Some day, there are going to be documentaries made about the 2000s, and then that documentary will provide the stylistic template for some award-winning movies.
One of those documentaries will be called “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”. How do I know this?
Because the 2000s represented the culmination of thirty years of a new American civic religion that treated the working class lifestyle as something objectionable and maybe immoral, and wealth, or its apparent trappings, as the sole measure of a person’s success; it is when we all became consumers rather than citizens. It is when appearance rather than substance became the way of valuing something.
50 Cent’s debut record, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sold nearly a million records in its first week, and finalized the gradual transformation of hip hop music, the dominant musical style of the decade, from stories about poor and working class life in America’s crumbling big cities to pure bragadoccio about individual success and ferocity. Gangsterism took over one of America’s most precious cultural products at about the same time it took over the U.S. economy in the form of high finance bubbles and credit schemes that sold off the manufacturing base and then redistributed billions of dollars upward.
Working class life and dignity was erased from the popular culture, our stories and music became populated by elite cosmopolitans, professionals, and the rich and famous; at the same time, the economy stratified more rigidly, between the super wealthy and the insecure, and the stability and peace of working class life evaporated.
I hate 50 Cent’s music. I’ve been a hip hop fan since I heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” in a movie; but I was never a backpacker type. Nas, Mobb Deep, Biggie, Wu-Tang, and Ras Kass were my favorite groups and MCs as a teenager; so crime stories, battle rhymes and stories about sex and partying don’t offend me. But when Nas talked about the criminal lifestyle, even in his Nas Escobar persona, he was storytelling, creating a character. Even Mobb Deep, who pioneered the East Coast gangster style, don’t “glamorize” violence: listen to their classic The Infamous, and you get lost in a terrifying, high-stakes world of violence and poverty. Who would listen to the life Prodigy describes in “Shook Ones Pt. II” or “Drink Away the Pain” and think that life would be preferable to the cushy existence of the record executive who produced the record?
Even the all-time champion of braggadocio and luxury life brand-dropping, Notorious B.I.G., constantly paid tribute to his humble beginnings and self-awareness; in “I Love the Dough” he reminds us that, “It’s unreal, out the blue Frank White got sex appeal/Bitches used to go, “Ewww!”
Hip hop was the music of the powerless and outsiders; 50 Cent’s over-the-top gangster caricature made it all about the image, the character, the appearance, and not at all about the actual human person behind it.
How did 50 get on in the first place? He released a dis record naming scores of hip hop artists, called “How to Rob,” and picked fights with big name artists to draw attention to himself. All the meanwhile, he’s crafting an image of himself as a pure gangster, a soulless killing and fucking machine.
Under the stewardship of a new generation of neoliberal technocrats and business leaders, the U.S. economy did the same thing. Frank Sobotka in the second season of the HBO series The Wire put it best: “We used to make things in this country. Now everybody’s just got his hands in the next guy’s pocket.”
Actually, maybe he didn’t put it best; maybe Moss, from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, put it best (edited because its Mamet):
What did I learn as a kid on Western? Don’t sell a guy one car. Sell him five cars over fifteen years. Guys come on: “Oh, the blah blah blah, I know what I’ll do: I’ll go in and rob everyone blind and go to Argentina cause nobody ever thought of this before.” And so they kill the goose. I, I, I’ll…and a fuckin’ man, worked all his life has got to…cower in his boots…
The idea of fair dealing and security in work, to invest in the long term, was abandoned for getting rich, for Rich Dad, Poor Dad, for Enron and absurdly priced internet startup IPOs, for Bernie Madoff and crackhead-priced parking meters. What were Enron and AIG, after all, but the result of the valuing of the appearance of a thing, its marketing, its ephemera, rather than the substance. That Enron’s accounting firm Arthur Andersen was criminally indicted is so perfect: Enron literally fabricated a persona to hoover up people’s money, and then when the persona reached a breaking point, credulity strained and the story collapsed.
