Tag Archives: capitalism

Get Out (2017) vs. Neoliberalism

 

Get Out: A Satirical Critique of Neo-liberalism

This weekend two seemingly unrelated events happened to me within the span of 24 hours.
First, on Friday night I went to the 10:50 pm CST showing of the movie Get Out. For those who do not know the premise of the movie is about a young interracial couple (black male and
white female) who go to visit the woman’s parents. When the boyfriend gets to the parent’s
house he notices something is different about the black people that work for the woman’s
parents. The next event occurred a little more than fifteen hours after seeing the movie, I
spoke on a panel for the American Academy of Religion Southwest regional conference. The
panel was entitled “Black Religious Lives Matter: An Exploration of Black Religiosity in the
Midst of Trauma.” The aim of the panel was to use different methods to explore the
meaning of black religion after tragedies such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis,
and Terrence Crutcher. Ironically, in my opinion the most interesting aspect of the
presentation came from one of the panelist who was unable to attend because of illness. I
read the panelist’s outline on what he planned to present on, namely, a pastoral care
perspective on the way that young black males have been demarcated through public
media perceptions with particular respect to cases such as Michael Brown. After the
presentation, a topic that came up for discussion involved what to make of the
simultaneous portrayal of Baylor football players for their athletic feats while also handling
the demonizing of many of the same players because of the rape scandal. Reflecting on this
discussion alongside of the movie Get Out I have concluded that a common theme for both
is the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies.

While I am almost certain that Jordan Peele did not intend for his film to be a critique of the
capitalist superstructure (maybe he did who knows?), it certainly can be viewed in that way. Contrary to the rather weak criticism by “leading left” magazine Jacobin offered that Get Out can be dismissed as black nationalism and not able to awaken people politically, I do believe there are possibilities within the film itself.

According to Marxism 101, society is composed of both a base and a superstructure. The
base is composed of the modes/ means of production and relations of production. Means of
productions include the land, labor, and resources necessary to create a product. While the
relations of productions describes the different classes that are created by access to the
means of production. The simplest division is between the capitalist class (bourgeoisie)
and the working class (proletariat). The most important thing to know about this is that
Marx says it helps to shape and maintain the superstructure, or all of our ideologies.
Ideologies include our views on politics, religion, race, culture, media, education, etc. In
essence all of society is viewed from the logic of capitalism. Marx uses commodification to
describe this term. Commodification allows for knowledge, friendship, nature, and even
people to be viewed based on their monetary value. A contemporary examination of this
phenomenon is the basis for neo-liberalism. Get Out examines, in some not so subtle ways,
the logic of capitalism in relation to black bodies.

The film begins with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) packing to go with his girlfriend Rose (Allison
Williams) to her parent’s house upstate. It is significant that her parents live in an affluent
upper-class neighborhood. They als enjoy very successful careers in the medical field. In
other words, they are from the capitalist class. As such, they control the means of
production or commodities necessary for the capitalist system. In the film the commodity
that Rose’s parents hope to control are the black bodies that come into the neighborhood.
Chris notices early that the family seems to overly accommodate for him. At first he
believes this is because Rose’s parent do not want to seem racist or disapproving of their
daughter’s interracial relationship. Eventually Chris comes to the realization that it is
because of something far more sinister. Rose’s parents only value him because of the
physical usefulness of his body. He is only viewed as a product that can be used as a part of
their grotesque experiments. During one scene, one of the more subtle instances of humor
in the film, Rose begins to look for her next target on the internet. As Chris tries to escape
the house of horrors, Rose is seen searching for black male athletes on the search engine
Bing. This is a very clear example of the search for a black body that she views as a valued
commodity. Although Get Out should be seen as a satire, that does not mean it does not
possess universal truths. In this case, it hints at the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies through popular culture/ media images.

However, as the presentation of one my fellow panelist alluded to, athletics are probably
the most glaring example of how popular media images commodify black athletes. To be
sure to adequately cover this topic involves a great deal of complexity. However, for the
purposes of this piece I will only sketch out the neoliberal commodification of black
athletes in relation to the Baylor rape scandal. I will also preface this by stating although
this analysis does not directly speak to the victims of the rape scandal it does acknowledge
the seriousness of the irreparable harm that has been caused to both the victims and their
families. To the point of this piece, the media depiction of these black athletes is consistent
with the neo-liberal commodification of black athletes. It has become a part of popular
culture to classify skilled black male athletes as a beast. In many instances they are
encouraged to act like a beast on the field. Some would argue that the current use to the
term beast is a throwback reference to when black males were described as buck. Both
terms connote the animalistic physical dominance of black bodies. However, beast is more
of a reference to the potential production value of the athlete. The more the athlete
produces on the field the more monetary value they have for the University. Thus, these
athletes are consistently pushed to produce great athletic feats on the field because it will
directly impact the amount of capital generated by the school from sports.

