'Americonned' film review: how we're conned by capitalism in the US and Britain
Monday, 17 June 2024 08:33

'Americonned' film review: how we're conned by capitalism in the US and Britain

Published in Films

Hi, my name is Brett Gregory, Associate Editor for the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters, and this is my review of Sean Claffey’s 2023 documentary, Americonned.

Throughout the 20th century Hollywood often hypnotised us with its mirages of the United States which were altogether beautiful, beguiling and bountiful, its diverse and dramatic population constantly reinventing itself as it seemingly surged as one towards the comfort and glory of the American Dream.

Sean Claffey’s documentary, Americonned, bluntly announces that that dream is now over as it charges us through an economic war set in the first quarter of 21st century North America.

Human casualties who look exactly like you and me litter the hideous housing projects in Florida, the basement apartments buried in New Jersey and the forgotten farms of Iowa, instantly reminding us of our own crumbling council estates in Newcastle, the boarded-up shops in Bolton and the bankruptcy of Birmingham City Council.

[AUDIO CLIP]

Ana (Florida): I'm looking for storage units. Next door, yesterday they put my friend out, my neighbour, and they had what I thought was a legal document, you know, to help them, you know, stay. But unfortunately, neither the sheriffs nor the management company would accept the paperwork and they, you know, kicked them out, and I don't want that to happen to me.

Elaine (Boston): With this job I'm not making enough. I have tried to apply for a loan through the SBA. That's a nightmare. I tried to apply for the PPP. They denied me for that because it was not the accurate information. I really want to give up because I'm just so tired. I don't know. I don't sleep much at night, so I just lay there and I think and I think and I think and I think, and I can't figure a way out. And I've always been able to figure a way out, and I can't. My kids literally hate me because I can't fix the problems of the world.

J. D. Scholten (Iowa): When I decided to move home several years ago, I looked in my hometown paper for a job for about a month, and the best job I could get is 15 bucks an hour and no benefits. Whether it's a McDonald's or Dollar General or whatever, they hire people for 10 / 12 bucks an hour and the profits go out of the district. That's not benefiting our society, that's not benefiting our communities. The economy isn't working for here. It benefits these multinational corporations.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

Like a military dossier detailing the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces during World War II, this film manages its moral outrage with dark data that refutes the false flag of fiscal progress which is waved mechanically, and maniacally, by the mainstream media across our syndicated smart screens.

In line with the rise of workers’ productivity since the 1960s, for instance, the minimum wage should be at least $20 an hour in the US, but it isn’t, is it? Instead, it’s a sickening $7.25 an hour.

For the record, and according to the Trade Union Congress, the minimum wage in the UK should be £15 an hour, but instead it’s £11.54.

In turn, 70% of all adults who work full-time in North America have to suffer the humiliation of receiving government aid, while in the UK over 6.4 million people, including myself, are claiming Universal Credit.

Moreover, although the long-term average unemployment figures across the United States are around 5.7%, Marty Walsh, former Mayor of Boston, observes that the 6.1% unemployment rate for the black community and the 9.7% rate for the Latino community will never, ever improve.

So, where did all the money go? And what about all that hope?

Well, coincidentally, in 1987 there were 47 billionaires in the United States with a total net worth of $186 billion. In 2024 however we now have 759 billionaires with a combined wealth of – wait for it – $4.48 trillion.

Such figures, to any rational mind, are absolutely ridiculous.

It’s as if we’re playing a game of Monopoly in a locked room against Charles Manson, a machete in his right hand, a litre of tequila in his left.

But such a subhuman socio-economic state of affairs didn’t happen by accident now, did it?

Amongst other things Machiavellian men and women with incalculable capital, connections and control desired for it to be this way, they conspired for it to be this way, and they contrived for it to be this way.

But who was the original Svengali, the David Koresh, the Colonel Kurtz that first let this Wall Street savagery loose upon the streets and suburbs of California, Texas, Washington, Britain and the rest of the world?

