Capitalism … is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. … The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates. … The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
That’s a quote from Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 14 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about the Walls of ageism and retirement, but today I want to talk about one of the greatest Walls to the Imagination, to creativity: capitalism.
This episode is going to be at least twice the normal length I try to put out because of the nature of the subject. This battle between authenticity and this hyper-capitalist global reality we find ourselves living in effects the imagination and creativity in so many different ways. Because I will not be able to get it to be under an hour I’ve left it to be the last Wall episode before heading into Doors towards the Imagination.
Five years after working in a coffee shop on Manhattan I took another creative leap, this time with my wife, to the Black Mountains in the south of France. We created a place for people like us, whose first priority is to honor the need to create. We started La Muse to create an affordable, beautiful, inspiring and comfortable place for creators. Emphasis on the first word, affordable, especially because I’m talking about capitalism. We didn’t understand people wouldn’t come if we didn’t charge regular prices. We thought they’d come because we were offering really cheap prices. But that’s not the way we’ve been conditioned by capitalism. People didn’t come. We were told later that they thought it was a scam, too good to be true. Later, a friend who managed a Hyatt hotel explained to us how each room has to have a different price because people need to assign “value” to what they are buying. At the hotel he managed they only ever rented the presidential suite out twice a year. It was immense. It was empty the whole rest of the year. It didn’t matter, because those two bookings took care of all the fixed costs for the year for the hotel. So we raised our prices even though we wanted to keep them low so creators with no money would be able to come. And of course, creators started coming. That’s capitalism.
Like Camden Town before MTV moved in, like the East Village before it became gentrified, we moved to the Aude, the Cinderella of France. Creative people discover places before developers, because for creators living creatively is the motivation, not status, wealth. Creators are marginalized in our predominant capitalist society, often crossing paths in places they’ve discovered and nurtured before being “discovered” by those with capital. You only have to look at certain urban ZIP codes in the US with seemingly minimal potential to gentrify, and you’ll find a high concentration of artists.
We started La Muse with credit cards, nearly twenty years ago. We couldn’t find money any other way to create what we wanted to create. This is often the reality when someone starts to create something different. Where do you get the money, when most capital is oftentimes owned by an unimaginative few who were given their capital instead of creating it?
The world’s eight (yes, 8) richest billionaires control the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the planet. The world’s richest 1% are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030.
Here where I’m living now, America, the country has socialism for the rich, and cold, harsh capitalism for everyone else. They’re not my words. That’s Robert Reich, the Former United States Secretary of Labor. If you ask most people what socialism is here they get anxious and think you’re talking about a failed form of soviet communism. Amazon, Chevron and 58 other billion dollar companies pay no tax, even though they’re, or were, American companies.
As Noam Chomsky said:
the rich and powerful, they don’t want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run to the ‘nanny state’ as soon as they’re in trouble, and get bailed out by the taxpayer.
As Robert Reich puts it it’s “corporate welfare”. The handouts are going to GM and many other companies, not the people who need it, and “around 60% of American wealth is now inherited”. I’ll leave a link to his great short video with examples on my site:
And of course the corporate welfare happened all over again recently because of the coporate welfare due to the Corona virus and a fraction of money going to the people most in need, the American working class. If the American people fully understood how much tax money is doled out to corporations as subsidies, that socialism I mentioned earlier, or how much the tax code has been changed to help corporations, they’d storm Washington in their millions. But they don’t. Because the masters attack solidarity, run the regulators, engineer elections, keep the everyone in line by manufacturing consent and marginalizing people.
My two honor degrees in Ireland were paid for by the Irish government, actually by my local government, Meath County Council. I will be ever grateful for that. I was the eldest of 7 kids and because of being means tested I was able to get a free education, in a country which would be considered extremely poor at the time and even now compared to the states here, and yet people are expected to pay over $50,000 a year here for a degree. That’s insane. If the richest country in the world can’t pay to educate it’s people when one of the poorest can then there has to be something wrong with that system.
