You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2015.
In the foppish, sweaty, desperately condescending tone of an Oxford Don dressing down an undergraduate in lecture who resisted his leering advances at the pub the night previous, this Financial Times book review tries to defend US political economic policy as “pragmatism”.
If centrist tropes were oil this review would break OPEC’s pricing power.
The tropes are used to oppose a characterization of the US political economy as “neoliberal”, something neither the reviewer or book author being reviewed seem to understand.
Neoliberalism is a contentious term. As a deer hunter in the Michael Cimino style I care about aesthetics, and by far the most aesthetically pleasing definition of neoliberalism is the anthropological one: a set of rhetoric, practices and institutions which trains the self to use metaphors of competition and the market to frame experience.
But whatever. That might not be the right way to analyze neoliberalism or political economy. But definitely one of the wrong ways is the centrist claptrap the Financial Times recites.
Size of the state matters, and “government spending compared to GDP” is an accurate way of measuring it
Size *always* matters (ask an Irish person who lives abroad if you don’t believe me) but spending / GDP is a red herring. The consequences of policy decisions by the state have nothing to do with *amount of spending* and everything to do with *amount of control*. A SNAP program that allows Hormel products and not kale exerts much more control than mailing strings-free checks.
The amount of economic regulation means the state is “interventionist” as opposed to “letting the market take its own course”
Oh god this is the dumbest shit ever.
Exhibit A: The market can’t exist without state regulation on the tiniest, granular level. The Illusion of Free Markets is my favorite explication of this (mainly because of aesthetics again, though Bernard Harcourt can’t really be characterized as a “one deer, one shot” thinker). There is no line past which “regulation” “distorts” “the market”. It’s regulation now, regulation tomorrow, regulation forever.
Exhibit B: The flurry of economic regulatory activity in the last few decades hasn’t even been oriented around containing markets, it’s been about shifting resources and risk.
Exhibit C: the FT review scores an own goal by stating outright “the [economic regulatory] changes are more accurately described as a re-regulation – a change in the forms of regulation and intervention – rather than de-regulation.”
Finally, the big one:
“Even on the level of rhetoric, the ideas of neoliberalism have little purchase. Outside of a few university seminar rooms and think-tanks it is, for better or worse, pragmatism that reigns.”
The greatest trick the Devil tries to continuously pull is that one is acting “without ideology” in a “pragmatic” manner.
The past few decades of US political economic activity – in which public decisions and resources have steadily been shifted to places where no-one in the middle-, working- and precariate classes can benefit from them; risk has increasingly been shifted from the elite to the poor and from private to public; and trillions of dollars in cheap and nigh risk-free money have been transferred directly from the government to the financial sector – is a strange kind of pragmatism.
One which looks exactly as if it’s using the state to de-democratize decisions and put resources in the hands of elite control while shifting risk into everyone and everything that is not a part of that elite.
I prefer my misogyny out in the open. I like it niiiiiice and inflammatory. People can react to it, and it can be dealt with.
We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where misogyny slips into cracks, into subtext, into what is *not* said.
We also live in a world where misogyny is deeply intertwined with corruptive and reactionary view of politics.
Perfect example: Benedict Carey’s Memorial Day article in the NY Times.
Carey’s article is nominally about the increased rates of mental illness among women in the military than men.
One of the biggest adjustments the United States military attempted during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was cultural: the integration of women into an intensely male world.
I know I know a US military that “attempts” “adjustments” is a horribly reactionary frame; move past it, move past it, there’s worse.
The evidence that Carey, the Times’ reporter on brain and memory science, provides for the increased mental illness rate among women has more holes than Hitler at the end of Inglorious Basterds. But leave that to one side (or check the bottom of the post *), move past it, move past it, there’s worse.
The reached for (and “reached” is definitely the verb, if not “shitted-out”) explanation is that women can’t access brotherly love.
For men, the bonds of unconditional love among fellow combatants — that lifeblood of male military culture — are sustaining. But in dozens of interviews with women who served, they often said such deep emotional sustenance eluded them.
[. . .]
“It creates a kind of bond between members, a love that transcends anything you’ve ever known,” David H. Marlowe, the founder of the Army’s behavioral health unit, who died last year, once said. “You come to the absolute belief that the noblest and most important thing you can do is die for the others.”
