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Detail from Jasper Johns 'White Flag.'

Lewis Lapham: Of America and the Rise of the Stupefied Plutocrat

"The record will show the game securely rigged in favor of the rich."

By the end of the 1970s democracy had come to be seen as a means of government gone soft in the head and weak in the knees, no match for unscrupulous Russians, incapable of securing domestic law and order, unable to disperse the barbarians (foreign and native born) at the gates of the gated real estate in Beverly Hills, Westchester County and Palm Beach. The various liberation movements still in progress no longer sought to right the wrongs of government. The political was personal, the personal political. Seized by the appetite for more—more entitlements, privileges and portrait busts—plaintiffs for both the haves and the have-nots agitated for a lifestyle, not a principle. The only constitutional value still on the table was the one constituting freedom as property, property as freedom. A fearful bourgeois society adrift in a sea of troubles was clinging to its love of money as if to the last lifeboat rowing away from the Titanic when Ronald Reagan in 1980 stepped onto the stage of the self-pitying national melodrama with the promise of an America to become great again in a future made of gold.

In 2018, the few optimistic voices at the higher elevations of informed American opinion regard the advent of Trump as a blessing in disguise, one that places the society in sufficiently dire straits to prompt the finding of a phoenix in the ashes, the best chance in two generations to resurrect America’s democratic life force. I like to think the same thought, but I rate the odds of rescue at 6-1 against.

Trump is product of the junk entertainment industry but also product of what Marshall McLuhan recognized nearly half a century ago as an “acoustic world” in which there is “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis . . . an information environment of which humanity has never had any experience whatever.” McLuhan’s Understanding Media appeared in 1964 with the proposition that new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” We become what we behold, and “the medium is the message.” Shift the means of communication from printed page to electronic screen, and they establish new rules for what counts as knowledge. The visual order of print sustains a sequence of cause and effect, tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. The speed of light spreads stories that run around in circles, eliminate the dimensions of space and time, construct a world in which nothing follows from anything else. Sequence becomes additive instead of causative, “Graphic Man” replaces “Typographic Man,” and the images of government become a government of images.

Infotainment is made with, by, and for machines. The sound bites come and go on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries. What was said last week is certain to be said this week, next week and then again six weeks from now. The ritual returns as surely as the sun, demanding of the constant viewer little else except devout observance. Pattern recognition becomes applied knowledge; the making of as many as 12,000 connections in the course of a day’s googling and shopping (Miller beer is wet, Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Rolex is not a golf ball), adds to the sum of wisdom, and the assurance of being in the know. The images of wealth and power signify nothing other than their own transient magnificence. Like the moon acting upon the movement of the tides, the idols of divine celebrity (Ronald Reagan and Madonna, Lady Gaga and Donald Trump) call forth collective surges of emotion that rise and fall with as little inherent meaning as the surf breaking on the beach at Malibu.

Among people who worship the objects of their own invention, money chief among them, technology is the knack of so arranging the world that one need not experience it. Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, Facebook page, designer dress or politician), the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the naming of things rather than from the making of them. The future is a product to be sold, not a story to be told.

McLuhan regarded the medium of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression of a thought. The constant viewer’s participation in the ever-present promise of paradise regained underwrites what McLuhan described as “the huge educational enterprise we call advertising.” Not the teaching of man’s humanity to man; the processing of exploitable social data by “Madison Avenue’s frogmen of the mind” intent upon retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and desire, ignorance and fear. Madison Avenue’s frogmen have morphed over the past 30 years into Silicon Valley data-mining dwarves equipped with more efficient tools to dig for gold.

Advertising is the voice of money talking to money, a dialect characterized by Toni Morrison in her 1993 Nobel Prize speech as “language that drinks blood . . . dumb, predatory, and sentimental,” prioritized to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege.” Which is the language in which we do our shopping and our politics. Typographic Man wrote the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address; Graphic Man elects the president of the United States. The media on the campaign trail with Donald Trump weren’t following a train of thought. Like flies to death and honey, they were drawn to the splendor and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of over-ripe celebrity.

The camera sees but doesn’t think, makes no distinction between a bubble bath in Las Vegas staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath in Palmyra staffed by headless corpses. The return on investment from both photo-ops is the flow of bankable emotion drawn from the dark pools of human wish and dream in unlimited and anonymous amounts. It didn’t matter what Trump said or didn’t say, whether he was cute and pink or headless. He was maybe short on sense and sensibility, but he was long on market share. The prosperous fool sold newspapers, boosted television ratings, campaigned as sales promotion for concentrated wealth.

The camera doesn’t do democracy. Democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard not because they are rich, or beautiful, or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens and therefore worth knowing what they say and do. The camera isn’t interested in cheap shoes on common ground; it prefers polished boots on horseback. Always a sight for sore eyes, the boots on horseback. The media pitched Trump’s campaign on the story-line the movie-going American electorate loves beyond all others—knight errant up against the system and the odds, rough justice in the trail-weary saddle riding into town to gun down the corrupt sheriff and rescue the God-fearing settlers, set the crooked straight, distribute a fair share of the loot to the shepherd, the schoolteacher and the storekeep. The casting of Trump as underdog outlaw hoisted him to the top of the leaderboard with robber barons Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, gunslingers Eastwood and Stallone, Mafia dons Corleone and Soprano. The comic book hero won the comic book election.

