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In chapters on Victorian sexual ethics, housewives and "the economy of gratitude, " optimism and...
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In chapters on Victorian sexual ethics, housewives and "the economy of gratitude, " optimism and race, the cultural politics of crime, and the value of intellectual work in a culture of austerity Willis shows us precisely how we might transcend the ordinary liberal/conservative divide to create new alternatives and a more promising picture of our country.
She describes how we can construct new coalitions of activists who have more in common than our traditional definition of politics allows us to see, based on ideas we all share but seldom discuss: that equality and freedom are equal, rather than oppositional, forces and chat we can have a society where citizens can create institutions and practices that best serve us in our everyday lives. We can, simply put restore liberty to its rightful place in a democracy.
Decade of Denial
High on my list of petty urban irritations are those signs posted by smug possessors of driveways: "Don't Even Think about Parking Here." I fantasize about plastering their premises with superglued bumper stickers that say "Down with the Thought Police" or "Don't Even Think about Telling Me What to Think." It occurs to me, though, that the signs are an apt metaphor for the one-way conversation carried on by driveway guards who call themselves journalists: "Don't even think about questioning the need to balance the federal budget." "Don't even think about workers getting a fair share of the wealth they produce." "Don't even think about the problems with the institution of marriage that punishing unmarried mothers won't solve."
Commentators are always inviting me to accept as a foregone conclusion conservative dogma on some issue I had foolishly imagined was debatable. Consider the Wall Street Journal's obituary of Barry Goldwater, which assures the reader, "Today even liberal Democrats agree that some part of Social Security should be privatized." Or the Manhattan Institute's James Pinkerton, opining in Newsday about the high rate "among some groups" of unmarried childbearing, "leading, everyone now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban underclass." Or the New York Times's classic "News Analysis" of the 1996 budget battle: the president, the reporter remarked, was disinclined to move because "he now can make theargument that Democrats ... are the defenders of education and the elderly while all the Republicans care about is tax cuts. It is a flawed argument, especially on Medicare, for Mr. Clinton knows as well as the Republicans do that spending on such entitlements must be curbed eventually." Not "Mr. Clinton believes," which is undoubtedly true, but "Mr. Clinton knows." Don't even think about the government raising revenue for social spending by restoring the progressive income tax, or making steep cuts in the post-cold war military budget. If you're the kind of crank who has to have irrational doubts about what everybody knows, go join the Flat Earth Society.
For the past few years, everybody has known that we are enjoying a terrific economy, with out-of-sight stock and real estate prices, jobs going begging, even the wages of bottom-tier jobs beginning to creep up. Never mind that the statistics don't measure involuntary part-time and temporary employment, or the steady flow of people (especially people over fifty) out of jobs with good pay and benefits to those offering neither, or the conversion of real jobs to sub-minimum wage "workfare" slots; that a minority has garnered most of the wealth, while real estate inflation has displaced all but the rich and the subsidized from boom towns like Manhattan; that the current growth rate depends on an unstable mountain of debt. Meanwhile, much of the world economy is in crisis. Sooner or later, Roadrunner will figure out that he's treading air, and Americans will rediscover their enduring reality: growing economic insecurity, a long-term decline in real wages, and fewer social benefits and public services. No doubt the gatekeepers of our collective wisdom will revert to their usual strategy of convincing people there's nothing much to be done about these miseries other than blaming themselves for not striking it rich as everyone else seems to have done, or blowing off steam at corrupt politicians, the undeserving poor, the immoral cultural elite, the unqualified blacks who are supposedly getting all the good jobs, and so on.
