Culture and Society, Economics October 5, 2019

Desolation Row – A Neoliberal Endgame


THE POET

I just watched a video from 1992 of the 30th Anniversary Concert for Bob Dylan in association with Columbia Records, featuring the celebrant and a bevy of (then) label stablemates and guests, including Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder and a host of others, spinning their unique interpretations from Mr. Zimmerman’s voluminous songbook.

The performances were as varied as the songs; from a pedestrian reading (literally) of the pedantic “Foot Of Pride” by Lou Reed, to a rousing version of the anthemic “Like A Rolling Stone” by John Mellencamp, to an impassioned rendition of the withering protestations in “Masters Of War” by Eddie Vedder, to the haunting vocals of the Band harmonizing on “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, to the searing slide guitar of Johnny Winter as he cranked the crowd into a frenzy on the apocalyptic “Highway 61 (Revisited)” (a highlight).  But the real stars of the show were Dylan’s lyrics.

dylan-profile_150

Here is a songwriter, who for a brief period of time in the mid to late Sixties, was accorded the reverence usually associated with being a deity of sorts, idolized as a poet troubadour who spoke the “truth”, by a generation whom felt itself out of step with a post World War II economy, driven by a Forever War mentality against perceived competitors and increasingly dominated by market capitalism that emphasized physical power and material growth over fairness and human dignity.

Dylan was to many, the voice of his generation and this generation, fueled with the energy and enthusiasm of a vibrant middle class that was inspired to a degree by the dystopian and rebellious messages distilled from his Beat Era influenced, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, had brought about many progressive changes to society, including the Civil Rights Act, Social Security, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and an ubiquitous publicly-funded education system. There was a shared feeling of self-satisfaction that we had reached our coming-of-age and that we had made a difference not as individuals but as an entire generation. Solidarity.

Watching the concert as these songs of protest and poetic imagery poured out of musicians who were obviously energized by just being at the event, brought it all back to me beginning with the vitriolic refrain from “Like A Rolling Stone” …

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags
And the language that he used
Go to him now
You can’t refuse
When you got nothing
You got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now
You’ve go nothing to conceal
How Does It Feel.
Tell me how does it feel
To be on your own
No direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone.

—- Bob Dylan.
…incanting the raw emotions behind our struggles with economic class and the sense of freedom that can be experienced once we release ourselves from a life of bourgeois pretensions. But concealed among these phrases of self-awareness hides the Achilles Heel of the Bernaysian cum Freud meme of American Exceptionalism: the Self. The individual attaining majority alone; by his or her own devise. Individualism, the old adversary of the social fabric.
Watchmen

Like Dr. Manhattan, his cinematic analogue in the 2009 movie Watchmen, the increasingly reclusive Dylan was a reluctant hero, ultimately declaiming “It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe”. He went into hiding, and save for a brief re-emergence in the mid 1970’s, he became silent (even converting to christianity) just as the neoliberal, pro-business “silent majority” movement started to raise its voice against big government, beginning a decades-long assault on the progressive institutions of the era.

THE RE-ENGINEERING

Today, all of those glorious, progressive measures and institutions engendered by the vision of a social fabric have been all but eviscerated and rendered impotent in the wake of unfettered neoliberal capitalism where the “liberal” meme has morphed into “Freedom To” versus “Freedom From”.

How did this happen “on our watch”? We have been brainwashed plain and simple. We have been subjected to an unwavering barrage of materialistic propaganda encapsulated in a veneer of vicarious thoughtless pleasure targeted at our reptilian psyche, the sole purpose and singular message of such social re-engineering being to imprint on the psyche the Freudian unilateral construct of “me” and eradicate the omnilateral social construct of “we”.

the-century-of-the-self-209x300

In 2002, the BBC aired a series of four documentaries produced by Adam Curtis collectively titled “The Century of The Self”. In it, Curtis explores “The Untold History of Controlling the Masses Through the Manipulation of Unconscious Desires” highlighting the career of a man Curtis feels is the most influential person of the 20th Century, one Edward Bernays – a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to use Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

—- Edward Bernays.

Henry Giroux

This concept of an “invisible government”, molding and manipulating society through a targeted and focused propaganda campaigns is inherent in two recent essays by posted by Truthout.org contributor Henry Giroux who explores the nature and historical impact of Neoliberalism – the philosophy behind the invisible hand of the Free Market. The former essay can be viewed on Truthout.org under the title “Neo-Liberalism, Youth, and Social Justice“. It deals with an ongoing extension of The Forever War – the battle between the rich and everyone else. The latter post titled “Neoliberalism and The Machinery of Disposability” discusses how under this regime, The Forever War has been extended into politics, thus transforming society into a militarized combat zone where the vulnerable and needy are disposed of and the citizenry is aggressively and brutally de-politicized.