Many women in the military did not have that kind of love — at least when they were deployed. “It’s like, I got all the downside of serving in the Army and none of the upside, the camaraderie,“
Hmm. Are the ways that women fail to access this “lifeblood of military culture” different from the ways men fail to?
Benedict Carey doesn’t know, because Benedict Carey lumps all men together and all women together. Men do not have difficulty accessing this camaraderie; women do. This “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” framing, the individualization of the problem, is endemic to centrist political reporting, and glosses over the institutional dynamics that contribute to problems. This is an individual problem for people to deal with, not a social problem for communities and institutions.
What’s puzzling, and acts as a key to unlocking the piece’s deeper misogyny, is that Carey quotes a woman that offers a way for the Army to deal with this predicament.
“It’s such a tricky thing to navigate; you have to learn to approach guys like a sister, not as a potential romantic partner,” said Anne, a woman who served two tours in Iraq and wanted her full name omitted because she is currently on active duty. “When you do that, they’ll do anything for you. But so many females coming into the Army, they’re so young, they don’t understand how to do that.”
Provide training and create a culture where men and women generally interact with each other platonically, not as people eyeing each other at a club in 1 in the morning.
But Carey doesn’t frame the quote this way; it occurs during a dump of quoting women describing their experiences, and its implications go unremarked.
We’re on to something, here.
The “Men are Martian, Women Venetian” frame that emphasizes individuals and ignores how institutions create the context in which they operate partly explains why he does this. There’s a deeper reason though. It ain’t pretty.
For all his focus on individual experience, Carey misses A GIANT FUCKING ENORMOUS matzoh ball: how the differences among women contribute to the difference in their experience.
Carey doesn’t even rhetorically ask whether women of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds experience this lack of social integration differently. This is baffling, because, as with the quote above outlining a perfect institutional response the Army could take, Carey provides quotes highlighting the importance of ethnicity and class in individual experiences:
[Social Scientists] have found that the mental costs borne by those in the minority are similar. Members of such groups tend to report as many insults and bad days as members of the dominant culture. But compared with the majority, they feel far less secure.
She also learned how to handle the rich girl comments: “So what, I’m here just like you.”
How ethnicity and socioeconomic status affects the ways women handle stress in the military isn’t just something Carey overlooked; it’s explicitly in Carey’s narration of the issue. But it’s not in his analysis at all. Every woman is white, and every woman is upper class.
If that’s even the term for it. Carey chooses to frame his story around a young Lieutenant who developed mental problems: feelings of inadequacy, numbness, anxiety, panic attacks. She went to Philips Exeter Academy, one of the most elite prep schools in the world; graduated from Wellesley; and has been traveling the world for a couple years as a way of combating her illness. Her father is an international venture capitalist for software firms.
She’s a sympathetic figure, and I wish her nothing but the best in her struggles.
Benedict Carey treats her ethnicity and wealth as invisible. As unworthy of discussion. If someone’s ethnicity or socioeconomic status differs from hers, Carey doesn’t find that relevant enough while exploring women reacting to stress in the military to even ask whether it matters.
All the things Carey does re-enforce each other, making a tepee of social shittiness to trap women. If males are all able to access brotherly communion that women have difficulty sharing, and the military itself doesn’t shape the problem, the stress and mental anguish women experience are due to something innate to being a female – ethnicity and class don’t affect things, after all – and can only be changed by women acting differently on an individual level.
The message is: a woman’s isolation and alienation in a social space is a problem specific to something innate about women, not a social problem; and women need to deal with it individually, not collectively; and certainly not men, and not institutions.
Notice how free-floating the message is once its received. It applies to a woman working the line at McDonald’s as well as someone in upper-middle-management who rarely sees another person wearing a skirt.
“Your feelings of isolation and alienation are because of you. You’re the only one who can deal with them. Hope you have enough money to travel the world.”
The ultimate con here is one I’ve already lost by discussing this stupid, shitty, misogynist article by Benedict Carey: we shouldn’t be getting our patterns of thought from the media. It shouldn’t matter that Benedict Carey wrote a piece that ignores how the military institutionally creates a social environment, that erases distinctions among ethnicity and class, and treats all men and all women as two homogenous groups. The words should have the same affect being printed in the NY Times as being printed on a handout you get while walking through the airport from someone waving a tambourine.