But there's a problem looming: call it the euphoria gap. If you can't get with the most marvelous expansion since the '60s, you're a sorehead. But when the bubble sags, your discontent will once again be worrisome to what might be called the "conservative center"-that is, the financial and corporate establishment, the "new Democrats," those Republicans whose antiliberal zeal stops somewhere short of radical right-wing anarchism or militant Christianity, and their countless flacks in the think tanks and mass media. For the CC, it's not enough that Americans "know" they have no choice but to accept a declining standard of living; it's essential that they accept this adversity with good grace. The ultra-right traffics in anger, which it hopes to enlist in behalf of its vision of counterrevolutionary change. But the CC wants to control the pace of change, and understands that popular anger is a wild card. While its main priority is avoiding a class revolt from the left, it is also leery of all-out culture war from the right: congressmen in league with white supremacist militias, or worse, Pat Buchanan, covering both bases with his rabble-rousing populism, nationalism, and fundamentalism, are a conservative centrist's nightmare. How then to get us to chill out?
I'd suggest reissuing Robert J. Samuelson's The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995. It was published in 1996, while memories of the right's government shutdown were still fresh and before the boom hype had taken hold, to enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Newsweek ran an excerpt as a cover story: "Cheer Up, America! It's Not as Bad as You Think." Americans are unhappy, Samuelson argues, not because we're really doing badly, but because we're hooked on unrealistic expectations. The post-World War II economic boom led us to envision a utopian future of ever rising incomes, stable jobs, personal freedom and fulfillment, and government solutions to all social problems. But the boom ended, and conditions reverted to what we ought to accept as normal but experience as betrayal and disillusionment. It's time to pull up our socks, relinquish our overweening sense of entitlement, and settle maturely for what we've got.
Samuelson has a point about the naïveté of American optimism. The extraordinary affluence of the postwar years and the liberal social compact that allowed most people to share it were the product of a unique set of circumstances. Not only did the United States emerge from World War II an economic superpower, but business, labor, and government were resolved, in the wake of depression and war, to save capitalism both from its own tendency to crisis and from the socialist threat represented most concretely by the Soviet Union. The translation of phenomenal economic growth into high wages, job security, and social benefits was a formula for buying people's loyalty to the system, neutralizing potential radicalism, making genuine economic equality seem unnecessary. For capitalists, who relinquished some of their profits but never their power, collaboration with labor and the welfare state was strictly a temporary marriage of convenience. For most Americans, it was a historical shortcut to the pursuit of happiness. As with our abuse of the environment in the name of growth, and our abuse of antibiotics in the quest to "conquer disease," the bill for that complacency is now coming due.
This, however, is not exactly the point Samuelson wants to make. For him, capitalism is a given, a natural fact. The economy is like "a vast river, where fish and plants flourish and perish and where occasional floods occur." Its inherent "instability, insecurity, and excess" may be hard to take, but without it we wouldn't have computers and microwave ovens. So absolute is Samuelson's assumption that there's no possible alternative to this system that he doesn't even bother to say so. (I mean, didn't the fall of Communism lay that one to rest forever? Don't even think about it.) During the '60s, when this now taboo subject was actually raised in public, defenders of capitalism used to argue that despite its inequities, it delivered the goods. Now they're reduced to arguing that you can't control a river. But what's happened to the economy over the past two decades has nothing to do with laws of nature; it's the product of conscious and deliberate social policy.
Prodded by competition from Europe and Japan, American capital invested in cheap third world labor markets and job-decimating technologies that undermined American workers' bargaining power; unconstrained by a left grown pitifully weak, business abrogated the liberal compact. Employers embarked on a concerted campaign to break the unions (which don't get even a token mention in Samuelson's account of the "forces" behind shrinking wages). Government obligingly deregulated, threw out progressive taxation, declared the austerity state, and is now taking an ax to those programs that represent the last vestige of the idea that markets ought to be subordinate to the needs of society, not vice versa. As computers allow companies to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers, so that profits and stock prices go up with every round of layoffs, productivity is being decoupled from income as surely as sex from procreation. Yet the idea of plowing back some of the wealth generated in the process into support for the unemployed is sacrilege to the free-market ideologues who run the country. River? What we've got here is a steamroller.
