The Spectacle And Its Managers
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
Spectacle: The one word that describes our times, our leaders and ourselves. As recent events in the global political sphere have shown, our society is reduced to an agglomeration of spectacles. A veritable strip club where our base instincts are revealed in an environment of pompous, cheering from one side and relentless booing from the other side. Where democracy has to take all its values off; bit by bit in order to survive or else it gets molested to death. Where the dignity of democracy is drowned in the vulgarity of wants; and the people being served are fleeced by the hosts. The house always wins, for at the end of the night, it is the profiteer, the stripper earns a wage and the customers, literally and metaphorically spent, are even more unsatisfied than before they came into the joint. The house, in our times, is the invisible hand; The free market. Our own problem child; one we neither have the courage to disown nor the doggedness to discipline. And it is this ‘market’ that is disrobing our democracies of their dignity.
The “strip show” of our civilisation is still on. While some of us feel jaded, spent and tired, others are just getting started. And it isn’t a “show” just to amuse; it’s a “show” to destroy; humiliate and annihilate democracy and every single ideal that went into its conception.
George Orwell imagined a world where big brother was the omnipresent authority. And big brother controlled every aspect of the life of the subjects that made the subjects human in the first place. In doing so, big brother rendered the very concept of the human obsolete. The idea of serendipity, the cornerstone of human ingenuity was eradicated through the precise control of the human experiences. People became both subjects and objects. Subjects for experimentation and objects for the projection of power. Orwell’s treatment of his theme was premised on the assumption that a section of the humans wanted to read, understand and reflect on their own condition and the possibilities of their emancipation from the condition. He saw hope both as a coping mechanism and an act of rebellion against the totalitarian order. Orwell was an optimist.
Aldous Huxley imagined a world where humans were inundated with so much information that concepts like truth and beauty would be rendered meaningless. The human condition would be reduced to a self-programmed triviality. Where meaning had no meaning, and where the human was a spoof of himself. Society would, therefore, be reduced to a charade. Huxley was a pessimist.
The choice we have is not one between optimism and pessimism, the choice we have is between two certain deaths. Between Slow asphyxiation and a brutal purge; for we have created and nurtured conditions of our own social, economic and cultural destruction.
We are the embodiment of a dystopian society, and our optimism and celebration of the dystopia will lead to our downfall.
We live in strange times. On the one hand, we stress over the rising tide of totalitarianism from autocrats and technocrats from among us. On the other hand, we engage in forms of consumption that result in the suppression of our own thinking capacities. I consume, therefore I am; the consumer of images that consume me.
From the creator of words and ideas, the human race has regressed into becoming a relentless consumer of images. The written word itself is now an image. The words we use to communicate are representations of our own image, projected onto the superficial definitions of our identity. Beyond that very instrumentality; words have no meaning. It is no wonder then that we are an era that invented the term “word porn’, for it represents our obsession with the obscenity of our society. A society built on the fat surpluses of images and the ruination of ideals and ideas.
Ideas are now simulations of the image of another image. The original image is the image of our beliefs, fueled by propaganda and shrouded by our politically correct duplicity and; our bigotry. The simulated images of our beliefs, political positions and our social leanings are merely cyclostyled banalities reproduced over and over again till they have no literal or metaphorical meaning. They are carcases of our collective consciousness. The known, decayed to the point of becoming the unknown.
The phenomenon of our social decay is often obfuscated in the cacophony of the noise our media discourse. There is no space for nuance anymore. All we get is either rhetorical buffoonery, delusional history or partisan propaganda. Watch any prime time television debate these days, and that’s what you will get out of them. But debates like those continue to be popular. For they have become one more avenue for entertainment. And entertainment is what the professional-managerial class, which forms a bulk of the news-watching audience wants. Pick up a newspaper, most of it is filled with partisan opinions masquerading as analysis. Numbers like murder rates are reported as absolutes and not as incidents per 100 or 1000 people. Populous states end up looking a lot worse than the less populous ones. And these numbers are then picked up to conduct debates which become completely one-sided, and the audience is played for a fool.
