The Revolution Will Be Monetized: How Capitalism Devours Radical Movements

by Russell Dobular

In the long out-of-print “The Making of a Counter-Culture,” journalist Theodore Roszak argued that the 60’s-era left was greatly underestimating the ability of capitalism to co-opt their movement and sell it back to them. One example he cited was how Playboy had taken the sexual revolution and connected it to an upscale, sophisticated lifestyle. He was right then, and his insight still holds true today, extending far beyond Playboy. 

When we look at the beliefs born from 60’s radical movements that have survived down to the current era, they are exclusively limited to the ones that were not only compatible with, but in many cases, an improvement on American capitalism. The oldest line in advertising, after “Patronized by Caesar,” may be, “Sex Sells.” In the end, disposing of the prohibition on using blatant sexual images and themes to sell everything from soap to The Jerry Springer Show, was a boon to corporations and that’s why they framed that aspect of the counterculture in a positive way. 

Similarly, racism and sexism have always been bad for capitalism. Commercial peoples have historically been more socially liberal than theocratic or feudal societies, because capitalism depends on large numbers buying, selling, trading, starting businesses, etc. Mo’ people participating in the economy, mo’ better for the generation of wealth.

And so the civil rights movement is allowed to continue in various forms today, with the core assumption that sexism and racism are bad, going unchallenged outside of truly fringe corners of the internet. Even a Tucker Carlson, who is often accused of dog-whistling on those issues, isn’t really arguing for racism and sexism. What Carlson and others like him are arguing is that these things are no longer the problem the left is making them out to be. This point can be debated, but the idea that the conservative faction Carlson represents is arguing FOR sexism and racism, or challenging the idea that those things are wrong, is simply not true. In the end, Carlson is a capitalist. He has no interest in cutting off the spigot from which his frozen dinner wealth derives. 

But there were many other ideological touchstones of the so-called New Left that have been scrubbed from the narrative. Much of their revolutionary effort was aimed at undermining capitalism, and far from being theoretical, some ingenious real-world efforts were made to displace “the money system.” Labor exchanges were common on college campuses and in big cities; networks of people who would barter for goods and services. Both urban and rural experiments in communal living proliferated, and there was nary a leftist individual or organization that didn’t identify as some shade of socialist, Marxist, or Maoist.

But unlike free love and civil rights, these ideas were not compatible with capitalism. And almost as soon as Hollywood began treating these subjects, a formula developed:

Act One: Naïve idealist hooks up with commune, or radical group.

Act Two: Idealist is gradually disillusioned by the reality of their lifestyle, and beliefs (the leader of the group will either be portrayed as a fool, sucking others into an unworkable scheme, or alternately, an abusive narcissist).

Act Three: Now Former Idealist returns to conventional society, sadder, but wiser. See: Alice’s Restaurant, Fritz the Cat, Where the Buffalo Roam, Across the Universe; even Jenny’s storyline in Forrest Gump is lifted from the genre.

Today we can see this process playing out anew. The “revolutionary” movements of our era that are being embraced by the establishment and its mouthpieces in the corporate media, are the ones that can turn a profit. This is quite a bit easier for them than it was in the 60’s and 70’s, because to be anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-LGBTQ is now an elite position that’s been decoupled from any radical social or economic theory. It’s a snap for the powerful to glom onto these causes, using them as both profit centers and cudgels against legitimate threats. 

Want to smear a figure, or movement? Just accuse them of racism, sexism or homophobia, on any pretext. The pretext hardly matters in a world full of lonely, depressed, smart-phone addicted people, constantly on the lookout for the latest virtue-signaling opportunity. That was what they did to Bernie Sanders, and it’s what they’ll do to anyone like him who gets anywhere near the levers of power.

In this context, post-modernism and the academic disciplines that have arisen from it can be seen as the greatest boon to corporate profits and elite power ever to be conceived by the minds of humans. Anti-fact, anti-science, premised on the idea that reality itself is a social construct – people who have been taught to think this way are a marketing department’s wet dream. Or a totalitarian government’s. 

