Posts Tagged ‘commodification’

Sat drinking a cup of tea and cogitation starts as usual. I’ve been away from my blog for a long time.

I’m trying to reconcile how one of the main areas of growth in art in the last few years has been in what’s now been dubbed “Post-atrocity Art”, it’s got it’s own label, it’s become a thing and probably it’ll soon be an area of study – no doubt there’s a thesis there.
And it, Post-atrocity Art, has burgeoned, I almost said exploded but stopped myself, due to the prevalence of Social Media and everyone’s desire to display. The latest symbol is the painted symbol of the CND chicken-foot incorporating the Eiffel Tower.
There is a market and now a commodity for collective grief, is it grief? Is it a genuine wish to connect with others and show sympathy and unity through symbolism? Or is it something else? Is there vanity involved as well? There is a correlation to the Post-Diana reaction.

It’s probably worthy of research as a psycho-social phenomenon?

‘We make a nation of “helots”,
and have no free citizens.’

– Adam Ferguson said of the English industrialised working class. (quoted in Karl Marx Das Kapital)
* Adam Ferguson (known as Ferguson of Raith) was a Scottish philosopher and historian who was sympathetic to traditional societies. Influenced Karl Marx and Hegel, known as the father of Sociology.
* The “helots” were a subjugated population group that formed the main population of Laconia and Messenia (areas ruled by the Sparta warrior caste).


… This passage has really resonated with me from Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” for me this says everything you need to know about the state of crony Capitalism… this says everything about the depersonalising effect of the mechanisms of capitalist society…

In bourgeois society, the various forms of social relations are, as far as the ‘individual’ is concerned,
‘a mere means to his private ends, an outward necessity’

 Marx in, ‘Kapital’, p762, goes on…

The classical mode of small-scale production,
in so far as · it tended to prevent the development of productive forces · could not help but give way to the concentrationof property and the socialization of labour – the change had to be wrought by means of ‘progress over skulls’.

… progress over skulls… it sends a shiver down your spine… like the battle scenes in TERMINATOR. (Opening scenes of Terminator link)

“Has the bourgeoisie,” Marx asked, “ever effected progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

– (Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber, 2013, Liveright publishing, New York.)

Just look at this… this is how I can contextualise modern society under the Tories. It’s Tory PROGRESS OVER SKULLS!

This is what it’s about…

Mark Spencer Conservative MP, jaw-dropping response during a poverty speech in the Commons Feb 4th 2015

Man kills himself over £800 benefits debt that WASN’T his fault.


I’m reading Mikhail Lifschitz’ “The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx” it’s a short 120page pdf.

I think that this passage is brilliant…
The concentration of property in the hands of the few and the‘fearful and painful expropriation of the masses’ constitutes the prelude to the history of capital. ‘under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious’.
In consequence, all patriarchal relations, and all personal family and communal ties disintegrate. and in their place appears one strong bond-that of callous “cash payment”.


“The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world — on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”

― Karl Marx, The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859

My new art and philosophy project for 2015 will incorporate the Aesthetics of Resistance and Creative Destruction.

I came across a phrase in a recent debate on classical Marxism and modern Capitalism by Joseph Schumpeter (Austrian. Economist. 1919) “Creative Destruction” within Capital. Schumpeter was a supporter of capitalism and capitalist free market economics.

So decided to do some research (and thus prevaricating and diverting from my philosophy MA research yet again! Lol).

Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) coined the seemingly paradoxical term creative destruction, and generations of economists have adopted it as a shorthand description of the free market’s messy way of delivering progress.

In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), the Austrian economist wrote: “The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—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.” (p. 83)

Although Schumpeter devoted a mere six-page chapter to “The Process of Creative Destruction,” in which he described capitalism as “the perennial gale of creative destruction,” it has become the centerpiece for modern thinking on how economies evolve.

Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil.

Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.

Herein lies the paradox of progress.

A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever.

At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress. Schumpeter’s enduring term reminds us that capitalism’s pain and gain are inextricably linked. The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the preexisting order.

Transportation provides a dramatic, ongoing example of creative destruction at work. With the arrival of steam power in the nineteenth century, railroads swept across the United States, enlarging markets, reducing shipping costs, building new industries, and providing millions of new productive jobs. The internal combustion engine paved the way for the automobile early in the next century. The rush to put America on wheels spawned new enterprises; at one point in the 1920s, the industry had swelled to more than 260 car makers. The automobile’s ripples spilled into oil, tourism, entertainment, retailing, and other industries. On the heels of the automobile, the airplane flew into our world, setting off its own burst of new businesses and jobs.

Americans benefited as horses and mules gave way to cars and airplanes, but all this creation did not come without destruction. Each new mode of transportation took a toll on existing jobs and industries. In 1900, the peak year for the occupation, the country employed 109,000 carriage and harness makers. In 1910, 238,000 Americans worked as blacksmiths.

Today, those jobs are largely obsolete.

After eclipsing canals and other forms of transport, railroads lost out in competition with cars, long-haul trucks, and airplanes.
In 1920, 2.1 million Americans earned their paychecks working for railroads, compared with fewer than 200,000 today.

What occurred in the transportation sector has been repeated in one industry after another—in many cases, several times in the same industry.

Creative destruction recognizes change as the one constant in capitalism.

Sawyers, masons, and miners were among the top thirty American occupations in 1900. A century later, they no longer rank among the top thirty; they have been replaced by medical technicians, engineers, computer scientists, and others.

Technology roils job markets, as Schumpeter conveyed in coining the phrase “technological unemployment”, e-mail, word processors, answering machines, and other modern office technology have cut the number of secretaries but raised the ranks of programmers.

The birth of the Internet spawned a need for hundreds of thousands of webmasters, an occupation that did not exist as recently as 1990. LASIK surgery often lets consumers throw away their glasses, reducing visits to optometrists and opticians but increasing the need for ophthalmologists. Digital cameras mean fewer photo clerks.

Companies show the same pattern of destruction and rebirth. Only five of today’s hundred largest public companies were among the top hundred in 1917. Half of the top hundred of 1970 had been replaced in the rankings by 2000.

“The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process,” – Schumpeter wrote (p. 82).

Schumpeter summed up how entrepreneurship and competition fuel creative destruction as follows:

“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.” (p. 83)

Entrepreneurs introduce new products and technologies with an eye toward making themselves better off—the profit motive.

