Tag Archives: capitalism

The Commodification of America

Artwork by Banksy. Photo by Chris Muniz.

Editor’s note: Guest writer John T. Marohn (@johntmarohn) was kind enough to allow the Project to republish this excellent piece on the commodification of America, wherein he asks the crucial question: “Is America for sale?”

Mr. Marohn is a retired college teacher, a freelance writer, novelist, poet, socio-political commentator, international film critic, and recovering alcoholic. John currently lives in Buffalo, New York. Please visit his website: Against the Grain.

“Business — that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money.”
– Peter Drucker

“The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits.”
– Milton Friedman

“First amendment never shows why freedom of speech…did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”
– Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission

There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.

There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.

There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.

And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States.

Who would have thought that we could have moved from an innocent laissez-faire economic model that still works well in the small local merchant world to a sprawling octopus of big-business and global corporatism running through every artery of our society.

Is America really for sale? It seems so.

I live in a small urban area in Western New York. Almost every day, I stop at one particular intersection that has a long wait at the traffic signal (there are at least six or seven traffic lanes the traffic light has to accommodate). If I’m in the south lane of traffic, I get a chance to see one billboard, conveniently placed on top of a two-story building.

It is always an ad about a particular hospital. The latest ad makes the claim that the hospital successfully treated more strokes than any other hospital. I wasn’t sure whether the hospital meant that stat to apply to the whole world, in Western New York, in the state, or throughout the United States.

I was not comforted by the fact that the hospital is scheduled to close within a year. I could only assume that, before the hospital goes down, it wanted to make one last foxhole effort to redeem itself from anonymity.

I also suppose that if I felt a stroke coming on, I would quickly flash back to my intersection stop, the billboard sign would pop up in my Pavlovian mind’s eye, I would call 911 and have the ambulance take me to the hospital’s emergency room. Ah, the power of advertising.

It is impossible to escape ads on television. The pharmaceutical and health-care industries are two of the many blatant users of the television ad industry. Marketing, of course, is the name of the game.

Image courtesy of semissourian.com

And marketing is not so much about “actual” competence as it is about the “image” of competence. Americans are supposed to believe, in theory anyway, that if an ad, especially a big billboard ad, says a health-care provider is good, then it must be true.

My point here is that the commodification of the health care industry is not just about health insurance premiums, deductibles, copays (all business terms, by the way); it is also engaged in the pro-active marketing industry.

And the commodification of health insurance is so widespread that Americans begin to believe that the privatization model is the only model that has any credibility. It becomes extremely anxious about even discussing Medicare-for-all paradigm because the health insurance industry controls the narratives in employer-sponsored health insurance policies, in the group plans strategy, in television and other media advertising, and in the lobbying halls of Congress.

More tragically, the health insurance industry completely dominates the “language” of health insurance with all the business panoply of words that have crept into the American vocabulary—premiums, deductibles, plans, copays. One can easily say, that the health insurance industry, through its control of the health insurance language, has made it almost impossible to think outside the box.

Americans have bought the insurance model for health care, not just because it is necessarily better model, but because, in theory, it is supposed to “insure” the patient that they won’t be saddled with a financial medical burden. That is the purpose of insurance: to protect a consumer from financial ruin by having an insurance plan. And the insurer hopes that not everyone in the plan needs to cash in at the same time.

However, “insurance” is a business. Businesses need to make a profit. Profits cannot take a back seat to expensive medical procedures that have the potential to put them out of business. So, you can be sure, a profit-driven company is going to do everything it can to scrutinize, stop, or delay a payment to a doctor or a hospital, especially if a procedure does not appear to be “cost-effective.”

Insurance, as Americans have come to know, is definitely a business. It is very much like having a debit card. A customer puts money into the premium. The premium is stored with other customer premiums. And the insurer holding those premiums pays a doctor or a hospital from those premiums after reviewing the doctor or hospital’s bill for a procedure, an office visit, an operation, or a test.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Now credit, on the other hand, is another model that a consumer can use to pay off a medical bill with a credit card, if they don’t have the cash or their insurance deductible is too high, or they don’t have any insurance. Of course, a credit card is also a very expensive way to pay off a medical bill because of the monthly interest charges

Credit, the more sophisticated capitalist term for money that’s available to borrow, has also crept into the higher ed business. Students generally take out loans from the federal government or a bank. The total amount of those loans has begun to rise in the US and graduating students are now confronted with a jobless work environment and a student loan to pay off.