According to Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Evil Geniuses’, and venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer:

[AUDIO CLIP]

Kurt Andersen (Author): Milton Friedman was an incredibly important figure. He was at the University of Chicago where he was at the centre of this group of libertarian economists, and they were really outside the mainstream.

Milton Friedman (Economist): Personally, of course I would get rid of social security. I've always said it was one of the great miracles of Madison Avenue packaging.

TV Interviewer: Would you do about the minimum wage law if you could?

Milton Friedman (Economist): I would abolish it.

Kurt Andersen (Author): Then in 1970 the New York Times magazine invited him to essentially summarise his beliefs in an article that they called ‘A Friedman Doctrine’.

Television Talk Show Host: Please welcome the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Milton Friedman.

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

Kurt Andersen (Author): He was making the case that for businesses nothing mattered but profits. Not the well-being of your employees, not the well-being of your communities, not the well-being of the larger society. All that matters was your profits – period.

Nick Hanauer (Venture Capitalist): He was making a claim about how human economies worked. That the more selfish business executives were the better it would be for everyone, and that's what people bought. The trick of trickle-down economics is not believing that when the rich get richer that's good for the economy; the evil part is the belief that when the poor get richer that will harm the economy. And that has been the basic message of our nation's economic system for the last 40 years.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

But surely there are robust constitutional and legal mechanisms in place, which have been historically drawn up to prevent such wanton ransacking of the social contract between employers and their employees, citizens and their government?

Well, unfortunately, Americonned is quick to alert us that in the United States of America, the land of free enterprise and brave opportunism, even democracy is up for sale.

[AUDIO CLIP]

Kurt Andersen (Author): So how do you change things permanently? Well, you change law, you change the way the judiciary interpret what is constitutional or not. A big way that change is made is by billionaire right-wingers giving 50 million or 100 million each to all the best law schools. And, oh, by the way, let's also start this fraternity, mafia, whatever you want to call it.

CBSN Host: So what exactly is the Federalist Society?

Eric Lipton (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist): The Federalist Society got started through law schools and it's grown into an organisation that has incredible influence in the United States.

MSNBC Host: Getting conservative judges on the bench has been a project for multiple decades.

Kurt Andersen (Author): Once you get both the law and Washington lawmakers, you could make sure that those laws were going to be declared constitutional or not by judges you have essentially bred in your laboratory through the Federalist Society.

Keith Olbermann (Countdown News Host): Today the Supreme Court of Chief Justice, John Roberts, declared that corporations had all the rights of people.

Bernie Sanders (US Politician): What you have right now is the undermining of American democracy as we know it.

Keith Olbermann (Countdown News Host): There are now no checks on the ability of corporations to decide our elections. None.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

Although there are many heartbreaking and humanising speeches and scenarios in Americonned that any level-headed left-winger or progressive would be engaged and enraged by, the documentary is not without its faults.

For the sake of audience inclusion and narrative drive, for instance, Jeff Bezos is crudely cast as an obscene online Ozymandias, while his Amazon workforce are portrayed as his eternally suffering Egyptian slaves.

However, this basic binary, good versus evil approach overlooks the depth and breadth of the neoliberal tech-feudalist system which now operates above, below and within all supposed civilised societies, not just the United States, and which, it could be argued, accidentally engineers egregious entities like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

We’re talking here about a supremely organised interconnected network of institutions whose hourly purpose is to maintain absolute power by generating trillions of dollars via the day-to-day exploitation of the world’s 8 billion citizens.

Indeed, this global complex of control is of such incomprehensible scope and strength it would take centuries of round-the-clock resistance from millions of focused, educated, dedicated and resourced activists to even begin to attempt to dismantle it, let alone hold it to account.

