The push is on to identify and prosecute looters and vandals caught on digital images during the rampage following the Vancouver Canucks’ loss of the final Stanley Cup game. I suggest that people take a moment to look deeper into the events of Wednesday June 15. They provide a rare opportunity to see contemporary Canadian culture more clearly. The nihilistic orgy of self-gratification can tell us a lot about what we are becoming. It is like a lens focused on what happens when we are degraded from producers into consumers, from creative into passive beings, and from a society seeking happiness into a mass of individuals seeking fun.
There is a world of difference between happiness and fun: fun is the drug that drives consumerism. Contrary to the line in the Beatles song, fun -- the distraction of immediate gratification -- is one of the things most readily bought with money. On the other hand, happiness -- the existential joy of human meaning and fulfillment -- cannot be purchased. Happiness flows from our involvement in the great collaborative process of society. Fun is essentially solitary, the cold inner loneliness of the party-goer’s relentless struggles to stimulate the pleasure-centres of the brain.
As we are encouraged by the cultural offerings of corporate capitalism to shed most that is meaningful in life in pursuit of fun, we forget how to be happy. (I recall an ad campaign by an American consumer goods corporation which re-defined “freedom” and “life” for us -- “to be able to wear what you dare.”) Glutted with comedy, glutted with formulaic music, glutted with toys, glutted with fashion, glutted with surreal violence, the soul of our society is being methodically demolished and ripped out, to the immense profit of the global corporate vandals undertaking this degenerate transformation.
The looters are what our system seeks to make of us all, but in a concentrated form which lays bare our system’s profound bankruptcy.
Right-wing political leaders of the past four decades undertook the project of cultural vandalism with a vengeance. Their standard-bearer was England’s Prime Minister Thatcher, who famously summarized the atomization and negation of human society: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
They engineered a prolonged phase of hyper-profiteering by unleashing a frenzy of gluttonous “consumerism” -- a boom based on the mass acquisition of goods -- without sharing out the swelling economic wealth by increasing household incomes. Incongruously, real incomes were flat or declining throughout this consumerist boom. The economic growth which surged for decades (punctuated with brief recessionary hiccups) into the twenty-first century was financed by household debt.
That’s how you sell your goods to people who can’t afford to buy them. You extend them credit. How else to obtain that brand-name handbag or Rolex watch on your flat income, other than borrow its purchase price? Well, for one thing, you can smash a store window and steal it. Then you can pose before an array of digital cameras holding your prize, the marker of your personal achievement. Freedom and life. This is what it is about.
We read the history of the hyper-exploitive practices of early industrial capitalism, when unorganized miners were paid in chits which could only be redeemed in the employer’s “company store” at inflated prices. We can look at the entire economy that has emerged in the past four decades as a kind of gigantic globalized “company store.”
But this strategy for amassing and concentrating wealth has an internal flaw. The problem is that if you stake your economy (and your dividends and executive bonuses) on spiraling consumption financed by spiraling debt, you create a gigantic bubble -- the biggest bubble in history, a globalized bubble. The one thing you can count on a bubble to do is to eventually pop. The whole thing is inherently unstable. The central bankers’ solution to the Great Recession (that is, the strategy to re-inflate the bubble) is to build a new surge in household debt: keep the cost of going into debt as low as possible with near-zero interest rates and encourage people to go out and spend, as a matter of patriotic duty. The “bait and switch” will be complete when interest rates are restored to more normal levels, and people’s financial enslavement to the banks will reach a new apogee.
What does this have to do with the hundreds of people who looted and rioted in Vancouver? First, I ask what was this riot about. By way of contrast, Parisian riots over hunger and high bread prices sparked the French Revolution. Those riots were a collective tactic to achieve social change. They brought down a despotic monarchy.
And the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot? It was about professional sports consumers’ disappointment with the outcome of a corporate entertainment episode -- the U.S.-based National Hockey League’s annual championship. About consumers devoting their lives to the vacuous pursuit of gratification. People whose sense of personal identity and meaning is so empty that they thrill at being glimpsed on a television broadcast or social media clip. People who feel little stake in society because their society has been vandalized by right wing governments, and reduced to a gaggle of pleasure-seeking individuals. People who trashed and burned police cars, but for the sheer hedonistic thrill, and not to register a political message about policing.
They are the children of Margaret Thatcher.