Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fictions of Inequality

I replaced Fr. Frank with Père Alain this afternoon - Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, who did a public interview today (page 18) with a Le Monde guy in a big art complex on the banks of the Saône river here in Lyon. The topic was philosophy and the novel, and at one point Badiou said this in my paraphrase translation:
the novel is rooted in equality. All great novels have an equal regard for all their characters, in the sense that they all are subjects of understanding. The novel grants everyone an existence that is prior to social sorting and economic hierarchies. This is a special form of knowledge, because it is fundamentally egalitarian.
Bien sur, Père Alain: this is completely true. I would go further and say that the absence of equality eats the soul. There are many forms of this, like slavery as what Orlando Patterson called "social death," and other forms of domination from torture to incarceration that destroy the dominated's identity and kill the ability of society to grasp their existence.

Badiou said at another point that the novel and politics are different forms of knowing. And on top of this, there is no master discourse above them that translates one into the other: they are just different. And "novel" knowledge is desperately in need of expansion and distribution everywhere, especially where politics and economics now are.

I've said before that this thing called the "middle class" in the US - the annoying term for the vast multi-racial economic majority that does the vast majority of the work - doesn't exist without equality, and is crushed by it's absence. The crushing has been happening visibly for well over a year, witnessed in stupefying crash figures from Dean Baker last week, and neighborhood stories all over the place, and in charts like the one below, that show the crashing value of the only meaningful asset owned by most US families:

Part of the point is the familiar but always important one that the munchkins are getting screwed while the wicked witches of east and west are protected by the federal government.

But the deeper point is that the victims of this bust would never have been so vulnerable had they been able to stick with equality as a principle. They weren't. Their pensions were converted to mutual funds that rose and fell with the market, their unions were gutted and then humiliated, their industries deindustrialized -- the fall of GM and Chrysler has been going on behind a few years of great SUV sales and zero-percent financing profits - their government services cast by Reaganism as a slave addiction, and their skills disparaged as old-economy while their jobs were outsourced and shipped abroad. Their public universities were cut in real dollar year after year, ending up in 2005 per capita below where they had been 25 years before. To top it off, their real wages haven't gone up for 30 years.

So they trusted to one boom-bubble after another. They put their funds in dot-com and telecom stocks in the 1990s, which blew up in 2000. They put their money in real estate, which melted in 2007 and exploded in 2008. They might have put their trust in their jobs and maybe their savings in their companies, but what would they have gotten back from that?

None of this would ever have happened if US society valued equality of outcome, period. It would have been intolerable, violated the basic standards of society, and been stopped.

The crash is the real-economy effect of two things. The first is capitalism's structural problems that lead to what Giovanni Arrighi called the financialization that signals the beginning of the end for a hegemonic power like the U.S. The second is a deep cultural illiteracy at the top of the economy, which accelerates and brutalizes the crisis itself.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the bubble solutions to painful inequality have run out. They only place for the working/middle-classes to go for help is back to wages, which need to increase, their jobs, which need stabilzation, and public services, which are the only thing that ever head their lives together.

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