Recent independent research conducted during Lockdown has found that 56% of people report that they are part of a ‘subgroup’.
The research was conducted by ‘The Nursery‘ and consisted of a phone survey of 1800 adults. The most popular subculture types reported were:
Religious groups (not mainstream religions)
Restrictive diets (e.g. paleo, vegan etc)
The most common motive for joining a subculture was a ‘sense of belonging’, with 75% of respondents saying membership of their subculture was an important aspect of their identity.
Gaming is the largest genre of subculture, with 20% of respondents saying they had started gaming during lockdown, and new religious subcultures such as Wicca (3% of people) are also increasingly popular.
Relevance to A-level Sociology
This is an important update for subcultural theories of ‘deviance‘. IF we accept the definition of the above types of subculture (such as gaming cultures) as subcultures, then being part of a subculture is now normal, as 56% say they are part of one, and thus being part of a subculture is no longer deviant.
This seems to offer support for postmodern theories of subculture and society – Britain’s social make-up now consists of people fragmented into groups who choose to subscribe to a subculture/ group that gives their life meaning (almost 50% of respondents cited creativity as an important aspect of their subcultural membership)
This research also shows how far we’ve come from the early days of subcultural theory in the 1950s – such as Albert Cohen’s Status Frustration theory, and how irrelevant that is to understanding our diverse, consumer oriented postmodern subcultures.
It’s unlikely that 56% of the population join subcultures due to status frustration!
Then again, that particular theory wasn’t trying to explain subcultures such as those in the above research, and it may still be relevant in explaining why people join more deviant subcultures?
Postmodernists argue that the media is an integral part of postmodern society. Individuals actively use the media to construct their identities, and there is a sense of playfulness, creativity and unpredictability about how they go about doing this.
Postmodernists criticise other theories of audience effects, especially the Hypodermic Syringe model for assuming that audiences are homogenous (the same) and any models which assume there is such a thing as one dominant or preferred reading of media messages, such as the reception analysis model.
A diverse and active audience
Individuals read media in a diverse variety of ways, and how they read media content depends on a range of factors, including the entirety of an individual’s prior life experiences. Audiences can also change the way the interpret media content over time and make multiple readings of the same content simultaneously.
It follows that of all the models of audience effects, the postmodernist model sees the audience as the most active.
No such thing as an ‘underlying’ reality
Finally, postmodernists also argue that the media is constitutive of people’s realities – there is no deeper reality underneath media representations, media representations are no less real than non-media reality (if indeed there is such a thing!). It is thus meaningless to say that the media has an ‘effect’ on audiences as to make such a claim assumes that media representations and the audience are two different things, in postmodernism they are not, they are one and the same.
The globalisation of the media means that people are now more aware of hundreds of diverse cultures all over the world, and this gives them more inspiration to break with their own local traditions and live the lives they choose to.
There are also many more consumption opportunities: more choice of films, music, travel opportunities and of course global products.
The boundary between high and popular culture has also blurred: some classical music artists have sought out popular audiences for example, making high culture more accessible to the masses.
Finally, there are more opportunities for individuals to express themselves via social media.
The rejection of metanarratives
Postmodernists argue that media saturation means there are now an incredibly diverse array of voices and opinions online.
This challenges traditional ‘metanarratives’ – or any viewpoint which holds that there is one truth – as is found with traditional religions, political ideologies such as Marxism and science.
As a result of media saturation, people are now more sceptical of the ‘truth claims’ of experts, which means it is harder for those with power to manipulate people because ‘they know better’.
Audiences are now more involved with the creation of media content, so the global media space is now more participatory than old style one-way media.
Many people create and upload their own content to platforms such as YouTube, or write blogs, or spend time maintaining their social media profiles.
Audiences also contribute by sharing and critiquing other people’s content on social media.
The globalisation of protest
New media has been used effectively to fight oppression.
Spencer-Thomas (2008) conducted an analysis of protests against military violence in Burma – he found that in 1998 very little media attention was received, but that by 2007, once Smart Phones had penetrated the country, widespread global media coverage of the protests was achieved.
Some political campaigners have also used Twitter and Facebook to fight oppression – during the Arab Spring for example. Another example is the use of Facebook by Saudi women campaigning for the right to drive.
Thompson (1995) argues that global media products are modified by local cultures which results in various new hydbrid forms. Bollywood is a good example of this.
The Fyre Festival of 2017 is a great example of a ‘postmodern’ event…. an unfortunate coming together of consumerism, hyperreality, and hyper-individualised identity-obsessed millennials.
In case you missed the furore, you can get a feel for what happened just by watching this trailer on Netflix – which describes the event as a being billed as a luxury music festival on a paradise island, which went spectacularly wrong in the hands of a cocky entrepreneur..
