Jonathon Franzen on Capitalism

Earlier this week the American author Jonathon Franzen gave a reading and a live interview in Dublin. Franzen is known for his outspoken views on technology, the environment and capitalism, and during the interview he was asked why he is so suspicious of technology. He replied that although technology is presented as “ideologically neutral”, it is in fact “rabidly capitalist”, and encourages capitalist modes of behaviour e.g. competition, consumerism.

This reminded me of Franzen’s musings on capitalism in his 2001 novel The Corrections, where one of the main protagonists, “Chip”, moves to Lithuania to work for a man who is effectively privatising the country, marketing Lithuania Inc. as a “for-profit nation state,” to US investors. Investors are rewarded based on the number of shares they buy in Lithuania Inc.  e.g. $100 gets you a Lithuanian street named after you, $25,000 a “perpetual title to an eponymous town” (2001:147)

Eventually, Chip begins consider the deeper meaning of his employer’s actions, and when held at gunpoint comes to an epiphany, which Franzen uses to deliver one of the best descriptions of capitalism I’ve seen in fiction:

“Chip was struck by the similarities between black-market Lithuania and free-market America. In both countries wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few; any meaningful distinction between private and public sectors had disappeared; captains of commerce lived in a ceaseless anxiety that drove them to expand their empires ruthlessly; ordinary citizens lived in ceaseless fear of being fired and ceaseless confusion about which powerful private interest owned which formerly public institution on any given day; and the economy was fueled largely by the elite’s insatiable demand for luxury… The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainment and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.

It warmed his Foucaultian heart, in a way, to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns” (Franzen 2001:511)

Essentially, Franzen is suggesting that the only difference between the free market and the black market is in the manner of “subduing the unwealthy”; the former uses “mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainment”, while the latter uses guns.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since the publication of The Corrections, and the rise of social media has seen Franzen develop his capitalist critique further. Perhaps its most articulate incarnation is this excellent 2013 article in the Guardian, where he takes apart the “infernal machine of technoconsumerism”.

Whatever the implications (if any) of Franzen’s anti-capitalist writings for the “captains of commerce”, it can only be a positive thing to have “alternative” views like this about technology, consumerism and corruption brought into the public domain by an author which such a large readership.

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