“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

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the omissions are part of the text

Li is such the summer sluggard that we didn’t bother to connect our previous post to the posts on war. My point in claiming that routinization is a great and central historical fact, extremely difficult to understand – the object par excellence of historical fantasia – was to return to the logic of the state, war and debt in the emergence of the liberal state. If we ask ourselves what it means that 50% of Britain’s taxes were going into paying long term loans that financed past wars, we have to imagine that half of Britain’s taxes had no visible public effect at all. For the taxpayer, those taxes as good as disappeared. And when you get used to the state taking your money and providing zip in return, you begin to think that the state is basically a robber. In the case of Britain, work that could have been done by public investment – in land improvement, schooling, transportation – was either done poorly, then, by the state or by private forces.

This isn’t, of course, just true of early 19th century Britain. In the U.S., the incredible amount eaten up by the military from the Korean war on similarly “vanished”. At first, however, the way in which the military took from public investment in needed areas was not such a big hole, given the willingness of the government to consolidate New Deal programs and, in the sixties, complete the preliminaries of social democracy. But after the sixties, the taxes increasingly vanished. And of course, under Reagan, while the tax burden shifted decisively to the individual from the corporation and from the wealthy to the upper middle and middle, the money that was dispensed to the military increasingly lost its multiplier effect. The sedimentation of the expectations entailed by this massive and continuous robbery to pay for past wars and military outlays that were essentially useless – and of course there has been no use for almost all military technology developed after 1970, which is always developed to fight an imaginary menace with imaginary scenarios that, at most, move the gamer boys to creaming in their pants – has been to create a general collapse in confidence in public outlays – in the government – even as it postpones needed public investment. So the public sphere gets crappier, is run on a budget or used as an excuse for the legalized corruption of contracting, and the infra-structural and environmental needs – needs that can’t be met piecemeal, can’t be resolved by individual acts of good living – just go on being unmet.

James Galbraith has noticed this hole in the liberal brain – the brain that seems to have been put in formaldehyde under Clinton – in his review of two recent books: Consumed by Benjamin Barber and Deep Economy by Bill McKibbon. Galbraith aims a lot of nice, steel toed kicks at the first book. After quoting one of Barber’s over-ripe passages about the New England Puritans, to whom Barber attributes so many capitalist virtues it would make Schumpeter scoff, Galbraith writes:

“Nothing wrong with it, of course, apart from some things it leaves out, like witch hunts and King Philip’s War and the price controls that were a ubiquitous feature of economic regulation in Massachusetts Bay. … Also, I doubt Barber can document an economics of investment, as distinct from thrift, in colonial North America. Thrift is simply a matter of pinching pennies, but you don’t get investment before you have industry, which the colonists did not. Proto-Reaganauts, in short, they weren’t.

But Barber is determined that Paradise has been Lost, and on occasion he states this view without guile: “Once upon a time, in capitalism’s more creative and successful period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people.” The problem is that this is not history. It is, rather, like all sentences that begin “Once upon a time,” the stage setting for a fairy tale, a rendition of truths for children. And this is curious, in a book that is, from soup to nuts, a critique of infantilization. Consumed is self-referential. It is, to some degree, an instance of the problem it describes. Barber serves up some of the longest sentences since Proust, yet underneath is largely a simple moral tale, an allegory not more complicated than, say, social Darwinism or Horatio Alger.”

I don’t totally agree with Galbraith about the total lack of investment – surely it was in ships, and spread into slavetrading and sugar hauling – but it certainly wasn’t in New England itself.

