Late capitalism not only produces a deep sense of alienation and resentment within each of us, but also offers false and self-defeating antidotes to it. The latest example to make headlines is the rise of so-called revenge spending: a term first popularised on Chinese social media to describe binge-buying by consumers emerging from the boredom of lockdowns.
In the UK, for instance, the Telegraph recently reported the concerns that physical distancing regulations might prevent luxury retailers from adequately accommodating the eager consumers lined up at their doors, with grave implications for the nation’s economic recovery.
If this sounds preposterous or exotic to you it might be because you are among the majority of people (especially the young and racialized) whom the pandemic, and the government response to it, has made poorer, unemployed or more precarious, with little access to the kind of disposable income that would allow such ‘retail therapy’.
This hasn’t prevented neoliberal economists and the capitalist media from musing about revenge spending as a potential ray of light in an otherwise gloomy economic climate. Indeed, it was recently reported that the UK government was considering offering consumers a £500 voucher (£250 for children) to spend in face-to-face retail and hospitality transactions as a means to boost the economy.
Like George Bush’s advice to Americans to go shopping in the wake of 9/11, the command to ‘get back to normal’ and start ‘revenge spending’ in the midst of a global pandemic reveals the way our lives and society are so deeply embedded in consumerism that any interruption to it is understood to have catastrophic economic, social and psychological impacts.
But why revenge? Revenge for what and against whom?
Feelings of vengefulness are bred in us by neoliberal capitalism, a system that is itself vengeful. Neoliberal society is experienced by most of us as a set of profoundly unfair, inexplicable and disconnected humiliations. It exhorts us to see ourselves as competitive free agents ’empowered’ to skillfully manage debt, risk and opportunity.
But for the majority of workers, debt and risk are unmanageable and the promise of opportunity or fairness feels everywhere foreclosed. We blame ourselves for our failures (leading, among other things, to skyrocketing mental illness), but we also blame others. Capitalism produces a kind of spirit of vengeance, which it then parasitically feeds on in the commodification of what I call revenge culture.
Revenge shopping is an example: the same system that causes our sufferings offers us false fantasies and practices of toothless revenge that, ultimately, simply reproduce that very system.
Perhaps this is easiest to see in Hollywood film and television. Quentin Tarantino’s films, in particular Inglorious Basterds (about a WWII team of Nazi-hunting Jewish commandos) and Django Unchained (about a former slave saving his wife from a sadistic master), offer us voyeuristic and extremely violent individualised revenge fantasies, marketed, as several authors note, towards a generally white imagination. Both films unhelpfully cast racism in the garb of hyperbolic evil with blood dripping from its fangs, and the subsequent revenge taken against it as individualistic violence.
In reality, however, racism kills with bureaucratic and institutional punctuality and is stitched into the fabric of the economic system: a system that I characterise as taking a long, relentless revenge on working and racialised people. Avenging its crimes and cruelties is, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shows, a matter of the slow and difficult work of building movements for systemic transformation.
Who benefits from Tarantino’s lucrative and seductive revenge fantasies? And why, when we are told peace and justice reign under the global capitalist market, are we so obsessed with them? In part, they give expression to feelings that an alienating and exploitative system itself generates within us, feelings that are a reflection of its own twisted, vengeful logic.
Although we should expect little more from an entertainment industry shaped by corporate and financial concerns, revenge culture is also bound up in politics.
Revenge politics takes many forms, but is likely most familiar in the sneering, smug and retributive ethos that has animated the recent ascendency of the far-right, not only in the US and UK, but in Hungary, India, Brazil, the Philippines and more. In all cases, revanchist politicians and allied media have advanced a narrative of persecuted, sidelined, and silenced majorities made ‘aliens in their own land’, rising up against the ‘foreigners’ who made them so.
The vengeful rhetoric of (white) Briton’s ‘taking back their country’ through Brexit, or Trump’s threat to “Make America Great Again,” resonates with revenge culture to produce a revenge politics characterised by the vindictive political sadism of the Windrush scandal or the US policy of child detention for those presumed to have crossed its southern border illegally.
Like the commodification of revenge culture, the instrumentalisation of revenge politics by the far-right preys upon and offers a false solution to the sense of hopelessness, meaninglessness and betrayal that life under neoliberalism generates. It does so by drawing on a deep reservoir of racist and xenophobic vitriol that is our inheritance from centuries of colonialism and imperialism that divides and organises humanity into hierarchies based on the fundamental principle of white supremacy.
But the heinous, spectacularised forms of political revenge can often overshadow the slower and more insidious vengefulness of neoliberal policies, which abandon whole swathes of the population — usually, those already made vulnerable by racial capitalism—to suffer and die.
The institutionalised murder of the largely poor, migrant and racialised people of Grenfell Tower three years ago, or the way that the mortality rates of the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately falls on the poor, racialised and marginalised, speak to the way that an economic system itself can be vengeful.
These disasters, which targeted those whose lives were already made vulnerable by racial capitalism, were decades in the making: the anonymous and unintended but predictable and monstrous outcome of a system steeped in warrantless, unearned retribution. Responsibility for the government policies that sustained and created the conditions of this economic revenge are not monopolised by the right. Would-be centrist and liberal politicians, who today are so keen to sanctimoniously denounce the rise of incivility, resentment and populism, are equally the accomplices in a revenge capitalism that breeds revenge politics.
Revenge capitalism is a system driven to extremes by its own crises and contradictions. A world on fire, succumbing to climate collapse, riven with wars large and small, and haunted by unpayable debts, is a kind of revenge that soulless, vampiric capitalism takes on the very human species on which it depends, for no rational or justifiable reason.
Beyond revenge spending.
So revenge spending isn’t just a weird quirk of human behaviour. On one level, It is the kind of activity we might expect of people who have been steeped in a culture of endless consumerism and alienation as lockdowns lift. It is a sad substitute for the kind of connection and social intercourse we miss so dearly in the days of rigid isolation and fear of contagion, but that is also stolen from us by a capitalist life of work, worry and fear. On another level, though, the weird, targetless, self-defeating ‘revenge’ of this spending reflects something much deeper, darker and more dangerous.
Simply put, capitalism will endlessly produce false solutions to its own crises. These solutions will only beget further, deeper and more dangerous crises. Revenge spending is one particularly transparent false solution. It offers the narcotic of consumerism as a cure for a systemic and structural capitalist disease of which consumerism, itself, is part. Beyond the fact that not all of us can afford this therapy, there is a deeper problem: capitalism ravages our bodies and minds, offering us fantasies of individual fulfilment or retribution as compensation.
The task before us is to dream otherwise, and avenge what capitalism has done, and is doing, to people and the planet by making those dreams real.
Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University. His most recent book is Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts.