Pop-tarts and prophets: on the emptiness of our politics
Inspired by this very good Mike Konczal post on Mitt Romney’s idea to privatize unemployment insurance, Corey Robin has taken the conversation to a realm that’s pretty undervalued, even implicitly verboten, in much of contemporary political discourse: the spiritual.
Mainly, Robin wants to examine the underlying, unexamined assumption among crafters and proponents of much of neoliberal policy about what constitutes the Good Life and what impact economic policy should have on our ability to achieve it. It’s a question that used to play far more of a central part in political theory and in national politics in general. You could argue that it still does in America on the right, but more on that later.
In some sense, the issue can be boiled down to a simple question: how do you want to spend that ever-so-small (and always shrinking) portion of your day you can call your free time? Writes Robin:
What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.
I’ve called this the neoliberal rather than the conservative view because though it arose on the right, it has long since migrated to the left, or at least the liberal part of the left. We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids—maybe it was Ezra Klein?—tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking complicated.
I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their 20s—whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it—could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!
Oh, man, do I relate to this. When weighed against the enormously consequential and difficult decisions that face most Americans when it comes to their health care and that of their family, this is quite trivial but…
What the above passage reminded me of most immediately was the feeling of exhausting, frustration and dread that at times overcomes me whenever I’m shopping in a grocery store. I’m assaulted by what, later in the post, Robin says a friend of his calls “the tyranny of choice.” I don’t want more than 5 goddamn choices of goddamn oatmeal, all varying in price by degrees of 10 cents or less. Ditto cereal. I’ve only so much time on this earth, and only so much of it spent conscious, and only so much of that during which I’m not on somebody else’s time; I don’t want to spend it sifting through cheap and meaningless variations of corn (because, remember, it’s all corn), all ultimately deriving from spin offs and the like of essentially only a handful of agribusiness behemoths.
I’ve friends, though, who are the complete opposite. “Maximizers,” through and through. And when I’ve asked them how they can possibly bear to stand in those fluorescent lights, scurrying up and down the aisles and constantly weighing limited either/or choices for such a trivial end-result — how come they don’t feel like me (the eternal question in all things, really) and wish instead for a respite from all the arcane and life-determining choices that comprise Real Life — they say, rather sensibly: Well, I don’t want the life-and-death stuff to be so hard, either! And that makes a lot more sense. If I didn’t have to spend three hours translating my 401k proposal or determining whether or not I’ve the privilege of getting into a major accident for the next three years, I’d probably be quite content to figure out which brand of mouthwash is really right for me.
Why is it that this kind of thinking is so absent from our political conversation? When you look back at politics from, say, a century ago, it wasn’t so much the case. For good and (sometimes titanic, world-destroying) ill, national politics across the world often concerned themselves with what kind of life was worth creating and sustaining on this Earth. I’m not saying the past was a realm where seemingly banal, and certainly dull, stuff like taxes and zoning ordinances weren’t fiercely and frequently debated; I’m just saying there was a bit of room for the more stirring things, too. But not so much anymore.
The right, to some degree, still endeavors to have politics fill the void, if ever so slightly. That’s what the religious right has often used as a fundamental part of its pitch — an appeal to the emptiness and pettiness many people feel defines much their lives. They blame secularism, or gays, or feminism, or atheism. And most certainly Islam. They tell the faithful and those who are just faith-curious that theirs is the answer to the question of why everything feels so very small. As Robin has dealt with in his earlier work, this same anxiety was the impetus for much of neoconservatism, too. Irving Kristol felt profound antipathy towards the idea of a market-driven life; William Buckley called it “horrifying.”
But the American center-left never even tip-toes across this dangerous and unsettled land. But don’t think this means that there isn’t a real, even burning, desire for politicians of the nominal left to Go Big. There most certainly is. How else would you explain the near-hysteria that candidate Obama evoked in his most rhapsodic moments of rhetorical flight? Why do you think it is that more Obama supporters didn’t feel the need to ask what, exactly, Hope meant anyway? Obama, being the cultural lefty that he is, didn’t tell us that the answer was to be found on the blood-caked sands of Mesopotamia or at the foot of your local court house’s newest monument to the 10 commandments. He spoke of community, tolerance, prosperity and green-whatever instead.
But when they’ve most lost themselves in the passion of the crowd, the heart of a 20-something caught up in an Obama campaign throng and of a 50-something at Rick Perry’s Response pulsate to the same beat.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)