There's a specter haunting political discourse. And yes, it's the specter of communism. Again. But not plain old materialist communism -- but communism of a virtual kind. Exaggeration? Check this out:
Actually, even in all its xenophobic glory, that TV spot is rather subtle. If you listen to Glen Beck and crew, you'll find out that the hated liberals aren't only selling out to the Red Hordes -- they are the commies themselves.
Of course, by now, this sort of propaganda is so familiar it's hard not to be numb to it. But what surprises me is that even in indie movies nowadays you see a blurring of the concepts of socialist, communist and liberal. The other night, I was watching Southland Tales (2006), a film by one of my favorite directors, Richard Kelly (who made Donnie Darko and The Box, two films I love).
The film's premise is that because of nuclear terrorist attacks (this time in L.A.) the U.S. lurches further to the Right -- with increasingly draconian enforcement of the Patriot Act. There are, we are told, however, pockets of liberal resistance. The main one is called the Neo-Marxists.
Not since the Cold War, it seems, have incompatible terms like liberal and Marxist experienced this sort of force fitting. And on the face of it, it is ridiculous.
But, at the same time, over the last few years I've become a believer in the maxim that "the unconscious is on the outside"; i.e., that the secret fears and desires of people and cultures are often presented so blatantly, it's hard to see them. (They're "hiding in the daylight", so to speak.)
So I began to wonder if this "Return of the Reds" (as in "commies" not red states!) into that public dream we call popular culture might not be expressing something deeper than just propaganda and confusion.
One candidate for the source of these anxieties is played out loudly and clearly by the commercial. As our economy lags and China's apparently races ahead, there are no doubt fears that our style of capitalism ain't what it used to be.
Add the double trauma of the Crash and continuing unemployment to the mix, and you start to wonder if this fear of communism is not masking a nostalgia for the Cold War era itself, when things were more prosperous (thanks in part to the very Keynesian economics the TV spot criticizes).
But recently I came across a set of ideas that led me to wilder speculations about this latest version of commie phobia.
If You Have a Good Idea, Does It Mean You're a Communist?
A buzz-worthy read on the popular non-fiction scene right now is Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From. In a piece last week in the NY Times in which Johnson wrote about his ideas, he starts by relating how a member of the audience, during his book tour, asked jokingly if he were a communist. Johnson's article is about why the joke would arise in the first place.
He feels this is because his book makes the case that, since 1800, the majority of new scientific and cultural discoveries arose in non-market environments (i.e. from Universities to individual artists, hobbyists and inventors -- people making things for the sake of making things, without thinking if these these things would make them a buck). And many of these innovations were the result of collaboration, rather than individual genius.
Of course, he assures us, there are numerous examples of market-driven discoveries. Interestingly though, of these the majority are also of the collaborative, "networked" type. So, on balance, he's speaking a heresy. Though the market drives innovation -- other forces and sources drive it more. And even in for-profit situations, a collective rather than individual effort most often comes up with the best stuff.
A case in point: Johnson's own method for studying all this derives in part from the brilliant literary scholar, Franco Moretti (who's been discussed in this blog here) -- whose own ground-breaking theories arose out of his (collaborative) academic research and were published early on in New Left Review.
Add to this the fact that the internet economy Johnson writes about, that place where huge collectives "liberate" formerly pricey products and share them for free, does tend to act like a big, subversive, electronic commune.
The problem with all these new collectivities is that, as Johnson points out, there's really no name as yet for them or the symbiotic economies to which they sometimes seem to be on the verge of giving birth. Maybe this is why old names for collaboration, like communism, keep coming up.
So perhaps, as far as communism itself goes, it may be most accurate to say it's still dead on earth, but alive and well in the heaven of our virtual life -- on the web, at the movies, in televisual space. Not to mention our imaginations -- paranoid or utopian.