Capitalism ate cooperation (written pre-COVID)


I got riled up watching a conspiracy-theory TV show about aliens that presupposes that alien interference with human history is a fact, and goes on to retrofit conclusions based on this contention with flimsy historical data and the rantings of pseudo-scientists with crazy hair and orange spray-tans. 

 The show’s creators seem to frame their content in the knowledge that their viewing audience is far removed from the natural world, and so lacking in contact with organic matter that stuff like chopping firewood or plucking chickens probably seems harrowingly exotic.  Organized craftsmanship by groups of people in ancient civilizations is thus virtually unthinkable: the intricate joinery wrought by ancient Peruvian stonemasons is so mind-blowingly impossible “it could only be the technology of visitors from ...OUTER SPACE (kettle drums).”

Modern American audiences may, in fact, be inclined to believe that they themselves are the result of alien sorcery.  This got me wondering if Sesame Street still teaches the concept of cooperation along with the alphabet and numbers up to twelve.

Certainly, there are mysterious wonders in the world: The Rockettes, for example, or Malaysian prison inmates in orange jumpsuits doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance in unison.  These are excellent spectacles, but are we as a society now so divorced from the idea of a positive collective effort that we look at any well-organized group project and believe it is so implausible that it just must be from outer space?

When I first moved to New York, there were a lot of little clubs where you could dance to eclectic musics. One night, you might go dance to sixties Franco Pop; another club had a Stevie Wonder night. At around the same time that the city had a Decency Panel to vet museum shows, a lot of cabaret licenses were also revoked.  Perhaps dancing was viewed as a dangerous gateway activity that might lead to painting.  Anyway, it’s now hard to find places to really dance in New York, unless you’re a salsa aficionado.  But I still feel the loss of the little clubs deeply - dancing is a sacred pagan activity and an important community-builder. 

So I was very happy when a young couple took me out to dance to live music by The Heathens. The lady, an aspiring actress, had us in stitches over drinks relating her hair-raising day job adventures as a “motivational dancer” for high-end bar mitzvahs.  “Every night she comes home and tells me some new atrocity!”  exulted her boyfriend.

“You teach the Macarena to the future Wall Street moguls of America?”  I asked. 

Her blue headlights widened in mock-horror. “If you think this generation is bad, just you wait until these kids take over,” she said. ”You have NO IDEA! They’re nice kids, in real life ---  but the only music they want to listen to is the nastiest, filthiest, most murderous Gangsta rap. It’s all misdemeanors and felonies.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Love themes from Grand Theft Auto?”  

“Exactly!  And the girls? Let me tell you,” she said, suddenly serious. “Girls who are eleven, twelve years old?  They don’t dance vertically anymore!  Now they just lay on the floor grinding their hips, with another girl standing over them.’” 

I wondered if this was a startling new example of the gender estrangement I like to call “sexual apartheid.” Is it getting harder for boys and girls...or anyone, for that matter... to relate to each other?

“At another bar-mitzvah,” the actress continued, “each kid was given a set of headphones on arrival -- so that everyone could all have their own private experience.”  Yes, full participation in the $250,000 festivities actually required not relating to anyone else.

Recently, there seems to have been a subtle ramping-up of the governmental tendency to quietly herd us in such a way that separates us from anything that might result in a natural crowd, and the over-stimulating group-think it might inspire.  Wide open events like Woodstock where a large body of people may get a collective groove going are increasingly rare. Public planning of open spaces has long been designed to minimize the danger of spontaneous community gatherings – celebrations and protests both require permits, metal fencing and cops on horseback to contain the events in “designated areas.” 

I thought of this the other day walking by a recently-installed amphitheater in Dumbo’s new waterfront park area: It’s a gorgeous seating area, constructed in the classic Greek style that maximizes pre-technological acoustics.  But weirdly, there is no performance space in front of it - just a narrow path for foot-traffic, and beyond that, the East River.  You can only watch the Manhattan skyline, or the river go by.  All threat of a stimulating performance has been eliminated for the safety of the audience, who seem exhorted by the space to sit in collective isolation, each with their own headset on, watching tugboats go by, alone together. 

