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The current context

Today in the West we live in an advanced capitalist market economy. This system is based on the relationship between supply and demand and on the specialised nature of the production of goods and knowledge.

After the fall of communism, capitalism has managed to establish itself as the only option. It is so unquestioned that even the term capitalism has ceased to be used, as apparently the alternatives have dissolved. It could be said that we have internalised capitalism to the point that we do not need to talk about it any more. Capitalism is equated to the reality of human condition and any suggestion towards the possibility of an alternative is labelled naïve or utopian.

But, is it true that capitalism is a reflection of human nature or, on the contrary, has it permeated so totally that it has modified human nature?

For a system to work without friction, to maintain itself and grow, the people that form it must internalise the features that the system encourages. The capitalist system depends on the constant growth and renewal of demand. Yet the need for products has a limit, so the demand has to be created. Capitalism needs people to consume more and more while at the same time needing them to want to consume the same things. For production to be profitable the needs and tastes have to be standardised and they have to be easy to influence and anticipate.

To hide the fact that the majority is exploited and manipulated, capitalism needs to create illusions. The more advanced the technology and communications, the bigger the need to create illusions. The main tool to create and strengthen illusions is the media, advertising in particular. As through Western history, the production of images is used by power to create illusions, as a tool for political propaganda to control people. Before photography that was the function of art, now it is the function of advertising.

The main illusion encouraged by the capitalist system is that people are free and independent because they live in a democracy.

For people to feel free and independent while allowing themselves to be directed and to fit without friction into the social machinery, which are two contradictory concepts, they have to be convinced that they like doing what they are supposed to do, that they choose it freely.

For a capitalist society to maintain the illusion that it is the only possible system it must replace the need for social change with a desire for a change in products and images. The freedom to consume a great variety of products is equated to freedom itself. Advertising turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. It helps to mask and compensate for the lack of democracy in society1.

In addition, for people to keep consuming, false standards, attainable only through consuming, need to be generated. The function of advertising is to make people feel dissatisfied with their way of living, to envy the improved alternative of themselves that is offered to them through the purchase of products.

Today, the pursuit of individual happiness is considered a universal right. Despite the fact that advertising promises happiness and that the majority of people are not happier buying, advertising does not lose credibility. This is because advertising is about social relations, not objects2. Advertising feeds on the anxiety that is generated by lack of freedom in the current system and is directed towards the hidden desires of people, basing its strategies on Freud’s theories of the unconscious3.

It is difficult to believe that we are manipulated to such a degree because we have learnt to assume that, because we live in democracies, we can choose. We prefer to think that we consume because we want to and that no one manipulates us because, if we were to discover the opposite, we would use our power in the next elections to change things. Yet, current Western democracies do not give power to people. Advanced technology allows greater collective organisation as an alternative to the polls. In practice, however, this power of organisation is rarely used politically.

Democracy is believed to be rational and to represent the will of the people. However, current democracies encourage irrationality, the evasion of social responsibility and ignore the will of the voters. They do it through the structure itself.

Current democracies do not reward rationality nor the effort to build a constructive criteria for the benefit of majority, because they value every vote equally. They include and exclude randomly from the democratic process, giving preference, for example, to an ignorant and indifferent adult over a 16 year old person with perfectly valid and rational propositions. By valuing over everything the decision of the majority, they allow the violation of human rights and turn into a mere question of numbers. Numbers that, although they represent people, never give them real decision making power, as power is dissipated through its distribution. Even if each vote had a certain amount of power, because current democracies are not direct, we will never know what the people that we choose to represent us will do in our name. There is the risk that they decide to act against the will of their voters. Such was the case in the United Kingdom and Spain with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In cases such as this, the power is not the people’s.4

  1. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, p. 148-149.
  2. Ibid, p. 132-133. “Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.”
  3. Bernays, E. (1928) Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing. Bernays was Freud’s nephew and used the theories about unconscious desires to develop advertising techniques. He believed that the masses were irrational and incapable of responsible political action and that by making them direct their energies towards buying, horrors like Nazism would be avoided.
  4. A more detailed version of the theoretical problems of democracy can be found in Graham, G. (2002) The Internet:// a philosophical inquiry. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, p. 71-82. Although this book focuses on the Internet, the argumentation is valid in general.

The current context is part of The art of commitment, my Research Paper for the MA in Fine Art that I did at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London in 2007.

All the articles in The art of commitment:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is art?
  3. The function of art through history
  4. The current context
  5. How the current context shapes people
  6. The arts world in the current context
  7. The artist
  8. The art of commitment

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