16 May 2011

On popular culture, state and market

John over at Economics is for donkeys has an interesting article up on the cultural impact of communism on popular culture. In many ways, his approach rings true: the cruelty, crassness, blandness and slovenliness of American popular culture can be attributed more to the appeal to the lowest common denominator common among advertisers and marketers, than it can be to the political attitudes of academics and celebrities.

(A brief side note: among the many reasons I enjoy heavy metal is that it appears to be the one subculture / genre of popular music which has consistently and rigorously upheld and respected its own artists’ visions no matter how weird or subcultural they get, and in a strange, misanthropic way treats them as human beings rather than as mass-market products and slogans. This may be because heavy metal arose largely, as Rob Halford interprets it, as an angry reaction against the societies led by Reagan and Thatcher, which proclaimed their own righteousness while unapologetically steamrolling over the needy. Iron Maiden’s ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’, in which Bruce Dickinson raged against Cold War brinksmanship politics and modern society’s cruelty toward the poor, or Geoff Tate’s angry rants on Operation: Mindcrime against TV preachers and corporate giants with Swiss bank accounts banging secretaries who then go on to pander to Penthouse and Playboy for fame and fortune, very much captured the Zeitgeist. Sadly, both still do.)

However, I think John’s view that ‘social conservatives… miss the fact that it is the business world that creates most of our junk culture, not the government’ – correct in all essentials – might work better for being slightly more nuanced. State and market, though neoliberal ideology places them in opposition to one another, are intertwined and interdependent in all sorts of basic ways; I think it can be argued from a revised Hegelian-Marxist perspective that markets are not ‘spontaneously ordered’ so much as they are institutions which are actively formed in the wake of domination by political actors. So yes, you have teenyboppers, Transformers, Las Vegas (and everything it stands for), Donald Trump, Paris Hilton and Walmart standing as gross examples of our ‘junk culture’ promoted by the business world; but on the other hand, you have a government which has been clearing a space for all of the above, by a.) consistently neglecting or actively cutting its endowments for the fine arts; b.) creating and selectively supporting schooling systems which consistently value ‘business’ education and vocational skills over a more holistic and virtuous civic, artistic and liberal education. In the absence of such an education, corporate marketers will find ways of convincing the public that they want what they do not need, and even what will harm them.

But John’s blog is always worth a thorough read and a thorough think – I find he’s often on the right track.


  1. Hi Mr. Cooper,

    Thank you for the write up. I am very sorry that I did not visit your blog earlier. I agree with you regarding the relationship between the market and the state, especially when it comes to the funding of the arts and the denigration of more holistic educational systems.

    Sadly, with the recent recession and the problems many graduates will confront entering a bad job market, I believe there will be more calls to eliminate supposedly “impractical” fields of study such as art and music.

    I also agree with you regarding heavy metal. While I am not a fan of all subgenres of metal, at its best heavy metal is very satisfying, and not just emotionally. There have been a number of intelligent heavy metal bands with interesting lyrics.

    I have toyed with the idea of doing a post on Ronnie James Dio but I must confess that I don’t know enough about him or his ideas to write intelligently about his lyrics.

    However, I feel that he has sometimes been treated unfairly by critics who claim that he only writes silly “dungeons and dragons” type lyrics when he actually seems to have had some interesting opinions on things like the dark side of advanced technology.

  2. Hi John! Thanks much for coming by my blog; I'm glad you're enjoying it! I'm a great fan of your own blog, actually - I think we need more folks attempting to sketch out more common ground between social conservatives and economic leftists of various flavours, who can communicate more clearly, directly and sensibly than I can.

    Yeah, I'm not a fan of all metal subgenres either - I'm a pretty consistent fan of the power-speed-thrash genres, but I still have some difficulty getting into black metal and crust.

    Also, regarding Dio - Black Sabbath once had a song, 'Heaven and Hell':

    'The world is full of Kings and Queens
    Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams
    It's Heaven and Hell, oh well
    And they'll tell you black is really white
    The moon is just the sun at night
    And when you walk in golden halls
    You get to keep the gold that falls
    It's Heaven and Hell, oh no'

    One kind of gets the feeling they're in our corner. Not to mention the anti-war songs like 'Children of the Grave'...

    Keep up the superb writing! ;)