Yep, we’re talking here about actual international governments, their presidents, senators, prime ministers and members of parliament; non-governmental organisations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change; think tanks like The Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US and Chatham House in the UK; elite universities like Yale, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge; global 2000 companies like JPMorgan Chase, Saudi Aramco and China Construction Bank; pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk that make our medicines; energy companies like ExxonMobil and Shell that drive our cars; chemical companies like BASF and Sinopec that clean our floors; media companies like Disney and Comcast that are supposed to entertain us; tech companies like Apple and Alphabet that definitely detain us; arms manufacturers; the military; the CIA, MI5, FBI; the police, the prison service….all protecting their – not our – trillions upon trillions of dollars.

Americonned is currently available to buy in the UK as a DVD through Amazon Prime Video. This has been the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters, and I’ve been Brett Gregory.

 

An interview with Julia Bell
Monday, 17 June 2024 08:33

An interview with Julia Bell

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is the Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing. Her recent creative work includes poetry, lyric essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. She is the author of three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and is co-editor of the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan) updated and re-issued in 2019.

She is interested in the intersection between the personal and the political, and believes that writing well takes courage, patience, attention and commitment. Radical Attention is Julia's latest book and is available from Peninsula Press here

*

FL: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, Radical Attention. This essay is already garnering praise for its chilling and clear-sighted account of our collective internet addiction, and how this addiction is manipulated. The book makes an eloquent case for a sustained and tender regard in which to hold the world and each other, which stands counter to the instrumental indifference of our transactional economy. I wonder if you could start off by talking a little bit about the idea of 'radical attention', particularly in relation to Shoshana Zuboff's notion of 'radical indifference' as it applies to social media monopolies like Facebook and Twitter?

JB: It’s become quite clear to me that the interests of late-stage capitalism have diverged quite sharply and catastrophically from the interests of most humans and the planet. One of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the way that the social media monopolies have built their empires on the attention and the behavioural data of its users. Human attention and behaviour is now the product being sold. To begin with, I think, we used their platforms in good faith, as a vehicle for socialising. But over the years these platforms have also begun to socialise us. They trap us in echo chambers of the information the companies perceive is most likely to appeal to us, and adverts which have been microtargeted by companies who pay to have access to that information. We don’t choose what we see. The algorithms are built in such a way as to feed you more of what you want, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of your cat or a suicide note – as long as you’re engaging it will keep feeding you more of the same.

In such a context I wonder how much control we actually have over what we actually look at and think about. If you spend three or four hours a day on your smartphone what are you actually doing with your time, and by extension your life? Was that leisure time or did it make you anxious, outraged, afraid? I suppose I’m taking an autoethnographic approach to consider how these changes have affected me and my friends, but also the social and political environment around me. To me Radical Attention was my attempt to step outside the Attention Industrial Complex to see what is actually going on. I want to encourage others to do the same.  

FL: One of the things that occurred to me while reading was that the term 'machine' stands equally for the technologies we use and the systems that drive and deploy them. When you write about dazedly losing yourself, “zombified by the machine”, I find myself interpreting this in a couple of ways. Firstly the machine is the literal device, the screen that mediates our experience of the world and captures our attention. Secondly, it is also capitalism itself, the corporations and institutions that vie for this attention in order to keep us engaged, enraged, consuming and competing. As a person who experiences a great deal of unease about the enmeshment of social media and late-stage capitalism, I wonder if you see them as in any way separable? Or is exploitation itself part of the hardware?

JB: Steve Jobs said that technology should be a ‘bicycle for the mind’ and as an early adopter in the 90s I was thrilled by the potential of technology and the web – the possibilities of making publishing easier and cheaper for example, or breaking the monopolies of the music companies that kept such tight control over the copyright of artists while creaming off huge profits, etc. I’m not sorry that we have much easier ways of disseminating knowledge, music, film, writing, art – for people to have access to the means of production. It has improved diversity. It means so many more people can have a voice. And I think there is huge potential in tech to be put to use solving some of the pressing issues around the climate and so on. Smartphones are amazing inventions in many ways.