When I was bar-mizvah age, there was an independent movie that became a Generation X touchstone.  Over the Edge (1979) featured young Matt Dillon and his first fuzzy mustache.  The film was released theatrically, but shortly after it premiered, authorities yanked it for fear it would incite audiences to riot. (Now it can sometimes be found on YouTube). 

The script of Over the Edge was based on real events reported in my hometown newspaper. A group of disgruntled white middle-class teenagers living in a planned community had embraced total anarchy to the point where the community leaders and parents declared their own kids a problem beyond control. 

 The film begins with the townspeople complaining about the increasingly restless teens loitering around the community rec center.  A few “bad apples” (Matt Dillon et al), the more authoritarian adults agued, were threatening to corrupt the other community teens, and entice them to such miscreant behavior as making-out, beer-drinking, smoking and mild drug experimentation.   In the name of protecting the property values of the housing development, the parents condone the criminalization of their own kids.   The rec center is closed and the teens, now bereft of reasonable outlets for the angst of teenism, become bored and furious enough to destroy their whole environment. 

After a spate of police harassment ( led by a character named Sergeant Doberman), the beleaguered teens organize and attempt a coup d’etat. The film ends a bit like The Battle of Algiers, with the juvenile delinquents playing the part of France; dispatching the enemy (adults) proves to be more than the pubescent coalition is ready to handle, being morally unprepared to execute a Final Solution.   

I always cry at the end of Over the Edge -- the lead girl and her friends are standing on a freeway overpass waiting for the armored bus to drive underneath, so they can wave goodbye to the boys as they are hauled away to a juvenile detention facility. The soundtrack: Valerie Carter’s great rendition of the immortal R&B hit by the Five Stair Steps:

Oo-ooh child

Things are gonna get easier

Ooh-ooh child 

Things will be brighter 

Soft-jam soul music exists in a different romantic universe. It doesn’t mope or whine about love’s disappointments and casualties, like rock or country western. There is a metaphysical geist driving R&B and soul - it is essentially gospel music, but the God is sex, romantic love and the Brother- and Sisterhood of Mankind.

Love is not problematized in the lyrics of soul and R&B. Love is clearly the question and the answer. Righteous battles are fought to win true love, of the “ain’t no mountain high enough” -variety.  In soul music, boots are not made for walking so much as for slowly removing. Other pop music may twerk all over the idea of boys and girls playing nice together, but soul music still treats romantic love as something real, desirable and intimate, it provides advice on how to find it, feel it, give it, cherish it, keep it alive...and how keep yourself going should your romance fail.   

 Yes, there is still love in the world, and there are incidences of spontaneous group cooperation -- crowds do not inevitably turn into bloodthirsty mobs. A friend of mine recently showed me a video by an artist who managed to recreate the way in which a crowd of pre-technological people may have waddled one of Easter Island’s big stone heads to their different locations.  There were two large groups of people organized on either side of the giant stone figure. Both groups had ropes tied around it, and movement of the stone was achieved by a kind of coordinated tug-of-war, combined with a call-and-response like one might hear on a chain gang, or in the hull of a Viking ship. 

 “Heave!” shouted one side of the rope-pullers, pulling the statue off balance just enough to spin the huge thing forward a step.  

 “Ho!” shouted the other side, using the counter-sway to ‘walk’ their side of the stone giant. 

It was a project that required patience, communication, a positive group effort and something like singing -- and a positive commitment to the common goal of building something that would endure through time and survive beyond the society that built it.  Love is possible, and not just in old soul music. It is not an alien technology. But it gets the job done. Like building a pyramid, it requires cooperation, faith, and expert communication. It takes a community that is allowed to actually dance together. 

Artwork: “Spock in Pearls,” oil on canvas by Cintra Wilson, 2020