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The Technology of Profit
1. Make-Believe

Apart from the latent violence that constitutes the ultimate sanction of every society, the dominating power in the modern Western world is that of money. If the last four or five hundred years are anything to go by, it seems to be a fact of political economy that money accumulates in fewer and fewer hands. With only rare bumps and hiccups to hold up its ‘progress’ here and there, society has become increasingly unequal, and at the present time the profit motive seems not only unprecedentedly rampant, but to hold sway virtually unchallenged.

Such spectacular greed, such indifference to the poverty and suffering it inflicts between and within populations across the globe, cannot be established and maintained without a technology of social control. My concern is of course with the psychological aspects of this technology and my purpose here is to elaborate on some of the factors already identified in earlier pages as contributing to the mystification of our understanding of the way the social environment works.

The maintenance of economic power in the hands of a tiny minority of the world’s population is helped by the ability of the powerful to exploit our situation as isolated individuals locked within proximal worlds.

There is a ‘real world’ where the mechanics of power are manipulated to the profit of those who have learned – whether consciously or not – how to benefit from them. Though it touches on us often enough, and that most often painfully, the way the real world works is for the most part kept beyond the horizon of our ability to discern. Our preoccupations are with things closer to home: with our own economic survival and that of those close to us, with our status within the social groups we occupy locally, with everyday personal satisfactions and discomforts, with ambitions, dreams and wishes.

A characteristic of the real world is that the beings in it (including, of course, all of us) are embodied. They live and die; some thrive, some suffer. It does not suit the interests of unequal power that the hard realities of this world are too well understood by those – the vast majority – who profit from it least. For us there needs to be – and has been – created other forms of world, not real, where we may lead disembodied lives, detached from the possibility of laying living hands on the levers of power. It is a world of make-believe, where inside is indistinguishable from outside and where we may live more easily in our dreams than in our bodies.

A parallel universe of discourse

Our capacity as human beings for imagination and story-telling makes us exquisitely vulnerable to exploitation by those who understand the properties of ideological power. Our natural propensity to credit commentary above any more detached understanding makes us more than prepared to open our minds to versions of ‘reality’ which are laced with some kind of appeal to our tastes, preferences or perceived interests. We are, one could say, naturally credulous.

The Perversion of Evidence

One reason for the invincibility of crude social power is its lack of theoretical dogmatism and its pragmatic readiness to adopt a belt-and-braces strategy when it comes to securing its position (that is to say, it has no integrity). While the promotion of make-believe remains a central technique of loosening the individual consumer's grasp on the world, attention is still given to controlling the processes through which we traditionally evaluate reality. The approach to scientific evidence is a good case in point.

Though no doubt intellectually demanding in many respects, the scientific method is at its best the least coercive as well as the most accurate way we have of establishing what is - while acknowledging the limitations of these concepts - 'real' and 'true'. The effectiveness of the scientific method - fundamentally libertarian at its core - is not lost on those wishing to co-opt it in their interest; but to do so they have, of course, to pervert it.

At the crudest level there is simply the possibility of fiddling the figures - an approach widely adopted in recent years by, in particular, governments who wish to 'demonstrate' that what isn't the case, is (e.g. the ceaseless manipulation of employment and other statistics). Beyond this, however, is the far more insidious intrusion of corrupting power into the scientific community itself. Instead of 'the evidence' flowing from the unconstrained agreement of unbiased observers struggling in good faith to arrive at the most objective assessment possible, it becomes a kind of bludgeon with which to silence precisely those same observers.

The social sciences are particularly vulnerable to this kind of corruption, nowhere more obviously than in the case of the evaluation of the effectiveness of psychotherapy. The interests of a booming industry combine with those of a handful of academic 'authorities' such that the latter use their status within the system to
assert the effectiveness of therapy, basing their 'argument' on a tiny (and entirely questionable) handful of studies and in the face of mountains of counter-evidence which have accumulated over decades1. 'Scientific' debate, in such circumstances, becomes an adversarial contest in which 'evidence' is treated like a kind of rhetorical football.

The outcome of this state of affairs is disastrous, for the processes whereby we arrive as a society at objective judgements about reality has become corrupted and rendered untrustworthy at its very heart. Scientific argument becomes a contest of
authority based on status (a concept fundamentally inimical to the scientific method) and ordinary people understandably turn from a power-ridden perversion of 'objectivity' to essentially magical systems which, though equally if not more misleading, seem at least subjectively satisfying.

