“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

Friday, September 21, 2012

The GOP wants to raise your taxes

I find the GOP strategy of alienating the 47 percent who pay no federal income tax rather puzzling. A family of four, husband/wife/two kids, now pays about a 5.6 percent efficient rate in income tax. This means that well over 47 percent pay from 0 to 5 percent. The number is surely well over 50 percent of the American electorate. In essence, the conservative paranoia that we now face a world of “takers” has already happened. It is not in the interest of those who pay 5.6 percent to have their taxes raised and their benefits cut. This is precisely the GOP policy. In fact, it is the end of a long GOP strategy on taxes that has worked well. The GOP has campaigned against taxes, and the medium household has been happy to vote for them on that principle. The GOP, that household has noticed, never really cuts ‘entitlements’ – not to the medium household. They are prevented by the Dems, to an extent, and by their own hypocrisy. But finally ideology is overcoming strategy, and the GOP is actually running on a plank to lower the taxes of the rich and to raise the efficient tax rate of middle income households. The Democrats, who are looking up their butt at a mirage deficit, seem to be lagging behind events. Romney’s video tape might wake them up. The GOP wants to raise your taxes. That should be the Dem mantra.

Individual and character

Is individualism a philosophy? Is it a code about the way people think in modernity, or are thought for, thought for that is by institutions and organizations and the people who put up signs and the people who say, fill out this form? Does it describe a society centered around markets? Or is it a theory that helps us understand societies that center around markets, if there are any?

This is a question that confronts us as we try to assemble the lines of descent that went into the making of character in the late seventeenth century. There is a theory, put forward by Jacques Bos, that the character writing of the seventeenth century can be seen as a stage in the making of individualism – the character that the character writers are concerned with is all external show and symptom, “a representation of a certain category of human beings…” Our task is to discover how, from this literary stylization of the person, we get to the twentieth century, where “there is an almost self-evident connection between the words ‘character’, ‘individuality’, and ‘inwardness”.   

Bos’s notion of the the problem fits in with a broader sense of the way the ‘civilizing process’ in the West has gone. The individual and individualism are contrasted with an earlier communalism, out of which, for good and ill, the Western Paleface has broken.

But I’d like to harry  the idea that the individual and individualism are what we are all about in the twentieth and twenty first century, as well as this rather Hegelian sweep towards the inward. It is not that these are illusions; rather, I think character is something more than their factotum, and that its assembly and spread – across fiction and fact, through the spheres of representation, is a movement containing other movements.

To start off, then, one needs a sense of where individualism came from – that is, as a sociological category – and a sense of how it has been used by historians.

The analytic story goes back to the two decades between 1830 and 1850.

In Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the Revolution, which he published in 1856), there is this paragraph about individualism:

“Our fathers did not have the word individualism, which we have forged for our use, because, in their times, there was not, in fact, an individual who did not belong to a group and who could consider himself absolutely alone; but each of the thousand little groups that composed French society only thought of themselves. Thus it was, if I may so express myself, a sort of collective individualism, which prepared souls for the true individualism which which we are acquainted.

And what is the most strange is that all of these men who hold themselves so apart one from another became so similar to each other that it was enough to make them change places to no longer recognize them.”

Tocqueville is no random witness to individualism, since he was perhaps the first to use the term in a sociologically sophisticated way in Democracy in America. The United States even then had the reputation of being an individualistic country.

Tocqueville’s notion of distance, of being apart,  of being alone seems, then, to be part of what individualism is. The beat, here, falls upon the individual apart from his social ties. Yet there are a number of paradoxes here. In the United States, one of the commonest severe punishment that one can inflict on a prisoner is solitary. In solitary, the individual fills his cell in complete solitude. The individual is all- and that all is his punishment. This should help us see that individualism, with its logical stress on the private and the lone person, is, at the same time, not solitudinarianism – the individual is not primarily conceived under invidualism as solitary. This semantic fact is often washed away when we try to grasp invidualism from a quantitative point of view, as though it were about individual atoms. If the individual and the solitary were synonymous, this would be an uncontroversial move. But one has to merely dip into the rich semantic flow of ordinary language to see that the solitary is the negative projection of the individual. “He is a loner” is not a compliment in American speech. “He is a self-made man” is a compliment in American speech. The path of solitude and the path of the individual are not the same path; yet they can be confused due to the conjoined meanings of alone and lonely – the individual, like Robinson Crusoe, is envisioned as ultimately acting alone, even if we project him into corporate headquarters.  But he is not envisioned as being alone – because then he could never get into corporate headquarters. He wouldn’t want to.

