I READ: Nathalie Olah’s Steal As Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity.

Hey there. I read another book. Big ups to me, because this is considered a radical act in the Attention Economy (I took the time to look up the term Attention Economy and let me just tell you it could fill a whole ‘nother blog post, so suffice it to say, the term is attributed to Esther Dyson ((angel investor/venture capitalist)) in 2012 but was kicked around certain spaces as way back as the mid 90’s). 

Speaking of radical acts! Olah’s Steal As Much As You Can is a sharply brief How-To-Manual meets Manifesto on Class Struggle, Resistance, Monoculture, and Artistry. 

Just Little Old Me with the Book and my Shitkicker Boots

Class struggle? Resistance? Monoculture?! These are terms we’ve surely seen spelled out online on Vice or Current Affairs or in vague social justice leaning Instagram posts, but what do they mean?? 

Well, well, well. Let’s find out how Olah uses them! 

But, before taking one step further into Olah’s masterful work (and it is quite the work), I simply must confess to you here and now I wrote this while listening to Ariana Grande’s My Everything in its entirety. 

A monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop that is seen as more economically viable than other crops (think quinoa cultivation that is actively destroying the historic planting cycles of Bolivia). In Olah’s book, she deploys the word in the context of our creative culture, the entertainment and art we consume. 

I hate a monoculture, but I love top 40’s pop. *in an increasingly combative voice* yes we exist. 

I came across Olah on Twitter (a deliciously depraved cesspool wherein you find honestly great writing???), and took the plunge to buy her book. 

Olah is staunchly Left, like radical, divisive, take no prisoners Left, and I love it (important to note a professor years ago boldly informed my undergraduate class that It Doesn’t Matter If You Like Something and while I bear that in mind constantly I do indeed enjoy Steal As Much As You Can). 

I was somewhat foolish in my expectation when I purchased the book. It put me in mind of Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, leading me to imagine it as a cute, vaguely critical work on artistry and industry. Oh no no no. No no no. An insult to the work, if you ask me! I was so freaking wrong. I was silly to think maybe it meant something other than the implicit imperative in the title—to do just that, steal as much as you can from this oppressive, dangerous, corrupted system we live under.

While the book itself is a quick read, a slim 162 pages, it provides its reader with so much information and insight into both concept and history that I couldn’t help but go back to the sections I underlined, the notes in the margins, the sources she cites within the work. 

Olah writes like we all read. Which is to say, she’s extremely online, and sources (thoroughly, deeply, though not entirely) from the internet. Her work and style are an act of Resistance, living out the unprecedented access we have to information, living it out and giving it back. It is a work of quality, but does not seek validation from Taste Makers. This is the resistance piece, resistance against the dominant neoliberal capitalist culture. Her work is fresh, it reads Here and Now. It is not something not interested in academic/dominant culture markers of quality. 

Which (!!!) is one of the critical touchstones of her book. 

Critical isn’t the right word here. It’s too pokey. Olah is intensely anti-capitalist, and her imperative To Steal is grounded in the reality that Capitalism does not care whether we live or die, does not care for our humanity but only our productive worth. She writes, “[c]apitalism might debase us in almost every other way, but we cannot allow it to steal our means of expression when alternative avenues are available, simply because of our own outdated dependency on a rigged system of validation.” (145). This comes after pages devoted to unraveling the ways in which arbitrary systems of taste and gatekeeping exist to keep us in a loop of validation and limitation.

I read this book back in April, and I giddily see people employing some of the methods Olah recommends now and since. When I see people giving directly to artists, supporting radical artists/makers/creatives with the same capital given to us by and through oppressive structures, I see a world in which what we consume can be shifted and expanded beyond an algorithm. I see people wanting more, more interest, more creativity, more real inventiveness, more real beauty and change. I see, now more than before, items from SAMAYC (my own acronym I’m not hella comfortable with) in common conversation online (I dislike the way we deploy the term “discourse”, if I’m honest) 

Olah is compassionate too, which I feel is missed sometimes from Radical Leftist writing. She’s compassionate to Class Struggle, and the ways in which we long to be safe. “[B]ut there will be many, I hope, who sympathize with the pull of a white-collar job for a working-class person wanting to obtain the same sense of security as those who were born into wealth” (86), writes Olah with a kindness of seeing that basic human desires of security, safety (possibly even more than comfort, possibly even dreaming we could have small luxuries) aren’t worth demonizing the people in the system. The systems we find ourselves under are deeply, deeply, deeply insidious. The devil works hard, but my god does Capitalism work so much harder. Capitalism took the Devil, recreated his looks in an underdeveloped nation for pennies on the dollar, and sold them back to his Legion of Demons as Empowerment and Freedom.

