Is it not the juice that drives our obedience? In the realm of politics, fear functions the way Scarcity operates in the economy. And both reinforce the Performance Principle.
The media also seduces. There is the passive component, which stupefies, and the active, which promotes a role for us in society, but bound by the constraints of the Performance Principle. Hit the Paypal button.
This excursion in psycho-politics may seem unnecessarily philosophic, but it is ultimately relevant. Recently news reports celebrated Toyota’s reopening the old NUMMI auto plant in Fremont, California. A plant it closed several months ago dismissing 5,000 workers to uncertain futures in a state with over 10% unemployment. Toyota will partner with Tesla Motors, the California manufacturer of the all-electric, $130,000 sports car. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the huge facility will be used and only a fraction of the workforce, the praise for Toyota was universal.
Here the Performance Principle meets its incarnation in more ways than one: the sportster and beneficent executives. Obviously, this example of the Green Economy, hailed by a chorus of “socially responsible capitalists” and their promoters, conveniently abandons the thousands of workers who will be losing their life’s savings, their homes and possibly their health. The ill temper of the unemployed, when it surfaces, elicits pity, nothing more – since they are no longer players, they can be conveniently ignored. Why celebrate this putative victory of clean technology? Hedge-fund directors driving expensive electric sports cars are hardly a future to believe in, but this is the future on offer.
Our salvation through better corporate engineering, the Performance Principle applied to technology, evokes the nostalgia of the 50’s better-living-through-chemistry era, when American industry promised a cornucopia of consumer goods. But the reliance on technology as the motor of a hyper-consumerist society and as “fixes” when it stutters, unfortunately is not history; it is as current as the proposal to seed the upper atmosphere to create an artificial albedo effect, a project Bill Gates may fund. We can look forward to a new green cornucopia of cute little digital gadgets, while tiny flakes of reflective material float around overhead producing a gray sky forever, some consolation.
A program of green economics and clean technology amounts to nothing more than the vanguard of a new capitalism. A new branding of failed institutions and dismal programs as promising as the re-branding of British Petroleum as BP (Beyond Petroleum) – a sick joke. Have you heard the one about the Detroit land speculator who wants to create an industrial farm in the middle of the devastated neighborhoods of the former Auto Capitol? It’s no joke.
No wonder there is an upsurge of Luddism and Malthusian apocalyptics. False solutions are rampant.
The opposite of fear isn’t courage, but confidence in our capacities to effect change in our lives, exactly what the Performance Principle constrains. The practice of critical thinking and the insights it brings cannot be sustained without our active participation in all aspects of our lives. It can’t, in other words, be sustained without our dreams and desires made manifest. No one speaks to these human needs, as if it were an embarrassment to raise them. Like those aspects of our lives that we relish with friends and at play, these concerns are intimate and relegated to the corners and crannies of our lives, as if they can be cultivated in the dark.
The Pleasure Principle is simply a way of re-thinking our present circumstances to emphasize those parts of our lives that nourish us. Big ideas give sustenance to the minutiae of our daily joys if only we invite them to enter our lives to challenge our compromises and tease us with the visions evoked. A life where we strain our muscles and test our talents with others to create harmonious lives is not an impossible dream. People all over this country are doing exactly that. More need to join them. Providing for physical needs – food, shelter and comfort – while creating an aesthetic sensibility to nourish the soul is not an unobtainable reality. This work is not restricted to rural enclaves where a new generation of visionary farmers tills the land. Urban dwellers are also redefining their local environments in all sorts of exciting ways: like questioning traditional manufacturing and technology by developing open-source and decentralized modes. And in the process creating a kind of wealth not obtainable today by even the richest white-collar crook.
The world we need cannot arise from the limited visions of those stuck in the routines of the marketplace or those listening to their echoes in the free-speech zones defined by electoral politics. The world the ruling class wants to continue foisting on us cannot hold. The oil geyser and the entire system it represents tells us that if it tells us anything. The BP catastrophe must have more meaning than just another news story conveniently forgotten in a week. It won’t be the last disaster, but it can be a turning point.
We start with ourselves, but we can’t end there. The greater joy is to join others on the same adventure.
BERNARD MARSZALEK can be reached at: email@example.com
Themes from the writings of, in chronological order, Paul Lafargue, Peter Kropotkin, Andre Breton, Herbert Marcuse, Raoul Vaneigem, Curtis White.