There's a strong element of déjàvu in Samuelson's "Party's over, get used to it" message. The first concerted assault on "the age of entitlement" took place in the '70s, the decade of the energy crunch, the New York fiscal crisis, and the first wave of "pro-family" activism; it was the theme of the Carter administration. Then the strategy was moral intimidation: our greedy profligacy had led government to overspend; our narcissism (women's especially) had undermined the family; we were a bunch of lazy, morally flabby slobs who had better shape up. The main result of all this guilt-tripping was that Americans elected Ronald Reagan, who reassured the electorate that material aspirations were fine so long as they were channeled into private gain, and that it wasn't the American people who were lazy, morally flabby, and narcissistic, just feminists, gays, blacks, and welfare queens.
But by now, conservative centrists know better than to lecture people about tightening their belts when they're already doing so, willy-nilly. Instead Samuelson offers economic determinism: prosperity made us do it. It's not our selfish desires we must curb, but our overstimulated imaginations. Don't worry — it only hurts when you think.
Candide in the Global Village
On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary in 1995, the neoconservative flagship journal Commentary devoted its pages to a symposium on "The National Prospect." Nearly all the respondents — mostly a Who's Who of the right, though a few stray centrists and left social conservatives were included — were optimistic about our country's future, hopeful that conservatives really were, after all that wandering in the desert, on the up side of history. Indeed, several contributors invoked the prospect of a new Great Awakening. There was much talk of the need to combat the lingering legacy of the '60s, those myriad subversions of morality, religion, and social cohesion perpetrated by villains ranging (in Commentary associate editor Gabriel Schoenfeld's inimitable rhetoric) "from the multiculturalists loose in our schools to the murderers loose in our streets." There was somewhat less talk about economics, most of it complacent, though a few contributors did worry about inequality and others were concerned that economic libertarianism, taken too far, would encourage the social libertinism they deplored.
Taking this all too familiar tour, I began to experience an odd sense of unreality: no one was talking about the elephant in the room. I refer to the question that has to be the starting point for any serious assessment of the national prospect—namely, how is the unprecedented reach and momentum of global capitalism going to affect the very idea of the nation-state, and with it American identity? This issue lurked behind all the others the editors had asked the symposium participants to address, from immigration to the possibility of common American values. What did it mean that a panel of conservative luminaries from all wings of the movement could simply ignore it?
To begin with, the ascendancy of global capital has confronted conservatives with an uncomfortable choice between their loyalty to the American nation and their loyalty to the free market. The people who control transnational corporations and the world financial markets may be citizens of one country or another, but in their capacity as investors and conduits for wealth, they have no a priori stake in any country's well-being. Before the fall of Communism, they had a political interest in America as the mainstay of anti-Communism around the world; even now the American government is still too politically and militarily powerful to entirely disregard. Nonetheless, America for the transnationals is basically a market and an influence on other markets, and their chief concern is access to those markets on the most favorable possible terms. If the American middle class ends up collapsing as a result of their disinvestment in a labor market deemed too expensive — well, tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.
The power of corporations to invest or disinvest, to lend or refuse to lend, amounts to the power to manipulate and ultimately to control public policy. That can mean investing in the campaigns of politicians who do their bidding or disinvesting in a country like Sweden that tries to hold on to its welfare state; withholding loans to former Communist countries that don't move fast enough toward privatization or threatening to lower New York City's credit rating if it raises taxes. Such decisions are made every day and, like most of what "the market" does, are usually taken for granted, as if corporate investment priorities, like capitalism itself, were a natural fact, like the weather. American conservatives' success in weakening the federal government and starving it of funds will not lead to a democratic dispersal of power to local governments closer to the people; it will merely accelerate the process of consolidating corporate economic power on the transnational level. What can "American democracy" mean when no one even bothers to hide the fact that economic policy is made, not by elected officials accountable to their constituencies, but by the croupiers of global capital's floating crap game?
