Jessica Ramirez goes to the
Johannesburg Solstice Critical Theory Workshop
at the Institute of Critical Reasoning
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
The short piece excerpted here is from a novel-in-progress provisionally entitled, The Academic Gamble, a take-no-prisoners style satire of global academia which can be humorous at times but often leaves a bitter aftertaste as is the purpose of parody. The larger work primarily lampoons US elite universities and their professoriate in the context of deepening inequalities brought about by neoliberalism (widespread precarisation of academic labour, deepening socioeconomic divisions between private elite universities and struggling state universities and inner-city colleges, etc.). The novel is written in the third person and is told from the point of view of multiple characters who often have
different opinions on the same events but for the purposes of this excerpt, the story is focalised through the eyes of a naïve young American postgrad and is limited to a few short episodes of her time in South Africa.
Jessica Rosario Ramirez is a first-year graduate student at Oakmont University in New York City where the graduate students are trying to unionise. When she sets off for the Johannesburg Solstice Critical Theory Workshop which is taking place at the Institute of Critical Reasoning at the University of the Rand during the height of #FeesMustFall, she is surprised to find that South African campuses are also in turmoil with distinctly resonant parallels to the unionisation strike. However, Jessica’ s paramount goal in travelling to South Africa is neither intellectual inquiry nor a transnational comparison of university protests. Jessica is hoping to have a fun conference fling at the Solstice Critical Theory Workshop but first she has to survive the local academic rivalries between Shakira Adam, Nkosazana Ndlovu, DeeDee van Rooyen and Alistair Beadle who has been giving the same lecture for well over a decade on “the nomadic subject which simultaneously approaches and resists and in that instance renders visible the conditions of possibility.”
At her home university, Jessica is terrorised by the influential postcolonial theorist, “Her Majesty” Shonali Sanyal Stone, who is set on destroying the career of Jessica’ s PhD supervisor, Thula Lorenzo. By the time Jessica comes to South Africa, which takes place in the
last third of the novel, she is quite exhausted by the venomous power plays of more senior academics who are highly respected but do not use very respectable tactics to achieve their goals. All the characters in the novel, whether in India, South Africa or the US, are completely fictitious and comprised of archetypal academic “types.” But as Paul Gallico so astutely stated in the epigraph to his novel, Mrs Harris Goes to New York: “If, however, the characters herein do not resemble someone you have encountered somewhere sometime, then the author has failed to hold up a small mirror to life and extends [her] regrets to one and all.”
Satire; transnational campus novel; globalisation; #FeesMustFall; labour unions; neoliberalism
It is a truth universally recognised that a Trans-Atlantic flight in the Age of Terror and Airline Cost-Cutting must be an intensely unpleasant experience, consisting of myriad inconveniences and indignities inflicted upon the hapless passenger who finds herself shedding jackets, jewellery, belts, shoes, devices, and her privacy in order to make it through the convoluted security procedures at the airport which increasingly resembles a post-apocalyptic mall with high-end retail shops nestled next to sterile gates where passengers are marshalled onto various flights headed for distant airports that more and more mirror this one…
But for Jessica Rosario Ramirez, this was all extremely exciting!
Despite having grown up in nearby New Jersey, this was her first time at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, her first Trans-Atlantic flight and her first trip to a country outside the United States— if you didn’t count Puerto Rico that is. Of course, Jessica had flown to PR on various occasions to visit family but always from the unglamorous Newark or the infrastructurally-inferior La Guardia Airport which was more like an antiquated bus terminus.
Her family was divided on the question of Puerto Rico: Tío Rafael said PR was euphemistically called a US territory but in reality was just a second-class colony and in no way, shape or form, a first-class, bona fide American state; Tía Irina was of the opinion that the island’s denizens were lucky to at least be graced with that most powerful of identity documents, the navy blue US passport.
Like so many other contentious complexities in this confusing, polarising, globalising, separating, shrinking world, Jessica was not sure where she stood. But if there was one thing she had learned from last semester, it was the necessity of taking a stand. The most noble, ethical, principled man had taught her that— her beloved Lukas Rothstein… STOP! She quickly quashed the thought of him although the spurt of bittersweet longing it had invoked momentarily dimmed her wide, carefree smile. She was moving on from that unrequited crush…wasn’t she? Her phone beeped. Another text from her nervous dad. Her family was also divided between those who were excited about her trip and those who were anxious about her going to “Africa.”
Jessica, however, could not stop grinning. She felt so relieved to be leaving New York and the unexpected trials and tribulations of the last few months. Now, she was off to South Africa to escape all of it! Her crowd of tightly-packed white teeth bestowed warmth upon all those who caught her eye in the hustle-y, bustle-y, jostle-y crowd of angst-ridden travellers. As she made her way through the throngs at JFK, beaming at all and sundry, swaying her narrow hips a little bit because she was wearing her brand new jeans— although it was hard to tell as they were ripped threadbare down both thighs, testament to the latest style— she ticked off the list of stressors she would not think about in Johannesburg: Lukas Rothstein; the rancorous graduate student strike for living wages; the family feud on Facebook, Cuban relatives versus Puerto Ricans over whether US presidential candidate Donald Trump was racist against Latinos; Her Majesty Shonali Stone’s intimidation tactics and the grade for her final paper. Jessica mentally stashed all of that far away from the present. She was going to diversify her portfolio in Jo’burg as per her older and wiser friend, Ms. Loretta-Anne Smythe’ s advice, seconded by her mischievous little sister Roxy who texted her as she was at the check-in counter.