In this neoliberal capitalist system athletes are only valued only in so far as the product
that they create (wins, conference titles, individual accolades), which has a direct impact on
their portrayal in the media. They are viewed as heroes for their great accomplishments
and the revenue that they help to generate. At the same time, much like in the past, they are
viewed through the lens of their sexual and aggressive nature. According to previous
generations, the black male as a buck was a wild untamable animal that lived for sexual
prowess and domination. Society needed to be protected from him, and in particular the
white female needed protection. It is not a lost fact that the vast majority of cases in the
rape scandal involve black men and white women. It is also not lost that Baylor University
repeatedly prioritized the product created from the labor of many black bodies over the
health and safety of the victims. Capitalist interest or the superstructure took precedent
over everything else. The point here is this, the portrayal of of the black male athlete as a
beast in many of its connotations is a result of the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies.

So what is the impact of the commodification of black bodies? Well from watching Get Out
the answer is pretty obvious. In the film , the bodies of black people are literally taken over
by white people. Their consciousness is sent to the “sunken place,” where they are able to
see what happens to them but are paralyzed from controlling their own bodies. What
happens, in more realistic depictions of commodification. Well, in the case of Baylor
football players they are viewed as either superhuman or subhuman. When the athletes
achieve great feats on the field they are recognized for their superhuman abilities.
However, when they damage the product of Baylor sports or the potential revenue
generated from sports they are viewed as subhuman. Both depictions of the beast as either
a positive reflection or as a negative reflection of the university’s culture are equally as
dehumanizing to the athletes. In short, the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies
denies these individuals of their humanity because they are only valued as products. This a
point that brings this analysis full circle. When black bodies are denied their humanity it
becomes easier to trivialize black lives. It is this devaluation/ trivialization of black life that
created the images we now know as Terrence Crutcher, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis and
many many more. It is also the reason why it is important to critically evaluate films like
Get Out and panels dedicated examining the scope of black humanity.

Watch this space for Rod’s take on Get Out (2017) and religion and its refreshing take on Black culture.

Recommended reviews on Get Out (2017)

Get Out More Than Just Apparent: Assessing Jordan Peele’s On White Liberalism and the Gender Paradigm by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

Get the F*ck Outta Here & Get the F*ck Outta Here: The Sequel by Son of Baldwin

Also see the whole treasure trove of reviews and commentary over at Very Smart Brothas: VSB on Get Out.

(photo description: the picture is a screen shot from the movie trailer for Get Out (2017). There is a black man (the character Rod Williams) wearing glasses and sitting on a brown leather couch, on his cell phone talking to the protagonist, who is also black and male, Chris.)

Our Bondage And Our Freedom: on Lent and neoliberalism

William T. Cavanaugh provides an intriguing analysis of modern consumer culture in relation to Christian social norms and morality in his work Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He addresses many questions that many Christian wrestle with on a daily basis. Namely, how does one embrace the teachings of the Gospel and Christianity in general while simultaneously participating in a culture that espouses an amoral foundation on material consumption? The ramifications of this answer not only have an impact on the local level but globally as well. This question is deeply rooted in articulating the human relationships in the midst of a capitalist society. At times in the United States the culture of consumption seems to be both inescapable as well as inevitable. From this insight another question becomes apparent. What is the true meaning of freedom in a free market economy? Cavanaugh seeks to answer this question in the first chapter.

milton friendman obamasized

He first points to Milton Freidman to identity the traditional notion of freedom in a free market capitalist society.  Friedman believes that freedom comes from absence of external coercion when two parties enter a mutually beneficial exchange of production (pg.2) According to this understanding all exchanges must be voluntary and informed.  Perhaps equally as important is that free market is defined in a negative sense. It is freedom from “eternal coercion.” Many have interpreted this to mean a freedom from state or government intervention.  In other words, freedom here is defined by the absence of external interference which ideally frees the individual to enter upon a mutually beneficial agreement. What is not factored into this notion of free market capitalism is the idea of telos. In relation to capitalism markets telos is broadly defined as common end through which desire is directed.  Every individual who embarks on an agreement according to this view of free market capitalism does so, based on their own individual interest. Neither communal good nor the wellbeing of society as a whole is factored into the decision making process.