To complicate matters, the conservative resurgence itself owes a good deal to the rise of globalism. The social contract between business, labor, and government that post-World War II liberalism represented — the contract that ruled during the period that's the object of so much conservative nostalgia — depended on the existence of an American business class committed to national prosperity and stability. When business reneged on that commitment, liberals could no longer deliver, and the resulting economic anxiety has done much to drive the cultural reaction that proponents of traditional values would prefer to attribute to Americans' simply recovering their common sense. If the anxiety gets worse, however, conservatives are likely to get a lot more than they bargained for — a mass radical right-wing movement.
The loyalty problem has led some conservatives (none of them contributors to the symposium) to advocate subordinating free-market ideology to economic nationalism, whether in Pat Buchanan's populist/nativist version or in forms more akin to liberal statism. On a world scale, militant nationalism has followed economic globalism as surely as it once followed colonialism; but while it has served as an outlet for strong and deadly emotions, it has never solved the economic and social problems that provoked it. Of course, the United States isn't Bosnia, or even Russia. A determined, popularly supported economic nationalism might work for us for a while, since the croupiers can't yet afford to blow off America as easily as New York. But finally this is a losing game. No nation-state, however strong, can permanently withstand an economic colossus that knows no borders. In the end, just as Ronald Reagan was willing to decimate the air traffic control system to show the strikers who was boss, world capital would take its money and run — despite the costs and dangers of doing so — to break an American rebellion. In short, nation-states are on their way out as the world's chief means of organizing political and economic power. What does this do to our national prospect? Does the idea of a national prospect even make sense?
It would be grossly unfair, of course, to claim that the right has a monopoly on obtuseness about these questions. To dispel any such sectarian illusion, I have only to imagine the contents of a similar symposium in an organ of the left like the Nation or Dissent. In recent years a long line of commentators — from liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Rorty to former new leftist Todd Gitlin to populists Michael Tomasky and Michael Kazin — have insisted that two principles are basic to a left revival in this country. First, the proper aim of left politics is mobilizing liberal democratic government to promote economic justice: it is not our business to try to change the culture or politicize relationships that belong in the realm of "civil society." Second, the left must repudiate the "politics of difference" and subordinate racial, sexual, and other particularist identities to our common identity as Americans, which is founded on the ideal of liberal democratic government. In other words, we are to hitch our movement to a state whose power is rapidly eroding, an identity inseparable from that state, and an economic goal no state is in a position to achieve.
Like conservatives, and for not so different reasons, these writers look fondly back on the heyday of liberal nationalism. I could argue with various aspects of their fondness, but in truth the argument is moot, since the conditions that sustained the welfare state, or what we new left types used to call corporate liberalism, no longer exist. In recent years, the left has aggressively forgotten how little the New Deal and the postwar standard of living had to do With the virtues of liberal democratic government, and how much with what business felt compelled to do in response to popular social movements and Soviet competition. Nor has it really grasped the import of the appalling irony that defines the post-cold war era. By showing that another system was not only possible but able to compete for world dominance, the tyrannical Soviet regime forced Western capitalists to adopt more humane policies, while its unlamented demise has spurred the triumphant and vengeful resurgence of nineteenth-century laissez-faire, on a grander scale than was ever imaginable before. Which is to say that the viability of American liberal democracy was in some sense dependent on the subjugation of Russia and Eastern Europe — and undone by the liberal revolutions of 1989.
That a solid American identity may soon melt into air does not mean that common American experiences, sensibilities, political ideals, and cultural values don't exist, or that they will simply crumble into the old dustbin. If anything, given the global ubiquity of America's material and ideological influence, "Americanness" is peculiarly suited to floating away from its moorings in the nation-state and adapting itself to the contours of a postnational world. To begin with, the American talent for constant reinvention should be especially useful in a time when the state is coming apart and the meaning of politics is up for grabs. In fact, reinventing politics is exactly what Americans have been doing: the cultural radicalism anathematized by the Rortys and Gitlins has been, among other things, an effort to apply certain basic American democratic values — freedom, equality, the right to pursue happiness — to the institutions of civil society and the social relations of everyday life. Not coincidentally, the impact of the American cultural left has traveled far beyond U.S. borders.
