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The Guardian has a relatively interesting feature talking to prominent leftists and leftishists about the crisis and capitalism.

It would be a good thing if “we” could all get together and come up with something. Whether or not it seems likely that “we” could ever actually prevail even just slightly in a moment like this, it does seem like it’s part of the deal that we’d at least, you know, give it a poke.

But I’d like to make one suggestion before / if we do. If you happened to be selected to be left public intellectual of the month (seriously – I’m being serious now), and are asked to speak or write about the current crisis, by all means avoid expressions of schadenfreude, apocalyptic glee, giddiness and the like. Ordinary people are not going to share your popcorn as you settle in to watch this film. Say something about what should be done – normal folks want their retirement accounts to stay semi-there, want to keep a job, and don’t want their bank deposits to vanish into a bad dream of a customer service call that never gets answered, they’d like not to haul their currency to the Wal-Mart in a wheelbarrel – all reasonable things. 

Not trying to be hypocritical about this, believe me. This blog has been about 80% apocalyptic glee from the start, and is in part a chronicle of ten years that I’ve spent watching CNBC and waiting for the Big Event. It’s just, you know, we’re really bad at the PR side of the game, and it’d be nice to see “us” take things seriously, for once.

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September 17, 2008 at 11:35 pm

22 Responses

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  1. CR, it seems to me that you’ve simply produced a definition of “public intellectual” here: one generally doesn’t get to be such a thing (and it is, as you note, a dispensation) unless one has agreed to be very much the way you request, long in advance. There’s good reason Rimbaud wasn’t a public intellectual, and Eliot was. Huzzah. If I get asked, I think I’ll preserve my vitriol and even my glee; at least it’ll be honest. But I suppose that’s why I won’t get asked.

    jane

    September 18, 2008 at 12:08 am

  2. hahaha.

    Was trying to be optimistic, Jane. I’m trying to be big about things.

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 12:10 am

  3. I’m not much for apocalyptic glee, which I see as revealing our limitations above all. Not just because it makes us seem ‘out of touch’ with ordinary Americans/Britons/whomever — which i’ve always found ironic given the theoretical commitment of leftists to ‘the people’ and the matching necessity of inspiring ‘just like us’ feelings required to be elected in our modern not-quite-democracies — but also because above all I hope for a politics of solutions, and the problem of wealth is not nearly so urgent an evil as the problem of poverty.

    While I’m not denying their relation, it’s not a simple equivalence; one might fix the former and in turn make the latter worse, or one might address the latter without addressing the former. Given these possibilities — which I believe for structural economic and political reasons to be either the only options, or at least the options presently available to us — I will universally choose the second.

    Dave

    September 18, 2008 at 12:31 am

  4. CR: As Omar sez, indeed. Me too. Not to efface short-term immiseration. But for a few billion, immiseration is old news. To believe things can get better for them is the only optimism I recognize. I deeply doubt the auto-da-fé of capital can be routed around on that trail.

    jane

    September 18, 2008 at 12:35 am

  5. I know what you’re getting at here, but I don’t think it has the significance you’re imparting to it.

    Aside from the apocalyptic glee of a few fairly obscure Marxist bloggers/freelancers like myself, the publicly visible left – the trade unions, the Labour backbenchers, the small parties, a handful of broadsheet columnists – have hardly specialised in schadenfreude, and have in fact been advocating measures which no section of government will listen to for some time. E.g – Graham Turner and Larry Elliott last week advocating a ‘green new deal’, which would involve huge programmes of social housing (to redress the damage done by a property-driven neoliberal economy, not merely as philanthropy); huge investment in public transport (which, aside from reducing carbon emissions, would be a sensible Keynesian move in a recession); investment in research (in a context where science departments are being wilfully underfunded) and in (much as I loathe the word) sustainable technologies. If any of us (that is, aforementioned schadenfreude-riven bloggers) got into a position where we could publicly argue for such things, we would obviously be doing so. And in a context where neoliberalism is now quite obviously dead in the water, we have to do so – the only question is how, and where? What are the outlets?