Tocqueville was writing at a time when individualism was also being discussed in socialist circles. Steven Lukes points out that individualism became the target against which early socialists, like Blanqui and Cabet, spoke out. In Germany, Karl Marx in the German Ideology – written in the 1840s as well - spent much of his time hashing out what the individual was from a social perspective. It is with Marx that we start getting a sense of the individual as something linked not to the soul, or even to social distance, but to production – to the economic system”

“The difference between the personal individual and the contingent individual is not a conceptual difference, but instead a historical fact. This difference has, in different times, different meanings – for instance, rank as something contingent to the individual in the 18th century, plus ou moins even the family. It is a difference that we must not make for every epoch, but that instead every epoch, under the different elements that it finds itself in, makes for itself, forced, actually, not by concepts, but through material collisions of life. What appears contingent to later times as its opposite to earlier, and also among the elements of the earlier that are passed down, is a form of commerce, which corresponds to a specific development of the forces of production. The relationship of the forces of production to the form of commerce is the relationship of the form of commerce to the occupation or activity of individuals.”

This strongly anti-conceptual approach to the individual – who emerges first as a social fact within the forces of production that embody the collisions of life – gives Marx a sort of history of individualism. Individualism  waits on the emergence of the individual, rather than individualism arising in the educated class and bringing into existence the individual. Marx’s story, then, leads us firmly away from the solitary – who emerges in life’s collisions too, but within another set of conditions – and sets up his attack on Stirner, who in Marx’s view is engaged in rescuing an archaic social category and conflating it with the individual in a massive act of bourgeois self-mystification. Whether Stirner’s notion of egotism and the “Own”  is really bourgeois self-mystification or the expression of a nausea with a modernity that set the teeth of the children of the bourgeoisie on edge – I will leave to later. In any case, Marx’s targets shifted in the 1850s to the political economists, and here I think he was able to put to better use his sense of parody and bafflement. The  Robinsonades of the economists really do play a strong, self-mystifying role in building up the codex of capitalism.

Marx set the terms for economic historians looking at the sociology of capitalism, and its origins. Those origins would be linked to the individual as a creature of economics. We should look, in the medieval period, not for what the saints wrote in their summas, but for what the smallholders wrote in their wills. If pre-capitalist society went as it was supposed to go according to Marx, we would find that the properties of the small holders were bound by laws and customs that would disallow or strongly hedge about the market. The same of course would be true for the large landholders. Given the largely agricultural nature of Europe, this meant that any sort of trade would be shaped by the larger system of production that based the producer on the family, on bloodties.

It was just this thesis that was challenged by Alan Macfarlane in the 1970s. Macfarlane went through the records of a small area of Essex, Earls Colne, and he found that in the midst of the feudal night (or if you will, the humane society of peasant England), smallholders seemed to be selling their lands left and right, and disinheriting their children, and in general pursuing their individual interests like the money mad characers in Balzac’s novels.

For Macfarlane, the market in land in the sixteenth century discredits the theories – like Karl Polanyi’s – that periodizes the creation of the system of “fictitious commodities”, such as land and labor, at a much latter date. Similarly, it destroys Marx’s thesis about the origins of agricultural capitalism, which does not start with the large landholders squeezing their tenants, but with the smallholders creating an active, non-family centered market in land under the nose of the large landholders.