New goods and services, new firms, and new industries compete with existing ones in the marketplace, taking customers by offering lower prices, better performance, new features, catchier styling, faster service, more convenient locations, higher status, more aggressive marketing, or more attractive packaging.

In another seemingly contradictory aspect of creative destruction, the pursuit of self-interest ignites the progress that makes others better off.

Producers survive by streamlining production with newer and better tools that make workers more productive. Companies that no longer deliver what consumers want at competitive prices lose customers, and eventually wither and die.

The market’s invisible hand—a phrase owing not to Schumpeter but to Adam Smith—shifts resources from declining sectors to more valuable uses as workers, inputs, and financial capital seek their highest returns.

Through this constant roiling of the status quo, creative destruction provides a powerful force for making societies wealthier. It does so by making scarce resources more productive. The telephone industry employed 421,000 switchboard operators in 1970, when Americans made 9.8 billion long-distance calls.

With advances in switching technology over the next three decades, the telecommunications sector could reduce the number of operators to 156,000 but still ring up 106 billion calls. An average operator handled only 64 calls a day in 1970. By 2000, that figure had increased to 1,861, a staggering gain in productivity. If they had to handle today’s volume of calls with 1970s technology, the telephone companies would need more than 4.5 million operators, or 3 percent of the labor force. Without the productivity gains, a long-distance call would cost six times as much.

The telephone industry is not an isolated example of creative destruction at work. In 1900, nearly forty of every hundred Americans worked in farming to feed a country of ninety million people. A century later, it takes just two out of every hundred workers. Despite one of history’s most thorough downsizings, the country has not gone hungry. The United States enjoys agricultural plenty, producing more meat, grain, vegetables, and dairy products than ever, thanks largely to huge advances in agricultural productivity.

Resources no longer needed to feed the nation have been freed to meet other consumer demands. Over the decades, workers no longer required in agriculture moved to the cities, where they became available to produce other goods and services. They started out in foundries, meatpacking plants, and loading docks in the early days of the Industrial Age. Their grandsons and granddaughters, living in an economy refashioned by creative destruction into the Information Age, are less likely to work in those jobs. They are making computers, movies, and financial decisions and providing a modern economy’s myriad other goods and services.

Over the past two centuries, the Western nations that embraced capitalism have achieved tremendous economic progress as new industries supplanted old ones. Even with the higher living standards, however, the constant flux of free enterprise is not always welcome. The disruption of lost jobs and shuttered businesses is immediate, while the payoff from creative destruction comes mainly in the long term. As a result, societies will always be tempted to block the process of creative destruction, implementing policies to resist economic change.

Attempts to save jobs almost always backfire. Instead of going out of business, inefficient producers hang on, at a high cost to consumers or taxpayers. The tinkering shortcircuits market signals that shift resources to emerging industries. It saps the incentives to introduce new products and production methods, leading to stagnation, layoffs, and bankruptcies. The ironic point of Schumpeter’s iconic phrase is this: societies that try to reap the gain of creative destruction without the pain find themselves enduring the pain but not the gain.

Author – W. Michael Cox senior vice president and chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Richard Alm is an economics writer at the Dallas Fed. They are coauthors of Myths of Rich and Poor (1999).

Further Reading
Cox, W. Michael, and Richard Alm. “The Churn: The Paradox of Progress.” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, annual report, 1992.
Davis, Stevens J., John Haltwanger, and Scott Schuh. Gross Job Creation, Gross Job Destruction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 3d ed. 1942. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.




Black Friday, is peak abhorrent behaviour.

We look on with a mixture of disgust and voyeuristic pleasure at the ‘dregs’ of society battling it out for a pointless piece of shit bargain. A friend of mine pointed out the hypocrisy of “middle classes” judging the scrums from their armchairs (like myself).

“A question for those who were disgusted by peoples’ actions: What’s a more blatant example of rank consumerism – cramming into a supermarket in the middle of the night to get 70% of a vacuum OR cramming into a German Xmas Market stall on a Saturday and Sunday morning to pay £8 for a hotdog and £50 for an ornament your four year old could make at school for a fiver?”

There seems to be a Gladiatorial element to this, the rich watch on and tut and giggle as the plebs fight for the scraps, like the Cambodian pauper children paid to beat the hell out of each other for pennies. This doesn’t explain or excuse the vileness of Black Friday though.

The scenes across the UK show signs of a society that is sinking past the ability to make any common emotional connection on the basis of anything other than fetishisation, competition and ownership of objects. The, must have, society of the spectacle.


Instead of people working together to provide for each other, have a nice time and a festive season, our consumerist system has managed to bring us to its’ desired conclusion. We are not to feel sensible or rational any longer – we are to fight like dogs for pieces of trash that will never fill the emotional void, the Lacanian lack, in our lives – or ease the ever diminishing bank account.

We punch and kick each other to buy things we don’t need! with money we don’t have! for a festival we’ve long forgotten the meaning of if we ever knew in the first place!!!

Funnily enough up until the Victorian era, Christmas had little to do with presents, and it was deemed too pagan and too Catholic to celebrate for centuries after the Reformation.

Cynics are not wrong to suggest Christmas was a holiday built up in the Victorian era to sell picture cards, though thanks to Dickens it was given a charitable feel.

Dickens’ popularity re-introduced the ideas of festivity, gift giving and charity. So Christmas is a weird hotch potch festival, of northern European paganism, Catholic Christianity and Victorian charity and revival.

The only Black Friday I’d ever heard of was the last day of work when all the factories and industry clocked off early and everyone went binge drinking in the towns and the violence and wife beatings that followed gave the day it’s name!

Consumerism and inequality has always been at the heart of the modern Christmas as well, though – Christmas trees were introduced by the German/English Royal Family and copied by the populaces of the US and Europe and St Nicholas (Father Christmas) had his coat changed from green to red by Coca Cola’s advertising company!


For many, and definitely me, modern consumerism is just too much. Unlike the middle class arbiters of taste, I actually don’t have two pennies to rub together. Never have had much.

When I was married and working full time in R&D we were still up to our eyes in debt. For many people it won’t be a holiday. Most of us have to force ourselves through a mire of family politics, separated from children, ranking presents and a constant eye on the bank account.