Galbraith’s main point is here, however:

“The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to do anything about it? Almost fifty years ago, in The Affluent Society, my father wrote about this problem, which he defined as “private affluence and public squalor.” His solution was “social balance”: public goods, including schools and parks and libraries and higher culture. Liberalism stood for its own values. It stood against corporate dominance, business thinking, and commercial culture. And it was backed by the power of trade unions, of churches, and of the educational and scientific estate.
Barber offers no similar recourse. Everything he would do, he would do through markets, not against them or by bringing them under control. He speaks mainly of the “slow food” movement, of Hernando de Soto’s property-rights-for-the-poor and of the Grameen Bank’s micro-lending programs, each of these the projects of enlightened voluntarism, presupposing that markets can be as much a force for good in principle as they are presently a force for ill in practice. The democracy he would like to build lacks social or political organization; it isn’t about parties and agendas and laws and new government agencies tasked with meeting national needs. The New Deal and the Great Society are not Barber’s antecedents. He seeks merely the willed capacity to conduct one’s own life beyond the reach of mass culture, and offers the wishful thought that sensible people, each acting alone, will somehow manage to do just that. Good luck. Barber speaks of “capitalism triumphant,” and he proposes to leave it that way.”

Galbraith is reiterating the creed of all us misfit liberals. This is what liberalism finally figured out in the Keynesian decades. Unfortunately, liberals took a corrective episode – the great inflation of the seventies – as a conclusive finishing off of the mixed economy. The era of big government is dead and all that. The mystery of why people believe this is, I think, in part explained by the part war and its financing played even during the height of the Keynesian era. Of course, there are other factors.

Galbraith offers the same charge against McKibbon, even though he concedes that McKibbon’s is a much better book. And he concludes on a down note:

“This brings us back to the sphere that both McKibben and Barber largely ignore: public policy. The function of the government, in principle, is to foresee these dangers, and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.
This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government—the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics—has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.”


northanger said...

my grandfather's house in Nashville was midway between Fisk & TSU. when i lived there several years ago, a young woman in one of the TSU dorms gave birth & abandoned the baby in a dumpster. the bady died. so i walked up our street to the back of the dorm to look at the dumpster. so today i wondered who were we, all around this young woman, where she couldn't ask any one of us for help. why was this the solution? & from there i could finally pinpoint my problem with the surge & the war on terror. it's about death, not life. it formulates bloodshed to bloodshed. either/or. here or there. there will be bloodshed. absolute. all around, we can't escape it. we cannot stop it. how can you avert death with even more death?

i'm just amazed that with all we've learned about critical & creative thinking that we can formulate a plan so poorly. would you want to be the "there" in anyone's we fight them over there so we don't fight them over here equation?

northanger said...

Iraq isn't the long war, it's the möbius war. it's not spaghetti code, but möbius code.

roger said...

North, you are right - the Iraq war is the moebius war. From the very beginning, the war was just not a bad idea, but a stunningly characteristic bad idea, one of those bad ideas that is a divorcemaker - it forces you to look at the country you've been living with. Or at least so it has been for me. Actually, it has forced me to divorce several lazy ideas I've had - like the lazy idea I had that I was a leftist, that there was a left, that one should even think about politics in those incredibly stupid terms, etc., etc.

I can certainly understand why that TCU woman did what she did. We call the society we live in individualistic, when we actually mean that people reach their own level of abandonment in this society. She lived at a level of abandonment above her baby's, but not by much. I imagine she went to jail, or did she?

Brian said...

Does "divorce" mean in your case, roger, that you agree with Chalmers Johnston (and my other favorite blogger, Ioz) that the United States is basically broken? Maybe the only solution is the anarchist hobbitry of folks like Scruggs? A divided North America of nasty little statelets won't be pleasant for most of us-but it won't have quite as much capacity to immiserate the rest of the world??? (Although-I'm sure we would have a surplus supply of young and middle aged thugs who would fill mercenary armies worldwide, creating all sorts of mayhem??)

roger said...

Brian, I thought you were a solid Articles of Confederation man!

Myself, I am counting on Canadian imperialism. Canadians need to have a better sense of Manifest destiny, if you ask me. Look south, you mounties and hockey players! It is a vast and almost empty country -well, except for the 300 million Americans that roam about in it. Get a move on is what I say.

Scruggs said...