Macfarlane’s interpretation of his data has, however, been subject to a number of shocks since he published his thesis in 1978, in The Origins of English Individualism.  Notably, Govind Sreenivasan has studied the same corner of the English world and found much greater family continuity in small landholdings than are accounted for by Macfarlane. Sreenivasan, whose expertise is in German peasant society of the early modern period, went over the records for Earls Colne and found that the land-family bond was much stronger, statistically, than it was represented by Macfarlane. He drew up an indictment in his article on the matter that went after three aspects of Macfarlane’s thesis:

“First, the depiction of the weakness of the land-family bond is exaggerated. Secondly, the description of the causes of the turnover of property is incomplete and therefore misleading. Thirdly, the reconstructed concepts of kinship and property are directly contradicted by the sources.”

Pulling back, what we see here is that the dispute about land tenure is set in the terms Marx lays out in the German Ideology. It is a materialist approach to individualism. Which, in a neat U-turn, comes back into an infuses the system of production that makes possible materialist approaches. But in following this turn, we tend to lose sight of, and normalize, the idea of the individual, or the easy notion that we live  in a liberal order that promotes individualism. Because if the individual is taken in the Stirner sense – if its materiality is not its place in the system, but its place as an organism born and bred and having a brain that does certain things all the time – then we are also talking about a cosmic vision of the world – how the world is put together, what the limits are on human beings, and how they live within those limits. These are not reducible, point by point, to their horizon of possibility – the system of production. This is, I think, what makes Marx’s notion of alienation so important, and so intrinsic to revolution – for revolution is the other horizon of possibility from which the capitalist system can be analyzed.

I am taking my cues from this tension in Marx.  From Marx to surveys of smallholder sales in the 16th century, we can run the individual into the space he – always he in the history, a significant and overlooked warp – inhabits and infer the creation of individualism as a matter of habit and a mental tool – but we must also not overlook the fact that the individual in the market is a phenomenon that points to a larger thing – a murderable forked thing, something that casts a shadow inside himself, a non-planetary shadow, a thinking shade.

Earl Colne may seem a long way from Theophrastus, but as in fact the history of “character’ in the seventeenth century is about the way a term and concept in learned culture sinks into ordinary culture, which makes it important to have a broad sense of ordinary culture and the forces – the conflicts - that shape it. And I think it is also important to have a sense that the learned culture is not a progressive culture. Its learning does not represent the forward flight of the absolute spirit.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The 47 percent

Romney’s 47 percent remark reminds me of something I wrote before the great crash of 2008, in September, 2007, to be precise, about the lifestyles of the high and low as a great cultural fact. I wrote this in Austin, never dreaming that my future was so close to the radical changes I have undergone. But it does witness to something larger than my own little scrambly destiny.

“I read the papers. Everybody reads the papers. So the papers say retail sales are sluggish. They say that retailers have predicted lower sales for fall. And they say, the stock market went up again. They say the stock market went up because of the news about retail sales. Out of the bad news, the market honed in on a report from Walmart predicting better sales this fall. And that was enough to send the market up 65 points.

American capitalism is infinitely interesting – not as interesting as the way of a man with a maid, but as interesting as the mating dance of the great horned grebe. In the last fifteen years, the economy has done something that it isn’t supposed to do, according to past history. In the past, the business cycle has given us numerous examples of bubbles that blew up at a certain point. After the bust, there was always an overreaction and a downturn. After the collapse of the market in 1929, for example, there was a tremendous collapse of consumer spending in 1930. There are also long term overreactions. The implosion of the South Sea Bubble in the 1720s set back the stock market in England for fifty years.

Economic history seems to have taken a turn in the 1970s, however. At least since the last big recession in 1991, the Bubbles are now being succeeded by other bubbles. This is made possible by changes in government policy, the increase, by several orders of magnitude, of the cash on hand commanded by the wealthiest five percent, the elevated purchasing power of the consumer, and the interregnum in which the internal American consumer market has been allowed to quietly go on, churning up purchases and debt. So the stock market crash of 2001-2002 is succeeded not by an overreaction, but by the quietest loss of two trillion dollars in history, succeeded by a bubble in the housing market, a targeted bubble, so to speak, which is crashing now just as a bubble in the stock market, which we can fairly date to the intervention of the Fed this summer, takes off. Is this genius or a confidence game?