For others it will be a lot worse, old people freezing through winter, deciding to heat or eat, women and children in sheltered homes, homeless people trying to find a place to sleep where they won’t be beaten up, or moved on by police and have their belongings confiscated.

The last two months (at least, probably three) was non-stop buy, buy, buy, like in someway it’s going to fill the gap that a genuine connection to other human beings might fill.

It is an old familiar trope, and we’ve all heard it before, whether we’re buying our German Xmas hotdog, or our shite ASDA widescreen TVs, we don’t seem any happier. And we certainly ain’t better off.

I don’t like the imported concept of Black Friday. I think it’s a shame that it’s a fad over here now. But I acknowledge – People feel poor. When things are cheap (especially before Xmas), they buy them. It’s a shame that we live in a society where we are defined by what we own,

It is easy and enjoyable to feel superior, and tut and scorn, but, let’s actually try and challenge the conditions that create this need and desire for cheap goods. We need to organise, not moralise.

I hear that there will be a push to organise for an austerity Christmas next year – BUY NOTHING, support strikes for the living wage, spread solidarity. Now that’s a Christmas I could enjoy!

Proximal Abandonment and imagery sourced from this psychosocial phenomena

(my 2011 Foundation Dip Fine Art project)



Things That Should Happen But Do Not - I. Pritchard, 2011

Things That Should Happen But Do Not – I. Pritchard, 2011

"I Am Someone Too" - I. Pritchard, 2011

“I Am Someone Too” – I. Pritchard, 2011

"You've Fallen For The Monkey Trap" - I. Pritchard, 2011

“You’ve Fallen For The Monkey Trap” – I. Pritchard, 2011

My pathway stage focused mainly within areas of using art as social commentary, which I feel, reflects my strongest viewpoints.

I enjoyed producing a series of works based on the word ‘Aspiration’ which included my own slant on the word using various socio-political sources to inform the work.

  • From having produced work in this area I now intend to go on to make a more in depth investigation to produce works based on the psychosocial phenomenon of abuse known as ‘Proximal Abandonment’.
  • Research shows that emotional unavailability towards our children or closest dependents equates to ‘Proximal Abandonment’.
    There is physical presence, but emotional abandonment from the parent figure,
    they are physically present but non-interactive with their dependents.
  • I would like to equate this phenomenon and apply this notion with substituting our politicians or those in a position of power or trust as my subject matter.
  • I use the language of Art to symbolically convey my ideas, views and feelings on these issues.
Influences, Research, Sources and Ideas
  • In order to begin my assignment I intend to gather research, produce mind maps and gather ideas from a variety of artists and designers, that I find influential such as;
    Andy Warhol, Terry Setch, Max Ernst, Jamie Reid and Banksy.
  • I particularly like the way in which these artists subvert imagery and use juxtaposition to convey a message, and how by using a mixed media approach pleasing unexpected results may be obtained.
  • I feel my work could be influenced further by researching;
    newspaper articles, museum and gallery visits, blogs, libraries,
    psychological experiments, case studies, Facebook forum discussions and internet sources.
  • Initially, Warhol’s ‘Mao, 1973’ is a work I feel I can utilize in particular, in addition to found objects, my responses to journalism, advertising and consumerism giving me potential ideas to develop, through photography, collage, mixed media and drawing.
  • Further reading: “Psychiatric Tales” a graphic artist’s battle against depression/anxiety and his work in mental health care. BBC R4 interview – All In The Mind, 25th May 2011. Excellent interview.
The Science bit
  • Pioneering child psychologist D.W Winnicott said that fundamentally two things can go wrong in early child development;
  1. a) when things happen that should not happen.
  2. b) when things that should happen do not.
  • The first category is the traumatic abusive and abandonment experience suffered for example, by children of addicts.
  • The second category is the lack of presence of the emotionally available parent or primary carer – just not being available due to societies stresses, short term priorities, and so on
    – affecting the parenting environment.
    Psychologist Allan N Schore called this “Proximal Abandonment” – when the parent is physically present but emotionally absent.
  • I have entitled the first of the three of my chosen final artworks based on Winnicott’s second fundamental principle.
Some influences

Fay Godwin – book “our forbidden land”

  • The British landscape is under threat moreso than ever before from government policies: industry,agri-business and powerful interests while our historic rights of access are increasingly denied.
  • Fay Godwin uses a combination of her photography and words and selected poems and quotes to reveal a deep rooted commitment and respect for the land.
  • She uses haunting, penetrating photographs and text to fuse aesthetic perception with realism, documentary and irony to form a rousing passionate appeal for the land us as citizens can no longer roam.
  • I want my FMP works to contain a similar appeal and substance to that of Fay Godwin’s.
  • I want to produce a passionate and thought provoking series of images on how I feel we as people are having our rights infringed and health endangered by those supposedly in charge but who put their status and careers in front of their duty of care and what should be their primary concern – us!

My intention initially was to take inspiration from what Andy Warhol did with the image of Chairman Mao in 1973.

It had background acrylic on canvas with an ink print of the portrait printed in the foreground.

I wanted to take a similar approach with a canvas painted with an everyday scene and print a contemporary figure or image I the foreground using the inkjet/acetone transfer/decalcomania technique.

I chose to satirise Ieuan Wyn Jones of the Welsh Assembly government in this recognisable way.

I saw him as someone who has jeopardised the health and environment of everyone in my local area due to his dealings with American corporation Covanta who plan to build the UK’s largest ever waste incinerator I an area already acknowledged has having a population with extremely poor health and the highest rate of pulmonary/heart disease in Wales.

I saw him as a figure guilty of political abandonment of those in need, in favour of short term gain.

Recently Lib-Dem MP John Hemming became a champion for free speech, this coming from a pot-bellied serial cheat and love rat who fathered a child with a mistress and who used taxpayers money to part-fund a private business.

I wonder if he’ll re-Tweet that?

  • My development piece is called “It takes one politician and a truckload of shite to begin a generation of misery” and was transferred using translucent silicone sealant onto green masonry sack.

For research and for the purpose of inspiration, museum visits and galleries I have attended were:

  • National Museum of Wales, Aberdare Museum, St David’s Hall Cardiff, Bay Arts Gallery and Cardiff Bay Crafts Gallery.

