Our sad "Mad Men" revolution:
How consumerism co-opted rebellion
Talking revolution with Lewis Lapham -- and how capitalism manages to keep coming out on top
Aspiring writers of my generation regarded -- still regard -- Lewis Lapham as the greatest essayist of our time. We tried to emulate everything from his glittering sentences to his rugged skepticism to his sartorial elegance.
For many years he was editor of Harper's Magazine; today he runs Lapham's Quarterly, which has just released a new issue on "Revolutions," filled with historical writings on the subject in question. Back in March, Lewis asked me to join him in a public conversation at Book Court bookstore in Brooklyn to celebrate the launch of the issue; what follows is an edited transcript of the proceedings. Thanks to Book Court for making the recording available to us.
Lewis Lapham: As has been stated, we have no prepared script. The current issue of Lapham's Quarterly talks about revolutions of various kinds -- political, scientific, technological. My thought is that we are always in the midst of a revolution, which is the revolution that Karl Marx announced in 1848, which is the bourgeois revolution. Which is the constant change in the means of production and the reducing of all human meaning and endeavor to a money transaction. That's his "cash nexus." And that's the revolution that's been going on at an ever-increasing rate beginning in the... well, you can take it back to the early days of capitalism. But it really gets its start in the 19th century.
I'm 79 and I started in the newspaper business in 1957, when they still had hot type and copy paper and pencils, dial phones, and you were allowed to smoke in the City Room. The intel revolution has been going on for the last 50 years; large newspapers and magazines were all but wiped out in the 1960s by television. Then we come to the Internet and cable and so on and it keeps changing.
But the same thing has been happening in the realms of agriculture and finance, transportation, almost all means of bourgeois production and so the thought of political revolution becomes increasingly romantic, at least this is the argument of "Crowd Control," introducing the current issue. Simone Weil regards the word "revolution" as a magic word which by all intents and purposes is meaningless. I have seen, over the course of my lifetime, revolutions practically every year somewhere in the world, whether it's in North Africa, Ukraine, the Sudan, Hungary, Cuba. . . it's a long list. And what usually happens is that one police force replaces another police force.
This issue of Lapham's Quarterly has readings or remarks on revolution from people like Nicholas Carr, who to my mind is one of the best writers about the technological revolution, what (Marshall) McLuhan was talking about, and the consequences of the shift from print, first to television and then to the Internet. But we also have Shakespeare talking about it in the play "Coriolanus." Martin Luther mounting his 95 objections to the Vatican; actually he didn't post them on the church at Wittenberg, but he published them. And the consequence is the Reformation. You have Jefferson's idea of revolution where he says every 20 years the tree of liberty needs to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants and patriots. What he had in mind was a cyclical phenomenon, like the revolutions of the stars. It was a form of environmental protection. The soil of politics grows despotism, but it also grows liberty. In certain seasons it comes forth with an orchard, in other seasons with a cesspool. The thing is to keep the balance of nature. We would think of that as a conservative notion.
But the American revolution is unique because the people that held power in America before the revolution are the same people that hold power in America after the revolution. By the time we come to the Declaration of Independence, we have had 100 years, half the 17th century and most of the 18th century, to construct our own political instruments of governance, whether it's a church congregation or a town meeting or a municipal assembly throughout not only New England, but also Virginia and the Carolinas. So it's not like the revolutions going on in Syria or Sudan or Tunisia or Egypt where you can overthrow the tyrants but then what do you do on the morning after?
Tom has written about this, although he may not know it, but he has, over the last 20 years?
A long time.
He had a wonderful book called "The Conquest of Cool." And the way we deal with revolution in the United States is to turn it into a product. It's sort of an advertisement for rebellious clothes. But nobody is particularly willing to go up against the military force of the state. I open my essay by saying there is a lot of talk about revolution. We know and understand and see in plain sight that our government is in the hands of the banks. That the war of the rich against the poor, the class conflict that's going on . . . this is in the newspapers every day. The biggest growth industry in the United States is surveillance, and NSA, and everybody's cell phone is a tracking device. These are means of crowd control.