. Hey, I’ve put a surprise in your suitcase.
Jessica frowned. At that very moment, the South African Airways check-in lady asked in a rote tone of voice, “ As per airline regulations to prevent terrorism, please confirm that you packed your own suitcase?”
Trump’s Wall on the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
When it was finally completed, the Berlin wall was almost 100 miles long. From 1961 until 1989, it stood as a potent marker of the division between East and West. When the wall was finally felled, an ideology, a worldview, the Iron Curtain and eventually the Communist bloc all came tumbling down.
9 November, 2019, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall but with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems that 1989’s tremendous optimism was misplaced. The symbolic end of the Cold War was feted in the West as the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy but ultimately, capitalism may have been the major beneficiary. Today, democracy everywhere is under threat.
Although the World Wide Web was also born that year, seeming to signal a new era of interconnectivity and global cohesion, much blood was also shed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing where students faced off against military tanks. In Germany itself, 9 November is still an ominous date because on that day in 1938, Jewish people and their properties were attacked during Kristallnacht, a shameful prologue to the Holocaust.
Today, we are seeing a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism, blatant Islamophobia, emboldened white supremacy and xenophobia as policy. Consequently, there are more borders and border walls being erected than ever before.
A slough of new books – Michel Foucher’s, The Return of Borders; Greg Grandin’s, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America; Tim Marshall’s Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls; Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders: How the US is Exporting Its Border around the World – present alarming facts about the precipitous increase and hardening of borders worldwide – fences, barriers, walls. A significant number of these have been constructed since 2000.
US president Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border at 1,000 miles is perhaps the most infamous of these. Although Trump embraces nationalism and purports to despise “globalism” and “globalists,” he rode to electoral victory on a wave of xenophobic populism that is in fact part of a global trend.
The anti- or deglobalization backlash is in vogue worldwide - deadly xenophobic outbreaks in South Africa, the UK’s interminable Brexit debacle, Matteo Salvini in Italy and India’s attempts to repatriate “Bangladeshis” are just a few examples.
Only 3.4% of the world migrates across national borders yet xenophobic populism makes up a considerable percentage of political rhetoric. Racial, ethnic and religious discrimination is filtered through anti-migrant discourse and funneled into harsher policies towards refugees and migrants. In the name of nationalism and sovereignty, politicians put precious state resources towards more and more draconian border enforcement.
US Customs and Border Protection estimates that every mile of new or replacement barrier for Trump’s border wall costs the US taxpayer $6.5 million. Mexico never did pay for the wall as Trump promised during his campaign but large numbers of Americans are apparently willing to absorb the exorbitant cost.
That is because, like the Berlin wall, the significance of Trump’s wall exceeds its utility as a block to human mobility. Most of the unauthorized migrants in the country fly in on a plane, a form of 20th-century technology, and then overstay their visas. The efficacy of the 7th-century wall is therefore its targeting of a specific demographic.
Trump once described the proposed wall as an, “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” hence the news that smugglers are still able to saw through it was met with psychic dismay by many right-wing pundits. The wall is, of course, so much more than its materiality. Its primary function is symbolic.
The Berlin wall marked the divide between East and West but Trump’s wall marks the divide between the global North and the global South. It is a total repudiation of cultural globalization and the diversity it engenders. It is what scholars call a hard ethno-nationalist border.
Ironically, Trump the politician may espouse anti-globalist sentiment at his rallies but Trump the businessman has spent the last thirty-plus years trying to take the Trump brand global. His children are today currently involved in business dealings in almost every continent. Like many other US businesses, the Trumps benefitted from the new markets opened up by globalization.
After the fall of the wall in 1989, triumphalist free market advocates predicted that American-led globalization would create an unfettered neoliberal world in which capital, more than labor, could move freely into a post-national, cosmopolitan, borderless future.
However, the benefits of globalization have also been simultaneously complemented by the disadvantages which the same process brought into being. Aggressive Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal policies were globalized by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund after the fall of the wall.
In the 21st-century, it is clear that the globalization of neoliberalism has destroyed and is destroying the middle class in industrialized countries. It has increased income inequality everywhere. But contrarily, it has also created a vast new middle class in developing countries which is driving global GDP growth.
The destruction of the working and middle classes in Euro-America is partly driving the anti-globalization backlash which instead of identifying neoliberal policy as the source of its woes prefers to scapegoat vulnerable migrants.
The idea that increased sovereignty, harder national borders and a secured, bounded nation protected by a wall can restore the fortunes of the middle class does not compute with reality but it does resonate emotionally for many.
The Berlin wall and Trump’s border wall invoke great emotion in both supporters and detractors. When the Berlin wall was built overnight, calls for it to be torn down reverberated through the West. The most famous of these was probably John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.
Today, Pope Francis has publicly wondered why Trump would build a wall when the Berlin wall brought “so much suffering.” He went on to say that “those who build walls end up being prisoners of the walls they build.”
But isn’t that partly the point of this wall? To make those on the inside feel more secure and less afraid of an “invasion” of brown bodies? The Berlin wall was built to stop East Germans fleeing to West Berlin although about 5,000 people are estimated to have escaped. Trump’s wall is ostensibly about keeping people out but it is also a highly racialized symbol that is meant to protect a nostalgic notion of a white nation and a white future that is threatened by demographic and cultural change.