So, I’m not anti-technology at all, but I am anti the current enmeshment of tech companies with an increasingly dark version of libertarian capitalism. The way the companies have grown into these disruptive, monopolistic behemoths with little or no regulation and who are now making eye-watering amounts of profit – especially the social media monopolies which pretend to be a reflection of society, when actually they are increasingly a means of socialising it into various new forms. Also, this has happened in a place where we have no jurisdiction, and yet this technology has an increasingly huge effect on the quality of my life. I remember thinking in the 90s when I first started using the net – What will all this be for? It seems the people with the capacity and the imaginations have made something very big and revolutionary out if it, but it has become way too centralised and ordinary people have become increasingly locked out of the conversation. There are us – the users – and then a very small elite who are the coders, and we have to live in the world they have built.

FL: I ask because the passages in Radical Attention about Silicon Valley cynicism really struck a chord with me. Nir Eyal writing that noxious book on how to manipulate others through technology, then later publishing a self-help manual for those wishing to take back control of their hijacked attention felt particularly chilling. I recalled that at the start of the year I was at an arts and performance event in London where one of the participants had designed what was essentially a baffle for Alexa: a kind of cyberpunk face-mask that anonymised and distorted speech. I made myself wildly unpopular by suggesting that a simpler solution would be not to buy Alexa in the first place. I've always felt like capitalism's shtick is to break our legs then sell us crutches, so I was mentally cheering to see this feeling so incisively evidenced and articulated in your essay. In particular, you describe the growth of “mindfulness” and self-soothing industries originating from Silicon Valley as the flip side of endemic distraction.  I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that, and share any thoughts you might have on the sudden explosion in popularity of online and app-based pseudo-therapies?

JB: I agree about Alexa – mine is unplugged in the shed after it started talking to us in the middle of the night. It was a gift I might add, which very quickly became a sort of faded novelty. But another example of the way in which tech becomes ubiquitous and then starts to spy on us. I think in time goods and internet services will need some kind of mark of quality, enforceable by law, which promises to protect your privacy. 

The pseudo-therapies issue also interests me – it’s worth noting that the the QAnon conspiracy spread through wellness communities. People feel very uneasy at the moment for quite obvious reasons and they want definitive answers for their unease. There is a lot of snake oil being peddled on the internet and again, I don’t think the companies are interested in whether your therapy works or not, as long as you're prepared to pay for advertising.

FL: I'm highly conscious that when I write critically about social media and digital technology that those platforms are often the sites of first reception for that very criticism, and that there's always a danger in coming across as hypocritical or judgemental. I think one of the most refreshing things about Radical Attention is its deep acknowledgement of your own implicatedness, a reckoning with which would seem to be the absolute prerequisite for any kind of meaningful resistance. Was this reckoning difficult for you?

JB: Yes, and it still is. I feel like, without a major publisher or what is left of UK mainstream media behind me, being able to disseminate this book on social media and be part of the conversation is important. I think social media is another arena where we are asked to perform versions of ourselves for profit. Late capitalism atomises us into individual units of consumption, parsed still further by all the data they have on us. So everyone is scrambling for the latest ‘hot take;’ there is a sense of a frenzy, sometimes, of people shilling their ideas. I am of course one of them. I will share this interview on Twitter and FB. What else can I do?

The flip side of this is then controlling my own social media use, and so on. Just being aware of using it, rather than letting it use me. I think one of the key issues is around feeling. If I’m especially tired or vulnerable it’s very easy slip into things like ‘hatescrolling’ or ‘doomscrolling’ where my feelings are suddenly amplified by seeing so many stories about the same thing. It’s always worth thinking – how does this make me feel? If half an hour on Twitter leaves you exhausted and despairing rather than informed, it’s surely worth asking what the hell it’s good for. Whenever I take extended breaks from social media it’s interesting how much less anxious I feel.

FL: Related to my previous question, do you feel that we are so saturated, even at the level of language, by the logics and rhetoric of capitalism, that some form of complicity is inevitable? And if that's the case, how do we meaningfully manifest any kind of resistance? For example, is going off-grid a useful strategy? Are the technologies we use and the ways we use them even susceptible to subversion?

