Voyou Désœuvré

The pious outrage Thursday over heiress Paris Hilton’s “early release” from jail in Los Angeles, accusations of “special treatment” and the vindictive demands that she receive “justice,” i.e., punishment, have nothing healthy or progressive about them.

Excellent article about Paris Hilton on the World Socialist Website. While k-punk’s criticisms of the musical defense of Paris Hilton are on target, that doesn’t rule out the value of a political defense. Or, not a defense of Paris Hilton herself (she hardly needs communists fighting her battles for her), but a defense of left-wing politics against the kind of thinking that goes into much of the hostility toward Hilton. An awful lot of the dislike of Paris Hilton really is misogynistic but that is, hopefully, easily identified and disposed of. But, as the WSWS argues, there’s a criticism of Paris Hilton that presents itself as left-wing but which is just as reactionary.

Hilton seems to get a lot of stick not just because she’s rich, but because she hasn’t either earned her wealth or used it in some kind of worthwhile way. To a communist, on the other hand, this is one of Hilton’s most positive qualities. Certainly, on any reasonably calibrated ethical scale, Paris Hilton is obviously superior to, say, Bill Gates or George Soros. There’s a name for the sort of argument involved in criticizing the “useless” Paris Hilton: productivism. The problem is that it completely misunderstands what’s wrong with capitalism. The Marxist theory of exploitation is not based on a distinction between those who are productive and those who are idle; note that the only way that such a distinction could be made is on the basis of a moralized notion of productivity which is itself the defining feature of capitalism. As Marx and Engels say in the discussion of Proudhon in the Manifesto, to criticize capitalism on these grounds is to argue that capitalism be maintained, but that it no longer be capitalism:

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

The hundred and fifty years since Marx and Engels wrote this shows us, in fact, that this position is more damaging even than they thought. The kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism that we see in hatred directed at Paris Hilton directs its ire at the appearance of capitalism without seeing that this appearance is a necessary consequence of the reality of capitalism. It exhibits, that is to say, the logic of fascism, in which a particular appearance (finance capital, Jewish bankers, Hollywood) is confused with and targeted as the essence of capitalism. Now, the defense of Paris Hilton may not be the most pressing task facing anti-fascists right now, but given the continued currency of 9/11 conspiracy theories and crypto-fascist paranoia about paper money in some parts of the left, combating foreshortened critiques of capitalism is important. Talking about Paris Hilton is one place to start.


  1. jim nelson, 8:43 pm, June 17, 2007

    now way hoosay.

  2. Dave M, 2:11 pm, June 19, 2007

    In spite of the problems of Productivism, I can’t shake the feeling that living a life of leisure earned (by relatives) from the exploitation of surplus value is less good than using said surplus value to assist others in the daily battle against poverty.
    Hilton seems to be equal parts a figure of envy and jealousy; those jealous of her, I think, are precisely those “Socialistic bourgeois” who want the benefits of her social place, with none of the struggles (precisely her lot in life) – if they are “Socialistic” at all.

  3. geo, 10:28 am, June 20, 2007

    hey voyou,

    i’m on board with one half of the argument: that some root their attack on paris hilton in her uselessness, and that to do so is to fetishize the productive, thereby falling into anti-Semitism (cf. Postone).

    but this neglects, i think, the fact that at least a segment of those who hate paris hilton do so not because she is useless, but simply because she is rich. this is the sort of hatred that we should encourage (despite the fact that it can individualize and thereby let the structure off the hook).


  4. cg, 12:05 pm, June 21, 2007

    To frame Paris-hating as a “foreshortened critique of capitalism” assumes that those doing the hating, were they to carry their critique farther, would arrive at a truly anti-capitalist position. But Paris-hating is not a critique of capitalism at all, but rather, capital’s psychic uneasiness with the brutally honest discourse about capitalism that Paris represents. The bourgeoisie (and particularly the young, hip, advertising software developer yuppie-types) hate Paris precisely because her existence is an open admission–even a flaunting–of the unspoken, shameful truth that must remain hidden for the magic spell of their own self-perceived success to function: that success, wealth, and privilege are granted those that essentially do nothing; those that work the least, thus making the most successful the least virtuous. The operative contradiction of puritanical capitalism, of course, is that those who “do” the least reap the most, while at the same time, an obsessive, moral discourse surrounds the virtues of hard work. Paris functions as a projection screen for transferential feelings of guilt and self-loathing that arise among those who sense the vacuity of their social contribution. In Paris, the everyday bourgeois sees those qualities they most hate in themselves, but to such a grotesquely caricaturized degree that a qualitative dissociation is made.

