For many Americans a tooth can make the difference between security and destitution. That’s right: lose a tooth in the United States and you lose your chance to live the dream. Poverty and emotional desolation follow soon upon the unfortunate loss. For in the land of veneers and gratuitous orthodontia, “untouchable” status is a shed bicuspid away.
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.
Exceptionalism tends to be a way station on the path to full-blown paranoia, as the poem of the United States of America gets rewritten as The Road to Serfdom. There must be a better way than this to imagine a utopia.
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.
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.
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.
Good ole American-style overeating might just prove the most effective mode of home-foreclosure resistance; because it’s one thing to throw someone out of his house, but to have to cut him out is another thing entirely.
I have nothing against running, or exercise in general. I wake up every morning at six and wearily lift my dumbbells, thinking all the time of Winston Smith, the main character of George Orwell’s 1984, whose knee bends weren’t deep enough for his telescreen trainer. It’s a lonely activity, and most times, given the current cultural and economic realities, I’m not sure why I do it. Will having a toned body help me pay off my student loans faster? Will my bank stop charging me so many absurd fees if I can claim well-defined quads? Will having a low resting heart rate help me find a white-collar job in a moribund economy? Yes, I’ll be healthier for it, and perhaps live somewhat longer, but do I really want to be that spry octogenarian working at Walmart? Given the state of Social Security and retirement packages, I’d be better off greeting the sun with a pack of Virginia Slims and a fifth of Wild Turkey.
Keep it simple, stick to a simple job, and you’ll be able to go home at night and be alone with your thoughts. No one needs to hold an emergency meeting with a waitress or postal clerk after the office has closed. A janitor doesn’t need to brown-nose via Facebook while camping with his kids. That guy at the DMV who takes your (always unflattering) driver’s license photograph never worries about all those urgent emails flooding his work inbox. No, in those jobs you put in your eight hours of hard, shitty work and then you leave it.