By Ryan Moore
The past half-century has witnessed the proliferation of rebellious cultural practices and subversive symbolic expressions, particularly in subcultures surrounding music and the arts. But if these acts of cultural resistance are now ubiquitous, they also appear increasingly harmless to the political order and profitable for the economic order. Gentrification exemplifies this process in places where difference and authenticity—expressed through music, fashion, and art—serve as catalysts for the reconstruction of deindustrialized urban neighborhoods into revalued spaces of capital. Many Left intellectuals lament this turn of events, but we must recall that capitalism has always been a system riddled with its own internal, irresolvable contradictions. As commodification has extended into the collective imagination and virtually all the spaces and times of social life, so too have the contradictions of capitalism multiplied: we can identify new seeds of resistance in capital’s failure to deliver the (symbolic) goods.
The tumultuous period from the late 1960s through the early 1970s proved to be a pivotal moment of change in the relationship between the counterculture (as christened by Roszak 1995) and the political economy of capitalism. The commercialization and co-optation of the sixties counterculture has become an oft-told narrative, but in fact this period was merely a catalyst and the most colorful expression of a fundamental, enduring transformation. As revealed in Thomas Frank’s (1997) excoriating history (and now dramatized in the television show “Mad Men”) key changes in the advertising industry during the 1960s did not simply follow, but also anticipated the development of the counterculture, particularly in its mockery of conformity, rejection of deferred gratification, appeal to sensuality and pleasure, and championing of individual difference. Since then, the restructured political economy of capitalism has systematically converted cultural innovation, subversion, and authenticity into exchange value. Beginning in the 1970s, the adoption of flexible accumulation strategies in post-Fordist capitalism (see Harvey 1990) have channeled youthful creativity into entrepreneurial forms of technological development while diversifying the market for symbolic goods that cater to various lifestyle niches. One effect of post-Fordist capitalism has been to augment the value of subcultural styles in economies of signs and space (Lash and Urry 1994: ch. 5). From punk to metal to rap to grunge to indie, no form of music or subculture since the 1970s has proven too adversarial for the commercial interests who expropriate its practices and styles. Indeed, the most adversarial frequently turn out to be the most valuable.
This ironically complementary relationship between capital and (counter-)culture is most apparent in the process of gentrification. In post-Fordist economics, the function of the city has shifted from industrial manufacturing to the production of symbolic goods and services marked with the distinction of cool, edgy, hip, etc. This historical shift is especially apparent in neighborhoods like the East Village in New York (see Mele 2000) or Wicker Park in Chicago (see Lloyd 2006). Neighborhoods which once housed massive concentrations of working-class immigrants, and which in later decades suffered the effects of decline and population loss, have since been redeveloped into tremendously valuable spaces where music, art, and fashion rub elbows with entrepreneurial capital and new media technologies. Yet instead of simply demolishing these old neighborhoods and starting anew—as mid-century modernist developers like Robert Moses would have urged—gentrification proceeds by incorporating and simulating the aura of authenticity arising from the city’s gritty streets, ethnic communities, and deviant subcultures. Gentrification spread through the Lower East Side, Wicker Park, and other formerly deteriorating neighborhoods during the final decades of the twentieth century, compelling younger cohorts to colonize further urban areas, with Brooklyn coming to exemplify the process during the twenty-first century. For instance, in his song, “Empire State of Mind,” Jay Z raps about stashing his drugs in a building at 560 State Street in Brooklyn when he was a teenage drug dealer sometime in the 1980s—today, that same building has been converted luxury apartments which currently rent for just under $4,000 per month.
In sum, artists and musicians who create subversive cultural forms are faced with a capitalist system that can digest their oppositional expressions and dilute the impact of their negation by transforming them into sources of exchange value. Writing in The Baffler two decades ago, Thomas Frank (1997) lamented that this explained “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” and poked fun at twenty-somethings who imagined they were raging against the machine. A less cynical and more dialectical perspective, however, could identify the contradictions and potentially disruptive consequences of this capitalist process. This dialectical view of the contradictions of capitalism is best expressed by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, where they invoke Goethe’s Faust in writing that modern bourgeois society is “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
To identify the limits and contradictions of capitalist recuperation, we might begin by returning to the issue of gentrification. The notion of a “creative economy” which underpins gentrification (see Florida 2002) is presented as an antidote to corporate, monopoly capitalism: it promises creative, meaningful work instead of the tedium of 9-to-5 work in an office, proffers exotic and quirky goods for those fed up with the standardized fare of mass culture, and promotes urban living as a playground of diversity and deviance for those bored with suburban homogeneity. Yet having watched the same patterns and cycles play out in dozens of neighborhoods for decades, we can identify a broad consensus that there is something deeply unsatisfying about gentrification, that it consistently fails to deliver on these promises, and that places lose much of their charm, diversity, and sense of community when the process is complete. There are fundamental needs expressed in the social relations that incite gentrification: desires for diversity and difference, but also for creative work and authentic community. Capital’s ability to meet those needs for creativity, diversity, and community is severely constrained by the imperatives of the commodity form, wage labor, and the profit motive.
The contradictions are most apparent in the younger generations, whose rising expectations about meaningful work and quality of life are systematically frustrated by constricting labor markets and escalating rents. Could these rising expectations and frustrated hopes become a source of mobilization?