When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he was looking to expose the dangerous working conditions of the meatpacking industry and bring relief to its workers. Instead, the popular reaction to his book led to new food standards and sanitation laws. (Apparently the worst thing about someone falling into a meat grinder was that you might end up eating a person instead of a cow.) The news headlines and laws that came in the wake of the McDonald’s-focused documentary Super Size Me hitting theaters addressed waistlines and saturated fats, but not the fact that many people are financially incapable of eating anywhere that doesn’t have a drive-thru window.
In a capitalist system, when an injustice is “revealed,” or “exposed,” the easiest way to show disapproval is to opt out of a commercial exchange. For conscientious liberal consumers, enacting one’s politics might mean buying things like organic food, or shoes that come with a promise of more shoes for people in need. For radical consumers, it means strategically not buying things. A good deal of left-leaning participation requires a kind of asceticism that is detrimental to coalition-building. We need to focus less on what a moral individual should and should not consume, and put more thought towards real-world alternatives that make it more enjoyable to be a leftist of the cultural Marxist tradition.
For instance, I recently began the long and arduous process of trying to re-align the digital aspects of my life with the latest NSA revelations about government surveillance. As a social scientist, I think it is a professional responsibility to at least know which services have a wide-open back door to an NSA listening room, and to use alternatives. Edward Snowden’s interview with Wired this summer came with an implied product endorsement for SpiderOak, a Dropbox-like service whose founders maintain they have absolutely no knowledge about or access to your data.
When I tried SpiderOak myself, everything went okay at first, but I quickly found myself fiddling with settings and struggling with the software’s confusing menus. The worst part of SpiderOak wasn’t the outdated interface or the relatively small two-gigabyte storage limit. The deal-breaker was the lack of interoperability: none of the note-taking apps or PDF-sharing services I use have the option to back up or sync over SpiderOak. Dropbox, along with several other corporate services that have been shown to be less secure, are much more user-friendly.
My PDF problem is a minor and fixable one, but it is indicative of a more pervasive phenomenon. There is a saying in my field, coined by the popular philosopher of technology Bruno Latour: “Technology is society made durable.” The ephemeral and intangible social relationships that we produce on a daily basis are often reified and strengthened by our technology. I like to think of America’s Interstate Highway System as a kind of bring-your-own-horsepower mass transit system. We convince each other that the price of about 30,000 dead each year from accidents and nearly half of our household income put toward transportation is a reasonable price for the freedom to come and go whenever we please.
SpiderOak and the highway system aren’t allegorical depictions of American politics; they are literal instantiations of uneven and perverse power relations between individuals (users) and the state (services). Highways are the perfect neoliberal mass transit system because they are most useful and enjoyable for the people that can afford a nice, reliable car. SpiderOak is a bad replacement for Dropbox because the former spent its precious few resources focusing on content security at the cost of interoperability with other systems. Sacrificing convenience and pleasure for what you believe is right is a familiar trade-off for the politically conscious, but it isn’t a sustainable model for movement building.
What we need now, more than ever, are technologies and organizations that are not only equally useful, but also more desirable than the status quo. Too often, leftists engage in a strange kind of doublespeak—on the one hand, we describe an insidious marketing machine that can produce want-product binaries with ruthless efficiency and efficacy, and on the other offer up restricted diets and buggy open source software as alternatives. How do we expect to win the hearts and minds of future generations?
More importantly: How do we articulate a politics that recognizes the need to banish the manipulative and extractive organizational structures that make McDonald’s possible, but that also acknowledges, or even celebrates, the unabashed, sensuous joy of a salt-encrusted, golden French fry washed down with a syrupy sweet soda?
Perhaps the biggest contribution one could make to the cause would be to make something so fun or delicious that competing corporations would spend years trying to regain their footing in the industry. Meanwhile, we would be collectivizing and redistributing the wealth created by that Fun or Delicious Thing so that we’ll be prepared when corporations try to reestablish their dominance. It might be far-fetched, but I want the fascists to be the ones that check their grocery carts against an ever-growing list of banned businesses. It should be so easy to live your politics that you can do so without even noticing.