And the best part is the way all these ideas can be sold as rebellious assaults on the citadels of power, thereby satisfying the need for activists to feel as if they’re fighting for a cause and changing the world, when really, they’re just making the population dumber and easier to manipulate.

A few examples: 

When the majority are obese, telling fat folks (since all the libs are throwing around “folks” like they grew up on an alfalfa farm, I figured I’d appropriate it) they can look amazing at any size, is pretty appealing if you’re trying to sell clothes or cosmetics to the greatest number of people. But you aren’t sticking it to the beauty industry by promoting obesity as a lifestyle choice. You’re just opening up a new market. 

If children experiencing gender dysphoria are allowed to let it play out, studies show 60-90% will end up not trans, but gay. Not much money to be made in that, though. Now, making these kids dependent on a lifetime of hormone treatments, and possibly surgery – that’s where the big bucks are, or as Dr. Shane Taylor of the gender clinic at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville put it, in a now infamous video, “There’s entire clinics . . . supported just by their phalloplasty’s, and that is like, a fraction of the surgeries they’re doing. These surgeries are labor intensive . . . they require a lot of follow-ups . . . and they make money, they make money for the hospital.”

And that’s a big part of the reason why the medical establishment is working overtime to normalize the idea of applying extreme, irreversible, and life-altering medical intervention to a group that no one would seriously argue should be allowed to get a tattoo.

This is the same medical industry that has made a fortune pushing mood-altering drugs on children as a first resort, instead of suggesting completely free and ultimately safer options like diet and exercise for depression and/or hyperactivity. No filthy lucre to be had in prescribing less cheeseburgers and more sports though. Or in letting a population made up mostly of gays and lesbians come to maturity without their “help.”

And how would obscure crackpot academics like Ibram X. Kendi, or Robin DiAngelo get rich, except by ginning up racial resentments and tensions, then selling their “services” to corporations as a remedy?

Groups like the Black Panthers had an economic component to their activism-giving out free breakfasts to the poor and questioning the system that produced them. Today’s book tour activists diligently stay off those topics. Were they to broach them, their positive media coverage and consulting contracts would dry up pretty quick.

The Black Panthers feeding the poor. Maybe if someone were to offer Kendi or DiAngelo their usual fee . . .

This is why you’ll see a rainbow flag on the side of a Starbucks cup or on the Amazon website, but they’ll fight to the death to keep their stores from unionizing. None of this other crap costs them a nickel. Well, maybe once in awhile when they have to pay a race-hustling $1500-an-hour consultant to do a sensitivity training. But that’s just a rounding error compared to what they make selling it all back to the rubes.

A good barometer for gauging revolutionary ideas then: if it can be packaged as a color scheme that Meryl Streep might want to incorporate into the design of her Oscar night dress, you’ve been had, sunshine. 

When they ban the idea from their media, when they attack any politician who mentions it, when Hollywood pretends the idea doesn’t exist, when to mention the idea is career suicide for members of the professional class, when subscribing to the idea will get you driven out of academia, and when you have to be careful how you mention it on Twitter, lest you be banned: when all those criteria have been met, then you’ll know that you just might have stumbled onto an idea worth having. 

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Smash-and-Grab Looters are Exploiting Opportunity, Just Like Congress’ Stock Traders

by James Neggie

“My dad was a… petty thief.  Never could hold down a job, so, he just robbed.  Convenience stores, shops, small-time stuff.  One time, he sat me down, he told me something I never forgot.  He said, ‘Everyone steals.  That’s how it works. You think people out there are getting exactly what they deserve?  No. They’re getting paid over or under, but someone in the chain always gets bamboozled.’ I steal, Son, but I don’t get caught.  That’s my contract with society. Now if you can *catch* me stealing, then I’ll go to jail, but if you can’t, then I’ve earned the money.”

Mr. Robot, 2015

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” 

Balzac (as cited by Mario Puzo in The Godfather)

This holiday season, habitual cable news viewers couldn’t escape the corporate media’s steady supply of consternation, pearl-clutching, handwringing, and in some cases outright hysteria, about the wave of organized smash-and-grab robberies befalling high-end retailers this holiday season. Pundits on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News were of course quick to offer explanations from their partisan grab bags: unregulated big tech allowing the robbers to coordinate online, liberal D.A.s refusing to prosecute crime or impose bail, the erosion of the cohesive civil society, or the grisly endgame of the war on Christmas. Much of the hue and cry raised boil down to one overarching concern: if designer scarves and Louis Vuitton handbags aren’t safe from masked hordes of marauding looters then what is?