The American government, which I would call the American oligarchy, is afraid of the American people. And God forbid, they should have too many dangerous ideas wandering around loose in the streets. Thus, we have I don't know how many hundred thousand surveillance cameras on the streets of New York. That's only going to get worse in my view, because as we get more and more people and more and more people reduced to food stamps and poverty and as the resources of the planet are finite and the American dream assumes infinite growth which is a contradiction in terms with a finite planet. The divisions between rich and poor are going to become more and more well-defined and heavily patrolled.
I suspect that if any genuinely revolutionary change takes place it will be forced upon us by a collapse of some kind in the system. That's another form of revolution that you find across time where the civilization or the ancien regime falls apart of its own dead weight. And in the ruins, the phoenix of a new idea or a new thought or a new system of value takes its place. But that's not something that can be organized by a committee or preached from a column in the New York Times, or even by a four-day conference about American values sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.
There's an old axiom of Trotsky's: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." And you could say the same thing about revolution. So I don't think we have to be concerned that we're not parading around in the streets. It will come of its own accord sooner rather than later.
Those are some of the ideas that are remarked upon in this issue of Lapham's Quarterly. As we do in every issue, we bring all kinds of voices in time to open up different angles of that conversation. So together with Aristotle and Shakespeare, we have Robespierre and Simone Weil and Václav Havel and Albert Camus. It's a joy to edit because you learn things.
My favorite thing in the whole issue is this image, "The Nouveau Riche Leads the People." It's a photo by a Chinese artist that features all the classic Communist signifiers, except the central figure is a guy in a shiny suit with all these gold bars. I love that.
You mentioned our cell phones spying on us. There's a moment of enlightenment that happens when it dawns on you one day that this device you bought as an instrument of liberation is, in fact, an instrument of surveillance. That was a shocking moment for me, and I suspect a shocking moment for a lot of people. On the other hand, I probably shouldn't complain -- it fit right into what I had been writing for many years.
Let me take a step into the past. There have been other, lesser, bloodless revolutions in American life. They happen periodically from time to time. My favorite one is the Populists in 1890s. I'm from Kansas. And in the 1890s the farmers in Kansas were angry about various things; they had formed a farmers' union and one day they basically voted out all of the senior Republican politicians in the state. Just threw these guys out. Ended all these career politicians' careers. It was very shocking and the Populists rolled on and on, from state to state, and won this and that. Eventually, 30 years later, a bunch of the things they were demanding became policy.
Another moment in history that has always intrigued me is when the endless bourgeois revolution of creative destruction and planned obsolescence, of constant superficial change, when that revolution squares off against the political revolutions -- the Populists, Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- and that's what we see in our own day. In this showdown of revolution against revolution, the capitalist revolution is basically batting 1.000 these days. It doesn't matter that they discredit themselves again and again and again. Take the financial crisis in 2008, the worst situation imaginable, people are furious, and what happens? Literally, the capitalists -- I'm speaking of that CNBC reporter standing on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade -- managed to make themselves the leaders of public anger against the banks. It was the most extraordinary thing. The Chicago Board of Trade. What was that character's name? Rick Santelli, right? Remember this guy?
The founder of the Tea Party.
That's right. And by God, they got out in front of it and led everybody off down the wrong path, this sort of disastrous result. But it goes way, way back. "The Conquest of Cool," which you mentioned -- but, say, (holding up a copy of the book) doesn't it look familiar? Have you seen the new "Mad Men" advertisements? Anyhow, the book is about the advertising industry in the 1960s. I was fascinated by the ad biz because these were people who -- you said "revolution" was a magic word. Well, these people figured that out and they grabbed it with both hands and made it into this sort of talismanic word of Madison Avenue during the 1960s. They called what they were doing the "Creative Revolution." That was what was supposedly going on in those days on Madison Avenue. It was part of a larger revolution in the way capitalism works and the way capitalism thinks about itself. There was also a revolution in management theory. There was a revolution in the computer industry. Revolutions in media and in fashion. All of this stuff was going on at the same time. Post-industrialism is what was happening.
The word is being used today as an adjective, not as a noun. The idea of political revolution as a noun is not in very high standing. But to use "revolutionary" for a new cell phone app or a new shade of lipstick is, as you say, the context.