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Step 34: Gold Plating (Culture of the New Capitalism pt. 3)

So, an assassin, a ghost, and a zombie walk into a capitalist bar… Where they are accosted by a marketing agent who says “Please allow me to introduce myself.”

Introducing the marketing agent as the “new” bad guy, we dig into how capitalism shapes desire and consumption patterns, without increasing pleasure. When translated into politics, these superficial consumptive practices, according to Richard Sennett’s “The Culture of the New Capitalism,” result in a split of POWER from RESPONSIBILTY.

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Richard Sennett
The Culture of the New Capitalism

Part 1

 Is the culture of new capitalism, and our capitalist economy creating a New Politics?

Yes, of course. Increasingly, there is a divide between the wealthy workers who are, as Robert Reich calls them, the SKILLS ELITE and the stagnant middle class. These achievers, these skills elite, the “symbolic analysts” in the new institutional model are not provided with a life-narrative or promise of security in the public realm.

As mentioned in the last episode, a successful capitalist technocracy will need fewer elites, yet as they take home the dragon’s share of wealth, without security or a life-narrative, they hoard it, making the inequality visible: it produces ressentiment.

Under this deep rage, Sennett says, religion and patriotism become weaponized tools of revenge. The material stress of inequality pushes those without into seeking symbolic power.


In 2004 WALMART employed 1.4 million workers, generating 2% of US GDP. 

Everything has been put under one roof, there is a lot of it, and it is cheap and low quality. The salesman, the mediator, has been removed. The consumer is “empowered” to rely on their ability to suss out truth from the globally manufactured marketing packages. Due to it’s planned obsolescence, we also make temporary decisions, throwing away the products and moving on.

So, this is perhaps a bit flippant and simple, but as Sennett says,

just as advertising seldom makes things difficult for the customer so the politician makes him or herself easy to buy.”

And yes, while Walmart has certainly oppressed it’s workers, and destroyed small businesses, nothing is entirely that simple:

“Only a snob could look down on cheap products; should we then look down on “cheap” Politics?
The political version of the Megastore could repress local democracy but enable, as advertising does, individual fantasy; erode the content and substance of politics but stimulate the imagination for change.” 



Now, back to putting everything under one roof at Walmart, a classic idea from the Athenians: separate your economics from your politics. Plato says that economics operates on need and greed, while politics should operate on justice and right.

Yet, we now conflate the two. And as Marx and Engels discuss, as the consumer becomes distanced from the means of production, we lose the knowledge and life experience to make informed decisions. All that is left is to rely on the packaging.


“A desire is never simply a desire for a certain thing, it is always also a desire for desire itself… The ultimate melancholic experience is loss of desire itself.”

Slavoj Zizek

To be fulfilled is the saddest world we could imagine. 

Marx, Lukac’s and Balzac talked about desire: How capitalism would produce an increase in desire. More cheap stuff, more desire. Yet, this does not explain the subsequent withering of pleasure in possession.

One claim is “marketing” did this to us, molding our desires, and another claim is manufacturing and “planned obsolescence” did this to us. There has been a break in how we relate to commodities: all objects are disposable, newer is better, we seek novelty beyond functionality. 

And none of this is to imply we can or should return to the old way of doing things, the cat is out of the bag so to speak with desire unleashed: it is merely a way to see that appearances, desire, and the “symbolic” function at a higher level than utility or need. 


Sennett points out a distinction: branding is pretty straightforward and attempts to make something seem distinct. Yet most of the time the product is blandly identical to other products, and to disguise the homogeneity, you must make an artificial distinction

Sennett says manufactures call this “gold plating”: the small difference and the brand must seem to the consumer to be more than the thing itself. 

So a car or computer may share 90% of the industrial DNA with another car, but sell for a 100% price difference… this is, of course, manufactured value through “gold-plated” differences.

Sennett brings up that The Craftsman or engineer may look at this, and not be swayed by the gold-plating realizing the utility value, “the thing does what the thing should do” value, versus the inflated prestige value. They may know the boring backstory.

Yet, this is more about how we consume in a world of global capitalism: with excess, marketing, and decreasing pleasure in fulfilling desire.

Guy Debord brings up that tourists travel from city to city, but visit the same gift shops buying the same crap, and the important stimulation for them is not the items bought, but the process of moving, of moving on. This is the planned obsolescence of experience: to be consuming them and getting new experience is the desire. The important thing is the spectacle, to shift your desire is to change, and feel yourself shifting. We are the gold-plating in this scenario. We step in, and become the small difference that we overvalue, and in this way, our commodity fetishism is self-consumptive: we are autocannibalists abandoning everything.

Yet, what Sennett brings up several times is the invitation to imagination that advertising promotes in us. And to sneer at someone imagining a better future, a new politics, and a shared fantasy for change would be callous indeed.


“Today the consuming passion has a dramatic power: possessive use is less arousing to the spectator-consumer than to the desire for things he does not yet have; the dramatization of potential leads the spectator-consumer to desire things he cannot fully use.”

“Politics is equally theatrical, and Progressive politics in particular requires a certain kind of rhetoric. It deploys a willing suspension of disbelief of citizens and their own accumulated experience.”

So, stick with me on this one: The consumer-spectator-citizen now actively enters their own passivity. 

To believe in hope and change, you have to imagine a future, suspend belief momentarily of your ‘accumulated life experiences’… you have to want a thing you don’t have.

The illusions we are fed as consumers, the “dramatized potential we can’t even use,” allows us to imagine the potency will be conferred upon us. These illusions are exhausting, and paradoxical, often undercut by our lived experience, which drains us of our progressive hope and our stamina for change.

Much like the cars, maybe the Chevy or Ford debate, our political platforms resemble products. The political parties sound very different, but it is all gold-plating, it is all user friendly, and there is always a new product, an upgrade for sale: once politicians are in office they perform almost identically… Righty Reagan for instance, ran up Keynesian deficits while expanding bureaucracy and befriending the soviets, while Lefty Bill Clinton, grew businesses but not the minimum wage, and like Obama continued military actions. Right, Left, Ford, Chevy. The difference is superficial. It is consensus politics. 

No one seems to care about a politicians record while in office: that is too boring. Instead let’s focus on their hair, their tastes and preferences… let’s focus in the glittering package, pay no attention to the obfuscated history.

This gold-plating tendency is what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” in which we lose the realistic value, the purpose, of what’s at stake. And it opens the door to preference judgement extending into prejudice. 

And in so doing, in believing the gold plating, we divorce Power from responsibility.
Charisma and packaging don’t take responsibility, they don’t work for you: they manipulate you. 

Sennett says we need a community beyond superficial human connections to reassert mental and emotional anchors. We don’t want to become ghosts, or zombies, or hitmen… we need anchors to remain human.

We need a culture that re-asses if power, privilege, and work are worthwhile. And a culture that provides us with a narrative of forward movement beyond the dehumanizing effects of the Culture of the New Capitalism. 

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