The Berlin wall was named for a place and Trump’s wall is named for a man who likes to brand places. When the Berlin wall fell, people celebrated because they thought a new era of freedom was in the offing.
Trump’s wall will forever be associated with detention centers where little children are separated from their parents. This is a crime against humanity and one day, if Trump’s border wall is felled, perhaps people will dance on the rubble, the way they did in Berlin in 1989.
Children are selling themselves in the
New Frontier-Fictional Economy...Should we care?
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
Summer camps for middle-class American children where they learn to swim and ride ponies and identify different cloud types and generally get in touch with nature are so last century, so yester-year’s economy. That’s why the traditional summer camp has got some new competition. This is the era of the shameless plug and the humble brag, Instagram celebrities, social media influencers and a president who suffers from Twitterhoea. The top-earning YouTube star is a cute 7-year-old boy named Ryan who reviews toys. His channel earned US$22 million in 2018. Who cares about ponies and cumulus clouds and learning to read a compass when kids need much more necessary skills to navigate this new world we’re living in. They could be earning ungodly sums of money. Enter stage right, the entrepreneurial camp!
With plans to begin offering programs for kids as young as four (yes, four-years-old!), some of these entrepreneurial camp providers, according to Brendan O’Connor’s article, “Capitalism Camp for Kids,” are already supplying kids of eight-years-old and up, summer skills courses where they “learn how to monetize their hobbies, interview local corporate executives and shoot YouTube commercials for their prospective businesses.” These tween-preneurs are also encouraged to network during lunch breaks and suggested conversation topics range from edifying subjects like, “The Richest Kids in America,” to ways to “take action” now and “harness the power of this moment.” Time is money under capitalism.
The entrepreneurial camp providers highlighted in O’Connor’s article profess to what used to be considered Republican ideologies -- small government, self reliance and so on -- before this muddled Trump era scrambled traditional conservative ideals into a confused omelette of populism, racism, xenophobia and fiscal overindulgence -- increased government spending whilst providing generous tax cuts to the wealthy. Some of these camp providers have also received funding from conservative libertarians like one of the arch-capitalist Koch Brothers. Critics of these entrepreneurial camps characterize them as the “commodification of childhood.” But is it really? Isn’t this something rather newer and even more insidious?
The commodification of childhood is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on since at least last century and refers to how we turned kids into ardent consumers of toys, clothing, and video games. What is new today – and this has everything to do with the new capitalism and the new economy – is that now we are teaching children how to think of themselves as commodities - an object that can be bought and sold because it has a money value. Michel Foucault had already diagnosed in the 1970s how neoliberalism, the current form of capitalism that is globally dominant, had succeeded in making the self an enterprise. Writing on Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, Lois McNay explains that, “Individuals would be encouraged to view their lives and identities as a type of enterprise, understood as a relation to the self based ultimately on a notion of incontestable economic interest.” But I’m pretty sure Foucault was talking about grown-up individuals. Now, we’re teaching little children to commodify themselves and do their utmost to sell themselves.
It wasn't so long ago that people looked down on parents who pressured their children to pursue careers as models or actors or pop stars as being a somewhat debauched form of child exploitation. Now, every child with access to a smart phone is seemingly addicted to taking selfies and performing in front of a recording device. Exhibitionism is not only accepted, it's expected. Some parents try to monetize this and now, entrepreneurial camps are encouraging children how to do so also.
Two questions about this cultural change: Is commodifying the child a cynical, right-wing, neoliberal plot or just a rational response to a changing economy? Secondly, should we be morally outraged about this or just accept it as a “natural” progression of our contemporary iteration of capitalism – the much-maligned neoliberalism?
What is this New Economy?
It’s not like the Girl Scouts have not been doing this for ages. They send out little girls to sell cookies and American kids have always been encouraged to set up lemonade stands in front of their homes where they can be safe whilst using their assets (cute round faces, adorable pudgy hands) to lure neighbors and passers-by into shelling out a small, almost symbolic sum, towards their pocket money. But technology and the new forms of capitalism have changed all of that and we’re not talking about symbolic sums but instead, the big bucks.
We now have platform/surveillance/big data capitalism and the new economy is variously called precarious “Uberified”/side hustle/winner-take-all/influencer/digital/attention economy. It has so many appellations because everyone is still trying to figure out how it works and how to make a decent living in it. Many of the names it goes by are euphemisms designed to conceal the structural inequities and injustices at its core.
For example, the so-called “sharing” or “collaborative” economy (Uber/Task Rabbit/Airbnb) is better described by the term, the gig economy. Freelancers/independent contractors who are more often than not precarious, poorly paid and exploited are paid per gig. Even when they work full-time or overtime, they receive none of the securities of yore associated with fulltime employment: They receive no healthcare, no parental/sick leave, no paid holidays etc. Oftentimes, their gig work is referred to as a side hustle but often they are full-time workers doing work essential to our society: adjunct professors, schoolteachers, healthcare providers etc. They have to work this side hustle because their salaries are too low. The economy is tilted in favor of the wealthy who are paid way too much while workers receive far too little.
Parents trying to raise children to succeed in this economy are simultaneously faced with another euphemistic neoliberal mythology designed to obfuscate the realities of this unfairly tilted economy. Neoliberal ideologues declare that we are “all the CEOs – Chief Executive Officers - of our own lives.” Our lives are our work and that is why we should “do what we love” and therefore we’re not really working. All we are doing, in the sense of the Foucauldian critique, is perfecting our individual enterprises. This convenient mythology puts the onus on the individual to try and surmount the structural barriers to upward mobility colloquially known as getting ahead. Is that why parents are susceptible to the notion of entrepreneurial summer camps for their kids? Are they viewed as a way to give kids an edge over the competition when it comes to getting into a prestigious tertiary institution?