Now I want to mention Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, a documentary interview with Noam Chomsky. I’ve always loved Chomsky, and it’s a pity he isn’t as accepted in the states the way he should be, when other inspired academics like say Joseph Campbell are. But then Campbell is much more acceptable to the mainstream media and welcomed more by American popular culture because he doesn’t skewer the media on it’s manipulation of the truth. People who own those companies obviously don’t want us to even know Chomsky’s name.
Anyway, Chomsky explains in his classic detached fashion and in the most logical way what the corporate class has done to the United States: created widespread income inequality, and a huge diminishment of democracy. In detail and with wonderful examples he argues his case of rich versus poor, powerful versus powerless, oligarchy versus democracy.
Chomsky explains how the “masters of mankind” – that’s a quote from Adam Smith by the way, the so called “Father of Capitalism”. So Chomsky explains how the masters of mankind have basically dismantled any real remaining opportunity for an immigrant to come to the U.S. and fulfill the American Dream like Chomsky’s parents did, where they can become socially mobile, get a job and build a middle-class house with a car in the driveway and the kids going to school to get a good education, quote:
for most of the population, the majority, real incomes have almost stagnated for over thirty years. The middle class in that sense, that unique American sense, is under severe attack. A significant part of the American Dream is class mobility: You’re born poor, you work hard, you get rich. The idea that it is possible for everyone to get a decent job, buy a home, get a car, have their children go to school . . . It’s all collapsed.
He outlines ten “principles” to show exactly what the few at the top have been up to, practicing what Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” which is “All for ourselves, and none for other people”. The “masters” do not like democracy, because it gives power to the people, so they reduce democracy, shape ideology, redesign the economy, shift the Burden, of financial problems, that is, to the masses. They attack solidarity, run the regulators, engineer elections, that is buy them, and keep the rabble in line, by manufacturing consent and marginalizing the population.
I suppose the only word there not used as much in American English is solidarity. It’s used a lot in France though, but what Chomsky means is having empathy for other people, caring for them, what an Irish politician once said, the tide that lifts all ships. We’re all in this together. And of course the rabble he talks about is the coordinated multiple decades long effort by corporations to destroy the labor movement.
Power has become so concentrated that banks ‘too big to fail,’ have become what some economists called ‘too big to jail.’” Enron was crammed full of ingeniously creative lawyers and accountants, military torturers, bomb and missile makers, to say nothing of ponzi scheme inventors, who all, no doubt, also feel very good about what they have created –until they are exposed, that is , and are sent to the Big House where they belong, if at all. Kurt Vonnegut refers to these individuals as PPs in his book A Man Without a Country. Better to let Vonnegut speak in this great section from his book:
I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: “C-Students from Yale.”George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot . . .PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose! . . .So many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. They have taken charge of communications and the schools, so we might as well be Poland under occupation.They might have felt that taking our country into an endless war was simply something decisive to do. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin’ day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reasons that they don’t give a fuck what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.
Vonnegut wrote that passage nearly a decade and a half ago. I can only imagine what he’d have to say about the present administration of Donald Trump.
Of course, most of the X, Y, Millenial and Z generations are aware of what Chomsky has to say, that 1% of 1% of the population own most of the assets of the planet. That the 1% of 1% want to keep it that way. Last thing they want to do is share that wealth. The boomer generation and older generation for the most part are quite cynical about this. I’ve had people I love tell me that the only choice we have is either capitalism or socialism. They are incapable of even imagining a distinction between socialism and democracy as concepts and capitalism as something divorced from ways of government. Their viewpoint is that you’re either a capitalist or a socialist. This binary way of thinking has been created by the 1% of 1%.
If you don’t like documentaries, there’s also the book version of Chomsky’s documentary, which goes into the concepts more fully, but still in a very clear and simple way. There’s simply no arguing with the logic of either. It’s simply facts he presents, how it’s all engineered.
The problem here is that it’s not simply an American problem. Capitalism is a planetary problem. My experience growing up in Ireland, living in France, and visiting many other European countries is that the same structures exist everywhere. The social classes are hidden in different ways but if we analyze them a little we see that they are regurgitations of the same structures because people who own multinational corporations don’t have borders when it comes to getting taxed, or veted.