The societal apparatus which exists for the manipulation of our credulity forms an absolutely essential part of the technology of power. In everyday parlance this is, of course, for the most part what we mean by ‘the media’. But the news and entertainment media are not the only determinants of the way we see and interpret the world. Education and the related institutions of intellectual endeavour and instruction are also crucial to our understanding. None of this, of course, is lost on those in whose interest it is to channel the fruits of our labours into their pockets. In recent years the encroachment of Business into areas once thought (no doubt naively) to stand apart from commercial interest has been perfectly obvious. Universities fall over themselves to replace academic standards with business ones and corporate intrusion into schooling no longer causes much surprise or indignation (George Monbiot's exposure of the extraordinary influence of corporate power on the public sphere in Britain2 seems to have caused barely a ripple).

This is not necessarily part of a consciously directed process. As I have tried to show in previous pages, conscious direction is in any case largely a myth. As money-power – capital – flows into fewer and fewer hands, it creates a network of interest that maintains and accelerates the process, rather as the streams which form the rivers and the rivers themselves as they flow to the sea may carve their beds more deeply. There is indeed a degree of impersonality in the way ‘the market’ structures itself which side-steps the will of those who become caught up in it.

In this way the interests of significant, if relatively small, sections of society become hitched to the necessary process of disguising the fact that a system designed to maximize the profits of a few cannot at the same time run to the advantage of the many. The growth of advertising and public relations, the arrival on the political scene of a new profession of ‘spin-doctor’, etc., testify to the importance of controlling public perception. Apart from those summoned to the financial elite who manage the economy of the ‘free market’, the best and brightest of our youth are recruited to the media of make-believe. Making people believe that what is least is in fact most in their interest has become a societal task of the first importance.

Once again, the attribution of greater reality to words than to worlds is already prefigured in the almost irresistible priority we accord as we grow up to commentary. Pretty well everybody is in this way primed to attach enormous importance to language, and I would not want to suggest that this phenomenon is in any way the invention of a cynical controlling power. It does not have to be conspiracy that rules our society (though sometimes it may be), but merely the sliding together of the interests which oil the wheels.

Modern philosophy, for example, has over the twentieth century come more and more to credit the importance of language and to discredit any notion not only that the world can be directly known (which certainly seems impossible), but that there is any point at all in speculating about what lies beyond language. There is nothing, says Derrida, outside the text; popular readings of Foucault privilege ‘discourse’ above all else; Rorty scoffs as the idea that our understanding could ‘hold a mirror up to nature’.

While these philosophers have serious, possibly even valid, points to make, their standpoint also lends itself wonderfully well to a society which seeks ideologically to detach its citizens from their embodied relation to a material world. Serious intellectuals seem to be the last to anticipate the use to which their work will be put. When, for example, Jean Baudrillard writes of the ‘hyperreality’ created by unfettered consumerism, it is all too easy for the edge of critical irony to be lost from his text and for it to become a kind of sourcebook for marketing executives, admen and other cultural illusionists. The whole notion of ‘postmodernism’ becomes popularized as the cutting edge of social and intellectual progress, distracting us from the (much more comprehensible) insight that what we are involved in is in fact a recycling of high capitalist economic strategies which reached a previous peak seventy or eighty years ago.

Psychology also has played an enormous part in helping to de-materialize the Western world over the past century. Freud managed to represent the significance of our experience as not only all in the mind, but most of it in the ‘unconscious mind’ such that it became well and truly impossible for us to criticize our world (just to criticize our selves, and that only with the help of a professional psychoanalyst). Indeed, for much of psychology, what goes on in the world, what are the material relations between individual and society, is a matter of complete irrelevance. All that counts is what goes on inside the individual’s head. Whatever the benefits of this view in terms of the hope it may bring to people of controlling their fate, it is an absolute godsend to those who have a less rarefied grasp of how to make the world work to their advantage. Thieves sack the mansion undisturbed while its occupants remain sunk in their dreams.

In her book No Logo3, Naomi Klein demonstrates how uninterested many modern corporations are in the actual material products that carry their brand. The products themselves may in fact be manufactured at rock-bottom cost by contractors located in 'export processing zones' in the developing world, with competing labels 'often produced side by side in the same factories, glued by the very same workers, stitched and soldered on the very same machines'.The 'value added', the vastly inflated costs of these objects which go to feed the corporate structure, is what is crucial, and it is spun out of nothing, pure marketing make-believe.

If, as I sometimes think it is, Psychology is the greatest intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century, it is one whose sheer economic importance is not to be underestimated!

