The dilemma of hypermodernity (Part Seven)
By Mark Wegierski
An earlier, academic version of this essay has appeared in This World: Religion and Public Life (Culture and Consumption) no. 31 (2000) (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers), pp. 29-45. This is the 16th anniversary of the appearance of the academic version of the essay – which had also appeared in various, different, non-academic iterations in the 1990s, including in Polish translation. The essay had also appeared in three parts on its 15th anniversary, in Quarterly Review (UK).
It had been said that one of the greatest obstacles to truly meaningful social change today is the heavy weight, impressed on virtually all societies, of the obstinate presence of the so-called "New Class", or world-level corporate/media oligarchy, which is centred in North America (i.e., the United States of America and its Canadian appendage). Because of the continuing ineffectiveness of the challenge to its control of the mass-media and mass-education systems, the New Class is able to impose its highly selective worldview on virtually everyone in North America, and thereby on most of the planet, to a greater or lesser extent.
It should be pointed out that most people will follow that which is presented to them as inherently just and decent (regardless of its possibly negative underlying results) out of idealistic motives -- not because they are selfishly seeking careers or self-aggrandizement. (An example of real selflessness is afforded by the young Irishwoman, profiled some time ago in the media, who has dedicated herself to caring for destitute and disabled orphans in Vietnam, in the midst of savagely grinding poverty.) Unfortunately, it is then typically a selfish minority of erstwhile activists that enjoys the material spoils of the over-all effort and mobilization. A good example of this are aid programs of the type which send idealistically-minded young people into Third World countries, paying them a bare-minimum local salary (in Nigeria, there are instances of such students begging for food from Western technicians and engineers working there), while the executive of the organization enjoys high-level, senior-civil-service-type salaries and perquisites, and hobnobs in various embassies during their infrequent visits to the South.
Though in some senses, the putative Sixties Revolution has succeeded spectacularly, in others it has failed miserably. One of the defining ideas of the Sixties was, prima facie, the opposition to the big corporations. Yet today we have ended up in a world where the transnational corporations are bigger and stronger than ever before. There was also in the Sixties, prima facie, a desire for a return to nature, and for a more natural existence, yet the world has only become more mechanized, more commercialized, more paved over, and more technologized over that entire period.
Another important idea of the Sixties, again prima facie, was a sort of robust individualism, yet looking at the "jean generation", one could conclude that, in effect, a new uniform had been put on, and any "squares" who dissented were to be treated as badly as "the beats" had been in the Fifties. In the aftermath of the Sixties, the ultimately meaningless quasi-collectivities of various "consumer-tribes", based on different status-symbols and commodity-fetishes -- and sharply excluding "outsiders", quickly arose. The realization of the extreme nature of "collective" peer-pressure in the typical modern North American high school -- which effectively rips one away from one's family and roots -- is acknowledged somewhat even by the most ardent liberals. The surprisingly sharply defined "new hierarchy" of "cool" vs. "square" (in a society claiming to be hyper-egalitarian) is probably the least socially germane -- if not most socially destructive -- social distinction in human history. After the reductive mill of MTV and immersion in electronic media from age five, after the droning lectures of liberal pedagogues, after the intense collective pressures of adolescence (which together probably constitute the most intensive program of indoctrination ever hitherto devised in human history) corporate liberalism disingenuously says that it offers those who reach adulthood "freedom of choice" concerning the values they will hold, and the lifestyle by which they will live. Some choice! Some freedom!
Nowhere were the burgeoning contradictions of the Sixties exemplified more than in the emerging rock-world. The fine points of selling or not selling out became a sort of game, as it is patently clear that rock-music was and is commercially-driven from the beginning. By the time one has heard of a rising, struggling rock-artist on the radio, it is almost certain that they have done any number of questionable deals to get there. Yet somehow, the public had to be convinced of the rock-star's unsullied "honesty", which was more often than not attested to by the obscenity of his lyrics and personal behaviour. And then again, it had to be reassured that, although a real party animal, the rock-star was at bottom a nice person who cared about various "causes".
One might well ask "what is the point?" of so much of allegedly "subversive" rock-music. One can observe such rock subgenres as "cyberpunk", as well as other extremal movements (which amount to being entire styles-of-life), like thrash-metal and "gangsta rap", that only seem to promote hyperviolence and hyperdecadence without any real challenge to the system.
Continuing analysis of the various phenomena of "pop-culture" can be very useful in the formulation of the over-all critique of late modernity. The rock-world can be criticized much more than the music itself, some genres of which the author greatly enjoys, and which constitutes his almost exclusive listening experience today. TV and especially films can also serve as excellent reference points which are commonly recognized.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.