The Museum of Capitalism

Should capitalism be put in a museum?

If you think that’s a good idea, you should visit the Museum of Capitalism (MOC) in Oakland, California.

Some might object that this is an outlandish idea, that capitalism is hardly material for a museum in the way communism or apartheid may be. The Apartheid Museum, for your information, opens daily at 9am in Johannesburg. And if you happen to be in any number of Eastern Europe’s major cities, most likely you will find enterprising young people doing sardonic museum-without-walls tours of communist wastelands—the former industrial sites—like Nova Huta, the Russian built new town outside Krakow.

Museums, however, are more than repositories of artifacts from a previous era. Even archetypical 19th century European natural history museums have been transformed into modern interactive learning centers. And, after all, art museums show works of living artists. Finally, to settle the question, take a look at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. It smashes preconceptions of traditional museums since its subject matter sits squarely in the future— its promoters could easily rename it the Museum of Resilient Capitalism.

The Museum of Capitalism, nonetheless, evokes irony. First, it is a pop-up affair that will close in mid—August. So, it won’t be around when capitalism gets tossed into the dustbin of history. Second, its major exhibit, though not specifically cataloged as such, is the space it occupies. The radical curators of MOC secured a huge mezzanine space (18,000 sq. ft., including atrium) above a Great Recession White Elephant at Jack London Square (another irony). This Port of Oakland-sponsored food market project came on line as the bottom fell out of the real estate market in 2008 and since then it has remained vacant. Until a lease is signed, the interior with exposed steel girders, HVAC venting and electric conduit running along walls and ceilings, will remain unfinished. A cadaver of capitalism.

It seems appropriate, though, and much overdue, to put capitalism in a museum, if not a mausoleum. The old excuses for tolerating the mayhem and waste of capitalism have evaporated. It has been long past its shelf life. Stagnant wages for the employed and little promise of a solvent pension, piss-poor jobs replacing union ones, youth (and others) shackled by gig economy bondage, and intensifying socio-economic polarities describe a system, most obviously epitomized by zombie banks, on life support provided by taxpayer funds and diminished, and increasingly, stolen earnings. Austerity defines this situation. Add to these horrors a shallow and media manipulated politics, and, well, “No Future” has been the anthem of two generations and now we are going on three.

MOC exposes the geriatric sinews of what was a robust economic muscle, for example, with the Abandoned Signs exhibit assembled by an art collective called Temporary Services. This consists of a photo gallery of the skeletal remains of business signs, some erected to twenty or thirty feet that now are forlorn, hollow spaces between two posts. The Museum also depicts capitalism’s efforts to dominate the environment for profit. Along a fifty-foot wall, poster-size photos document California’s catastrophic water diversion of mountain streams to the elaborate irrigation system that maintains Central Valley industrial agriculture. This is where much of the nation’s food is grown. Most appalling about this taxpayer subsidized giveaway is that a disproportionate amount of water goes to several wealthy landowners who suck it up to grow highly profitable export products like almonds and walnuts.

Another collaborative venture is the installation American Domain consisting of various structural wall elements; the loss of the commons is the subtext and, as a contemporary reference, there’s a photo of a portion of the Mexican border wall. The recent real estate debacle materializes at the Museum with several displays, global travel makes an appearance via video coverage of the passenger mayhem at the Los Angeles Airport, and, appropriately, clothes hangers attached to a wall display garments manufactured in sweatshops.

Capitalism could not exist without the support of the state’s violence, so to recognize the role of (oligarchic) law enforcement a number of exhibits focus on the repressive apparatus of the police. A stunning array of life size paper targets used in shooting galleries face the viewer at one point. Is it an innocent coincidence that the paper used for these targets is black? A decompression chamber to be used by stressed-out officers stands in this section. As you walk by that installation, you hear the melodious tones of a woman’s recorded voice coming from the darkened interior. In a glass-case nearby you will find one of the most evocative pieces—three police batons, of various sizes and vintages, transformed into flutes.

