Middle-class comfort, so long anathema to the “tenured radicals” of the academy (who, of course, hurl their invective from the bourgeois redoubt of the easy chair), although agonizingly, fitfully slow in doing so, has finally died. Yet from its corpse no revolutionary class has mushroomed forth. Rather we’re left with atomized biota terrified of losing everything it holds dear, too terrified to think even of reform, let alone of revolution. Cognitive laborer and day laborer find themselves equal members of an all-consuming new class category: the precariat.
State parks, national monuments, public libraries — these spaces ask nothing of us save that we enjoy them in a respectful, sensible manner (sadly, universities are already lost). The keepers of them do not try to pry into our psyches and hearts to discern how to better manipulate our covetousness. The spaces themselves do not beckon us to consume for consumption’s sake, to sicken and impoverish ourselves in an attempt to satisfy desires that do not originate in our hearts and minds but from the innumerable screens and billboards that surround us at any given moment.
The burden of my belongings has never felt so heavy. But the powers that be say that this is the only way to save the United States. We must spend ourselves into the grave to keep the engines of commerce humming along and (supposedly) spreading wealth hither and yon. Only now do I see how mentally ill I’ve become as a result of this onerous ideology. It’s work, this buying and caring for things. And it’s work that makes me wish I was unemployed.
The ideology of corporatization, which to all outward appearances has consolidated it dominion over institutions of higher learning across the nation, now sees to the apportioning of spoils to the victor and the hindmost to the devil (the devil being the common rout of humanity), while the hapless majority have been snookered into believing that critical thinking and writing are simply passé, like the talents of the blacksmith or wheelwright, which find a market only in the incredibly small domain of touristy pioneer village mock-ups. Perceived as the relic of an era in which people had little else at their disposal to beguile their leisure, academics becomes as obsolete as the dusty Commodore VIC-20 in one’s parents’ attic. Thus confronted with having to deal with the rigors and demands of a mode of inquiry that to them has no perceivable connection to the cash nexus, today’s university student reacts with impatience and hostility, itching to move on to the more practical concern of enhancing his future earning power, which, though he may not have the foggiest idea how this is acquired, to his mind certainly does not involve Avogadro’s number, the Battle of Hastings or iambic pentameter.
With just a modest amount of money, you can travel almost anywhere nowadays. The ease and relative cheapness of travel gives one the illusion of freedom. But when everyone can travel everywhere, that which made those elusive destinations seem attractive gradually begins to disappear. Don’t get me wrong: I love traveling, and I’m happy I live during a time that allows me — a person with little financial clout — the ability to wander the globe. Yet the price we’ve paid historically, environmentally and emotionally for such privilege makes me reconsider it. For the ease and speed with which we can travel points to an ease and speed with which information can also travel, and thus our lives, whether we like it or not, are also placed under the yoke of increased productivity and profit making.
The idea that an entire generation of college graduates, their bones picked clean by the financial sharks let lose during the end of the last century, should be swept into the dustbin of history strikes me as a muted form of generational warfare. Those hapless casualties of the wilderness years of two (!) George W. Bush administrations — and they are legion — deserve debt relieve as much as, if not more than, late millennials. For the former had their temerity to make a bid for middle-class status as opposed to simply going gently into that good burger-flipping night, repaid by a spike in student-loan interest rates, a bewildering list of middlemen to choose from, and a padded bill from some newly brand-conscious liberal arts colleges or a state university which brazenly violated charters by running up tuition and attendant fees exponentially beyond rates of wage growth and inflation. These uppity plebes therefore had to hop into bed with dame Sallie Mae because their Baby Boomer parents (who got to graduate with very little debt, thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative) thought a sailboat or new Corvette a better investment than their children’s education. They are the graduates who also need to benefit from these reforms, because they are the very people who are curtailing the spending that drives the infernal getting-and-spending engine of late-stage finance capitalism.
Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” heuristic’s chief virtue is that it flatters the vanity of the elite, supplying them with grim fairy tale of the deplorable consequences of a world without them. The heuristic assigns the elite supreme socioeconomic, if indeed not metaphysical, importance. Yet Hardin or his well-heeled fans appear to overlook the irony that the TragCom scenario features an individual — the overreaching herdsman with the extra cow — in a bid to become an elite member of his herdsmen community by chasing more wealth than his peers and thereby upsetting the economic equilibrium resulting from common title. One suspects that the elite see in this overreaching herdsmen a simplified, allegorical version of themselves: individuals having given the lie to Marxian socioeconomically determined epistemology by achieving the particular gnosis of capital accumulation. Thus TragCom assembles a logic where elites are needed to protect the commons from those who would make themselves the elites. Elites save the commons from the peons by saving the commons from themselves, and in so doing save the peons from themselves.
If GDP is the only social aim worthy of a state’s attention, then this would seem good, inevitable advice. Forget the metaphysical mumbo jumbo and concentrate on what can be counted. But asking the government to scale back educational subsidies is hard advice to accept, even if it would end the arms race in advanced degrees and the credentialing inflation that makes a master’s a prerequisite for more and more jobs. To pursue such a course is to dismiss the idea that education enriches human potential altogether (or, if you prefer, it defines human potential in terms of industrial output alone). But it’s far preferable to believe that higher education can help people live richer, fuller lives and can make us aware of new possibilities and different ways of thinking.
Perhaps a certain slice of unemployment — for the current generation of well-educated 20-and30-somethings, former publishing professionals or not — is actually an unanticipated career shift, into the full-time job of broadcasting ourselves, of being ourselves for public consumption. In a sense, the over-coddled “damaged” youth now displaced from the traditional workforce have been perfectly trained for “work” in the information-services field, provided it is sublimated as a rococo mode of elaborate self-fashioning. They only seem unemployed, but they are busy self-branding. Viewed optimistically, the immaterial labor they perform online for various internet companies by using social networks, writing unsolicited reviews and essays, recommending products and links, and “sharing” in a host of other ways, could be regarded as new kind of meaningful work that is supplanting the old kind which involved bosses, hierarchies, assignments, deadlines, bullying, commuting and so on. Sure, the new work doesn’t pay, but with a generous enough social safety net, it wouldn’t need to. In the post-work utopia, we’d meet our expenses through a government-issue living wage, energetically promote ourselves and lifestyles online, and consume “free” entertainment product to keep ourselves busy in the interim. Forget the culture of narcissism. Welcome to the economy of narcissism.
With the economy financialized to its current extent there’s a lot of interest to be paid. How does the economy grow, then, and where does it grow? Experts say the United States is headed for a situation where its current debt will soon equal the sum total of its gross domestic product: one dollar owed for every one dollar earned. If this isn’t a murrain on the sheep or rust on the needle, I don’t know what is.