The city is a factory and we are paranoid machines; subject pre/post, producer of the product that is ourselves, a scattered weave of electronic and experiential commodities. Who needs to believe in advertising when they can believe in themselves, photographed before the latest microbrew, vape, sneakers, makeup kit, gaming rig, stadium-bar-waterfront touristic backdrop, hyperindividuated reproduction of the previous influencer who’d gone the same way.
It’s no coincidence digital capitalism arose in the wake of neoliberal hell. The decimation of public services, through bourgeois tax breaks and privatisation, led to the death of a public already bereft, wallowing in petty ballot-box deliberations of this or that representative oppressor. What little we had of democratic citizenship became a scrap heap for the vultures of digital capitalism to prey upon — a market niche not discovered, but created through destruction and dispossession. Trash feeds trash, unto the algorithmic, ahistorical, and decontextualised void of contemporary social media; physical immediacy replaced with digital instancy, dialectical exchange with bipolar dis/affection, sensuous contact with panoptic paranoia, and situated knowledges with the fetish of facts. We speak more and more, and say less and less, and feel worse and worse.
No wonder the rise of the happiness industry — of self-help entrepreneurs and neoliberal prophets. In a system that totally isolates, the only solution for those that benefit the most from its continuation is individualised solutions. Self-responsibilisation in the face of systemic inequality, environmental devastation, fragmentation, mistrust and worthlessness. For the ruling class there can be no other option but to place the whips in the workers’ own hands and to command in the most eloquent New York Times Best Sellers prose “Strike at thyself! Thine alone is the beholder of thine fate! Rid thyself of slave morality!” all the while developing more and more seductive and mind-numbing disciplinary tools to sell to those who believe themselves the most free. Who needs public healthcare when you can buy a fitbit? Be a responsible, green consumer, as the mega rich float away on artificial islands.
If I sound condescending, it’s out of pure rage at those who’ve produced this victim-blaming hellscape that causes workers to blame one another, to blame immigrants, to blame feminists, to blame all the most superficial superstructural signifiers of identity, over a material base that capitalists actively altered to exploit. Under our neoliberal conditions of intense precarity, there is understandably a widespread, desperate desire to find meaning to our suffering; the happiness industry grants this, but in such a way that leaves workers ill-advised and ill-equipped to transform anything but themselves. The happiness industry configures suffering into phantasms of lone egos, rather than territorialised nightmares imposed upon communities and collectives from above, for the sole purpose of fragmenting them into lone egos. Through becoming well-adjusted entrepreneurial subjects, workers end up propagating and enforcing the very disciplinary matrices that had constituted their suffering in the first place. The bourgeoisie can sigh in relief as the workers oppress themselves and one another.
In place of a sociological imagination, capable of connecting individual grievances to systems of injustice, thought is totally atomised and all phenomena become individual, disconnected and fragmented. The messy, interconnected, dialectical beauty of the lifeworld is partitioned into exchangeable units, unmoored from their facticity and commodified into pure abstraction. All the multiplicities of the lifeworld become equivalent to one another. Everything coalesces into a meaningless blur. Things just happen. There are no systems. There is no social. There are only individuals; individuals lost in a confused dream. Nobody meant to offend anyone. Nobody meant anything. There is no body. There is only you. And you’re overreacting.
Hyperconnected, disconnected, restless without rest, a commodity belongs nowhere because it is already everywhere. It is wholly removed from nature, from the lifeworld (connection, situatedness); it exists as a fetish — a labour product whose labour process has been effaced, hidden from sight. A fitbit stands for fitness, sleek chic techno-ease, not toxic rare earth metal extraction by enslaved Africans overseas. This is the condition of capitalism and through every stage of its development a new dominant ideology arises to subjectify us into forgetting our own exploitation and subjectification. Capitalism’s greatest achievement is the reproduction of the mode of production by those who benefit the least from it. And while there are undoubtedly some bourgeoisie who consciously mobilise ideology, the majority of it proceeds unconsciously, through both base and superstructure — rearing, education, advertising, media, work — the various collective discourses we are inextricable from. A hegemonic ideology is what appears seamless; and those who disavow ideology the most are the most inescapably ideological.
This is our predicament: the belief that we are free, in spite of our labour relations, rather than because of them. The total collapse of political freedom into market freedom has decimated our sociological imagination. Barred from self-autonomy in the workplace, labour as a thing-in-itself appears oppressive, rather than its particular historical form under capitalism (the generation of profit for capitalists through the theft of surplus labour from labourers; the tyranny hierarchical, undemocratic workplaces). The desire for self-autonomy shifts into leisurespace, as a dead digitised double that weighs nightmarish on the minds of the living, vampiric in its undying seduction, exhaustion and deceit. Read symptomatically, lifestyle consumption is the ultimate yearning for politics, rather than its total disregard. It is the miserable, unbearable haunt of a living freedom yet to arrive — a spectral potentiality, tantalising, and because of that, utterly excruciating to bear.
Thus while freedom is barred from production and felt only through consumption, we remain under the tyranny of the market — a tyranny that naturalises the drudgery of labour and the anxiety of leisure. We make nothing of our own and we feel never ourselves. So long as private property remains, the socially constructed divide between labour and leisure cannot give way to play — that which is both joyously given and received at once as a dialectical, self-organising, collective becoming. So long as the city remains a factory, and we, its commodities, we accumulate nothing but our own dispossession and despair.