What about politics? Well, the evidence, to most Americans is pretty well known. Lobbyists spend an awful lot of money in Washington to plead their cases. And the corporate world has now won a victory with the Citizens United case which allows corporations, unions,and non-profit political fronts to pour unrestricted amounts of money into media advertising. This, of course, is a variation of buying influence. After all, campaign money is not just about supporting a candidate; it is also a way of trying to convince a candidate to vote a particular way.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about a capitalist/corporate/business-model system that is out of control. When politicians can be bought, when health care has become a very expensive business, when our college education system has become burdened with rising student debt, when some of our prisons can be owned by shareholders, when the business model of running a country has seeped into the country’s pores, on all levels, this younger, very articulate group of protesters are beginning to see how deep and wide the cracks in capitalism really are.

Let us hope that we can find alternative ways to vote on public policy in America, to educate our youth, and to give reasonable health care.

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Al-Jazeera Presents: The Men Who Crashed the World (Part 1)

“The crash of September 2008 brought the largest bankruptcies in world history, pushing more than 30 million people into unemployment and bringing many countries to the edge of insolvency. Wall Street turned back the clock to 1929.

But how did it all go so wrong?”

This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (3.0) by Al-Jazeera English.


In Praise of the Artist: “The Artist as Worker”

I happened upon this inspiring, brilliant and dare I say righteous piece completely by accident. Lisa Miles (@lisamilesviolin) has written an essay that captures what it means to truly be an artist, noting that during the age of FDR and the Works Project Administration, artists very nearly came into their own as workers in the eyes of American society. And in so doing, they created socially and politically relevant work, unlike much post-modernism, the bulk of which was and continues to be politically neutered and irrelevant to the pressing social and political issues of our time. Artists are survivors. Lisa’s piece also makes the point (perhaps indirectly) that life should be about loving what you do for work. I know an idea like that is a luxury in today’s economy, but I think we as a society need to start making work more than just a means to make a living. Capitalism has marginalized work to fit a bottom line, instead of making it something as meaningful on not just an economic level, but a spiritual and emotional one.

I’m proud to bring Lisa on board the DGP, as she’ll be an occasional contributor now. I hope you enjoy this essay. Please consider visiting Lisa’s website, where you’ll find other great writing and artistry.

:::

The Artist as Worker

The scare and struggle surrounding a person’s livelihood has suddenly become common denominator in this country. Workers simple and schooled, both with equal pride, have faced significant questions about the integrity of their professions, let alone the viability of their chosen occupations. Auto workers and bankers looked for signs last year– newfound public appreciation or government help spurring sales, confidence in the market, or perhaps literally the blinking exit to another arena to save face.

One group of professionals has continually weathered this storm, however. The nation’s artists. As to whether it makes it any easier to ride out, when many are now suffering, remains to be seen. But due to their strong sense of identity (and the fact that they are used to being poor) they will come out the other end intact– more than can be said of other occupations.

Artists as workers is a concept still un-embraced, despite FDR’s inclusionary attempts with the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Artists almost flourished for a small time then. Notice the talk is of artists, here– not so much art organizations. (Much could be written, with artist testimony, on the questionable support of arts organizations to this nation’s actual individual artists.) This definition includes but is not limited to musicians, theatre artists, filmmakers, painters, writers, sculptors, poets, dancers, storytellers, photographers, composers, performers and illustrators (and especially the independent ones, creating new, not derivative, work).

Like the nation’s newly unemployed or underemployed, creative artists are constantly searching for work, looking for viable opportunities for their skills, remaking their roles to fit current needs, and struggling to make ends meet.

Some of the more successful artists are simply blessed with being more resilient and lucky. All those with genuine talent, though, and with an accumulated body of work (albeit little money) have an integrity that can not be swayed externally from their already fragile position. All deserve a better lasting situation in our American society.

The most visible products to come out of the WPA were the bridges and public park structures that many Americans are familiar with, so much in evidence still to this day. But the WPA had many subdivisions, one of which was the Public Works of Art Project, or Federal Arts Project. Its subdivisions were the Theatre Project, the Writers Project, and the Mural and Easel Projects. Produced in cities all across America were new works for the stage, writing both creative and to chronicle, and easel paintings, lithographic prints, posters, watercolors, murals and sculpture, plus more.

Works were made for and distributed to public schools, libraries, planetariums, city and county buildings, housing authorities, garden markets, post offices, park structures, and other tax-supported institutions. It was indeed a ‘shovel-ready’ project (or rather brush and pen) that utilized talent to meet need. Governing bodies other than the WPA partially funded the work. City and state governments and colleges were on board with the creative-economic collaboration. Private recipients included hotels, homes for the elderly and banks.

Associated with the Federal Art Project were the Museum Extension Projects, which employed (as described by program material of the time) “research-workers, draftsmen, artists, sculptors, photographers, model-makers, and other men and women from the professional and technical groups.” Just a bit of material produced: “models of historic locomotives, frontier forts, historic buildings and mankind’s homes the world over, all built from scale drawings based on authentic research; plastic replicas of fruits and vegetables, reptiles, and topographic relief maps; costume color-plates; dioramas; and puppets and puppet play scripts and properties.”