Another phenomenon that our postmodern society is obsessed with is Acronyms. They are continuously used to obfuscate real issues with rhetorical sophistry. Everything from the nation to agriculture to industry to humans is acronymized, and the emphasis and focus are always on the word and not the meaning. A society that reduces solutions to acronyms ought to be ashamed of its cognitive bankruptcy. But we celebrate it. As if reducing solutions to profound problems into acronyms validates our problem-solving expertise. A society full of problem solvers, who cannot distinguish between symptoms and root causes and between words and the contextual meaning of those words.
None of this, though, is anybody else’s fault. We, as consumers, creators and promoters of this obscene culture are to blame. We are doing this to ourselves, and we are amusing ourselves on the way to our own oblivion.
So who among us is to blame for this cultural epidemic? It is all too easy to blame the media, the politicians or the rich elites. It’s also easy to blame the academics and the policymakers.They have a role to play and benefits to earn. But the one group that always escapes the blame across the world is the one that makes the most noise and never accepts its own complicity, and its active curation of this epidemic is the one that calls itself the Educated Urban Middle class.
Who is the Educated Urban Middle Class?
It is pertinent here to define what the term educated urban middle class actually means. The modern usage of the term “middle class”, dates to the 1913 UK Registrar-General’s report, in which the statistician T.H.C. Stevenson identified the middle class as that falling between the upper class and the working class.Included as belonging to the middle class are professionals, managers, and senior civil servants. The chief defining characteristic of membership in the middle class is possession of significant human capital.In 1977, authors and political activists Barbara and John Ehrenreich defined a new class as “ salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labour…(is)…the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”; the Ehrenreichs named this group the “professional-managerial class”.They defined this class as being distinct from both the “working class,” from the “old” middle class of small business owners, as well as from the wealthy class of owners.This definition was significant because while it defined a social class in relation to means of production in the traditional Marxist sense; it also focused on the social function of this class. The social role of this class is primarily to act as regulators of the working class. They design the machines that impact the work schedules and the employability of the working class; they act as experts who determine the ways in which the working class can perform work activities, They manipulate the wants and needs of the working class, determine how and what kind of access to what kind of information the working class will have in the society and most importantly; mediate the conditions under which the working class transacts with the state. In doing all of this; the professional-managerial class wields tremendous power over the working class. The Ehrenreichs pointed out that this realisation of power then results in a mixture of paternalism and contempt on the part of the professional-managerial class and a mixture of deference and hostility on the part of the working class. This complex relationship then creates a sense of alienation between the professional-managerial class and the working class. This alienation is expressed in various forms; from class related crimes to hollowing out of once vibrant cities to electoral mandates.
Following the Ehrenreichs lead, I will use the term ‘Professional Managerial Class’ to refer to what we commonly call the ‘Educated Urban Middle Class’.
A New Kind of Human
As political events over the last three years in the world’s biggest democracies have shown, the Professional Managerial Class is increasingly alienated from the working class. And while we parrot the most fashionable economic terminology to disguise our disconnect from our fellow citizens, we do very little to understand the rumblings of dissent from the social underbelly.
Terms like globalisation, reforms, outsourcing and startups become proxies for an economic system that has become fundamentally totalitarian and coercive. The financial elite, helped by economists, policy experts and some academics have not only appropriated words, but they have also appropriated the meaning of those words. Words like disinvestment and deregulation are popularly thrown around as solutions to government oversight, while regulation and reinvestment are seen as problems in themselves and gradually eroded. Words like governance and development are used to disguise shallow understanding of administrative structures and policy implications. Terms like ‘tax relief’ which imply tax as a burden are constantly used. The word ‘subsidy’ is regularly used as a pejorative to denote handouts for the undeserving. All of these words and catchphrases are a regular feature of the commentary of the professional-managerial class. The professional-managerial class is increasingly becoming a tribe of talking heads, full of hollow catchphrases but devoid of substance. And since the professional-managerial class forms a bulk of the direct and indirect revenue stream for the media; it reflects in the media coverage of sociopolitical issues as well.