The organisers of the Fyre Festival spent a fortune publicising the campaign on social media. They basically hired ten of the world’s best-known super models and spent a weekend filming them hanging out sipping cocktails on luxury yachts moored off the island where the Festival was due to take place. They then paid social media ‘influencers’ a fortune to publicise the festival. Kendall Jenner was apparently paid $250 000 for making just one post about it, but she was only one influencer among many…
The various posts soon went viral, and 10, 000 tickets (which cost a minimum of several thousand dollars each) sold out within 48 hours to wealthy millennials who thought they’d be getting three days of luxury jet-set partying in the Bahamas.
However, when the first wave of festival attendees arrived, they found that their accommodation wasn’t condos and super-yachts, it was repurposed emergency dome tents, usually used in disaster situations, and instead of gourmet food they ended up being served bread and cheese in plastic tubs, as this viral tweet told the world:
In fact it was that exact tweet that convinced the organisers to admit they’d failed and then just cancel the festival: any remaining incoming flights were cancelled, and the unfortunates who had already arrived had to make their own way back to the mainland.
Relevance of this to Sociology
The Fyre Festival seems like the quintessential postmodern event: t’s basically consumerism meets hyperreality.
Effectively a bunch of rich millennials paid a fortune to attend an event on the basis of a fiction spread via social media, and then found out it was a fiction when they arrived in physical reality.
At root, it’s logic of good old conspicuous consumption which drives the event: the point of the millennials going wasn’t for them just to enjoy the bands and the vibe, the point was the show off the exclusivity – to demonstrate to their other friends that they’d made it, that they had enough money to burn on this luxury, pioneering island festival.
This even also illustrates hyperreality – the event was sold on the basis of a fiction created over one weekend, and the images created their lodged themselves in thousands of people’s heads: they thought they’d be getting a festival plus a luxury island vibe, but hardly any of them checked the reality: there was never enough space on the island to actually fit 10K people and the necessary infrastructure, and islands can also be pretty uncomfortable places – sand, humidity and mosquitos. But no, the hyperreal image is what stuck with the vast majority, rather than the thought of thinking about whether such an event was actually feasible in reality, which it obviously wasn’t!
The Fyre Festival is also a powerful reminder of the increasing power which advertisers and influencers have in our lives. Brands are set to pay influencers $6.5 billion in 2019…. Perhaps it’s time to regulate them a bit more?!?
I guess it’s also worth noting that the organiser, Billy McFarland, is now serving 6 years in jail for fraud, so this is one example against the ‘Marxist’ view of crime: here’s a member of the elite class (NOT the super-elite) getting served justice.
Oh, and analysis aside, it’s hugely entertaining, I mean: do I feel sorry for these rich kids, not in the least!
Find out more…
The Netflix documentary is well worth a watch, and it’d make a great end of year movie!
Woodhead (2007) suggested women are more attracted to New Age Movements because they experience double alienation in the family…. they family fails to give them a sense of occupational identity, and they feel dissatisfied with their limited role as housewife and caregiver. New age movements offer a chance for self-exploration and can provide women with a sense of identity and self worth. (However this position has been criticized – forthcoming post).
For example, some elements of the New age encourage women to express their ‘authentic’ selves, rather than trying to reinforce their traditional socially constructed female roles as mothers and housewives.
However, at the same time, the New Age ALSO celebrates many positive aspects of femininity, such as subjective experiences, intuition and emotion, and this may also appeal to women much more than men.
The New Age movement may appeal especially to middle class women, stay at home mums, who have the time and the money to be able access the rather expensive and various New Age therapies; and the new age is partly about health and healing.
Finally, there is also the fact that New Age Movement is mainly run by women, who primarily seem to market their products and services to other women.
Criticisms of the above theories
The New Age Movement is tiny, very few people and thus very few people show any interest in it!
If women did join the new age movement because of double alienation, then most women should be working class, but they are not, most women are middle class.
Most of the activities engaged in do not provide a sense of coherent identity, making up for dissatisfaction with life in general: seriously, how is a couple of yoga classes a week going to do this?
Limitations of ‘Traditional Gender Role Theory’ in explaining why women are more religious than men
Women’s higher levels of religiosity could be due to different age profiles: women live longer than men, and older people are more religious than younger people.
Also, it doesn’t explain the higher levels of religiosity among women who don’t accept traditional feminine roles. Most members of the New Age Movement are female, and very few accept traditional, hegemonic prescriptions of femininity.
Paul Heelas (1996) points out that the New Age Movement seems to have much in common with postmodernism:
It seems to involve de-differentiation and de-traditionalisation. De-differentiation involves a breakdown of traditional categories, such as that between high and low culture. The New Age movement seems to be doing something similar with its fusion of traditional and popular religious beliefs. The New Age Movement also rejects the authority of the established church, with its belief that spirituality is within, and that it is up to each individual to find their own path to inner truth.
The New Age Movement accepts relativism – there are diverse paths to spiritual fulfillment, and no one authority has a monopoly on truth, which fits in with postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives.
The spiritual shopping approach of the New Age seems to correspond with the centrality of consumer culture to postmodern societies.
Like postmodernism, The New Age movement is, at least to an extent, about individuality and identity, focused on individual experience.
