Tragedy and Farce: From Neoliberalism to Neofeudalism – Tim Leibbrandt

It really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce[1].

While “first as tragedy, then as farce” has become one of Marx’s signature quotations, it was in fact taken almost verbatim from a delightfully more visceral and descriptive letter he received from Engels on 3 December 1851 (quoted above). There’s something about the phrase “rotten farce” in Engel’s version which seems entirely appropriate to Lizza Littlewort’s ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’. That this body of work is subtitled “A history of the current age” seems to reinforce this tragedy/farce connection in looking at the disastrous global effects of neoliberalism over the past 30 odd years and its resemblance to historical precedents. It is Littlewort’s contention that “neoliberal banksterism is basically taking us backwards in time to a feudal social structure”.

The idea is that current neoliberal trends in effect reinstate societal class divides wherein separate sets of rules apply to the privileged elite (who are free to pilfer and filch with tax breaks aplenty) and the peasantry (who are perpetually taxed, screwed and are on the receiving end of the former’s exploitation). At the fore is The Broker, Littlewort’s personification of a greasy, narcissistic, conservative child of Gordon Gekko. He is convinced that deregulated Free Market Principles are fantastic (as long as risks are socialised, profits are privatised and wealth is distributed upward). He gambles recklessly with others’ livelihoods while safeguarded in the knowledge that the minor inconvenience of bankruptcy will be sated with massive State bail-outs. He may have a tramp stamp reading “Too Rich to Jail”. Littlewort juxtaposes this pompous, entitled sense of me, me, me-ness with the visual iconography of European still life painting as a genre initially concerned with saying “Look at all this cool shit I own!” [2]

While many of Littlewort’s references point to current offenders in American neoliberal politics (The Trumpet, Ayn Culter’s horrifying notion of an Anne Coulter/Ayn Rand hybrid) the implications of neoliberal globalisation of financial markets are reflected in works such as Still Life with Minotaur. Here Charging Bull – Arturo Di Modica’s infamous Wall Street sculpture – wreaks havoc through a typical still life setup, drawing connections to radical Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s assertion that the European Central Bank is like the Greek mythological Minotaur: dieting on a constant supply of human sacrifices and imbued with a hunger that can never be appeased.

In the South African context (and indeed elsewhere), the slimy, self-satisfied amphibian of The Budget Proposal recalls the reek of austerity measures in the Finance Minister’s recent budget speeches, glaringly ignoring rampant governmental expenditure on account of corruption, incompetence and cronyism. While it may be convenient to relegate neoliberalism to the category of First World Problems, it is prescient in light of Littlewort’s concerns to consider that our wealth gap ranks South Africa as the most consistently unequal society in the world (according to the Gini coefficient at least).

Ultimately this is where commentary such as ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’ becomes so crucial. Lizza Littlewort is not suggesting that “neofeudalism” reigns supreme in the present (yet). Instead, ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’ operates as a sort of non-narrative allegorical cautionary tale, employing the artist’s trademark absurdist humour to decry this current state of delerium as rotten farce.

[1] See: Footnote 1 in (Marx, K. 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: 10) Marx/Engels Internet Archive Available: http://tinyurl.com/18Brumaire

[2] “Oil paintings did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity” (Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing: 87).

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