JB: Of course I could go without it altogether, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that. People who don’t connect in this way do miss out ,I think. It’s important for resistance too. There are some interesting versions of subversion – the K-Pop Tik-Tok fans who bought tickets to the Trump rally and never showed for example, or certain flashmobs. BLM emerged from the internet: the video of George Floyd spread at speed through the networks, sparking a huge moment of resistance. The problem is really that resistance often only works at scale, when everyone joins in. The pressure on the government to change over free meals in the holidays is an interesting example of internet pressure paying off. What happens online becomes news and forces change in real life. So the desire to cancel certain speakers – I hesitate to call it ‘culture’ – comes from this impulse I think to see results of online political pressure played out in real life.

FL: Sorry, that was quite a lot in one go, but these thoughts have been very much on my mind since lockdown. In Radical Attention you write about lockdown as moment of illumination, one that demonstrated how interconnected we really are, and how much we need one another. I wonder to what extent you feel that it also exposed the paradox at the heart of our social media compulsions: that the very technology we use to escape our isolation is, in many subtle ways, damaging our  ability to relate to one another in anything other than transactional or oppositional terms?

JB: The problem with ‘the machine’ (and you rightly point out I use the term interchangeably at times for the system as well as the smartphone and the software which runs on it) is that it runs on binaries – zeroes and ones – whereas humans are fractional. Humans live in grey areas which are not black and white.

Social media forces us to create and then perform versions of ourselves for profit, so we are always on display. ‘I’m like a cartoon of myself’ Paris Hilton says somewhat tragically in a new documentary, which seems at the same time to be asking us to psychoanalyse her because she can’t do it for herself. Hers is an interesting example of a life stunted by its own performance. A cure for this endless exhausting narcissism surely has to be a kind of radical attention for something other than the black mirror of the smartphone screen.

FL: This question of relation is a recurrent theme across the book, and it seems to me to be at the heart of what radical attention is and does. You take great care throughout the text to highlight the physical impacts and consequences of the virtual realm. In places you describe a kind of slow persistent atrophy in the realm of the real: the slump, hunch and stare of bodies bent over phones; a skewing in our systems of perception so violent that it prevents us from recognising our Facebook 'friends' and online adversaries as fully human. One of the book's most significant challenges appears to be to this notion of 'transhumanism' as somehow utopian or liberating. You suggest that the opposite is true, that an unwillingness to acknowledge or attend to the bodies of others is a function of privilege. You state that “real bodies are problematic”. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, and the importance of remembering and attending to their complexities?

JB: Belief in transhumanism is a dodge, like planning colonies on Mars. It’s a bit like running away from the scene of the crime, rather than putting energy into the here and now. Developments in medical tech might well produce some kind of extraordinary cyborg, but this isn’t going to solve the issues that are in our face right now, which are biological, and by extension ecological. They are physical, embodied issues. The planet is trashed and dying. So are we. The question is, what are we going to do about it? I also think the pandemic reveals the limitations of the technology. It can never replace the physical presence of another person. And COVID has also put us in a situation where we are going to have to live with a great deal of uncertainty. For the privileged, this is a new and unwelcome reality, but for a lot of people it’s a familiar kind of instability.

I would say the last ten years have been about the mental zombification of a populace – the internet got mean, sinister. Donald Trump and Brexit didn’t come from nowhere, the social spaces were overwhelmed with bad actors. Military grade psy-ops, along with the amplification of outrageous actors like Hopkins and Farage. It’s worth asking who paid for those Leave adverts and what was going on behind the scenes as journalists like Carole Cadwallader are doing. Who does Brexit actually benefit and why did they spend so much money persuading us that a catastrophe was a good deal? I don’t think we’ve any clear answers to these questions and the whole situation was made murky and surreal by the proliferation of misinformation online.