Nancy Pelosi, under pressure to denounce the robberies, called them “absolutely outrageous” and a product of an “attitude of lawlessness” that “springs from I don’t know where.” She went on to assert that “we cannot have that lawlessness become the norm.” 

Hmm. Where could such an “attitude of lawlessness” have come from? Well Madame Speaker, perhaps it has come from the very top.

As has been recently reported, some 52 members of Congress have failed to properly report their financial trades as mandated by the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, also known as the STOCK Act. When Pelosi was asked whether it was ethical for members of Congress to buy and trade individual stocks, she defended the practice by stating “We’re a free-market economy … they should be able to participate in that.” 

Very well.  But there is more than one way of “participating” in the free market.  One way is using privileged inside information you gain from public service to garner an unfair advantage against competing investors, and another is to smash open plate glass windows and grab merchandise.

When observers pointed out to defenders of the neoliberal status quo over the past three decades that wealth imbalance has created an unfair playing field in which small players can’t compete, they were simply dismissed for failing to see the “big picture.” For these Masters of the Universe, the global capitalist stage was some sort of primordial savanna where strong and fit firms could vanquish and feast upon the weak, and in turn create better services and lower prices for all consumers.  But when masked marauders employ tactical logic straight out of a real-life savanna (property belongs to those who take it), they are aghast.

In language that neoliberal defenders of capitalist enterprise will be familiar with, the perpetrators of the flash mob, smash-and-grab robberies are all independent economic entities acting in their own self-interest. So, what’s the problem? Every one of these smash-and grab looters can be considered their own personal corporation. As such, they are effectively CEOs. Well then, these CEOs have a fiduciary responsibility to their various stakeholders (themselves, family, landlords, creditors, and student loan servicers) to seek out, create, and exploit opportunities presented to them.

Success! You're on the list.

Now, the owners and shareholders of the retailers in question might object to the “aggressiveness” of these CEOs.  They are certainly guilty of running afoul of various “regulations” etc. – and please, just for a moment here let us interrogate why it is that when rich people break a law they are said to merely have “run afoul of regulations,” and when a poor person does, they have broken the law? Of course, the answer is that regulatory violations are usually met with a fine or extremely brief custodial sentence, while crimes could require lengthy imprisonment.

Insider trading isn’t simply “breaking a regulation,” it’s committing a crime.  But if members of Congress are caught, the worst consequence they can expect is a $200 fine. Struggling hand-to-mouth Uber drivers are fined more if they run a red-light in Manhattan. 

In general, white-collar criminals have never, and will never, see the inside of a jail cell. The masked marauders of this past holiday season, on the other hand, were all risking their freedom. But their economic circumstances are so dire that stealing a $7,000 handbag that can be resold online seemed to them a risk worth taking. Such is the aftermath of so eroding the economic prospects of people in their prime earning years.

In reality, we should be applauding their entrepreneurial initiative. Their elan.  Their acquisitional pluck! These smash-and-grabbers aren’t looking for a handout. They aren’t waiting for the government to mail them each a Hermès scarf – they are going out and creating opportunities for themselves.  

Incidentally, wasn’t it “opportunities” that politicians and pundits promised working people corporate interests would provide them given free rein? Perhaps the flash mob robbers were simply tired of waiting for the balancing arm of the free market to raise their boats.

Those who carried out the recent spate of smash-and-grab robberies had a few advantages: their numbers, their desperation, and a pandemic which allowed them to be masked and disguised without attracting scrutiny. They leveraged these advantages to their own benefit. In return, they create lower prices for consumers of high-end designer merchandise by selling their aggressively acquired goods on eBay. They create demand for private security companies and security guards while also providing work for plate glass window manufacturers and installers.  

Job creation and lower prices?  It looks like the next generation of American entrepreneurs have arrived.

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Photos: Ashraf Ghani, Concord Police Dept.

