“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, November 13, 2005

heroes on parade

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend who teaches at Berkeley. I was complaining, for some reason, about the ineffectuality of lefty political movements. My pet peeve – for instance, the way the anti-war movement gets continually diverted to supporting factional and hopelessly unlikely projects, thus foreclosing on allies to the right that could seal the closure of this occupation. And he told me that sometimes he gets tired of his radical students playing the ultra game, with their seeming program of getting guns and going to the hills to fight capitalism. And, although he didn’t add this, their probable real future in business, entertainment, law and medicine.

I said that this is just the kind of romantic lefty shit I hated. Especially the projection of a heroic ideal embodied by some revolutionary leader, Castro or Che or, as is the case right now, Chavez. Chavez, who has quite correctly begun diverting revenue from petroleum exports to human capital projects (just like Kuwait has done since 1964), while at the same time quietly continuing to pay the premium for those massive Venezuelan debts accrued over the past thirty years in such a manner that, in the business world, there would definitely be huge and winnable suits over the manner of their composition and delivery. No bolivarian revolution is required – just re-tooling international corporate law. The problem is the symbiosis between lender and emerging market debtor, with their neo-liberalism guaranteed by cyclical and cynical socialism for the wealthy, robbing the public till to sustain a con man’s dream of unneeded infrastructural projects. But both the left and the right, in the Latin American context, still loves those infrastructural projects, as though this was still the golden era of damming.

In fact, my opinion about the bad gas emanating from the neurotic projection of white boogey kids is itself an old cliché from the cold war – see any essay by Naipaul, circa 1970-1980.

However, we don’t live in a time warp. The projections that endanger us don’t come from the infantile left, but from the infantile CEO set. Oddly enough, nobody, to my knowledge, has tracked down the characteristic tropes of the neo-liberal hero, that comic counterpart to the Berkeley vision of the Motorcycle Diaries. And yet they are all around us: the Merkels, the Chalabis, the Sarkozys, succeeding the Fujimoras and the Pinochets and Salinases of yesteryear.

This struck me as I read the NYT’s report about Merkel on Thursday. The NYT has been very disappointed in Germany since the election. Here is how the election was supposed to go: the Germans, realizing that the political economy of America was superior in every way, was supposed to flock to Merkel’s standard. An orange, or a red white and blue revolution, if you will. Soon union membership would decline, and high tech service jobs would flourish. German CEOs would soon be raking in the chips. And the whole thing would be baptized: the entrepreneurial society. Or how about: the ownership society.

But this is the way the election went: the entrepreneurial society lost. The Germans flocked to the slow the ‘reform’ or ‘stop the reform’ parties, the SPD, the Greens, and the Left. Between them these accrued 51 percent of the vote. And this wasn’t an Ohio or a Ninevah province vote, either.

This leaves Mark Landler, the NYT reporter, with a heavy hearted task. What if you gave a party for morning in Deutschland and nobody comes? Here’s how you report it:

“Germany’s two major political parties on Friday sealed an agreement to govern the country together under Angela Merkel, who would become the country's first female chancellor.

But after six weeks of grueling negotiations, which exposed fissures on both sides and necessitated deep compromises, the new government faced a murky future, shorn of the reformist zeal that many here believed is necessary to fix Germany's stagnant economy and stem its soaring unemployment.”

That “many” which obtrudes itself in the second graf is the many-headed minority to which the whole story is keyed. It is the many who think of Tom Friedman as God’s own son. It is the many who compose the editorial board of the Times. It is the many who see past the fog of unsustainable worker’s rights and pensions and health care a little something else, a little lexus and the olive tree, chugging away. Everything, in this vision, can become America, and America can become everything! We have it in our hands to distribute a universal solvent, melting away bad old socialism, and creating a new economy in which the GDP grows by leaps and bounds, and most of the wealth of it is captured by the upper ten percent, or the exciting success class. And that class, like the engine of a train, will pull behind it the investments of the working class. Nirvana and Dow 36,000 are just around the corner.

The NYT view, of course, papers over the reality of the meaning of “reformist zeal.” Reform unleashes reform in a chain reaction. There's the tax “reform” and labor market “reform.” There's the pension reform and the reform on corporate holdings. There are reform going all the way out to the horizon. What this view really means is this: a politics that would essentially junk the social welfare state. The way in which Europeans ask the question: to what extent can we preserve a system that guarantees health and retirement and worker’s rights? is of course ignored with the pretense that that system is far too expensive – on the principle of the richer we are, the poorer we are. No, in the new, competitive world, the only viable option is a politics of growth that skews wealth wildly to the wealthiest and creates mindboggling personal and public debt, as well as mindboggling inequality. Growth, here, becomes the enemy of social welfare, not its ally. Keynesian economics is turned on its head.

This return to the politics of an old capitalist elite, circa 1890, with the new twist that the state becomes a player for the corporations, requires a myth. The myth is that the business cycle is dead. With growth becoming a linear and predictable thing, everybody becomes an owner, and nobody needs those antiquated benefits.

So who wants this? Heroes do. Heroism is coupled with myth, requires it. Just as every myth generates heroes, every hero defines him or herself in terms of myth. Especially when the myth obscures a sharp and cruel desire, and when that desire can only succeed by means of sacrifice, heroes come to the fore to make that sacrifice seem virtuous.

Our current crop of neo-liberal heroes are all little Reagans and Thatchers. Their bios are oddly similar. They start out as outsiders. They talk tough, and directly to their enemies – who are portrayed as the insider elites. That tough talk appeals to the street.

Merkel has proven to be a big disappointment on the hero level. She came from East Germany, and that was good. Her outsider credentials were burnished. She was a woman, hence the Thatcher image. And she brought in a flat taxer to talk tough. Instead of campaigning like a neo-liberal hero, however, she campaigned like a wall flower. This was not at all good. She did not plug into the secret desire on the street to junk the system of social welfare and plunge into the ownership society. Hence, the melancholy of Landler’s story:

“She would emerge from that vote with half her cabinet - including the foreign, finance, and labor ministries - in the hands of her former political opponents, the Social Democrats.

Even more important, Mrs. Merkel has had to set aside many of her proposals for overhauling Germany's economy, including a simpler tax regimen; reform of health care and pensions; and a more flexible labor market. The Social Democrats objected to Mrs. Merkel's proposals to curb unions and to make it easier to dismiss workers.

Plans to restructure the medical and pension systems were also either watered down or deferred. And the Social Democrats succeeded in nudging up the tax rate for people with high salaries.”

Like Kurz dying in his dark canoe, one can only imagine this NYT-er gasping out the immortal words: the horror! the horror!

For a look at neo-liberal mythography in action, LI’s readers should get ahold of the Atlantic magazine in September and read Charles Trueheart’s Waiting For Sarko. We’re going to put on our Barthes glasses and analyze that tomorrow.

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