March of Intellect, Robert Seymour
“I’m trying to take less pleasure in extremes of capitalist production.” So goes New Yorker columnist and New York Times bestselling author Jia Tolentino in an August 2019 interview with The Creative Independent. Tolentino, who has made a career of writing lucid, if circuitous, critiques of neoliberalism, is emblematic of the sort of interview subject you’ll find on The Creative Independent (TCI), an editorial vertical that seeks to “illuminate the trials and tribulations of living a creative life.”
Guest writers and interview subjects at TCI range from smart, young individuals at the intersection of art, music, literature and technology to legacy artists in the twilight of their careers. The platform has spoken with incisive thinkers and cultural figures like Saidiya Hartman, Maggie Nelson and Adam Curtis, as well as aging rock stars like Julian Casablancas, Billy Corgan and Joan Baez. TCI stands alone in the contemporary media environment in its singular focus on the figure of the creative and publishes everything from interviews with celebrities to how-to guides for working artists.
In a self-assured, and sometimes self-mythologizing manner, the platform presents itself as both a retreat from the clutter of social media and an ideal of what a cultural publication could aspire to. Subject matter fluctuates depending on the particular interview subject, but TCI’s bread-and-butter is the first-person account of what it means and how to function as an artist in an often inhospitable cultural landscape. Essay and interview titles like “On finding your voice,” “On taking your time,” and “On learning through doing the work” set the affective tenor for TCI, which prides itself on presenting the artist outside of the compromised album, book, film, etc. promotion cycle.
Institutional critique has a role at TCI, although some of the platform’s own, non-interview content does have a bootstraps tenor, a quality paralleled by its founder Yancey Strickler’s lauding of the Financial Independence Retire Early movement in This Could Be Our Future, his 2019 memoir/management ideology volume. More than discontentment with existing institutions though, the overwhelming orientation of interviews on TCI is that of the preeminence of inner subjective attitude. The individual artists’ profundity of ideas and ideals, of their strength and ability to counter oppressive systems, is the abiding affective and intellectual impulse of the publication.
Founded by Brandon Stosuy and Strickler, TCI is published by Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that Strickler co-founded with two others in 2009. Writing in This Could Be Our Future, he explains that TCI is a “value-creating project” founded as part of the commitments behind Kickstarter’s incorporation as a public benefit corporation (PBC) in the state of Delaware in 2013. A relatively new designation, also taken on by companies like Etsy and Warby Parker, Kickstarter’s decision to become a PBC means that they must, per the company’s announcement, “consider the impact of their decisions on society.”
Public benefit corporations have been posited by their advocates as a means of “[restoring] faith in capitalism,” but a 2019 Harvard Law School study used empirical evidence to show that incorporation as a PBC rarely staunched the for-profit motive and often resulted in further early investment on the part of angel and investment capital. In theory, the designation means that Kickstarter is shielded from the potential for their shareholders to demand the company goes public, but that claim is still considered legally untested. Further elements of the designation entail that a company’s board must take “public benefit” into account when making decisions and must submit reports on its social impact.
Kickstarter’s decision to reincorporate is representative of its approach to publicity, especially in relation to other Silicon Valley firms. From the jump, Kickstarter emphasized its “creator-centric mission” and claimed in 2012 that its funding already outpaced the National Endowment for the Arts, a boast that led to the New York Times referring to it as “the people’s NEA.” The company asserts its progressive bonafides in almost every public statement and has made several gestures, including the signing of an amicus brief in support of the “American tradition of immigration” and participation in the fight against net neutrality rollbacks, towards that end.
Despite their designation as a PBC and public statements to the contrary, Kickstarter’s position as a “better” tech company has been called into question in recent years. In March 2019, Kickstarter employees embarked on a union organizing drive that resulted in the retaliatory firing of two workers. The workers not only demanded collective bargaining rights, but also a say in how the company carried out its promises to the public under the PBC designation. After Kickstarter refused to voluntarily recognize the union, the drive was brought to the National Labor Relations Board on February 18 of this year where employees officially voted to establish Kickstarter United.