 

Cavanaugh next point is to employ the work of St. Augustine as a corrective to this view of the free market. One of the more obvious flaws in Friedman’s view of free market capitalism is that quite often people do indeed enter into exchanges that are not mutually beneficial. One group is exploited while the other group does the exploiting. Perhaps the greatest example of this in modern society is the phenomenon known as global outsourcing.  Cavanaugh notes that many American businesses in the mid-20th century began to move overseas to Latin American countries because labor costs were much cheaper abroad. However, several decades later these same businesses moved again to the Asian continent because they hire laborer even cheaper there. Whereas the cost of production in Latin America was around 60 cents an hour for the average worker, in China that same labor could be outsourced at as low as 12 cents an hour. Compare this salary to the revenue generated from selling these items to American customers and it becomes apparent that this type of free market exchange is not mutually beneficial.

 

I think it is appropriate here to illustrate the exploitative nature of outsourcing through the context of the current season of Lent. Many people celebrate what is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday for spiritual or secular reason. There are several aspects of this festivity that can be seen as problematic. Particularly, the Mardi Gras beads that are so readily celebrated are the result of exploited Chinese laborer. David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, exposes American fetishism of these beads and the paltry condition under which they are made. Workers in these factories, primarily teenage girls, spend 14-16 hours a day laboring over mardigras beads. For all of their efforts they make around sixty-two dollars amount by which they are supposed to support both themselves as well as their families. Redmon even notes how the factory owner states that he does not want more than 10 percent of factory workers to be females because the females are easier to control. The owner also mention how he docks one month’s worth of pay if he catches the workers fraternizing with members of the opposite sex. The list of exploitative practices could go on. Suffice to say Friedman’s notion of free market freedom does not provide the sort of freedom that he hoped for when it is practiced. Freedom from something in a free mark capitalist society is certainly not freedom from exploitation.

 

Augustine fits into this equation because for him freedom is not merely from something but for something. Freedom is the ability to work towards a common good or telos. Everything that we do should be for a greater good and to serve a greater purpose. For Augustine this good is deeply connected to God. All interactions and relationships should connect God’s goodness to society at large. This has implications on how to understand telosin relation to free market capitalism. Model of production as well as economic relationships should be based on the telosof promoting God’s goodness for anyone who considers themselves a Christian. This means that one has to recognize the exploitative nature of free market capitalism as articulated by Milton Friedman. Outsourcing labor that leaves one group at a gross disadvantage does not promote God’s goodness. God’s goodness is revealed through the divine equality that everyone shares. This should be reflected in human relationships. So what does it mean for a person to understand an economic system with a conception of telos?

 

Cavanaugh at various points in his work makes several recommendations on how to conceive an economic system while having in mind, what end that economic system should meet. As previously noted for Christians this telosshould be towards the purpose of serving the greater good, articulated as God.  There are many ways this can be accomplished however; I would like to emphasize one that I think is particularly important towards understanding freedom. Individual practices can be the way that any person can participate in their own liberation. What Michel Foucault calls practices of freedom can help to navigate a Christian perspective of how to view a free market system as freeing. Foucault’s notion of practices of freedom is the process by which an individual’s employ practices aimed at alleviating their own domination. According to Foucault oppression is not solely an institutional process. As such it cannot solely be attacked at an institutional level. It is up to individuals as well as communities to fight oppressive forces. For Foucault when oppression is examined through the lens of the individual it is more aptly termed domination. Individuals alone may not be able to overthrown oppressive systems but that does not mean they have to play a role in their own domination. Through using specific practices the individual is able to exercise agency in the midst of oppression or domination. In other words, through practices they are able to acquire their own sense of freedom

 

Free market capitalism as well as many other economic systems are so easily linked with exploitation that individuals lose any sense that they may be able create change. Thus it is imperative that individuals recognize their own agency in these situations. It is equally important that individuals realize that they do not have to contribute to their own domination. Practices of freedom can include education, speaking out against exploitative practices etc. It is the responsibility of every Christian to also engage in these practices of freedom as well. Through participating in practices of freedom Christian can actively work toward the telos that Augustine describes and that is necessary for a Christian understanding of economic relationships in a free market society.

(Photo description: Obama-ized photo of Milton Friedman where half of the photo background is red, the other blue. The words “FREEDOM” appear in text across the bottom. Found on Flickr.)

is Christian Capitalism a heresy? #HobbyLobby

STOP! PAUSE! I already realize there will be people on both sides of this debate arguing that “well Christian communism” or “Christian socialism” is also wrong, yada yada. Sure I’ll concede this but these concepts aren’t the status quo or relevant to this discussion.

