Published on http://bad.eserver.org/
We tend to think that the great divide between Republicans and Democrats concerning economic recovery has much to do with their views of government. The former view holds that the government model is obsolete and should get out of the way of a “market rule,” and the latter view holds that we need government to both recharge the economy as well as tame a capitalism running amok. I’m not interested in arguing which side should “win” – Obama in the liberal corner and Romney in the conservative corner — because I don’t think arguments and ideologies rule here.
The view that conservatives are battling with liberals is, however, not a new state of affairs and one could expect, based on the historical record, that a conservative period would be followed in time by a liberal period and vice versa. The 19th century historian Henry Adams described two competing tendencies in the American mass psyche, between centralization and diffusion. The country immediately moves toward diffusion expressed in the looseness of the Articles of Confederation in its rejection of British authority but moves back again with the presidencies of Washington and Adams as federal law and federal institutions such as banking and a national currency are created.
The 20th century historian Arthur Schleslinger,Sr. sees the movement as not pendulum-like between two fixed points of conservatism and liberalism but as a spiraling in which much or some of the ideology out of favor yet spirals into the hegemony of its rival. These are not fixed antipodes therefore as the contesting ideology does not vanish. I believe that what liberalism has done though is lose a good deal of its leftist credentials. We can also observe that with each new spiraling liberalism has moved closer to neoliberal views as wealth crosses party lines and makes the liberal politician as devoted to the free play of capitalism as the neoliberal.
Arthur Schleslinger, Jr replaces the rival ideologies with a conflict of affective dispositions, a rivaling of inherited memes as I describe it. He speaks of “public purpose” and “private interest” which he defines as an interest in the common good and public welfare countered by an interest in private gain and personal interest.
What I find interesting here is the movement from ideology to different kinds of subjective inclinations or tendencies that have taken root in the American mass psyche since Reagan and seem to propagate generationally regardless of mounting evidence against their survival. If the wellsprings of such dispositions were purely economic, we would observe that as economic play extracted greater and greater wealth from the bottom and transferred it to the top, there would be an equally progressive movement toward a solidarity at the bottom at war with the top. We do not observe that although as Nicholas Lemann points out in “2012, ninety-three per cent of the year’s gains went to the top one per cent.” (“Evening the Odds,” The New Yorker April 23, 2012)
I would argue that we are dealing with here would be the persistence of various myths that have a pre-reflective power that at once orients all subsequent reasoning, which of course is a “reasoning” arising from irrationality.
If you are a Flat Earth believer, you see any ocean voyage fearfully because it’s a voyage that may get too close to the edge of the world. You could write history from the perspective of such mythologies: the “Indians” could be exterminated without pang of conscience because they didn’t have souls, neither did blacks so enslavement also did not touch the Christian conscience. Women were loving but not rational; welfare recipients are lazy, the poor have made poor choices. The new moral hazard is not the old one: the Good Samaritan must walk by the needy lest he corrupt them and himself by offering assistance. Compassion is shown by allowing market rule to do its thing. America (meaning always the U.S.) is exceptional; the Islamic world is an exceptional threat to American exceptionalism.
The longevity or mortality rate of memes, which I think best describe an abiding internalization of the affective and not the objective, that affective enfolded within the character and plot of imaginative narrative, is variable.
From a present perspective we deceive ourselves quite naturally into believing that we have reasoned our way out of the irrational by keeping our hold on the thread of rationality. But history again shows us that we did not reason ourselves into our memes, that reason wasn’t the catalyst of change here. The play of chance, a conquering and colonizing power, the evocation of primal, atavistic responses such as fear and hate, the attractions of the numinous, in whatever form, as well as our human inclination to live our lives within analogues of the imagination lie behind the accretion of memes in our mass psyche.
We see chance working in events such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 Great Recession.
We can see a conquering power in the rule of le ROI, or, return on investment, as well as primal responses in all forms of racism, bigotry and conspiracy theories.
We can see the numinous in our celebrity worshipping and in our own struggles to worship ourselves as celebrities.
We can see our own vulnerability to replacing reality with imaginative analogues that would collapse were we to expand our comparative frame.