Owen Davis’ illuminating essay, “Class Warfare: What the cottage industry of admissions consultants tells us about American higher education,” examines how high-end consultants help kids brand themselves in order to optimize their chances of admission to elite universities. Writing in The Baffler, Davis chronicles the lengths to which middle-class parents will go to get their kids into a good college as these highly-paid admissions consultants help their children plot “out their admissions stratagems as early as seventh grade” (see also Operation Varsity Blues in which celebrities took this to the criminal extreme). Much of these consultants’ work concerns making ordinary teenagers appear to be extraordinary “entrepreneurial agents of social reform.” Social media activism is CV-padding to get into college in a playing field, very, very, very tilted in favor of the super rich. The cutthroat nature of competitive college admissions means that “the old mission-trip-to-Guatemala essay [on the college application] has become passé. Now, ultrawealthy parents swap tales of launching charities just to give their kids interesting nonprofit work; one family reportedly bought a Botswanan orphanage as grist for a college essay.”
This is all very instructive and we can deduce from this many characteristics about the contemporary economy: It is precarious, competitive, unequal, capricious, unstable and also, fictional. I call it the frontier-fictional economy because there is a constant search to identify and locate new spaces of economic opportunity - new frontiers - and moreover, there is a lot of fiction at the heart of this economy. Fiction in two senses: there are a lot of overvalued technology companies which destabilize the economy because this is really just fictional capital and secondly, fiction – the telling of an imaginative story – is central to many of these new money-making endeavors.
The New Frontier-Fictional Economy is All about the Story
When I talk of the fictions which lead to the overvaluation of technology companies, we need look no further than Silicon Valley’s most fraudulent “unicorn.” In Silicon Valley, a unicorn is a company that is valued over one billion dollars. John Carreyrou’s excellent page-turner, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, exposes the deception which lay at the core of the tech world’s favorite female-headed unicorn. The infamous Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos when she was 19-years-old. Millions of dollars were thrown at her even though she was a Stanford dropout or maybe because of it. (How many techie demigods have made being a college dropout a cornerstone of their origin story?) Her idea of running blood tests off of just one drop of blood was so far-fetched it would strain credulity in a science fiction novel. But that is Silicon Valley for you. Her original idea of a patch that would inject medicine into the patient’s arm after said patch analyzed the blood was even more ludicrous. I literally would not have invested five bucks in her company yet, plenty of big-name venture capitalists were tripping over themselves to give her their millions. If it weren’t for the Wall Street Journal’s intrepid investigative journalist, Carreyrou, we would be none the wiser and the unethical Holmes would still be giving Ted talks in her Steve Jobs-wannabe, black turtleneck get-up.
In the second sense, fiction, especially when it is dressed up as reality, is at the heart of so many of these new technology-enabled jobs and other media-fuelled moneymaking endeavors. Elizabeth Holmes sold her bogus technology on the basis of her ability to fabulate. All Silicon Valley and other types of start-ups looking for funding are telling a story but then again, so are more 20th-century, bricks and mortar businesses.
Donald Trump, when he was a middling real estate developer trying to become a celebrity, pretended to be a publicist named John Barron and he would call up reporters to give them the “secret inside story” on Trump. He would later convert his fame into a fiction of his astronomically exaggerated wealth and then he would land a TV series called The Apprentice where he played the role of a successful businessman - even though in reality he went bankrupt six times - and then he became even more famous. Several of his entrepreneurial ventures failed or were found to be fraudulent and his shady business practices have resulted in multiple lawsuits. Most ignominiously, he had to be bailed out by his dad on more than one occasion, yet he has successfully crafted the fiction of himself as a self-made billionaire. He then parlayed the fictional persona he played on a so-called reality show into his latest avatar, politician. And fiction trumps reality once again because as you may have heard, he became the president, thanks to a series of fictions and lies.
The art of the con is the new art of the deal. And all con artists are convincing storytellers. To call someone a hustler used to be an insult. Today, in the era of side hustles, everyone has a hustle and Trump’s advice in The Art of the Deal to employ “truthful hyperbole” has now become his administration’s “alternative facts.” He is a living reminder that the phrase, fake it till you make it, can be used in an ends justify the means kind of way – whatever it takes to “win,” hustling and fakery and fabulation are all options.
Even though Twitter is the social medium that fits Trump better than any of his suits, the hard truth is that even before the advent of social media, stories and fabulations and dissemblings were central to his career trajectory because the culture at large was becoming more permissive about falsehoods. However, the era of social media influencers and YouTube stars has only intensified this trend. All of these new occupations require people to tell a story and a highly-curated one at that in order to attract large online followings which can be translated into a platform and thus monetized. Many times these are not the best stories or even very good ones but if they can find a niche in a world of narrowcasting, lo and behold, they may attract followers and thus, fame and funding.
A 14-year-old girl recently told me that she makes almost daily videos for her Instagram and YouTube channel. She confessed to not knowing why people would want to watch her packing her suitcase to go on holiday or clean her room but she said, “Lots of people watch.” And I said, “That’s sad.” And she agreed. Why would people watch such banality? Is it because she is a very pretty little girl who has adopted many Kardashian affectations and puts on make-up every day even though she doesn’t need any with her flawless complexion? I really don’t know the answer to this question but she has been advised that her followers and subscriber base will only grow if she constantly feeds the beast.