Finally, there is the simple fact that both postmodernism and the New Age Movement emphasise the onset of a ‘new era’.
Why the New Age is not Postmodern
Despite the above apparent similarities, Heelas argues that the New Age Movement is, in fact, not postmodern:
Heelas argues that while the New Age Movement rejects ‘cultural metanarratives’ (about changing society) it still has a strong ‘experiential meta narrative at its core. New agers are united by a self-spirituality metanarrative which claims that if people just strive deeply enough, they will realise absolute truths which will will help them to improve their lives. Their metanarrative is ultimately one of a faith in a radical individualism.
Although there might be different paths to inner-wisdom, New Agers still feel themselves in a position to make value judgments about themselves and others based on these beliefs. They tend take their spiritual beliefs and practices very seriously, and distinguish them as sacred, apart form other areas of their lives. This is far from the frivolous play like attitude normally associated with postmodernism.
Finally, many New Age practices are actually quite old, rooted in ancient traditions. For example, astrology, tarot and even Buddhism and Taoism, while most psycho-therapeutic practices are rooted in modernity.
Ultimately Heelas argues that the New Age movement does not represent a clear break with the past.
Durkheim’s view of religion implied that a truly religious society could only have one religion in that society. In Durkheim’s analysis this was the situation in small-scale, Aboriginal societies, where every member of that society comes together at certain times in the year to engage in religious rituals. It was based on observations of such societies that Durkheim theorized that when worshiping religion, people were really worshiping society.
However, in more modern societies, especially postmodern societies, there is no one dominant religion: there are many religions, or a plurality of religions. Sociologists describe such a situation as religious pluralism.
According to Steve Bruce (2011) modernization and industrialization in Northern Europe and America brought with them social fragmentation, such that a plurality of different cultural and religious groups emerged. We see religious pluralism most obviously in the growth of sects and cults and in the increase in ethnic diversity of religion in societies.
Two process happen as a result of this: people find that their membership of their particular group or religion no longer binds them to society as a whole; and the state finds it difficult to formally support one ‘main religion’ without causing conflict.
Bruce thus argues that ‘strong religion’, which influences practically every areas of people’s lives: shaping their beliefs and practices cannot exist in a religiously plural society. Strong religion can only exist in isolated pockets, such as the Amish communities, but these have isolated themselves from society as a whole.
Religiously plural societies are thus characterized by ‘weak religion’ – which is a matter of personal choice and does not dominate every aspect of people’s lives. Weak religions accept that there is room for other religious belief systems and have little social impact.
Examples of weak religions include modern Protestantism, the ecumenical movement and New Ageism.
Arguments against increasing religious pluralism as evidence of secularization
It is possible that religion is just changing to fit a postmodern society rather than it being in decline. Why does a society need to have one dominant religion for us to be able to say that religion is important?
It might be that diverse religions which preach tolerance of other religions are the only functional religions for a diverse postmodern society.
There are societies which have more than one religion where religious beliefs are still strong: for example Northern Ireland and Israel.
A fairly lengthy, paraphrased summary with a few comments in italics
In consumer culture people behave ‘unreflexivly’ – without thinking about what they consider to be their life purpose and what they believe to be the right means of reaching it, without thinking about about what prompts them into action or escape, or about what they desire, what they fear and at what point fears and desires balance each other out
Nb – In defining consumers as unreflexive – that is, anyone who limits their conscious reflection to questions of what to consume- rather than focusing on the ‘deeper’ questions of life – Bauman seems to deny that such people have any sense of agency – they are not fully human.
The society of consumers stands for a set of existential conditions under which the probability is high that most people will embrace the consumerist rather than any other culture, and obey its rules.
The ‘society of consumers’ is a kind of society which ‘interpellates’ its members primarily in their capacity as consumers. While doing that, ‘society’ expects to be heard, listened to and obeyed; it evaluates – rewards and penalizes – its members depending on the promptness and propriety of their response to the interpellation.
As a result, one’s ability to engage in consumerist performance has become the paramount stratifying factor and the principal criterion of inclusion in or exclusion from society, as well as guiding the distribution of social esteem and stigma, and shares in public attention.
(Following Frank Trentmann) This is historically unusual – for most of the modern period consumption was little discussed and when it was it was typically associated with eccentricity and wastefulness.
For the better part of modern history (that is, throughout the era of massive industrial plants and massive conscript armies), society ‘interpellated’ most of the male half of its members as primarily producers and soldiers, and almost all of the other (female) half as first and foremost their by-appointment purveyors of services.
It was the body of the would-be worker or soldier that counted most; their spirit, on the other hand, was to be silenced, numbed and thereby ‘deactivated’.
The society of consumers, on the other hand, focuses its training and coercing pressures on the management of the spirit – leaving the manage- meant of bodies to individually undertaken DIY labour, individually supervised and coordinated by spiritually trained and coerced individuals.
This coercive pressure is exerted on members of the society of consumers from their early childhood.. Following Daniel Thomas Cooke…
‘the battles waged over and around children’s consumer culture are no less than battles over the nature of the person and the scope of personhood in the context of the ever-expanding reach of commerce.’