The professional-managerial class considers CEO’s as the new Greek gods of our times. And there is one for every aspiration. These CEO’s, emboldened by their celebrity status pontificate on matters of transparency and accountability; while their own organisations hide behind legal loopholes to avoid sharing information about their own activities. They talk about equality, while their own organisations practice the most subtle forms of coercion. They hold forth on the crisis of governance, while their own organisations manipulate financial numbers and avoid paying taxes. They talk about gender equality while discriminating against women at every level in their own organisations. They speak of the importance of family time, while their own unstoppable greed makes sure their own employees experience the shrinking of family time. It is no surprise that the elected head of one of the world’s biggest democracies is an ex-CEO. Donald Trump did not earn his celebrity status through advocacy for the working class. He became a celebrity playing the vile games the elites and the professional-managerial class play in order to keep their statuses intact in society. And now, most of the privileged class from both the left and the right is upset because Trump talks about the same section of people these elites and the professional-managerial class ignored all these years while the going was good for them. Trump was, and is them. He’s just more shameless and more brazen a conman the others are.
Who makes the CEO’s heroes? Not the unemployed foreman from the rust belt of the United States. Not the farmer in India who struggles to put food on the table while food grains rot inside government warehouses. Not the janitors who clean our office toilets or the security guard who dreams of seeing his children work at a facility he secures. It’s the professional-managerial class which turns CEO’s into demigods. A strange fandom which suspends morality for celebrity worship. And the celebrity is only worth worshiping if he or she comes with a Fortune magazine certified price tag.
This mindset, of glorifying financial success is taken to a level that it relegates all other measures of success. Having a happy and fulfilled personal life is considered less important than getting rich. This dogma is drilled into the heads of the unsuspecting children of the professional-managerial class every single day. Parents raise their children to be winners. They are encouraged to pursue those endeavours which yield the maximum financial gain rather than maximum personal fulfilment. Success has only one definition: Wealth. This dogma then leads to a culture where the car you drive; the house you own, the salary you earn and the products you use become indicators of how successful and happy you are. This isn’t merely a belief; it’s a world-view. A world where the worth of a human is reduced merely to his or her monetary value. Out of this world view comes the crisis of defining one’s morality. How do you define what is morally right when the entire incentive structure of the society is heavily skewed towards personal gain? Social relations get reduced to mere quid-pro-quos, and personal morality gets reduced to mere proclamations of vacuous righteousness. Pleasure is placed on a pedestal and sorrow, and suffering gets reduced to the margins to the extent that they become quarantined in the forgotten nooks of our consciousness. This is a civilizational crisis. And the ones who brought it upon ourselves is us; a new kind of Human. The Homo Avaricious; represented by the professional-managerial class.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his seminal work, The Brothers Karamazov diagnosed the pathology of our times: “The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
Pathologies of the Professional Managerial Class
In its greed to achieve economic success, the professional-managerial class crawls upwards; kicking those below it to gain momentum to get to the summit a lot quicker than it can by virtue of its own strength. The unabated suppression of the deprived by the professional-managerial class invites its own forms of retribution. Traditionally, this was always analysed in the form of crime and the migration of the professional-managerial class to sanitised suburbs. The professional-managerial class continued to believe that through its visible participation in selected social causes and its dominance of the sociopolitical discourse, it would be able to thwart democratic expressions of resentment from the rural and urban lower class. Every time the lower classes chose to express their anger and resentment in the form of electoral mandates, the wealthy and the professional-managerial classes appropriated these expressions through political funding, technocratic discourse, academic justifications and plain old sycophancy. So time and again, we have political leaders who come to power on the back of campaigns that address the issues of the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. But as soon as they acquire political office, they turn around and start implementing policies that benefit the elite and to a large extent, the professional-managerial class. But modern democracies, where power is divested in other states through their own elected assemblies, ensure that the control of systems of power is not uniform. The economically suppressed voters; often surprise the political and the economic elites and the professional-managerial class by rejecting the ruling political establishment in state elections. This creates a problem of discontinuity for the ruling establishment and its shepherds and forces them to think of ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’. One of the many ways the elites and the professional-managerial class have tried to address this ‘problem’ in India is to advocate for all elections, federal and state to be held at the same time. The underlying reason behind such a proposition is simple: National campaigns require substantial financial resources and media support. The best returns on investment on election-related investments (they are investments for corporations sponsoring campaigns) is to have all elections happen at the same time. Thankfully, it hasn’t received enough political or social support to become the norm and has been unsuccessful. The discontinuity and the inability to change election norms to suit their economic interest causes resentment in the elites and the professional-managerial class. This resentment is represented in various forms; from apathy to name-calling to protest against welfare programs to implicit coercion in the form of underpayment of dues for services rendered. This expression of resentment is then transformed into guilt. The guilt arises out of recognition of the fact that while the professional-managerial class advocates for compassion and empathy for the poor, underneath that mask it does everything in its power to undermine the freedom and dignity of the poor. In other words, it wants the poor to be taken care of; and intends to be the one to do so. It just doesn’t want the poor to exercise their power in ways that can undermine its own. This Ideology creates a sense of guilt within the professional-managerial class. This guilt is then instrumentalized in the form of charity.