FL: Following on from my previous question, one of the things that really stood out for me was your reading of Simone Weil who wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”. This struck me so forcibly because so much of my own reading and writing recently has been around ascetic practice, and the sustained, often painful attention to the suffering of others that such practices demand. There is a kind of fudged modern reading of ascetic practice that presupposes a withdrawal from the world and a turning in toward the self, whereas the opposite is true: the anchorite is asked, as Weil asks of us, to “renounce our imaginary position at the centre” and to  fully apprehend the 'other' without distraction, sentiment, or hope of reward. To write about faith, love and the soul in a contemporary essay has often felt like a risky move. What I sense from Radical Attention is that these terms themselves have great radical and resistive potential. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we might approach and potentially reinvigorate words and concepts that so many view with suspicion, or that have been so effectively colonised by pseudo-spiritual industries and destructive religious hegemonies alike?

JB: We got rid of religion without thinking about the place it took in society as a space for moral and spiritual questions and crucially, care. I’ve always had a problem with organised religion – in my view it’s always been on the wrong side of history in terms of money and sex. The church could be a space which enacts a kind of radical care and stops bothering about what consenting adults do in bed. But the Cof E is too compromised by its allegiance to the state, after all it was founded to allow Henry VIII to marry his next wife. That aside, we do ourselves a disservice as humans if we throw off the spiritual and philosophical questions humans have had for millennia, especially in relation to our aliveness and our place the world. Denying that we are in some ways questioning, spiritual, even moral beings, is at the core of a lot of anxiety. It’s not about having answers – this is quite clearly where madness lies – but acknowledging that we don’t know and that even without answers the questions are still valid, fashionable or not.

I also think we need new (old) language to speak against what seems to be a new kind of moral barbarism. The level of lying in the political sphere makes a mockery of the very idea of public service. What does it really mean to be a good person? What does it mean to show courage or to love someone? Where are our examples of good people? We’re surrounded by man-babies who are busy trashing everything. Healing from the damage they are causing is going to take a huge rethink in terms of what we actually value as a society.

FL: One of the things that surprised me the most about Radical Attention was the image of humanity that emerges: not feckless or desensitized, but vulnerable and deeply wounded. It would seem that our devices simultaneously insulate us from the horrors of the world, and expose us to those horrors. We become trapped within a self-referential feedback loop of our own making, unable to connect to others; we are endangered both by our own obliviousness to our surroundings, and by our infinite accessibility to the forces of neoliberal surveillance. We are phone-jacked, or data-mined, or we selfie our way over cliff edges and into oncoming traffic. The selfie deaths really got to me: that there's a Wiki page for that kind of blew my mind, as if even those deaths are sucked back up into an endlessly scrolling textureless meld of data. I wonder if you think living such disconnected and technologically mediated lives that we have lost or refused our sense of ourselves as mortal beings? How might the kind of radical attention you advocate help us to recapture that sense?

JB: This is the critical message of the book. I think our mortality – which is one of the key conundrums of being human - is cheapened by social media and is one of the issues I wanted to encourage the reader to address. The shadow of death passes over us nightly in the middle of a pandemic. It’s one of those clarifying events that reveals what is important. The difficult thing is getting in touch with our feelings about this and turning that into action. 

FL: I'm aware that this has been a very long and quite dense set of questions, so I have one more, and then that's it. I notice that throughout the essay you draw upon and quote from various works of fiction.  Fiction requires of both writer and reader a bestowing of non-trivial attention. As a writer of fiction yourself, and as someone who teaches creative writing, how has technology shaped the writing practices of this current generation, and do you think there is anything to be learnt from the models of attention espoused by the writers of creative fiction?

JB: Good writers are good observers of the world – they pay attention. They walk around the world on high alert. It’s this practise that I want to teach students. It’s what I tried to do when I wrote this – to give my attention for a concentrated period of time on one question, on what technology was doing to me. And then use these observations as evidence for argument. I’m coming at the subject not as an expert at all but as writer in the world, an observer for whom attention is the most important part of the practice. The world was feeling unreal and weird and I wanted to figure out why.