    Also, there’s a bit of a populist category mistake here. Enjoying the misfortunes of bankers is not the same thing as enjoying the misfortunes of working class and lower-middle class families getting their houses repossessed. This goes back to the old arguments about resentment, and passion, in politics – if we can’t despise our enemies and take pleasure in their misfortunes then we may as well just sit around and peruse Althusser all day. Many people will be sharing the anger and rage at these fuckers who have gambled away an entire economy, and we should be tapping into that, rather than – as the Blairites perennially do – dismissing it as ‘the politics of envy’.

    Owen

    September 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm

  6. […] CR suggests that leftists with a chance to comment to the general public about the current economic […]

  7. I like this Owen fellow.

    I only wish that my experience of US universities led me to believe that science departments are “willfully underfunded”; I think anyone working in the arts or humanities or even social sciences in a “public” institution here in the United States would find such a claim to hover between bizarre and cruel. The problem is that they are funded by private enterprises (such as, famously, BP) not to teach, but to garner research results within what Fred Block describes as a “secret developmental state.” Me, I’m just looking forward to my gig writing poems for the Silicon Valley Authority.

    jane

    September 18, 2008 at 6:11 pm

  8. Owen,

    I understand all that. But just you watch. If this thing does do what it’s promising to do, the bankers story will be gone in a month or so, and then the new story, and the one that will last for years, will be exclusively the one about home repossession, unemployment, wage freezes, and reduced buying power.

    So, in other words, it’s only a category mistake if you fail to take, no, not even the long view. If you fail to see where the news cycle is going to be in about 15 minutes.

    I am not convinced about a politics of resentment. Just not. This may be a US / UK divide issue. It may be an issue about American optimism (btw – the trick of the Palin move, above all else, is that they’ve shot some – completely irrational – Reaganite optimism into the campaign. We’re winning Iraq! We’re America! We win everything!) Maybe it works better over here. I haven’t seen it happen, but there certainly is a more viable well of resentment to build on, sure. But in the US, you simply can’t get folks to vote for X because someone in Wall Street is doing better. Just can’t.

    Actually, actually, it’d be interesting to try to name a time that anyone every got anything over on the rich in an anglo-american country by harnessing resentment. (Of course, I mean other than resentment of the overfed poor, but that’s a different matter altogether). Has it happened here in the UK, that you can recall?

    I don’t give a shit about the Blarite bit either. Obviously, I’m not denigrating people who like to watch the bankers splatter on the sidewalk on moral terms (I wait and watch myself – isn’t that obvious?) only pragmatic terms. With the third-way types, the best case scenario is that the latter turned into the former. I rather think it was the former all the way, but who knows…

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 7:10 pm

  9. Oh, I’m well aware that the misery of the bankers will be supplanted very quickly by the misery of everyone else, and I certainly wasn’t accusing you of being Blairite. I do think though, that the left has won numerous elections on resentment and anger – 1945, most obviously over here was driven by a disgust at the 1930s’ combination of consumerism and starvation, which involved a fair bit of resentment (cf anti-Tory bestsellers around then like Bevan’s Why not Trust the Tories, Cato’s Guilty Men; and surely Roosevelt’s victories too were motivated, at least in part, by a virulent hatred at the fact that profit had been made out of dispossession and starvation, and a belief that those who had done so deserved to be punished?

    Pragmatic/moral – yes, sure, but who outside this little corner of the blogosphere, is actually publicly enjoying the misery of the bankers?

    Btw – don’t tell me US politics isn’t absolutely full of resentment. It’s just that it’s at ‘the liberal elite’, alleged coastal intellectuals, gays stealing evangelicals’ enjoyment, etc etc. Class politics is entirely monopolised by the right, which is an utterly disastrous state of affairs, and one which obviously suits the Democrats very nicely.