The society of consumers does not recognize differences of age or gender (however counter-factually) and will not make allowances for either; nor does it (blatantly counter-factually) recognize class distinctions. From the geographic centres of the worldwide network of information highways to its furthest, however impoverished peripheries…
‘the poor are forced into a situation in which they either have to spend what little money or resources they have on senseless consumer objects rather than basic necessities in order to deflect total social humiliation or face the prospect of being teased and laughed at.’ (In Ekstrom et al, Elusive Consumption, 2004.)
However it is down to the individual to negotiate the staggering amount of info in order to make the right consumer decisions to avoid derision.
Since ‘social fitness’ is the responsibility of the individual, if people fail to make the right choices they are blamed (and thus constructed as ‘flawed consumers’) – we are taught to believe that there is nothing wrong with society, because there is plenty of choice, and so if people fail to succeed they are not deserving of care.
At least the above is the case if we are unreflexive viz our consumption habits.
Consumption is an investment in everything that matters for individual ‘social value’ and self-esteem, thus the crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers themselves to that of sellable commodities.
If you wish to take part in society, you have to consume in this way – turning yourself into a commodity – this is a precondition which is non negotiable thus market relations are fundamental to the society of consumers, as is the calculating mindset which goes along with it.
I’m left wondering what Bauman would make of attempts to set up alternative, low impact cultures assisted by alternative financial avenues such as Kick Starter?
Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity is the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.
The society of consumers, with its compulsive and willing individualization places a magnified emphasis on the on the subject as the one who has the duty to make oneself something, and on the individual as being the one who is responsible if one fails. NB – I guess to simplify one of Bauman’s basic points you could just say that we believe that we are responsible for own successes and failures in life only because that is what society tells us, and this isn’t necessarily true.
In the society of producers, society took on the role of a ‘collective Prometheus’ – it took responsibility for the product in exchange for the individual conforming to social norms. If you just ‘became’ what society asked of you’ that was enough – your Promethean challenge, and sense of of Promethean pride could thus be earned if you fulfilled your social role.
However, in the age of individualisation, now that society ‘doesn’t exist’ (TINA) just becoming what society wants is no longer an option – ( in the consumer society the point, the task, is to continually become something else).
Being born, having become something are now sources of ‘Promethean shame’ and the task of the individual is to perfect themselves – to become more than they are, and there is never an end to this process… life is a never ending struggle of becoming.
Because of this, being a member of the society of consumers is a daunting task, a never-ending and uphill struggle. The fear of failing to conform has been elbowed out by a fear of inadequacy, and consumer markets are eager to capitalize on that fear, and companies turning out consumer goods vie for the status of the most reliable guide and helper in their clients’ unending effort to rise to the challenge. They supply ‘the tools’, the instruments required by the individually performed job of ‘self-fabrication’.
However, following Gunder Anders, it is absurd to think of those tools as enabling an individual choice of purpose. These instruments are the crystallization of irresistible ‘necessity’ – which individuals must learn to obey, in order to be free. Cites teen fashion as an example. I’d be interested in looking at the social construction of retirement in this… to what extent is retirement constructed as a time when we are expected to ‘consume hard’? Does all of this end then?
There are two versions of human history – That of life as a progression towards greater rationality and freedom, of which consumer choice is the latest ‘highest’ expression, the other is of the increasing colonisation of human life by commodity markets – the society of consumers is its zenith because humans are now obliged to interact with each other at the same level as the products they consume (as explained above) – they purchase products in order to maximise their own market-value and they have no choice but to do so. NB – I get the impression that Bauman sides with the later version.
Markets today are sovereign, you only get political rights if you are able to consume – people such as the underclass and illegal immigrants (flawed consumers) are seen as having no rights in the popular imagination, and there is no authority they can appeal to because the state’s ability to draw the line between the included and the excluded has been eroded by the market – it now makes these decisions, and it has no tangible body that can be appealed to if people feel unfairly excluded.
In recent decades the state has shifted many of its functions sideways to the market such that the state has now become the arbiter of market demands, evidence in the centrality of economic measurements as the state’s primary indicators of its ‘success’.
The secret of every durable (successfully self-reproducing) social system is the recasting of its ‘functional prerequisites’ into behavioural motives of actors – the secret is making individuals wish to do what is needed for the system to reproduce itself.
In the modern period, this required an emphasis on deferred gratification – people committing to the idea of putting off pleasure now in order to reap the rewards in the future.
We also see in the general theories of the time – such as Freud’s reality principle and in Bentham’s panopticon – that the good society could only be constructed with the individual’s subordination to the society.
(However, such theories were themselves a product of the crisis of community – the very fact that people were thinking about community demonstrates that community is no longer ‘taken for granted’ as it was in traditional times, and because of this, it was already losing its power as a coercive force).
Much of the modern period thus involved nation states vying to restrict freedom of choice through panopticon style discipline and punish rule, but this was always cumbersome.
