Friday, December 21, 2012

Hip Hop and Capitalism

Kanye West’s “Clique” draws a familiar and tired contrast between white people and black people. White people, he says, save their money, they “don’t spend it,” or else they buy businesses. Risking Spike Lee’s judgment, West says that he would rather buy “80 gold chains and go ig’nant” with his money. In other words, white people hoard or invest their money, while black people are profligate with theirs and this fundamental distinction explains their relative position in the modern order. “Clique” implicitly suggests that proponents of black uplift, which Spike Lee represents here, encourage the community to be more responsible with their money in order to obtain relative autonomy within contemporary capitalist society. From this perspective, reckless black consumerism is an acceptance of capitalist conventions and ensures that the community will remain subordinate. I’m not sure that the song represents Spike Lee’s position accurately, but it does speak to a general judgment within and from outside African-American communities: the portrayal of extreme consumerism in hip hop is a blind acceptance of the principles of capitalism and contributes nothing to the liberation of black people from the power of capital, which is still controlled by whites in the North Atlantic homelands of the modern world system.

There is some truth to this, of course. But there is more going on in this song and in hip hop as a whole. “Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits,” raps West, thus suggesting that nihilistic consumerism is endemic to African-American communities. And if you equate, as most people do, capitalism with consumerism, then this sentiment, which is expressed often in hip hop, confirms the view that hip hop music affirms capitalist culture. But while there is an intimate relationship between capitalism and the market in which people buy commodities, these are not the same thing. Commodities, markets, and money exchange have nearly always existed but capitalism is a more recent invention—there isn’t enough room here to go into that history. More pointedly, while capitalism ultimately requires the market, consumerism and capitalism are motivated by contrasting logics. The market operates by people willingly transforming their money into goods for their own consumption. The market runs by money turning, as it were, into things. Capitalism works differently. The ONLY purpose of capitalism is to make capital productive, that is, to make money make more money. When fifteenth-century Genovese capitalists bought three tons of pepper from an eastern trader it was not to consume a bunch of pepper. Their purpose was also not to sell it as vendors in the market. In fact, if the profit was not to their liking, those Genovese capitalists would not sell the pepper to anyone at all but stock it in warehouses in order to raise prices. Their purpose was to transform the money they invested in the pepper into a lot more money by reselling it to other traders, who would then sell it to vendors who would finally bring the pepper to market. Those early Genovese or Venetian capitalists perfected the means through which initial monies, capital, could be used not for consumption or display but for the creation of more revenue, which could then be used to generate even more. Capitalism is thus ruled by the logic of accumulation. So while consumerism works by transforming money into things, thereby dispersing money, capitalism works by liberating money from things so that its primary purpose is to breed money, thereby accumulating wealth (Jay-Z’s verse illustrates his business man’s enjoyment of capitalist accumulation). That is why the economic zones that are most profitable (stock exchanges, financial markets, money markets) are areas in which capital is relatively independent from the commodities that people actually use. Those economic zones treat capital itself as if it were an actual consumable commodity rather than what it is, something that has an exchange but not a use value—dollar bills will only be good for starting small fires when the zombie apocalypse comes.

West’s and hip hop’s affirmation of excessive consumerism, then, is a sometimes ambivalent but always engaged resistance to the logic of capitalism. Against an economic system that values the accumulation of money, hip hop revels in the wasteful dispersal of money. Rather than the sober building of a nest egg, hip hop urges you to part with your money, to reject the notion that the primary incentive of making money is to make more money, to use money not as capital but as something that you can exchange for transitory joys in these short lives which are given to us. It is easy to disagree with the revolutionary financial irresponsibility of hip hop, but as one of the great expressive forms of the descendents of people who were once considered commodities by capital, whose lives were reduced to numbers on a ledger, it makes perfect sense to me.