    Owen

    September 18, 2008 at 8:17 pm

  10. I-bank misjudging of risk by way of blind greed is a viable target, and well populist enough, but seems to imply some sort of faith in basic market mechanisms, which have been corrupted by the bastards we’ve let go underregulated [The current crisis is above all the result of information problems in judging risk.]. This seems a reformist path whether or not it is intended as such; it strengthens capital’s hold by participating in the self-correction of a self-correcting system [Capital’s history has been a game of how much they can get away with, allowing government to encroach on them just enough to avoid revolution; presumably we’ve just finished another sally of deregulation, which will be only partially rolled back in response to this crisis].

    I don’t believe that all those who choose financial gain in a flawed system are enemies so much as realists. Might some also be allies in the struggle to change the rules of a game they’ve chosen to play? Might our enemies instead be the systems in which they work? Are information problems market problems or market agent problems?

    [2 more notes: 1) Owen, your points are very good and I hate my intellectual impulse to combat them; you are treading down the right paths for movement-building. 2) I’ve got resentment by the truckload but I think the guilty parties are systems and not individuals.]

    Dave

    September 18, 2008 at 8:26 pm

  11. Don’t get me wrong, I wholly agree that systems rather than individuals are the guilty party – the problem with this though, is that in practice it can lead to a grim, cod-Althusserian de-libidinalisation of politics, which is indeed pretty useless for movement-building. Some sort of balance has to be struck.

    Also, I plead temporarily guilty to charges of reformism, at least in the anglo-american context. If we had a viable, healthy, united revolutionary movement then I’d be advocating the storming of the bourse tomorrow and mixing the molotovs rather than writing comments on blog posts. Tragically, we don’t have one, and until we do, some sort of red-green keynesianism seems like the only viable possibility – and even that is pretty damn marginal right now, although it really ought not to be in the context of the biggest nationalisations in 60 years. That the aformentioned new keynesianism would have its own crises in thirty years time or so is certain enough, but something of a side-issue right now. And if anything, the years since 1989 have proved that the demise of a culture of reformism and the decline of revolutionary politics have gone together. If serious reformism returns, I would expect a serious advocacy of revolution to come with it, as the parameters of political debate would be far broader.

    Owen

    September 18, 2008 at 8:40 pm

  12. Stop dissing Althusser!

    [Sorry]

    infinite thought

    September 18, 2008 at 9:17 pm

  13. Owen, you’re right, some sort of balance must be struck. Maybe I was mostly talking to myself with this post… Maybe I’m mostly frustrated at my own apathetic spectatorship. (If I had done something with the countless hours of market-watching etc etc)

    I know only a little bit about 1945, but it wasn’t all resentment. Or at least it was resentment roped together with entitlement as well as the (historically perverse) effect of living in a rationalized war economy. (Did you know that our man Otto Neurath did a lot of work on war economies and socialism – sort of where he got his start on the technocratic left….)

    That said, Dave’s point is better than my own.

    Tragically, we don’t have one, and until we do, some sort of red-green keynesianism seems like the only viable possibility – and even that is pretty damn marginal right now, although it really ought not to be in the context of the biggest nationalisations in 60 years.

    Oh, but these aren’t the good kind of nationalizations. This is just the nationalization of bad paper, and ultimately will lead in the US to the final end of the last vestiges of the welfare state, as the beast will finally at last be starved. (Not even suggesting that they’re cynically doing it for this reason – it’s just, they’re not really all that worried about completing the final depletion of the state).

