Have you seen La La Land? I found it profound. It speaks about capitalism itself, and a thought experiment I’ve been trying out on friends:
Imagine an Ayn Rand-inspired world where there is no public subsidy or taxation to incentivize or disincentivize purchasing, and where employees keep 100% of their wages. Would the resulting purchases be a complete reflection of what society valued most? If we wanted something, we would buy it. If we needed something, we would buy it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t.
What would become of art? Museums and galleries, concert halls, theatres and opera venues would close overnight. Those institutions are usually heavily subsidized, even despite expensive ticket prices. We don’t value the high production costs highly enough, despite our bourgeois pretentions of sophistication.
Yet the message of La La Land is “follow your dreams”. In response to Mia’s protestation that she should have done something useful with the last six years of life rather than chase an acting career, Sebastian tells her sarcastically, “’cause the world needs more lawyers”. Whatever the word is for irony that isn’t ironic – fact? – Sebastian is spot on. Actually, the world does need more lawyers, and it needs fewer actors. Why? Because administration to manage the complexity of protecting capital has ballooned with the concentration of wealth.
The real irony is that the very ubiquity of art and the very glibness of messages such as “follow your dreams” has cheapened it so much that it has become commonplace. Art is free: on Spotify, on Pinterest, on YouTube and everywhere: it has been reduced to background for our conspicuous consumption. It’s clickbait, it’s ‘send us your email address with your competition entries’. It provides context for our purchases – I’m a goth, so I must buy these clothes and wear my hair this way, not that way. Art is dead other than the high-end kind, which is more about capital and tax efficiency than supporting aspiring art graduates. Published writers make far less than the minimum wage on average – “follow your dreams” is a route to starvation, and freezing on the streets.
We seem determined to ignore the ugly realities of capitalism, or turn those ugly realities into beauty, because the alternative is acceptance that Things Can Certainly Not Get Better. From the opening dance of drivers stuck in a traffic jam, La La Land shouts capitalist realism – if only we workers opened our eyes and saw traffic jams, unemployment and poverty for what they are: failures of our democracy and of our society, of an unsustainable increase in living standards for two generations paid for by fossil fuels, colonialism and exploitation that we pretend no longer to tolerate. We understood that workers in the Soviet Union were fed lies and propaganda, so why is it so hard to accept that Hollywood is our equivalent? La La Land hides this message in plain sight.