Capitalism has long been defined by collars. Blue or white: collars have crudely demarcated belonging, status and position. A different collar is now taking on a defining role in contemporary capitalism: the crew neck. Like the collars that went before, this collar symbolises an underlying agenda and logic.
The major players in what has been referred to by Nick Srnicek as ‘platform capitalism’ embody crew-neck capitalism and its values. They eschew the collar and tie combination in favour of crew-neck comfort. This projects a certain image, of a non-hierarchical, non-commercial and carefree status. An apparently anti-elite elite is created that has positioned itself in a way that seems to render it immune to the anti-elite sentiment — it even draws its status from it. It aligns itself with such anti-elitism and so avoids becoming its target. It is not just that the capitalist’s attire has become more casual, it is that capitalism has taken on an appearance of casualness in order to distract from its behaviours, actions and authority.
Crew neck capitalism is about casualisation. Casualisation on all fronts. A casual adornment is symbolic of the casualisation of the relations of production and consumption. The nature of work and the nature of consumer interaction are embodied in the crew-neck. Crew neck capitalism promotes the idea that all labour, like its fashions, should be as casual as possible — hence the crew-neck reflects and somehow justifies the now familiar problems of casualised labour. The hyper-insecurity of the gig economy is the archetypal model here. The crew neck says that all work should be casual in style and causal in form . This casualisation of clothing is a veil for the collateral casualties of this form of capitalism. Alongside this, the style of the crew neck capitalist lulls the consumer towards a sense of comfortable acceptance and reassured engagement with their products.
The crew-neck itself is symbolic, it tells you not to worry, it says that they are one of you not one of them. Rather than being some distant money-maker, the crew neck capitalist likes you to think that they share your outlook and values. The attire erodes the sense of distance and veils power. It is more than a clothing choice by these powerful individuals, it captures and projects certain properties. A casualness of demeanour could well distract from what Zygmunt Bauman once referred to as the ‘collateral damage’ of capitalism.
The crew-neck capitalist can make off-the-cuff comments about protecting the integrity of national elections and no one will recoil in horror. Indeed, it can be seen as helpful of them to make such promises. They seek to be trusted with this bizarre and worrying level of power that they wield. They want you to feel ok about it.
A crew neck capitalist is fairly easy to spot. They usually run a large tech company — or they might be found in prototype form in smaller start ups or in those interloper companies that get bought up by the tech giants. The exit strategy is a valued asset of the nascent crew necker .
Most common with some of the biggest tech firms, this is a mode of presentation replicated increasingly in other types of companies. It calls out: I don’t need to dress for the job I have, because status doesn’t matter, I built it and now I just happen to run this thing.
But it is not just the clothing that matters, rather the clothing is representative of an approach, an image and a set of ideals. The casual tone and familiarity permeates down into our interactions with these companies and platforms. This tone is peppered across the interactions and points of contact that we have with crew neck capitalism. It is highly likely that we have all experienced the causal tone and over familiarity of an app or software update message, or we’ve received messages of Christmas or birthday wishes from a company that doesn’t know us, or we have faced the constant encouragement to tell them, our capitalists friends, what is going on in our lives. It is a learned unprofessional tone that eases us into a sense that no one around here is anything like a hard-nosed capitalist, no one, we are reassured, is in any way trying to exploit us. They just want us all to connect together to make a better world. They project the friendly facilitator type image, playing down the money, power and influence.
The casualness brings a kind of distancing from older more formal approaches, the new tech are not managed in those old ways, so they tell us. The tech leaders no longer see themselves as distant from their customers. Instead, the casualness in the clothing and tone is part of an attempt at giving an impression of a break down in hierarchy. They are no longer dominating us or managing the production of value from our custom, instead they are like us and they have the enhancement of our experiences in mind. At least that seems to be the message. Everything is about the user experience and how that can be enhanced, even where the notion of experience is itself used as a way to render acceptable the use of our data and the targeting of our lives.
The crew neck capitalist seeks to sell ideals, these are ideals or visions of a kind of pure or perfect experience that can be pursued in perpetuity. This future, which they assume we also want, stands as a kind of imagined perfect experience in which we are never disrupted, in which our social spaces are ever more tailored to us, where we encounter the things that suit us or that reinforce our identities. This pure experience that they promote as being our shared destination is, they imagine, free from malevolence and subversion, it is exactly, they suggest, as we would want it to be. A perfect and perfectible social environment where all they are prioritising is our experience. That is the vision of the crew neck capitalist. They make out that our experience is central to everything and that serving that experience is their calling; the rest, it would seem, falls into place in response to that calling. Their mission, far from being economically driven, is simply to remove the impurities from those experiences and to make them increasingly pure. The notion of experience becomes a powerful part of the rhetoric of the crew-neck capitalist, it is the thing they fall back on to justify and legitimate their every action.
Overall, their T-shirts tell us not to worry for they are one of us rather than being one of those other exploitative capitalists. It is important not to be distracted by their casual attire or their informal tone, these techno-capitalists mean business. And their business is to turn our lives into economic value. This model of capitalism requires a casual faux-familiarity because it is reliant on us sharing things with it and engaging with it on its own terms. These media demand intimacy, and so they need a familiar feel.
We find the casual tone of the crew neck capitalist all around us in our platform culture, we hardly even notice its presence, it has already become too familiar. We are often addressed in a kind of ironic or playful tone, a tone intended to make us feel at ease, like we can trust the platform and like they are one of us, providing the things we want, sharing our values and having our best possible experiences as their goal. They often assume that we share their ideals or their visions of a desirable future. When we hear casual discussions of purer experiences, perfect convenience or growing connections, the question we could ask the crew-neck capitalist is what they are using that pursuit of a pure experience to achieve. It may well be used to justify some attempt to extract more data or to make some form of surveillance and targeting seem like it is in our best interest.
The Data Gaze: Capitalism, Power and Perception will be published in paperback and ebook on the 8th of December. It can be preordered now from the usual outlets.