In the beginning, economics was tugged between Smith’s optimism and Ricardo’s pessimism – between the notion that the market would take the place of the monarchs and prime ministers in that neat little history of the progress of mankind, worked out by the Edinburgh philosophes, on the one hand, and the worry that the winner take all nature of the market, plus Malthusian constraints of our restricted supply of natural resources, would doom us to an increasingly immiserated working class, a pampered and overcompensated upper class, and a world of busts. As Marx saw, quite accurately, the same internal dynamic that drove capitalism to produce affluence drove it to periodically collapse in the midst of its products, helpless to utilize them. Unless this system were overturned, we were inevitably headed to the world of Wells’ Time Traveler, where “the queer little ape-like figures” of the working class Morlocks kept up the world of the haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty like Bloomsbury eternalized – the Eloi, the elect.

Of course that didn’t happen, or hasn’t yet. One could say that the Morlocks have just been moved out of the gated community countries into the ghettoized, but that would still not be quite right – besides which, it would transform Marx’s precise notion of the relations between the working class and the bourgeoisie into almost any two-fold conflict. No, life more abundant was wrung out of the capitalist system by the workers through unionization and, not least, the threat of communism, and it took a long time, and involved the full use of the countervailing powers of the state, which was put in the unaccustomed position of actually operating, seemingly, against the interests of the corporations. This short interval has long closed, but the corporations find it useful to keep up the pretense that the state and private enterprise are matched in deadly combat, with all the other nonsense about our pious preference for a smaller scale of the state. But the long march to abundance took enough time that the system not only assimilated the greater purchasing power of the working class but learned to exploit it. And then, of course, inevitably, manufacturing began, in the U.S., to follow agriculture in the train of obsolete sectors. Or, more precisely, just as the Great depression was about the shrinking of the agricultural dependent population and the final displacement of rural America, the Reagan years – which we still live in – are about the shrinking of the manufacturing sector and the final displacement of Rust belt America.

That leaves us with symbol pusher America. And with a nagging feeling…

The usual case against a bubble is that there is nothing tangible that it attaches to. The land being sold by John Law’s company near the wonderful Mississippi river was a dream; the electric combination of Samuel Insull’s was a fraud. The Enron guys were beyond fraudulent, taking their profits on future sales in 2009 in 1999 and the like. Bubbles are about spreads, rather than tangibility. The conservative in us shrinks back at the edge of the world of spreads, for here there seems to be a great abyss, filled with numbers, with not a product to back them. Thus we get the hoary economic chestnuts, like the one about the Fed ‘taking away the punch bowl’ after a too vigorous elevation of equity prices, and the like. And of course after a bubble, we are supposed to feel some pain. Economists generally will criticize deliberately nurturing a bubble – although of course, to explicitly deliberately nurture a bubble is a contradiction in terms. One has to do it while pretending not to do it. Because there is a residual moralism here warning us against building our dwellings on sand. It is as if the alternative – to let the business cycle do its work, to let the invisible hand smite the evildoers – is favored precisely because we need some hygienic punishment after the orgy. Kraus once said that Germans confounded God with his stagecraft – with thunder. Take away the lightning and you take away God. Some related emotion is involved in treating bubble to bubble economic policy as bound to fail. For if it doesn’t, there is no God. Especially one who laid down the iron laws of economics.

All of which doesn’t mean, by the way, that bubble to bubble economic policy isn’t bound to fail. I can’t help but think this cycle of stock market expansion is not going to go on long, since it seems to utterly discount the signals that we are headed for an economic downturn of some kind. However, spread is king, and the question is: do those economic signals matter? For the wealthiest themselves exist behind one of the greatest bubbles ever. If we think of the tegument of the bubble as consisting of the difference between the wealth commanded by the top five percent and the rest of us, it has now assumed a monumental thickness never seen before. And inside that bubble, the difference between the top one percent and the rest of the wealthy has created a similar bubble. It is hard to believe that any hard times, ever, will poke through that mass. Though surely there is some limit that no bubble pumping by the state can violate, I don’t know theman that can say lo, it is here, or lo, it is there.

…So much for the balance of doom and gloom against the lack of a long run. I’m more interested, frankly, in the social and cultural effects of the age of the spread than whether it is sustainable. In former bubble periods, there have always been those who suspected that this was all a dream. I don’t feel that about this period: people are acclimated to the No Choice, Never a Choice dominant of our time.