Some of the more relevant artists to the project I had in mind that I felt most inspired by included established artists such as:

  • John Piper, Terry Setch (especially Landfil 2010), Dave Brook’s plaster and pigment work (Tract11 & Tract 12)
  • newly qualified artists I viewed such as Nicole Thoss’ copy transfer ceramics (Scream No.1 & No.2 and Kidnapping), Dawn Dupree (It’s Never Black and White) and Vicky Shaw (various).
  • The Nicole Thoss copy transfer works were especially interesting to  me as this,prior to any gallery visits,is the technique I had been researching, along with investigating various materials to transfer onto.
Final Outcome

The three artworks I have chosen to represent my final works in this project are deliberately displayed in the following sequence;
a) “Things that should happen, but don’t”,
b) “I am someone too”,
c) “You’ve fallen for the monkey trap.

This is because there is a narrative quality that I wanted to convey to the observer.

  • The three parts come together to show the phenomenon of Proximal Abandonment beginning with the Authority figures and their rush for a quick fix to the problem of residual waste management and the promises of a profit hungry American incinerator corporation homing in on an already deprived ex-coal field community, a place wherein some areas have a male life expectancy of less than 59 years of age.
  • Secondly onto the sombre, yet defiant figure of a young child protesting.
    I convey that she has been abandoned and her rights discarded or ignored.
    She represents us and our future generations, I hope to evoke and convey ideas and release feelings about social and political abandonment using the sack cloth background.
  • Thirdly, the image of man’s closest cousin, the chimpanzee, in a contemplative, possibly mocking pose.
    This echoes an allegorical passage from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” on short sightedness and it’s many fatal pitfalls and begs the question are they making monkeys of us all?

Beware universities mis-selling courses on open days

First signs of a consumer fightback? The Graduate Premium Myth,  Commodification of University courses, Universities miselling their courses

Martin Lewis,

One of the artworks I produced for my BA Arts Practice final show was entitled; The Graduate Premium Myth {The system sucks the life from me}

Ian Pritchard - 97096342 - A5 flyer - Omnia - System sucks

The handwriting on the girl's pad repeatedly reads the lines “this system sucks the life from me.”

The handwriting on the girl’s pad repeatedly reads the lines “this system sucks the life from me.”


this system sucks the life-3

hand written lines repeatedly read "This system sucks the life from me…..."

hand written lines repeatedly read “This system sucks the life from me……”

Now this report in American webZine “Salon” College is ripping you off: Students are cash cows, and schools the predators seems to further support my research during this project.

The author Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” “Pity the Billionaire” and “One Market Under God.” He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

This essay starts with utopia—the utopia known as the American university. It is the finest educational institution in the world, everyone tells us. Indeed, to judge by the praise that is heaped upon it, the American university may be our best institution, period. With its peaceful quadrangles and prosperity-bringing innovation, the university is more spiritually satisfying than the church, more nurturing than the family, more productive than any industry.

The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias—like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics—the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.

It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They’ve been to the university, after all. They know.

When we reach the end of high school, we approach the next life, the university life, in the manner of children writing letters to Santa. Oh, we promise to be so very good. We open our hearts to the beloved institution. We get good grades. We do our best on standardized tests. We earnestly list our first, second, third choices. We tell them what we want to be when we grow up. We confide our wishes. We stare at the stock photos of smiling students, we visit the campus, and we find, always, that it is so very beautiful.

And when that fat acceptance letter comes—oh, it is the greatest moment of personal vindication most of us have experienced. Our hard work has paid off. We have been chosen.

Then several years pass, and one day we wake up to discover there is no Santa Claus. Somehow, we have been had. We are a hundred thousand dollars in debt, and there is no clear way to escape it. We have no prospects to speak of. And if those damned dreams of ours happened to have taken a particularly fantastic turn and urged us to get a PhD, then the learning really begins.

College and Mammon Both

Go back to the beginning, back to the days when people first understood a character-building college diploma to be the ticket to middle-class success. We would forge a model republic of citizen-students, who would redeem the merit badges of academic achievement for spots in the upper reaches of corporate capitalism. The totems of the modern American striver were to be the University Credential and the Corner Office, and prosperity would reward the ablest.

And so the story remains today, despite everything that has happened in the realms of the corporation and the university. We might worry from time to time about the liberal professors who infest the academy, but school is still where you go to “write your destiny,” to use President Obama’s 2010 description of education generally. Go to college, or else your destiny will be written by someone else. The bachelor’s degree that universities issue is a “credential” that’s “a prerequisite for 21st century jobs,” says the White House website. Obama himself equates education with upward mobility—more schooling equals more success—as well as with national greatness. “The kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school,” he declared a few years ago.

In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school will also help determine America’s success in the twenty-first century.

This is commonplace and unremarkable to the point of being utterly hackneyed. Everyone says this. It is obvious. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist who has refashioned himself into the Lord Protector of Learning in recent years, says the same thing, constantly: you’d better have the schooling and the skills that the entrepreneurial class demands if you want to make even a minimal living. The higher education mantra is possibly the greatest cliché in American public life.

And so the dreams proliferate. Education is the competitive advantage that might save our skins as we compete more and more directly with China and Vietnam and the Philippines, the journalists say. Education is what explains income inequality, chime the economists, and more education is what will roll it back. In fact, education is just about the only way we can justify being paid for our work at all; it is the only quantifiable input that makes us valuable or gives us “skills.”

Quantifiable, yes, but only vaguely. No one really knows the particular contents of the education that is supposed to save us. It is, again, a dream, a secret formula, a black box into which we pour money and out of which comes uplift or enrichment or wish-fulfillment. How a college education manages to do these marvelous things—Is it calculus? Is it classics?—is a subject of hot controversy. All we know for sure is that people who go to college are affluent; it follows naturally that if you send more people to college, you will have yourself a more affluent country.

Indeed, to judge by the popular understanding of the dream-institution, the whole thing might as well be some sort of self-perpetuating cabal, akin to Skull and Bones or Sigma Chi. Maybe college is able to work its magic because college grads hire only college grads, and after decades of “networking”—which everyone knows is more important than book-learning—they have managed to colonize the entire economy. No one knows for sure how it works, but everyone can see that it does work, and that’s good enough. Get yourself a bachelor’s degree from a “good school,” and those dreamy dreams of yours can come true. Get something else, like a cosmetologist license or a membership in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and you lose.

