In case you missed it, Andrew O’Hehir wrote a fantastic take-down of “Divergent” for Salon, which identifies one of the central struts supporting capitalism: the importance of displaying personal uniqueness, shown by our consumerist choices.
Here’s his thesis: “Both “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” are fundamentally works of propaganda disguised as fantasy or science fiction. They’re not propaganda on behalf of the left or the right, exactly, or at least not the way we generally use those words in America. They are propaganda for the ethos of individualism, the central ideology of consumer capitalism, which also undergirds both major political parties and almost all American public discourse.”
Now, while it’s slightly embarrassing for a 30 year old man, I’ll admit that I’ve read both Divergent and the entire Hunger Games trilogy. IMHO, I think O’Hehir’s analysis is much more applicable to the former. In the Hunger Games, Katniss is presented less as a unique individual and more as an everywoman produced by her environment and singled out by fate to ride the cresting wave of revolution. Tris, the heroine of Divergent, is special because she’s not just one thing - she’s not only courageous, not only empathetic, not only smart. The idea that most people are just one thing is the basis of her uniqueness, and without that premise the book doesn’t work. (I’ll admit to not having read the followups to Divergent, I disliked the original so much, so it’s possible, if not probable, that the ultimate result is that without the fascistic governmental control, everyone becomes ‘divergent’. I don’t really care.)
But more than that, O’Hehir is focusing on the idea that we need to rebel against a fascist threat to our individuality.“Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.”
I’m a little off on this statement. As a current yuppie working in a corporation, I see a real incentive to not rock the boat by presenting myself as anything other than a ‘normal’ white-collar work. Most any businessman’s career is dependent on other people having an opinion that he or she is dependable. And when you live in a mass society, it means that most all of the people you meet don’t actually know you, and will judge your dependability by superficial tests like ‘does this person shave every day?’ and ‘is this person’s shirt properly ironed?’ People trust people who meet their expectations of how one should dress, act, and spend their free time. But O’Hehir is right in saying that nowhere do we see this lifestyle celebrated as a positive thing.
Why does the corporate world incentivize corporate dronism? Two reasons.
First, it’s a natural outgrowth of the economic instability caused by mass labor markets: I’m terrified of losing my job, and thus I’m terrified of the people who work with and around me thinking bad things about me. So I need to dress up to a certain standard. I have to shave every day, and iron my shirts. But I also don’t want to make others feel self-conscious or bad about themselves: if I dress too well, or too fashionably, people will notice. And if they’re accustomed to dressing a certain way, then they will rationalize their own fashion choices by transferring negative thoughts to me. Maybe I’ll be seen as full of myself, or not a team player. I work in a business-casual environment, and it’s an insistent business casual. If I were to wear a tie, it had better be a dorky tie, and I’ll be stigmatized as a dork, which might be acceptable professionally but will basically end any chance of connecting with anyone on a personal level. There’s a story told at my office about an associate who was dorky and always wore a tie who visited a client’s office, which was also an insistently business-casual environment. The poor dork was confronted about his tie as soon as he walked into the door; his contact at the client office insisted that he take it off.
Second, the world of corporate capitalism is one in which we do not really know anyone around us. The people at my office don’t really know me. They see me only in one context - the corporate context, which is necessarily a fake environment, and occasionally for a beer after work. But I can’t let them really know me, because I have to appear as if what I really want is to be slaving away at the office working seventy hour weeks. At a performance review early in my career, I was criticized for not giving off the appearance that I really wanted to be there. I was also told that I needed to treat my bosses as my clients. Put those two ideas together, and what my bosses really wanted was for me to want to subjugate myself to their control of me. I needed to want to give up my nights and weekends to their whims and the whims of our clients. Maybe some businessmen actually do want to subjugate their lives - but they do it because they want the money, or the power, or because they’re too empty-headed to see any possibilities other than what the corporate world wants from them. The rest of us become actors. We pretend.
So we create false fronts, corporate personas, which interact with other people’s corporate personas. This is how you can work with someone for years, spending forty hours or more with them in a contained environment every week, and not really know them. This is why we don’t really connect with our co-workers, the people who we probably spend more time around than anyone else, except for maybe your family. And that contributes to the generalized loneliness that we all feel - we’re structurally estranged from human connection with the people we spend the most time around - of course we end up feeling like we can’t really connect with anyone. Sure, there are certain people at most offices with whom we’ll feel we can let our guard down a little, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. That’s why it’s easier, in a lot of ways, to be friends with someone once you don’t work with them, and it’s one reason why it’s so hard, in many ways, to work with someone whom you’re actually friends with.
Anyway, back to O’Hehir’s article, which in general I agree with:
“[These movies] are exaggerated frames placed around works of social praise, or panegyric, to use the Athenian term, works designed to remind us how grateful we should be to live in a society where we can be “ourselves,” where we can enjoy unspecified and entirely vague freedoms.”“When we convince ourselves that “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games” contains any sort of lesson about resisting authority or speaking truth to power, we have already accepted their central premise that personal liberty, as defined by contemporary capitalism, is a precious virtue and that it might someday be under threat from somebody, somewhere.The model of individualism presented as so noble and so embattled in these oxygen-propaganda movies is in fact the authoritarian ideology of our time, the instrument used by the 1 percent to drive down wages, dominate and distort the political process and make all attempts at collective action by those below look stodgy, embarrassing and futile.”
This is a valuable insight. Corporations have created a culture that praises individualism at the expense of community-mindedness. Nobody wants to be seen as a member of a group, everyone wants to be a unique individual. And how is today’s youth expected to express his or her individuality, after all? By drinking Dr. Pepper, of course, like millions of other people. And buying clothes, and music, and other unnecessary lifestyle appliances, all of which millions of other people buy as well, but not in the exact combination that you do. And so the ideology of individuation works pretty well for corporate America: it denudes the possibility of mobilized rebellion, and at the same time adds to the bottom line.
by Jackson Lay
August 5, 2014
They wear suits because they're scared. Of the guy in the pink tie, probably. Nothing against pink, though! It's the fact that he's a generation older than them, obviously their boss, and controls their economic stability.
What makes you different makes you dangerous? That depends on what makes you different. If it's that you reject corporate capitalism, then yes, that might make you dangerous to corporate capitalist interests. But for today's youth, it's more likely that whatever makes you 'different' makes you easy prey for marketing.