I’ll admit, I’m a real sucker for any argument that takes a common sense, turns it on its head, and finds a radically different potential.
That, of course, is what Karl Marx did with classical political economy.
The idea is that what Marx was doing—and what Marxists after him need to do—is less the application of a particularly Marxian method (whatever it is called) and more the two-fold critique of mainstream economic thought and of capitalism, the economic and social system celebrated by classical political economists.
Let me push that idea a bit further: the starting point of Capital consists in the taken-for-granted assumptions of both classical political economy and of bourgeois society and then to develop a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It begins by accepting the rules of both mainstream economic thought and of capitalism and then calling them into question. . .
And it’s what all utopian (and dystopian) writers and thinkers do: they take the existing society and show how it can be radically different—leading to a better (or, sometimes, worse) “no-place.”
So, I was immediately drawn to Jason Goldfarb’s [ht: ja] assessment of the radical potential of Pokémon GO.
Yes, that much derided (in the mainstream press and in popular leftist publications alike) free augmented-reality app that has become an enormous, global success since its launch this past July.* It is criticized for the way “‘mindless’ players trespass and break laws, finding dead bodies and trouble” and “as corporatist, detached from social reality, and ultimately a fantasy disguised to obfuscate class and racial tensions.”
And Goldfarb’s argument? In his view, Pokémon GO has radical effects as it is—and even more radical potential as it might be reconfigured. Thus, for example, while some of Pokémon GO’s Pokéstops (locations where players receive items and can place “lures”) are capitalist stores, others are interesting landmarks, including the gazebo where police killed Tamir Rice in 2014.
Since Pokémon Go incentivizes gathering through lures, it creates a hub around this spot and one that inevitably begins to generate talking, thinking, and perhaps even organizing. Those who are uninterested in social justice and come to catch Pokémon find themselves confronted with the hard social reality.
And the development of the game’s content is just at the beginning. So, in psychoanalytic terms, it’s currently an “empty signifier” that, if the Left takes it seriously, “can help mobilize an alternative version with more political Pokéstops and incentivize communitarianism.”
Pokémon Go is no-doubt problematic, but it also burgeons with radical potential. The Left should never smugly dismiss such explosive sites – that’s the job of beautiful soul liberals. Rather the task of an authentic left is to engage in the muckraking work of illuminating and presencing these points of radical potential.
And, who knows, with the proper encouragement, Pokémon GO players and hackers might end up hatching their own noncapitalist utopia.
*I’ve never played Pokémon GO but I do know, through reading, that it involves finding, incubating, and hatching “eggs.” Apparently, there are different kinds of eggs out there.