We don’t pause to consider that maybe we’ve got the whole thing backwards—that the big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.

What they sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

Now, consider the seventeen-year-old customer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center. You can be sure that he knows all about the imperative of achieving his dreams, and the status that will surely flow from the beloved institution. Either he goes to college like the rest of his friends, or he goes to work.

He knows enough about the world to predict the kind of work he’ll get with only a high school diploma in his pocket, but of the ways of the University he knows precious little. He is the opposite of a savvy consumer. And yet here he comes nevertheless, armed with the ability to pay virtually any price his dream school demands that he pay. All he needs to do is sign a student loan application, binding himself forever and inescapably with a financial instrument that he only dimly understands and that, thanks to the optimism of adolescence, he has not yet learned to fear.

The disaster that the university has proceeded to inflict on the youth of America, I submit, is the direct and inescapable outcome of this grim equation. Yes, in certain reaches of the system the variables are different and the yield isn’t quite as dreadful as in others. But by and large, once all the factors I have described were in place, it was a matter of simple math. Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.

Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.

An Accounting of Sorts

An educational publisher wrote to me a few months back; they wanted to reprint an essay of mine that they had seen on the Internet, where it is available for free. The textbook in which they wanted to include it, they said, would be “inexpensively priced,” and authors were therefore being asked to keep their reprint fees to a minimum. The low, low price that students were to pay for this textbook: $75.95. “Approximately.”

I was astounded, but it took just a few minutes of research to realize that $76 was, in fact, altruistic by the standards of this industry. Paying $250 for a textbook is more like it nowadays; according to one economist, textbook prices have increased 812 percent over the past thirty-five years, outstripping not only inflation (by a mile) but every other commodity—home prices, health care—that we usually consider to be spiraling out of control.

The explanation is simple. The textbook publishers use every trick known to the marketing mind to obsolete their products year after year, thus closing off the possibility of second-hand sales. What’s more, textbook publishing is a highly concentrated industry—an oligopoly—which means they can drive prices pretty much as high as they feel like driving them. Meanwhile, the professors who assign the textbooks and who might do something about the problem don’t have to pay for them.

Actually, that explanation isn’t simple enough. The truth is that rip-offs like this abound in academia—that virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators—that the charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two.

Consider the standardized testing industry and its shadow, the test-prep industry. One of them is supposedly charitable, the other ebulliently profit-minded, but both of them have raked it in for years by stoking a pointless arms race among the anxious youngsters of the nation, each one fearful lest her dream be cancelled out by someone else’s. The testing companies, each of which holds a monopoly over some aspect of the business, charge students hefty registration fees, pay their executives fantastic salaries, and scheme endlessly to enlarge the empire of the standardized test—persuading more people to take advanced placement exams, for example, and invading grade schools, where “No Child Left Behind” and the push for a “Common Core” have opened up vast frontiers for testing.

The test-prep people, meanwhile, match them step for step, charging students far, far heftier fees to help them beat the standardized tests and endlessly scheming to persuade new demographics—grade schoolers, notably—that they need cram school too. Occasionally, news stories appear announcing that test-prep of this kind has little effect on SAT scores, but it’s really the news stories themselves that have little effect. What parent is going to be stingy when their child’s future appears to be at stake? And so the test-prep industry has boomed extravagantly for decades now; there are numerous entrants in the field, and the best established of them, Kaplan Inc., has branched out around the globe and into all manner of educational provinces. Although technically owned by the Washington Post Company, its revenues have dwarfed those of the newspaper for many years.

And we’re not even going to start with the test-fraud industry, which is apparently booming as well, as cases of mass cheating surface at Harvard, at prestigious Stuyvesant High, at the benchmark-crazy Atlanta Public Schools, and in South Korea, where SATs for the entire country had to be cancelled a few months back.

Consider the “enrollment management” industry, which helps colleges and universities acquire the student body they desire. Since what this means in many cases is students who can pay—the opposite of the “inclusiveness” most universities say they treasure—enrollment management is a job best left to quiet consultancies, who use the various tools of marketing to discover a student’s “price sensitivity.” In other words, if you give a discount of a certain amount to a student with a certain SAT score, will that be enough to persuade them to pick up the rest of the tab and attend your school? What will it take to lure them to their second choice? Their third? Enrollment management consultants know the answer, just as they know what kind of discounts to offer in order to maximize the institution’s revenue and boost its all-important test scores.

Consider the sweetheart deals that are so commonplace between university administrations and the businessmen who happen to sit on the university’s board of directors. Consider universities’ real estate operations, which are often thuggish and nearly always tax-free. Consider their army of Washington lobbyists, angling for earmarks and fighting accountability measures. Consider their massive investments in sports. Or their sleazy arrangements with tobacco companies and Big Pharma and high-tech start-ups.

And lastly, consider the many universities that have raised their tuition to extravagant levels for no reason at all except to take advantage of the quaint American folk belief that price tags indicate quality. From this faith in price correctness the nation apparently cannot be moved—there is simply no amount of exposure or reporting that will do it—and so the university inevitably becomes a luxury good, like a big Armani label you get to wear through life that costs a fortune but that holds no intrinsic worth at all. “It serves as a trophy, a symbol,” the former president of George Washington University told Washington Monthly magazine in 2010, describing his own (successful) strategy for making GWU into a top-tier school via gigantic tuition hikes. “It’s a sort of token of who they think they are.”

It is all so wonderfully circular, is it not? We know college degrees make us affluent because affluent people have college degrees; and we also know that we must spend lots of money on college—signing up for a life of debt, essentially—because we believe status signifiers like college ought to be fantastically expensive. Think about it this way for long enough and you start to suspect that maybe those fancy stickers you put in your rear window are what education is all about, the distilled essence of the whole thing.