The motive for writing Money and Class in America in 1988 was personal. As indicated in the original subtitle (Notes and Observations on the Civil Religion), my quarrel was with the humbug I was heir to, not with a form of government but with a system of belief characterized by Upton Sinclair in 1918 as the “pecuniary standards of culture which estimate the excellence of a man by the amount of other people’s happiness he can possess and destroy.”

Sinclair was a muckraking journalist in America’s early 20th-century era of progressive political reform, famous for his 1906 book, The Jungle, describing the working conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. In 1918 he was talking about the consequences of World War I, attributing the collapse of a civilization and the deaths of roughly 40 million soldiers and civilians to the fear and stupidity of a European haute bourgeoisie paralyzed by the belief that money is the father of all things human and divine.

Sinclair thought the pecuniary standards of culture certain to destroy mankind unless held in check by democracy lived and practiced (as it was by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King), as the motion of the heart. Sinclair over the course of his lifetime published 100 books (poetry, fiction and polemic), and in 1934, campaigning on a Socialist ticket, was nearly elected governor of California. Ten years later my grandfather was still referring to him as a dangerous lunatic.

The motive for republishing Money and Class in America in 2018 is political. I share Sinclair’s mistrust of the pecuniary standards of culture, and in 2018 they are more heavily armed with the powers to destroy mankind than they were in 1918 or 1988. Consider the estimates of excellence that currently bring the cups of wine and ecstasy to the feasting of prosperous fools:

The estimate of excellence in the holdings in the nation’s banks, $13 trillion of other people’s happiness imprisoned in the golden bowls of lifelong consumer debt.

The estimate of excellence in the government’s security and surveillance apparatus, $47 billion a year to protect the American people from having thoughts of their own. The keepers of the nation’s plutocratic conscience declare the practice of democracy to be uncivil and unsafe. Entirely too many people in the room or the parking lot who don’t do what they’re told, and who must be carefully and constantly watched.

The estimate of excellence in Facebook’s market capitalization of over $400 billion accrued from the sale and resale of other people’s lives and liberties—their voices, fears and sorrows included in the bargain price for their likes and hopes and happiness. The oracles in residence at Google announce the dawn of a new day in which the human species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy, soars to inconceivable heights of machine-made intelligence, and achieves evolutionary union with things.

The excellence of Mark Zuckerberg is the excellence of Donald Trump, product placements of concentrated wealth but also embodiments of the spirit of an age convinced that technology is the salvation of the human race. Citizens of a world in which, increasingly over the last 30 years, it is the thing that thinks and the human being downgraded to the thing. We have machines to scan the flesh and track the heart, cue the GPS and the ATM, tell us where to go and what to do, how to point a cruise missile or a toe shoe. The optimists in our midst look to machines to revive and resurrect America’s democracy. They won’t.

What can be said about the big money can also be said about technology: it cares for nothing other than itself, collects and stores the dots but connects them only to other dots. Like money, technology neither knows nor cares to know who or what or where is the human race, why or if it is something to be deleted, sodomized, or saved. Siri, Watson and Alexa can access the Library of Congress, but they don’t read the books. Not knowing what the words mean, the bots can’t hack into the vast store of human consciousness (history, art, literature, religion, philosophy, poetry, myth) that is the making of ourselves as once and future human beings.

It isn’t with machines that mankind makes its immortality. We do so with what we’ve learned on our travels across the frontiers of the millennia, salvaging from the sack of cities and the wreck of empires what we’ve found to be useful, beautiful, or true. The historical record is mankind’s most precious inheritance, telling us that the story painted on the old walls and printed in the old books is also our own.

America’s democracy is founded on the meaning and value of words. So is the structure of what goes by the name of civilization. Silicon Valley’s data-mining engineers have no use for the meaning and value of words; they come to bury civilization, not to praise it. Bury it in the avalanche of an instantly dissolving present that carries away all thought of what happened yesterday, last week, 200 or 2,000 years ago. The losing track of our own stories (where we’ve been, who we are, where we might be going), is the destruction not only of the past but also the future. The consequence of the 20th-century information revolution is the same one the poet William Wordsworth ascribed in 1807 to the 19th-century industrial revolution.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

For the past 50 years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of western civilization that the finite resources of our planet cannot accommodate the promise of unlimited economic growth and greatness, aka the wish and touch of Midas. Too many people coming into the world, and no miracle of loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. The collateral damage—climate change, environmental degradation, unredeemable debt, extinction of species, pandemic disease, nuclear proliferation, never-ending war—suggests that if left to its own devices, the Dionysian god in the machine of creatively annihilating capitalism must devour and destroy the earth. Not with malice aforethought, but because it is a machine, and like all machines knows not what else to do.

The internet is blessed with miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. The strength of language doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm in 1993, “is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality—“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Our technologies produce wonder-working weapons and information systems, but they don’t know at whom or at what they point the digital enhancements. Unless we find words with which to place machines in the protective custody of languages that hold a common store of human energy and hope, we surely will succeed in murdering ourselves with our shiny new windup toys.

From the new foreword to the reissue of Money and Class in America, by Lewis Lapham. Courtesy O/R Books, copyright 2018 Lewis Lapham.

Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham
Lewis H. Lapham is the founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and the Editor Emeritus of Harper’s. His columns received the National Magazine Award in 1995 for exhibiting “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity,” and, in 2002, the Thomas Paine Journalism Award. He was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame in 2007. His books include Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, The Wish for Kings, Hotel America, Waiting for the Barbarians, Theater of War, The Agony of Mammon, Gag Rule, Pretensions to Empire, and Age of Folly.





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