In Spain, France, Italy, Portugal or Greece it’s simply not enough today to have a full time job and not be poor. Many salaries are about 1000 Euros and others think they’re doing well when they’ve 1500 Euros per month, but this barely pays for rent, schooling, all your fixed costs, never mind having anything extra to save to invest or spend on a holiday. We were always taught to believe the poor were street beggars but now it’s people with full time work.
In Greece, this insane inequality led to the collapse of the system and the rise of a new left in the party Syriza. Capitalism not only wrecks democracy, as former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Faroukakis says, but it also wrecks the democracy of creativity, the democracy of access and confidence in what we create. Entrenched systems are not what they appear to be. The idea that not everyone has access to creation has been heightened by capitalistic governments, because representative democracy itself has never actually existed, even in ancient Greek times.
Yanis Faroukakis left government because the institutions, oligarchic, not democratic, in his country, under the pressure of an authoritarian German led European Union told him he had no choice. Even with a mandate from the Greek people not to do austerity his compatriots in his party were co-opted into going against him and supporting the EU. Inevitably, as Faroukakis has said, these powerful leaders were not powerful at all. They were there to simply do the bidding of the system, and the system we all live under is capitalism, not representative democracy because when someone uses those two words they’re really saying that extreme centrist neo-liberal politics of division – there’s that word again, divide and conquer, like I mentioned in the first episode of the podcast – and what does this division do? Creates a constantly fighting binary world where real democracy is taken away with attrition, gradually whittling away Imagination and inspiration for “investors” at the expense of the many.
We give power to the oligarchy, the 1% of 1% when we agree they are the ones with the power. We take that power back when we say we have the right to create the reality we live in. That reality becomes manifest as soon as we wake up and realize that the old paradigm is no longer an agreement we accept. Nobody can tell you to accept an agreement you never agreed upon.
Creation needs to be more democratic. There needs to be more access, but this goes against capitalism. But how can we democratize creativity, so everyone has equal access?
Gandhi was told he had no power to create a new India. As he put it, he became the change he wanted to see in the world. He created it. Martin Luther King was told he had no power to create a different reality than the one he was living in. He created one anyway.
The idea that money is how we define ourselves is not only bizarre, but only benefits the few who want power over us, the many. If you were a person living on another planet and you landed on Earth you’d be shocked by this reality. You can imagine some of the questions,
“Why are all these people starving when these people have too much food?”
“Your Earth has more than enough resources for everyone on the planet to eat and be housed well?”
“The Earth is the Earth, how can you buy it with paper you created from the earth?”
And yet we continue, enslaved by other men’s systems, as William Blake put it. We’re conditioned from an early age to accept this reality. We’re “educated” throughout our schooling to embrace this paradigm. We’re taught money is the end goal, and that success is only reflected when we’ve amassed vast amounts of it.
At one retreat nine years ago we sat on the terrace with our resident writers and artists when one man, an Englishman living in Italy for twenty-five years, took a deep sigh of relief and interrupted the flow of conversation.
“Can I just say what a huge relief it is to finally, for once, be in a group of new people and not have to explain why I would remain a waiter for 25 years just to keep writing my novel, without ever having published a word! I am SO relieved!”
We all clapped, laughed and cheered. The book he was working on at La Muse got published the next year.
Creation has been replaced by consumption. We consume instead of creating. Replacement therapy. But therapy is supposed to be beneficial to the individual, not destructive, addictive. We buy too much. We call it “retail therapy”, thinking this a funny phrase, when actually it’s a symptom of the problem. Instead of creating clothes for ourselves, instead of crocheting, stitching, mending, we buy clothes made by underpaid workers working long hours in foreign countries. We buy these peoples’ creations and soon lose interest in them and throw them away only to replace them with more.
Creation has been replaced by addictions, by spending. We buy too many clothes, drugs, alcohol, sex, objects, devices. You only have to look at reality shows to see how we hoard. People like Marie Kondō come along and show us how addicted we’ve become by simply asking, does what you’ve bought “spark joy”? If not, then why is it in your closet? For most people this is a revelation. How could I have had so much stuff? Why is something so simple such and epiphany? Again, because the capitalism is so pervasive.