As a writer, it used to bug me that I am in such a poor position to see this moment of Americana. I am, after all, mired in the lowest strata of the American economy, the bottom 20 percent. Fuck the money, the problem for me as a writer is that I seem to be deprived of the tacit knowledge of how the vast majority of my fellow yahoos live their days. I can bike past the cars, I can imagine the restaurants, the clubbing, the life of consumer products, the day to day in offices, the laptop computers on which one does – something. But that vital displacement which is the writer’s life, daydreaming about other people – I used to think that I had blown it by becoming such a scag. Can I even imagine going home to my McMansion and watching the wall sized tv’s high def pictures of whatever? No.

However, my choices and failures don’t bug me so much any more. First, of course, that lifestyle bores the shit out of me. It bores me the way Emma Bovary’s life bored Flaubert – only in the writing of it could Flaubert find the almost imperceptible nuances that made it a real life for him, and only then could he have mercy. Mercy is the final stage in writing, it is what one blindly tends towards. Second, in the age of the spread, there is a real advantage to living, as the poor necessarily live, among tangibilities. The McMansion and the wall sized tv pale in comparison with the tangibility of, say, the strategic buying of dairy products, waiting for five cent shifts in prices. While I suspect that the demon of intangibility really does haunt the days and days and days of the average householder, who have built their McMansions on spread, the real demon of climate haunts us Morlocks – there is no way to avoid the cold when it is cold if you are walking, or riding a bike. Or hot when it is hot, or rain when it is raining. That this isn’t omitted from life puts one in an oddly advantageous place. Hardy remarks of Tess Durbeyville that she was a Victorian lass, educated by the State, while her mother was still a Jacobin – that in one generation, a two hundred year gap had grown up between them. A clever observation. So what if Tess’ mother had written the book? I can write sci fi just observing what goes on about me, because it goes on in the future – the future being defined by income strata in the U.S.

Now, this isn’t to say that the heroes of nineteenth century novels are unacquainted with spreads. On the contrary, their heroism rises out of the struggle with the spread – Emma with her lenders and Dmitri Karamazov with his; Pip with his benefactor, Nana engulfing the mortgaged estates of syphilitic Second Empire syncophants. When, in the Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes checks his bank account and finds he has 2,000 or so bucks in it, he is declaring his independence from this old, nineteenth century crew. The heroes will now always have money in their bank accounts – Rabbit gets rich, and even crazy Herzog builds a house for himself. However, Rabbit is as dead as Buffalo Bill. Except, of course, for the thirty percent on the bottom. But this may be where the richest stuff is, the phantoms in the street, walking in plain daylight. Phantoms of tangibility.

Monday, September 17, 2012

writing: 3 a.m.

It is after we get a little bit bigger and stop playing with LEGOS and building blocks that we accept as a fact that you can’t build a house out of doors and windows. Such a house is an absurdity! Even the least little hovel, even a tent with a mere flap for a door, should have an enclosed space beyond that flap; the whole point of the flap or door is to lead into the enclosed space. The whole point of a window is to break the monotonous grip of a room, its fist around you. But the room doesn’t exist for the window! That would be carrying the revolution too far.

And yet, even though this is the wisdom we absorb as surely as the hair starts to sprout on various parts of our bodies after we are children, still, when we start building an article, a story, a poem, a thesis, a dissertation, a novel, etc., how often do we find that the rule of doors and houses is damn difficult to follow. Indeed, there is a certain type of critic since Aristotle which likes to judge the house exclusively by the back door – does it open out onto good fortune and a marriage? Or does it open onto suicide, the daughter hanging by the rope in the tomb, the self-blinded, exiled king? Yes, that back door, the gentlemen of the press – and the producers in Hollywood – tend to hang around it.

