The X-Factor Society – Finding Ourselves Unwilling Participants
“If capitalism is to go on in the history of mankind, then the history of mankind must become the place of total violence, because only the violence of competition can decide the value of time” Franco Berardi Bifo, Time, acceleration, Violence
Recently, I’ve felt a threat of free-flowing personal attacks heading my direction over the Internet. Potential accusations of hypocrisy, egotism, within the social media 2nd Life, which is now anything but (the idea that what occurs on social media is separate to what happens in our ‘real’ lives is a notion that deserves to remain in the 1990’s). Such accusations would roughly follow like this: “you’re an hypocrite and egotist succumbing to the same self-promotion that you were constantly critical of on Social Media”. Basically an accusation that I’ve stopped attempting to critique the given social reality, and I’ve joined in willfully.
But I would fervently contest the tags “egotistical” and “willfully”. Recently I have felt one humongous pressure raining down on my skull as if heavy sedimentary layers were forcing it into metamorphic rock. The pressure to be more, to get beyond my low-paid predicament, my padded-‘precariat’ predicament, humiliatingly often still reliant of my ‘salariat’ parents. Yet a predicament that has thus far allowed me to forge a sense of dignity through any artistic output outside 9-5 hours. But this pressure, the ‘something must break’ pressure, has begun to drown out all other noises.
The ‘don’t let others dictate your life for you’ benevolent call from friends alike is like the sound of a falling leaf next to a trigger-happy fog horn, as I’m certain it is for the many. At 30, an healthy age for a 19th century granddad, I’ve begun to promote my art and navigate the likes of Facebook in more of an attempt to appease the fog horn of social reality rather than challenge it.
But am I being a sell-out for capitulating increasingly to a pressure to “make a living out of my art” (or make a living/better my predicament in some other way by presenting myself on social media in a more conventionally agreeable, and less challenging way)? Or is it more the case, as I talk to increasing numbers of (mainly younger) people who feel the same way as me, that we are amidst a social reality that forces us to increasingly behave in this way in order for social (and, consequentially, physical) survival? And regarding the amount of time we all spend on social media, surely very few people really want to spend so much time checking their Facebook, Twitter, email accounts? Surely beyond the networking (a daily chore that deals like trying to peddle up an information waterfall descending over our threatened social status) there is an ideal destination, an arrival somewhere? A place of psychological stability, of peace of mind, where the self no longer feels under siege? It isn’t anywhere near as simple as to suggest “why don’t you just switch it off?”.
From Selfies to C.V’s, both are driven by the same impulse: to stay afloat; economic survival and social validity. It isn’t surprising that there’s a direct linked being made between the most relentless selfie takers and acute psychological instability. The panic about not being good enough is surely quite normal in an increasingly competitive world where entering the competition ring against everybody else is the only option given to avoid failure.
One thing’s for sure: obsessive selfie takers, or those constantly promoting what they’re doing in life aren’t bathing in a warm bath of self assurance. In an essay commentating on the death of pop music icon Michael Jackson, theorist Steve Shaviro argue that “[self-entrepreneurialism] is [now] a minimum requirement for mere survival”. We have been thrown into the arena, and voices blinded by the blinding floodlights are chanting “dance, dance, dance, faster, harder, better, longer”. We are all in the X-Factor society, but how did we get here? We all desire maximum possible autonomy, freedom of expression (surely), right? But why do we have to take it to market? How did we get here?
The ‘Trojan Horse’ of Neoliberalism:
Market fundamentalism (more commonly known as neoliberalism) allows for only one sort of individualism: market individualism. For those who must play by the rules of the game – that’s nearly everybody – that’s the only character it lets us be.
The writer Will Self suggests an analogy with the Trojan Horse trick from Greek Mythology in understanding how this system was imposed in the late 1970’s, getting ‘inside’, from where to successfully embark on assault, by seducing with offers of gifts. In the UK Margaret Thatcher was the gift-bearer who seduced us into accepting a market fundamentalist system (In 1973 the system was imposed with outright violence on the people of Chile, but Thatcher realised this wouldn’t be possible to do in a then democratic nation like the UK – she would have to entice people into the arena, rather than using it to round up and shoot those who disagreed, as Chile’s General Pinochet did).