The Baffler’s Liz Pelly writes “In the Era of Teen$ploitation” that “the social codes that once applied strictly to celebrities now curiously apply to us all.” So even when nothing is really happening, this young girl, like all the rest of us trying to garner some attention online, has to try and come up with a good hook, a plot and a subplot, a narrative arc, some dramatic tension, zesty dialogue, conflict and all the rest of the elements that make for a good story.
Except it’s not a story. It’s her life. So what happens when you start living your life as if you are the producer/director/scriptwriter/cinematographer of your own story which becomes a tale that you can sell for the big bucks? In other words, what happens when your life - or at least the story of your life - becomes a commodity?
The Commodity used to be what Marx calls an “External Object”
There is a good reason why Karl Marx, the most brilliant analyst of capitalism to date, began his perspicacious treatise on capitalism, Capital: Volume I, with a meditation on the commodity: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’…The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind.”
Right here, however, we see a schism between what the commodity was then and what the commodity is now. Marx assumes the commodity is an “external object.” He also assumes that capitalism’s division of labor results in the laborer being alienated from the products of his own labor. Commodities too are also the result of “universal alienation.” But what happens then when the commodity is you, your self, your subjectivity, your personality, your clothes and style and commentary and crushes and conversations with your cousins, parents, siblings, and friends? Does that mean you are alienated from yourself as the product of your own labor? Are you external to yourself?
The Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, was much admired by Marx for his vivid depiction of societal injustice, particularly that experienced by child laborers. But these children were forced into selling their labor as a commodity. They were not selling themselves as commodities.
The idea of human beings being commodities has a long and ugly history. Jamaica Kincaid, in A Small Place, wrote blisteringly about black people’s distrust of capitalism: “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it's because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar…” Slaves were commodities who were bought and sold and shipped around the world to feed the needs of the global economy. But slaves did not sell themselves.
Is it different when we sell ourselves? Marx made the point that workers were forced into selling their own labor-power and his prototypical example was a factory worker. Now, because of the 24/7 nature of the internet, the collapse between work and leisure space and work and leisure time, the erasure between private and public and so on, the factory is everywhere and never closes. Labor is not contained to a place or a time or a certain activity. These new forms of labor can become one ubiquitous, unremitting enterprise.
In an "influencer economy,” do would-be celebrities have to pursue fame by any means necessary day and night whether in the home or the hotel or the high-end corporate boardroom? Kim Kardashian’s ticket to fame and fortune was a sex tape that was anonymously leaked online. Many, however, suspect that she released it herself. Whatever way, it catapulted her into the spotlight and now her marriages, her kids, her family and her "private life" are all part of her brand. Her book, Selfish, contained a decade worth of selfies and landed up on the New York Times bestseller list. If anyone has made the individual self into an enterprise, it is Kim Kardashian who inarguably excels at branding.
Branding Reigns Supreme
We now live in an economy of jockeying brands. Countries have brands, corporations have brands, companies have brands and today, individuals have to have one too. Brand recognition, brand valuation and brand equity used to be corporate gobbeldy-gook. Now, little kids speak that language because personal branding is de rigeur in today’s frontier-fictional economy. Branding is all about the story you tell and successful branding is when that story comes to define you. But it can sometimes come to contain and even stifle you, especially for young people whose developing identities are still evolving and fragile.
Branding used to have more connotations. Slaves and criminals were branded with a branding iron. To have a brand denoted the mark of public shame or disgrace. Writing in 2004 for a now defunct magazine, American Demographics, Andrew Zolli wrote that branding was undergoing a sea change:
Today, brands are increasingly serving another function: they have become the tools with which people construct their personal and social identities…Brands have gone from being the glue that ties companies
and consumers together to being the glue that holds our very souls together. This is part of a much larger cultural and economic story. The marketplace has become the central meaning-making institution in
many people’s lives…
Zolli is not a bourgeois Marxist critic of capitalism like me but even he links the elevation of branding to neoliberal policies which began in earnest “in the early 1980s when state and federal governments started to deregulate markets and curb public sector spending.” Smaller government meant that corporations jumped in to fill the vacuum in the public sphere. What he calls the “brandscape” became “virtually inescapable.” Even as recently as 2004, companies were still the dominant force in branding but he declared that companies had a “new role – as stewards of human meaning, not just economic value.” Now, real humans have brands and many of them derive their meaning from how that brand is valued, economically and culturally, online and off.
What should we conclude then? Should we concede the point that entrepreneurial camps are a rational response to the frontier-fictional economy and are beneficial for children who will learn timely and valuable skills on how to craft their own stories for an (online) audience, build their own brands and curate their celebrity personas? And if we concede this point, should we be morally outraged?
What’s at Stake When Children Commodify Themselves?
There is an idea - a somewhat romantic ideal at the heart of all critiques of commodification – that money should not be able to buy some things, that some things must never be for sale and assigning a monetary value to something that exceeds the commodity valuation system will result in a little death. What dies is the belief that we cannot be reduced to the sum total of our net worth in crass economic terms. What dies is the hope that the market is not the totality of human experience.
