The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique

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The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique
  203 Social Thought & Commentary  The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique Jason Hickel London School of Economics and Political Science and  Arsalan Khan University of Virginia Introduction  As over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in October, 2010 for the Rally to Restore Sanity, more than a few of Jon Stewart’s fans were confused as to why exactly he had summoned them there. In fact, many people on the left end of the political spectrum felt distinctly uneasy about the whole project, as Stewart’s call for reasonable and polite dialogue seemed to vitiate his voice as a political critic in the face of increasingly volatile bombast from the Right. During the weeks leading up to the event, Stewart mobilized a vision of “the 70–80 percenters” sitting down to dis-cuss the nation’s issues in a gracious, civil manner regardless of their party affiliation. This approach to the political process bears a striking resem-blance to that which President Obama has promoted since taking office in 2009. During his campaign, Obama became famous for the sentiment that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America…there’s not a black America and a white America; there’s the United States of America,” as he stated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Over the past few years, this call to civil agreement has taken the form of numerous failed attempts to reach across the aisle in the spirit of mutual  Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 1, p. 203–228, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2012 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of the George Washington University. All rights reserved.  The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique 204 cooperation. Indeed, Obama has even sought to solve several major cri-ses of capitalism—such as the financial meltdown of 2008 and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—with respectful and sometimes even jocular meetings with the CEOs of the corporations in question. Like Stewart, Obama seems to believe that if he can just get everyone together at the same table Americans will be able to tackle these “challenges” (as he calls them) in a sort of win-win exchange. In the process, he has seen fit to rely on the advice of neoliberal stalwarts like Lawrence Summers and Paul  Volcker, the very men whose economic policies have helped create the crises at hand. How is it that, during a moment of unprecedented social inequality and a massive recession generated by elite overaccumulation (see Harvey 2011), the Left has failed to articulate a compelling challenge to the eco-nomic status quo? How have we arrived at a place where the Left’s only plan for change is to further facilitate market deregulation and advance the consolidation of monopoly capitalism? How has neoliberalism triumphed even among those who should be its fiercest critics? Part of this can be explained by understanding the conception of politics typified by Stew-art and Obama. As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have put it, the problem is that “the notion of antagonism has been erased from the politi-cal discourse of the Left” (2001:xiv). This is where the main problem lies, namely, that the Left in America today promotes a depoliticized politics as it attempts to distance itself from socialism, reclaim the center, and estab-lish a “modern” identity. The prevailing model of deliberative democracy and rational consensus on how to solve America’s “challenges” dispenses with the notion that capitalist society is shot through with deeply incom-patible interests, choosing instead to believe that issues such as poverty, exploitation, and racism can be solved with multicultural tolerance and interpersonal goodwill. This model reduces structural violence to ques-tions of individual sentiment, and places capitalism firmly in the non-moral realm of “science” where it remains insulated from serious political scru-tiny (Ferguson 2006:69ff). The result, as Laclau and Mouffe have put it, is that “the forces of globalization are detached from their political dimen-sions and appear as a fate to which we all have to submit” (2001:xvi).The Left’s departure from antagonism and hegemony in favor of inclu-sion and reconciliation proceeds in part from the ethic of multiculturalism, which rejects “fundamentalism” as the repugnant Other of the modern subject (Harding 1991). Liberal multiculturalism seeks a “safe” Other, an  JASON HICKEL & ARSALAN KHAN 205 Other devoid of fundamentalisms, an Other that matches up with the ba-sic tenets of a “generic,” egalitarian human nature; in other words, an experience of the Other completely deprived of its actual Otherness. For the Left, Obama has become the embodiment of this vision—a hybrid, cosmopolitan subject who obviates boundaries and defies essential-isms, heralding a multicultural world wherein there is no such thing as incommensurability. The Right, meanwhile, has stepped boldly in to fill the vacant space of hegemony, ready—like the Marxist-Leninists of a previous age—to construct grand narratives of antagonism, polarize the voting population, and stake out fundamentalist frontiers. As if follow-ing the playbook laid out by Leo Strauss, public personalities like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity—with the financial backing of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers—have asserted a mo-nopoly over popular politics. The Left, having relinquished the hegemonic struggle and armed only with the message of moderation and tolerance, has found itself powerless to defend its ground.  