The resulting assault from this Trojan Horse has happened slowly; so slowly that people are only just starting to realise that they’re in the middle of a battlefield. But it’s a battlefield where they can’t trust anybody, they have no true ally, everybody is a potential competitive threat. It is every person for himself. Not for the prize of stardom, big swimming pools and immortality, but the means to survive, holding out against the disintegration of self.
(Homebuying advert from the the early 1980’s; the selling off of council houses is arguably one of these seductive Trojan Horse gifts)
The X-Factor society:
Market fundamentalism instigates a race to bottom. If a social system is based on unending competition, it is only a matter of time before a minority begin to accumulate and consolidate a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth-thus-power. It took until 2011 to collectively recognise that 1% of the population owned most of the world’s wealth. But this has in no way slowed the pace of the competition-driven system. The demand on the rest of us to do more and more for decreasing returns grows more intense. “Dance, dance, faster faster” to the tune of more wealth for the few.
Programs like the X-Factor give us the impression that the most ‘talented’ (well, that’s what they say) will rise up and be greatly rewarded by society. But a cruel inversion of this logic is what most of us increasingly face: an outpouring of emotional labour, and a showcase of the ‘right’ skills is required of us on a daily basis on and off the web now – “the minimum requirement” needed so that the quality of life our parents’ generation took for granted may be afforded us.
But just like the X-Factor and all of the other reality programs, only skills and talents that meet fit the model of market individualism matter. The competition to fit this model for quick profit, for quick ascent from the instability of contemporary existence, evidently doesn’t produce better, more interesting things. When competition, as a social force, dominates everything, it actually serves as a gravitational force on ideas/invention, and drags everything down into a mundane pulp, from where people drop idiosyncrasies and other interesting quirks in order to home in the attributes most valued. From C.V’s to a daily scroll down a daily Facebook feed (with the usual exception of independent news sources/activist groups) the pressure is to arrive at an acceptable mundanity. The desire for light-heartened communication is narrowed to sharing pictures of our food and saying what feel others want you to say rather than what you might otherwise have said, and the words ideas/invention are replaced by ‘innovation’. Social success as a mere requirement, pushes people towards a paradoxical predicament of conforming to individualism. And I’m often fearful I may increasingly be acting in this way.
Regarding this social reality. Some may say “life’s cruel, get over it”. But is cruelty by unpreventable bad luck (such as an elderly motorist dying at the wheel and knocking down your spouse to be) the same as cruelty caused by market fundamentalism? And if we see the coming of such a social system as part of the ‘natural’ course of things, why did it need a Trojan Horse trick in order for it to be imposed? More to the (current) point: we are in the thick of this system now to the extent that I think we have lost the will to even ask such a deeply important question. I say this because this reasoning is something I also feel I lack the mental time and energy to contemplate. I fear I have lost sight of what was once of utmost importance to me – it has been obscured by the imminent anxieties imposed by the X-Factor Society.
The X-Factor Society Logic:
You may have noticed yourself, or others operating a distinctly schizophrenic logic of late. It is an externally imposed way of thinking, noticeably so due to the person who’s speaking’s words, or ones own thoughts, suddenly seemingly getting hijacked by a logic that denies the situation that was just being discussed/contemplated. An acceptance that capitalism is once again ruining the lives of the majority and some vast change has to come about, suddenly flits to an almost superstitious faith in finding a plan, a bit of luck, that someone will suddenly shine a spotlight on your ‘hidden potential’; basically that the X-Factor Society grants you the chance to grasp at least some quality of life. And then you slip back to thinking “we need to work together, start organising” and then suddenly say “why don’t’ I start my own business?”. Your suck and contort your face like there’s something sour that you can’t spit out. A mental conflict. Every day. Drained so drained.
No Solution, just spleen-venting?
