That the Lumpen Should Rule: Vulgar Capitalism in the Post-Industrial Age

By Buchanan, Paul G. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

That the Lumpen Should Rule: Vulgar Capitalism in the Post-Industrial Age


Buchanan, Paul G., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


The demise of left and right wing authoritarian regimes during the last two decades and subsequent rise of free market and pluralist-oriented philosophies have enveloped the globe in a sea change of political, social and economic reform. The most remarkable of these is the appearance of a nearly feral form of entreprenuership in which black marketers, drug barons, arms merchants, rackets bosses, Mafiosi, and other profiteers are emerging as the economic and political leaders of the social transformations underway in their respective societies. Their achievements have been praised, however inadvertently, by some1, and damned by others (most from the left2, but including neo-conservative moralists like William Bennett and George Will in the United States, to say nothing of television evangelists the world over). Regardless of perspective, this has become a time in which Lumpenproletarians have become legitimate social leaders, warts and all.

Think about the common denominator among Ivan Bosky, Tupac Shakur, George Soros, Notorious B.I.G., Rupert Murdoch, Snoop Doggy Dawg, Donald Trump, Don King, John McEnroe, Anna Kornikova, Dennis Rodman, Howard Stern, Coolio, Silvio Berlusconi, Dodi Al-Fayed, Rio favela gang leaders, Chilean arms merchants, Russian disco magnates, Hong Kong real estate barons, the children, grand-- and great-grandchildren of European nobility and self-- made Internet entrepreneurs alike, second and third generation Arab royalty, a cross-national section of narcotics kings, and all the other noveau riche prancing around the globe in their Lear Jets, Ultra Yachts and limousines (to say nothing of the wannabes). Their affinity is vulgarity, greed and ostentatious lifestyles. They are neither high cultured, traditional old rich or new innovators, but instead are backbiters and syndicators, currency and stock speculators, arms merchants, hustlers, money launderers, tycoons, spoiled children, carneys for prurient material and intellectual pabulum to the masses.3

Defined by consumption rather than productivity (remember the advertising slogan "image is everything"), and layered in cynicism ("image is nothing") these are the champions of the New World order. There are always exceptions. Perhaps Bill Gates, Richard Branson, the Nike founders, and a host of new Internet entrepreneurs contribute material gains to human existence (even if they exploit labor and resources in equal measure). Technological innovation and productivity in the hands of many business elites certainly contributes to rises in consumption, material standards and income-for at least the privileged classes worldwide. But even here they are the exception that proves the rule. And the question begs: whither the privilege?

For their part, the rapidly expanding ranks of subordinate groups (in many countries including former members of the middle classes displaced by the structural dislocations of the last decade) remain divided, materially debased, and individually consumed to varying degrees by immediate "survivalist" interests. This has given rise to a range of informal economic activities, from street merchants, sidewalk entertainers, buskers and "facilitators" to criminal gangs, all operating in an environment of declining civility and cultural degeneration.

New forms of ideological extremism and nihilism have entered public discourse. These are in equal part a product of historical amnesia and post-materialist angst, in which the return to primary group identification takes on immediatist, self-absorbed, atomizing, and social Darwinian characteristics in a context of increasing globalization of production. This is a vulgar form of capitalist social organization, one that is highly efficient, highly stratified, utterly competitive and often brutish in its cultural and political dimensions.

What is offered here is not the heroic vision of subaltern groups offered by some cultural theorists. Neither is it a nostalgic paean to classical Marxism or the possibilities of socialism, whose failures are too obvious to recount. …

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