We’ve become addicted instead of expressive. And that’s exactly how capitalism works. Don’t grow your own food, buy it. Don’t mend an old car, buy a new one. Don’t take care of your health, buy pills to get rid of the symptoms of your physical pain. Don’t make your own clothes like your grandmother used to, buy more. And don’t express yourself through art, do it by what you wear, what you buy.
A society that denies creation transfers negative ideas onto the “individual” when individualism is an illusion if we consider the fact we are social beings. It projects subliminal negative associations on creation, because being a creator means thinking outside the norms, rules and regulations. To encourage people to help each other create goes against elitism, capitalism, and “rugged individualism” because they are about competition and sociopathic economics. Most contemporary societies are based on this principal because governments are for the most part “owned” by multi-national corporations through donors. Success under this worldview depends on taking advantage of those around you, to get more, not to help others. All for me and who cares about anyone else. This myth of the successful businessman as some kind of deity is just that, a myth. We’re all god. What about the successful plumber, successful teacher, successful musician, successful mother?
And don’t get me wrong. I met lots of smart and ‘creative’ business people as residents at La Muse. Not all business people are sociopaths or PPs as Vonnegut put it. But when those business people and succesful entrepreneurs came to La Muse they weren’t there to write ‘creative’ business plans or think up new schemes for defrauding their clients – they were there precisely to get away from all of that, to try and discover or tap into something authentically creative.
Also, you could be jealous of the “successful” group in your field which is attached to one of the primary tenets of capitalism, competition. I used to look at the bios of other writers judging my own “success” compared to theirs, which is ridiculous, as the only value we should have is internal, not external, comparing ourselves to others.
This inner conflict about “success” (acclaim, critical, financial), does not mean I cannot be critical of capitalism whilst seeming to admire those who have “made it”. I admire their focus, hard work, tenacity. I think it’s important to hold two conflicting truths at the same time, what F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about at the beginning of “The Crack-Up”, how a good mind should be able to hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, yet still be able to function, how things can be hopeless yet we can be determined to create a different reality anyway.
Being able to see both sides of an argument is contradictory and difficult. Again, I honor the “success” of people in their fields, but at the same time I do not respect the way capitalism forces assumptions onto successful people because they are “successful”. Just because one is successful doesn’t mean one human being is better than another.
We are drunk on this idea of success as capital and we have to change it. Instead of success = value, we have to understand this:
SUCCESS = DOING WHAT YOU LOVE
Your value is not in your house, your car, your body parts. It’s about the value you place on living from doing what you love, your internal sense of value. Most of the residents who go to La Muse aren’t making money full time from their art. A lot of them have “day jobs”, but they look forward to spending time away from that capitalistic world to create. Many of them don’t shop, go out to movies, restaurants, so that they can save to get away to create what they love.
The most joyful creators I’ve ever met have been people with the least material affluence. Why are they joyful? Acceptance, and doing what they love out of love, not money. They are joyful because they see creating itself as success.
As creators our goal can’t be money. We need to be busy getting inspired, creating. The whole business part of creation is to be considered when we actually finish creating something.
There are other forms of capital too. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about cultural capital (education). He basically said a creator’s natural talent and work ethic is effected by how much money their parents, relations, etc., have. His question was how can we create when we’re always poor, and how can we understand certain creations when we don’t have the cultural capital to understand them?
We all “suffer for our art” when we come from socio-economic backgrounds that can’t support our efforts to create. Some people inherit wealth. Some “get lucky” early on. Others, after a long career doing something else, start to create what they love. But the most important thing to remember is perseverance, which is a lot easier when you’re doing what you love.
“Competition” can destroy your inspiration, your work ethic, your focus. Watch Miloš Forman’s “Amadeus”. Salieri basically destroyed himself by comparing his work to Mozart. The artist combinations of Freud and Bacon, Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, de Kooning and Pollock, were often destructively competitive, even if some would say this competition helped them develop as creators.
If you don’t win prizes, don’t earn lots of money, you are a failure. A Sunday artist. A poor poet. A “dabbler”. Recognition is not judged in the value, the wonder of your creation or the process, but in whether it has won sanctioned recognition in prizes, a competition (there’s that word again), fellowships, venture capital, reviews, a TV spot.