We were born into this muck and mire. The awareness of these systems that inform Olah’s kindness I see reflected in abolitionist rhetoric, in intersectional feminism, in ideologies that imagine a world that is accountable and restorative. Work like this, like Olah’s, push me to imagine new worlds. I find myself thinking about the limits of the imaginations we consume. This thinking, this new consideration, to me, is very much in the vein of Olah’s charge to us. In a sense this idea that, “we are here, and while we are we must steal what we can and disrupt what we must”. I see the workings of social theory that acknowledges the pain of where we are, and the draw of where we want to be (should be, are entitled to be as humans with basic inherent worth). 

I worry that all my meanderings around Olah’s work are weak. I wish I could sit down with you, the Person Reading This (and don’t you look good doing it, sweet thing), and really explain how vast and intricate the layers of the system we toil under are. She even folds in the ways in which rebellion, resistance, are swallowed up and regurgitated to us as a Product.

“As a result, these criticisms had defaulted to a style of self-censorship and despair manifesting in so-called “irony poisoning”, which had been exacerbated by the fact that any form of rebellion, protest, adversity and challenge to the status quo has been commodities by advertisers and marketing execs to achieve the ends of capitalism. This has the effect of instantly softening its effects and result in a cultural climate of immense insincerity that breeds bitterness, paranoia and mistrust. In creating a semantic vacuum capable of swallowing any predating value system or moral framework, neoliberalism had also been successful in positing class — and by extension, good taste — as the de facto metric of quality, transforming our conceptions of art and culture to the extent that the studied trope of the establishment now constitute great art.” (157). I know this is a Big Long Quote, but it does the work, the real work, of showing the thin and weak imaginal world we’re shown. How sparse the dominant culture is, how sick it is to take beautiful, radical challenges to the system (like feminism, like BLM, like transness, like queerness) and repackages them with a dark swiftness that sucks the radical out of them and makes them hollow, palatable, meaningless. She draws a straight line that the vested interest those on top have in stealing from while limiting the access (read: safety, livelihood, quality of life) of the working class.

I was taken aback by the apparatus laid bare—and I think of myself as someone who is Aware of Things. She openly objects to Neoliberalism, treating it as the candy coating on the Capitalist pill we’ve all been forced to swallow. She lays bare how the internet—often demonized, often shat on, frankly—helped our generation (Millennials, and those after ((hi Gen Z!))) see the systems we toil under. 

In the How-To bit of SAMAYC, Olah challenges us to set hard boundaries against those who we labor for, and admits what many of us know to be true: businesses do not nor even need to care about us as individuals. What we share with them will inevitably be used against us. What we struggle with is of no use to them, unless they can make it into a mental health initiative that provides tax breaks for the company as a whole. They are desirous of our time, our efforts, our very selves. And they steal so much of our souls. 

So she asks, steal back. Take that long lunch break. Don’t go to company parties. Resist the ways in which business tries to befriend you only to behead you, so to speak. 

And she does so with aplomb. 

“[U]nder the auspices of neoliberalism a new cultural economy emerged, whose sole metric was purchase. In this climate, ideas and truths came second to marketing, and marketing increasingly came to belie a vast and meaningless void.” (9). If that doesn’t grab you, I guess this book ain’t for ya. It’s a book, I think, that requires a somewhat long history of questioning and inquisition to find yourself reading. It’s a book that, I think, common modes of “discovery” now online wouldn’t lead you too. It’s an important book. It’s a book that you might not readily access given the very reality that it reveals; monoculture, resistance, austerity, culture, consumption, capital. I hate to be tautological, be in Dad-lingo, it is what it is. And what it is bleak, but not unbeatable. 

I would read this book (<–link to purchase said book) again. It’s good medicine, empowering medicine, even bitter, even uncut. And I would definitely read it again while listening to some perfectly mixed formulaic bubble gum pop. 

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