Where the Money Goes

The most poignant educational scandal of the moment concerns Cooper Union, the prestigious Manhattan art and architecture school which, from its founding in 1859 up till last year, offered an excellent education for free to everyone who was admitted. The way it did this was by carefully living on the limited funds generated by its endowment. Now that can no longer be sustained, and the school announced that it will begin charging students $20,000 for tuition next fall. The reason everything had to change is that Cooper Union, like . . . well, like every other institution of higher ed in America, decided a few years back that it needed to think big and embrace change and build the brand. The first step in that process: erecting a fantastically expensive bit of trophy architecture across the street from its main building. (There was also a growing corps of administrators, and a departing president who needed to be paid close to $1.1 million, but we won’t go into that now.) Unfortunately, Cooper Union couldn’t pay for this glamorous new tower, and so it had to borrow an enormous sum, like other corporations do. The “free education” thing was collateral damage. Better to be known for “vibrant” architecture, I guess, than for some old-fashioned nonsense about uplifting the non-wealthy.

The story of Cooper Union is a typical anecdote of the age of collegiate capitalism, and it’s easy to come up with other examples of the lavish, unnecessary spending that characterizes American academia nowadays, that makes it “the best in the world.” It’s not just the showy new buildings, but the sports teams that give the alumni such a thrill, the fancy gymnasiums and elaborate food courts that everyone thinks you have to have if you want the cool kids to choose your diploma mill over all the others. It’s the celebrity professors everyone has decided they must furnish sinecures for regardless of whether those celebrities know anything about the subject they are hired to profess.

Above all, what the masters of academia spend the loot on is themselves. In saying this, I am not referring merely to the increasing number of university presidents who take home annual “compensation” north of a million dollars. That is a waste, of course, an outrageous bit of money-burning borrowed from Wall Street in an age when we ought to be doing the opposite of borrowing from Wall Street. But what has really fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of university administrators.

Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg tells the sorry tale in his 2011 book, “The Fall of the Faculty.” Back in the day, Ginsberg tells us, American universities were governed by professors, who would take time out from their academic careers to manage the institution’s business affairs. Today, however, the business side of the university has been captured by a class of professionals who have nothing to do with the pedagogical enterprise itself.

Administrators: Their salaries are generous, their ranks expand year after year, and their work requires no peer review and not even much effort. As Ginsberg reminds us, most of them don’t teach courses, they don’t squabble like English professors at the MLA, and no one ever suggests replacing them with adjuncts or temps. As tuition balloons, it is administrators who prosper. In fact, their fortunes are an almost exact reverse image of the tuition-indebtedness of the young.

According to Ginsberg, “administrators and staffers actually outnumber full-time faculty members” nowadays, even though it’s the faculty members who do the real work of education that we believe is so goddamned important. The numbers are startling. While the ranks of full-time professors have grown at about the rate of university enrollment generally since 1975—which is to say, about 50 percent—administrations have expanded at an amazing pace. Administrators proper are up 85 percent, Ginsberg reports, while the number of “other professionals” employed by universities has grown 240 percent. Their share of university budgets has grown by similar margins.

Naturally, an ugly new class conflict has begun to play out amidst the leafy groves. Administrators, it seems, have understood that the fortunes of their cohort are directly opposed to those of the faculty. One group’s well-being comes at the expense of the other, and vice versa. And so, according to Ginsberg, the administrators work constantly to expand their own numbers, to replace professors with adjuncts, to subject professors to petty humiliations, to interfere in faculty hiring, to distill the professors’ expertise down to something that can be measured by a standardized test.

It is not until you read Ginsberg’s description of the day-to-day activities of administrators that the light bulb goes on, however. The particular pedagogy that motivates this class of university creatures is . . . management theory. They talk endlessly about “process management” and “excellence.” They set up “culture teams.” They attend retreats where they play team-building games. And whole divisions of them are dedicated to writing “strategic plans” for their universities, which take years to finish and are forgotten immediately upon completion.

Last year’s attempted coup at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, gave us a glimpse of how this conflict can play out. The university’s president, a sociologist, is a traditional academic; the university’s Board of Visitors is dominated by wealthy figures from finance and real estate who wanted (of course) to dump the classics department and who thought the university needed to get with the online thing toot sweet because David Brooks had said it was a good idea in his New York Times column. When the board forced the president to resign last June, they cloaked the putsch in a stinky fog of management bullshit.

When the coup took place, there was at first no explanation given at all. Then there appeared a leaked email from a super-wealthy trustee of the business school—Mr. Jefferson’s university suffered from a troubling paucity of “strategic dynamism,” he moaned. Oh, but that would change now that the plutes were in charge: “There will also be a strategic planning initiative commenced by the Board of Visitors with a focus on strategic dynamism.” Billionaire alumnus Paul Tudor Jones II soon chimed in with a newspaper Op-Ed informing Virginians that Jefferson himself would have welcomed the coup because he was a “change agent.” Reading these preposterous declarations at the time, I was convinced there had to be some deeper motive, that no one really talked this way. Since then, however, we’ve learned that these people meant this stuff. Read the board members’ emails back and forth to one another and you start to realize that the poor president was the casualty of a long-running argument the University brass had been having among themselves about . . . “the rate of change.”

That the people who hold the ultimate authority at our institutions of higher learning are dedicated to a notorious form of pseudo-knowledge is richly ironic, and it is also telling. The point of management theory, after all, is to establish the legitimacy of a social order and a social class who are, in fact, little more than drones. The grotesque top-heaviness of the American corporation is an old story: we have more supervisors per worker than any other industrialized nation, and quite naturally we have developed an extensive literature of bogus social theory assuring those supervisors of the rightfulness of their place in the world—a literature that also counsels everyone else to acquiesce to their subordinate station in the Great Chain of Free-Market Being.

And it’s that “everyone else” you start to wonder about when you see copies of “Who Moved My Cheese?” in the hands of university administrators—the ones who must learn to accept the precariousness of their economic lives. Who might those people be, in the context of higher learning?

Professors, Of Course

The de-professionalization of the faculty is another long-running tragedy that gets a little sadder every year, as teaching college students steadily becomes an occupation for people with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. These lumpen-profs, who have spent many years earning advanced degrees but sometimes make less than minimum wage, now account for more than three-quarters of the teaching that is done at our insanely expensive, oh-so-excellent American universities. Their numbers increase constantly as universities continue to produce far more Ph.D.s than they do full-time, tenure-track job openings, and every time cutbacks are necessary—which is to say, all the time—it is those same full-time, tenure-track job openings that get pruned.