    Paris discourse takes place primarily in reference to the bourgeois psyche, not economics. This state of affairs is attested to by the fact that both sentiment and discourse around Paris Hilton dries up the farther down into the socio-economic pit one travels. Working-class people generally ( in my experience) do not have strong feelings about her either way. Whatever intensely affective function she serves in upper-middle class culture is virtually meaningless to the majority of poor and working-class people I know, and if she has in those circles an affective function at all, it is no greater than that of any other minor celebrity. The intense libidinal charge that surrounds her in more privileged circles is just not present.

  5. be random about current affairs - Page 532 - Bowlie, 3:26 pm, June 22, 2007

    [...] Tim makes some excellent points about the ‘foreshortened critiques of capitalism’ involved in some of the response to Paris Hilton’s incarceration. Campaigning to keep Hilton in jail has no more political significance than campaigning to free her – but then the ‘Free Paris’ demands (as described by a bemused Simon here) are not political, except symptomatically. They are statements of flaccid flaneurism (a flaneurism reduced to the most dryly theoretical of poses), a flaunted but uninteresting decadence, whose disavowed libidinal charge comes almost entirely from baiting the haters – what I have previously called a resentment of resentment. Would that Paris’ defenders were voguers, who had an intense interest in their appearance, clothes and mannerisms, who wanted to make of themselves a work of art. The shameful, embarrassing, and silly ‘Free Paris’ acting out – I refuse to dignify it with the term ‘campaign’ – is vogueing without the drive to self-beautification, a spectatorial pretence of worship. For, naturally, the worship is all a matter of being seen to worship her – what else could it be? And who is supposed to be watching? I don’t hate Paris Hilton. I hate Katie Hopkins, because I’ve confronted people like her, they have some reality in my life. (The only hyper-rich heiress I’ve dealt with is Her Majesty Le Chabert, and, certainly, I find her moralising self-hating sanctimony far more loathsome than Hilton’s blank pleasure-seeking.) The truth is that Hilton is an object I am unable to cathect in any way whatsoever – in other words, she is boring. She is a symptom – of her class and background – but an uninteresting one. In fact, her utter lack of remarkable features, the so-formulaic-a-computer-program-could-have-predicted-it pattern of her dreary rich girl life, may be the only interesting thing about her – but you would have to the austere asceticism of a Warhol to maintain that position. More than the dull reality of Hilton herself, it is the pro-Hilton posturing that is a serious symptom – of a suiciding of intelligence, of cultural bankruptcy and exhaustion. It is the logic of cultural depression, of gradually but implacably lowered expectations, that has produced the over-investment in Hilton; a logic of devaluation, not revaluation – a logic of betrayal, of a failure of fidelity to pop culture’s great events. Imagine all the proscriptions, the prohibitions, the self-denial involved in the pretence that anything at all is at stake in Hilton’s record. Reflect on how a series of tortuous theoretical convolutions have led to a position that is, in both political and aesthetic terms, about as elitist as one could imagine – elitist precisely in the sense that it consists in a demonstrating of one’s superiority to the plebeian masses (who did not buy the record – why not? Were they deluded? Duped? Didn’t they know about it?) Let’s be clear, though, those who so ostentatiously parade their love for Hilton – and it is all about the parading – have outed themselves: theirs is not a serious critical position, but a gentlemen’s club weekend activity for stressed executives. They don’t live and breathe pop culture, as I hope the readers of this site do; in fact, the category ‘culture’ – like ‘history’ or ‘politics’ – doesn’t exist for them. It is all just entertainment, leisure and consumer preference, in other words capitalist realism, interpassive nihilism. This is what this discourse must be treated as: a noxious ideological fog, an apologia for mediocrity, a defence of boredom and the boring. Which is exactly what capitalism wants. Don’t make any demands. Don’t be critical. Make the best of what’s there. The arguments against Hilton-as-object are ultimately aesthetic ones. The merely mediocre record has more going for it than the substandard Paris-the-celebrity. The problem is Hilton isn’t aristocratic enough; isn’t sufficiently artificial or invested in artificiality; isn’t a weaver of opulent fantasies. Compare Hilton to the artistry of the working class-born Kate Moss – Moss, whose life may well be as boringly hedonistic as Hilton’s, but who as an artist (and it is only misogynistic prejudice that maintains that modelling cannot be artistry) cultivates an opacity-without-depth, the fascinating distance of the object that gazes. Working class fantasies about the wealthy are far more interesting than the reality (as Bryan Ferry long ago found out, to his cost.) And if there is a leftist moral to be drawn from the Hilton phenonemon it is this: that the lives of rich people are not interesting. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/009484.html Don’t know how many (if any at all) read his blog, but I think he’s fairly OTM with this one. Some things are questionable (is Kate Moss great because of her opacity-without-depth, or really because she’s of a working class background? I don’t know enough about the intricacies of modeling to fairly comment), and he does have a tendancy to over-extend his capitalist realism theories (I don’t agree with his recent Doctor Who post), but in this case, I think it works. Food for thought, anyway. __________________ I’m sorry I’m late. I was at a luncheon for Ann Coulter’s 60th Birthday. [...]

