Counterfactual as Counter Argument (With Update)

3 08 2011

A couple of projects–a Moot Court appellate advocacy competition and beginning production on a sketch comedy show–have kept me away from my beloved Same Subject. This post, unfortunately, deals with something I read on Matt Yglesias’ blog. I put off writing it because I don’t want to turn my Same Subject into “one sided arguments with Matt Yglesias.” But he makes a point that so perfectly distills Beltway myopia that I had to point it out:

Quoted at length:

I was reading Corey Robin’s rountable discussion of lefties wondering what the deal is with Barack Obama and kind of choked over the idea, expressed by one participant, that “I really see no daylight between his and both [Irving] Kristols’ politics.”

This kind of thing always makes me want to pursue the follow-up question: “compared to what?” I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies….In a sense, all American Presidents have been cut from the same bland consensual cloth. But in another sense, American public policy obviously changes from time to time often in important ways.

I’m going to admit off the bat I don’t know what “consensual cloth” is. But other than that, I think there’s something to Yglesias’ thinking that the left and center-left needs to accept: we can’t prove any of that stuff about Gore being better than Bush. And as evidence, I’ll point to the presidency of Barack Obama.
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Get Rich or Die Tryin’

5 06 2011

Some day, there are going to be documentaries made about the 2000s, and then that documentary will provide the stylistic template for some award-winning movies.

One of those documentaries will be called “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”. How do I know this?

Because the 2000s represented the culmination of thirty years of a new American civic religion that treated the working class lifestyle as something objectionable and maybe immoral, and wealth, or its apparent trappings, as the sole measure of a person’s success; it is when we all became consumers rather than citizens. It is when appearance rather than substance became the way of valuing something.

50 Cent’s debut record, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sold nearly a million records in its first week, and finalized the gradual transformation of hip hop music, the dominant musical style of the decade, from stories about poor and working class life in America’s crumbling big cities to pure bragadoccio about individual success and ferocity. Gangsterism took over one of America’s most precious cultural products at about the same time it took over the U.S. economy in the form of high finance bubbles and credit schemes that sold off the manufacturing base and then redistributed billions of dollars upward.

Working class life and dignity was erased from the popular culture, our stories and music became populated by elite cosmopolitans, professionals, and the rich and famous; at the same time, the economy stratified more rigidly, between the super wealthy and the insecure, and the stability and peace of working class life evaporated.

50 Cent

I hate 50 Cent’s music. I’ve been a hip hop fan since I heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” in a movie; but I was never a backpacker type. Nas, Mobb Deep, Biggie, Wu-Tang, and Ras Kass were my favorite groups and MCs as a teenager; so crime stories, battle rhymes and stories about sex and partying don’t offend me. But when Nas talked about the criminal lifestyle, even in his Nas Escobar persona, he was storytelling, creating a character. Even Mobb Deep, who pioneered the East Coast gangster style, don’t “glamorize” violence: listen to their classic The Infamous, and you get lost in a terrifying, high-stakes world of violence and poverty. Who would listen to the life Prodigy describes in “Shook Ones Pt. II” or “Drink Away the Pain” and think that life would be preferable to the cushy existence of the record executive who produced the record?

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The End of Elections in the Neoliberal Era

17 03 2011

The time for elections as the focal point of activism has expired. Activist participation in elections, and elections as the organizing focus for economic justice movements is finished, and activism inside the Democratic Party is not distinct for the result it produces from activism inside the Republican Party. There are differences between Democrats and Republicans, but is gauged only by degrees of resistance to corporate power, which is not a strategy that can ever make progress. Therefore, the “electoral strategy” of trying to achieve justice through political elections has proven ineffectual, and electoral activism circumscribed in its value.

Neutered Elections

In the city of Deadwood, South Dakota, an intensely rich gold find carved society into wilderness. Men poured into a small gulch in the Black Hills to make their fortune. Miners panned and chiseled for enough of “the color” to drink, gamble, visit brothels, and put a little by for family they’d left back home.

Until that is, the introduction of amalgamation by capital. The gold could not be produced “efficiently” without that process. Wealthy and powerful interests (in the HBO show Deadwood, represented by an unquestionably cariactured George Hearst), moved in to buy up land from panicked homesteaders. What had been a community of small businessmen and free miners slowly transformed into a community or wage earners. Quality of life dipped, and to serve these wage earners, cheaper labor had to be brought in, from China and Europe, to produce what local goods were produced and to work at laundry, food preparation, etc. The labor market got worse–one major employer creates a virtual monopsony. The homesteaders left to go west, and were replaced at the mine by cheap immigrant labor. Deadwood turned into just another American town.

Poor Charlie Utter, who knows what’s coming but can’t quite understand it.

The need for one owner to control so many workers of course created a social strata of managers, foremen, and security, who could enforce Hearsts’ will.

This brings me closer to my point. In David Milch’s Deadwood, Hearst, played maniacally and brilliantly by Gerald McRaney, has a certain cavalier attitude towards coming elections that is instructive to us at this point in American history:

I’m an optimist, so I see a bright future for the American republic; though I see that future coming after some pretty nasty times in the immediate offing. The neoliberal consensus (in its broadest meaning, distinct from the “Washington Consensus”) has won the day. Even supposedly “liberal” political leadership subscribes to the neoliberal consensus.

Corporate power neuters the results of elections by stovepiping elected officials, narrowing their range of movement to within the confines of neoliberalism’s policy consensus. Once we accept this forlorn fact, much follows.

Neoliberal Consensus

Before I use the expression again and test your patience, I can define it for you, first formally and then substantively: Read the rest of this entry »