In one of the more thoughtful pieces to have appeared mourning David Bowie over the past two weeks, John Harris seeks clues about Bowie’s life in its particular generational context. This was an especially famous generation born during or shortly after World War Two, coming of age in the 1960s. But as many have pointed out, Bowie never quite got along with the ’60s, and his career coincided with the rise of a new individualism that would coalesce around Thatcherism. Or to put that in the graver terms that probably felt more immediate at the time, it coincided with the disintegration of Keynesianism. Between Hunky Dory in 1971, when the dollar was de-pegged from gold, and Lodger in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, Bowie produced his greatest albums while global capitalism was extricating itself from deliberate political control.
It was also a period of historically unprecedented economic equality, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated. Britain has never had a smaller gap between top and bottom incomes than it did in 1977, arguably Bowie’s most creatively brilliant year, which was spent in Berlin. As Piketty’s historical data shows, Bowie’s childhood and youth (he was born in 1947) coincided with a highly unusual trough in income inequality. The Prudential has calculated that 1948 was the ‘luckiest year to be born’, offering three decades of a uniquely supportive welfare state, followed by three decades of rising asset prices, benefiting baby-boomer home-owners and retirees.
As has now become clear to any observer of London’s cultural sectors, rampant inequality makes artistic risk-taking far less likely. People spend longer living at home with their parents and then have to work far more paid hours in a week, simply to afford rent. This consumes the time and imagination that a 20-year-old might otherwise use to reinvent themselves and/or their art. No doubt there are some children being born in Brixton today who will go on to art school, but that is only because Brixton is now home to people sufficiently wealthy to cover the costs of such non-utilitarian luxuries. This is surely one reason why we look so longingly at Bowie’s self-invention, and also why it feels so impossible to imagine a career such as his happening again, at least in London. Bowie is evidence that many of the goals of neoliberalism (self-reliance, innovation, flexibility etc) are not so much ‘incentivised’ by higher inequality as Thatcherites believed, but utterly thwarted by it.
Leaving aside the ways in which Bowie expressed the emerging individualism of the post-Keynesian era, there is an intriguing question as to why his generation were capable of that level of invention, to an extent that subsequent generations were not. Reduced inequality may be necessary, in terms of liberating people from the bonds of family or labour market dependency, but it scarcely seems sufficient. Now that we’ve entered a period when our heroes born in the 1940s are dying at an accelerating rate, it’s worth asking what might have been special about that particular existential starting point.
The destruction of capital
There are far too many things to be said about the cultural and political turning point of World War Two and the urge to start again. But there is something in Piketty’s work that offers one useful entry point. Piketty points out that reduced inequality in the post-war period wasn’t simply a result of higher taxation and social spending, though those were important contributors. It was also an effect of the sheer destruction of capital wrought by war. Piketty’s simple thesis – that returns on capital tend to be greater than growth in income – implies that as the amount of private capital in the economy grows, so inequality will grow with it. The inverse is also true: as the amount of private capital in the economy shrinks, so inequality will decline.
An excessive stock of private capital in the economy, relative to flows of income from production and work, also grinds down the capacity for social and personal transformation. This is partly what theories of ‘financialisation’ point towards: investor interests overwhelm the capacity for productivity enhancements or innovation. Housing becomes treated as an asset to serve the interests of its investor, rather than something with use value. Socially valuable activity (such as education) becomes re-imagined as a source of future earnings so as to capitalise it, something Bowie himself engaged in during the late 1990s.
One thing that concerns Piketty is how the growth of private capital means that “the past devours the future.” Previous inequalities dictate present ones, and undermine the capacity for modernisation. Destroying capital, one way or another, is therefore a modernising act – arguably the central insight of Austrian economics, as captured in Schumpeter’s famous term ‘creative destruction’.
From the Austrian perspective, the great advantage of capitalism is that it can internalise its own destructive tendencies and the destructive urges of human beings. This does not occur through minor ‘corrections’ in market prices, but through potentially devastating upheavals, as for instance Uber is currently visiting upon some traditional transportation systems. By the same token, a moment of widespread destruction of capital, such as World War Two, represents an unprecedented opportunity for invention. It is the ultimate levelling of the ‘playing field’ that avowed ‘meritocrats’ dream of.
Psychologically and psychoanalytically, there is something enviable about growing up in the wake of such collective destruction. It is a guilt-less condition, the like of which Nietzsche imagined as the exit from a resentful Christian morality (“You gotta make way for the homo superior”). It has all of the opportunities for creation, given that one’s parents’ generation has already taken care of the destruction. John Lennon, born 1940. Bob Dylan, 1941. Lou Reed, 1942. And so on. Yet this also produces a fundamental misconception about capitalism, namely that it necessarily promotes free expression and individuality, where in fact it was more likely the destruction of capital that set the stage for these things.
Capitalism has in-built tendencies towards melancholia, in Freud’s sense of an inability to accept the loss of the past. As Piketty shows, as capitalism develops, it becomes more and more plausible for some to live off inherited assets that one had no responsibility for inventing or building and may have no interest in using. The sense of debt towards the past can be stultifying. For most others living in such a society, the present involves the paying off of past debts, another melancholic condition, as we explored in Financial Melancholia. From an Austrian perspective, state bail-outs of the financial system repesented another melancholic refusal to let the mistakes of the past go, and face the future anew. The point is that only relatively drastic acts of cancellation and destruction can wipe the slate clean.
The flush of what Mark Fisher calls ‘popular modernism’, which lasted from the late 1950s through to the early 1990s, is now a legacy of this euphoric innocence that we can only look back on. Those born in the 1940s and ’50s owed nothing to the past, because the past had been blitzed, flattened, written off, cancelled. That trough in Piketty’s graph above was a unique opportunity for playfulness, uninhibited by fear of what one’s creditors or benefactors might think.
I wonder if what we find most alluring about Bowie today is his apparent lack of debt, in the constrictive, guilty sense of an obligation to honour one’s past promises. The contemporary financialisation of everyday life involves a fixing of individuals in certain life trajectories. Whatever we do, we have to stick to the path that guarantees a steady, predictable income, as calculated by past creditors. The past devours the future. Digital technology and social media assists with this, helping to fix our identities in place and render them transparent to credit-raters. In that sense, the cliched claim that we love Bowie because we’re all now engaged in self-invention seems to me the opposite of the truth: we mourn him because, short of another war or a truly destructive financial crisis, the idea of such freedom now seems impossible to envisage ever again.