But in order for that to happen, your parents would have had to raise you differently. It’s probably too late now.
I suggest meditation. Or Jack Daniels. I use both quite liberally, and concurrently.
* He cites a study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine to talk about the increased risks women face over men when they return to civilian life. The *conclusion of the study* is “the post-deployment adjustment of our nation’s growing population of female Veterans seems comparable to that of our nation’s male Veterans.” Umm.
He cites a finding in that study that the expected rate of depression among enlisted women is likely between 1.1 and 1.6 times that of men. But the expected rate of women in general to experience depression is twice that of men in general. Umm.
The study relies on self-reporting of sexual harassment, depression, and PTSD. I am not a betting man, as it is against my church, but if I were allowed to bet I would bet that male soldiers are less likely to self-report those things. Umm
The other piece of data Benedict Carey provides, although without attribution, is that “Army data show that the suicide rate for female soldiers tripled during deployment, to 14 per 100,000 from 4 per 100,000 back home — unlike the rate for men, which rose more modestly.” So. During a deployment when women were being used in combat roles in an unprecedented way, the suicide rate for women rose more than it did for men. Umm.
And that’s the hard data in Benedict Carey’s piece.
The nicest touch is that in his discussion of how minority populations in general face more stress, he says the data isn’t there for women in the military:
The search for answers continues.
Researchers are now asking how much “all those little things” — the differences inherent in being on the margins of a culture — affect a person’s mood, especially under the stress of combat.
Carey explicitly says he’s pulling stuff up outta his ass. That the story he’s trying to sell about women’s mental illness in the military – that it’s due to maladjustment with a male culture – is a story, unbacked by data.
So, to be clear, the shitty parts of the story – that ignore the military’s role, lump all men as homogenous and ignore ethnic and socioeconomic differences among women, and creates such a shitty message – are not driven by data. They’re driven by Benedict Carey.
Y’know what really creeps me th’ fuck out?
Some apes have had mirrors placed in front of their cages and been given crayons. They draw the cage, but they don’t draw themselves in it. I look at those drawings, and one time it hit me: maybe they do.
Maybe they see their constraints as defining who they are. I’ve always found that chilling.
I’ve found something worse: a self-portrait that doesn’t include the cage.
Anand Giridharadas writes an arts column for the times, but he also writes a mish-mash of columns about international political dynamics. His sense of politics matters.
And it’s awful.
The two Brooklyns awkwardly coexist, nowhere more starkly than in politics: Brooklyn votes emphatically for the left’s relative egalitarianism — giving President Obama 81 percent of its vote — even as its gentrifiers drive out the poor, secede from the public education system and, in many ways, embody how the country increasingly shows the patterns of an inheritance society.
Anand Giridharadas, I happen to be roommates with Al From. I read him your column (I had to; he’s too high to read much before noon, most days) and he laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Doesn’t this guy know that the Democratic Party isn’t a vehicle for egalitarianism?” Al said in-between puffs from his vaporizer. “Hasn’t this schmoe figured out that it’s Neoliberalism With a Human Face, and that merely voting for these guys won’t do anything about advancing class mobility?”
“I think he’s viewing it through a more touchy-feely lens, like, how it feeeels to vote Democratic?” I offered.
“Word,” Al said. “That’s dumb.”
Giridharadas’ larger mistakes have to do with where this analysis of how things feel leads him.
[Brooklyn] is a place where two conservative notions flourish: the idea of competitiveness, in which life is imagined as a brutal Darwinian struggle and it’s never too early to start preparing your kids to outsmart the local math genius; and of traditionalist purity, in which good parenting means returning to The Way Things Were, resisting grain-fed beef and formula-fed humans (and shaming parents, particularly mothers, who fall short because of physiology, ambition or, simply, a focus on different things).
This isn’t “Darwinian competitiveness” and “traditionalism”. This is “life under a market society”, where consumption choices reflect personal values and the only way to win is through comparison to others in the marketplace.