As for me – oh, I’ve written for decades now. I’ve written since I was sixteen. True, the juvenilia is long trashed; the writing of the 80s is mostly lost, as is that of most of the nineties – my breadcrumbs, in which I had Hansel’s confidence that I could follow them back to all the projects I left behind me, have been eaten by indifference, lost boxes, weather, moves, and broken computers. Oh the world’s indifference – and my own! And yet, when I gather up the work that’s left, that I can get my hands on, what does it amount to?
Doors and windows.
In the writer’s world, this is the thing that drives one to suicide. Oh, besides the contingent things – sickness, poverty, a broken heart, the dimming of one’s wits. But I am speaking of suicide from vocational reasons – or perhaps I should say, suicide from within a vocation. Despair is what happens when one understands, fully, that the door is for the house, and the window is for the room – and yet one feels all too intensely the boredom of the room, of putting up the walls, of the work of kitchens and bedrooms. Yes, even if it is a burrow, the tedium of this jigsawed, continuous space.

That space can make me sick. And soon, very soon, after  I embark upon a project, I have to fight the urge to put in another door or window. Glorious ingress, glorious egress, glorious panes of glass.
Yes, to punch out a space for a window that is high enough, commandingly high, so that I can jump out of it into the arms of a cremating eternity. 

the symbolic and the utilitarian

There is a dimension of the alienation from the happiness culture which seeks, in the mythic, to re-discover the human limit. At first, this might seem an entirely reactionary program. Yet it turns out not to be so simple.

The symbolic definitely does battle with the utilitarian. The two arise in a shared cultural space. And the fatal tendency of the utilitarian to take its claim to the concrete, its grasp of pleasure and pain, and turn them into abstractions – the decisive step of which is turning them into units, as if, like a stream of light in Newton’s sense, we were talking about corpuscles – means that utilitarianism has a secret need of symbols. On the side of myth, however, the tendency is to look for the secret histories of the great tradition – surely there is a minotaur of some kind at the center of the encyclopedia. This brings us, by sure steps that have been repeated over and over again, to conspiracy and chance.To which the gnostic historian must dedicate, finally, his narrative, these being his tropes for cause.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Best murder of the summer

The best murder of the summer waited until the vacation was almost over. On September 5, an RAF cyclist, Brett Martin, was biking in the Haute-Savoie, near Lake Annecy, when he came upon a car and a cyclist who, he thought at first, had collided with each other. The cyclist was named Sylvain Mollier. He’d been shot with a 7.65mm pistol, as police later established. He was dead. The cyclist then looked in the car, and saw vaguely what the police later discovered in more depth – the three adults in the car had also been shot with the pistol, at point blank range. A girl lay sprawled outside the car, severely beaten. She survived. When the police finally opened the car completely, they discovered another survivor, a four year old girl who hid in the footwell at the foot of her mother’s corpse. The family, it turned out, were emigrés from Iraq to Britain, where they had citizenship. Saad al-Hilli, the driver, “computer-assisted design for the firm Su
rrey Satellites, which is owned by the large defence and engineering contractor EADS”, according to the Guardian. His mother in law, a Swede who also came from Iraq, was also shot.

A compelling story, with all the elements that would make any aficionado of true crime buy papers to read about ongoing developments. All those developments are about the al-Hillis. The papers are full of theories that naturally focus on the spectacular deaths in the car, while the bicyclist, evidently a witness, gets an also ran mention…

All of which has the detective novel gears in my brain turning. It is an interesting fact that the media has already decided, as though a reporter was on the spot, who was the target here. Surely the family of Iraqis, with the father in some funny business.

But why assume this? As Machiavelli and Raymond Chandler have taught us, one crime can cover another. Why do we assume that the cyclist was the on-looker – and not the family? Why do we assume that the focus on the al-Hilli’s, which has turned up the grotesque enigmas that arise whenever one turns a microscope on the private lives of ordinary citizens, is the correct focus? Did Sylvain Mollier have enemies? Was this his regular bicycling route? Simple questions that are utterly lost as the police, arbitrarily, chose to follow the trail of the other victims in this murder.

Myself, I am not fooled. But then again, I’ve always thought Lee Harvey Oswald held some mysterious grudge against Governor John Connolly, but – being a bad shot – actually hit the other guy, an obscure politician who happened to be president of the U.S., except for the miracle bullet. But of course, nobody asked John Connolly any questions in the aftermath.