As a result, neoliberal ideology has become a totalizing way of life, a worldview that furnishes the terms for everyday praxis and represen-tation, creates its own forms of political participation and activism, and promotes a virtually unassailable notion of morality. It is not just a ma-nipulative ploy to appropriate surplus value, but a regime in the truest sense of the term—a cultural logic that insinuates itself into every aspect of lived experience. Neoliberal logic cuts across class divides, religious and cultural affiliations, and political loyalties. It is articulated not only on the trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange, not only in university economics departments, not only in the marble halls of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), but also—crucially—in the poli-tics of progressive institutions like the United Nations Development Pro-gram (UNDP), by the fashionable environmentalists doing the rounds in  American universities, by gender and racial justice advocacy groups, and by charitable philanthropists of all stripes. In other words, neoliberalism has spawned a form of progressive politics that has no investment in the radical redistribution of wealth and resources (cf. Gledhill 2005). We argue that the politics of many contemporary progressives are no less anchored in a neoliberal ethos than that of their conservative counterparts. As indicated in the title of this piece, we seek to do two things in the following pages. First, we attempt to explain the cultural logic that under-writes neoliberal capitalism today, tracing its srcins from the countercul-  The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique 206 tural movement that came out of Berkeley in the late 1960s. We note that there was a certain strand of thinking located within the New Left that was generative of the neoliberal ethos, and that this strand has now come to dominate the politics of American progressives in particular. Second, we try to show how progressive politics today partake of and perpetuate that very same cultural logic: that the logic of capitalism and the logic of resistance against capitalism have converged. In other words, we seek to show how the critique from the left not only accepts the basic terms of neoliberal capitalism, but actually promotes “alternatives” that ultimately advance its cause. This is the effect of a double process: over the past few decades, marketing strategies have managed to co-opt dissent and package rebellion as a consumer commodity at the same time as ques-tions of poverty and inequality have been thoroughly depoliticized by the discourse of “development.” We will demonstrate the structural paral-lels between these two processes, both of which—as with Stewart and Obama—tend to mystify the coercive dimensions of American capitalism and foreclose possibilities for critique. The Neoliberal Cosmology: An Overview Some of the earliest and most sophisticated ethnographic accounts of the United States have found the value of individual liberty at the heart of  American culture. In the early 19th century, the eminent theorist of moder-nity Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) noted that Americans’ conception of lib-erty was inextricably linked to the notion of ontological equality. According to Tocqueville, Americans believe themselves to be free inasmuch as they hold that each individual can rely on their own equal capacity for reason to make decisions about truth and good without deferring to higher authority. This is possible because Americans believe that each individual partakes of a singular, abstract humanity; that every person—regardless of their social position—is just as good as anyone else. This perspective leads people to believe in a sort of “imaginary equality”—as Tocqueville calls it—even in the face of extreme chasms between the rich and the poor. Regardless of the real inequality of their conditions, Tocqueville found that  Americans did not conceive of themselves as separate classes.  At the same time, Tocqueville noticed that industrial capitalism in the United States carried the seeds of a new class-based aristocracy; that the threat of serfdom lurked constantly beneath the surface of the egali-  JASON HICKEL & ARSALAN KHAN 207 tarian nation. In a society where people are able to amass great wealth and then bequeath it to their progeny, the people at the top would eventu-ally contribute little or nothing towards the making of their own fortunes.  A society governed by such men would be no different from medieval dynastic rule with its entrenched, generational hierarchies. Tocqueville’s prophetic misgivings were proved correct during the Gilded Age, when growing social inequalities hardened into rigid class distinctions. By the early 20th century, Americans had begun to recognize that, without a cer-tain level of “equality of opportunity,” the very idea of liberty was being gradually sapped of its vitality. The central moral question of American liberalism became about how to protect the individual’s autonomy and choice from the encroachment of others, which would require dismantling class distinctions through redistributive mechanisms. This was rendered as a formal theory by economists like John May-nard Keynes (1936), who recognized that capitalism would spawn mass economic and political crisis if its excesses were not carefully managed. Like Marxists, Keynesians recognized that the key problem of capital-ism was the problem of overproduction; expansion requires increasing productivity and decreasing wages, which generates deep inequalities, erodes the consumer base, and creates a glut of goods that cannot find a market. To overcome this, Keynesians promoted public and private sec-tor investment with the aim of lowering unemployment, creating higher living standards, raising wages, and increasing consumer demand for goods. The basic idea was to enforce a class compromise that would forestall further crises by maintaining a basic degree of social equality. These principles were applied in the early 20th century to rescue Ameri-can capitalism from the crisis of the Great Depression. Following Keynes’ recommendations, mid-century capitalism was organized along a Fordist model, which exchanged a decent family wage for a docile, productive, middle-class workforce that would have the means to consume a mass-produced set of basic commodities. Production was characterized by the assembly line, collective representation through labor unions, and hierar-chical discipline on the factory floor. David Harvey (2005) has called this the era of “embedded liberalism,” which furnished the basic tenets of the New Deal and the Great Society.This model of production was sustained by a culture that placed value in conformist consumption , where most people sought to acquire the same basic set of consumer commodities and had a fairly clearly delin-
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