Here’s a series of questions for my “fellow” Americans. Answer honestly. Do you really need to know what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named their son? Should you even give a blue shit? Is the fact that you have twelve years to stop your city from sinking underwater in any way impacted by the naming habits of people who have space reserved for them in the nearest sealed doomsday biodome?
The answer to all of these questions is, naturally, no. And yet you know his name. It’s Archie, the little bastard. You may wish that part of your brain was occupied by more useful information, but there you have it.
Gertrude Stein once said something to the effect that the United States is the world’s oldest country because it was the first to enter the 20th century. A fascist-sympathizing hack she may have been, but she was onto something when she said this. History never moves in a straight line, and as nations surge ahead their dominance creates complacency that soon renders them anachronistic. But we Americans love our linear time. It’s behind every single sanctimonious parable of American exceptionalism. And it’s why we’ve given the world some of its most insufferably thick historians.
We love to talk of progress. But the contradiction of progress is that in a society where resources are so unevenly distributed, it is always incomplete. The same progress can merely widen the gulf, transforming the mildly backward into a jarring rift in space-time.
And so it tracks, perfectly and tragically, that in a time of abject cultural decay, we have this homuncular notion of American culture that not only tolerates monarchy, in all its long history of parasitism, but outright celebrates it.
It’s an even more brazen example of what I described regarding Anna Sorokin. Industrial society moves toward democracy, stops halfway. That society has a need to valorize its limited social mobility compared to a system dominated by divine right. But as its organs of democracy both formal and everyday continue to atrophy, this valorization mediates the gap between the haves and have-nots. It obscures the gap’s causes by blurring the lines between meritocracy and self-entitlement. Divine right, mutated by two hundred years of partial sunlight, once again rears its head.
And here we are at the current conjuncture. When billionaire reality TV stars can become president despite losing the popular vote, when Kylie Jenner is defended with a straight face for “earning” her billion dollars, is it all that surprising that the British monarchy is the object of this particularly American form of fawning?
Yes, some of it is a reciprocation of the royal family’s twenty-year-long “We Didn’t Kill Diana” PR campaign, in which “commoners,” even American actors can seize the throne. For sure, it has made things easier on the royals themselves. Eighty years ago the king had to abdicate before marrying an American and meeting with Hitler. Now, all a royal has to do is dress like Hitler before marrying the American!
The American revolutionary experience was, to put it mildly, an uneven one. It hadn’t the involvement of plebeians or women that we saw in the French Revolution. And naturally its insistence on maintaining chattel slavery was one of the reasons that the Haitian Revolution and eventually the Civil War became necessary. If there is anything that it had going for it, though, it was its anti-royalism. Its belief that a bunch of oblivious, inbred, gout-ridden toffs had no business telling anyone what to do.
And now these same remorseless cretins have danced under the radar back into your hearts? Where is your spine? Where’s your sense of dignity? Where (sweet merciful crap, I never thought I would write this) is your patriotism?
“In her world, this is what her social circle did… Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.”
So says the defense attorney for Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted last month of what amounts to one big scam of New York’s social elite. Three counts of grand larceny, one count of attempted grand larceny, four counts of theft of services. She was sentenced on Thursday to a maximum of twelve years in jail. ICE have also confirmed that Sorokin – who has German citizenship – will likely be deported at some point.
Reading through the list of her escapades, you can’t help but be impressed. Socialites, five-star hotels, even a hefty loan from City National Bank. Over the course of four years she managed to bilk them out of around $275,000. She got others to pay for luxury rooms, private jets, vacations to Morocco, and lavish nights out while having barely a cent to her name. All by convincing people that she was heiress to a $67 million fortune.
She isn’t. Her father is a truck driver and her mother is a housewife. Who said millennials lack ambition?
Sorokin’s conviction and sentencing have, predictably, been the source of vigorous buzz and chatter. For some she’s been the object of derision and spite, for others she’s cause for the gleefullest of glee. Fashionistas have gandered at her choice of clothing throughout her trial. Shonda Rhimes is developing a series based on Sorokin’s story. Lena Dunham is working on another.
Still others have wondered why it is that the New York District Attorney has gone after Sorokin with such viciousness while in the past he has failed to prosecute the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for more serious crimes. Some suspect sexism afoot, and I reckon there is something to this.
What interests me the most though is what Sorokin’s lawyer means when he says “her world.” Because, after all, the life of the rich and privileged wasn’t “hers.” It’s precisely this that in the end got her into so much trouble. In Sorokin’s case it is less about the amount of money she stole than who she stole it from, who she pretended to be. At the core of it, her biggest crime is the crime of false pretense.
