The Mad-Hatter logic of late finance capitalism reached its absurd apotheosis when Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently declared himself engaged in “God’s work.”
In Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, a delectable cinematic trifle about twentysomething Manhattan socialites, one character, Charlie Black, is obsessed with what he considers the decline of his class. The very notion becomes for him an idée fixe. Every discomfiture, scrape and misadventure that visits him he considers pregnant with significance, and each one occasions much soliloquizing on his single, unvarying theme. He’s convinced that he and his cohort represent the terminal generation of his class — the last of the dinosaurs, serenely grazing on the pampas oblivious to the growing shadow of the meteor of Nordauian degeneration hurtling toward them to seal their doom.
Charlie’s sociological preoccupation makes for much wry humor, which Stillman’s film delivers in generous measure. A self-styled defender of his class and its prerogatives, Charlie — a delightful foil for the central character Tom Townshend, a declassé fellow traveler whose own decline in fortunes radicalizes him (rather absurdly for a lifelong urbanite) into a Fourierist agrarian socialist — riffs incessantly on this idea of a Götterdämmerung for the preppie class, or “UHB” (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) as he calls them. At one point in the film, Charlie elaborates his thesis with particular gusto, asserting that, unlike other social classes, the fortified privilege of the UHB is only apparent. After all, only a most spectacularly gruesome splatter can follow a plunge from the airy redoubts of Park Avenue penthouses. “We hear a lot about the great social mobility in America, with the focus usually on the comparative of moving upwards,” Charlie tells Tom: “What’s less discussed is how easy it is to go down. I think that’s the direction we’re all headed in. And I think the downward fall is going to be very fast, not just for us as individuals but the whole preppie class.”
Charlie’s rather narrow outlook of course mocks the life experience of just about everyone for whom no trust fund awaits. Charlie fails to realize that social mobility in America is a process, a result of accumulating and husbanding a surplus, and not just a cliché abstraction. But it’s easy to see how he, as one of the lucky few cream-skimmers that capitalism has the annoying habit of producing, could easily lose sight of this subtle distinction. As the Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot wrote, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring a bell.”
Yet historical developments since the release of Metropolitan have largely put fear like those of Charlie Black’s to rest. The UHB have never had it better. Sure it was rough going for a while in the early 1990s, but eventually hedge funds and private equity firms appeared on the scene to save the UHB’s bacon. And once neoliberal reformers put paid to Depression-era regulations with the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, the UHB have never looked back. Exorbitant privilege, no longer just a phrase to chide the U. S. for enshrining its currency as the world’s reserve, became the meat and drink of the beau monde. Millionaires swelled to multimillionaires, and multimillionaires to billionaires, over nearly a decade of benign neglect with regard to all things speculative, leveraged, off-balance-sheet, indeed larcenous.
The proletariat found themselves recast as the “precariat,” a neologism coined to cover all of those over whom the new neoliberal regime runs rough-shod.
Meanwhile the unwashed masses found themselves tasked with learning the economic Esperanto of globalization, which for them became more a creole or billingsgate, a simplified, no-nonsense distillation of the dominant class’s plangent substantives, acquired, like all such patois, in the school of hard knocks. With neither Lexus to drive nor olive tree to plant, the majority had to confront such disorienting concepts as wage arbitrage and downward harmonization, prettified abstractions which prove sorry salve for the sting of their real-life effects — export of jobs to countries with lower wages and fewer labor protections, reduced standards of living in advanced industrial nations to a level on par with those of developing nations.
As globalization grew apace, even the very character of class antagonism changed, evolving in such a manner that the terms emerging from struggles past were weighed against the present situation and found wanting. Thus the proletariat, lumpen or otherwise, found themselves recast as the “precariat,” a neologism coined to cover all of those over whom the new neoliberal regime runs rough-shod. A quick survey of the battered and bruised shows that the victims are just about everyone, from white-collared cognitive laborers dispatched to Bangalore to train their replacements, to house cleaners and field hands fleeing savage destitution in their native lands only to find themselves exploitable nonentities and objects of popular resentment.
Were Charlie Black a living, breathing UHB and not just a fictional one, he’d probably look upon the current economic order approvingly. The engines of privilege — finance, and investment banking — rather than sputtering and grinding to a halt, have these many years been firing on all cylinders, indifferent to the sort of blood and treasure poured into them. Rather than Nordauian degeneration or Spenglerian decline, Charlie would find Friedmanite free-market triumphalism: his class transfigured, apotheosized; extreme economic maldistribution divined in quenched lead, read in bird flight, woven in the fabric of the cosmos.
As if succored by the sight of the vanquished prostrate before him (unequivocal evidence of Fortune’s favor) Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently proclaimed that he was doing “God’s work.” One wonders what sort of work that could be, and what sort of God would commission it. Jesus Christ famously proclaimed, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Blankfein, it seems, has a similarly uncomplicated messianic vision.
But he and his apostles are having difficulty finding converts. For all his sword talk, Christ also fed the multitudes; Blankfein and crew merely shake them down for bailouts. A November 10, 2009 Bloomberg article quotes one heretic, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Simon Johnson, who blasphemes the Goldman gospel in no uncertain terms:
“What have we gained from a societal perspective from Goldman Sachs becoming four times bigger? Nothing,” said Johnson, a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. “Break Goldman Sachs up into four pieces, let them choose how they break up.”
Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein and Metropolitan‘s Charlie Black share the sort of myopically grandiose perception of their class. For them, the value their class is made plain by its continued existence. Should their class disappear, Armageddon would ensue. Seas would boil. The moon would turn to blood. Stock options would go unexercised. It’s this inflated sense of vital necessity which lay behind Blankfein’s bloviation and Charlie Black’s lucubration. Ultimately, it underwrites the sense of the unique tragedy attending the urbanite bourgeoisie’s decline, as well as the logic of “Too big to fail” and the ex cathedra decree of “doing God’s work.” Apparently no longer content with being known as “Government Sachs” for the various former executives who now stride Washington D. C.’s corridors of power, Blankfein and his merry band seek nothing less than the foundation of one holy catholic and apostolic church, consecrated to Mammon their tribal deity, who demands regular bloodletting and smoldering hecatombs.
So mote it be.
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