This has nothing to do with partisan politics. It’s about political economy shaping subjective experience. It’s about how one feels one has to live in order to gain meaning in the environment our institutions and culture create.
Giridharadas should be able to see this from his own writing, in which
that $1,049 Bugaboo stroller, that musically enhanced play date, that ergonomic carrier, that free-range egg, that multilingual nanny, that wrenching decision by the powerhouse mother to quit work against her own expectations and desires
are seen as partisan political choices.
Repeat after me, as many times as it takes, maybe start with a simple 150 repetitions in the time it takes you to mousse your hair every morning: Those. Are. Not. Partisan. Political. Choices. They are choices made under the assumption that politics is only consumption, and so that the kinds of consumption you indulge in say what partisan team you’re on.
Does this conception of politics, in fact, hide where the real power in politics operates? Does it obscure the decisions people make that build the institutional, structural factors under which consumption choices are made?
Will Giridharadas demonstrate it in his next paragraph?
Fuck THIS bullshit:
[A]ll the questions of taxing and spending begin with this one: How do you allocate your resources between your children and everybody else’s?
1 in 6 people can’t get adequate nutrition on a regular basis. Wages have not increased for forty goddamned years. All the economic gains in the past decade have gone to the top 10%.
In case anyone reading this has Giridharadas’ comprehension skills, I’ll spell it out for you: those things determine the resources you have to spend, on your children and everyone else’s. All the questions of taxing and spending exist prior to your decision as to whether to quit your job for your shitty kid. Prior to what kind of food to buy.
*That’s* the arena for partisan politics. Not “oh Joffrey is so tuckered from his multiple violin and Mandarin lessons he can barely eat his grass-fed beef I quit my law firm partnership to prepare all day for him, so I feel guilty as a Democrat.”
YOU’RE DOING THE DEVIL’S WORK, GIRIDHARADAS. STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT.
One of the reasons Mad Max: Fury Road is so good (umm spoilers if you’ve been chained to a bed in a Misery-type scenario and haven’t been able to see it) is that it dramatizes ideological constraints.
No-one can see past their prejudices.
Not the chalky henchmen, not the escaping women, not the old crones in the desert, not Bad Teeth Joe who crashes his empire for no reason.
One of the defining characteristics of centrism is ignoring and denying the structural factors that constrain individual action.
Unemployed? Move to where the jobs are! Or get more education and skillz!
Face sexual discrimination at work? Lean-in and do what the boys do!
Oprah is a consummate centrist entertainer, emphasis on the first syllable. Featuring self-help gurus, spiritualists, vision boards, and other self-improvement claptrap by the truckload, she rigorously advances individual responses to social problems.
Nicole Aschoff, in a compelling excerpt printed in the Guardian from her recent book New Prophets of Capital, documents a number of these ridiculous piece of advice, including becoming an “out-of-the-box thinker” to lessen back-pain at work and reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles to lessen stress when you can’t pay your rent.
Obviously, an obsessive focus on individual-level solutions to broad structural factors prevents people from organizing to change those factors. Macroeconomic policies that depress wages and boost unemployment while siphoning resources to the rich are not in peril from people learning to become out-of-the-box thinkers, or reading Murakami.
But Aschoff goes deeper: the kind of relentless individualistic remedy Oprah promotes is centered on a specific idea of what a person is.
It’s simple. Anyone can become anything. There’s no distinction between the quality and productivity of different people’s social and cultural capital. We’re all building our skills. We’re all networking [. . .]
The way Oprah tells us to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves.
A necessary part of Oprah’s vision being a specific kind of person. Attributes of this person, besides being willing to buy homeopathic remedies because a Turk is wiling to wear scrubs on TV:
- She is not too poor to acquire new skills
- She has a social circle she can leverage
- She is not too physically isolated, due to geography or illness or personality
But more generally, and more importantly, she is the type of person that doesn’t look for collaborative, communal organizational activity to solve broad social problems. She has to be psychologically comfortable with not changing the situation she finds herself in through collective action. She has to be willing to cope without rocking the boat.
The centrist tropes Oprah relies on are a narrative that creates this type of person.
Success in life means that you earned it; failure means you did something wrong.