As for fiction specifically, I think one of the reasons that the structures of social media seem so clear to me is that in writing classes we are always trying to work out how to create affect in the reader. How to place the character in relation to the reader to create the best experience. How will the story carry? What is the best way to provoke surprise? Horror? Fear? Storytellers understand the human need to make patterns from chaos. How far we can push language, structure, truth before the story breaks. These skills are useful it seems, in decoding some of the fake news, and deliberate outrages that have become part of our daily lives.

Towards a mindful cultural commons
Monday, 17 June 2024 08:33

Towards a mindful cultural commons

Published in Religion

Peter Doran points to the way buddhist concepts are being corrupted by the commodifying pressures of capitalist culture, and outlines the ways in which true mindfulness practices can help us resist the growing demands of the 'attention economy'.

Neoliberal capitalism is an advanced form of symbolic and material power. We are living through a totalitarian moment in the history of dominant capitalism characterized by the unprecedented targeting of our bodies and our attention. This neoliberal moment is calling forth new forms of resistance as individuals and communities seek to roll back the latest stages in the historic processes of enclosure, by embracing the languages of the commons and commoning.

Resistance, appropriate to the productive forms of contemporary power that moves through and is productive of our bodies, minds and places, is no longer limited to the realms of institutional control and ownership but includes the challenge of restoring the mindful commons, free from the colonisation of our attention. Mindfulness, linked to critical engagement and ethics, can embody a phenomenology of the commons.

The rise of the commons and commoning as a series of practices of resistance – involved in reclaiming ecology as a practice of liberation, reclaiming the urban commons, and extending radical democratic control to the realms of the economy – is emerging alongside popular engagement with practices of mindfulness and other forms of mind-body practices such as yoga. These movements are emerging in complex and sometimes antagonistic ways.

Some secular mindfulness practices such as Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapies, for example, are also being absorbed into neoliberal consumerist and institutional logics, stripped of their ethical liberating teachings. Corporations, educational institutions, and governments are absorbing mindfulness techniques into their logics of productivity, resilience and adaptation to unacceptable power structures that conceal their own roles in producing suffering and exploitation. Mindfulness, reduced to an individual therapeutic response to societal or structural sources of exploitation, can serve the neoliberal agenda of devolving responsibility down to the individual.

Both movements – commoning and critical mindfulness practices – are calling forth a new individual and cultural awakening, a making visible that which has been actively concealed and placed at the margins of our attention by acts of cultural and economic enclosure, dis-embedding (market making), dislocation and colonisation (of forests, lands, bodies and subjectivities). These processes have accelerated under the influence of dominant capital or capitalization, which, given its universality, cohesion, expandability, intensity and flexibility – is best understood as a ‘symbolic architecture of social power’.

The attention economy is the new enclosure

Our human capacity for directing our attention, which is a form of productive energy, is emerging as an arena of intense conflict – signalled by the debates about political engagement, fake news, and attempts by corporate and political power to capture our loyalty using online technology and social media. It is also visible in concerns about loneliness, disconnection, depression and mental health, and addiction. These issues are not unrelated to the conditions created in our societies by rampant consumerism, invasive screen-based technologies, and their value systems built around hyper-individualism and the insertion of the profit-oriented market as the chief arbiter of social outcomes. The debate has just begun.

The dawn of the ‘attention economy’ – an era of corporate and political targeting of our attention energy to feed the global processes of capitalization – is invoking new forms of resistance, including critically engaged forms of mindfulness practices – re-embedded in ethical and radical teachings drawing from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teachings remain a potential and critical resource to throw new light on Western experience and support a transition to sustainable forms of society and prosperity.

Our bodies and our attention are the new realms of enclosure. Modern-day capitalism and its worldwide complex of production and consumption is the primary and most important source of human subjectivity, because subjectivity conditions and participates in the production of all other commodities. We are the product. Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – the nature of which is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity.