Last year I went down close to the San Antonio area with my church’s singles group for a Baptist conference for singles. I had some good memories, and also some not-so-good memories that I live-tumblred. Even wrote a song.

At that time I was working two part-time jobs, 1 in retail, the other substitute teaching. I wanted a little bit more stability so I attended the “manage your finances” seminar. The lesson was taught based on the premise that one was full-time employed, with benefits, and earning $40,000 at minimum. The lesson was irrevant to the needs of the working poor/unemployed and to the message of the Gospel. Jesus’ liberating mission (Luke 4:19) was completely ignored. God’s favor for the oppressed was dismissed in favor of free market talking points clothed in religious piety. Just because our lecturer, a white collar worker at an investment firm, was at the top, did not mean he had the clearest view. But again, that’s the problem with the Church’s marriage to Capitalism; there’s very little space to hear the voices of those who are suffering.

In Christianity, we have a bad habit of hiding behind power. The 4th century bishops hid behind Emperors like Constantine; Martin Luther had his princes, John Calvin had his city councils; church going slave owners had their Bibles and plantations; the abolitionists had Lincoln, later Woodrow Wilson; the Moral Majority had Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In today’s world, the culture wars are almost out of the hands of politicians, and in the hands of businessmen through the media, social media, and various institutions. Who are the Defenders of the Faith today? Christian celebrities from Duck Dynasty, and the owners of Chik-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, respectively. #NoShade

Systematic theologian Joerg Rieger asked it best, “what if our theologies and our churches have, at least unconsciously, become part of the religion of the market? What if the God worshipped on Sunday mornings looks more like Mammon everyday?” For more see Rieger’s Liberating The Future.
What I see happening is the cycle of Christians coalescing around the powerful, placing their hopes on them. This adoration of money and influence isn’t limited to the church of course; what I am saying is that this is happening in spite of our Savior’s teachings on the subject of money. Yes I already know the Parable of the Minas (Talents) and you’re wrong. When a person has the audacity to speak up and compare Christ’s teachings to the American church’s economic practices, they are labelled “communist.” Such red-baiting only exemplifies how much people are willing to go to cling to their idols.

One practice that happens in mainline and evangelical churches that goes unchecked is denominational structures investing their money in stocks and futures. About two weeks ago, the Presbyterian Church USA applauded itself and its white saviorism for divesting from THREE corporations implicated in destroying Palestinian lives. At the general assembly, America was seen to be the “real” Promised Land and anti-Jewish propaganda were first placed then taken down from the PCUSA website.

What doesn’t go questioned is WHY ARE CHURCHES INVESTING in the stock market in the first place? Why not the lives of the poor? Why not homes for Palestinian refugees? This paternalistic white saviorism is part of the legacy of capitalism. James Baldwin said it best, that Israel was created for the salvation of Western interests.

Neoliberalism and neocolonial empire is built upon the history of divide and conquer among conquered groups, the Palestinians and Israelis being just two of those. The imperial missionary religion transplanted overseas said, “love your neighbor at home, except if she was black or First Nations. Love your neighbor in a foreign country, except if she is a woman of color.” This hypocrisy remains today. Take for example, “Christian” business Hobby Lobby. As Tyler pointed out, we think it’s great that HL is paying a living wage. However, they are inconsistent in their “pro-life” ethic by expoiting Chinese workers and investing in abortion pills still here and abroad. The Supreme Court ruling given on Monday was not about religious freedom. It was about economic liberty and power as understood by the Christian capitalist managerial class. In the words of Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

There are ways towards resisting the Church’s sacramentalizing the free market, and that starts looking back with the teachings of Jesus, and being present in the here and now with the least of these. One of my favorite Gospel passages our mother had us to memorize was Matthew 6:21, where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. If you value fellow human beings as all being made in the image of God, from fetus to factory worker, you will show them love, struggle against the systems of death with them, and bring them life. This may mean church may have to stop giving in to the status quo, take risks, and in a rare moment of agreement with Wayne Grudem, invest in people, not corporations and power.

In the words of James Cone, from hid A Black Theology of Liberation,

“Embracing the world is a denial of the gospel. The history of traditional Christianity and recent secular theology show the danger of this procedure. Identifying the rise of nationalism with Christianity, capitalism with the gospel, or exploration of outer space with the advancement of the kingdom of God serves only to enhance the oppression of the weak. It is a denial of the lordship of Christ. To affirm Christ as Lord means that the world stands under his judgment. There is no place or person not subject to his rule.”