In some ways too, the American multicultural and feminist impulses that both the right and much of the left see as "balkanizing" are anticipating the devolution of the state by looking elsewhere for commonalities — with Eastern European women, say, or a worldwide African diaspora. Economic inequality — which is also balkanizing, after all — may have a similar effect. As the great majority of Americans come to have more in common with their working-class and middle-class counterparts in other countries and less and less with the putatively American wing of a global ruling class — and as it becomes increasingly chimerical to define American identity by a sense of entitlement to a middle-class standard of living, with any exception regarded as the individual's bad management or bad luck — it also becomes more likely that Americans will begin looking past national boundaries for class-based alliances.
But who would have thought the state would start withering away and the left wouldn't even notice?
Hamlet in the Global Village
In itself, the war in Bosnia was an extraordinarily brutal and devastating event; as a disastrous exercise in politics by other means, its impact is only beginning to be felt. The success of the Serbs' genocidal campaign to impose ethnic separatism in the Balkans and to savage the very idea of democratic, cosmopolitan modernity, European complicity in their project and American reluctance to oppose it — these central themes of the Bosnian story have nothing but the most unsavory implications for the future of the West, Eastern Europe, and the world. Already the predictable next chapter is at hand, as Slobodan Milosevic pursues his ferocious campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
Of all the wrenching questions raised by these events, none is more revealing of the state of the American left than the one posed by Susan Sontag in a Nation article as germane today as when it appeared in 1995. "No one," Sontag wrote, "can plead ignorance of the atrocities that have taken place in Bosnia.... And no one can be unaware that the Bosnian cause is that of Europe: democracy, and a society composed of citizens, not of the members of a tribe. Why haven't these atrocities, these values, aroused a more potent response? Why have hardly any intellectuals of stature and visibility rallied to denounce the Bosnian genocide and defend the Bosnian cause? ... The writers, theater people, artists, professors, scientists who have a record of speaking up on important public events and issues of conscience ... have been as conspicuous by their absence from the Bosnian conflict as they were by their presence in Spain in the 1930s."
This quiescence, Sontag supposes, can in part be attributed to widespread anti-Muslim prejudice and "heartless historical cliches" about the "eternal conflict" and "implacable ancient rivalries" that afflict the Balkans. But there is also the fact that "this is not the 1930s. Not the 1960s." Rather, this is an age that no longer provides clearly defined targets — fascism, Communism, imperialism; an age in which "the final victory of capitalism, and of the ideology of consumerism ... entails the discrediting of the `political' as such. All that makes sense is private life." In such an atmosphere, Sontag charges, Western intellectuals have been depoliticized, have become cynical and selfish, focused on their own private pleasure and convenience. At best, they can be mobilized for "limited actions — against, say, racism or censorship — within their own countries.... There has been a vertiginous decay of the very notion of international solidarity."
Confronted with this angry indictment, I'm immediately tempted to proffer a list of counterexamples — articles, conferences, symposia, teach-ins, open letters, advertisements. Yet it's indisputably true that Bosnia inspired no outpouring of public indignation from American or European intellectuals comparable to that surrounding the Spanish Civil War or Vietnam. Even worse — if one takes seriously the idea that a society ought to be able to look to its intellectuals to analyze and interpret events, to examine them in a larger historical and political context — in the United States at least (I don't know about Europe), there has been far too little discussion of the war that goes beyond superficial, platitudinous hand-wringing on the one hand and realpolitikal noodling about strategic options on the other.