As society becomes increasingly militarized and political concessions become relics of a long-abandoned welfare state hollowed out to serve the interest of global markets, the collective sense of ethical imagination and social responsibility toward those who are vulnerable or in need of care is now viewed as a scourge or pathology.

—-Henry Giroux.

THE DISPOSSESSED

Days_of_Destruction

Disposable people. What does that mean? The term defines a class of people that are not needed in order to ensure that the One Per Cent maintain control. In neoliberal ideology, disposable people are an impediment to the goal of accumulating capital, hence are not worth helping or even worrying about. Here are some hard statistics. Close to one half of all US citizens live on or beneath the poverty line. Fifty-seven percent of all children are in homes that are deemed low income or worse. Every morning we can see dozens of indigents camped out in the subways of increasingly gentrified cities like San Francisco, let alone in areas that journalist Chris Hedges terms “Sacrifice Zones” in his seminal book on predatory capitalism “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt“. So by implication this means that half of the population of The United States is disposable; irrelevant for the creation of private capital for the sole benefit of the elites. Half. This cannot be emphasized enough. We are all subjects of this calculus.

In a recent peer-review study completed by Northwestern and Princeton universities the conclusion was “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words the United States is run by an oligarchy. It is not run by the majority and therefore is not a democracy.

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The question thus remains: why have we put up with this? The answer is we have had to, because the elites control the military power and have used it ruthlessly and often in their frenzy to suppress any kind of dissent. The Forever War. It goes on in your town and in towns all over the world every day. The most recent “theater” of this perpetual war against the perceived enemies to capitalism is in Africa, where as author Nick Turse (“Kill Anything That Moves“) reveals in his recent post for Nation of Change “AFRICOM Goes To War On The Sly“, the Engineer Division of the US African Command is actively engaged in recruiting private engineering companies to “partner” in the building of military facilities all over the African continent in support of JSOC operations aimed at terraforming the economies there for capitalism.

How does this Forever War impact the young – the Millennials? To Giroux, the promise of youth has morphed into the despair of outcasts where life is a litany of uncertainty, suffering, cruelty and punishment. The Neoliberalist ethic is subsumed with the desire to encourage disinvestment in all social programs, including the education of the young. The young (and the rest of us) are only valued as commodities to be exploited and then discarded.

Youth no longer occupy the hope of a privileged place that was offered to previous generations. They now inhabit a neoliberal notion of temporality marked by a loss of faith in progress along with the emergence of apocalyptic narratives in which the future appears indeterminate, bleak and insecure. Heightened prospects and progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness, while giving millions to banks and the military.

—- Henry Giroux.

Giroux goes on to argue that the effects of privatization have resulted in the hollowing out of the social state and the ascent of a militarized surveillance state in its place which has served to further marginalize the fate of the dispossessed, including young blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, the unemployed and unemployable identifying them as a kind of permanent criminal underclass “which now serves as the default solution to all major social problems”.

 

THE DISPARITY.

the_divide_taibbi

Class disparity – and this is the essential purpose of The Forever War – although a product of economic deprivation, is not the only symptom of inequality in the wake of neoliberalism’s destruction of the global social fabric. Author and journalist Matt Taibbi, in his latest book entitled “The Divide“, examines the increasing disparity in the criminal justice system, juxtaposing the history of how the scions of the wealthy and the rich bankers from Wall Street are treated versus Giroux’s criminalized and disposable precariat. Taibbi makes the point that even though in general the crime rate in the U.S. has been declining for decades, the prison population has risen dramatically over the same period as a direct result of the war on drugs and the rigid enforcement of other victimless crimes. If the crime rate is declining, who then is going to prison? Not the rich kid who buys the drugs, but the poor kid selling them. Not the fraudsters on Wall Street that “crashed the world” nor the bankers at HSBC, a bank that admitted to laundering money to the tune of $850 million for the Columbian drug cartel; they all got off with a fine (paid by stockholders) and not one of the bank’s principals went to jail or were even cited as a defendant. Zero.

 

THE FAILURE OF CAPITALISM.