Liz Pelly admirably elucidates the moral stakes of the influencer economy: “the efficiency with which the faux-empowerment, build-your-brand-by-being-you ethic has targeted teen girls is dispiriting, especially when you consider that such marketing has historically been aimed at making those same girls question their self-worth.” The flip side of all the time spent on social media, research has shown, is the increased anxiety, depression and suicide rates for teens. Pelly also quotes Melissa Campbell of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) who points out that “what you’re doing is monetizing your experiences [and] setting yourself up to be consumed, literally, through your videos and your content and your personality.” Pelly says that social media platforms and marketing companies, “By encouraging young people and teenagers to become influencers, [are] push[ing] them into a commodified space filled with negative forces that run counter to their interests.”
But in the frontier-fictional economy, do they run counter to their interests?
What are the child’s interests? Aren’t well-meaning parents attempting to give their progeny an edge by making them into entrepreneurs of the self? In this winner-take-all economy of ever-increasing income inequality, CEOs’ compensation is astronomical relative to the wages an ordinary worker makes. Thus, shouldn’t every child strive to become the CEO of his own Self-As-Story-As-Business-Enterprise?
Pelly blames platform capitalism for repackaging “exploitation and selling it as empowerment.” She issues a powerful, well-articulated denunciation of what happens when exploitation is sold as empowerment, when people - children - have internalized the logic of the market which sees their labor of the self as a commodity to be exploited and they see themselves and the sum total of all their relationships, hobbies, experiences as a commodity in waiting…With enough likes and shares, can I too become a micro-influencer, or a YouTube vlogger, or even a Reality TV sensation?
But if this is not frightening enough, there is another side effect of commodifying the self. Melissa Campbell issues a dire warning that marketing to children, or as Pelly points out, turning children into marketers – even those who market themselves as commodities - can establish “new norms where young people just expect all of their relationships to be commercialized.”
I remember a conversation I had with a twenty-something young woman who had a very popular blog on which she wrote about her intimate romantic and sexual experiences with various lovers. She told me that her last relationship had been with an aspiring artist. They had reached an explicit agreement. The visual artist would depict the blogger in her artwork and the blogger would write about their intimacy. It was a quid pro quo and she told me that neither of them had a problem with that. In fact, the implication was that I was being very old-fashioned and outdated in thinking there could possibly be anything wrong with commodifying/ commercializing an intimate relationship.
What is intimacy anyway, you old fogey! Intimacy is not something that happens in private behind closed doors. What is privacy? Intimacy is changing your profile pic to an image of you and your love. Get with it!
I didn't have the words then to express my belief that intimacy requires trust and if your vulnerabilities, insecurities and secrets are all fodder for someone's commercial enterprise, would you ever be able to trust that person and thus enjoy intimacy...
If these are the new norms, does the commodification of the self inevitably lead to commodification of other people and all one’s relationships? No more friends, just followers. No more romantic partners, just public image accessories/co-stars. No more family, just image enhancers/supporting cast members. No more hanging out, just networking.
This is not an episode of Black Mirror. This is what is happening all around us.
Do you want to live in a world like this? Should we just accept that this is a “natural” progression of late capitalism?
No, we should not. Capitalism is not natural. The market is not a natural phenomenon like waterfalls and mountain ranges. We create this economy. We are not just products of this economy but producers of it. If the frontier-fictional economy is eliciting such a soul-destroying response, then we have to transform how that economy operates. In other words, we should not be forced to adapt our morals and our principles to this economy. We need to have an economy that is founded on better principles and sound morals. We should be morally outraged that children are selling themselves online and yes, we should take responsibility because this is a reflection of what we do.
This anonymous poem was found on a leaflet left by demonstrators in Quebec City in 2001:
Capital is Enclosure
First it fenced off the land
Then it metered the water
It measured our time
It plundered our bodies and now it polices our dreams
We cannot be contained
We are not for sale
Leave capital to enclose itself
I hope this poet is right. I really want to believe that we are not for sale and that people will refuse to be contained and constrained and curbed and coerced by the crude logic of a reductive market. I hope that but I am not sure of it…
There is no Planet B:
Seven Take-Aways from the Climate Strike
and Can We Elect
Greta Thunberg President of the World?
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
Fresh blue sky, crisp breeze, warm sunlight, the crackling bustle of back-to-school-and-work after the sultry summer humidity. On a perfect autumn weekday like this, it would normally be a good idea to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge. But today, it is almost impossible, not just because of the usual tourists and brides in their fluttering white dresses posing for a picture against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty rising from the harbor. The bike path is jam-packed with excitable children, singing, stomping, shrieking with laugher, chanting slogans, carrying signs, crossing the suspension bridge that joins Brooklyn to Manhattan. A trash barge floats along on the wind-churned waves of the East River which smells like the sea and sparkles so much under the glittering sun it doesn’t even look polluted.
New York’s Department of Education has allowed the city’s 1.1 million public school children the option to skip school if their parents sign a permission slip on this Friday, 20 September, 2019 so that they can participate in the global climate strike inspired by a small girl from Sweden.
Greta Thunberg has come to America via boat instead of plane to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. She has turned Asperger’s syndrome into an asset and a pulsating tension coils through her diminutive, wiry and still growing body. She is sixteen-years-old but her #FridaysForFuture movement has ignited a wildfire as powerful as those which recently devastated the Amazon. Here are seven things I learnt about the past, the present and the future from this stunning day of passion and protest.