The very fact that they are subjective gives personal interest greater attractive power than social concern or public interest. And yet the meme for “public purpose” exists bolstered by a full repertoire from the Greeks onward of cultural ideas, symbols and practices, of writing, speech, gestures, rituals that have lodged this meme in human consciousness. The industrial revolution and the continuing success of capitalism as an economic system grounded in self-interest has slowly eclipsed the power of the “public purpose” meme, especially in the American mass psyche which is not burdened, in the view of some, by the inherited cultural memes of the Europeans which have not been so easily erased by capitalism.
You could now say that the strenuousness of the neoliberal view has much to do with the unchallenged hegemony of globalized techno-capitalism. I say “techno-capitalism” because I believe that it is technology in its cyber/hi-tech/mobile tech phase that explains the present extremism of the “private interest” meme, which I connect with the extremism of a Tea Party takeover of neoliberalism.
More immediately, it’s the cyber/hi-tech/mobile tech etching of a personally designed space of self-interest in the consciousness of even those who have lost in the competitive arena of self-interest that explains why the Tea Party could appear as a “populist” movement. And even more immediately, it is the increasingly powerful hold cybertech/hi-tech/mobile tech has on the American mass psyche which makes the future of a democratic politics based on a public interest that rivals or indeed trumps personal interest as increasingly less appealing.
What can we expect in the 2012 presidential election when the overpowering memes of today rule?
President Obama can win another term but only if he wins on the ground of competing memes, not public interest vs. private interest but celebrity magnetism vs. private interest. I cannot explain America’s love affair with the automobile nor can I explain a democratic society rooted in egalitarianism’s love affair with fame and celebrity. But celebrity magnetism remains a powerful meme in the American mass psyche.
Obama exuded this sort of celebrity magnetism in the 2008 election, when it spiraled into self-interest in such a way that his success magically seemed to expand one’s own personal success. Connected to this would be some spiraling of a cyberspace freedom to self-design the world with the re-election of a president who somehow connects to the narcissism of that self-design. You elect Obama to self-design but somehow this does not violate the ascendant meme of personal self-design of everything.
The easiest way to understand this is to think of a Youtube video that goes viral, which means that innumerable viewers can attach themselves with a video’s representation of reality. It is not outside their world but part of it and indeed may be seen as a natural product of one’s own reality. A link to that video is on your Facebook page; it’s part of an updating for your audience – The World – of your YOUniverse. What can be brought into the self can never be public. And that is a neat trick and a masterful one at a time when the memes of private and personal design of everything rule. This is a neat trick and perhaps President Obama’s only hope in 2012.
Whether Obama can work this magic again, whether he can turn the memes of self-interest his way, may be possible. He still transmits a signal, weakened since 2008, as revealed in the likeability polls. What seems clear is that you can’t twist the memes of self-interest your way by pointing out that the selfishness of a Wall Street few has caused the devastation of many. You can’t get votes revealing that the top hundredth of one per cent received five per cent of all income.
Occupy Wall Street has rested on just making such a fact known. Thus far the upshot of that has been a “Get a job!” message, a message coming from the “Pursue Self-Interest Camp.” It’s also sad to think that many of those urging OWS to stop whining and go to work are those unemployed and underwater. The top 20 per cent have a vested interest in the prospering and preservation of memes that detour minds from those positions of public and social concern which would greatly benefit the huge numbers left out of our economic “recovery.” Hegemony, as Gramsci long ago pointed out, prospers and perseveres because it finds broad, invasive ways to ground all reasoning and logic within its own narratives.
What an ideological critique that Obama pursues in the wake of OWS — never fully enounced by either — leads to is an even chance right now that a neoliberal candidate totally without any magnetism — the sort that would cause a voter to identify with or expand personal identity to include Mitt Romney — will win in November. There is a 50/50 chance that a neoliberal candidate who espouses a continuation of the transference of wealth and well-being from the bottom to the top will win in November.
If the divide between those who would be aided by a politics of public concern and those who seek to privatize anything and everything in which the word “public” appears did affect odds, what would those odds be? About 80/20. We wouldn’t be facing as we now are a repeat of the 2000 election.
Clearly, the platform of public good vs. personal gain is not a platform to stand upon. Our ideological divide means little when such a great proportion of the 80 per cent have no awareness nor interest in differing ideologies. Their differences are set up prior to ideology, set up where memes rule.