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Mindful and non-violent conscious living are no longer options limited to those with the means to embrace alternative lifestyles, but are moving to the centre of debates about the conditions of a new kind of freedom in an ecologically and socially constrained world: a world where freedom and limits must be reconciled alongside mind and nature.

At the level of the individual, practices of self-regulation aligned with freedom and liberation will be akin to the freedom that accompanies virtuosity, as in excellence in yoga, meditation or forms of discipline in jazz and improvisation that are associated with alternative notions of human joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

Two movements have enjoyed a popular surge of interest and participation over the past decade or two. One is the mainly secular mindfulness movement, with roots in Buddhist teachings, which often involves a therapeutic response to the mental pressures associated with modern lifestyles at work, in the market place or at home. The other is the commons or commoning movement.

Another more mindful world is possible

From the point of view of mindfulness-based paths to enhanced awareness, human beings are not trapped forever in the abstract attitude: another world is possible and it will be accompanied by another set of possible dispositions, characterized by a greater sense of intimacy, compassion and continuity with all beings.

The dissociation of mind from body, of awareness from experience, is the result of habituation – personal and institutional – that can be interrupted and broken through meditative technologies or practices that suspend the flow of discursive thought, can tame the inherent restlessness of the mind, and lead to calm and enhanced awareness or presence.

For those who choose to do so, locating mindfulness practice within an ‘engaged’ Buddhist philosophy or community of practice can uncover both practice-based and conceptual resources for radical critique and revolutionary praxis, peace, and both social and environmental justice.

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Prompted by a political and economic system where the prospects of living fully and in full awareness are limited, mindfulness practitioners, potentially and actually, are reclaiming our right to well-being. As Michel Foucault commented in the spring of 1978, at the conclusion of a period of Zen meditation practice in the Seionji temple in Japan:

if a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe, or equally, born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe

Mindfulness-based practices, especially those located in or reconnected with their engaged Buddhist origins, can help us reflect on the deep structural or societal causes of dis-ease that have accompanied individuals with the rise of modernity, neoliberal capitalism and life as it is increasingly defined by the extrinsic values of the market place. We are invited and persuaded to internalize a radical and isolated responsibility for our larger fate, and our sense of agency retreats to the realms of ‘self-help’ solutions in the realms of the psyche and the body.

We are the commons

 The second movement involves activist and academic champions of the commons who have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles biological necessity into commercial capital.

A commons has a number of important characteristics:

- it is a social system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.
- access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.
- a commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always more-than-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.
- finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.

As Ugo Mattei explains:

A phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons.

There are a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including:

- for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing (the atmosphere);
- while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance (solar energy);
- humans are primarily cooperative;
- knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration;
- and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.

A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world.

Commoning has been described as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that has championed rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.

Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering, practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas. It involves reviving and re-embedding slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing.

Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.

Pay attention to mindful resistance

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The subject of this article is a call for a political economy of attention: a mindful commons. Its cultivation will demand a network of new conversations and practices, some of them embodied in the technologies of meditation and related mind–body practices. This is an opening contribution about the ground upon which these two movements can meet and how that ground can be cultivated to deepen our critical and collective understanding of the ‘attention economy’ and what’s at stake.

Only what we pay attention to seems real to us. While what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds: ‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’ Which raises interesting questions about freedom.

While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Wallace observes:

We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called ‘free’ if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalize our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society, attention is now regarded as a currency with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.

Attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. While a gift for sustained attention can be seen as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement and associated spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, are associated with forms of training to enhance the capacity for attention in attempts to interrupt patterns of conditioned behaviour and cultivate a genuine quality of freedom and spaciousness around our capacity to see, our capacity for awareness. There are great similarities between the practices and dispositions of commoning and the mindfulness movement, especially for those who wish to inform their activism and powers of resistance to contemporary capitalist culture.

Peter Doran is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons, 2017, Routledge.