We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.
Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.
However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.
The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.
The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.
Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.
What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.
If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.
If you lack a Hobbesian view of human nature, you are going to be late to the pandemic hoarding party. You are going to be without toilet paper.
That’s what I told myself standing in Safeway staring at the empty shelves, feeling slightly embarrassed… as if I had missed some obvious social cue. Why toilet paper? The Google offered some insight:
Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
These days the the greater risk is going to the grocery store in the first place.
Given the amount of uncertainty in which we were swimming…self quarantine? lock down? days or weeks?… adding a little buffer stock to one’s cache of TP was rational. The effects of mass buffering however were empty shelves. For Americans, empty shelves are eerie and portentous. OMG …my neighborhood cornucopia is empty of that which can clean me…toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizers. What will I be deprived of next? This is how an end-times shopping spree gets its start.
Few people appreciate how much retail inventory is “just in time”. I did a stint with Kroger a few years back (All praise the UFCW!) The only real storage space in a grocery store is the shelves. The corporate computer knows how much of any product will be (normally) needed in each store each week. Toilet paper takes up a lot of shelf space and sales are normally not volatile. In a well run store, there is only a two day supply. It is only when people get irregular that the supply chain falters.
The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.
Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.
Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.
Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!
Daniel: You’re kidding!
Ralph: Have you read it?
Daniel: No…and I never will!
Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?
Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!
Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.
Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.
As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.
In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.
I can’t unsee this photograph. I really wish I could. To be honest, it fills me with dread. It documents the end of discourse.
I feel like I should be able to understand this countryman of mine. I still feel like I should try to understand him
Is this man economically insecure? Probably: seventy eight percent of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. (Though among white voters who voted for Trump nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution). Nevertheless, perhaps he feels like he is running on a hamster wheel. He runs and runs and still can’t achieve the financial security he feels he should have (or that his parents had). He works his ass off and he imagines that people with different colored faces from different places are getting something they haven’t earned. Maybe he has moved from home more than once in his life to find work or maybe he has never left his small Western Pennsylvania town though his children have left. His high school buddies who left and occasionally come home seem to be living in foreign lands.
Like the rest of us, he lives in a world that floods him with information. What to believe? Who to believe? With whom should he believe? He is awash with technologies that are useful but operate by a magic he does not understand. He resents his ignorance and his dependence. Maybe he resents people who appear comfortable with the new technologies. Maybe he feels useless to himself.
He has a legion of consumables available to him but no control over the array that he is offered. His only agency is the choice of what to buy with his hamster wheel earnings. His only choices are not really “choices”, they are merely features of the wheel. He understands himself as the individual surrounded by the goods he has purchased. This is how he shows himself to the world. Very possibly he resents those who seem to denigrate the “life style” his purchases advertise. Maybe it is not Mexican immigrants he hates but other smug “white” people. Many of these are the same people who tell him that the plain truths he is holding onto about gender and sexuality are “prejudiced”.
It’s bad enough that he can’t seem to “get anywhere” economically but then he hears from too many sources that he shouldn’t even be proud to be an American. He really doesn’t want to hear that shit. Everything for which he feels pride (or took for granted) seems to make him defensive these days. He is an “old white American”. The “old” is problematic because he is running out of time to become a millionaire. The “white” is just normal for him; he has never hurled a racial epithet and he resents being called a racist. That the “American” part of his identity is called into question is the last straw. If America is not the “shining City on the Hill”, if America is not “exceptional”, where does that leave him?
He has not misplaced his gratitude about his birthright. What he can do is find himself a congregation of folks who also want to Make America Great Again. Now he is part of something larger. Once America is made great again, economic insecurity will depart and we will all be on the same team once more. His team. You are either on the team bus or you are not . Your choice. Fuck your feelings.
I find myself imagining that the message on his t-shirt is meant specifically for me as my feelings of dread are simultaneously incited and dismissed.
I don’t know this person. My attempts to understand him are probably overly reductive. But if I don’t care to try to understand the other person, where does that leave me?
Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.
My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.
I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:
To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.
I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.
I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.
I have plucked three paragraphs from the n+1 Winter Edition editorial “The Best of a Bad Situation” The link is here. It is a long read but worth it.
In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.”
So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids.
Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.
Stay with me here; this is a high fly-over to start the New Year:
-In the name of each individual’s unmediated access to the divine, the Reformation dethrones the hieratic authority of the Church.
-Capitalism metastasizes out of the English countryside.
-The Enlightenment’s dissolvent Reason challenges the pulpits and dethrones the monarch. The new liberal state is founded upon (and delimited by) individual reason and the rights of individuals (see my posts here and here).
-Capitalism and the liberal state flourish for a couple of centuries until the liberal freedom loving citizenry finds itself mired in (what Bernard Stiegler terms) “symbolic misery”.
-Unmoored by the social isolation of an atomized hedonism, they have exchanged the agency of political action for the passivity of the consumer, they experience themselves as helpless in the face of “market forces” that are devouring the planet and petrifying global economic injustice. (see my posts here and here).
-What will anchor them? Or distract them? Is there a difference?
-New retail opportunities? Goose stepping with their “brethren”? Netflix bingeing? Life in a gated community?
At the end of Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, an ahistorical and transcendant power “slouches toward Bethlehem” ready to intercede. Our planet should be so lucky. This is the longest lie. There will be no intercession for good or ill that does not spring from human agency.
All this is to say, what you or I or “they” do…or don’t do… will matter. Happy New Year!
During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:
Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.
The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.
We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .
Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.
Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.
The moral third refers to those values, rules and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting. Jessica Benjamin
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such humanity is surely brought into being.... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.Is this the doom written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real . Tortuous advances worn over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
From Brad deLong
I would conclude that managers with a bias toward freedom, choice, decentralization, and responsibility produce good results alongside a civilization of bewildered individuals lacking moral certainty. By contrast, prophets produce a civilization filled with confident fanatics who then commit gravely immoral actions--and who afterwards have nothing to say but: “Will you please send Lazarus down here with a damp cloth?"