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Round Midnight -- tortillas and the corporate state

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Near midnight and I am making tortillas on an iron skillet over a gas flame. Some three thousand miles to the north, my wife and dog nestle in sleep in the wake of a 34-inch snowstorm, while the dogs of Ajijic are barking at the witching hour and roosters crow all too early for the dawn. Yet here I am, awake and patting out tortillas, haunted by the empire that I have called home most of my life.

I like to think that, for the most part, I no longer live up there in the U.S., but southward of its ticking social, political and economic bombs. Because the US debt bomb has not yet gone off, Social Security still exists, and the occasional royalty check or book advance still comes in, allowing me to remain here. And so long as America's perverse commodities economy keeps stumbling along and making lifelike noises --so long as the American people accept permanent debt subjugation -- I can drink, think and burn tortillas. Believe me, I take no smugness in this irony.

There is a terrible science fiction-like awe in the autonomous American economic monolith, in the way that it provides for us, feeds on us and keeps us as its both its lavish pets and slaves. The commodity economy long ago enslaved Americans and other "developed" capitalist societies, especially Americans. The most profound slavery must be that in which the slaves can conceive of no other possible or better world than their bondage. Inescapable, global, all permeating, the commodities economy rules so thoroughly most cannot imagine any other possible kind of economy.

It comes down to owning stuff, and that the stuff we own also owns us (as anyone paying rent in a storage locker can attest). Transmogrified by industrial materialism, we have become what we own. More specifically, what we are observed by the rest of our society as owning.

In the commodified society of industrial materialism, owning is being. So much so, that politicians bandy the term "ownership society" about, not only without causing the public to gag, but to cheers. Even liberals who claim to dislike the term don't want to be in a "We don't own sh*t society."


Early modern capitalism was more or less understandable, if not always pleasant. One can see why a pre-industrial world that had owned less would embrace owning a bit more. Who gave a damn if it came from Adam Smith's "unseen hand" --the hand that was taking care of the already rich, who in turn managed the order of the world as seen through the lens of aristocratic and bourgeoisie English commerce. "If we work our guts out Nellie, we can buy a pork knuckle every Sunday. And a feather bed, if you get my drift. Woo Hoo!"

Enter the reign of the bourgeoisie, self-appointed and self-interested middlemen to anything and everything. The sheer complexity of the industrial revolution and associated finance was a dog that could fatten many fleas. When the bourgeoisie did not get what it felt was a good cut of the action from the monarchies, it raised hell, sometimes enough to cause revolutions. If they won, as they did in America, they took credit for establishing democracy. If they lost, they fobbed it off as a "people's revolution," leaving the working slobs, the actual producers of wealth, to face the king's hangmen.

Even when "the people" occasionally win one of those "people's revolutions," we never really win. Not in the end. For instance, here in Mexico, contrary to what we've seen in Zapata movies, there has never been a successful people's revolution in terms of lasting and real egalitarian reform. Just armed struggle, and many promises of reform, always to be abandoned after the revolution. They were subsequently wiped out by the politically potent urban middle class, in league with traditional elites, such as the haciendados and corporatists.

The bourgeoisie never gives up its profitable connections to the elites. Same as in America. The bourgeoisie live at the pleasure of the elites. However, in the people's revolutions it was mainly "the people" who got killed. So they get naming rights. The people own their revolution only in death. Just as in the U.S., the elites here and the business classes get everything else and rent it back to us as mortgages or whatever.

You can argue that people have always screwed other people for a buck, or a drachma or a shekel. You will win with that argument every time. However, the real issue is about how many people got screwed and how hard by how few.

Under 250 years of capitalism, the rising take from the ongoing screw job has grown astronomical. Enough to buy every political tub-thumper in Washington and a Supreme Court. Enough that if the elite cartels on Wall Street rip 300 million Americans for trillions, leaving them squinting at the fine print on their eviction notices, they cannot do jack about it. Except pay the next ransom demand for their credit. On their credit cards. Then sign their children into future debt slavery.


We are all Mexicans now

Thanks to the autonomous commodities economy, Mexico literally cannot keep itself in tortillas. No longer food self-sufficient, Mexico, where corn was first bred and developed into a staple, buys corn on the world market. The price of tortillas in the tiendas along my street is up 40% and climbing at 10 times the rate of Mexico's minimum wage.

Mexico was food self-sufficient in 1982. Minimum daily wage then was the equivalent of 8.2 kilos of eggs, or 23 liters of milk, or 33 kilos of tortillas. Eighty-five percent of the people had access to government medical care and the country was fifth worldwide in GNP growth. Now, thanks to international financial pirates, Mexico cannot even keep itself in tortillas.

This has happened repeatedly to Mexico, each time due to a different pirate gang, the French, the English, the Germans... But most often, it is the Americans and their institutions and policies, the IMF, GATT and NAFTA. Mexico is continually robbed from within and without. Within lives the tapeworm of government-business corruption feeding on money passing through the nation's economic bowel. From without come the assaults of American and global corporate financialism.

Loathe as Americans are to believe it, the Mexican people and the American people are in the same situation of being mugged. However, they are robbed at a different rate and from different positions in the global pecking order. We rob the Mexicans and global capitalism robs us. Fortunately we can still afford to buy our national food staple from Dominoes. Which makes us a superior people.

Humping the Big Lie


Meanwhile, somebody has to hump The Big Lie, maintain the appearance to the rest of the world that American cowboy capitalism is stable. Also keep Americans sold on The Big Lie's flip side, the number two tune: "We are the richest and most blessed people on earth because of capitalism (but currently "going through a rough patch"). Proof is offered: "Step right up and see for yourselves! Just look at the spectacular services and goods that bury us in wonderment! So go buy a PT Cruiser."

Decades ago, the spectacle of commodity capitalism, the sheer variety of possible stuff to own, ways to be, possible appearances of being, came to constitute a commodity in itself -- enchantment as a product, product as enchantment.

Materialistic enchantment as commodity was so powerful in scale and scope, and so thorough in mind saturation that it came to colonize our consciousness in what Guy Debord aptly deemed "the society of the spectacle."
No ordinary person could ever have withstood such a colonization of human consciousness as the American people have seen. Consciousness being simply awareness, there was no surviving the onslaught.

The tsunami of false possibilities and pseudo choices constituted entire constellations in the psyche, of goods, and images of goods large and small: hair dryers, iPods, anti-bacterial wipes, cable television, ammunition, plastic siding, gourmet foods, this HP notebook computer in my lap, the Prius and the Porsche, even words such as Google, Microsoft, China Mobile, Vodafone, Marlboro" They all have psychological and social meaning in our commoditized consciousness -- that battlefield where each commodity vies for preeminence with every other commodity in the shifting exposition of stuff we are permitted to labor to pay for.


It can now be honestly stated that mere goods and services express the citizenry and the American culture in its entirety. Citizenship in a consumer society is consumership. Consumer culture consumes all rival cultures, replacing them with "pop culture," which is simply deeming the marketplace as culture. Hip Hop is a good example. So is the modern cinema, and all of the music and book publishing industry.

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Joe Bageant is the author of a forthcoming book from Random House Crown about working class America, scheduled for Spring 2007 release. A complete archive of his online work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class (more...)
 
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Fantastic article. Speaking on behalf of the petty... by JohnPeebles on Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010 at 9:23:40 PM

 

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