Thirteen years ago, when I began my collection of seventies-era cookbooks, how-to guides, and life manuals, the economy was bustling along, nourished by the manna of dotcom stock jobbing profits. This manna also fueled the dullest undergraduate’s daydreams, which danced through his head enrobed in all the finery a salary in the high five figures can command. Today, however, these books sitting around my apartment seem documents from a vanished world — Work and Leisure in Ultima Thule, perhaps, or Homemaking in Atlantis — one which was pried away by force of massive low-interest leverage, or was patiently ladled out of the ship of state during various bailouts. These tomes represent a collective memento mori of a variety of prosperity and equality that is not likely to return in my lifetime.
Unemployment in Desert City hovers at nine percent. What jobs exist are mostly temporary and lacking benefits. Some 11,000 houses huddle empty, having been foreclosed or never occupied. Vast portions of the population sit idle. They have given up on the very idea of employment. The state legislature, its carving knives sharp and poised, stands ready to scrape the bones of already spavined public sector.
Whether the crisis is one of hyperinflation or intractably deep recession, the result is the same. You need only recall the words of Überbanker Andrew Mellon: “In a depression assets return to their rightful owners.” He certainly wasn’t talking about the poor schmucks manning the teller windows.
The various strikes around France, each an instantiation of this countermovement working in an inverse direction in law and in life, do indeed seek to loosen what has been artificially and violently linked, whether that be the state itself and its power or the various conceptual assemblages to which the state, in its present position of power, lends articulation: that profligacy at the highest echelon of society necessitates further austerity and privation at the lowest; that regressive revenue-generating or -saving measures are always to be preferred over progressive. This latter form of power, which for all the bland anonymity of its apparatuses — its various councils, bureaucracies, gendarmes, and prisons — are no less violent as a result, one can only meet with the ostentatious, pluriform violence of the strike.
Unless China becomes more willing to outsource its ideology building to the West, and accept our expertise in fomenting the proper disregard for pragmatism and dismantling Confucianist anti-individualism, the global imbalances seem likely to persist, no matter how many shells are exploded in the currency war. The U.S. will continue to overconsume for the benefit of the world, until the world chooses to see that arrangement as less than beneficial in maintaining social control. At that point, exporting consumerism may no longer be an option for the West, and we’ll be forced to import authoritarianism instead.
One could argue that cheap cosmetics are not the place to look for simmering nationalistic sentiment, but given the prominence of the Union Jack on my tube of “Strawberry Shimmer,” it’s hard not to question the motivation behind Rimmel’s emblazoning this symbol of the Empire on all their products. And though their new cover girl Zooey Deschanel is a mumblecore maven and hipster sweetheart of unabashed American vintage, her soft-as-steamed-pudding features and curious (yet curiously blank) grey eyes bespeak of a distinctly Cool-Britannia-era brand of beauty á la Jean Shrimpton. Yet, lest Deschanel’s foreign provenance cast the Rimmel’s nationalist bona fides into question, a Union Jack painted behind her head assures the viewer that the blush she is about to purchase is assuredly of an English-rose shade of red.
When the crisis first struck, blame aplenty made the rounds. People of means incommensurate to their ambition who got into mortgages they couldn’t afford, lenders who confronted incentives configured in such a way that truth became inconvenient, whiz-kid number crunchers whose sure-fire means of distributing (and, one supposes, dissipating) risk turned out not only to defy reality but to see itself defied by reality — the culprits are by now legion. One wonders, though, whether culpability legitimately extends to the vast number of working stiffs who just wanted to lay something by for retirement, for Junior’s education, for grand- or great-grandchildren. Oligarchs like Munger would like to convince everyone that, yes, blame falls on them, too. If Munger is right, then there’s little anyone can do but contemplate the sad fact that guilt by association has become an existential proposition worthy of Camus. To participate in today’s financialized global economy is to commit collective murder. Call it our Hi-Fi(nance) suicide.
My return to the West, however, has been a shock to say the least, because I remember this desert megalopolis being so different. When I was last here, everything was enlivened with quickening elixir of easy credit. Strip malls sprouted overnight. Entire housing developments appeared within the span of a week. People were drunk on the belief that their characterless, indifferently constructed houses were ATMs with ever increasing balances. It was a bad way to conduct one’s life, to be sure.
A minimum-wage job means a job with crazy hours and crazy shifts. A minimum-wage job means your days off can come consecutively, or fall four days apart. A minimum wage job means working until 10:00 or 11:00 PM, and then having to report to work the next morning at 6:00 AM. A minimum-wage job means having a work schedule that’s never the same one week to the next, and that’s a melange or morning, day and evening shifts calibrated for maximum exhaustion. A minimum-wage job means being hired part-time but working full time hours — without, of course, the benefits conferred upon full-timers (such as they are).
One finds it difficult to subscribe to the notion that mere perception can drive a population to revolt, unless, of course, by “perception” Schama has in mind something like the fact that a hunger pang leads to the perception that one’s stomach is empty. Of course, in this instance the perception has an objectively real condition behind it. And so, one can’t thinking, does popular outrage. Things might be improving, to be sure, but the degree to which any of the unruly many have experienced this improvement is, it seems, a co-efficient of his or her proximity to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. or Brussels, or to the City of London, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Chase.