[2 February 2009]
All of John Quiggin’s essays on economic doctrines now refuted by the current crisis are worth reading. It illustrates well how rationalizing ideology is generated to paper over contradictions, unsustainable imbalances, and inevitable reckonings.
In his most recent post, about trickle-down theories, Quiggin predicts a reemergence of class struggle in the wake of economic failure. He concludes:
Politically, the failure of the trickle-down theory seems likely to produce a resurgence of the class-based politics pronounced dead in the era of economic liberalism. The contrast between the enforced austerity of any recovery period, and the massive, and massively unjustified, excesses of the financial elite during the boom period, will produce a political environment where phrases like “malefactors of great wealth” no longer seem quaint and old fashioned.
It’s tempting to cheer this development as long overdue. But when we turn to politics merely out of dissatisfaction and disgruntlement (our chance at unfettered consumerism is receding!) rather than a habit of civic duty, the danger of reactionary policies and demagoguery increase dramatically. Class-based critique is not automatically demagoguery, as conservatives assert, but in a country that has had a hard time acknowledging the existence of a “power elite” and that can be complacent about the ideals of social mobility and equality of opportunity, class-based politics can quickly devolve into the more familiar forms of American ressentiment: racism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and so on.
Literary critic Walter Benn Michaels makes a similar point about the disappearance of class from public debate, arguing that novelists tend to focus on those same forces of ressentiment and congratulate ourselves on our moral clarity in rejecting them, instead of looking at, say, poverty and our complicity in perpetuating it.
So maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade. Although it doesn’t appear anywhere on the Times’s list [of the best novels of the past 25 years], Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a far better novel than most of the ones that do, and the Psycho’s self-consoling reminder, “I am rich—millions are not,” has the merit of problematizing the upper middle class’s sense of its virtue rather than, like Roth and Morrison, pandering to it.
Basically, prejudices are easier to accept and use than the hard facts about the tenacity of social class and how privilege is preserved at a more fundamental economic level. When a country that rejects class as a category has to acknowledge its real existence as a malign social force, outlandish ideologies can start to emerge. During boom times, consumer capitalism insulates us from politics, keeps the bulk of us in a stupor of self-centered individualism. When the boom ends, we generally lack the competence to engage in democratic politics in a way that’s consistent with the ideals we had been taking for granted. Suddenly feeling vulnerable, we lunge at anything that might promise to punish the forces that disrupted our fever dream of hedonism. The lunatic-fringe ideas that have been gathering in world’s unkempt corners like so much lint can be swept up together and take substantial form; reasonable people, bewildered by heretofore unthinkable institutional failures, may find them suddenly plausible.
No doubt financiers have been over compensated and reckless; their myopic selfishness has damned us to several years of difficult readjustment that many in no way deserve. The difficulty will fall hardest on those who prospered least during the bubble. But the financiers weren’t acting out of spite or evil; they were merely enacting the logic of the system. Their behavior reflects, as Robert Reich argues here, a structural problem. If our critiques don’t ascertain that, they will be futile and dangerous. Bankers will be hanged, for the wrong reasons, and those same wrong reasons will authorize a host of subsequent injustices as yet untold.