Social Capitalism Is Still Capitalism

by Nathalie Olah

In the 1990s, Josh Harris, one of the earliest .com millionaires, was dubbed ‘the Warhol of the Web’. His live audio and webcasting platform, Pseudo Networks— based in a New York warehouse with an open-door policy — had a reputation for hosting legendary parties, much like Warhol’s Factory. Projections of The Matrix are said to have played on the walls, the pictures only interrupted by the shadows of the models, celebrities and party kids who piled in night after night, hoping to be seen. Harris’ apartment was also inside the complex, creating what Olivia Laing describes in her book The Lonely City as a ‘personal enclave in what was otherwise a non-stop 24/7 zone of sociability…’

By the turn of the millennium, Harris had plunged his .com millions into creating a shared living space in a Tribeca warehouse for 100 volunteers, who were placed under constant video surveillance. Quiet: We Live in Public ran for a month before being shut down by police in the early hours of January 1st 2000. Its inhabitants had not been allowed to leave, and their actions — including showering in the sole, glass-encased cubicle — had been screened on, watched by the hundreds of spectators who were also free to drop by at any time.

Now confined to the annals of pop culture history, the work — or more specifically, the thinking behind it — has proven prophetic. Even before the creation of mainstream social networking sites such as MySpace, Harris was evolving Warhol’s theory, claiming: ‘People don’t want fifteen minutes of fame in their lifetime, they want it every night. The audience want to be the show.’

During an episode of acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris’ television series, First Person, there is a haunting moment in which Harris begins waxing lyrical about his girlfriend Tanya Corrin and her suitability for their surveillance piece,, in which the couple streamed their own everyday existence online. At any one time, 300-400 people were watching them on a split screen with the CCTV footage offset against a running commentary from online observers. “The camera likes her,” he says. “She understands the intricacies of the net, and she’s, y’know, beautiful. I knew she would do a certain thing for me in the performance of We Live in Public,” he says. “She was actually quite exquisite at the work.”

Soon after aired, would file for bankruptcy. And after experiencing psychological trauma arising from it, Harris fell into near obscurity. It seemed that he was not equipped to relinquish his own privacy in the pursuit of celebrity; to amass social capital as he had once accrued his wealth in the traditional sense.

And so here was a capitalist in the traditional sense – an entrepreneur and businessman – colliding head first with the new capitalism that was emerging on account of the Internet. Creating it in his own image, even, and yet incapable of withstanding its stresses and strains. Simply creating the thing and bringing in the audience wasn’t enough. Harris and those around him weren’t furnished with the resilience necessitated by constant surveillance and social media and as such, were defeated.

While they were experiencing an opening up of potential – of the ability of anyone to become a celebrity – they were also throwing themselves into a world in which anonymity was being eroded. This was a world antagonistic to the meek tempered, the quiet and the good at listening. Even the bolshy Harris and the socially astute Corrin weren’t equipped to withstand it. Fast forward to now and the platforms of social media like Twitter operate in much the same way: favouring certain forces of ego and highlighting disparities between people.

If there’s one thing I learned during my twenties, it’s that overuse of the term ‘capitalism’ may lead to accusations of being a conspiracy theorist and/or an acid casualty. That’s because, to most people, capitalism is de facto; the way things are; the natural order. Those wanting to subject it to critical scrutiny must do so in ways that are shrouded; dressing up their argument to read like an op-ed about Liam Payne, for example, and then using the ex-One Directioner as a metaphor for the failure of the free market system. For like the clergy before them, the left-wing media has been tasked with finding gimmicky ways of making socialist ideals relevant.

Nothing attests more vividly to the power of the right-wing press. Thanks to the carving up of the UK’s media by the Barclay brothers and Murdoch, only the ailing Guardian and a few rogue journalists forced to self-publish on Medium stand to resist them. But there’s more to it than a lack of financial clout. Take away the oppositional forces, and the left-wing media is still failing to capture the imagination of its target audience. So much so, that many of my friends – nearly all of them lifelong lefties – have abandoned loyalty to one newspaper or platform.

For several years, I’ve been writing about how our social lives are transforming at the hands of technology, and as time goes on, the more I’m inclined to think that the failure of the left-wing press to connect is intimately linked to questions raised therein. If capital is defined as money available for investment, or any asset that can be readily turned into money – then it stands to reason that those locked out of traditional capitalist structures by a catastrophic recession and penny-pinching baby boomers would find themselves having to monetise what limited resources they have for the purposes of survival. But rather than being an equalising alternative to capitalism, turning oneself into a financial asset through the transformative power of a screen is little more than a simulacrum of past modes of accruing status; and yet increasingly, this is the sole method of operating within the modern media.

As the MySpace generation takes the reins of society, we’re seeing the emergence of industry experts in this field; the ‘creative’ or her line manager, the ‘creative director’, who act as soothsayers on the cultural reference points of young people for the purposes of educating business types, while also assuming the role of gatekeeper to all that is good, right, and well…paid. Their medium is the screen, both as a window into the world and as a mode of self-publicity.

