Future crock

Is the new economy eliminating private property, politics and civilization?

By John Leonard

Published June 7, 2000 7:12PM (EDT)

Wave goodbye to the social contract. Say hello to the hypercapitalists. See these new bright angels taking a flier over the rainbow. They do not sow, neither do they reap, and heavy lifting is against their religion. Instead, they rent, lease, franchise, outsource, interconnect, parallel process, multitask and dot-com.

Call them accessories after the fact to the crime of the weightless new economy. Or players, hopscotching imaginary grids in simulated worlds in giddy digitopias. Or feedback loops, for whom marketing is a value additive. Or "proteans" (shifting shapes) and "thespian personas" (acting out) on a pomo stage of self as spectacle. Or "cool hunters," "amenity migrants" and "leisure colonists" -- lonesome rangers in the global theme park, scarfing up local cultures and exotic experiences like alien sperm suckers and then selling our own stolen subjectivity back to us in disposable packages: logoed, branded, prefab.

According to futurist Jeremy Rifkin, who in previous books has viewed with alarm everything from the decline of cattle culture ("Beyond Beef") to robotic factories ("The End of Work") to genetic engineering ("The Biotech Century"), those of us who aren't angels or accessories in the new economy are "nodes embedded ... in a wired world of pure process and sheer temporality," a "surrogate social sphere tucked inside a commercial wrap" -- where consumerism supersedes citizenship; where access counts more than ownership; where corporate capitalism has dematerialized into webs of mutual interest and networks of strategic alliances; where the usual greedheads have an option to buy our airwaves, waterways, mineral veins and gene pools; where a handful of megalomedia monopolies socialize and spin-cycle virtual Americans; and where life itself is available by subscription only, a paid-for Gibsonian sim-stim zap to the synaptic cleft.

And that's the good news. The bad news is that all this is at the expense of the other four-fifths of the non-North American, non-European world. Rifkin may be a futurist but he's not an idiot. He has heard of the digital divide. He is aware of an underworld of the propertyless outside this "new and totalizing social space." He knows that while Nike, with revenues of more than $4 billion in 1998, owns no factories, machines or real estate to speak of, and may even be said to lease Michael Jordan on behalf of Swoosh, the 450,000 Asian sweatshop workers who produce Nike shoe lines don't make enough of a daily wage to buy their daily bread. That 65 percent of the human population has never made a telephone call, and 40 percent don't have electricity. That Americans spend more money every year on cosmetics ($8 billion), and Europeans on ice cream ($11 billion), than it would cost to provide basic education, clean water and rudimentary sanitation for the 2 billion people -- most of them south of us -- who currently go without schools or toilets.

But these people don't buy books that view with alarm. Neither, in fact, do the rest of us unless the alarmism is hyperbolic. Thus, it's not enough that Rifkin should tell us what we have already been told by Neal Gabler, Robert McChesney and Naomi Klein about the long-term shift from industrial to cultural production; the outsourcing of jobs to anywhere safe from collective bargaining; the trillion-dollar-a-year marketing of movies, music, television, tourism, theme parks, "destination entertainment centers," wellness, fashion, cuisine and the virtual worlds of cyberspace; the commodification of every kind of play (sports, arts, gambling, fraternal activity, social movements and civic rituals) into "customized cultural experiences" (like Club Med) and "mass commercial spectacles" (like the Steroid Bowl); the franchising of everything from blood on buns to managed healthcare to retirement communities to prisons; the leasing of everything from the cars we drive to time shares in our condos to the Microsoftware in our stained-glass Windows; and the licensing of everything from the seeds we've planted to the germ plasm of our livestock to our personal DNA.

None of this is enough. He must also insist on a paradigm shift -- without which futurology is mere journalism. Thus, everything that he's just told us means the end not only of class war and of the right-left dynamic (though Rifkin does admit "the nagging question of who should control the means of production") but of property itself ("mine and thine"). "A world structured around access relationships," we are told, "is likely to produce a very different kind of human being." To wit: "Our codes of conduct, our civic values, indeed our deepest sense of who we are" are "cast adrift in a new, less material, less boundaried, more intangible world of commodified services" where we must "rethink the social contract from beginning to end" and come up with a brand-new "archetype." It's not merely that "everything we know is suddenly passi"; more grim, we are plunged into a "change so vast in scale that we are barely able to fathom its ultimate impact," which change "could spell a death sentence for civilization as we know it."

