Bob Dylan and the Ethics of Market Fascism
(Photo: William Claxton / Photopedia)Come senators, congressmen,
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he who gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan – “The Times They Are A-changin’,” 1964
The Culture of Spectacle
On Sunday, February 2, 2014, according to most reliable news sources, 111.5 million people (mostly US residents) participated in viewing the imperial spectacle known as the Super Bowl XLVIII. To be sure, this Super Bowl was not dissimilar to its predecessors; a made-for-television event of commodification, showcasing a package of mediocrity with a mind-numbing violent team sport to be utilized for selling useless junk. According to Bill Wanger, executive vice president for programming and research at Fox Sports, “Big-event television is a great way for people to have a communal event, to talk about it socially and to talk about it as a group.”
Wagner presupposes viewers are ready-made consumers who have lost the ability to think, or perhaps had never developed that ability in the first place. Therefore, if Fox Sports and their free market economy coconspirators set the agenda, people longing for community and communal experiences will simply follow it.
What sets apart this spectacle from the previous ones is not so much the record-setting viewership, despite the noncompetitiveness of the game, but the de-imaginative commercials and the mediocre musical performances of pop artists. One single commercial separates this spectacle from its counterparts of the past: The two-minute drivel of mythologizing patriotism featuring Bob Dylan is the culprit.
The Big Sellout
When corporatism manages to buy the soul of an icon, the poet of the American civil rights movement, we are witnessing a clear sign of the market becoming an Ethics in itself. This is the man who, in May of 1963, walked out of “The Ed Sullivan Show” after CBS executives asked him not to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” because it would offend the racist right-wing John Birch Society. Bob Dylan inspired many Americans then. But he must have broken many a liberal and progressive heart with his awfully scripted Chrysler commercial, which is filled with jingoistic lines about American pride and a seriously proto-fascist undertone.
The commercial starts with, “Is there anything more American than America?” The ad closes with Dylan’s voice over a montage of images of a man’s arm pouring beer in medium shot, emphasizing the beer; a closeup of two hands making a precision watch; and finally, a wide-open overhead tracking long shot of many, mostly women, anonymous Asian assembly workers in facemasks putting together cellphones that resemble the ubiquitous (iconic) iPhones. These aesthetic choices are deliberate, to be sure. Advertising is an intentional medium. What do we hear him say?
“So let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We . . . will build . . . your car.”
As American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his book, On Bullshit, puts it, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his [or her] share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”
Market Fascism at Play
What ought to shock people is the proto-fascist line: “Let Asia assemble your phone,” delivered by a Jewish American who, at one point in our history, fought for the rights of blacks, Latinos, Jews, Asians and other minorities in America with his iconic songs filled with mesmerizing poetry. Did Bob Dylan forget that Asia is the world’s largest and most populous continent filled with a multitude of diverse cultures and the home of several ancient civilizations, not to mention the home to some of the world’s top-selling automobiles, computers and internet technologies, just to name a few achievements? Does he not know that Mercedes Benz once owned Chrysler and now Chrysler is a wholly owned subsidiary of Italian multinational automaker Fiat? To be sure, the underlying assumption by the ad’s producers is that most Americans – including Bob Dylan – are too ignorant to know this and will just make the assumption that more than 4 billion people, who are identified as Asians, are simply assembly workers for Apple corporation; Germans are only good for beer making; and the Swiss can only make fancy watches.
This is the man who wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin.” Dylan said of “The Times They Are a-Changin'”: “This was definitely a song with a purpose. I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close and allied together at that time.”
One hopes that the irony of this situation is not lost on people who watch this mythologizing advertisement. Judging from the millions of hits, many people around the world, including many Asians, Germans and Swiss people have viewed it.
The Neoliberal Agenda
These is factual evidence that the neoliberal agenda  has achieved its central objectives of commodifying everything, removing an ethics based on morality from all facets of our society, and finally, transforming corporatism into an ethics – minus any morality – by itself.
Is it any wonder? We live in an age where our public schools are directed to build curricula designed to suit the lowest common denominator, the commercial banks and hedge fund corporations swindle the public and create a financial meltdown on a global scale and yet get bailed out with taxpayers’ money. We are in an era where anti-intellectualism is revered, and the culture industry, dominated by a handful of conglomerates, has decided that there is no longer any need for creativity at even the lowest common denominator level. Evidently, they presuppose that they have ample supply of docile consumers ready to buy anything packaged for quick arousal. This is what Henry Giroux calls, “zombie politics and culture,” in his book, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. This is the age where most people are bought and sold in the marketplace, only to be told that they are free – free to choose the product of their choice.
Hope and Imagination
The Bob Dylan-sellout incident is emblematic of the triumph of neoliberalism and its religious zeal for market fundamentalism. This is what Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had in mind when they built their alliance 30 some years ago. They wanted to buy as many Bob Dylans as they could to sell patriotism and a new form of market fascism to the world. They knew that myth always wins over facts and reality on the streets. Will they succeed? Perhaps the ratings tell us they have triumphed. After all, numbers don’t lie, or do they? There is a number that is absent from news media accounts. Those who decided to tune out this fraudulent narrative of greatness. They can be counted too. The world is inhabited by nearly 7 billion people, and as of March 2013, 38.8 percent of this population is using the internet with regularity. And we can be sure that this number will rise rapidly.
They are connected and interconnected. They talk to one another and exchange audiovisual messages of dissent, hope and change. Judging from what is happening around the world, despite the chaos in places like Syria, there is much room for optimism. History has proven that when an empire prevails, it has nowhere to go but down. The implosion will come. The Occupy Movement gave us a glimpse of the nonviolent uprising against neoliberalism. The seeds of global revolution are planted, and the more Bob Dylans they buy as pitchmen for their ideology, the more of their nakedness they shall reveal. Does the emperor have any clothes? Maybe a little loose diaper represented by a shell of a former poet. We can imagine a better world and then act upon that imagination. Indeed, times they are a-changin; when an idea’s time arrives no market force can stop it.
1. Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (NY: Paradigm Press, 2008). See also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).