More Than Just a Climate Metaphor, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Skewers All Things American in 2021

by Keaton Weiss

Climate change isn’t a comet hurdling towards Earth whose sudden and dramatic impact hasn’t yet been felt. Rather, it’s a slow burn already underway whose effects become more and more intense every year as the planet becomes decreasingly habitable for us humans.

Because of this, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up doesn’t completely work as a metaphor for environmental catastrophe. It is however, an astute and scathing indictment of American politics and culture as a whole, and a biting satire highlighting the compounding institutional rot at the heart of our decline.

After discovering a celestial body on a collision course with Earth, an astronomy professor (an unusually but effectively nerdy and neurotic Leonardo DiCaprio) and his star pupil (Jennifer Lawrence) scramble to alert as many authorities as they can about this extinction-level event.

Neither the political nor the media establishments take them seriously in the beginning. But luckily, a series of political setbacks for the president leads her to the calculation that decisive action to stop the comet could be just the Hail Mary pass she needs to reverse her plummeting poll numbers just in time for the midterm elections.

And so, a plan is hatched to strike the comet before it enters Earth’s atmosphere, either destroying it entirely, or, at the very least, knocking it off its course and preventing it from hitting the planet.

The mission launches and appears promising, much to the relief of everyone in the situation room. Before it can be fully executed, however, eccentric billionaire and top White House donor Peter Isherwell enters and persuades the president to abort, citing the abundance of rare Earth minerals present in the comet. He suggests that rather than destroy it altogether, he and his team be allowed to mine it for its resources and break it up into small pieces that could be recovered once they land in the pacific Ocean.

Insanely reckless and patently idiotic, his idea is nonetheless embraced by the president, who calls off what looks like a successful mission and then entrusts Ishwerwell and his private company with defending the fate of the planet.

Isherwell, played by the perennially excellent Mark Rylance, is the film’s most interesting character. He’s not a maniacally evil psychopath who knowingly endangers the fate of the world to just to pad his bottom line. In fact at one point, he even takes offense at being called a “businessman,” preferring to see himself as an almost god-like overseer of human progress and “evolution.”

Isherwell seems more interested in personal aggrandizement than monetary enrichment. He’s an emotionally detached oddball savant, barely capable of looking another human being in the eye, whose random skill set just so happens to have made him one of the richest men in the world. He’s the kind of person who, but for his immense wealth, would never be taken seriously by anyone of influence. Because of his elite status and infinitely deep pockets, however, the political class feels the need to placate him – even at humanity’s expense.

If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is. Can similar things not be said for Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg? Remember when Jeff Bezos returned from outer space and suggested that we export heavy industry to the moon? Yes, that happened. In real life. Out of the mouth of a disheveled chess prodigy in Washington Square Park, this would be dismissed as delusional insanity. Out of Bezos’, it’s visionary.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Isherwell’s plan is as successful as one would predict it to be in order for the film to have any real teeth (if everything worked out and we all lived happily ever after, it wouldn’t be much of a satire, would it?).

In both the world of Don’t Look Up and our own, the grotesqueness of capitalism has been unleashed in ways that seem too absurd to be real, and has completely engulfed our political system to the point where solving any major problem – climate change, covid, or a comet headed straight for us – has become practically impossible.

For this reason, the film is less a straightforward climate allegory and more a broad condemnation of America’s overall dysfunction as 2021 comes to a close. As such, it’s easily worth the watch.

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Photo: Don’t Look Up, Netflix

It’s Time to Start Counting Deaths Under Capitalism the Way We Do Under Communism

by Keaton Weiss

“Amazon won’t let us leave.” These were the last words Larry Virden communicated to his girlfriend via text message before being killed when a tornado struck his place of work, an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, moments later. Virden was one of six Amazon workers to die that night.

Not far from there, in Mayfield, Kentucky, workers at a scented candle factory were threatened with termination if they went home to take shelter from the coming storms. Eight of them were killed when tornadoes ravaged the building.