Before the successful NLRB vote, one former worker professed disappointment that what they believed to be an “anti-capitalistic company” hadn’t been willing to listen to or recognize their understanding of Kickstarter’s stated goals. The company had blamed organizers for being “adversarial” and, as an account in Wired from this May shows, lacked structures to ensure workplace democracy and pay equity. In response to the successful unionization drive, Strickler, who stepped down from his role as CEO in 2017, claimed responsibility for bringing values to the company that led to the union drive, but deferred on overtly supporting the workers in their push for greater workplace democracy and instead reiterated his preferable mode of reform via the PBC incorporation.
Silicon Valley myth has long been premised on the convergence of 1960s counterculture-derived social libertarianism, entrepreneurial free market values, and an overriding belief in technological determinism. These values, described by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in “The Californian Ideology,” are a constant in Silicon Valley’s particular brand of neoliberalism, but America’s technological elite have also shown a surprising willingness to fold seemingly contradictory ideals into their professed ideology.
This is most obviously true in the discrepancies between the anti-statist beliefs of many tech CEOs and the massive subsidies and research funding that undergird their products. Further discrepancies arise in the Valley’s relationship to labor, ostensibly utilizing technology to move behind the human exploitation of the Fordist production line while simultaneously embracing crushing anti-union maneuvers and loopholes to avoid equitable salary, benefit and workplace safety demands.
These inconsistencies can be viewed as examples of the incoherence of the Californian ideology, and they are, but a closer analysis reveals that the neoliberal project has engaged in this sort of practical opportunism since its emergence as the dominant political ideology in the mid-1970s. Applications of state as varied as Britain’s National Health Service and Singapore’s draconian surveillance apparatus both fall under the banner of neoliberal states, while regulation has been used repeatedly to reign in organized labor and social movements despite neoliberal orthodoxy’s avowed aversion to inhibitive state measures.
Today’s tech mavens, from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos, walk the line between orthodoxy and practice with particular aplomb, embracing rapacity in their day-to-day corporate handlings while creating supra-national philanthropic bodies on the side. French journalist Olivier Malnuit ironically refers to these individuals as “liberal communists” and it’s hard not to be impressed by how thoroughly they have insinuated their claims to public good and universalism into the popular consciousness. Gates calls this “frictionless capitalism” and this utopian zeal, most garishly embodied today in Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX firms, has resulted in Silicon Valley’s supplanting of Wall Street as the spirit of American capitalism.
Strickler, The Creative Independent and Kickstarter play a subtle, but important role in Silicon Valley’s ideological atmosphere today. Kickstarter situates itself in opposition to rampant speculation and venture capital funding – the company raised $10 million in 2009 from investors like Joi Ito and Zach Klein, as well as Joshua Kushner’s Thrive Capital – behind firms like Uber and WeWork, professing a model of steady growth and public benefit. As a former employee noted, its character is described by some as anti-capitalist, a quality that hasn’t stopped it from engaging in the sort of standard order labor abuses familiar to anyone who has followed past union drives in Silicon Valley. In another familiar neoliberal paradox, Strickler professes Kickstarter’s value-driven approach, but when democracy is premised by workers, prefers to emphasize the top-down managerial benefits of PBC incorporation.
Unlike firms that relied on the countercultural energy of an earlier incarnation of Silicon Valley, Kickstarter has taken on an active role in cultural production, utilizing The Creative Independent as a means of solidifying its anti-capitalist aura and dedication to the arts. With Stosuy – who previously wrote Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy heavy metal column and now manages artists like Girlpool and Zola Jesus – at the helm, TCI functions as a sort of interdisciplinary, multi-vocal journal, positioning up-and-comers on the same plane as established stars like Bjork, Matthew Barney and Laurie Anderson. The artist is presented as a discrete, self-determined entity, floating above the hostilities of hierarchical media and austerity in a veritable marketplace of ideas.