Examination of the Business lexicon testifies to George Orwell's prescience, for largely it is a vocabulary of opposites, designed to simplify our thought such that we are no longer able to represent to ourselves the poverty of our experience. Where there is emptiness, there shall be hype. Examples:-

Awesome
Culture
Customer
Cynic
Downsize
Enjoy
Excellence
Exciting
Flexible
Icon
Innovative
Job-seeker
New
Passion
Passionate
Quality (total)
Reform

Restructure
Robust
Major
Stunning

Target (tough new, setting of)
Unremarkable
Fashion; policy
Passenger Patient
Critic
Sack
Buy, consume
Mediocrity
Boring
Unstable and insecure
Fleeting media creation
Stale, reinvented
Person deprived of work Old
Hobby
Feigning interest
[meaningless]
Revert or deform public into private structures
Strip assets and sack
Inert, feeble
Trivial
Unremarkable

Complete executive inaction
Surveying 'the market' in the USA at the turn of the millennium, Thomas Frank provides a brilliantly caustic analysis of corporate make-believe and its attendant vocabulary: The Big Con, Guardian, 6.1.01. This language is so absurd as to be almost beyond satire. For a little light relief, however, see another Guardian contribution, this time by Tony Benn (23.1.02).

Effectively, then, we find ourselves cut loose in a world of words where what is true and real is a matter of what we can be persuaded to believe. Those who profit most from this state of affairs will be those best able a) to control the use of language and b) to exploit the capacity of language to introduce us to an infinity of ‘realities’.

In The Origins of Unhappiness I described the way in which the conceptual frame of Business came during the nineteen-eighties to be imposed right across the cultural board. No established social practice or institution was left out: education, health, sport, leisure and travel - and of course government itself – all were flooded with the same debased and simplistic language of business and accountancy. Absolute values such as Truth and Right, features of the now discredited Enlightenment, were replaced with the crude market criteria of what pays. Nothing has changed since to impede this process.

Whoever controls language, controls thought. We now have installed at the heart of our culture a generation barely able to think outside the parameters of business. ‘Reality’ is described and experienced in terms of competition, cost and profit; worth is judged in terms of wealth and status. The whole conceptual and linguistic register of our lives has been collapsed into one dimension, and with it our capacity to experience ourselves as anything other than business successes or failures: what matters is not the contribution you make to the social world, but how much money you can make from it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the once idealistic youth of our universities – it is commonplace, for example, to come across students of medicine who, seriously worried about the money and status attached to their proposed career, yearn instead to become management consultants. Not to have a Mercedes by the time you’re thirty is to have failed in your life’s project.

The philosophical subtlety that at the highest intellectual level acknowledges the relativity imparted by discourse to our ideas of reality is, however, by no means reflected in the ‘tabloid world’ we are now forced to inhabit. The reality which Business culture and ideology offers us is not presented as one alternative among several, but as ‘the real world’ to which all of us must shape up if we are not to end up hopelessly at the bottom of the heap.

Just occasionally the universe of discourse suffers a rude intrusion of reality which somehow catches us all out, and we are left open-mouthed, not knowing quite what to make of our situation. The story of the railway network in Britain provides an excellent example.

Despite a series of accidents, some very serious and some minor, and an unremitting history of cancellations and delays, the management of the privatized rail companies claimed to be providing a steadily improving service in which safety was their first priority. Throughout the system the experience of failure was met with evasive assurances and oddly recurring excuses (e.g. that lateness was due to a bridge having been 'struck by a motor vehicle'.) To be a passenger was like entering a virtual world in which a pretence of (thwarted) efficiency consistently blanketed the actuality of cancelled trains and late arrivals, cold waits on decaying stations and missed appointments.

Then, in October 2000, a broken rail brought an express train off the track near Hatfield, killing four people and injuring many others. Suddenly reality broke through. The safety which had before been spun as 'number one priority' now became a priority in fact. Apparently overnight, 1000 miles of track became suspect and over 200 speed restrictions were imposed. At two hours' notice the line between Glasgow and Carlyle was closed. Senior managers of Rail Track, the company mainly involved, appeared on television like penitent schoolboys caught red-handed in some embarrassing misdemeanour. In an instant, it seemed, passengers had become embodied and the railways and rolling stock re-materialized as objects in a real world.

For exposure of a similar contrast between words and action in the field of education, see Nick Davies's article on despair in the classroom, The Guardian, 2.11.00.

It is therefore recognized and expected that the person-in-the-street will assume a fairly direct linkage between descriptions of the world and the world itself. What ordinary people think, what they conceive of as the truth, is of the utmost importance as their actions (particularly of course, their actions as consumers) are likely to be based upon it. The best, most convincing description of the way things are comes in this way actually to constitute how they are ‘in fact’. The traditional struggle to represent the world in words is replaced by a struggle to create a world in words. The success or otherwise of this project is measured in terms of ‘credibility’.

