The Frankfurt School predecessor and Marxist author Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the curious transformations of capitalism from the mid-to-late 1800s, when Marx wrote, to the early 20th century of Benjamin’s day.
In the industrial era Marx observed, commodities were primarily viewed as raw materials and basic goods. Marx focused on production. By Benjamin’s time commodities had been transformed into “objects of consumption.” Objects of desire, in other words.
Benjamin had discovered something: consumerism had been born as a primary driver of capitalist production. Commodity fetishism had fundamentally changed, coming to resemble the consumption-driven manias we see today.
Benjamin’s biographer called the evolving commodity fetishism, “a delusional expression of collective utopian fantasies and longings.”
With the advent of advertising, consumer packaged goods lifted capitalism to new heights. Benjamin witnessed a sea-change. And yet what has happened since Benjamin’s death in 1940 has been nearly as convulsive as that which the German philosopher saw.
The pandemic has illustrated the value of two very basic functions of modern consumer capitalism that evolved after Benjamin: one is planned obsolescence and the other is artificial need. The former is most evident in the cycle of vaccinations that have descended on the population.
First, it was two doses of a single vaccine. Once it was shown that protection waned quickly, and the vaccine neither prevented infection nor provided enduring immunity–both promised by authorities in the run-up to the rollout–a further booster shot was introduced.
In some cases, Israel for example, two boosters were recommended, the final one belatedly shown to be barely effective.
Big Pharma likely knew this was going to happen. The other vaccine targeting a respiratory virus, the flu shot, provides only modest protection. Non-sterilizing vaccines are said to wane rapidly in their efficacy for a variety of reasons.
Some would also argue that these vaccines have created an artificial need as well, for healthy people. The overall Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) is less than one percent, raising the question of why there has been such a push to immunize the world against such a mild respiratory virus.
Big Pharma was well aware of this, too, but happily sponsored mainstream media stories that ratcheted up popular fears to the level of hysteria and mass hypochondria.
It is no surprise that a rolling calendar of immunizations is being introduced for the global population. Pfizer has noted profits of $18 billion in 2021 and projects $34 billion in 2022. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are likewise in the pink.
Some 37 vaccinations are already on the books for healthy children. Endless upgrades and novel technologies are introduced that obsolete previous versions. Payments to biddable media outlets ensure artificial needs are generated to provide a large consumer market.
The Birth of Necessity
This is the ideal situation for monopoly capitalism (which Lenin said was the pinnacle of imperialism). Given the internal contradictions of capitalism, namely the tendency of supply to outrun demand, profits inevitably fall and market panic ensues.
Booms and busts continue to plague the economies of the West. Hence the need for the two aforementioned features: planned obsolescence and the creation of artificial needs.
The latter is primary: one must generate a ceaseless number of unnecessary wants that consumers subconsciously see as needs, as must-haves. Advertising is required to sell what isn’t strictly required by consumers.
But even the perpetual production of new and unnecessary wants by the “best minds of my generation,” as Allen Ginsberg put it, isn’t enough. The needs one has already created and sold into the population must be re-monetized.
This is done by the former feature, the obsoleting of products through the introduction of the “upgrade,” the “update,” and the production of accessories.
It likewise becomes a symbol of status whether or not you have the latest edition of a product. The older version quickly becomes slow, bulky, and indecorous.
What self-respecting youth would be seen with one?
It is interesting to look at the emergence of these two staples of late capitalism. Marcus de Brun writes in Cassandra Voices that the idea of planned obsolescence emerged in the post-war era:
One researcher writes: There were disturbing indicators: for instance, between 1940 and 1950, the proportion of American families with mechanical refrigerators increased from 44 to 80 percent. Indeed, such ravenous consumption of homes, cars, and other goods meant that by the mid-1950s, marketers and businessmen feared, the saturation point was at hand. This fear led to two important marketing innovations. Planned obsolescence, the intentional design of goods to be short-lived, provided consumers with a reason to buy replacement items and created trends that promoted “keeping up with the Joneses.”
He also notes the concomitant birth of artificial need, a consequence of planned obsolescence:
In The Affluent Society (1958), economist John Kenneth Galbraith condemned advertising for creating ‘wants that previously did not exist,’ but recognized its importance in stimulating the consumption that had generated post-war prosperity. Thus, between 1946 and 1955, the amount of money spent annually on advertising in the United States nearly tripled, from $3.4 billion to $9 billion.”
Runup to Reset
Despite these innovations, capitalism had been failing. The saturation of the market with consumer goods combined with the destruction of disposable incomes by capital in search of profit led to the inevitable contradiction: supply outstripping demand.
Capital offshored millions of jobs to save on labor costs, and also introduced ceaseless user fees as it inflated base prices, all of which left the average consumer incapable of driving economic growth. At first this reality was averted by sending the woman of the home into the workforce, creating double-income families.
This worked for a while, but inflation and stagnant wages undermined this solution. Capital then staved off the inevitable by introducing credit cards and other forms of lending (at compound interest).
But this simply saddled consumers with massive debt, generating debt deflation by reducing their disposable incomes.