Roger, I'm going to take some of your critiques and say that market-based fragmentation has made affiliation with any institution or institutionally influenced ideology into a potentially dangerous and generally counterproductive farce. Creative destruction from the top down, used as social policy, has opened up endless pseudomarkets for all the crabbed little pathologies to exploit. The remedial outfits usually have no protection against that in mind when they form and are subject to their own types of regulatory capture -- academia -- and rent-seeking -- NGOs, non-profits and the like. I think the only affiliations worth having these days are the ones we create person to person, which are made difficult by institutional hangovers.

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but I don't think anarchist hobbitry is possible to achieve in any kind of static condition, but as a cautious tendency or direction, I think it's the best bet.

roger said...

A misfit liberal, an ex Articles of Confederation man, and a cautious anarchist hobbit - what we need to do is go to the Emerald City and see the wizard!

Myself, I'm not betting on the breakup of the us of a in my lifetime, nor do I want it to break up. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if the U.K. broke up. There are certain abysses of ignorance, like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings institute, who speak of Iraq as an artificial construct, but nothing is more artificial than the U.K.

Now, myself, I would like to add my voice to a chorus that would create a large attitudinal shift away from the war culture, happiness triumphant, and the idea that the environment is an infinite trash basket, and even towards an acceptance that the mixed economies in which we actually live wouldn't be even better if they were wholly unmixed, the state withered away, free enterprise ruled - or vice versa. I think it is important to create ... well, utopic models at the borders, so I'm very sympa with anarchists, marxy theorists, punks, autonomen, lumpen lovers and the whole lot. But I'm more of a critic than a forger of those models. I know my limitations.

northanger said...

Roger, i don't remember. but i think that's why i walked down there -- to remind myself that it DID happen & that it happened not that far away from me. if that girl had put that baby in my arms then, i don't know what i would've done. i started thinking about this song at the same time, go here for the video.

Brian said...

roger: your cautious optimism/pessimism is inspiring. Maybe there are no grand solutions or overarching ideologies that "work." I may be a devolutionist, but I recognize that, for example, dividing the U.S. into 50 mini-nations could result in nothing more than the (already a problem) race to the bottom as each petty fiefdom competes for capital. I love mutualism as a concept, but I am not sure it will "work" very well. Not that the current State Capitalism bordering on fascism works all that well, either.

Anonymous said...

So North, you are visiting Tennessee? I don't know what I would have done either - although if I was that gal, I know what I would have done. I would have gone to my family, and got up the scratch for an abortion. We all are crazy in various ways in my family, but in the end, I we rely on each other. What to do if that is not there, I don't know. That's a level of abandonment I dread.

On a different note - I hope you noticed I finally finally put your site on my blogroll to the right, which I've been planning on doing for a while. I hope you like the name I chose for your link.

northanger said...

Anonymous, thanks. um, where's your blog? Actually, Anonymous, i was trying to respond to Brian & your comment helps. that's when i looked at abortion as a serious option. i knew i couldn't do it, but that option needed to be available. now i live in California & as someone pointed out to me, if Roe v. Wade is overturned we'll just go back to how things used to be. they said abortion will always be an option in CA, NY &c. but having this legal in all 50 states makes it easier to provide/monitor the procedure. responding to Brian's "50 mini-nations", if you live in TN currently i think you have to cross state lines to GA to get an abortion. ironically, while Mississippi is "pro-life" they have the highest infant mortality rate in the country. what are the consequences to states like CA & NY if RvW is overturned? 2nd & 3rd trimester abortions are more difficult procedures for some to accept because the fetus looks more human; however, most americans can support 1st trimester abortions. why is it so difficult to implement a majority decision in this country?

roger said...

North, don't kid around! It's obviously me, Roger, I just can't get this haloscan thing to let me on. Anyway, I'm amazed Nashville has no abortion clinics. How tragic.

I listened tot he Joe South vid. a shot from the past, there.

northanger said...

oh! NORTH’S AMPHITHEATRUM SAPIENTIAE AETERNAE. that's not to the right, that's at the bottom of the page!

which reminds me Roger, you need some serious blog redesignhabilitation. i am a somewhat rusty web designer.

ps. i go here to log in coz i can't do it in this comment box thingy.