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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

On anti-capitalism (and anti-anti-capitalism)

A few days ago, I received through the post one of those half-book half-pamphlet things (only 85 pages long but with a readable spine) that have so abounded ever since the Institute of Economic Affairs got into its stride, this one being from the Social Affairs Unit. It is called Marketing The Revolution: The New Anti-Capitalism and The Attack Upon Corporate Brands. It’s by Michael Mosbacher, who is a longish standing friend/acquaintance of mine. It’s good.

There’s a biographical note at the back which tells us that Mike, who is now the Deputy Director of the Social Affairs Unit, once upon a time “studied politics at Exeter University, writing his Master’s dissertation on the impact of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union upon the British Communist movement”. This, or something pretty like it, was published by the Libertarian Alliance as Political Notes No. 127. This new piece is the logical successor of that earlier one. It describes some of the new globalised groups and campaigning methods and ideological themes that have elbowed their way forward to fill the void once occupied by those pathetic old Bolsheviks and all their massed ranks of useful and not so useful idiots.

Here’s a chunk, not from the piece itself, but from the press release that arrived with it:

The broader message is an old, and rather tired one, hatred of capitalism, the belief that the world is diametrically and permanently divided between the exploiting corporate fat cat few and the exploited masses. What’s changed is the way that message is now being marketed to a new, wider audience by piggy-backing on the corporations’ own publicity. The activists do this, often via websites, by cleverly parodying corporate ads, organising media-friendly stunts at AGMs and launching boycotts.

That you can play games with a famous brand and get your joke bounced around the world at virtually no cost to yourself is a fact that Samizdata readers have several times also been invited to enjoy. Think of the logo adaptations we’ve featured of London Underground (“take a taxi”), and of Intel (“Big Brother inside”).

Would that Mike Mosbacher’s work was making equally clever use of the Internet. Alas, the Social Affairs Unit website makes that of my dear old Libertarian Alliance look downright advanced. That it doesn’t refer in any way to this publication is peculiar (although technical difficulties have also prevented any reference to the LA’s latest batch of paper yet finding its way onto our site). But far worse than that, the SAU website commits the basic old-school sin of using the internet only to try to sell paper, instead of also to distribute text free of charge. There’s nowhere on the site from which you can download anything “published” by the SAU, other than short bits of sales blurb. If you actually want to read anything substantial that they’ve “published”, you have to order it through the post. You have to pay money. (For all the difference it can make me saying it here, you can buy Marketing the Revolution by sending GBP9.95p plus GBP1 for postage and packing (blogspotbollocks won’t do pound signs so please decypher that as best you can) to: Social Affairs Unit, 314-322 Regent Street, London, W1B 3BB. Or ring Mike Mosbacher himself on 020 7637 4356.)

You’ve got to make a living, and if you are in politics, “public affairs” etc., that tends to involve doing things that ignorant old people think will influence the young, rather than doing things that actually will influence them. I don’t blame Mike Mosbacher for the foolishness of writing interesting things about the internet but then publishing them in an internet-hostile manner. Well, maybe I do, because like I say he doesn’t just write for the SAU; he is its Deputy Director. Whatever. But let’s be clear what the next step is: an internet presentation of Mike’s stuff which actually deploys some of the good work that he’s been doing in an internet-usable form.

Because it is good work. Mike is not overwhelmingly strong, for my taste, on analysis. His big picture is somewhat unpersuasive. He makes much, for example, of the fact that anti-capitalists make a living within the world of actually existing capitalism by having capitalist money of their own, and by accepting great lashings of it from others who do if they don’t. So what? This is like moaning about Soviet dissidents who also had jobs as government scientists. What were they supposed to do? Starve? The case against these anti-capitalists isn’t that they are taking money from capitalism to trash capitalism; it is that they are trashing capitalism.

But if the big picture is somewhat blurred, the small pictures are in exact focus again and again. Just as with PN127, Mike digs into just how this campaign operates, and what that bunch of lefty-capitalist self-haters actually say and do and ill-spend their well-gotten gains. Waffle it is not. And again as with PN127 (communists who reviewed that said it was very accurate), those it describes would recognise the details as accurate rather than the polemical and inaccurate waffle that is often presented as anti-anti-capitalist “analysis”.

Mike is good on the way that capitalism appropriates the imagery of youthful rebellion and uses it to sell things to those same youths when they get a bit older. (While doing this I also noted a TV advert featuring the late Jimmy Hendricks emitting all manner of anti-establishmentarian vibrations via the latest psychedelic computer-graphical trickeries, in honour of the latest Audi.)

But one of the better bits of analysis comes not from the text itself, but from that same press release which I’ve already referred to. Just after the bit quoted above, it goes on to say:

Because its impulse is anti-capitalism rather than ameliorating the practice of corporations, the anti-corporate movement views progressive corporate policies as simply an attempt to mask the true nature of capitalism; which it is their mission to unmask. The harder an individual corporation seeks to show that it is doing good, the more important it becomes for these activists to seek to show that it is not. Progressive companies are attacked not in spite of, but because of their progressiveness.

I don’t remember anything as bang-on-the-nail as that in the thing itself, although of course in Marketing the Revolution itself there’s much more detail:

The TV stations of Turner and the skin care products and lotions of the Roddicks are, of course, themselves identified by the anti-branders with all the alleged sins of branding. They are, in fact, seen as especially heinous offenders by some: the mainstream media represented by Ted Turner is seen as the engine behind the construction of the branded world and Anita Roddick is the champion of what they see as the blind alley of ‘ethical consumerism’. Hence, The Body Shop was a prominent target on the web-based hit list of corporations to be subject to ‘anti-capitalist actions on Tuesday 1st May 2001’.

Here we have a principle that might enable the pro-capitalist movement to start making some waves of its own, by piggy-backing on the anti-capitalists. We can note which corporations are trying to be seriously “progressive” to the point of being actually anti- any capitalism but their own, and especially if they are doing this not just with their messages but with their money. We can point out to them not only that they are asking for trouble, but that, if they don’t stop letting the capitalist side down, we will set the anti-capitalist dogs on them.

It’s no use blaming anti-capitalists from getting money from whoever they can, but you damn well can blame capitalists for giving it to them.

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