I watch a lot of Hulu, and so I watch a lot of commercials — indeed, a lot of repetitions of each individual commercial. I go through cycles: I’m initially relieved to see a new commercial to break the monotony, then instantly sick of it already the second time it shows, and then gradually work up to the point of sublime over-analysis. In addition to the permanent damage this has done to my mental health, it has given me a finer-grained appreciation of a genre that most of us simply ignore.
There is one iron law of commercials: the consumer’s long-term life goals are always and only their “dreams.” The viewer of a commercial does not have a passion or a vocation — he or she has precisely a dream… and the financial sector is there to help them follow that dream.
In this one simple formula, we see the hegemonic tendency of neoliberalism put on display. Our entire economy runs on dreams. No longer is capital content to extract surplus-value from labor, it wants to extract surplus-value directly from the meaning we can find in labor. We are so desperate for some type of non-alienated labor that we’ll do it for free for the hopes of one day doing it for pay. Universities, publishing — essentially every industry with any promise of creative expression runs on dreams, dreams that are fulfilled only for the smallest number of people necessary to make them seem attainable for the vast masses of broken, exploited dreamers.
This is in one sense a proof of Marxism, a proof that labor and production are a crucial part of what it means to be human, as well as a proof of how much we — in the wake of Fordism, which provided a security that to us living today seems like an intolerable prison — recoil from alienated labor. And somehow this situation has not produced liberation but simply opened up new and more intimate terrain for exploitation. Capital is happy to indulge our fantasies. It is happy to play along with our distrust of capital by allowing us not to sully ourselves with such petty considerations as money when creative self-expression is at stake. When we fail, it leaves us space to arrive at a healthy balance between blaming ourselves and resenting the imposters who stole our place by succeeding — something we unfailingly do, for free.