In the post-modern era (mistakenly conceived as a decivilising process) the civilising process takes the form of the ‘obligation to choose’ but this breeds little resistance because it is represented and conceived as freedom of choice.
People now are obliged to seek happiness and pleasure and this is lived through as an exercise of ‘freedom’ and self-assertion. Today it is as if the (individualised) pleasure principle has taken over the reality principle as the primary regulating force in society. (Reminds me of happiness is mandatory.)
When society confronts us (which it rarely does as a totality, these days) it does so in ways which make it easy for us to act as solitary consumers… (rather than in large collectivities). Bauman now gives several examples of this:
As mentioned earlier on in the chapter, this starts with childhood
At university, the new future-elite of consumers are socialised into the norm of living on credit (phase one)
At home we have TV dinners and fast food, which protect solitary consumers.
The primary acts of consumption are done in swarms – groups who come together for limited times with loose connections.
Elsewhere Bauman has also written about the nature of shopping malls, privatised public spaces of individualised consumption.
Even our post-modern ‘collective’ carnivalesque acts reinforce individualism – we come together in fringe moments to get our ‘collective’ fix and then go back to being individuals again .. ..
The chapter finishes with something about tax cuts to the rich and shifting taxation away from income to expenditure which doesn’t make much sense in the context of the chapter.
I may come back to chapter 4 later, but it’s only about architecture, which doesn’t really interest me!
The Condition of Postmodernity: A Summary of Chapter 5.
NB this is a very heavy going chapter….
Modernism is an aesthetic response to conditions of modernity produced by modernization. A proper interpretation of the rise of postmodernism, therefore, ought to grapple with the nature of modernization. Only in that way will we be able to judge whether postmodernism is a different reaction to an unchanging modernization process, or whether it reflects a radical shift in the nature of modernization itself, towards some kind of ‘post-industrial’ or even ‘post capitalist’ society.
Marx provides one of the earliest and most complete accounts of capitalist modernization. His theory of capitalist modernization makes for particularly compelling reading when set against the cultural theses of postmodernity.
In The communist manifesto Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has created a new internationalism via the world market, together with:
‘subjection of nature’s forces to man,
application of chemistry to agriculture and industry,
steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs,
clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers,
whole populations conjured out of the ground.’
It has done this at great cost:
destruction of traditions,
reduction of the valuation of all activity to the cold calculus of money and profit.
‘Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men’. (Marx and Engels, 1 952, 25) .
Marx here unleashes a rhetoric that defines the underside of al modernist aesthetics.
Marx begins Capital with an analysis of commodities, those everyday things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) which we daily consume in the course of reproducing ourselves. Yet the commodity IS, he avers, ‘a mysterious thing’ because it simultaneously embodies both a use value (it fulfils a particular want or need) and an exchange value (I can use it as a bargaining chip to procure other commodities). This duality always renders the commodity ambiguous for us; shall we consume it or trade it away?
But as exchange relations proliferate and price-fixing markets form, so one commodity typically crystallizes out as money. With money the mystery of the commodity takes on a new twist, because the use value of money is that it represents the world of social labour and of exchange value. Money becomes the means by which we typically compare and assess the value of all commodities. Plainly, since the way we put value on things is important, an analysis of money is of interest.
The advent of a money economy, Marx argues, dissolves the bonds and relations that make up ‘traditional’ communities so that ‘money becomes the real community.’ We move from a social condition, in which we depend directly on those we know personally, to one in which we depend on impersonal and objective relations with others. As exchange relations proliferate, so money appears more and more as ‘a power external to and independent of the producers,’ so what ‘originally appears as a means to promote production becomes a relation alien’ to them.
Money concerns dominate producers. Money and market exchange draws a veil over, ‘masks’ social relationships between things. This condition Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities.’ It is one of Marx’s most compelling insights, for it poses the problem of how to interpret the real but nevertheless superficial relationships that we can readily observe in the market place in appropriate social terms.
The conditions of labour and life, the sense of joy, anger, or frustration that lie behind the production of commodities, the states of mind of the producers, are all hidden to us as we exchange one object (money) for another (the commodity). We can take our daily breakfast without a thought for the myriad people who engaged in its production. All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object (there are no finger marks of exploitation in the daily bread). We cannot tell from contemplation of any object in the supermarket what conditions of labour lay behind its production.
Marx’s meta-theory seeks to tear away that fetishistic mask, and to understand the social relations that lie behind it. Marx would surely criticise postmodernists for simply focusing on the ‘masking’ without looking deeper at the social relations of production which lie behind the production of commodities.
But we can take the analysis of money deeper still. If money is to perform its functions effectively, Marx argues, it must be replaced by mere symbols of itself (coins, tokens, paper currency, credit), which lead it to be considered as a mere symbol, an ‘arbitrary fiction’ sanctioned by ‘the universal consent of mankind.’ Yet it is through these ‘arbitrary fictions’ that the whole world of social labour, of production and hard daily work, get represented.