What can I add to this dreadful tale? That it continues to get worse, twenty years after it began? Is there anything new to be said about the humiliation that the lumpen-profs suffer at the hands of their so-called colleagues? Can I shock anyone by describing the shabby, desperate lives they lead as they chase their own university dream? Will it do any good to remind readers how the tenured English dons of thirty years ago helped to set the forces of destruction in motion simply because producing more Ph.D.s meant a lighter workload for themselves?

No. What matters now is that the deed has been done. We have all seen how it went down and which disciplines have fared the worst—as it happens, the very disciplines that, back in the 1980s, housed the most fashionable, the most respected, the most theoretically advanced, the most aggressive, the most intimidating people on campus. Their heirs—their own students—have been transformed into minimum-wage flunkies. They were once the consummate academic players, and look at them now.

What their downfall shows us is just how easily systems of this kind can be made to crumble. There is zero solidarity in a meritocracy, even a fake one, as the anthropologist Sarah Kendzior demonstrates in a recent series of hard-hitting articles on the adjunct situation. Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the de-professionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job—maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep.

We Have Only Words Against

The system can’t go on this way. It is too obviously a rip-off on too many levels, with too many victims. One of these days a breaking point will come, just as it did with Enron and the dot-coms and the housing bubble, and all the fine words spoken by our thought leaders will once again be recalled to make them look like imbeciles. The means by which cosmic justice will make itself felt is not clear just yet: free online courses, maybe, or a national tuition strike, or the debt-driven failure of a prestigious U or two, or maybe a right-wing backlash that finally figures out how the university’s economic logic corrodes its social liberalism.

It’s easy to understand what ought to be done about the higher-ed situation; there is a huge literature on this subject. The scandal has been understood, to varying degrees, for decades. Every example I have used here, every argument I have made, has been made or used by someone else already; after all, the people who have seen this go down are people who can write. The country was up in arms about tuition inflation in the late 1980s. Bill Readings published his depressing prediction, “The University in Ruins,” back in 1996. The Wall Street Journal ran a shocking page-one story on enrollment management that same year. The proletarianization of the PhD has been a subject of countless exposés since the days of a teaching-assistant strike at Yale in the mid-nineties; I own two books of essays on the subject; no doubt there are a dozen more. Chris Newfield’s account of managerialism and higher ed appeared in 2003, and Jennifer Washburn’s “University Inc.” in 2005. Stanley Aronowitz predicted the slow demise of the professoriate in 1997, and Frank Donoghue told us exactly how the end was coming in “The Last Professors,” published in 2008.

What ought to happen is that everything I’ve described so far should be put in reverse. College should become free or very cheap. It should be heavily subsidized by the states, and robust competition from excellent state U’s should in turn bring down the price of college across the board. Pointless money-drains like a vast administration, a preening president, and a quasi-professional football team should all be plugged up. Accrediting agencies should come down like a hammer on universities that use too many adjuncts and part-time teachers. Student loan debt should be universally refinanced to carry little or no interest and should be dischargeable in bankruptcy, like any other form of debt.

But repeating this feels a little like repeating that it will be bad if newspapers go out of business en masse. Of course it will. Everyone who can think knows this. But knowing it and saying it add up to very little.

Despite the academy’s noisy radicalism, its endangered meritocracy simply cannot summon the will to reverse the market tide. Despite the extreme prominence of the highly educated—the only members of President Obama’s first-term cabinet to have no advanced degrees were the secretaries of transportation and education—virtually no one in politics has proposed taking the obvious steps that are needed to solve the problem.

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be. Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

And so we end with dystopia, with a race to the free-market bottom. What makes it a tragedy is that President Obama is right about education’s importance. Not because college augments our future earning power, or helps us compete with Bangladesh, but because the pursuit of knowledge is valuable in its own right. This is why every democratic movement from the Civil War to the 1960s aimed to bring higher ed to an ever widening circle, to make it more affordable. Ours is the generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit.

The only way out is for students themselves to interrupt the cycle. Maybe we should demand the nationalization of a few struggling universities, putting them on the opposite of a market-based footing, just as public ownership reformed the utilities in the last century. Maybe the college-aged should forgo the annual rituals and turn their eyes to German or Argentinian universities, in the same way that their grandparents use Canadian pharmaceuticals to hitchhike on a welfare state that hasn’t yet been completely compromised. Maybe it’s time for another Free Speech Movement, a nationwide student strike for tuition reform and debt relief. Whatever we do, it’s time to wake up from the dream.



This is an artwork I included in my BA Hons end of degree exhibition this june, The installation was on the subject of the commodification of water and an attack on the CEO of Nestle who said he believed water should be a paid for resource like coal or oil.
graduate-exhibition-artwork-2014 omnia-sunt-communia-under-construction/

Companies proclaim water the next oil in a rush to turn resources into profit

Mammoth companies are trying to collect water that all life needs and charge for it as they would for other natural resources

Clear, pure glacial water: something corporations would like to harness to drive profits. Photograph: Alamy

“Is now the time to buy water?” enquired the email that showed up in my inbox earlier this week.

Its authors weren’t worrying about my dehydration levels. Rather, they were urging me to think of water in quite a new way: as a commodity to invest in. 

Making money from water? Is this what Wall Street wants next? 

After spending nearly 30 years of my life writing about business and finance, including several years dedicated to the commodities market, the idea of treating water as a pure commodity – something to bought and sold on the open market by those in quest of a profit rather than trying to deliver it to their fellow citizens as a public service – made me pause. 

Sure, I’ve grown up surrounded by bottled mineral water – Evian, Volvic, Perrier, Pellegrino and even more chi-chi brands – but that has always existed alongside a robust municipal water system that delivers clean water to whatever home I’m occupying. All it takes is turning a tap. The cost of that water is fractions of a penny compared to designer bottled water.

This summer, however, myriad business forces are combining to remind us that fresh water isn’t necessarily or automatically a free resource. It could all too easily end up becoming just another economic commodity.

At the forefront of this firestorm is Peter Brabeck, chairman and former CEO of Nestle. 

In his view, citizens don’t have an automatic right to more than the water they require for mere “survival”, unless they can afford to pay for it. For context, the World Health Organization sets such “survival” consumption levels at a minimum of 20 liters a day for basic hygiene and food hygiene – higher, if you add laundry and bathing. If you’re reading this in the United States, the odds are that flushing your toilet consumes 50 liters of water a day.