The major uses of the products were as instructional aids, but also for cultural and beautification purpose, with so many public and even private institutions benefitting. Early American reproduction items were produced, to be included in both the Index of American Design and a book on Americana sponsored by the Library of Congress. Historical societies employed writers’ summary essays, as well as theatre artists’ conveyances, of items cataloged in their collections. The value of such vast creative output was deemed a necessity in the realm of public education and cultural betterment for all of society.

Though likely much of the work produced for schools hasn’t survived the touch of youth, time itself hasn’t dimmed direct evidence that the WPA’s Art Project positively affected our nation. Arts project output can be witnessed in natural history museum collections display, and in murals and canvas still visible in public structures of every city– nostalgic momentos of a brief time when public policy actually addressed artists’ dire need for work.

The Great Depression was devastating to most people, and yet ironically, creative artists found themselves considered for the first time with their inclusion in President Roosevelt’s project linking viable work with skillful individuals in need. The economic downslide actually helped– for once, a means by which creative workers could earn a living with their abilities!

FDR’s programs were intended to give not a handout, but an opportunity (previously unconsidered) to employ workers. Homer St. Gaudens, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, wrote in 1941 that the previous decade was one in which approx. 4,000 artists “were certainly in the submerged social strata. There was appropriated [with the WPA] a sizable sum with which artists, 90% of whom were to be on relief rolls, were [instead] employed at wages of from $69 to $103 a month.” (The American Artist and His Times, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co.)

Artists not only earned money for their basic livelihood, but gained a new sense of outward respect. Through the ages, they have either embraced self-worth or risked insanity. Now at least in the U.S. government’s eyes, artistic ability was finally seen as a viable part of society. Un-legislated individual viewpoints would prove much harder to change.

Former NEA Chair Jane Alexander spoke last year in support of the arts’ inclusion in President Obama’s economic stimulus package, on the heels of protestation by Lousiana Governor Jindal and others deriding what they did not want to understand. She of course well knew the increased stigmatization of the arts that took place in modern-day America at the time of Reagan’s de-funding of the NEA. Her words were significant, stressing the need and value of the country’s artistic output. For though FDR was mindful of the economic suffering of artists in addition to blue-collar workers, possibly enabling the general public to better understand their plight, any public good will would be soon enough squashed (as the Federal Arts Program would hit political pressure and the economy bowed to war).

The opportunity now in 2010, as we pull ourselves out of the Great Recession, is for the work of artists to take a new place in the economy. Discussing the benefits of WPA-like support for creative workers is called for. As well, when business and industry pick themselves up and dust off, they will need to take on Edgar J. Kaufmann’s courageous call for art in commerce. He who utilized art’s beautification in his Pittsburgh department stores, as well as commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the masterpiece Fallingwater home, put out a call to muralists in a 1930 store pamphlet, and noted, “the fact that today we are the richest of nations places on us the added responsibility of giving greater momentum to cultural development than it has ever received from any people. Business and industry must accept a share of the responsibility which opportunity imposes.”

But let’s face it– most skills bring money in good times. Creative work has never, really. Dancers, writers, composers, painters, actors and more struggle every day to make a living. Creative artists, like all people, need work in order to survive. It is a terrible predicament to be good at something, to know you have a unique ability to do something that not everyone can, to even recognize that those abilities could creatively transform problems into solutions and certainly should have a place in our society– but to see little prospect of work.

All artists need opportunity to earn money utilizing their talent, doing what they do best. (This should be as much the American Dream as home ownership). That opportunity can be in so many forms, including (the very overlooked) schools and institutions hiring professional artists en masse for residencies; people hiring live musicians, esp. those writing original work (not simply derivative top 40 pop); community businesses adorning their walls not with usual-fare ‘doctor’s office prints’ but the work of local painters; performers and sculptors being commissioned to create for public and private enterprise; and grants and fellowships being awarded to individual artists who have a body of quality work to show the world, with more waiting in the wings.

In order for there to be work for artists, some subsidy may need to happen. In our land of plenty (should we be able to call it that anymore), it is certainly a shame that artistic ability has never garnered better wage. We have found our way around tremendous problems (and now stare at more daunting ones), and yet we have never tackled the idea that cultural work is indeed still work. That creative workers shouldn’t be always expected to live in poverty due to the (lack of) valuation of their skill.

For sure, artists got through, however narrowly, the slump– whether tagged recession or depression– intact. But they have always needed more than that just to get by, far beyond the here and now of common economic suffering. It is rather simple, really. Artists need to be employed– with consideration given to the full meaning of that word. Something with lasting impact is called for. Whether it be the jump-start of a Federal Program, or simply a long-deserved recognition and understanding from the rest of the country, spurring on employment opportunity. For indeed artists are workers.