In the absence of social labour, all money would be worthless. But it is only through money that social labour can be represented at all. The magical powers of money are compounded by the way owners ‘lend their tongues’ to commodities by hanging a price ticket on them, appealing to ‘cabalistic signs’ with names like pounds, dollars, francs.
So even though money is the signifier of the value of social labour, the perpetual danger looms that the signifier will itself become the object of human greed and of human desire (the hoarder, the avaricious miser, etc.).
Money, on the one hand a ‘radical leveller’ of all other forms of social distinction, but is itself a form of social power that can be appropriated as ‘the social power of private persons.
Postmodernism seems to be a reinforcement rather than a transformation of the role of money as Marx depicts it – after all postmodernism suggests that we should focus on:
signifier rather than the signified,
the medium (money) rather than the message (social labour),
the emphasis on fiction rather than function,
on signs rather than things,
on aesthetics rather than ethics.
As commodity producers seeking money, however, we are dependent upon the needs and capacity of others to buy. Producers consequently have a permanent interest in cultivating ‘excess and intemperance’ in others….’ Pleasure, leisure, seduction, and erotic life are all brought within the range of money power and commodity production. Capitalism therefore ‘produces sophistication of needs and of their means on the one hand, and a bestial barbarization, a complete, unrefined, and abstract simplicity of need, on the other’ (Marx, 1964, 148). Advertising and commercialization destroy all traces of production in their imagery, reinforcing the fetishism that arises automatically in the course of market exchange.
Furthermore, money, as the supreme representation of social power in capitalist society, itself becomes the object of lust, greed, and desire. Yet here, too, we encounter double meanings. Money confers the privilege to exercise power over others – we can buy their labour time or the services they offer, even build systematic relations of domination over exploited classes simply through control over money power.
Money, in fact, fuses the political and the economic into a genuine political economy of overwhelming power relations (a problem that micro-theorists of power like Foucault systematically avoid and which macro-social theorists like Giddens – with his strict division between allocative and authoritative sources of power – cannot grasp).
The common material languages of money and commodities provide a universal basis within market capitalism for linking everyone into an identical system of market valuation and so procuring the reproduction of social life through an objectively grounded system of social bonding.
Yet within these broad constraints, we are ‘free,’ as it were, to develop our own personalities and relationships in our own way, our own ‘otherness,’ even to forge group language games, provided, of course, that we have enough money to live on satisfactorily.
Money is a ‘great leveller and cynic,’ a powerful underminer of fixed social relations, and a great ‘democratizer’. As a social power that can be held by individual persons it forms the basis for a wide-ranging individual liberty, a liberty that can be deployed to develop ourselves as free-thinking individuals without reference to others. Money unifies precisely through its capacity to accommodate individualism, otherness, and extraordinary social fragmentation.
But by what process is the capacity for fragmentation latent in the money form transformed into a necessary feature of capitalist modernization?
Participation in market exchange presupposes a certain division of labour as well as a capacity to separate (alienate) oneself from one’s own product. The result is an estrangement from the product of one’s own experience, a fragmentation of social tasks and a separation of the subjective meaning of a process of production from the objective market valuation of the product.
A highly organized technical and social division of labour is one of the founding principles of capitalist modernization. This forms a powerful lever to promote economic growth and the accumulation of capital, particularly under conditions of market exchange in which individual commodity producers (protected by private property rights) can explore the possibilities of specialization within an open economic system.
This explains the power of economic (free market) liberalism as a founding doctrine for capitalism. It is precisely in such a context that possessive individualism and creative entrepreneurialism, innovation, and speculation, can flourish, even though this also means a proliferating fragmentation of tasks and responsibilities, and a necessary transformation of social relations to the point where producers are forced to view others in purely instrumental terms.
The existence of wage labour is also required before profit-seeking (launching money into circulation in order to gain more money) can become the basic way for social life to be reproduced.
The conversion of labour into wage labour means ‘the separation of labour from its product, of subjective labour power from the objective conditions of labour’ (Capital, 1: 3). When capitalists purchase labour power they necessarily treat it in instrumental terms: the labourer is viewed as a ‘hand’ rather than as a whole person and the labour contributed is a ‘factor’ (notice the reification) of production.
The purchase of labour power with money gives the capitalist certain rights to dispose of the labour of others without necessary regard for what the others might think, need, or fee and this suggests one of the founding principles upon which the very idea of ‘otherness’ is produced and reproduced on a continuing basis in capitalist society. The world of the working class becomes the domain of that ‘other,’ which is necessarily rendered opaque and potentially unknowable by virtue of the fetishism of market exchange. Where an ‘other’ already existed (along gender or race lines for example) Capitalism also made use of this.
Capitalists strategically impose all kinds of conditions upon the labourer. The latter is typically alienated from the product, from command over the process of producing it, as well as from the capacity to realize the value of the fruit of her efforts – the capitalist appropriates that as profit. The capitalist has the power to mobilize the powers of co-operation, division of labour, and machinery as powers of capital over labour.
