The Life of Crisis

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

When money is the dominant measure of value in society, the whole order of human experience becomes warped. Social relationships are governed by a calculus of profit and loss, credit and debt; each creative act is implicitly weighed on a scale of competitive marketability. Our basic perceptions of space and time are infected with hidden interests and false desires; the very fabric of everyday language is processed through a machinery of commodity-fetishism and mystification.

These patterns are deepened when the flow of money falls under the control of a small group of powerful institutions—banks, financial agencies, corporations, government regulators—none of which are responsive to the real needs of the human population. With such a system in place, subjection to the rule of money becomes an infantile dependence on the will of these godlike agencies. The masses of humanity are reduced to a state of passive anxiety, while the essential conditions of life—air, water, food, land—are transformed into objects of abstract financial speculation.

In the midst of such tyranny, public discourse—which itself is managed by the same institutions that control the circulation of money—tends to be shaped by the market-logic that dominates other aspects of social life. Thus today, when most of the world’s inhabitants have been suffering through extreme economic warfare for decades, we are flooded with urgent warnings that “the economy” is entering a new and shocking period of “crisis.”

Of course, the ongoing collapse of financial markets, and the attendant breakdown of confidence among wealthy lending institutions, has been disastrous for much of the human population. But the official rhetoric implies that these consequences are mere aberrations of an otherwise healthy system—and that the masses should maintain their posture of frightened spectatorship while technocrats stabilize the mysterious forces of the market.

Everywhere one looks, however, there are signs that the rabble is not obeying. Growing distrust towards the banking establishment has spawned widespread doubts about the future of global capitalism itself. As the ruling classes of U.S. society are increasingly delegitimized, openings are being forged for new eruptions of political agency, new swarms of collective action and intelligence.

The appearance of Sub-Prime Youth, a play produced by Chicago’s Free Street Theater, is a harbinger of this growing political agency. Much of the play’s creative economy is built around a reversal of the dominant perspectives imposed by capitalism’s ordering of values. The unconscious cycles of fear, desire, and submission, which form the roots of capitalist subjectivity, are expelled from the play’s animating spirit and replaced by spontaneous impulses of friendship, desire, and self-affirmation. The habits of identity and self-commodification that bind human beings to a state of economic servitude are instinctively rejected as elements of an alien reality. The whole complex of capitalist normalization—with its market-driven ethos of whiteness, nationality, and work—is recognized as a bad dream from which the play’s characters must struggle to awaken.

The general atmosphere of the play is one of spectral confrontation; the characters are driven by a vital need for dignity and self-respect, and yet their lives are haunted by an inhuman presence that dwells in the background, frustrating their attempts at happiness and imaginative freedom. The center of the play’s activity is the home of two young siblings (Latina sister and brother), awaiting eviction. Their property has been foreclosed, and soon the moment will come when the very floor they stand upon is removed from under their feet. Upstairs sits their father (who does not appear on stage), an inert mass of failure and disgrace. They do not look to him for salvation from their restlessness and despair. Each character must learn to take responsibility for his own individual fate—as they struggle together against the humiliations wrought by unfriendly spirits.

Although the play depicts a home foreclosure, its ultimate goal is not to comment on the “housing crisis” (i.e. the continued theft of land by banks and corporations), whether in Chicago or elsewhere. The play’s wisdom lies in the realization that our social order exists in a state of constant crisis and that this crisis is built into the nature of the economic system itself. Foreclosures unfold in the background, but one knows from the characters’ faces that this is only the most recent stage in an ongoing assault. Theirs is not a condition that any regulatory mechanism or government program is capable of fixing. Their dispossession reflects the inhuman logic of the everyday world they inhabit—a logic which each of them has instinctively refused to accept.

The characters do not accept this logic— but neither do they strive obsessively to diagnose its causes. Their resistance is born through the relentless, soul-searching struggle of everyday life. Ed, the brother who is most sensitive to the indignities of his social situation, is also the one who summons the fiercest fires of positivity. Mid-way through the drama, Ed’s female companion announces (only as an exercise, it turns out) that she is pregnant, and his unhesitating response is to celebrate the impending labor as a first step towards the birth of a new future. Naturally (but implicitly—these dynamics of resistance are neither formalized nor “politicized” in the play) empowered by Ed’s affirmation, each of the characters must find ways to dispel the forces of negativity while creating herself as an agent of love, hopefulness, and self-expression. In their determination to outlive the miseries thrust upon them by their social environment, they cultivate a common spirit of being-youth, being-immigrant, being-poor, being-urban, which defies every impulse of shame, resentment, and self-pity.

Perhaps the finest scene of the play is one in which the characters orchestrate a comic trangression of the power elite and its technical jargon. A list of terminologies has been compiled—drawn from contemporary news reports on the “economic crisis”—and each impenetrable slogan (to wit, “Obama’s enormous stimulus package”) is alchemically transformed into a vehicle for laughter and sexual innuendo. These young soul-warriors do not take the priestly mystifications of the ruling class seriously—neither as a means of describing their situation, nor as a means of mastering it. They have seen through the grotesque tissue of manipulation that both conceals and reinforces their subordination—and they have refused to become its humorless victims.

Sub-Prime Youth is the portrait of a group of individuals who face social domination—white-normativity, gerontocracy, mis-education, economic warfare—on an everyday basis. It is the cry of a burning will-to-overcome—a collective potentiality from which the psychopathic wiring of capitalist subordination has been dislodged. It is the spark of a conflagration that is, and will continue to be, self-ignited. The very existence of such a play—of such a hopeful statement, made at such a time, by such a multitude of individuals—is a sign that our precarious political situation may also be the breeding ground for a new spirit of trust and self-determination. If nothing else, it is a clear indication that the imprisoning edifice of official discourse has been rejected as a framework for engaging with concrete social problems. There is a mass insurgency rising up from the cracks of this edifice—and no bloodless technocracy (“capitalist” or “anti-capitalist”) is fit to serve as its guide. No—its energy will spring from the youthful, rogue countercultures of the urban ghetto, from the budding poets and poetesses whose arts of self-creation mingle freely with radical experiments in livelihood and communal self-organization. Chicago is a city growing ripe for this kind of daring experimentation—and there are cities like Chicago all around the world. ◊

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