Capital_21st

The obvious conclusion here is that the elites will never go to jail. Prison is reserved for the disposable classes. So why is this system of an elite-run surveillance state any different from those that flourished under East Germany’s STASI or the gulags of the Soviet Union? Capitalism versus Socialism. Taken in historical perspective, are there any real differences between the two? Journalist Timothy Shenk discusses this subject at length in an article published in The Nation magazine entitled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality“, where he posits that socialists from Karl Marx’s era created the concept of capitalism as an outgrowth of and reaction to rampant individualism. Shenk gathers supporting material from sources that include books published by Nikil Saval, Benjamin Kunkel and Thomas Piketty’s monumental book on global income inequality “Capital In The Twenty First Century“.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

To Shenk, Piketty and other critics, capitalism has failed as a vehicle for distributing income, debunking the myth that as the economy grows, the economic status of society as a whole grows as well (the meme that a rising tide lifts all boats). The proof lies in the economic statistics that show massive income disparity globally in favor of the owners of capital. Piketty uses a simple formula to demonstrate this. Given an historical average rate of return of 5 percent on private capital assets – historically existing income-producing assets such as real estate, bonds, and stocks – and an average historical economic growth rate of one-tenth of a percent, those holding the most cards (i.e. the assets) will receive the bulk of the income for a given period. Do the math – 5 percent versus one-tenth of a percent. As long as the return on private capital exceeds the growth rate of the economy, the resulting income distribution will always favor private capital. Always. In other words, income disparity is baked into neoliberal capitalism. The system is rigged in favor of the elites in a society that they own both economically and politically.

How do we bring unfettered neoliberal capitalism under control? Piketty believes the most effective and efficient way is through a globally-scaled and massive re-distribution of wealth administered through a progressive income tax program – taxing not only the “unearned income” from wealth, but the accumulated wealth itself. Beyond certain income levels above a half million dollars, a confiscatory tax of 80% would in his eyes not adversely affect long-term economic growth, would boost the state’s coffers for fulfilling the promise of keeping the social safety net afloat, and help restore sanity to a system now plagued by the Wall Street super-managers who demand tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for contributing absolutely nothing to the economy in return.

 

THE ENDGAME.

Of course given the current environment where the forces of neoliberalism dictate the political climate, such a progressive program will never see the light of day. This reality offers little in the way of optimism for reversing the trend toward either economic, judicial, social, or gender equality. Piketty feels there are only two alternatives left to stem the tide: War or economic collapse. We are seeing the early signs of both, for they both are related to another factor that has been created out of the cauldron of addiction and all-embracing, market-driven lust for commodification and consumption that drives neoliberal capitalism – climate change.

drought_boatThe violent uprisings Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Central Africa, and increasingly in Venezuela and Brazil, are being painted in the mass media as ethnic conflicts. In reality these uprisings are all a direct result of the effects of climate changes that are producing a gradual aridification of the farmlands in these countries. This has been borne out in a report from Climate scientist Benjamin Cook, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, and colleagues in a new journal, Science Advances, where they conclude: “the consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and Southwest regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterised the Medieval era”. Oh and in a recent report in the N.Y. Times claims that 20 percent of the farmland in China has been polluted.

This is one major reason why Iran, surprisingly (to us) progressive for a theocracy, is hoping to make peace with the West. It is basic economics. People need to feed their children and put a roof over their heads. Their economies are collapsing so they are revolting. A friend recently commented: “We see people revolting in Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, even Canada. Why aren’t citizens here in the US in the streets?” Because we can watch it all vicariously on TV in the comfort of our living rooms without lifting a finger or risking a sunburn.

burning_rain_forest

Climate change is not just a local problem. It is a calamity caused by global neoliberal policies and practices. The burning of rain forests in Indonesia, Brazil and the Andes is releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that had been trapped by the trees and peat moss in the forest undergrowth for millennia. These trees are being burned and then subsequently replaced by palm trees so that corporations can harvest their palm oil to be used in food supplements, beauty products, and ironically Sun block making us willing participants in our own potential demise. When those palm trees are depleted, they will also be burned further accelerating release of carbon dioxide. The loss of these trees will accelerate global warming, affecting flora, fauna, food production, and the air we breathe. Recent predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on food scarcity claim that within 20 years the decline in crop yields will exceed the technological capacity for producing new drought resistant crops. 20 years until the world starts to starve. Even the One Percent.
Crop-yields-in-various-climate-scenarios-IPCC-2014-e1397320115613

Welcome to Desolation Row…..

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

—- Bob Dylan.

Originally posted April 16, 2014.


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Raconteuse: A teller of Yarns and Verisimilitudes.

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