Capitalism redux

Despite all the folk tales, in which the rich and powerful are cuckolded by young paupers, thieves, stable-lads etc., money is still the most obvious aphrodisiac. But there’s a modern twist. In this post-sexual, one might almost say post-coital age, the aphrodisiac is its own fulfilment. Lucre no longer serves merely as the means for purveying, conveying or otherwise assuring sexual gratification, but has become the object itself. Today’s neo-rich get their rocks off by the complex act of assessing their own market value. Sex, and all that goes with it, has become a side-dish.

Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate this phenomenon. There are still enough people with a traditional sense of values who are ready to offer sex for money and money for sex. Two thirds of the world’s marriages are contracted and conducted largely along these lines. And prostitution, probably the more honest version of this exchange, continues to flourish. Yet nobody can deny that sex, as a pure commodity, has lost a lot of its zing. As usual, the entertainment industry leads the way. Sex alone no longer pulls in the punters. To be relevant, it needs to either fill a genuine plot function (an idea unheard of twenty years ago) or to be wrapped up in a fetish or two, such as cars, death, leather, dope, body modification or gender play. Failing this there is always the hardy and romantic film noir option or the choice of deconstruction in a violent stream of tiny sight & sound bites.

Porn again Christians

Money does not require such props. I swear you could fill the world’s multiplexes with a two-hour, 3-D documentary filmed entirely inside Fort Knox or the Royal Mint. It seems that the less we actually handle the stuff, the more we hanker after it. The Credit Card generation even likes designer jewellery that mimics cash: plastic in my pocket, but the billion dollar bling is real. This century, in which many of us spend thousands on a monthly basis but never get the feel of a crisp hundred between our fingers, has conversely seen the apotheosis of money as itself, rather than a vector for something else.

The Victorians, whose strict Anglican propriety saw to it that they never got a whiff of sex outside the bonds of matrimony, were absolutely obsessed with it. The 19th century was not only the great age of industrial invention. It also saw the development of a massive market in mechanical aids to copulation, all possible kinds of prostitution and a plethora of explicit books, from the most literate erotica to the most sordid pornography. Trade in these goods and services was for most of the century neither censored nor censured, as the leading lights of that hypocritical age refused to openly believe in their existence and considered the bas monde to be too far beneath them to merit improvement. At least in the West, we may be entering a similar historical period with regard to brute cash. A bright young banker, obsessed with up to the minute information, can now follow market developments on his smart-phone while squatting in the same men’s room where his grandfather once ogled a well-thumbed copy of “Gentlemen’s Relish”.

Shanghaied at the ATM

The new boom nations are not keen on plastic. In cash we trust is the rule in Mumbai and Shanghai. But whereas it used to be considered impolite in either India or China to pay for something with a banknote that exceeded the price of the article by more than 50%, now that is exactly the way to show your power: “Here I am, buying a pack of gum. Be thankful I didn’t empty your miserable store! Got change for a hundred?” In China this overt development is more obvious, due to the lack of other alternatives to wealth as a means of gratification. Chinese life offers little by way of empowerment that is not connected intimately with money. The arts and sciences are still strictly monitored and popular culture is, by definition, state culture. Moreover, the Chinese do not generally have a sexual option open to them, meaning that money is not just the new sex, but the latest in that nation’s provision of surrogates for sexuality and personal fulfilment that began with the little red book. Such manoeuvres as forced migration, promotion out of one’s area, the offer of central party influence and privileges if a relationship is broken off have given whole generations any number of reasons not to risk intimacy, certainly not to marry and on no account to have children. But recently, with a shrinking pool of skilled workers and an ageing population, the lack of marriages and/or of marriageable prospects is beginning to cause concern even in the land of “one child policy”. So now money (for what else is there?) is being offered in the form of housing credits as an incentive to get young people hitched. In one town this recently resulted in 95% of those already married getting divorced and then remarrying to take advantage of the special status. This caused the financial meltdown of the city budget.

Hindu cornucopia

I only cited that example to show how meaningless traditional social structures are becoming in China, unless backed up with hard cash. After all, this is not really the country that is going to save Europe (and you’d better start believing that, right now), whereas it definitely is the country with the largest population in deep rural poverty and with a per capita annual income equivalent to that of Jamaica. Its economic neighbour India is even lower down the per capita ladder, despite a riotously party-going middle class. Both of these states are basically experiencing a bubble that floats on a cess-pool. It’s hardly surprising they flaunt their cash while they can.

Sex is omnipresent in Indian religion, but banished from popular consumption. Money is also omnipresent, at least in Hinduism – with its gods of cornucopia and good fortune – though suffering from no such limitations. Thus it makes perfect sense to accept wealth as the one tool of self-gratification and status that can give you everything but the genuine intimacy you are denied. Young girls are offered for marriage (usually with family approval only) as soon as they get into high school. Young men are expected to make their way in the world first. The age disparity can become considerable in those extreme areas where “making your way” is the most competitive (urban) or precarious (rural). And since India has learned from America that almost anyone will work for less if you give them the title of manager – gastronomy surface manager, beverage dispenser manager or manager of things beginning with H – there is little marriage leverage to be gained from a great job description. The bottom line is everything.

If the award-winning Indian film “Slumdog Millionaire” had only left us with two powerful images, they would certainly be these: a little urchin swimming through excrement to attain the unattainable and his brother in crime dying alone in a bath full of thousand rupee notes. What many cinema-goers probably failed to realize, is that these two images are completely interchangeable.

Edwin Drood

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