Shackling the Masses With Drastic Capitalist Tactics

We should denounce ruthless and wild compradors like Wu-Tang superfan Martin Shkreli, but also understand the cold world in which they operate.

The Wu-Tang Clan performs in San Francisco in December 2010. 曾德龍 / Flickr

We live in the kind of times where we never lack villains. When disasters are opportunities, and the squandering of an opportunity is the most grievous failing, all sorts of terrible people can prosper.

With Martin Shkreli, the much-loathed CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, “millennials” finally have a villain to call our own. A post-hardcore kid and Bernie Sanders fan (until the campaign gave his donation to a health clinic), Shkreli sparked public outcry after his company acquired Dataprim, a drug used by AIDS patients, and jacked the price up from $13.50 to $750 a pill. More recently he’s made himself something to fuck with by upsetting rap fans worldwide: it was revealed that he was the buyer of the sole copy of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Shame on Shkreli, it’s time to run game on Shkreli.

Now that he’s being persecuted by that universal court of Twitter, excoriated everyone from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, Shkreli has taken things in stride, lashing out at his critics over Twitter with an unapologetic glee. His toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon. This comfort with Internet outrage comes as little surprise, as he’s made his fortune denouncing his rivals online.

A young Shkreli landed a gig at a hedge fund founded by screamo icon Jim Cramer, where he learned the ropes of finance. When he struck out on his own, he leveraged the airy speculative economy of investing against the shit-talking propensities of social media by lyrically performing armed robbery — placing short positions on companies and then publicly bashing them until the stock dropped. After accruing haters, attracting investigative reports from the SEC, and placing a few bad bets, Shkreli jumped into biotech, where he carries on much as he did before. Witty unpredictable talent and natural game this is not; more a million-dollar villain plotting on a killing.

But can it be all so simple? As the stopped clocks at Spiked put it (and Shkreli himself wryly acknowledged), “The real question is whether someone should be able to make large sums of money out of selling life-saving drugs.” Shkreli’s soul, as Marx might have phrased it, is merely the soul of capital, just a wooden soldier marching to the drum of the larger capitalist political economy of medicine.

And the antisocial eccentricities that have made Shkreli such a lightning rod are the kind of affectations that the bourgeoisie’s elder set love to see in Young Moneybags. “I had an investor who said to me he’d keep his money with me as long as I didn’t have a girlfriend and I didn’t start combing my hair,” he told Bloomberg in a 2014 interview. These shitheads are made, not born.

And we should throw darts at a few more targets. When RZA, the abbot of the Wu, created a $2 million dollar album, he guaranteed only a shithead could buy it. It’s common knowledge that gangsta rap’s tales of plunder take pride of place among the feral bourgeoisie of Wall Street. Hip hop’s tough tales of slingers and gamblers and gram handlers no doubt appeals to a Brooklyn baby like Shkreli, who’s no stranger to crossing ethical lines. Hip-hop and finance draw from the same well of capitalist criminology.

The Wu-Tang Clan were never contained within the gangsta rap mold. Their slang was too dense to come off as sensationalistic, and the kung-fu touches, apocalyptic mysticism, and Five-Percenter jargon gave the music a more expansive mythos. Supplemented with RZA’s visionary production — dusty claustrophobic textures pulled from the earthy, menacing shimmer of the Stax catalog — Wu-Tang felt like more than a rap group. It was, for all its syncretism, a total aesthetic. And in proper hip-hop fashion, this aesthetic became the megaton bomb to batter down all walls and enter the marketplace.

Or to be precise, all marketplaces. RZA’s storied five-year plan successfully seeded Wu’s stable of rappers among all the major record labels. The group’s merchandising — everything from comics to cologne to console games — also became legendary. Millennial though I am, I remember that Wu-affiliated CDs came with order forms for Wu Wear, the group’s enormously successful apparel line.

Financial triumph didn’t satisfy everyone’s aspirations. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh has stated that the single-copy-album ploy was a strike against the devaluing of music in the era of the Internet. “The longevity of a record just doesn’t exist anymore in the era of downloading, and, in many cases, music has been devalued to the point of it being free.”

No argument there: a perfect storm of digitization, insurgent computer users, and record company hubris have decimated the market for recordings. Wu-Tang’s fortune was made during a world-historical moment when labels could reap super-profits with cartel-like business strategies.

But for someone who boasts of his digitality, RZA’s ploy is shockingly retrograde — analog, as he might put it. Restricting access to promote profits is a kind of ruthless mercantile philosophy that equates scarcity with value. It’s the same logic the Dutch East Indies Company used when it destroyed crops on the Banda Islands to prop up its nutmeg monopoly. The same rationale appears in the Grapes of Wrath, where oranges are burned rather than given away to starving people, to better preserve the price.

“A million people hungry, needing the fruit — and kerosene sprayed all over the golden mountains.” Value is nothing but what can be exchanged, not what can be put to use — the very same justification that Shkreli and the pharmaceutical industry uses to gouge patients. Both RZA and Shkreli are culprits keeping their science heavily guarded as their private intellectual property.

Azzougarh makes a curious, if common, connection between art and value: “why can’t Dr Dre or RZA have a similar value to a $50 million painting by Andy Warhol?”

Let’s leave aside the question of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction for a moment. What makes an Andy Warhol worth $50 million? It isn’t necessarily the quality of the art in question, and it is not only the cachet of a famous artist-as-brand as Warhol (something that the brand-hyperconscious Wu-Tang wouldn’t miss). It is, in part, because art functions as both social and financial capital.

Beyond a price tag, the market in fine art is a method of knitting together the elite of the global ruling class around an alternate reserve currency that only the most privileged, a supreme clientele of billionaires, may access.

Globalized and financialized capitalism has brought the ruckus to firms and sovereign currencies alike, and so a highly mobile, ultra-wealthy class seeks to park its profits in vehicles independent of corporation or nation-state. Today, the most stable store of value is that which is defined by its lack of functional use: art. While wealthy art patrons of the past often donated or loaned their collections to prestigious museums, today’s billionaires are walling off their works, enclosing the cultural record within private galleries. This is both a social milieu and a bulletproof wallet, an economy insulated from crisis.

The most valuable work of art is the one never seen; the most expensive record is the one no one can hear. The most valuable corporations don’t own assets or directly employ workers. Value, pulled through the wringer of haute bourgeois social relations, is not only severed from use, but begins to seem hostile to it.

I doubt that this will be the fate of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Recorded music, founded on mass production, doesn’t easily fit the mold of the high art object. And while artists and critics have done much over the years to deconstruct the barriers between high art and mass culture, the elitist cultural codes of the ultra-wealthy mean that its communities remain gated. A rap record will never make it past the first layer of security.

For all the pretentious (and extremely tired) comparisons to patron-commissioned artworks of the early modern era, Once Upon a Time comes off as a little more than that kitsch collector item, the limited edition box set.

This makes it the perfect investment for Shkreli, whose modest background means he’s too nouveau riche to swim with the biggest sharks of his putative class. Instead he’s engaging in grotesque new money hijinks like whipping out Kurt Cobain’s credit card at meals and paying Fetty Wap to hang out with him. This does little to endear him to the one percent of the one percent, while making him an easy target of angry swarms on social media.

And that great sop of speculative capital in biotechnology that’s making him rich right now? It’s looking as weak as clock radio speakers, and when the bubble bursts some will point the finger, however unfairly, at Shkreli himself. He’s made enough enemies by now to want to protect his neck. And keep working on that mixtape: he may need a new line of work where being hated is just part of the game.