Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Late capitalism: the infographic

The origins of the literature admonishing the poor for their spendthrift and wretched ways go back some centuries, but every epoch has its particular versions of it. For us – less than ten years after a cadre of bankers seeking to criminally profit from ordinary’s people desire to own a home plunged the world into a catastrophic crisis – it centres around the failure of the poor to accumulate immovable assets. Hence the torrent of newspaper articles purporting to prove that anyone can own a house, if only they set their mind to it, or so long as they commit to making the same sacrifices as their forebears.

These articles have a few things in common: they elide class advantage by giving as little emphasis as possible to the fact that their heroic young homeowners invariably turn out to have received large sums of money from their parents, or to have benefited from living with their family at the time when they were saving for a deposit; and – under the guise of giving sensible and useful advice to young people – they provide moral justification to a massive generational shift in wealth, accompanied by an even greater increase in inequality. It’s not just that older people are relatively better off than younger ones with respect to home ownership: it’s also that the rich are getting vastly richer by purchasing an ever greater proportion of the available stock. Blaming Millennials – standing in more broadly for ‘anyone who doesn’t own a home’ – for being bad at saving, or portraying exceptional stories as an achievable norm, hides the structural nature to the problem.

As is a historical constant of this genre, the articles are also of immense comfort to the rich, who get to view their success – by implication – as having been earned through personal sacrifice, and to displace any residual guilt they may feel during their darker moments.

Yet there is a lot to learn from these stories. When a successful profiteer thunders from the pages of a bourgeois newspaper that wannabe buyers should ‘Toughen up, stop complaining and join the army’, it not only gives us a valuable recruiting tool for bloody revolution, but it also undercuts the myth of equal opportunity from which bourgeois politics derives its legitimacy. Again: every epoch in history provides us with variations on this theme. And that’s what makes them worthy of study.

Writer Linda Tirado uncovered a very interesting example of the genre over the weekend. It’s a guide produced in the United States on how to save money on the minimum wage, written – or rather designed – by self-styled ‘visual capitalist’ Jeff Desjardines for Business Insider. (Tirado has since produced her own step-by-step rebuttal, which makes this blog post almost completely redundant, but I saw it too late.)

What makes this guide exemplary is its visual rhetorical style, combined with its daring central proposition. This time, our aim is not to make you think you will ever own a home (say goodbye to subprime). Rather, we want to persuade you that you can achieve financial well-being on the crumbs that the most advanced capitalist society in the world leaves on the table, simply by following a million easy steps.

Wealth, explains Desjardines, does not consist in owning assets. You could have mansions and jet planes coming out your ears and still be full of debt. (Which is true enough, but.)

No: real wealth consists in being able to survive for a long time should your earnings suddenly stop. Which, interestingly enough, is an impoverished but still somewhat passable version of the old-fashioned understanding in working class circles of the word ‘security’.

In the heyday of post-war social democracy, through such documents as the 1972 report by the New Zealand Royal Commission on Social Policy, western governments had enough faith in capitalism as to suggest that social benefits should be sufficient not only to keep the wolves at bay, but to participate in society as equals, sharing in the same lifestyle and enjoying the same material goods as members of the middle class. Nowadays, by contrast, not only the unemployed or the underemployed, but even people with a modest job are supposed to make do with less and less. Forget eating out. Cancel your cable. Sell your car and travel by bike, as if you lived in an Italian neorealist film. Do the things that are free in life, like phoning an old friend or going for a hike. And above all, move to a cheaper city.

This requirement, which is also quite common to ‘how to get onto the property ladder’ primers (Step 1: buy a place 75km from the nearest paying job) is especially illustrative of how far the dream of universal prosperity has sunk. To shunt all minimum-wage workers to Amarillo, Texas, is not only patently nonsensical – who would be left to clean buildings and serve food in New York? – but is also a dramatic admission that capitalism cannot provide a decent living even to people who are, as it were, fully subscribed.

We knew all this, of course. It just sounds different when a visual capitalist says it. And while relocation may be technically voluntary, Desjardines makes sure to set a guilt-trap for those who may be reluctant to pack their bags.

Abandoning your home, your social networks of support – which are themselves essential for surviving on a low wage – your friends, your family, even your culture, are things that those guilty not of working less hard, but for less money than others are called upon to justify. They are excuses.

Pausing only to remind ourselves that Elon Musk once went a year eating for less than $1 per day, we have come full circle to the basic premise of every anti-poor piece of writing in the three-hundred-year history of this genre. Namely, that poverty is a choice, and all you have to do is to unmake it.

But what good is empowerment without emancipation? What does one gain by beating the odds, if not to become another outlier, or the likely subject of a newspaper article about how to be ‘wealthy’ on the minimum wage? Such are the cheerful, bloodless fantasies of late capitalism: a happy life in Amarillo, your time equally divided between going on hikes and phoning old friends.

Only please, whatever you do, don’t even think about raising a family.

This week I also have a review over at Overland of Jeff Sparrow’s brilliant new book on Paul Robeson.