The everyday life of capitalism finds expression throughout the Museum, but nowhere as incisively as near the restrooms. There at the entrance, a sign reads “The Capitalist Bathroom Experience” and below the sign one finds an eponymous titled booklet, further explained by its subtitle: The Struggle for Dignity and Relief in the Capitalist Era. The Art for a Democratic Society, another collective, produced the booklet.

As should be evident by now, MOC captures a devastating critique of capitalism (or if you prefer, neoliberalism, today’s version) with its diverse array of exhibits and installations. However, there is more. Turn a corner from the law enforcement section and we find references to socio-political alternatives. In one niche, there’s an ecological statement complete with plantings and nearby a mock-up of a DIY biogenetic lab. Walk to a far corner of the Museum and you will find Oliver Ressler‘s European toured installation Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies. Ressler arranged a roomful of monitors each playing an activist or intellectual explaining the details of a different post-capitalist narrative. MOC scored its US premier.

These thirty-minute introductions explore the radical imagination, but no matter how important it is to juice the imagination, nothing can approach the impact of a concrete manifestation of opposition. The MOC provides that by documenting The Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 which established an encampment—called Resurrection City—on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Rev. Martin Luther King initiated the creation of this small city (replicated by a model at the MOC) in his turn from an exclusive focus on civil rights and the anti-war movement to an economic justice perspective. Some believe that King’s new focus on labor issues led to his assassination just months before the occupation of the Mall.

This brief excursion through the Museum of Capitalism hardly defines the parameters of the project. During the course of its limited tenancy, lectures, classes, and game nights are scheduled, and, in mid-August, a publication release party for their book. And after they evacuate their temporary premises MOC will continue in smaller venues and possibly travel to other cities.

What we have here is more a concept than an exhibit of what might be considered oppositional or political art. The concept is to subvert, in the first place and to whatever extent possible, the standard curatorial practice by questioning the assumptions of an art exhibit. The public approaches political texts everywhere, which tends to displace the privileged position of the work of art. The goal is to disorient.

There is some precedent for this approach amongst early 20th century artists and intellectuals. Not so much the Dadaists and their anarchic fuck-you to the bourgeois art scene at that time, but more the Surrealists, who established in 1924 a Bureau of Surrealist Research in Paris. The Bureau, modeled in an effervescent mode as a scientific research institute, however, one that swept up numerous categories of knowledge beyond easy classification by any traditional research facility. Dreams, secrets, speculations, automatic texts were enticed from those who ventured into their small office and every contribution was meticulously recorded in their daily notebooks. The point was to put the surrealists on the map with a physical location that supplemented their publications and disruptive events, and then to rip up the map.

And the artistic collaborations that the Museum presents have occurred repeatedly in the history of art, but most intensely during periods of social upheavals. We are in one of those periods now, as the Museum amply demonstrates. History, however, doesn’t simply repeat itself and a major difference between the Surrealist collaborations, for instance, and some of those that exist today, is that more anonymity prevails now and more fluidity. Though some collaborations are stable, others find participants moving in and out of groups, or creating new ones or going off to do their own thing. The goal, or maybe better the assumption, is to keep one’s distance from the traditional role of artist and to put the art market also at an arms length.

Another hallmark of today’s collective project revolves around the diversity that is cultivated: a biogenetic installation next to a photo gallery of the detritus of capitalist signage. The commonality that exists with these collective disruptors may be best expressed by a poster at a recent UK demonstration against austerity—”Sick of this Shit!” This the basic premise of the MOC.

The rise of politically sophisticated collective ventures within the arts community possibly heralds a repudiation of the core value of capitalism: characterized by one political philosopher as “possessive individualism”—“the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them.” (C. B. Macpherson) And, of course, this perfectly defines the artist under capitalism.

Bernard Marszalek was a member of a Chicago printing cooperative in the 60s that printed for The Living Theater, the Yippies, anti-war and labor groups. He retired as a member of a Berkeley printing and publishing collective, Inkworks Press, after 18 years. He is the editor of a selection of Paul Lafargue’s essays—The Right to be Lazy. And his rants are archived at Read other articles by Bernard.