The fact that each creation can be so different from another never enters into this worldview. Different people like different things. Seriously, how can found objects, and say collage be compared to a huge landscape of cows in a field? It’s like comparing a tiny factory in New Guinea to a Wall Street firm. You can’t judge one compared to another. Comparison and competition in creation can only lead to despair.
Competition generates, thrives on anger and bitterness. They’re making more money than us, me. They’re getting more recognition than us, me. But anger and bitterness don’t inspire good work. They might get you started on something, but if it becomes too obsessive it destroys innovation, curiosity, inspiration, creation.
Consumption and production. Producer and consumer. We have to adapt the consumer producer model, and empower the creator creative model. If you do the work, the reward will be in the doing. Focus on the joy of the process of creation, right now. We have in our heart what it is to be happy, right now. We need to keep our eyes on our own work, our own creation, not compete with others, or look for validation from a culture that only pays off for a tiny elite.
Jacques Brel was once asked about a beautiful song he wrote and he responded, “Yes, it’s belle, beautiful, now.” When asked why he said that he explained that it was only accepted as beautiful when it became famous, when it made money. Before that, he said, it was a bad song to the majority of critics. When people started buying his music, when he started making money, then he was successful, but not before. Each song is successful, depending on how much money it has made. Brel said nothing about the song changed. He said it was beautiful, before and after it became a success. Also, Brel is another example of a creator who didn’t just do music. He was also a successful actor. He appeared in 10 movies. But he didn’t stop there either. He directed two films too, and would have directed many more if he hadn’t died at the age of 49.
Capitalism knows no limits in it’s destruction of ethical creative ways of living. Even babies, one of the ultimate creative processes a human being can engage in, has been commodified. How can this be? How can we capitalize on on of the most creative acts in life? Where is the spirit, the human being in all this? I’m just asking questions here, hard questions. Isn’t surrogacy exploiting women, in the most part presumably poor or marginalized women who are paid to have children? This is contract capitalism. A baby has become a thing, an object, not a created being. Where’s the line between buying and selling children? Does all creation have to be capitalized upon?
So, how do we stop mourning the wrongdoings of these few “masters” Chomsky describes, and start reenacting the parts of our infrastructures that were healthy and productive in the past? Yes, by becoming active, but also by being creative, irrespective of the conditions we’ve been obliged to live under. At the end of his documentary, and his book Chomsky recalls his friend Howard Zinn’s reflection:
what matters most are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history.
If you haven’t read his wonderful book “A People’s History of the United States”, you should, because it’s full of stories of people laying a basis for significant events to enter into history. And again, there’s the quote attributed to Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Like, Chomsky and Zinn I’m an optimist. I trust the arc of history to be bending toward justice, even amidst all this capitalistic injustice, but an individual politician or some public intellectual is not going to change things. Movements move things. It’s what the word means. My movement is creative. To create is to create a real popular movement. We need a creative uprising, not elected officials of art and writing and sculpture. The Civil Rights movement did this. Labor solidarity and unrest in this country did that. Even the the Occupy movement tried to do it. Black Lives Matters is trying to do it right now. They were/are creative movements. They react against the capitalistic culture of class, step outside, literally, into the streets of our consciousness and create a new dream, as Martin Luther King said in his famous speech. Each one of us can become apart of a creative movement, if we fight against this idea of powerlessness capitalism wants us to feel. Behind apathy is a great potential to create.
At the beginning of this podcast I quoted the wonderful Stephane Hessel in the second episode:
To create is to resist; to resist is to create.
To create is to resist. To resist is to create. When we create we resist the capitalist modus operandi of society, we resist what we are told we are, what we are supposed to be, what we ought to be, and become who we are. By resisting we are being creative beings, one of the most powerful things there is.
Ursula K. Le Guin talks about resistance too. At the end of her well known short speech “Freedom”, when accepting the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014 (which can be found in video online or in her wonderful book Words Are My Matter) she had this to say :
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changes by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words… the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
So, understand capitalism for what it is, the greatest wall there is to the imagination and leading a creative life. Accept it, and then resist it, by creating, and so glean the beautiful reward of freedom.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an Austrian economist and as usual, I’m going to end with an Irish proverb, one which rhymes in both English and Irish. This one literally translates as:
Better health than wealth.
Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.