  6. voyou, 7:59 pm, June 22, 2007

    That’s a good point, cg. Paris-hatred (as opposed to indifference or amusement) could be the bad conscience of the bourgeoisie.

    And, geo, obviously hating her because she’s rich is OK, but obviously it’s important that one also publicly hate, and more vehemently, people who are richer than Hilton. Ian Bone has a nice line about not just hating capitalism as a system, but hating the rich as individuals, too – but what’s interesting about Class War is that they generally hated the rich as abstract individuals, carefully avoiding hating them for anything except being rich.

  7. geo, 7:45 am, June 25, 2007

    agreed: it’s more important, e.g., to hate hilton’s dad than herself (despite the political efficacy of the latter).

    but i think i disagree with the CW perspective, probably for existential reasons: besides “being” rich, the rich also reproduce themselves as rich (paris might, in the end, not do so, choosing instead to squander her inheritance). they make a series of decisions which reinforce and increase their distance from the rest of the population, and they display this difference in consumption. while the primary reason to hate them may be structural, i can think of a bunch more…….


  8. HKM, 6:56 am, July 4, 2007

    “The kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism that we see in hatred directed at Paris Hilton directs its ire at the appearance of capitalism without seeing that this appearance is a necessary consequence of the reality of capitalism. It exhibits, that is to say, the logic of fascism, in which a particular appearance (finance capital, Jewish bankers, Hollywood) is confused with and targeted as the essence of capitalism.”

    nice way to implicate whoever you’re attacking with anti-semitism, kudos. there is no ‘essence of capitalism’, no ‘deeper reality’.

  9. voyou, 4:30 pm, July 6, 2007

    I’m sorry if you think I was implying that people who criticize Paris Hilton are anti-semites. I’d meant to explicitly assert it.

  10. dave, 10:03 am, July 8, 2007

    The Hiltons are Jewish? That’s news to me.

  11. K, 10:13 am, April 18, 2008

    Didn’t Marx write that greed was a natural in a society where there was an inequitable distribution of wealth? I don’t see how hating Paris Hilton’s father is anything other than a pathetic resignation of any impulse of positive social change.

  12. robcypher.livejournal.com/, 3:44 pm, September 22, 2009

    Just eat them all. That’s all you have to do. Eat them all. No muss, no fuss. That’s how we do it in Pittsburgh.

  13. Paris Hilton con­sid­ered as a regime of ac­cu­mu­la­tion › Voyou Desoeuvre, 11:07 pm, May 5, 2011

    [...] also unites us all with Paris Hilton. I’ve previously praised her for her antipathy to productive – and hence capitalistic and exploitati…, but, while I think the criticism of productivism still stands, I’m less convinced of its [...]

  14. worsement (JR), 12:16 am, November 9, 2011

    “on any reasonably calibrated ethical scale, Paris Hilton is obviously superior to, say, Bill Gates or George Soros.” http://t.co/sLMIBg6x

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