I go to a lot of protests and demonstrations and not just in the US, in various countries, but I have never seen a protest like this one. It was exhilarating, emotional, energizing, galvanizing and inspirational to see so many children and teenagers proclaiming their right to live in a better world. Political organizing at the grassroots level often takes years to develop into a movement yet it was merely 13 months ago that Greta Thunberg started her movement as a single protester outside the Swedish parliament to demand policy reform to substantively address global warming. Extinction Rebellion, a UK-founded group that promotes civil disobedience to bring attention to climate change, has garnered a lot of attention (and criticism) although they are less than a year old. Al Gore says this is how change happens: very slowly at first and then all of a sudden a great tsunami of transformation.
Now, millions of school children and for the first time, adults from tech workers to trade unionists to teachers joined Greta in New York and around the world. Initially, I heard 139 countries were participating in the climate strikes but when Greta finally took the stage in New York City’s Battery Park after the rousing march from Foley Square, she said 150 countries had taken part. A few hours later, it was reported that 185 countries had taken part. That is mind-boggling.
In New York, the crowd was estimated at around a quarter of a million but New Yorkers were joined by many others like Brazilian indigenous groups such as #CarvãoAquiNão Mbya Guarani. African youth from South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria came over to join the protest despite several of them being denied visas by the US embassies in their home countries. They all had their own hashtags and their own local agendas but they were, like all the participants, part of a global climate strike that is becoming more powerful in leaps and bounds.
The numbers are incredible and the fervent intensity so contagious…Was this what it was like to go to protests in the status quo-smashing protests of the 1960s when the world was also on fire, although in a different sense?
Wake up, corporations and capitalists, you have a target on your back!
“If the climate were a bank it would have been saved by now.” That was one of many signs written on old cereal boxes which took aim at big business, factory farming, Wall Street, fossil fuel energy and the extractive industries. Another placard demanded that oil executives be prosecuted. Jeff Bezos was name-checked on more than one recycled Amazon Prime box which is kind of ironic. As the world’s richest billionaire, the youth as well as thousands of his own employees want Bezos to make Amazon more responsive to calls for cutting carbon emissions. Many protesters voiced not only anti-capitalist messages but also pro-socialist ones, proclaiming the need for total societal transformation, not one day in the future but right now. They are not interested in the same old, same old corrupt politics influenced by special interests dedicated to maintaining the status quo of corporations repeatedly raping the earth for profit. The writing is on the wall for...
Be afraid, be very afraid! Dinosaur politicians are headed for extinction
Crusty old dinosaur politicians in the vein of Donald Trump. They will have no future with the rising electorate in the US and other countries. The United Nations is holding its annual General Assembly this week and many world leaders plan to attend its Climate Action Summit. Coal-loving Trump, however, will not be there. Instead, he will participate in a religious freedom meeting. At the G-7 summit last month, he also skipped the climate change meeting. But as many placards proclaimed, these youthful protesters were “skipping lessons to teach you a lesson” and that lesson was very harsh: “We’re in a Hot Mess,” said one poster, because of the globe’s rapidly rising temperatures and “Denyin’ is Lyin’.”
Climate change deniers like Trump, Fox News and the Koch-funded Cato Institute which reject science, facts, data and evidence in order to keep the world “safe” for big business to keep on plundering the earth and irreparably damaging the environment are living on borrowed time. Every category 5 hurricane blows more of their lies away.
The kids today won't listen to adults spewing lies. Many of them grew up reading dystopian, anti-establishment young adult fiction which often cynically paints adults as corrupt and contemptible – works like the Hunger Games trilogy, or Patrick Ness’ excellent, The Knife of Never Letting Go. These kids trust grown-ups even less than previous generations. I heard one kid in Foley Square outside City Hall shouting, “Anyone older than thirty should be ashamed of yourself.” They feel that we – the so-called grown-ups – have betrayed their future. Greta Thunberg lamented the number of celebrities and politicians who take selfies with the child activists but have nothing but empty words of admiration for them instead of a viable action plan. They are not going to wait for reactionary adults to catch up to what they know is reality: we, the human species, are killing the Earth. They are going to take action into their own hands.
Fed up, frustrated, FURIOUS: These kids ain’t f***ing around
As afore-mentioned, I go to a lot of protests but I have never seen so many F-word posters. I personally don’t like the use of curse words in public settings because it often points to a vocabulary deficit on the part of the speaker who cannot fully express him or herself in more evocative and precise language. It also coarsens public discourse even further and puts people on the defensive. But these kids are fed up, frustrated and furious because they think time is up. They are afraid that one day all too soon we will live in a world without birds, bees, butterflies and flowers.
Several chants disparaged the “bullshit” politicians constantly spew about their plans that never materialize to address climate change. “The planet’s fucking broken,” chanted one group. “If you gave a single fuck about the planet, you would be vegan” read a pink and green sign. This anger at inaction mirrors that of the youth spearheading current calls for substantive gun reform policy in a country obsessed with the right to bear arms.
After every single horrific gun attack in the US, politicians react by sending “thoughts and prayers” and insisting that the tragedy is still too raw, blood is still wet on the streets, so it really is too early to discuss a policy response. Time passes, nothing happens. But after yet another school shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida on Valentine Day’s in 2018, the surviving students rapidly and astutely grabbed the media spotlight to demand policy reform. We don’t want more of your hopes and prayers, they said, we want change. One teenager told me that the energy and the urgency of the climate protest reminded her of the school walk-outs after the Parkland school shooting. In sum, kids concerned with gun control policy and climate change issues are not looking for answers in some distant future obscured by the mists of time not yet come. They don't want change now. They want big change - not yesterday but yesteryear. “Climate Crisis won’t wait, Neither will we,” read one banner.
