On Commerce, Politics, and Art
Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, ‘affairs of the cities’) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.
If you think what you do for work, or the fact that you are out of work—or hustling, or making six or seven figures—isn’t political… Or that the art and entertainment you enjoy doesn’t promulgate human politics on every level…
You are deluding yourself.
In everything we do and don’t do, we are relating to the cosmos, to the environment, and to people. We are engaging in relationships.
When I was a young anarchist punk with a blue, curly, flat top and different patterns shaved on the sides monthly, I took my gold Dr. Marten’s down to the Pacific Stock Options Exchange and got a job as a runner.
I really needed the money, and figured I could get a paid education about the US economic system.
The Options Exchange itself is a long story. I battled a lot there—including misogyny and homophobia—as you might imagine. Those stories must keep for another day.
Here are three small vignettes germaine to the conversation:
One: This was the late 1980s. The time of AIDS and apartheid South Africa.
In the screaming pits of the trading floor, beneath fluorescent lights and glowing green banks of computer screens, the market makers traded options. Not stocks. Not commodities. Not corn or steel or video games. Nothing rooted in anything tangible. They traded the option to maybe buy or sell the stock at a set price at a later date. The traders placed bets on whether a stock would go up or down by purchasing “calls” or “puts.”
What were the traders called? Market Makers. They made the markets and affected the economy by sheer speculation.
I worked there for four years, in the end, running my own tiny business as an assistant to two market makers.
One day, I said to one of them, “How can you trade options on that Dutch Afrikaaner company? (under apartheid)” He stood tall, puffed out his chest, and proudly proclaimed, “Commerce should be free of politics.”
I looked at him, aghast. As if there was any such thing. As if the nation state and capitalism had not grown strong together, on the backs of enslaved people and through colonial, imperialist exploitation.
Story two: One day, the floor was going bonkers as usual. Yelling. Screaming. Heavy trading. One of my market makers was in the middle of a pit, trading frantically. He motioned. I waded into the seething, churning, screaming mass of white men. He handed me a ticket, and shouted in my ear for me to go buy Krugerrands. South African currency. Apparently the gold markets were volatile and he wanted in.
I paused. Time slowed. The screaming went on around me.
Inhaling, I looked him in the eyes and said, “No.”
His mouth pursed. His face went from red to purple. He threw down his stack of tickets, shoved past me, and stalked from the crowded pit to place the order himself.
Word spread around the trading floor like a California grass fire.
At the end of the day, when most everyone had left, and things grew quiet, the one Black trader on the floor walked up to me and shook my hand.
Read that last sentence again. The important part is “the one Black trader on the floor.” One.
“Thank you,” he said.
Three: The big crash of 1987 happened. I saw market makers who had bought new boats and Pacific Heights mansions—which I called “single family dwellings”—all of a sudden struggling, flailing, panicking. They were underwater. Drowning in debt.
They were also privileged as fuck, and would come out of it all okay. Eventually.
But in those panicked days, I just shook my head and typed the day’s tickets into a late-80s computer as quickly as I could.
I was raised working poor. I’d been working myself since age 13. I knew how to stretch a loaf of bread. Though I was making more money than I ever had before, it was still a pittance compared to what the traders had just lost. I made just enough to afford a tiny studio apartment at the back of a garage, make motorcycle payments, and hang out in cafes after work, writing in endless notebooks.
Eventually, I was offered sponsorship to become a market maker.
Unwilling to sell my soul, I quit instead. I’d learned what I came for.
The lesson I learned?
The US economy is based on exploitation and gambling.
Having been raised by a parent with alcohol and gambling addictions, I’d had enough, and got a job in a natural foods ware house, and later, a women-run peep show. And after that?
A soup kitchen, where I worked in exchange for room and board.
All of those jobs were entwined with the economics of human politics.
So is what I do now, writing books.
There is simply no way around it.
Commerce is never free of human politics. No matter what it is, we have to ask:
Who has access?
And who labors the most?
Artists, filmmakers, sports figures, actors, and authors are always being told to shut up about politics. As if they can.
As if art is not all about human relationships, and as if human relationships are not political. We are the polis. There’s no escaping it.
Every time I read a book, I notice how the author treats people in the police and military. Every time I watch a film, I notice what happens to the non-white characters, and if there even are any non-white characters. Or poor characters. Or trans characters. Every song tells a story about humans. Every painting and sculpture points to access, and available materials, and subject matter.
Jean-François Millet’s painting, “The Gleaners” is about the poorest of the poor, allowed to glean the fields for useable grain after the harvest. It would be the only grain their families had to eat. Wikipedia says: Millet unveiled The Gleaners at the Salon in 1857. It immediately drew negative criticism from the middle and upper classes, who viewed the topic with suspicion: one art critic, speaking for other Parisians, perceived in it an alarming intimation of “the scaffolds of 1793.” The French Revolution ended in 1848, so for Millet to side with the working classes—when he depended upon the rich for his income—in 1857 was no small thing.
But of course, Millet was raised on a farm, and grew up farming. He knew where his sympathies lay.
Dickens. Shakespeare. Austen. All politics. Morrison. Walker. Rowling. Franzen. Stan Lee and Alison Bechdel. Whether you love or loathe them? All politics. Theaster Gates and Jasper Johns. Basquiat and Warhol. Gentillesci and Carrington. Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. Clifton and Ginsberg and Shange and Wong. Sue Grafton and Walter Mosley. All politics.
What is taught? Who has access? All politics.
Not political? All politics.
I was privileged to watch the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform a dance about the killing of Black people by police. It was beautiful. Necessary. Art.
But any dance done on a stage in a theater is political. If you don’t think so, study the history of European classical dance.
In his talk “Hip Hop, or Shakespeare?” the brilliant Akala reminds us that Shakespeare wrote for the working people, and spoke as the working people spoke. Who owns Shakespeare now? Well, he’s considered posh, isn’t he?
Again: who has access?
Rai music—which has its roots in working class folk music—flourished despite attempts to ban it. Songs about going to parties, dancing, and having a good time were considered dangerous. Political. A threat to the powers that be.
Poor, working people should be miserable, it seems.
Every bus stop ad. Every song. Every building in every neighborhood—and pay close attention, which urban neighborhoods have trees? Every video game. Every app. Every book.
It’s all political. You just may have not noticed it before.
Art and politics that uphold the status quo we’re used to? We like to say they are “just the world we live in” or “just the way things are.”
But it has been designed, hasn’t it?
We need to ask more often, of everything we encounter that is human made: who designed it? And who benefits?
And who pays the highest price?
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