The best living critic of popular culture, Greil Marcus, was struck by the “primary reality” of “cheapness” in the film version of Orwell’s 1984 (with John Hurt and Richard Burton). “Totalitarian offices were cheap because they no longer needed grandeur; they no longer needed to affirm their own authority. They no longer needed to convince anybody of anything.”
Two aspects of cheapness come to mind here. One applies at home. An unwelcome continuity between the present the ANC has in mind for us and the apartheid past this present is supposed to have overcome, is the cheapness of complacency. The cheapness of an ideology running on empty. The empty ideal of past-minority rule is now the empty ideal of the ANC’s go-to election slogan, “A Better Life for All”. Once stirring words left to paper over the fact that they were abandoned long ago by the political elite amidst runaway self-interest and corruption.
Compounded by the cheapness of post-apartheid culture, basically branded township slang and red meat Saturday Supersport, unable in its mediocrity to confront or explain the anxiety of a society circling a set of emptied out ideals. It can’t explain us to ourselves as a valid thriving culture should. So we drift as South Africans. Drift, drink and despair.
The other aspect is the universal cheapness of capitalism itself. Francis Fukuyama famously claimed in 1989, upon the collapse of state socialism in Russia, the End of History: “the triumph of the West” (meaning capitalism) and the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”. This is exactly the attitude, as Marcus puts it, that “no longer needs to convince anybody of anything”. An attitude that has reigned for over 20 years in the guise of globalism, right up to the mortgage meltdown of 2008.
At last we are seeing mass alternatives emerge. A shared awareness that this is a system encouraging a profit-driven competitive mania that refuses to acknowledge the destructive social costs it unleashes. Immense jobless misery, oil spills, shooting sprees, arms races, widespread depression and savage inequality. Local grotesques like Kulubuse Zuma. Everyone knows capitalism treats us with contempt unless we adopt the only identity it endorses: the happy shopper. The approach to humanity it spreads, through media and social life, is summed up in circus impresario PT Barnum’s famous saying: “There’s a sucker born every minute”. The demeaning cheapness this implies is taken for granted. But the quality of life such an anti-social outlook generates is cheap.
There’s a deadening cheapness wherever we look. It’s there in my own life shopping at the corner Checkers. The pre-packaged items on the shelves. The alienated atmosphere. The drawn, pinched faces of the staff. The beep beep of item scanning. The stale lab-tested quality of the product. When I caught a yuletide Mango flight, cheapness reigned. They bunched us in the entryway. The seat in front crushed my knees. That peppy in-flight promotional video. The bus-like scale of the plane. It was an entirely soulless experience. Travel reduced to a function of cost-cutting accounting. So much in our lives is treated in the same demeaning way. The cheapness of video games and fast food. The cheapness of reducing human response to a “like” button.
When the legitimating myths of a nation and a social system, the ANC government and capitalism itself, are seen to be false, proven by everyday life to be bankrupt, they become oppressive. Cheapness descends. We have to live as if they still apply, knowing they have no compelling content to make our conformity and consent intelligible. We are forced to cheapen ourselves to carry on.