As Mark Fisher demonstrates in Capitalist Realism, capitalist ideology does not need to make an explicit case for its own perpetuation, but instead conceals “the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” Fisher goes on: “So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” This sort of disavowal, implicit in anti-capitalist sentiment published on a tech platform premised on entrepreneurial and free market ideals, allows for a hopeless ironic distance between the beliefs of individuals and the inevitable churning of capital.
Ironically, Fisher has been referenced several times on The Creative Independent, most clearly by musician Holly Herndon in response to the sort of cultural and political nostalgia that he decries in Capitalist Realism. Radical references, from artist jackie sumell’s invocation of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis’s Critical Resistance project to poet Wayne Koestenbaum recalling the difficulty of reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, are a constant on TCI, although these citations are almost always contextualized in the scope of the interview subject’s individual political, social and intellectual growth.
The comfort of an anti-capitalism grown from within the body of capital is made even more explicit in This Could Be Our Future. In a bizarre inversion of the history of neoliberalism, the Kickstarter co-founder blames what he calls “financial maximization” for perverting Adam Smith’s free market vision and degrading capitalism to a system where “values like community, knowledge, purpose, fairness, security, tradition, and the needs of the future” are ignored in lieu of the single-minded accumulation of capital.
In response to this supposed degradation of capitalism’s initial intent, Strickler proposes what he calls “Bentoism”, a decision-making framework or, in his parlance, a “guide to self-coherence.” Bentoism proposes a four quadrant grid where the individual assesses a decision based on factors of Now Me, Now Us, Future Me and Future Us. In a sense, this framework is wholly in line with the sort of “conscious capitalism” babble that has emanated from Silicon Valley for years, yet Strickler’s language also recalls the rhetoric of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom he has praised.
In contrast to more brash counterparts like Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Strickler has paired a modicum of social democratic language (he supports a wealth tax) with his more assiduous, unflinching belief in free market entrepreneurialism and managerial technocracy. That this marriage of ideologies is incoherent at a stage when the Keynesian welfare state has been decimated by decades of austerity does not invalidate Strickler’s understanding, but rather positions it at the vanguard of neoliberal innovation and the perpetuation of capitalist realism.
Just last week, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi claimed “I don’t want yesterday’s capitalism 20 years ago to be the same 20 years from now” in an interview about the company’s fight with the state of California over the employment status of its drivers. The next day, the company threatened to shut down operations in the state if they were unable to continue classifying their workers as independent contractors. Like Strickler, Khosrowshahi invokes the pitfalls of maximizing shareholder value, while simultaneously exploiting loopholes that keep thousands of workers at sub-poverty wages.
In the continuing evolution of contradictory neoliberal ideology, anti-capitalism may yet be its next PR windfall. The Creative Independent doesn’t merely run cover for its parent company, a familiar practice of reputation washing by way of philanthropic spending, but rather surreptitiously instantiates its values. Through a discursive approach that premises the individual subjectivity of the creative in contrast to the roiling of institutional maladies, it sustains a form of ideological blackmail that insists that only the caring individual, as opposed to collective or systemic political reorganization, can effect change.
The bloated bureaucracies of liberal communism have given way to a leaner venture socialism, embodied in Kickstarter’s direct investment in cultural production. In its core function, The Creative Independent crowdfunds disavowal of capitalism from artists and progressive thinkers so that Kickstarter may continue to fetishize consumerist values, accumulation and the proliferation of consumer goods. As Silicon Valley reckons with criticism from both the left and the right, the flexibility and ostensible equanimity of Kickstarter’s incorporation as a PBC and underwriting of TCI may presage a new phase of – paradoxically – entrepreneurial-minded, anti-capitalist initiatives.
Fisher argues that “politics [is] suspended in the name of ethical immediacy” under neoliberalism, perhaps the most concise encapsulation of Strickler’s Bentoism framework and the editorial line of The Creative Independent. In a passage from This Could Be Our Future Strickler quotes G.K. Chesterton: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few.” In place of the universalist vision of socialism, a proliferation of ethical entrepreneurs is premised. Once again, neoliberalism’s free market radicalism rears its head, only this time with a new anti-capitalist paint job.