Unable to borrow more, middle-class consumers then turned to the equity in their homes–money meant for retirement–and drained that, leaving them even more indebted with even less collateral to show for it.
The mortgage meltdown of 2008 was partly a result of these developments, as was a much quieter crisis in the repo markets in 2019. Both crises saw the Fed print trillions of dollars in an effort to avoid complete economic meltdown. Some 36 million since 2008.
While capital was bailing itself out via the printing press, the middle class was feeling the results, particularly Millennials and Generation X: Gen X household income went from 63k to 39k in three years; a third of Millennials work a second job to make ends meet (the proverbial side hustle); 17 percent are working in the destructive treadmill of the gig economy.
Young Millennials are about 25k below the national average income while Boomers were about 10k below the average at the same age. Millennials are a quarter of the population but hold three percent of the wealth; Boomers when that age held 21 percent.
Education has become massively more expensive, while job markets for graduates have shrunk. Half as many Millennials own their homes than Boomers did at the same time. Better educated, more indebted. More likely to be impoverished. Poverty is rife.
This is no real surprise. David Harvey has long noted the tendency of capitalism to cannibalize the sources of its own wealth. Still, the growing restlessness of the working class further complicated attempts by capital to save itself.
By 2019, the need for a reset of capitalism, outlined in dozens of vision decks created by global institutions and think tanks, felt more urgent than ever.
A global pandemic provided the rationale for the reset. Interestingly enough, the pandemic had been predicted and war-gamed regularly for two decades, raising the question of whether it was deliberate or not.
After all, the virus was said by a number of scientists to bear the hallmarks of modified virus, the very kind of work being done by gain-of-function programs in Wuhan, China, where the virus allegedly broke out.
In any case, the “Great Reset” was intended to transition to a new form of capitalism: surveillance capitalism. In other words, a kind of capitalism whose driving force was the monetization of data collected by surveilling the behavior of citizens, who would receive nothing in return for supplying capital with all this valuable information.
Surveillance capitalism is built on a digital foundation. After all, the more digitized the world becomes, the more data is produced by people, the more opportunities arise to monetize the data.
The holy grail of data collection has long been a universal digital ID that could be identified across different channels, from websites to mobile phones to apps, etc. Your data consolidated into a singular profile.
It became obvious to elites that a health passport provided an excellent opportunity to fast-track the introduction of a global identification system, something the UN had previously hoped to implement by 2030. As Paul Kingsnorth notes:
The WHO is currently negotiating with nation states, regional blocs and corporations to agree on the standards for global harmonization of digital passports: New tools developed as part of WHO efforts are almost ready. By the end of 2021, the DDCC Gateway (PKI) beta reference software is expected and a Universal Status Checking app beta, using Google Android FHIR SDK and based on the EU DCC … It is intended to be able to recognize all the health pass QR code formats being used worldwide.”
Indeed, the WHO has just hired Deutsche Telecom to set up a global health passport system. In time, these singular IDs will incorporate your health, banking, and other consumer records, accessible to the state, and which will serve as your key that unlocks social privileges for you, with the large caveat that you are thoroughly compliant with state dictates, whatever they may be.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
To the uncritical eye this all seems very benign. What’s wrong with a digital wallet? So convenient. Everything contained in one’s mobile. No more physical wallets stuffed with discount cards, multiple IDs, credit cards, dirty cash, and so on.
True enough, but what is so alarming for so many is the realization that in a digital world the government will have de facto totalitarian control over our individual lives. And not just our government—a global government.
They will possess the details of every dollar we spend. They will know our whereabouts at all times. They will have access to every message we send. They will know our travel plans. Nothing will be alien to them.
As such, they will be able to suspend our lives on a whim or based on some perceived form of non-compliance. Such as not having received your latest vaccination. Or not having paid your taxes (which will be scrupulously tracked).
The ability of individuals to challenge and change their governments will be greatly reduced by the shackles of digital life.
This is not unlike the Chinese social credit system, subject of much debate in the West. Is it a people-first platform, or is it Big Brother incarnate?
It is my opinion that the West recognized the efficacy of Chinese authoritarianism and social system and decided to follow it filtered through the harsh lens of exploitative western capital.
As World Economic Forum grand wizard Klaus Schwab said to China’s President Xi:
You have shown us the principles that should guide us on our common path.”
This, too, is not particularly surprising to anti-capitalists. Capitalism ultimately insists on a kind of fascist authoritarianism, perhaps disguised as “Friendly Fascism,” as author Bertram Gross argued.
As noted, more than competition, the challenge of profitability is chiefly oversupply and waning demand as capital cannibalizes its consumer base. Consumption and profit must ultimately be coerced, the former forced on the populace, the latter guaranteed by the state.
There is, as Herbert Marcuse noted, a need for the “total mobilization” of the state in service to its totalitarian ends.
But what of it, says the average citizen-consumer? They’re even discussing a UBI and free municipal healthcare. I’d sacrifice a little privacy and privilege for those benefits.
A common response to the threat of surveillance is that, “I trust the government,” or “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to fear.” This is all well and good until you do something wrong–which will in most cases be something you think is not wrong but which the government has declared to be wrong.
…Like sitting at a lunch counter while black. Like smoking a joint. Or resisting when your tax rate is doubled. Or questioning vaccine efficacy. Or spreading misinformation (defined by the anonymous state). Or providing material support to domestic terrorists (such as truckers against mandates, labeled as such by the state).
Then you will have serious problems.
The only way to avoid this scenario is if you agree with and abide by everything your government tells you. And that is slavery. The abdication of autonomy. The end of independent thought and the institutionalization of groupthink. Conformity on demand. Which is fascism.
And although fascism is not democratic, it is capitalist. It is how capitalism resolves the contradiction of supply outstripping demand. Forced consumption. The merger of capital and the state, as Mussolini said.
As this pandemic has shown, there’s something to be said for the human craving for authoritarianism. So many millions of people have sided with the paternalist government as it has force fed us dubious solutions to a dubious pandemic, all of it coincidentally enriching the ruling class that owns the government doing the force feeding.
Yet submission to the hive mind and the foreclosure of independent thought comes at a cost, one we may not have calculated. Within the ambit of authoritarianism may also be the inversion of the presumption of innocence.
In a recent post, the author John Steppling quoted Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley from their book Until Proven Safe, about the history of quarantine and a 2021 NPR Best Book of the Year, normally a discrediting label, though perhaps the authors did not damn quarantine outright, thus avoiding the trigger mechanism of lockdown liberals.
The authors do say at one point, however:
Quarantine is our most powerful response to uncertainty: it means waiting to see if something hidden inside us will be revealed. It is also one of our most dangerous, operating through an assumption of guilt. In quarantine, we are considered infectious until proven safe.”
Throughout the pandemic, one heard, almost as an unconscious refrain voiced by sleepwalkers, the phrase, “There’s so much we don’t know.” Implication being we must take all possible precautionary measures until we know more.
This was tantamount to a sanction for quarantines of the most draconian kind. On the heels of this rationalization of lockdowns and the capsizing of revered principles of legal standing, came the vaccine rollout. This, too, pivoted on the presumption of infectiousness.
In a curious irony, it made quite literal the Latin meaning of habeas corpus: “You shall have the body.”
In the eyes of millions, our bodies were forcibly handed over to pharmaceutical concerns, backed by governments, for the injection of novel therapies that would ostensibly fend off a seasonal respiratory virus with, again, an Infection Fatality Rate of less than one percent and principally threatening the elderly and ill.
As I understand it, habeas corpus was designed to determine whether the detention of suspected criminals had merit. It was not an arbiter of their guilt or innocence.
Yet here were billions of citizens worldwide being forcibly detained by ‘shelter in place’ dictates (quarantine or isolation) that had yet to be demonstrably justified not on the evidence but on the absence of evidence, a sickly comic paradox.
But these principles of legal standing are hastily being interred beneath the sediment of pandemic precedent: a widely embraced erring on the side of hypochondria. The alternative to ‘an overabundance of caution’ would be a reasonable assessment of risk tolerance based on sickness and fatality odds.
But the capitalist, ratings-hungry media opted to sensationalize every piece of data emerging from the hallowed walls of the CDC and WHO, which for their part also needed to hype the threat in order to flog the vaccines.
Recall Mussolini’s injunction of the merger of corporate capital and the state; in this century this has arguably been nowhere more apparent than in precincts of public health.
Coda to a Catastrophe
One of the reasons this pandemic has felt so novel, to use a word that has been unjustly sullied in the past two years, is because for most of our lives the state has used the pretext of national security to enact its larger programs of profiteering.
But this program has been launched on the pretext of health security, a slight twist on the old standby. But the bedrock principle is the same: fear.
There are half a dozen quotes from high-ranking Nazi officials which enthusiastically confirm the use value of terror. It just so happens that we’ve discovered that biological terror trumps military terror as a tool of population control.
Fear of an invisible virus is far more easily universalized than fear of a ragtag Islamist emerging from a Mesopotamian cave to blow up your town square. The virus can kill with a sneeze.
It is true that there is much we don’t know. But this should not be mistaken for the not knowing advocated by Socrates, who prescribed a humble confession of uncertainty only after flogging the extant evidence for truth.
In that sense, there is much we do know, particularly regarding generalized risk and its use as a rationale for the abdication of democratic norms.
As writer Wesley Smith said, the field of biotech and its misuse of health security, “opens the door to the soft tyranny of Gattaca and ultimately the dystopian nightmare of Brave New World.”
Of course, the thrust of that novel is the story of the happy conquest of society by eugenics. People are divided into class hierarchies. State breeding eliminates the monstrous family unit.
All classes are wonderfully indoctrinated and are eminently suggestible, having been so well conditioned by the state. They are also massively medicated. Most are blandly content with the banality of their lives, which are—above all—safe.
Julien Charles is a concerned citizen hoping to call attention to the authoritarian drift of states across the Western world, and the disingenuous narratives promoted to gain consensus for such measures.
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