    In fact, it’s the clearest illustration of the things that others were saying about the “state” here

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 10:15 pm

  14. I actually think — perhaps I am speaking from the position of “resentment,” but not, I hope, rissentiment — that CR’s “This is just the nationalization of bad paper, and ultimately will lead in the US to the final end of the last vestiges of the welfare state” might in fact be optimistic. We may well be seeing the coming-into-view of a fully managed zero-growth economy, a state capitalism for America’s descent, which will dominate daily existence thoroughly. The alternative (besides socialism, I mean) is almost certainly a Keynesianism largely military; if I were countries x, y, and z+1, I would be scared as shit right now. You may have to die so that our temporary and partial reflation shall live. Sorry about that.

    jane

    September 18, 2008 at 10:32 pm

  15. But Jane, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And if that is the case, what are we doing (myself included) enjoying this so much? Seriously – I’m not kidding!

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 11:46 pm

  16. Re: dissing Althusser…I was referring more to a certain rhetorical move whereby individual experience of class and oppression is somehow considered irrelevant, which I might apportion to a common (mis?)reading of Althusserian anti-humanism – but as you know, I haven’t read Althusser himself, so it’s as ever a mere jibe at the epigones 😉 Actually, it’s a move equally common among hep Postone-ites, so it’s by no means solely Althusserians who are guilty of it… (incidentally, I wasn’t accusing anyone here of making that move either, more pointing out that certain arguments taken to their conclusion lead to that arid little cul-de-sac)

    the alternative (besides socialism, I mean) is almost certainly a Keynesianism largely military; if I were countries x, y, and z+1, I would be scared as shit right now. You may have to die so that our temporary and partial reflation shall live. Sorry about that.

    Yes, that’s a real and terrifying possibility, as is the far right doing very well in the UK and elsewhere. The thing is, these nationalisations give us, potentially, an enormous propaganda coup the likes of which the left haven’t seen in at least 25 years – glaring, screaming proof of the idiocy of the free market and the necessity of state intervention – and I only hope we can capitalise on it.

    Owen

    September 18, 2008 at 11:47 pm

  17. It’s like 9/11. Hindsight shows clearly that the appropriate affective response wasn’t “Wow – look at those emblems of American hegemony burn” but “Shit, so many fucking innocent people are about to die all over the world.”

    No?

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 11:48 pm

  18. The thing is, these nationalisations give us, potentially, an enormous propaganda coup the likes of which the left haven’t seen in at least 25 years – glaring, screaming proof of the idiocy of the free market and the necessity of state intervention – and I only hope we can capitalise on it.

    These nationalisations are going to bankrupt the US government once and for all. We’ll see if the UK government has to follow suit. The danger isn’t about moral hazard – it’s about the transfer of bad paper to the citizenry, while the better bits are sold off to the still standing banks. They’re going to be an advertisement against socialism. We’d be best to get out in front and disown them now, while we still can.

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 11:52 pm

  19. No but also Owen you’re right. They are a propaganda coup. I think the way the words “socialism” and “nationalisation” are being batted around in the media right now is making me very nervous. Sorry – I think we’re on the same page with this point.

    CR

    September 18, 2008 at 11:55 pm

  20. Hindsight shows clearly that the appropriate affective response wasn’t “Wow – look at those emblems of American hegemony burn” but “Shit, so many fucking innocent people are about to die all over the world.”</i<

    Hmm. I’ll take both. Otherwise we’re just in an Obama trap, shifted endlessly to the right by the crude knowledge that a destructive dynamic leads to destruction. The correct answer to such a knowledge is not to be pushed into a progressivist stance. If the structural situation is volatile enough to change, that’s a reason to commit to the change one wants rather than amelioration. Socialism or barbarism — still not wrong.

    jane

    September 19, 2008 at 12:34 am

  21. [sorry for not closing my itals!]

    jane

    September 19, 2008 at 12:44 am

  22. Do you read this guy?

    http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2008/09/channel-surfing-through-revolution.html

    What do you think re. “left”?

    And all this financial freakout and economies circling the drain is really worrying me … making me realize what a complete luxury good I am … forget job ads; whole colleges are going to be shuttered…

    Sisyphus

    September 19, 2008 at 4:40 am


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