Happily or not, none of this is true. Leasing deals -- as innocent as Hertz and Avis or as invidious as tenant farming -- have been around since ancient Mesopotamia. (See Karl August Wittfogel on hydraulic civilizations and "the Asiatic mode of production.") Service relationships that differ not a jot from those we have long suffered with our stockbroker and our insurance agent do not require the rethinking of a social contract that nobody ever thought about the first time, except six 18th century philosophers who immediately reached an adjournment of minds (even if an anthropological inquiry into the stock exchange as a form of superstitious magic is greatly overdue, with Alan Greenspan as a Magus or a Fisher King).

Property hasn't gone away just because some people rent more of it and different kinds of it to others. Property has just expanded its vampire definition of itself, to make proprietary claims on speech, thought, the visual field and the double helix; to stake out ideas as if they were beachfront views; to buy up patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets as if they were shares in the Great Chain of Being. (In fact, fewer and fewer deregulated fat cats sit on more and more property every year. Don't you hate it when a left-wing grinch reminds you that the richest 10 percent of American families own more than two-thirds of this country's wealth? That Bill Gates, as Rifkin himself observes, is now richer than half of the American people combined?)

Nor is there any discernible rush on indivduals' part to divest themselves of anything at all, not when homeownership is the highest it has ever been, not when the goodies include cellphones, laptops and jet-propelled sneakers. (Just because corporations are selling us their brand doesn't mean they aren't also selling us their products. It only means they're selling more products, updated, with a shorter and shorter shelf life.)

Which isn't to say that Rifkin is as off-base here as he was in "The End of Work." (Boy, didn't work make a comeback between bestsellers?) His heart is in the right place, and so are his worrywarts. When he gets up a full head of steam (as he does, for instance, in going after gated communities, Third World sweatshops and biotech giants like DuPont), when he's explaining how Monsanto tried to rip off Indian farmers with self-sterilizing seeds, when he's down with the blood proteins, the spleen tissues and the stem cells, he raises blisters. And when he suggests that the very model of a service relationship is the HMO, he's downright scary.

He doesn't need the futurist apocalyptics. He needn't have tried to explain postmodernism and communications theory (such potted pricis!). Or have felt he had to quote so many Freds (Hegel, Schiller, Jameson) to make up for the market babble of the business school professors. Or have talked himself into a corner by going on far too long about the profound importance of "kinship, ethnicity, geography, and shared spiritual visions," until an editor must have reminded him that all this sounds a bit too much like the blood and soil of the fascists and he had better cover his tracks. Nor should he have risked a generalization like this one, brought on like the elephants in Aida very early in the book, and then repeated in paraphrase much later:

From the beginning of human civilization to now, culture has always preceded markets. People create shared meaning and values and build social trust in the form of social capital. Only when social trust and social exchange are well developed do communities engage in commerce and trade. The point is, the commercial sphere always has been derivative of and dependent on the cultural sphere.

This isn't true, either of New York or of Los Angeles, to name two communities. Speaking only for New York, I'll say that we have from the beginning been all about money; culture was an afterthought that only occurred to us when it seemed likely to grub a buck, too. All this vaporing just gets in the way of where Rifkin's straightforward reporting ought to take us, which is to a genuine politics of resistance requiring a coalition even bigger than the one that rendered Seattle sleepless.

Finally, I'm agnostic about whether the theme-parking of the known globe differs all that radically from the ideological proselytizing of the great religions. (Suppose we were to think of cathedrals as Christianity's home office, the parish church as a franchise, the soul as property, the Passion play as a sim-stim and hell as the fall into debt? In which case, the revealed Word is a software program and downloading is Eucharistic.)

And I am not in the least persuaded that the modern feeling of weightlessness, the unbearable lightness of American being, owes any more to the new economy than it does to a larger confusion of psychic realms in which buying, selling, leasing and renting are merely a component. We are insecure and negligent in our parenting and citizenship, caught between a public sphere (corporations, officialdom) that feels hollow and a private circle (family) that feels besieged. We are no longer safe on the tribal streets; we are equally weightless in orbit and cyberspace; balloonlike in exile or migration; tiddlywinks on a credit grid; fled abroad like jobs and capital; missing like runaway children; bugged, tapped, videotaped, downsized, hijacked, organ-donored, gene-spliced, lite-beered, vacuum-sealed, overdrawn, nonrefundable, void where prohibited and stealthed. Not to mention those problematic dislocations caused by sleep paralysis, temporal lobe lesions, overmedication, bad-trip designer drugs, frequent flying, seasonal affective disorder, bad workplace ergonomics, anorexia and liposuction.

As Karl Marx explained in his infamous "Manifesto": "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated 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 ... the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men."

He was talking of course about hypercapitalism in the 19th century, which would cause, in the 20th century, two world wars, at least as many revolutions, overproduction, forced consumption and the blues.

John Leonard

John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.

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