Why sell off Chicago’s parking meters? Basic arithmetic would have revealed that it was a bum deal. Because the Mayor was facing a budget shortfall, and by coming up with some quick cash he could make it look like balanced the budget, when in fact what he really did was make an on-going source of revenue disappear.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is now the national motto. It’s a feast-or-famine economy, where you either claw your way into the top tier or go without security, without comfort, without basic human rights and dignity. And getting rich means tearing down everyone else around you as you hype and market and inflate yourself, whatever the reality. Remember: in an economy where making $100,000 makes you by any definition rich by putting you in the top 3%, hoping to get into that strata is like playing the little lotto; it’s a 100-to-1 shot.
I’ve often told the story of my discussion with a conservative libertarian who told me, “The guy really getting screwed in this country is the guy making $75,000 a year.” If you make $75,000 a year, you are by no means rich, nor even necessarily economically secure; and yet, you are in the top 5% of the nation’s wage earners. “The guy making $75,000” is doing objectively better than 95% of Americans. If he is getting screwed–and I don’t doubt that he is–isn’t the guy making $25,000 a year by definition really getting screwed? Why assume that the guy making $75,000 should be doing even better, but the guy making $25,000 is exactly where he should be? Whatever assistance that latter guy may be getting, it isn’t enough to nudge him out of the bottom 50% of the economy.
But such substantive, social reality isn’t what our discourse is concerned with. We don’t care about Curtis Jackson, we wanna hear about 50 Cent. Our discourse is concerned with statistical abstractions (“a middle class family”), reified identity groups (NASCAR dads, Baby Boomers, “African-American voters”), and narrative characters (“the guy making $75,000 a year”; “Joe the Plumber”). If a person in the top 5% of wage earners faces hurdles to their satisfaction, or even happiness, how can the people in the vast 95% not be facing even greater hurdles?
What fields are undergoing the most intense labor strife? Nurses and teachers. A de facto nursing shortage is conflicting with ceaseless attacks on their ability to organize a union. The very profession of teaching is being eradicated through privatization that incentivizes high turnover and de-regulation. Both of these fields are more than dominated by women: more than 90% of nurses and more than 70% of teachers are women. It would take stubborn abstraction to deny that “feminine” professions are being infantalized.
If every body is talking about all the new condos and McMansions they’re building everywhere, why do you believe the real estate agent when they tell you your condo will appreciate 200% in five years?
If the worst abusers of the massive powers of the government to interfere are large corporations, who employ half of Americans, then how can the enemies of economic liberty be labor unions that at their broadest represent 12% of the labor force and in reality something closer to 8 or 9%?
The relentless focus on petty differences, and political machinations, and election strategies, pushes even the shallow policy study to the margins. Policy itself is rife with limitations, definition, and premises that are either artificial or baseless. The neoliberal, technocratic storyline–that profit is the sole moral motivator, that public activity is inherently corrupt, that property rights precede civil society–suffocate the discourse. It’s a story, with characters–the Tech Entrepreneur, the Venture Capitalist, the E Trader–but its material failure is straining the public’s credulity.
The neoliberal consensus isn’t going to last forever; it will most likely be replaced in our lifetime. And we won’t go back to New Deal Liberalism or Robber Baron-era capitalism; it’ll be something wholly new, something that will be shaped by the underlying social relations, dynamics, and needs of actual human beings. We could maybe get a glimpse of what that system will be if we pay attention to those underlying realities and ignore the stories elites tell one another.
Our Get Rich or Die Tryin’ era must come to an end. A population so bankrupt, so indebted, robbed of their birthright, won’t forever forsake everything for an increasingly diminishing glimmer of fame and riches. Eventually, we’ll happily give it up to simply get a fair share. The 2% liberalism that sees the causes of liberty and equality being served by tiny modifications of marginal tax rates and spending priorities will be abandoned for its latently reactionary nature.
Marketing-style narrative can never be a substitute for substantive and rational analysis of social conditions; after all, they are intended to mask them. And the roulette ethos the contemporary narrative currently reinforces has done and is doing too much damage for people to bear it for long.