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The Illusion of Moral Consumption

Illustration by Emily McCafferty
Illustration by Emily McCafferty

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Last week, The AV Club posted a well researched but somewhat alarmist essay entitled ‘Metal music still has an unaddressed Nazi problem’ by author David Anthony.

Today photo contributor Aaron Sharpsteen gives us this thoughtful response to Anthony’s article.

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This isn’t going to be an easy read for people who define their lives by their artistic consumption. The idea that the act of choosing what music we listen to is politically significant will be denied. To quote a review of Quentin Tarantino’s movie ‘Django Unchained’ by black philosopher and leftist Adolph Reed:

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“…nothing could indicate more strikingly the extent of neoliberal ideological hegemony than the idea that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests. It is possible to entertain that view seriously only by ignoring the fact that the production and consumption of mass culture is thoroughly embedded in capitalist material and ideological imperatives.”

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In our current situation, embroiled in what could be a fight for many people’s lives, constantly reading art criticism that intends to affect social change has the dizzying consequence of being heartening (it is good that people care so much) and disheartening (their activities probably accomplish nothing more than a perpetuation of the neoliberal assumptions that got us here in the first place) in equal measure.

The target here is going to be an article that, on its face, is unassailable. After all, how can one critique a piece explicitly aimed at addressing metal’s “nazi problem”?

Before that, a disclaimer: none of the following is a defense of national socialism or fascism, in politics or art. However, it is an attack on the idea that criticizing national socialism and fascism in art has or could have any meaningful political effects. It is an explicit denial of what was said here, on Invisible Oranges, in Joseph’s “Best of 2016” recap. Everything that is personal is not political.

Turning towards David Anthony’s piece itself, the main beef seems to be the recent announcement of an EP from Disma, whose frontman, Craig Pillard, flirts with nazi aesthetics, if not politics, and is comfortable having some of his other work distributed by record labels which house explicit nazi promotion. The inclusion of his work on Profound Lore, for Mr. Anthony, seems to mean something, well, profound. Profound Lore’s roster is impressive. They are going to release what is most likely going to be a huge album, Pallbearer’s latest, Heartless, on March 24th. From this lament, Anthony tries to construct a narrative around similar individuals and their questionable politics (Cobalt traded one asshole for another, Mayhem is bad, Varg is a nazi, a member of Deafheaven said shitty things), and ends with a hypothetical: wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a record and not have to worry about whether you are supporting a bunch of racists?

This is the illusion of moral consumption: the idea that “picking up a record” is value neutral in and of itself, and becomes a moral or political act when one examines the life of the creator of that record. The quote from Reed becomes all the more glaring. Neoliberalism has convinced many of us that it is a Really Big Deal to buy or not buy a certain record, that it is a Really Important Thing to point out that Disma’s frontman might be a nazi so you can avoid his artistic output, that we as consumers have only one thing which defines our lives: that which we consume. Your politics is how you spend your money. What you listen to, what you wear, what you consume defines who you are.

This may come as a shock to some, but neoliberalism and capitalism are probably not going to be worthwhile allies in the fight against fascism. I’m not just saying that as a critic of both but as a prudential observation: in their striving to be “neutral,” capitalism and neoliberalism necessarily make space for anything that can be commodified (which, these days, might just be everything). Neither capitalism nor neoliberalism will demand that consumable art which espouses nazism or fascism cease to exist. As long as there are customers and products there will be a market.

What’s more, the argument presented by David Anthony is not that nazism and fascism should not exist (although it is safe to assume he believes that), but rather, that the MARKET for nazi and fascist art should not exist. Unfortunately, suppressing nazi consumables is not the same thing as suppressing nazism. Criticizing Phil Anselmo for saying stupid, racist shit is not the same thing as fighting racism. Getting Disma kicked off festival slots is not a political victory. Capitalism will continue to sell our mirror images back to us (“Good job on not buying that Mayhem shirt, that Myrkur shirt looks better on you anyways.”) while also fostering the space for fascism and nazism to exist.

In order to escape the trap of neoliberalism, we have to start questioning the roots behind many of the assumptions guiding our daily lives and our political practice. For example, I would never shit on people gathering together and donating their time and art for worthwhile causes, like fundraisers. However, why not start questioning why money has such a prevalent place in our discussion about political change? Why is it that one of the first things people think of when espousing activism is to boycott certain labels and promote others, as if different private spending patterns will eventually lead to different political outcomes? Why is it that it only takes moments after a political idea is distilled for that idea to become commodified and sold to us as a product on the market? What would a future without the complete dominance of neoliberal and capitalist assumptions look like? Why is it so hard to conceptualize our identity without marketplace signifiers to ground that experience? Who does it benefit when people assume that they are defined by what they buy and sell? (Actually, that one does have an answer: it benefits the neoliberal and capitalist status quo when everyone thinks of themselves as “engaged consumers” or “aware consumers.”) Why is it that capitalism has tried so hard to convince us that the best possible option we can achieve is a completely unfair economic distribution system that might also be simultaneously progressive on social issues and into relevant underground art?

To respond to Anthony’s parting question, yes, it would be nice if picking up records didn’t have to involve any moral calculus. We just have to be sure not to let neoliberalism convince us that making those choices is a substitute for political action.

-Aaron Sharpsteen

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