Everyone acknowledges the tragedy of these 14 combined deaths, and most would agree that they were preventable. Few would go as far as to ascribe them to capitalism. But we should.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, if you’re the type to pick fights with your Republican uncle, it’s likely your advocacy for a modest social democratic policy like paid family leave was met with something like “You do know Communism killed 100 million people, right?!”

Unfortunately, your tryptophan-addled relatives who you deal with once or twice a year aren’t the only ones making this point. Pp-eds printed abound in many a mainstream outlet echoing the same message, which perpetuates peoples’ tendencies to attribute deaths under communism to communism.

This would be fair enough if capitalism were similarly held to account for its own exorbitant death toll – but it isn’t. By the same logic applied to assessing the harm that communism has wrought upon the human race, the combined 14 people who died in Mayfield and Edwardsville on the night the tornadoes struck died under capitalism and because of capitalism.

Amazon’s rules against cell phones on the floor kept workers unaware of the developing storm system until it was too late. Mayfield’s candle factory insisted on maintaining its 24/7 operations to keep up with holiday demand, and, once again, threatened to fire anyone who went home before the end of their shift.

Additionally, a text exchange verified by local St. Louis area news shows a driver alerting his dispatcher to tornado sirens in his area. When he asked if he could return to the warehouse for shelter, dispatch responded, “If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning.” Thankfully this particular incident didn’t result in death as the former two did, but it very well could have.

Of course, these decisions to push forward with business as usual even in the face of a deadly storm were made for no other reason but to maximize efficiency, productivity, and profit. Therefore, it is reasonable to attribute these deaths to the capitalist system that not only permits, but encourages, employers to maximize worker output under any all circumstances, often making little to no exceptions to account for their safety.

We can look to history to further compare the death counts of capitalism vs. communism (the Transatlantic slave trade and the European conquest of the Americas alone both boost capitalism’s total well into the millions), but the current pandemic itself offers ample perspective on the question.

The United States, the “richest” nation in the world and the only developed country on earth without a universal government-guaranteed healthcare system, leads the world in coronavirus deaths. And it isn’t even close. At this writing, the U.S. death count stands just above 800,000. In second place, with just over 600,000 covid deaths, is Brazil, which has been governed by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro since 2018.

To go back slightly further, The New York Times published a review of a book entitled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism on March 6, 2020, a week before the initial covid lockdown. It showed soaring rates of these “deaths of despair” over the past three decades among non-college educated workers, who struggle disproportionately with alcoholism, chronic pain, unhappiness, and, of course, inadequate healthcare coverage.

These are the very kinds of people who found themselves held hostage at Amazon’s warehouse and in the Mayfield candle factory this past week, even as tornado sirens sounded all around them.

Inevitably, some will argue that these recent examples of the Amazon warehouse and candle factory collapses are not problems of capitalism itself, but rather are the results of greed and recklessness on the parts of individual companies. This sounds awfully similar the argument that “true” communism has never been tried and can therefore not be fairly blamed for fiascos such as the famines under Stalin.

But if the mass starvation that resulted from forcing peasant farmers to collectivize against their will and ability can be blamed on communism, then capitalism ought to be the logical culprit when workers are forced to remain on the job during a tornado warning in order to keep the product going out and the money coming in, safety concerns be damned.

If we’re going to seriously evaluate these competing economic ideologies, it’s long past time we start judging them by the same standards and using the same criteria. The simple declaration that “communism killed 100 million people” tacitly assumes that capitalism has killed no one.

This obviously isn’t even close to being the case, and so it’s about time we start more fairly keeping score.

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Netflix’s ‘Maid’ is a Smart and Subtle Indictment of Neoliberalism

by Keaton Weiss

“We need somewhere to live,” says Alex to her social worker in episode 6 of Netflix’s Maid, “I’m on seven different types of government assistance right now, and I’m working the maximum amount of hours I can work without getting my benefits cut. But after food and gas and daycare co-pay, we have a total of nine dollars extra every week. . .How am I supposed to afford rent, even subsidized rent. . .How is this assistance assisting me?”

Based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, Maid is a drama series about a young housecleaner named Alex who escapes an abusive relationship with her alcoholic partner and struggles to create a better life for herself and her toddler daughter. Keeping afloat means carefully navigating an increasingly labyrinthine network of social and professional relationships while extracting as much assistance as she can from an impossibly complicated and bureaucratic “social safety net.”

