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tv globe icon link to home The death of Marxism

Francois Lyotard argued that in postmodernity, knowledge forms express an incredulity towards metanarratives, a rejection of metaphysics, philosophies of history, and any totalizing theory (Lyotard, 1984).But master narratives of development have not disappeared; instead, they have taken on new appearances in response to the material infrastructure now dictated by communications technologies and dominated by the interests of a highly concentrated few corporations. New capital formations associated with flexible accumulation, digitalization, and cultural commodification generate new legitimation myths (narratives) to sustain it.Lotus03-98

Neo-liberal ideology may now be the reigning myth. We have seen in the Traveler's and Merrill Lynch commercials how this ideology proclaims the social good of investment while glossing over any moment, or even hint, of exploitation. The Marxist narrative could not withstand the power of capital as it now freely flows across all territories. One dimension of neo-liberal ideology constructs the death of Marxism as a consequence of the power of free market capital. No longer a viable threat, the angst disappears from capitalist discourses about communism. The comic wins out -- not only has state capitalism been vanquished, its ideology of socialist man can be taunted.

The comedian, Denis Leary did a series of
Lotus commercials drawing on his fast talking, abrasively cynical persona. One Lotus ad takes place in a small store run by the 'Palm Beach People's Party.' The store is filled with Soviet paraphernalia and iconography. Hammer & sickle posters hang on the back wall. Their computer monitor featuring their own e-commerce site reads "Our Beach Collection." Beneath are catalogue-style pictures of t-shirts and sunglasses from the collection. On another monitor it states, "Welcome to the PBCCCP." Beneath the copy is an image of Lenin in sunglasses. Leary enters the store and begins an interview with the store manager.


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Leary: "Welcome to the forefront of the economic
revolution. This is the headquarters of the Palm Beach
People's Party."
Store manager: "It's more a gift shop really. Marx is back
with the style and flair of the 90s.
This is one of our most popular items. (points to Lenin-bust cookie jar)
This is our Lotus Domino intranet. Vendors and suppliers are connected and of course, the workers. We're Marxists, but we gotta make a buck like everybody else."
Leary: "You're attacking capitalism with its own tools?"
Store manager: "Actually we're reducing cycle time and improving customer service."
Leary: "A lot of comrades spinning in their graves right now."

Screen: Work the Web
www.lotus.com

As Leary and the entrepreneurial store manager talk, the somber, quasi-sacred, quasi-Soviet chants of Russian choral music frame the narrative. The store is colorfully composed as a postmodern pastiche of opposing signifiers: 'Communist' red along with 'Palm Beach' aquamarine, hammer & sickle posters, ferns in vases, a "Hot to Trotsky" sweatshirt, a red bathing suit on a mannequin. The ironic tone, the ensemble of disparate signifiers, and the playful mix of political ideologies, sales talk and capitalist economic jargon humorously celebrate the collapse of Soviet Marxism or as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, a world of "capitalism without an alternative." The juxtaposition of opposites and the reduction of ideology into semiotic jokes is a reminder of Herbert Marcuse's (1964) critique of the power of commodification in post industrial society and a corresponding failure of the American working class movement to become radicalized.

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Communism is turned into Kitsch, a commodity aesthetic. "Marx is back with the style and flair of the 90s." Gone is its political economic presence, replaced by a souvenir giftshop aesthetic.

Auto-kitsch. "Commie on board." This joke obviously draws on viewer familiarity with the child-safety stickers affixed to baby-boomer cars. The joke works here because of the powerful juxtaposition between the ideologically valorized category of "baby" with the polluted, and denigrated, category of "commie." This is, to invoke Mary Douglas, a distinction between "purity" and "danger." So when the Lotus ad substitutes "Commie" for "baby" it creates a joke about the domestication of Communism. The ideological curse of Communism has been rendered harmless -- a signifier so completely stripped from historical context that it can slide from one meaning system to the next. Here the slide is breathtakingly precipitous -- from icon of the communist nation state to disposable kitsch icon.

The hammer & sickle was historically a potent symbolic icon of the Communist state. It drew its ideological symbolism from the tools of the industrial proletariat and the agricultural salt of the earth. When used as the motif on sweatshirts, wall art, keychains, and so on, these former symbols of production and distributive justice are turned entirely into consumption meanings. Symbolically, the master narrative is made superficial and disposable -- like the keychains it adorns.
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Though the motif of this symbol appears repeatedly throughout the Lotus ad, recognition of the form may actually trick us into assuming that what we see is the communist symbolism of the hammer & sickle. But it isn't. Does it matter that it really isn't the hammer & sickle anymore? In fact, even the iconography has been reworked in yet another act of semiotic playfulness -- it is now the sickle and the palm tree that adorns the wall art and the website. Lotus03-98Once again we can read this as mocking, and we probably are meant to read it this way. Look closely and we see that another rendering of the hammer & sickle on the wall turns into a smileyface -- an image that has come to stand for the most empty and vacuous signifiers in contemporary pop culture.

Substituting the palm tree for the hammer offers an interesting semiotic twist, or perhaps we should say materialist twist. After all it only makes sense to rematerialize the icon given the historical location of Palm Beach -- where the working class probably doesn't work with industrial production so much as to toil in the service/tourist industries, perhaps even unionizing?

What then lies at the "forefront of the economic revolution?" Why, it turns out to be capitalism again, reinventing itself as the "new economy." While the ad seeks to humorously celebrate the demise of Marxism as one of the great master narratives of the industrial era, it elevates neo-liberal economics as the dominant -- yet tolerant and even bemused -- paradigm. This
Lotus ad captures the lure of free market rhetoric and its debasement of other narratives. Indeed, the ad ends by ratifying the logic of capital as the only pragmatic and efficient choice to make. As an alternative, Marxism is as dead as a doornail. Indeed, in a cunning twist, when Denis Leary observes that the Communist Party is "attacking capitalism with its own tools," the Marxist store manager even refuses to acknowledge that the Palm Beach People's Party is trying to exploit the contradictions of the capitalist forces of production, pleading instead the pragmatism of managerial capitalism itself - "actually, we're reducing cycle time..."

If markets are the only game in town, then even rational Marxists will submit to the logic of commodification. When that surrender has been made, the only choice left is what tools you choose to "reduce cycle time and improve customer service." This is supposedly Marxism in the post-Fordist economy on flexible accumulation.

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