As Sontag recognizes, this gap in our public conversation has everything to do with the devolution of politics that has been gathering terrifying speed since 1989. Intellectuals' public embrace of a political issue doesn't come out of nowhere; it reflects a social climate in which a critical mass of people, particularly in the universities and the media, have a sense of urgency about politics in general and the feeling that what they say or do can make a difference. Such a climate, in turn, depends on the existence of movements and organizations already primed to anticipate the eruption and interpret the significance of national and international crises. More specifically, the proliferation of passionate pro-Bosnian voices that might have made a difference was unlikely to emerge in the absence of an active radical democratic left. (Although individual conservative intellectuals have supported the Bosnians and condemned "ethnic cleansing," the right in general has no passion for democracy or cosmopolitanism, except insofar as they open up markets, and no real objection to ethnic separatism, except insofar as it challenges white power.)
Although Sontag — who at the time her piece appeared had been to Sarajevo nine times and devoted considerable energy to publicizing the Bosnians' plight — has earned the right to chastise her peers, ultimately I think her emphasis on their personal morality is misplaced. No doubt complacency, cynicism, distaste for inconvenient entanglements have become increasingly commonplace among American intellectuals, as more generally in the upper middle class to which most intellectuals belong. But Sontag might have considered another, less venal if equally problematic side of left intellectuals' flight into privatism — their frustration, depression, and demoralized withdrawal in response to an ascendant right's relentless consignment of leftism of any sort to the political margins. Certainly, intellectuals these days seem far less inclined to solipsistic hedonism than to joylessness and puritanical absorption in work. And if they are more inclined to rise to the discrete domestic issue than the historic international moment, this may have less to do with the decay of the notion of international solidarity than with the decay of confidence in their ability to change the world, not to mention the decay of anything resembling a coherent framework of ideas within which to understand it.
What remains is a set of vestigial attitudes, carried over from a time when the left did have some impact on international affairs, that are less than helpful for understanding an event like the Bosnian crisis or organizing a response to it. Although the idea of American imperialism no longer explains much in a world where the locus of power is rapidly shifting to transnational corporations, it still fuels a strain of reflexive anti-interventionist sentiment whose practical result is paralyzed dithering in the face of genocide. Floating around "progressive" circles and reinforcing the dithering is a brand of vulgar pacifism whose defining characteristic is not principled rejection of violence but squeamish aversion to dealing with it. In the academy in particular, entrenched assumptions about identity politics and cultural relativism promote a view of the Balkan conflict as too complicated and ambiguous to allow for choosing sides: if there is no such thing as universality, if multiethnic democracy has no more intrinsic human value than ethnic tribalism, if there are no clear-cut aggressors and victims — merely clashing cultures — perhaps ethnic partition is simply the most practical way of resolving those "implacable ancient rivalries."
These blindnesses and confusions are bad enough. But the muted response to the horrific cruelty of the war also suggests that some kind of active repression is at work. I'd guess that many people resist coming to terms with the meaning of Bosnia because an honest assessment would involve questioning a cherished axiom of post-1989 common sense — namely, that the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into small independent states was self-evidently a good thing, a necessary and proper step on the road to East European democracy, the expression of a sacred "right to national self-determination." On the contrary, I'm convinced, the people of former Yugoslavia, the Bosnians most of all, would be infinitely better off if they had stayed together in a federation.
"Ancient hatreds" did not destroy that possibility; mundanely modern political interests did. It was Western Europe that stood to benefit from the fragmentation of a potentially powerful neighbor; Western capitalists who had a stake in the breakup and the cultivation of nationalist competition as insurance against any flare-up of egalitarian notions carried over from the Communist past; demagogues who saw their opportunity and moved into the breach. To define the war simply as good, democratic, multiethnic nationalism versus the bad racist, fascist kind — while a big improvement over defining it as the unfortunate consequence of ineluctable Balkan enmities — stops short of getting to the root of the problem, which is nationalism itself. This too is a problem that the American left, still deeply attached to the idea of national liberation and national governments, has yet to face.
|Preface: The Majoritarian Fallacy||ix|
|I. Decade of Denial||1|
|II. Race and the Ordeal of Liberal Optimism||91|
|III. Beyond Good and Evil||114|
|IV. Freedom, Power, and Speech||128|
|V. Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity||155|
|VI. Their Libertarianism—and Ours||176|