Brabeck is right to argue that we risk depleting the world’s supply of fresh water irresponsibly through careless and thoughtless consumption of an apparently free resource. How many lush golf courses should we be sustaining with millions of gallons of water in parts of the world that are naturally arid, like Arizona or southern California?

water bottles
What we need, suggest some companies, is more of this. Photograph: Alamy

And then there are the bizarre mixed messages that some California residents are getting: don’t water your lawns in the state’s long-running drought that has depleted its aquifers. On the other hand, some are also being warned they’ll be fined if they don’t keep their lawns and neighborhoods looking nice.

But Brabeck probably isn’t the best standard-bearer for the cause of responsible water management, by any stretch of the imagination. 

Consider the fact that as the drought has worsened, Nestle’s Nestle Waters North Americas Inc division – the largest bottled water company in the country – has continued to pump water from an aquifer near Palm Springs, California, thanks to its partnership with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Their joint venture, bottling water from a spring on land owned by the band in Millard Canyon, has another advantage: since the Morongo are considered a sovereign nation, no one needs to report exactly how much water is being drawn from the aquifer.

In the Canadian province of British Columbia, Nestle has been using another loophole. 

Until this year, British Columbia didn’t have rules that required the company to report how much it drew from the province’s aquifers – or pay a penny to the government’s coffers in exchange for the resource. 

As of last year, therefore, Nestle was able to bottle 265m liters of fresh water and pay nothing for the resource that Brabeck believes should have an economic price attached to it – at least, when it is consumers that are paying that price. (For the record: the situation in BC is in the process of changing: a new Water Sustainability Act, passed this spring, will be fully in force by spring 2015.)

If you’re curious to know what a society existing on “survival” water supplies might look like, just take a glance at Detroit. When the city became the largest US municipality ever to file for bankruptcy protection, it’s not all that surprising that they began to look at the payments residents owed to city hall – including delinquent water bills. 

Golf courses are not naturally occurring features of desert landscapes like this one outside Las Vegas. That only happens with a lot of water. Photograph: Pete Mcbride/Getty Images/National Geographic RF

Now, instead of letting it slide, the city is cutting off water – leaving thousands, perhaps more than 100,000 of the city’s 700,000 citizenswithout running water in their homes. If you can’t pay for your water, you won’t get it – although Nestle, and others, will truck in emergency supplies to make sure you’re receiving your “survival” level rations.

Today, throughout most of North America and Europe, we take the ready availability of clean, running water for granted. 

We have forgotten what its relatively recent arrival on the scene – within the last 100 to 150 years – has meant for health, nutrition and hygiene – and for the development of society, business and industry, as a result. To the extent that we allow purely market forces to shape water consumption, we limit future contributions to our world to the scions of wealthy families.

There is a role for the free market in water, however. It comes at the bleeding edge: in the area of technologies that can be developed to treat waste water or desalinate water to make it usable or potable, or, alternatively, to develop ways to use less water in everything that we do now, from growing crops and making paper to producing iPhones. 

A cluster of private equity firms is backing startups in this area – and that, in contrast to the bottled drinking water business, strikes me as a completely appropriate quest to way to profit – not from water itself, but from the need to consume water more efficiently.

Detroit water
The water surrounding Detroit is free to enjoy. Inside the city’s pipes, it will cost you. Photograph: Richard Cummins/CORBIS

After that, like everything else that is a public good, somehow we have to find a way to ensure that adequate supplies of clean water are available to everyone. And we might start by remembering that the summer’s horror story for those in Detroit is still an everyday reality for 40% of the world’s population – most of whom already live below the poverty line. 

Imagine the impact on them of turning water into an economic commodity? I may applaud and share Brabeck’s overall concern about what is happening to our reserves of fresh water – but a little intellectual honesty on Nestle’s part about what is happening and what the real impact of his suggestions might be wouldn’t come amiss, either.


The Capitalist Paradigm

My research for my essay required me studying artworks that shock/jolt the viewer from the hypnotic complacency of the spectacle/simulacra (which are, to me, essentially the same i.e. – kitsch, empty, nullifying culture and society that covers over the horrors of war, politics, disparity, capitalism, etc).
They shock by mocking the horrors of postmodern life and by making visible those horrors.

However, such is the Spectacle and Simulacra that it quickly nullifies through fetishism/desires for commodities that consume us, as much as we consume them.
Quickly, we are able to compensate the shock, overcome outrage at the horrors of the world and once again become passive, docile (Foucault) consumers of contemporary life.

This is where the schizophrenia comes into the context of my essay, as we are constantly and simultaneously in two minds, each overcoming the other, so, we do not rise up and become accepting of the status quo.

I went on to talk about how the artists’ work is to critique contemporary culture. Then how they ultimately fail, as shock is nullified and the art becomes part of the Spectacle because the artworks are after all simulacra themselves and become commodified.

The artists’ battle it out in the end as to whether they overcome or perpetuate fetishism, consumerism, the spectacle and simulacra…


More extracts here: extracts from my BA dissertation

The Capitalist Paradigm – (Neo-Feudal Culture Derived From Advanced Capitalism) And Mass Schizophrenia, A Dualistic Version Of Reality.
My research for my essay required me studying at works shock/jolt the viewer from the hypnotic complacency of the spectacle/simulacra (which are, to me, essentially the same i.e. – kitsch, empty, nullifying culture and society that covers over the horrors of war, politics, disparity, capitalism, etc).
They shock by mocking the horrors of postmodern life and by making visible those horrors.

However, such is the Spectacle and Simulacra that it quickly nullifies through fetishism/desires for commodities that consume us, as much as we consume them.
Quickly, we are able to compensate the shock, overcome outrage at the horrors of the world and once again become passive, docile (Foucault) consumers of contemporary life.

This is where the schizophrenia comes into the context of my essay, as we are constantly and simultaneously in two minds, each overcoming the other, so, we do not rise up and become accepting of the status quo.

I went on to talk about how the artists work to critique contemporary culture. Then how they ultimately fail, as shock is nullified and their art becomes part of the spectacle because the artworks are after all simulacra themselves and become commodified.The artists battle it out in the end as to whether they overcome or perpetuate fetishism, consumerism, the spectacle and simulacra…