The result is an organized detail division of labour within the factory, which reduces the labourer to a fragment of a person. The ‘division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. This is enforced through hierarchies of authority and close supervision of tasks – of the workshop and the factory.
The division of labour in society ‘brings into contact independent commodity producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of competition, it is anarchic
This enforced fragmentation, which is both social and technical, is further emphasized by the loss of control over the instruments of production. This turns the labourer effectively into an ‘appendage’ of the machine. Intelligence (knowledge, science, technique) is objectified in the machine, thus separating manual from mental labour and diminishing the application of intelligence on the part of the workers.
In all of these respects, the individual labourer is ‘made poor’ in individual productive powers ‘in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital rich in social productive power’ (Capital, 1: 341). This process does not stop with the direct producers, with the peasants pulled off the land, the women and children forced to give of their labour in the factories and mines. The bourgeoisie ‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous “cash payment.”
[It] ‘has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’ (The communist manifesto, 45)
The ‘bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production because the ‘coercive laws’ of market competition force all capitalists to seek out technological and organizational changes that will enhance their own profitability vis-a-vis the social average, thus entraining all capitalists in leap-frogging processes of innovation that reach their limit only under conditions of massive labour surpluses.
Capitalism is necessarily technologically dynamic, not because of the mythologized capacities of the innovative entrepreneur but because of the coercive laws of competition and the conditions of class struggle endemic to capitalism.
The effect of continuous innovation, however, is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills.
Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. Not only does the life of modern industry become a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis, and stagnation, ‘but the uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the conditions of existence, of the operatives become normal.’
All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the workers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (Capital, 1: 604)
The struggle to maintain profitability sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to redouble their efforts to create new needs in others. The result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of capital and workers shift from one line of production to another, leaving whole sectors devastated, while the perpetual flux in consumer wants, tastes, and needs becomes a permanent locus of uncertainty and struggle. This is global in scope.
The resultant transformation in the experience of space and place is matched by revolutions in the time dimension, as capitalists strive to reduce the turnover time of their capital to ‘the twinkling of an eye’. Capitalism, in short, is a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history. If, therefore, ‘the only ‘secure thing about modernity is insecurity,’ then it is not hard to see from where that insecurity derives.
Yet, Marx insists, there is a single unitary principle at work that underpins and frames all of this revolutionary upheaval, fragmentation, and perpetual insecurity. The principle resides in what he calls, most abstractly, ‘value in motion’ or, more simply, the circulation of capital restlessly and perpetually seeking new ways to garner profits.
By the same token, there are higher-order co-ordinating systems that seem to have the power – though in the end Marx will insist that this power is itself transitory and illusory – to bring order to all this chaos and set the path of capitalist modernization on a more stable terrain. The credit system, for example, embodies a certain power to regulate money uses; money flows can be switched so as to stabilize relations between production and consumption, to arbitrate between current expenditures and future needs, and to shift surpluses of capital from one line of production or region to another on a rational basis.
But here, too, we immediately encounter a central contradiction because credit creation and disbursement can never be separated from speculation. Credit is, according to Marx, always to be accounted for as ‘fictitious capital,’ as some kind of money bet on production that does not yet exist. The result is a permanent tension between what Marx calls ‘the financial system’ (credit paper, fictitious capital, financial instruments of all kinds) and its ‘monetary base’ (until recently attached to some tangible commodity such as gold or silver). This contradiction is founded on a particular paradox: money has to take some tangible form (gold, coin, notes, entries in a ledger, etc.) even though it is a general representation of all social labour.
The question of which of the diverse tangible representations is ‘real’ money typically erupts at times of crisis. Is it better to hold stocks and share certificates, notes, gold, or cans of tuna, in the midst of a depression? It also follows that whoever controls the tangible form (the gold producers, the state, the banks who issue credit) that is most ‘real’ at a given time, has enormous social influence, even if, in the last instance, it is the producers and exchangers of commodities in aggregate who effectively define ‘the value of money’ (a paradoxical term which we all understand, but which technically signifies ‘the value of value’).
Control over the rules of money formation is, as a consequence, a strongly contested terrain of struggle which generates considerable insecurity and uncertainty as to the ‘value of value.’ In speculative booms, a financial system which starts out by appearing as a sane device for regulating the incoherent tendencies of capitalist production, ends up becoming ‘the main lever for overproduction and over-speculation.’
The state, constituted as a coercive system of authority that has a monopoly over institutionalized violence, forms a second organizing principle through which a ruling class can seek to impose its will not only upon its opponents but upon the anarchical flux mentioned above. The tools of ‘control’ include:
regulation of money and legal guarantees of fair market contracts
provision of social and physical infrastructures
direct control over capital and labour allocations as well as over wages and prices,
the nationalization of key sectors,
restrictions on working class power,
police surveillance and military repression.
Yet the state is a territorial entity struggling to impose its will upon a fluid and spatially open process of capital circulation. It has to contest within its borders the factional forces and fragmenting effects of widespread individualism and rapid social change. It also depends on taxation and credit markets, so that states can be disciplined by the circulation process at the same time as they can seek to promote particular strategies of capital accumulation.
