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.
You can’t escape from history and its merciless repetitions. These things grind slow and hard. Lloyd Blankfein isn’t going to have his head chopped off anytime soon. The streets aren’t going to explode in a heatwave-fanned plebeian rage. The New York Times isn’t going to start reporting on news that actually matters outside of Manhattan and the boroughs. It supposedly took the American Revolution ten years to get rolling. It supposedly took the American Revolution ten years to get rolling. Sometimes, in my most fevered dreams, I imagine it will take twice as long for the American people to avenge themselves on the scoundrels, cheats and usurers that have grasped control of this country so completely. In fact, I know it will take at least ten years for that ball to get rolling. History lumbers along at its own pace, headless of the truculent demands of our brains so agitated and dizzied by the instant gratification offered by Blackberries, iPads, Droids and whatnot. And with that realization comes the recognition that an entire decade of my life will pass in desultory strivings and fruitless ravings against a regime that dies hard — or, indeed, not at all.
What have I decided to do? Well, since nothing is so precious to me as my intellectual freedom, I’ve set aside 1,000-2,000 dollars a year that I can just assume will be stolen from me. It’s a special little savings account earmarked for all those banksters and pranksters that rule our economy and our country. That way I don’t have to think so hard about the possibility of being cheated, because I’ve assumed that someone already has cheated me and I just need to wait until they come to collect. It’s a form of defeatism, yes, but it’s also a recognition and acceptance of a new social and economic reality. I suspect some citizen of Soviet Russia felt much the same when he or she handed over an extra hundred rubles to procure a piece of meat or bread that should have sold at the advertised price. It was just part of life, that extra little tax to the parasites who clung to the social fabric like so many bedbugs on a futon in Queens.
How do we develop necessary fortitude in the face of casual immorality and greed whose taproot President Ronald Reagan planted, and which drew sustenance from the very glue that bound families and institutions? The seven-year itch gave way to the such prodigies as key parties and the “zipperless f*ck,” the midlife crisis, which in turn engendered the marvels we see today — “sexting,” “booty calls,” “cougars,” “MILFs,” “friends with benefits” — the wreckage of population whipped into depressingly predictable ecstasy by thousands of hours of advertising and equally predictable television programming. The American people found outsourcing solutions for their imaginations, and in so doing surrendered the only thing that distinguishes them from the beasts. Then, as the tide of real production went slack, these hapless sybarites were seduced into taking on thousands of dollars of debt by money-hungry universities only to be excreted four or so years later into the postindustrial dung heap the United States has been since the 1980s. I’m afraid Nietzsche was correct far more than he realized. Humans (at least those residing in the U.S.) from the point of view of other creatures had lost their “animal common sense” in a very fundamental way. They had lost the instinct of self-preservation.
If the current recession has offered people any lesson, it has shown to what degree parallactic antinomies rule their lives. They must somehow hold in their mind rather massive contradictions. They must recognize, for instance, that from one point of view, that of most Establishment economists, capitalism, though imperfect, offers the best system for allocating scarce resources, thus bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. And they must also recognize that capitalism immiserates untold numbers of people, subordinating them to a regime which cheats them of the fair value of their labor. (What, after all, does the perma-intern model accomplish beyond the outright theft of interns’ time and effort?) From one point of view, the former appears valid; from another, the latter. And they appear so because they are so — equally incontrovertibly, yet equally irresolvable in terms of the other.
The biking dandies and quaintrelles invoke a narrow spectrum for their rainbow coalition. Hip-hoppers and heshers, one gathers, need not apply. How this wished-for amalgam of social cliques is supposed to happen within the dissolving medium of dandyism is not entirely certain. One imagines that all this supposed de-cliquing can only lead to dislocation and anomie, as hipsters parasitize preppiedom and preppies extract some of the value hipsters have added to the preppie look. A climate of antagonism, recrimination and refusal would likely follow, proving ruinous to the urbane charms of a Saturday’s cycling.
The nineteenth-century Russian novelist and one-time convict Fyodor Dostoevsky famously remarked, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If our correctional institutions do in fact present this absolute measure, then we are confronted with the sad truth that the United States isn’t terribly civilized. This is especially true if we Americans consider that, as sociologist Barry Glassner famously pointed out, ours is a culture of fear. A culture of fear in many respects represents a return to primitive stage of cultural development, one subject to forces and vicissitudes beyond that culture’s control or comprehension. A culture of fear makes for a collective Imaginary populated by all sorts of malign powers. Every stranger (particularly if said stranger has brown skin) is a potential demon, goblin, bugbear or ghoul intent on harming others simply to satisfy his devilish impulses. Inner-city “superpredators” lurk in every alley, middle-eastern terrorists down every jetway. People subject to culture of fear rationalize the inherently irrational simply as a matter of reflex. The barbarities — and the profits — which flow from this reflexive tendency are appropriately staggering.
We have since demystified history, carefully taking if from the hands of god or the proletariat to rest it safely in the bosom of religio-scientific “market forces.” But in the process history began to seem not more rational, but less so. The market is somehow larger and more mysterious than God, the Proletariat, or even progress. And what are we, or any individual, compared to the market? Subsumed into it greater will, we are individual data points. Occasionally, through stock ownership or consumer purchases, we get to take part in its mysteries, but never too great a part.