Finding fulfillment is finding the right self to fit your environment, not in finding fulfillment in the struggle to change your environment.
Saul Bellow once wrote: “That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” The tragedy of this centrist story is that it tries to turn this quote on its head: the struggle is recruiting versions of your self to fit what others define as real.
That’s partly why I’m making an effort to write this shitty blog again. Too many of my friends, family and co-workers are falling prey to this centrist narrative. I want to get it to stop.
And if it ever does? Oh what a day. WHAT A LOVELY DAY.
Howdy y’all. After living as a Mountain Man in the Sangre de Christos for a few years I’ve ambled down to the flatlands to shoot bigger varmints.
I wanted my first post back to be a comprehensive ideological thing about something I noticed on Memorial Day.
And then I came across Mike Konczal’s recent centrism piece.
He’s been doin’ yeoman’s work and has a beautiful soul. And this piece on centrism’s recent failures is spot-in in its parade of horribles (listed at the end of this post *).
But when he claims that those recent failures mean centrism is doomed as an ideology as a result?
Ideologies don’t die when they’re revealed to be dumb. Ideologies die when they’re beaten. And pretending otherwise makes it less likely for centrism to be killed and buried where it deserves to be: underneath a giant pile of the fetid stinking human misery it’s so good at producing.
Centrism’s been failing since Matt Yglesias was in diapers
Konczal looks at policy failures from 2008. Centrist ideology has been failing since at least the mid-80s, when Reagan had to reverse himself and raise taxes in order to keep the economy going.
Since then: centrism has had failure after failure after failure.
Slashing public investment and moving public assets to private control? Too many failures to count, but some bigger ones you may have heard of:
- the 1996 Welfare Reform that created tens of millions of hungry kids
- Repealing of financial regulation that created the ’08 crash
- Department of Homeland Security
- Patriot Act
- Iraq War
- A federal judiciary filled with hacks who construct a Neo-confederate Gilded Age between mouthfuls of tobaccee
These events all happened *before* the ones Konczal lists.
Just because an ideology produces misery doesn’t mean it won’t stick around for a long, long time
So how has this ideology been at the levers of control for so long with so much failure?
Follow the Money
It hasn’t had failure for *the right sorts of people*. Here are a few graphs, presented without comment:
Pushing public resources under private control, letting business interests run hog-wild in an environment of lax regulation, and pretending there’s no alternative to this state of affairs because, all-together-now, BOTH SIDES DO IT and there’s no difference between parties, pushes income and wealth to the top and prevents the bottom from doing much about it.
Ironically, Konczal drops name after name that has been instituting centrist policies that have failed for the last few years – Peter Orszag, Alice Rivlin, Alan Simpson, Pete Domenici – and doesn’t stop to ask himself why they instituted these centrist policies in the first place.
Why does the Washington Post employ centrist writers? Why are there more centrist think tanks than cow shits around a watering hole? Why do centrist tropes and policies have influence after 30 years of providing money to the rich and immiseration to the rest?
The Long Con
Let’s try to go deeper than “rich folks control all the power.” How?
Partly because of stuff like this Mike Konczal piece.
- Short-term memory: the kinds of policy failures Konczal discusses have been happening for generations, but presented as if they’re recent
- Focus on the presidency: not quite a horse-race piece (although there are shades of it), there is still a background assumption that the presidency is the end-all be-all of policy making, and that should a progressively-minded person get in there the ship will be righted.
- Focus on correctness and not power: Konczal’s piece assumes that making correct arguments in the public square has a relationship with acquiring and retaining power.
All these dynamics prevent people from using levers of power. A short-term memory keeps people from using levers that only show themselves over time. A focus on the presidency keeps people ignoring the levers that exist outside the presidency. And a focus on being correct in arguments keeps people from grasping any kind of levers in the first place.
And you’re the mark.
* From the rabid spittle-flecked mania to reducing the deficit to keep inflation low (deficit remained high, inflation is now negative), to privatizing Medicare as the only way to lower healthcare costs (Obamacare has in fact lowered costs, no need to make seniors try and eat vouchers for dinner) and claiming that matching skills and education with jobs would fix the economy in the long-term without the need for short-term assistance (let’s all just laugh at this one: hahahahaha).