Can personal and political intersect after Late Capitalism has commodified the radical?
My first serious girlfriend said that her motto—the creed which she lived by—was “go with the flow”—(indeed, it was her high-school yearbook quote). She was (and is) such a sweet person. Such a good person: kind, loving, patient, wise. But, truth be told, I remember being viscerally repulsed by her yearbook quote—and, since I was arrogant and obnoxious at sixteen, I probably told her as much. Probably said something really mean. Something I’ve conveniently forgotten. Regardless, I remember thinking that even though my life was a complete mess—even though I was flunking out of school, even though I was totally confused, even though I was angry all the time for no good reason, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life—I could, nevertheless, be sure of at least one thing: I did NOT want to go with the flow!
Much of my twenties were consumed by a quixotic (and, in retrospect, rather ridiculous) attempt to live a life less ordinary—viz., to go AGAINST the flow. But when I look back now, at all that crazy counter-cultural stuff I did, I find that the vast majority of it was shockingly ordinary. When I swap war-stories with people my age, after a few beers, we invariably discover that we’ve got the same twenty stories from our twenties. Buddy of mine calls them twin tales. Because they’re so hard to tell apart. Proper nouns being their only distinguishing feature. Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have swallowed. After all, the commonplace nature of my generation’s counter-cultural war-stories is hardly their most unflattering feature.
The worst thing you can say about us—the thing that many of my friends still fail to acknowledge—is that the crazy counter-cultural stuff we did wasn’t particularly counter-cultural. Nor was it particularly radical. As Thomas Frank makes clear in The Conquest of Cool (1997), much of what passes for counter-cultural behavior since the 1960s is, in actual fact, an integral part of the “flow” of consumer capitalism. So I guess you could say that I’ve been going with the flow for quite some time now, regardless of my intentions and pretensions. Even at the height of my twenties—when I was an obnoxious, self-righteous, left-wing vegan, with blue hair and tattoos—my individual-centered approach to social change pretty much ensured my complicity with Late Capitalism. As the poet Tony Hoagland puts it at the end of “Hard Rain” (one of his best poems):
“I used to think I was not a part of this, / that I could mind my own business and get along, / but that was just another song / that had been taught to me since birth— / whose words I was humming under my breath, / as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.”—Tony Hoagland, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010)
The personal isn’t necessarily political. That said, society does benefit when individuals decide to, say, quit smoking, get in shape, or learn how to control their anger. But the benefits accrue primarily to the individual in question. Those close to the individual—such as partner, children, family members, close friends—also benefit; however, outside of that sacred circle, the benefits are largely negligible. As such, trying to solve the world’s problems with a program of individual-centered perfectionism is like trying to solve the problems of the poor with a program of trickle-down economics.
If the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Late Capitalism’s greatest trick was to convince us that we could be radical without being political. The “one percent” isn’t threatened by your tribal tattoos, your hard-core haircut, your skateboarding, your edgy music, your veganism, your yoga, your recreational drug use, your bisexuality, your dreads, your piercings, your kinky taste in porn—or anything else you do by yourself (or with other consenting adults) in the privacy of your own home. You may see a radical subculture, but they just see another niche market.—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Photo: eye of einstein/Flickr