When I came to San Francisco in 1991, it was cheap and filled with young freaks and artists. I worked in a used bookstore three days a week and managed to survive. Then, as a grad student, I lived like a king — even making a $12,000 scholarship last me nearly 18 months. I roamed the streets, thinking and writing about Merleau-Ponty and, sometimes, thinking of nothing at all. I was 26 and I was tenuously tethered to the flow of capital.
All this changed. We know the narrative well. The internet came in the late 90s and suddenly there was money everywhere. At first, it was exciting. We all learned so much about technology and money and thought we’d change the world — and we did. I went from never being on the internet — I wrote my dissertation on a MacPlus with floppy disks — directly to working for a start up. It was an experimental arts site, an immersive map to all the arts — literature, painting, puppetry, film, design, television, performance, philosophy. I didn’t make much money but it was a party of the highest order. And was the kind of site no one invests in anymore.
This change, of course, meant new people were coming to the city, people who didn’t make art and live on food stamps and work in used bookstores. These people had high paying jobs. And so the artists and freaks began to leave, replaced by people who willingly, gladly, work 60 hour weeks.
When the Mission district began to change, I naively believed it was good. A few high end restaurants actually made the neighborhood more diverse. But I didn’t yet understand the will of capital to replicate itself at all costs. And so soon all the not-high end restaurants and shops — the car body shops, the Latin bars — began to disappear.
Now, in their stead, are beautiful restaurants serving organic, local food — for $26 a plate. Between the restaurants — which open at an alarming clip — are shops selling precious paper goods and tchotchkes, all selling for absurd amounts of money.
What’s disturbing about all this is that the age of the neighborhood has not gone up. Everyone is still 26. Youth culture, once the bastion of anti-capitalism, has become capitalism’s greatest stronghold. All the hip kids with their beards and jeans and tattoos are not just working for Google and Apple (and justifying it somehow — as if Google and Apple were somehow better than other so-called evil corporations), these kids are creating their own businesses.
I just spent a few days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The streets are lined with shops selling organic scones, exquisite coffee, birthing services, super mod furniture (for tens of thousands of dollars), dumplings, local food stuffs. There’s a delirium of commodities. All the stuff is nice, enticing, winking and smiling at you as you walk by. The stores themselves are gorgeous — exposed wood, brick, metal.
In some sense, it’s amazing, beautiful, welcome. Fuck Starbucks and corporate bullshit. I want local, lovingly prepared food, jeans made by someone I know, coffee roasted right in front of me before it’s brewed.
In another sense, it’s downright horrifying. The hip kids today are totally square. They are the petty bourgeoisie. They are commodity fetishists. They make and buy and collect little precious knick knacks. They go to this restaurant, then that restaurant, then that bar devouring deviled eggs with sea urchin and cocktails with homemade bitters. And then they talk about the restaurants they went to and their clothes and their bags.
Capitalism tirelessly works to eliminate anything outside the replication of itself. Anti-commodification is folded into the fray so it can become a commodity. It’s not just Maya Angelou selling a bank during the Super Bowl (this caged bird ain’t singing). And it’s not just the commodity fetishism of Williamsburg and the Mission. All our social interactions are mediated by capital. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, GChat: social interactions of the kids today are the commodity of some of the largest corporations in the world. They literally sell our social life.
We live amidst the rise of design culture over art culture. Design is a practice of social and financial capital. It seeks to make things. Art, on the other hand, creates affect — experiences outside of capital. This doesn’t mean art is not a commodity; it means the experience of art is not while the experience of design is, necessarily. It’s not that design is bad; design is important, improving the quality of everyday life. But design is creativity put to work for capital. And it seems everyone today is a designer and no one is an artist.
Capitalism has thoroughly co-opted youth culture. And it freaks me out.
On the side of a building just off Bedford Ave in this Williamsburg, there’s a large billboard that reads, “Live, Work, Create.” Which pretty much sums it up. It is the mantra of capitalism: live, so we can use your body to work and create shit we can sell. The billboard reads like the propaganda it is. And the mindless hipster 20-somethings not only embrace it, they’re the ones who created the damn thing.
Shouldn’t the mantra of youth be Frolic, Fuck, Think? Or Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out? Timothy Leary truly is dead.