The themes of OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” are quite familiar. For example, when the singer croons “I feel something so right/By doing the wrong thing/And I feel something so wrong/By doing the right thing,” he gives voice to a nihilism that has appeared often in popular music. If it lacks the poetry and brevity of Television’s “See No Evil” when Tom Verlaine sings “Destructive urges/It seems so perfect,” that is because not everyone has the same power of synthesis. But the chorus contains the most resonant cultural feature of the song: “Lately I been, I been losing sleep/Dreaming about the things that we could be/But baby, I been, I been praying hard/Said no more counting dollars/We’ll be counting stars.” These lyrics render concisely the division between the spiritual and the material aspects of life. The social world in which we struggle is considered here as inadequate to our most important strivings. In this terrestrial plane, too far from heaven and too close to hell, life is measured in dollars, is reduced to a quantity that may be counted and compared. Money does not give a worthwhile picture of our “real” selves, which is the totality of unrealized potentialities—all the things we could be. The dreams, the hopes, the prayers, the immaterial and spiritual qualities that constitute our inner selves and, which like the stars are immeasurable, are what really matter. Thus in order to live a proper life one must stop counting dollars, which are dirty abstractions that don’t account for our actual worth, and we must instead count stars, figured in this song as infinite points of transcendence.
It’s a good time for people to not think of themselves in terms of dollars. Most of the central zones of capitalist modernity have experienced an increase in income inequality over the last 30 years but this has been particularly acute in the U.S. Due to the policies of income redistribution to the rich inaugurated by Ronald Reagan, the U.S. now has the worst income inequality in the “developed” world. The accumulative logic of capitalism has had the profoundest effect in the U.S. primarily because of policies meant to disinvest sharply in the social good through lowered tax rates and the weakening of regulations on financial institutions. But this governmental policy is closely related to the ideological triumph of capitalism in American society. Not only do people belong in fewer numbers to workers’ or poor people’s movements but many people who would benefit from such movements actively reject them. Unions are often considered an impediment to a better life. Social welfare programs are considered destructive to society. Good wages and benefits to semi-skilled laborers make people angry. The poor are seen as parasites on society and not as the necessary outcome of capitalist accumulation. Wealth and a notion of the good are often conjoined in the minds of many people. Basic human rights like education, health care, food, and housing are seen as benefits reserved only for the deserving. It is a fucked up world we’re living in.
Responding to Fascist spectacle and nationalist rhetoric, Marcuse described what he called “affirmative culture.” Affirmative culture, he argued, insists on the existence of a better world, separate from the factual world in which people actually struggle, but realizable from within by any person. This place serves as the refuge for our best selves. It is the home of our souls, where they remain withdrawn from and unsullied by the crude world in which we work, are exploited and made unhappy by the conditions of our alienated labor. Affirmative culture insists on the validity of that interior world to assuage our desire to be free from the dictates of capital. The less we insist that our society live up to our expectations of justice and happiness, the more we internalize that demand as a “reality” we can experience only on the “inside.” In other words, we must realize that our society wants us to count stars precisely because it wants us to stop counting dollars—the diminishing dollars of the many and the exponentially growing dollars of the few.