Since the wait list for Section 8 is too long, Alex is offered TBRA vouchers, which are practically unusable as virtually no landlords are willing to accept them, given all of the red tape they would need to cut through in order to do so. Because of this, she’s forced to rent an apartment off the books and supplement her cheap rent by doing free yard work for the homeowner.

This scenario is one of many in the series that illustrates in precise detail the seemingly inescapable trap of poverty in America. A running tally of Alex’s bank balance appears on screen at various moments, including one when she goes into the red after being distracted for a brief moment at the gas station and unwittingly putting an extra gallon in the tank. She then has to ask another customer for the three dollars she over-pumped so she’s able to pay her bill and go home.

Throughout the show, people try and help her as best they can. Her friend Nate convinces an expensive daycare center to accept her daughter, and one of her wealthy clients hooks her up with a powerhouse family lawyer who tries to win her sole custody so she can move them both to Missoula, Montana, where she’s been accepted into a prestigious university’s writing program. But even these efforts are challenged in unpredictable ways. Residency requirements complicate her ability to receive tuition assistance at the daycare center. Washington State’s unfair laws regarding domestic abuse make Alex’s custody battle much more difficult than it ought to be. And because her college’s family housing program is only available under very specific and time-sensitive circumstances, Alex is under immense pressure to make the various moving parts of her life quickly come together, lest she forfeit her spot.

So despite the best intentions of many of Alex’s friends and acquaintances, their good will is hardly a match for the neoliberal system in which they live. Meager public assistance is doled out only to those who can prove their “eligibility” after completing mountains of paperwork and enduring demeaning scrutiny, and at the end of the day, everything is for sale. In perhaps the cringiest example, Alex is forced to pay six of her remaining nine dollars to the private daycare center to reimburse them for the pricey ice cream they bought her daughter earlier that day.

Towards the end of the series, when Alex is readmitted into her domestic violence shelter, she visits the facility’s “boutique,” a room full of donated clothes available free of charge. Alex, who has had to both toil at her low wage job and jump through endless hoops to receive welfare benefits in order to survive, is shocked by the existence of such a place where something is simply provided to those who need it, no strings attached.

It seems too good to be true, which is why, even in this space, blank price tags are placed on each article of clothing just for show, and the counter boasts a dummy cash register to make the space feel more “normal.” Nothing better illustrates the pervasiveness of capitalist hegemony and market-oriented “charity” than that the shelter feels a need to disguise this clothing bank as a commercial store in order to make its patrons feel comfortable. Because to be a recipient of such voluntary giving doesn’t seem “normal” to people in Alex’s shoes. Feeling “normal” means feeling like a consumer, a customer, a shopper.

Being that Maid is based on the autobiography of a now successful writer, it ought not be too much of a spoiler to say that things generally work out in the end for Alex. But instead of reveling in the peace of what is a relatively happy ending, the audience is baffled by just how incredibly and unnecessarily difficult her journey was. We also ponder how much harder it likely would have been were Alex not a white English-speaking woman; or were she not such a talented writer who got accepted to a Fine Arts school based on merit; or were she not mentally and physically capable of juggling her college applications, her work schedule, her government assistance paperwork, and her responsibilities as a parent.

Maid doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve. In fact, on a textual level, it’s decidedly apolitical. But after a fruitless months-long struggle to pass a robust “human infrastructure” package through Congress, it’s impossible to watch the show and not view it as an indictment of our neoliberal order in which a person’s worth is defined by their running bank balance, and even the smallest crumbs of assistance are so begrudgingly spared that they’re barely worth the time and effort it takes to beg for them.

An increasingly rare example of a work of art that’s as subtle as it is incisive, Maid is well worth watching and discussing.

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Photo: Maid, Netflix

Is Bubbles From ‘The Wire’ More Socially Responsible Than a Hedge Fund Manager?

by James Neggie

“McNulty: I’ve gotta ask you: if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away… why’d you even let him in the game?

Kid: What?

McNulty: Well, if every time, Snot Boogie stole the money, why’d you let him play?