These people now often boast as much earning potential as the lawyer or management consultant of yore, in a development that will surely please most people; after all, who would mourn the decline of BMW-driving, former public schoolboys at the hands of art school grads? Hardly anyone remains under the illusion that being versed in the ways of Accenture or McKinsey makes one a more valuable asset to society than being versed in the works of say, John Berger or Naomi Klein. But, while the former built their empires out of degrees in PPE and old-boy networks, the latter have built them out of connectivity, which isn’t without its problems. On the one hand, the shifting job market is open to an increasingly diverse pool of talent. On the other, it insists on any individual possessing a certain force of personality; and when this becomes currency, expectations of equality or fairness are once again quashed.

Walk into an office in London or New York, or just about any other city in Northern Europe or America, and you will feel the anxiety caused by this change. Sooner or later, you’ll be introduced to someone called Sue who is falling over herself to know more about Millennials. That’s because Millennials are finally about to attain some financial clout. Except, of course, Millennials aren’t interested in financial power, and this confuses Sue; Sue wants to understand how to sell things to the generation defined by its scepticism of authority, advertising and sales speak. Another thing that fascinates Sue is Millennials’ immersion in social media, and its usefulness in helping them to build ‘portfolio careers’ – out with the CV and in with a spurious collection of Tumblr and Wordpress pages. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to explain to a ‘Sue’ that in lieu of any tangible financial prospects, social media supplanted the reality of scarceness with an opportunity to prosper: to meet new people, albeit virtually, to begin with, and to connect and share.

Often too, social media has led to work and job opportunities. In my first job – an extended, short-term fixed contract at a magazine where senior staff sexually harassed young interns and where I was paid well below the London living wage – publicising my work online led to PRs, who were happy to gift me free books and clothes. Selling these wares on eBay became a lucrative side earner at the time, just one example of the many ways in which social media, and (albeit very moderate) social capital provided me and other people in their twenties with an alternative form of prosperity during the early stages of our careers.

But as time went on, we didn’t just supplant wealth with extreme social hierarchy, we bent wealth to what had become our primary measure of success. Soon, recruiters started approaching people based on their social media following – headhunting for influencers and insiders. It was in such an environment that the creative director in her current guise, was born. And as social capital became more important than financial capital, those locked out of traditional capitalist structures – many of whom were, in fact, sceptical of these structures – were instead able to profit from this emergent form of capitalism.

Such a roundabout reversal of ideals invites comparison with something like the clan structure that emerged organically during the Soviet Union. Due to insufficient provision of services by the state, communities forged along lines of family, geography and friendship were formed as a way of ‘pooling’ resources. Securing one’s station among a prosperous clan became tantamount to securing one’s own future. So powerful was the idea that in spite of systemic regime change, many observers still claim the clan structure presides over Russian politics – Putin himself having been appointed to a senior position within the Kremlin due to ties with a particular KGB clan associated with the now deceased oligarch, Boris Berezovsky.

Here was a socialist state where in lieu of securing wealth in the free market sense, one could secure status by aligning with the right clan. Because the Soviet Union failed so catastrophically in creating equality, one can never be sure whether the social hierarchy that emerged was a result of baser human instinct – the force of ego – or a straightforward way of addressing the question of poverty. All we know is that without the possibility of ownership, people endowed with certain privileges on account of being employed by the right state-run enterprises, became the epicentres of vast ‘clans’.

Comparing this with our present situation might sound extreme. And to an extent, it’s meant to. But it also serves as a useful example in helping us to understand how, in place of traditional career routes, those endowed with the right characteristics to prosper socially — particularly online — become epicentres of small communities themselves, in which those around them might also profit.

While traditional employers have been forced to create inclusive work cultures by liberalising their employment criteria, there is no such way of policing the Internet, or a job climate that depends on it. What’s opened up instead is governed by one’s proficiency in networking – to exist as long as possible in the savage terrain of the online world and to use it, strategically, to one’s own advantage. Where anyone, regardless of wealth, status, physical or mental health problem, was allowed to train for the kind of qualifications that previously led to employment, today’s job market is infinitely more hostile to perceived weakness.

Herein lies the contradiction at the heart of the left-wing media’s existential crisis: that those who achieve rank to speak publicly have often done so by building a large following on social platforms, by transforming themselves into capitalist entities. To do this, they had to be endowed with the privileges that allow one to make connections in the first place, including, but not confined to: proximity to the ‘right’ people and institutions; the physical and mental faculties that make them feel confident, both in public and online; and the sorts of personalities that lend themselves to making, and maintaining, social ties.

As social capital becomes the primary factor in success – more so than careerist ladder climbing – we register, albeit perhaps subconsciously, the outspoken, left-wing Twitter head as a hypocritical profiteer of a new form of capitalism. Compounded by the fact that they are also often prone to advertising their proximity to power within a public yet exclusionary, online context.

What’s arguably more worrying, though, is the idea that social capitalism has conquered ways of perception so successfully, that left-wing ideals are themselves rendered obsolete. Perhaps, having grown up with the Internet and had the popularity contest reduced to such plain, non-subjective terms — Harris’ split-screen live stream and comment section a prototype for how we now conduct our existences — we are none of us able to conceive of a non-capitalist relationship. And, maybe saddest of all, while people held together by exchanges of social capital cannot be classed as a real community, it’s likely the best that we can hope for.


Photograph by Josh Harris / The Next Web

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