In some ways, though, it was her world. If her place within it could be so easily adopted and faked, then perhaps that says more about the world than her. Sorokin’s actions didn’t just rely on aestheticization. They were, in their entirety, aestheticization. Delvey never existed. She was made up, invented, carefully curated and skillfully plotted.
Ben Davis writes of how the art world was the circulatory system through which Delvey ran her scams. She promised an arts center to potential financial backers, featuring art from Koons and Christo. Her Instagram presence (as she is sure to have learned from so many Rich Kids of Instagram) was patiently crafted and constructed. It suggested that Sorokin had a deep appreciation and love for art and aesthetics. Though as Davis has also pointed out, this could itself be an act; for all we know of Anna Delvey, Sorokin could have known and appreciated as much about art as the average Wikipedia reader.
Whatever the case, Sorokin has if nothing else closely studied the ways of the rich and spoiled. Her ability to convince those around her that she was an heiress reflects how perceptive this study was. But it also reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty in aping the upper crust, in convincing them that you are one of them. There is no substance to fake, no authenticity to mine, just an image to cultivate.
Yes, it is old hat to point out that the lives of the rich are, behind the glitz, empty and banal. Or that social media aids in the cultivation of these full spectrum poses. But there is also something particular about the timing of Sorokin’s story, falling as it does in an era also marked by the Fyre Fest fiasco, by Elizabeth Holmes, by the specter of the “millennial scammer.” Compare this crop with those behind the Enron or WorldCom scandals of the early 2000’s, and you start to see an added element in play.
It is more than generational turnover. More than just conspicuous consumption. The global slump of 2008 was a foundational crisis in neoliberalism, exposing not just its inner machinations but thusly forcing sections to reassess how it maintained cultural hegemony. If financialization required the basic workings of exploitation to be obscured, aestheticized, then the crisis of this template required an intensification of neoliberalism’s specific relationship with the culture industry.
Take, as an example, the rich people of reality television. Not long before the ‘08 crash, production studios had begun to lean heavily on reality TV. This was most immediately an adaptation to the four-month writers’ strike that put countless scripts on hold. But the strike itself was indicative of much larger rifts that were opening up in Hollywood’s business model. And so Hollywood also stumbled on a very profitable lesson.
Today, reality TV is far more bankable than scripted shows. Labor costs are lower for them and their ratings are on the whole higher, but they also reflect and encourage a peculiarly voyeuristic kind of moralism. Among them a special place is held for shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real Housewives, Southern Charm; shows that dramatize the idleness of the pampered. Their mundane pettiness is wrapped in the pretense of high drama, and in such a way that it wouldn’t be if they were of a more common socioeconomic stature.
The line between content and form becomes blurred, and it is used against us. Our emotional investment in the petty behaviors of the privileged mirrors the way in which our own lives are financially tied up with the maintenance of their lifestyles. Yes, the vacuity of the rich has been laid bare, but even in schadenfreude, we are made complicit in that same vacuity.
This dynamic doesn’t merely apply to gulag bait reality TV. But the specific form exhibits a logic that has been widely instilled in neoliberalism and accelerated in its later, post-crash iteration. The internet, social media, the generalized on-demand-ification of our cultural artifacts, even the rise of a mundane surveillance state; all have instilled in public consciousness that we somehow have a purchase in the lives of others. And if it seems as if the lives of the more well-off have more weight in that purchase, well, then you probably also have understood the double meaning behind the word “purchase.”
What we are talking about then is a huge innovation in glamour, in the psychology and aesthetics of envy. Glamour and envy in the way that Berger described them almost fifty years ago:
Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.
Telescope this forward to today. The means of reproducing the day-dream have been revolutionized and innovated a thousand times over. Yet the means to democratize daily life haven’t just failed to keep up but have been coerced from us.
What happens when someone decides to not merely stay in the daydream, but make it their reality at any cost? The answer is found somewhere in the gap between Anna Sorokin and her avatar Anna Delvey. With the desires of the first unrealizable, the invention of the second becomes necessary. And the only skill needed is a convincing con game.
It is not just that the lives of the rich are empty, it is that this very same emptiness has become its greatest source of strength. The void has gotten bored of staring back. Now it’s devouring us whole. And when we finally get to its center, there’ll be nothing waiting for us but Lena Dunham.
Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television.
Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”
And thus a press conference is called…
The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea.
Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.
Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.
All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanseat a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.
Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.
Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.
The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.
All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.
Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.
Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?
If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.
This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.