Kid: Got to. It’s America, Man

Opening scene of The Wire, HBO, 2002

Every couple of years or so, I make it a point to rewatch one of my all-time favorite series, HBO’s masterpiece inner-city drama The Wire. A few months ago, I was studying the exploits of one of the most memorable characters of the show, Reginald Cousins, a.k.a. “Bubbles.”

Suffice to say that Bubbles is an endearing drug addict with a heart of gold who has an exceptionally poignant arc over the course of the series as he traverses from addiction to recovery. 

However, early in the series, before he achieves sobriety, Bubbles is sort of a wandering Taoist in West Baltimore seeking out ways to score cash or drugs (which for him are of interchangeable value) to feed his habit. He either happens upon, devises, or improvises several different schemes, scams, and ploys designed to yield him cash or drugs. 

He sneaks up on a rooftop where drug dealers are operating below him and with a fishhook surreptitiously lifts bags of heroin from a stash in an old tire; he scavenges scrap metal and discarded cell phones (with active minutes remaining) which he is able to resell; he takes advantage of an unattended ambulance while the crew is on a call to raid their store of syringes, needles, and liquid morphine.

This past binge was my fifth time watching the series when the thought struck me: Bubbles is a street-level, rapacious late-stage capitalist looking to turn circumstances to his advantage at a moment’s notice, heedless of any damage he may be wreaking on the social fabric around him. In fact, Bubbles has at least as much (and quite probably more) conscientiousness and ethical responsibility than real life capitalist speculators and financial operatives.

Let’s examine his scheme of passing counterfeit money to buy drugs from the Barksdale drug crew in Season One. Bubbles and his young apprentice Johnny make black and white photocopies of several $10 bills. Bubbles then goes about soiling the bills with dirt and coffee. After he puts together three fake $10 bills, he asks Johnny for “the real” (meaning the one $10 bill they had left between them). They were using a real bill on the outside to cover up the fakes. 

Including assets of real value along with others to cover and mask the worthlessness of other elements. . .Does this sound familiar? Sounds quite a bit like the mortgage-backed securities of the 2006-2008 era, doesn’t it? 

You remember those don’t you, the ones that nearly collapsed the entire world financial system? They famously featured some few AAA, AA, and A rated mortgages that were bundled with BBB and BB rated mortgages (which by the end of the subprime fiasco were as worthless as Bubbles’ counterfeit) and sold to unwitting pension funds as safe investments. Of course, Wall Street’s perpetrators were ultimately not held culpable for any of that mischief, whereas the consequences for Bubbles, and particularly his young protégé, are considerably more dire. 

Young Johnny is caught and beaten so severely that he is left relying on a colostomy bag. If only divine providence had visited that sort of retribution upon the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis.

In the penultimate season of the series, Bubbles partners with another young protégé from the streets, Jerrod, and the two operate a shopping cart mobile convenience store /peddling business he dubs “Bubbles Depot.” 

Personally, I see similarities between Bubbles growing his cart enterprise to Jeff Bezos and Amazon. The variable that comes into play in both cases is a reliant, time-pressed consumer base. 

Bubble’s business grows exponentially when he happens upon a rogue police-sanctioned open air drug market dubbed “Hamsterdam” featuring drug crews that cannot leave their location for fear of losing their spot to a rival crew, and thus are essentially stuck operating in place 24/7. They need T-shirts, socks, toilet paper, food, water and other supplies that they can’t go out and shop for. 

So, Bubbles has a captive clientele that needs him to bring the necessities of life directly to their front stoop. Similarly, even before the pandemic, the working poor in this country were well beyond the 40-hour work week and had ventured in some cases into the 70 or 80-plus hour a week range. As a result, they have little choice but to rely on the convenience offered by Mr. Bezos and Amazon. 

Although they might be cognizant of its deleterious effects on their wages, working conditions, and the health of manufacturing and retail industries, they are pressed by absolute need for convenience and lower prices. Just like the drug crews stuck within Hamsterdam need Bubbles, so too do America’s working poor need Bezos.