The level of critical thinking on display in the youthful climate change movement which has been reformulated as climate justice is off the charts. Critical thinking is about connecting the dots and making explicit the context and contours of a phenomenon and linking it to the big picture. To take but one example, sixteen-year-old Rebecca Sabnam, a Bangladeshi-American New York City school kid addressed the audience before Greta took the stage. Sabnam is known for pressuring school cafeterias to stop using plastic bags and foam. As an immigrant from Bangladesh, she linked racial justice and climate justice to issues of poverty in both her old and new countries.
The mainstream climate change movement is often accused of only representing the interests of white, middle-class residents of the global North even though indigenous people, the poor and people of color all over the world are more immediately affected by the warming globe. This is one of the fault lines in the movement but maybe there is hope for this new generation of progressives who link climate change to broader structure of global injustice.
Predicting the future: “Far left” and bright green
In twenty years, if I am still alive, I hope someone will congratulate me for correctly predicting that these kids will grow up to form a generation of voters and citizens who will make the “far left” Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren/Alexandria Ocasio Cortezs of today look like arch-capitalists.
Right-wing pundits and media outlets are already terrified by the current numbers of millennial Americans who think socialism is a better option than capitalism. Outlets like Breitbart make the argument on behalf of pro-business, climate change denialism that the millions of children advocating climate change policy are mere fronts for a left-wing agenda. They are just as nasty about these teen activists as they are towards the Parkland kids. But they are mistaken. These kids are not a front for leftie causes. They are the vanguard of a new “far left” and bright green political future.
Generation Z looks set to be much more radical than anything we’ve seen before. There were many signs touting support for Elizabeth Warren and urging a “Green New Deal Now!” but in the years to come, won’t that seem too moderate to kids cutting their teeth on protest at such a tender young age? I am speaking here of youth growing up in countries with nominal democracies. Kids growing up in authoritarian regimes will not have the same opportunities but If you start being an activist at age thirteen like Alexandria Villaseñor, New York's school striking climate protester, won't it just become second nature?
“We are almost losing our cool,” said one poster. And what will happen when they do? A group I had never heard of called, International Youth and Students for Social Equality, was handing out flyers entitled, “The only solution to climate change is world socialism.”
When people feel that they are facing the apocalypse, they tend to become more radical. A toddler hoisted atop her father’s shoulders held a sign aloft, “Will I have a planet to inhabit?” If you feel you have no future, you’re willing to go all-out for change because as many placards proclaimed, “There’s no planet B.”
Should we elect Greta Thunberg President of the World?
Donald Trump in his current starring role in a nightmarish reality TV show about American democracy's implosion is hailed as the leader of the free world because that is traditionally what US presidents in an American-dominated globe have been. However, as anyone who has heard him speak or seen any of his unhinged tweets can testify, he is clearly not qualified for the job. Greta is 57 years younger than Trump but yet light years ahead of him when it comes to matters of maturity, intellect and principle.
This Swedish adolescent speaks better English than the American president and is a clearer and more articulate communicator. Her use of social media is responsible and dignified, unlike Trump’s daily embarrassing glut of grammatically-incorrect, emotionally-unstable and truth-challenged social media postings. Most importantly, she believes in facts and science and thinks climate policy should be determined by what the experts deem is needed. I am pretty much ready to elect her world president because I am absolutely sure she would be better than this old, orange-colored man who spends too much time on a tanning bed and none at all on learning, reading or leading on climate change.
On Friday, 27 September, Greta Thunberg is going to take to the streets again. And then presumably on Fridays for the foreseeable future until real change is achieved. Isn’t now the time to join her at a protest near you?
PREVIOUS ESSAY...CHOCK-A-BLOCK FULL OF WISDOM :)
FROM THE HERALD NEWSPAPER,
Image: Justin Izzo
The Troubling Nativism of the Non-Native
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
Rally after rally, speech after speech, Donald Trump frames immigration as a “crisis” and even a “national emergency” requiring the militarization of the southern border and the caging of children ripped away from their parents. He constantly refers to “illegal immigrants” and the approaching caravan from Central America as “invaders.”
Families too poor to fly into the country are walking thousands of miles, according to the president, to breach the nation’s sovereign borders.
“They are trying to take over our country,” says the president.
Observers have often pointed out how Trump stokes the fires of populism and nativism to his political advantage. “Build the wall,” is still a popular chant at his incessant rallies. Some commentators do emphasize the irony of a billionaire populist but few note the bitter and pathetic irony at the heart of American nativism.
Most Americans are not native in the full sense of the word native.
Native can mean being born in a land - the US constitution’s 14th amendment ensures birthright citizenship - but it also means being indigenous to the land, being one of the land’s original inhabitants. Nativism is a growing trend in Western countries but how is the US brand of nativism even possible when you consider how oxymoronic and inherently contradictory it actually is?
Can you be a nativist when you are not a native?
The answer to that question is yes but only because of a convenient if powerful historical amnesia. About 2% of the US population is Native American and the rest are descended from slaves and immigrants, some whose forebears came more recently than others. It is these descendants of peoples from other continents who now lay nativist claim to the US but American nativism is only made possible by the complete and utter erasure of Native American indigenousness from the national consciousness and indeed the national conscience.
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