An old story tells of an elderly fish greeting a pair of young fish one morning in their aquarium. The elderly fish says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The young fishes look at him blankly and say, "What the heck is water?"
The point, of course, is that the most fundamental aspects of our lives tend to be invisible to us. And few things are more basic to contemporary human life than the capitalist economy: it determines our social status, it regulates our access to resources, and it even defines our identities as consumers and workers. But we don't see it. People speak about the economy as if it were timeless and natural, rather than historically constructed. As one philosopher noted, it's easier for contemporary Americans to imagine the end of the world than an economic system that's not based entirely on private property backed by state force.
What we need is something that can make the familiar seem strange, and vice versa — that is, art. The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) video game series qualifies as art in this sense, because its slightly skewed portrayal of contemporary America allows players to see their world with fresh eyes. The change in perspective makes capitalism's ubiquity visible. Here are five examples of how GTA shines a light on the invisible hand.
Beginning with GTA: Vice City, players start the game doing odd jobs: deliveries, assassinations, etc. They then spend the money they’ve earned from these odd jobs on commodities with specific use values, such as guns, cars, and health. As the game progresses, the player accrues enough cash to start buying properties that automatically produce money; in other words, their money becomes self-expanding capital. At this point, the player stops working as a wage laborer, and instead works to protect his or her market share from outsiders. The player becomes a capitalist.
At its core, capitalism is about abstraction: imaginary property relations become more powerful than either concrete products or human needs. The extreme version of this tendency toward abstraction is the stock market, through which one may purchase, for instance, the option to buy a bet on a bet on the future performance of an amalgamation of fractions of real-world companies. GTA V incorporates finance into its game play by allowing players to invest in, and manipulate, stock markets. In this way, players get to emulate the best and brightest capitalists of our age.
The GTA games feature underdog protagonists, often just out of prison, who climb the ladder of success with nothing more than elbow grease and a little luck. This narrative is called the bootstrap myth (aka the American dream), and it's integral to capitalist ideology. In the face of staggering structural inequality, the myth that America is a meritocracy where anyone can make it if they just work hard enough prevents the impoverished majority from rising up against the 1%. When everyone thinks they’re going to win the lottery, no one asks why there's a winner-take-all lottery in the first place. The GTA games harness this narrative to great effect, allowing every player the experience of (virtually) working their way to the top.
GTA’s universe contains a veritable panoply of advertisement parodies, from radio ads ("Music that our demographic research says will put you in the mood ... to buy things") to the above shoe ad.
This is by-the-book cultural parody in the tradition of The Simpsons and South Park. Like other cultural satires, the GTA games depict a world in which lemming-like consumers chase after patently absurd fads. What’s actually happening, of course, is that products are functioning as symbols of social status. Consumers aren’t scrambling for Ray-Bans or Dolce & Gabbana per se. They’re scrambling for the social acceptance and power those products represent.
Every GTA plot is basically about money. Money, and the pursuit of it, have been around since ancient times, but it's only in the past several centuries that disparate forms of social power were subsumed by economic power via the mechanism of private property. Because we live in an economy in which everything is for sale — and because money is legal tender, backed by the full faith and force of the state — money offers unmitigated access to social resources and prestige. Could a more convenient plot device be conceived?
It's not clear that the makers of the GTA games think of their work as an artistic representation of capitalism any more than St. Augustine considered his autobiography to be an artifact of ancient social relations, or Tommy Wiseau meant for The Room to be an absurdist parody of modern cinema conventions. Yet all of these artworks go beyond their authors' intentions. In truthfully depicting America, the GTA games rise to the level of literature. They are part of our generation's contribution to posterity, documenting life at the dawn of the 21st century, and displaying capitalism, and our place within it, in all its insane, sprawling glory.