To do so effectively the state must construct an alternative sense of community to that based on money, as well as a definition of public interests over and above the class and secretarian interests and struggles that are contained within its borders. It must, in short, legitimize itself.
It is, therefore, bound to engage to some degree in the aestheticization of politics.
‘The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past,’ Marx argues, ‘but only from the future.’ It must strip off ‘all superstition in regard to the past,’ else ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ and converts the cathartic tragedy of revolution into the ritual of farce. In pitting himself so mercilessly against the power of myth and the aestheticization of politics, Marx in effect affirms their remarkable powers to stifle progressive working-class revolutions.
Marx criticised Bonapartism as doing just this, and we can criticse Facism as doing the same in the 20th century.
The tension between the stability that state regulation imposes, and the fluid motion of capital flow, remains a crucial problem for the social and political organization of capitalism. This difficulty is modified by the way in which the state stands itself to be disciplined by internal forces (upon which it relies for its power) and external conditions – competition in the world economy, exchange rates, and capital movements, migration, or, on occasion, direct political interventions on the part of superior powers.
The relation between capitalist development and the state has to be seen, therefore, as mutually determining rather than unidirectional. State power can, in the end, be neither more nor less stable than the political economy of capitalist modernity will allow.
There are, however, many positive aspects to capitalist modernity:
The potential for reducing the powers of nature-imposed necessities over our lives.
The creation of new wants and needs can alert us to new cultural possibilities (of the sort that avant-garde artists were later to explore).
Even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual.
The reduction of spatial barriers and the formation of the world market not only allows a generalized access to the diversified products of different regions and climes, but also puts us into direct contact with all the peoples of the earth.
Above all, the passage to postmodernity opens up new vistas for human development and self-realization.
Revolutions in technology rendered possible by the division of labour and the rise of the materialist sciences had the effect of demystifying the processes of production (aptly called ‘mysteries’ and ‘arts’ in the pre-modern period) and opening up the capacity to liberate society from scarcity and the more oppressive aspects of nature-imposed necessity. This was the good side of capitalist modernization.
The problem, however, was to liberate us from the fetishisms of market exchange and to demystify (and by extension demythologize) the social and historical world in exactly the same way. This was the scientific task that Marx set himself in Capital.
However, until we reach socialism, there is always the possibility for nature to be re-mythologised.
It is out of the tension between the negative and positive qualities of capitalism that new ways to define our species being can be constructed: Capital may well create Bourgeois society and all of the exploitation and fetishisms that go along with it, but Capital also drives beyond national barriers and prejudices and beyond nature worship…. [beyond] all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproduction of old ways of life. (Grundrisse, 410)
Marx gives us plenty of advice on how we might fuse all the sporadic though widespread resistances, discontents, and struggles against the oppressive, destructive, fragmenting, and destabilizing aspects of life under capitalism so as to master the maelstrom and become collective creators of our own history according to conscious plan.
What Marx depicts, therefore, are social processes at work under capitalism conducive to individualism, alienation, fragmentation, ephemerality, innovation, creative destruction, speculative development, unpredictable shifts in methods of production and consumption (wants and needs), a shifting experience of space and time, as well as a crisis-ridden dynamic of social change. If these conditions of capitalist modernization form the material context out of which both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and cultural producers forge their aesthetic sensibilities, principles, and practices, it seems reasonable to conclude that the turn to postmodernism does not reflect any fundamental change of social condition.
The rise of postmodernism either represents a departure (if such there is) in ways of thinking about what could or should be done about that social condition, or else (and this is the proposition we explore in considerable depth in Part II) it reflects a shift in the way in which capitalism is working these days.
In either case, Marx’s account of capitalism, if correct, provides us with a very solid basis for thinking about the general relations between modernization, modernity, and the aesthetic movements that draw their energies from such conditions.
Education teaches us specialist skills for work – At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs. This allows for a complex division of labour to take place.
Role Allocation and meritocracy – Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy
The reproduction of class inequality and the myth of meritocracy – In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced
School teaches the skills future capitalist employers need through the ‘Hidden Curriculum (e.g. pupils Learn to accept authority; they learn to accept hierarchy, and motivation by external rewards)
Willis described the friendship between the 12 boys (or the lads) he studied as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work. The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.
Stereotypical views of teachers and careers advisors as well as peer group pressure means that subject choices are still shaped by traditional gender norms – which limits the kind of jobs boys and girls go onto do in later life.
Even though girls do better at school, they still get paid less than men, so qualifications do not necessarily result in more pay!
The mid 1970s was a time of rising unemployment in Britain, particularly among the young. It was argued that the education system was not producing a skilled enough workforce and that the needs of the economy were not being met. From the mid 1970s both the Conservative and Labour governments agreed that education should be more focussed on improving the state of the economy by providing training courses for young people in different areas of work.
This emphasis on meeting the needs of industry became known as ‘New Vocationalism’ which first took off in the 1980s.
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