The more the participation of the financial elites and the urban professional managerial class in the subjugation of the poor, the more the contribution to charity from them. Charity, for these people, has become an instrument of emancipation for guilt, not an expression of care towards the downtrodden.
Nationalism or Existential Crisis?
Another aspect of the new reality of our times is the rise of nationalism. I have addressed this issue in one of my previous essays earlier. But in the context of the elites and the professional-managerial class geared towards invoking the feeling of national pride and national exceptionalism in the professional-managerial class and the elites. For the poor in the village with non-existent or erratic power supply, the republic day parades or the independence day speeches and their visual wizardry have little meaning. For a child in the village where school infrastructure is medieval and teachers almost always absent, independence is an abstract concept. The child knows that his or her parents, farmers or indentured labourers will always be indebted to the local money lender or strongman and will never know financial independence till they die. For these people, concepts like freedom, equality and prosperity are merely empty words. Some amongst these people, who choose to go into the defence forces also understand that while the job gives them financial independence, it binds them into a system which is inherently skewed towards the officer class. They trade an unstructured and arbitrary system of subjugation to a structured system of subjugation.
The professional-managerial class, on the other hand, is rediscovering its love for the nation and of nationalism. This new found love has nothing to do with rediscovering the nation’s values and finding congruence between constitutional principles and one’s own individual principles. It is an existential crisis of the professional-managerial class and the elites. The professional-managerial class desires to lead a life where they contribute towards furthering the values of the nation and the constitution. This includes the values of both social and economic equality as well as gender equality. It requires the abdication of concepts such as caste, race, patriarchy and familial lineage which are interwoven into individual identity. The professional-managerial class and the elites feel scared to do so as it would render part of their self-identity irrelevant. The inability to live up to the nation’s values and the failure to give up personal beliefs that are antithetical to those values creates a crisis of resentment and impotence inside the professional-managerial class and the elites. Though the impotence is recognised, it is never accepted and corrected. From this conundrum, new kinds of pathologies emerge. These pathologies include the constant need to define something as foreign and villainous, the constant need to take some form of revenge, the constant paranoia about ‘threats’ and finally; the continued suspicion of people who talk about constitutional values. This leads to the constant need to find a ‘leader’ who can articulate these pathologies. The ‘strong’ in the ‘strong leader’ has nothing to do with moral strength; it has everything to do with articulating these pathologies into effective rhetoric in a way that it hides the real reasons behind the pathologies.
Sinclair Lewis, in his book ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ diagnosed the morality of the professional-managerial class. In Sinclair’s own words: “I’m a middle-class intellectual. I’d never call myself any such a damn silly thing, but since you Reds coined it, I’ll have to accept it. That’s my class, and that’s what I’m interested in. The proletarians are probably noble fellows, but I certainly do not think that the interests of the middle-class intellectuals and the proletarians are the same. They want bread. We want — well, all right, say it, we want cake!”
The professional-managerial class wants to have its cake and eat it too. It just doesn’t have the guts to say it clearly and honestly. It wants to do so relentlessly at the expense of the working class.
Unless it learns to hold the wealthy and itself accountable for its actions and; realises that its complicity in the subjugation of the working class comes at the cost of democratic values; the professional managerial class is implicitly sowing the seeds of the systematic obsolescence of our civilisation.
Perhaps the professional-managerial class still has a conscience.
Perhaps, there is still time.