Bubbles is definitely more socially responsible and ethical in his worldview than Mr. Bezos in one vital way: he pays his taxes. After being arrested for shoplifting, he is told by the series lead McNulty that he is going to have to “pay taxes on this,” meaning that he is going to work off his debt to society by acting as a paid police informant. When his young friend Johnny tries to talk Bubbles out of it, he insists that everyone needs to pay their taxes. This is a life lesson and outlook that is most sorely needed by the 1%. 

In fact, I really must apologize to the fictional character of Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins for my unfair comparison of him to the rapacious capitalists currently wreaking havoc on our non-fictional reality. Bubbles’ victims are largely drug dealers, slumlords whose scrap metal he loots, city budgets that bear the brunt of pilfered medical supplies, and chain retail establishments whose goods he shoplifts. He never engages in any activity that particularly hurts working and struggling individuals. Certainly, he never holds employees to such a rigid time frame that they stroke out or can’t find time to urinate as they struggle to keep up with a pace designed to optimize profits.  

Bubbles’ excuse for his crimes is that he is addicted to cocaine and heroin. Our current capitalist operatives are likewise addicted; they are addicted to marshaling and leveraging their resources to accrue money that they haven’t worked to earn. 

By the end of The Wire, Bubbles has overcome his addictions and found redemption. But for Bezos, Musk, Gates, et al, it doesn’t seem as if anything short of pitchforks and torches followed up by several years of Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions are going to lead them to similarly change their ways.

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Why the Capitalist Class Got Caught Off Guard by The Current Wave of Labor Strikes

by Keaton Weiss

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

You may not have been familiar with that quote until now, but it’s more likely that you’ve seen this viral image of a striking Nebraska Kellogg’s worker holding down the picket line in the pouring rain:

Though arguably the most determined, he’s hardly the only American worker emboldened and enraged enough to finally assert the value of his labor against an increasingly petulant capitalist class whose refrain these past six months has been “No one wants to work.”

Of course, recent and ongoing strikes like those at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, and John Deere (just to name a few), aren’t organized simply because employees no longer “want to work,” but because they no longer care to work in lousy conditions for lousy wages.

Their newfound defiance has taken employers by surprise, as many business owners expected that a “return to normalcy” was upon us as vaccines found their way into the arms of millions of Americans, and businesses began to reopen after a year of lockdowns and quarantines.

During such time, as was pointed out quite often in conservative circles, many workers were indeed making more on unemployment than they had been at their jobs. The additional UE benefits allowed millions of working class people to put food on their tables, pay their bills, and maybe even have a few bucks leftover, without having to toil at exhausting dead-end jobs for most of their waking hours.

Once padded unemployment checks and eviction moratoriums could no longer be taken for granted, owners and managers across the country assumed that their employees would have no choice but to return to work, and that over these next few months, things would start to look just as they did in February of 2020.

But what the capitalist class didn’t realize is that while they were itching to get back in business during the still and silent period of the coronavirus shutdowns, many of their employees were finally getting a taste of what life is like without the physical strain and psychological stress of working 60 hours a week for $11.50 an hour and still having barely enough in the bank to make rent at the beginning of the month.

Having been afforded some time away from the daily grind, the working class was finally given the opportunity reflect on whether such a seemingly endless and inescapable struggle ought to be their destiny.

This period of introspection, combined with headlines reporting “labor shortages” and “supply chain issues,” has led workers to realize that they do in fact deserve better, and that circumstances have aligned such that better work in better conditions for better wages are all demands that they are better positioned to leverage than ever before in their lifetimes. And they’re seizing the opportunity.

The virtues of capitalism once seen as virtually “divine” are now being exposed for the lies they’ve always been, as this supposedly unimpeachable economic system is unable to dig itself out of the hole its found itself in.

After all, the obvious market-based solution to a labor shortage can be summed up using simple supply and demand logic: the higher the demand for a product or service, the higher its price. But rather than satisfy such a demand by increasing wages, the ownership class is choosing instead to cry foul at the very system they’ve exploited their entire lives, and falsely complain that “no one wants to work anymore.”

And so while their bosses throw their tantrums, laborers are learning firsthand that despite the dominance of capitalist hegemony, as Le Guin said, “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” and they’re mobilizing to make these changes happen.

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