idle thoughts about art's political role against corporate power

Let’s consider two disturbing observations.

First, according to Global Justice Now, the ten largest corporations in the World are wealthier than most countries combined. From Common Dreams:

"Today, of the 100 wealthiest economic entities in the world, 69 are now corporations and only 31 countries," wrote Global Justice Now campaigns and policy officer Aisha Dodwell. "This is up from 63 to 37 a year ago. At this rate, within a generation we will be living in a world entirely dominated by giant corporations."

Indeed, multinational behemoths Shell, Apple, and Walmart each rake in more revenue than the world's 180 "poorest" countries—a list that includes Ireland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, Vietnam, and Colombia—combined.

And the top ten largest companies have a whopping combined value of $2.9 trillion, which is larger than China's economy.

See the spreadsheet for yourself here.

Second, corporate power has replaced popular, “democratic” power in the United States. It’s worth reading Chris Hedges’ piece at Truthdig in full, but here’s a key nugget:
Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d’état in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.
The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.
This was planned:
Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.
40 years after Powell wrote that memo and enmeshed himself in an effort to transform the country through increased corporate power, we find an intersection between neoconservatism and neoliberals.

The war corporatism the Knife Party warned us about so memorably in What Barry Says  - specifically the “visible yet sinister group” called the Project for a New American Century is only one chilling manifestation of the dangers presented by the substitution of corporate power for popular governance.

The political implications should be clear enough to anyone paying attention. My question is: what role can art play in resisting this corporate power grab, if not through direct action than at least through inspiration?

Our popular art forms often portray dystopian futures where the rule of law is supplanted by the rule of commerce. The cyberpunk genre, for example, is fundamentally rooted in extrapolating near-futures dominated by megacorporations whose powers transcend governments. Sci-fi shows like Continuum and the upcoming Affleck/Damon-produced Incorporated directly posit futures dominated by corporations.

Novels, of course, have long been a source of cautionary tales. Books like 1984 and Brave New World, for example, insightfully amplified real societal trends in terms of totalitarianism and social control to depict worse-case scenarios with applications to actual politics. There are countless more examples, of course.

Yet for all the vivid dramatizations about social ills, it doesn't seem enough. We seem distinctly unable to generate enough popular momentum to reverse deep, structural changes in our society. We can achieve some important victories, like marriage equality, but when it comes to challenging the forces controlling the fundamentals – health, shelter, food, economic security – we are stymied by the neoliberal/neoconservative programs that have taken root in our society’s most essential legal, political and economic operations. But at least the heroes on TV can win, right?

One of the most significant functions of art is to present us with fictional scenarios that allow us to safely explore the issues and consequences of real-life challenges. While we can debate the extent to which art that is fictional is as effective as art that can also be journalistic, like photography, it seems that art is experiencing a crisis of relevance. Not personal relevance, as it can’t be denied how artistic expressions is beneficial on a personal level, but political relevance. Whether a mirror of our anxieties or a prophet warning us of doom, art in all its forms seems more like a Cassandra. We respond emotionally to the ideas we are presented with, then move on to the next item of consumption with the delusion that art and reality have no necessary relation to each other.

Perhaps that’s where the problem lies: art struggles to be revolutionary because it is commoditized. Like everything else, art has been subsumed by the capitalist economic machine and, in the Internet age, drowned in hyperdata that dis-informs us. It’s so much easier to dismiss the ideas underlying fiction as fiction themselves; consume, dispose, repeat.

There’s historical precedence. Without being “productive” in the sense that being a labourer is productive, artists have always been dependent on society’s support or, more typically, on patrons for the necessary subsistence that enables them to devote themselves to producing art. Today, the patron is more often than not the marketplace in which case artists make money when their supply is matched to the demand – and the demand is for safe and pretty ornaments.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. It largely depends on our own individual conception of, and relationship to, art. So while the “system” requires criticism, we should also give some thought to how we interact with art.

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