Sunday, January 01, 2006

Max Barry's Jennifer Government

In "Why Marriage is a Radical Act" from After Christendom, Stanley Hauerwas critiques Bertrand Russell's concept of marriage. Russell suggests (in On Marriage and Morals) that humans are guided by two prevailing emotions -- love and jealousy -- and where there is one, the other cannot exist. One cannot both love her wife and be jealous of her (because, ostensibly, to love requires trust and independence, while jealousy implies propriety--ownership--and distrust). Since one must choose, then, it is higher to choose love and leave jealousy, eo ipso fidelity, for the Evangelical Republicans.

Hauerwas doesn't claim any moral high ground in his critique. Rather, he takes a pragmatic, politico-economic stance, suggesting that if Russell's vision was carried out, we'd have whatchamicallit, polyamory all the time, which would mean we'd either have to pay women to carry children, or risk extinction. Then who would raise these kids? Who would want to be parents, in Russell's world of free love? No one, that's who, which means the State would be the parent, which means anyone like me who didn't get good grades would be requisitioned to the Reeks and Wrecks (to borrow Vonnegut's term from Player Piano), and while I personally want to get lots of nookie, I also don't want to have to fill potholes for the rest of my life. So I say "no thank you" to stodgy old Bertrand Russell and his big bag o' condoms.

In his fast-paced distopic novel, Jennifer Government, Max Barry critiques a similar reverse-totalitarian concept, and while privatization isn't as sexy as Russell's idea, the idea of totally-free-trade plays out just as scarily as Hauerwas's rejection.

Jennifer Government takes privatized business to extreme conclusions, to a world where employees take on company monickers as surnames. Thus the novel features characters with names like Violet ExxonMobil, John Nike, Billy NRA, and a cameo by the flirtatious Vanessa FashionWarehouse.com. Every successful corporation is a subsidiary of another corporation, and at the top of the ladder are the companies that run the loyalty programs. Barry's prescience stems from this--that everywhere we shop now, we find promotions galore. The natural end of frequent flier programs is that each company wants our business, and that they're willing to link to other businesses to attract our loyalty.

For instance, my dad shops with his MasterCard because they've teamed up with GM to give him points toward a new car. So he uses it to buy airline tickets, which not only gives him airline miles but hotel points too, which gets him free breakfast. After spending thousands of dollars, he gets free breakfast, while the corporations become powerful hegemonies that say, "No, I don't see how smoking could be bad for you," or, "We simply don't want to release a political movie at this time."

But let's not get confused. The world I just described is the world we actually live in. The world of Jennifer Government, is far worse; in it, the government is -- as the leader of US Alliance (a promotional conglomerate) -- puts it, "peripheral."

Wait. Um.

Naturally, when the government has been backgrounded, rivalries between Coke and Pepsi, Nike and Reebok, Sony and RCA are capable of calculated violence. In Barry's vision, the privatized police square off against the NRA as the military factions of the promotional conglomerates. Suddenly, no one is safe from their advertising programs, which involve killing people who wear their products in order to push up demand (insinuating that perhaps those ghetto blasts over the newest Air Jordan's aren't ghetto blasts, after all).

Barry's book moves like a Bruckheimer script, so there are a lot of chase scenes to plow through before you whittle down to the main point. Eventually it becomes clear that Barry thinks too much laissez-faire is not only counter-productive, but leads to an inversion of freedom akin to the objection that Hauerwas launches at Russell; in Barry’s view, it seems, the radical notion of hands-off government -- the one that “governs not at all” -- finds its conclusion in corporate slavery. It's an inversion that Barry pulls off convincingly, making Jennifer Government read like Barbara Ehrenreich with a knife at her throat.

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