Is it not the case that the ravenous impulse to self-promote (be it, fishing for ‘likes’ or trying to sell your ‘crafted’ items) actually sows the seeds of the opposite of what is the underlying aim? Is is not the case that the more we collectively bleed out our energies onto the web, and into the world, the more we intensify the marketised competitiveness driving down the quality of life, and genuine ‘opportunities’ for self betterment for the majority, whilst increasing the wealth and power for a few?
Yet how is it possible to take heed from theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s sliver of light of a solution, that of depressive withdrawal from the outpouring of unpaid immaterial labour, when the survivalist instinct becomes so strong under austerity politics, and much of the mind’s energy is consumed by the feeling that it is either ruthless egotism or die? People are overwhelmed by pressures to do this, do that, in the hope that something may come to fruition – but how can they stop doing this that the other? Yet it leads to a lack of space to even unwind, or socialise, never mind thinking about joining action groups/ideas camps etc. The vitality of Occupy, Uncut (even the riots) in 2011, seems almost unimaginable after only 3 years.
Yet, I wouldn’t be writing about my own predicament, about feeling so trapped in a contracting room, if I felt there was a solution at hand. My remaining mental and psychological energies are given almost entirely devoted to making my artwork, and keeping things like this blog. Maybe that’s taking an easy route, but that’s where my remaining energies are driven, impulsively. Obviously I do feel the need to apologise for this. I always find working in groups knocks all my confidence, and makes me want to return to what I feel I do best, because I feel so alienated, at odds and only able to give negativity. But my negativity is the kicking, screaming secretion from the emotional labour hijaccking of The X-Factor Society. My artistic response is my refusal. But it’s hardly a solution.
Much of the time I believe my impulses are certainly more libertarian. But I don’t see a left-leaning libertarian reality on the horizon. And I think any calls for one would unfortunately turn towards a violent right wing libertarianism; how, after 35 years of social Thatcherism could it go any other way? In fact it is arguable that this is what the market fundamentalist project is anyway. Do more anarchistic ideas unfortunately intensify its hold on the social? Does anarchism conversely need what Eric Fromm said was a freedom from, a support system that lifts all out the hardships which make a free life physically impossible, that a socialist democracy would allow, for it grow and flourish?
Additionally, here in the UK, will appeals to individual awakening and activism from grassroots movements ever be able to challenge an established media apparatus, with a power to constantly heal scars and absorb opposing things into it’s ‘reality management’ for the powerful? I can’t see how grass movements can survive and not find themselves repeatedly drained of energy/resources without a kindred voice in the mainstream of politics and the media that can help them, maybe meet them half way.
I’m currently attending meetings to try to establish the Green Party in my home town, a town where disillusioned voters, who feel betrayed by the Labour party, are more likely to be attracted by the scapegoating misleading-quick-fix lies of UKIP/The English Democrats etc. The Green Party’s policies are greatly in the interest of the majority of this town, yet public perception still largely sees the Greens as lacking social policies, and being out of touch middle-class sandal-wearing tree-huggers. The party’s biggest task is to rise into the mainstream arena, and change their perception in the public mind, whilst also, like Owen Jones, being present in the mainstream to challenge to dominant beliefs/prejudices.
In truth I struggle to bring anything to the meetings, except by thus far just showing my support by being there. I don’t think I could ever feel belonging to anything like a party or group, it’s just not me. But rather than treating these things like an allegiance to a football team, isn’t it better to see the Green Party as a vehicle from which to implement actions? To anarchist, anti-reformists and the like, I stress to point out that I don’t see any party as a means to and end, but as a vehicle. Maybe a Trojan Horse vehicle, but maybe that’s what we need: a reverse on Thatcher’s Trojan horse assault on the then social democracy. Theorist Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life writes about how we now look back at the social democratic project (that ran from 1945 to the 1970’s) as a finished project – that it tried, failed and didn’t work. What if Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s across the Atlantic) Trojan Horse trick on the people for the benefit of the capitalist class never succeeded? Perhaps one of the many other routes out of the then-crossroads dilemma of the turbulent 1970’s had been taken? Perhaps it’s time to go back to the future, rather than accepting the future has ended, and that we’ve just got to make the best of it? Because, as our X-Factor society shows, we’re not making very much at all.