This is the universe of discourse where the spin-doctors dwell, but the world in which it places us is a strangely fragile one. For although the media and marketing technocrats vie with each other to foist upon us that ‘reality’ most profitable to themselves and to the influences which control them, it becomes pretty obvious that we are not talking here about what most people think of as reality, but about make-believe of differing degrees of credibility. At the heart of this whole enterprise, then, there is a contradiction: ‘credibility’ – what people can be persuaded to believe – is the ultimate goal of ‘spin’, but in the popular mind their remains an indissoluble, though inarticulate, link between what is believable and what is real or true. Credible worlds, in other words, are not the same as real ones. Business fakes a world which it sells us as the truth, but is fatally undermined by the truth that lies beyond it.

For language need not be simply the means whereby we create an infinity of relative worlds (that is to say, a snare and delusion). On the contrary, it may be used in the struggle to decode our experience of reality, to give us a sense of what is actually happening in the world. Precisely the point of the Business take-over of language, of the frenetic collective voice of the media, is to drown out the possibility of our articulating to ourselves the nature of the reality in which we are caught up.

A walk round Nottingham city centre

I haven’t been here for a while. They’ve now unveiled the huge new structure replacing the Victorian buildings they knocked down at the very centre of the city. Idiotically, I’d been hoping it would be a bit like the new building in London or Berlin, energetic and impressive even if all about corporate power. But it’s almost indescribably horrible, a total disappointment: tacky and garish. For some reason it reminds me of an inflated version of flaking 1950s structures you used to see at French Channel resorts. Over-literal, as if it’s meant to look like a boat: incongruous streak of blue punctured by portholes (picture). It looks cheap, and falsely cheerful. In effect, they’ve wrecked the heart of the town.

The shops have slid further into barely disguised penury. Cut down on staff even further, dirtier than they used to be – there’s a sense of economic desolation about. And that’s reflected in the shoppers too, harassed women laden with plastic bags, at the end of their tether, yelling at their children. Young, equally harassed family men, drawn and defeated, not at work today, not at work any day. Junk food, junk clothes, junk commodities. Junked youngsters bunking off school prowling restlessly in the shabby mobile phone shops.

It feels as if we’re getting nearer and nearer to the edge of a disaster. The people, the commercial structure, the very fabric of the city cannot, surely, take much more. Almost everything, almost everybody is being squeezed dry; you can hear the pips squeaking. It’s all about money, the desperation for it, the panic as it siphons off out of sight, sucked up into some social stratum just not visible here.

I wonder if the other people walking round here
interpret all this. Could they articulate the contrast between this reality and the ‘hyperreality’ of the glamorous celebrity world through which they’re induced to run into debt? Do they account for their situation in terms of anything other than personal failure? Or is this just the way things are, to be lived only with resignation or in the hope of winning the lottery?

The first task of any oppressive power is to strip the subjective voice, the languaged sensibility of the embodied person, of authority. If you are to be gulled by the make-believe of the public relations world, the last thing you must be permitted to credit is the evidence of your own senses (who do you think you are – an expert or something?). This is because the ability of the individual embodied subject to evaluate the evidence of his or her experience is the ultimate defence against illusion.

This is very far from saying that our subjective experience is infallible. The vulnerability of personal experience to error – i.e., of being wrongly interpreted in words – means that we need to take great care to check on its validity before we act on it in any irretrievable way (this process, in fact, constitutes the heart of scientific method). The subjective perspective needs to be evaluated intersubjectively (which brings it as near as possible to being objective) but there is still, ultimately, no authority beyond it. Furthermore, the representation to ourselves of our own experience, and the processes of checking it against the experience of others, all take place in the medium of language. The fallibility of words gives us plenty of reason for being careful with how we use them, but no reason at all for abandoning our project of trying to understand the world.

There has, over decades, been an unremitting onslaught against the art and science of interpreting one’s own experience, to such an extent that many people – consciously or unconsciously – find it impossible to have an opinion without the prostheses of the media or the prescriptions of one or other of our modern doctors of meaning. The first task of any rebellion against Business dominance is to re-establish the integrity of the universe of discourse; that is to say, to return to the search for words that describe the world as accurately as possible.


1. This phenomenon is encountered in pure form in the volume edited (in utterly good faith but with dismaying results) by Colin Feltham: Controversies in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Sage Publications, 1999. For a powerful critique of the corruption of the psychology industry see Tana Dineen's Manufacturing Victims, Constable, 1999.

2. George Monbiot. Captive State. The Corporate Takeover of Britain. Macmillan, 2000.

3. Naomi Klein. No Logo. Flamingo, 2001.

This page last revised 5/2/01

 

 

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Introduction

The structure of social space

The experience of self

The technology of profit
   1 Make-believe
   2 Outside-in
   3 Inside-out

Responsibility

What then must we do?

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