Saturday, February 4, 2012

Retroactively Approaching the 2008 Financial Crisis

The relationship between conservatism and populism is a curious thing. After all, conservatism, such as it was, didn't have a real positive nameable relationship to populism in America until the late 1950's. Before that, conservatism and populism were either tied together with sham political parties who espoused a horridly reductionist status quoism (think of the Whigs, whom Richard Weaver excoriates in The Ethics of Rhetoric) or with a somewhat stable and fairly straightforward class relationship (progressivism emerged as a version of populism which made no bones about positioning the haves of the late 19th and early 20th century actively against the have-nots, and also made clear the state had an affirmative role in regulating those industries).

Barry Goldwater and committed conservative grassroots movement changed all that. By combining a political focus on limited government with literature (like that of the John Birch Society) which positioned Communism as an omnicompetent (and existential) threat to the American way of life, the "American people" could finally be articulated to conservatism in a meaningful and sustainable way. The anger and frustration attached to a 1960's that was full of considerable less economic vigor than the decade that proceeded it came to be felt by a "Silent Majority" primed for small government by Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign but ushered into being through effective plays on affect which relied on articulating linkages between the annihilation threatened by the Soviet menace and the socio-political annihilation of a certain kind of middle class hegemony authored by the agitations of social movements.

One resurgence of conservatism populism in the post Cold War era (taking for granted, as I do, that Reagan's conservative "populism" is not ontologically nameable as such, premised as it was upon summoning a disembodied public rather than an explicitly constituted angered vox populi) can be seen today in what remains of the Tea Party discourse that has been coopted by conservatism. This post wants to make one simple argument: those discourses have their roots in the controversy over the bailouts under the TARP program in late September, 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Bros. and the general Wall Street angsts.

After Lehman collapsed and it became clear that economic contagion could not be contained, public discourse ran rampant. One of the most common and immediately emergent memes was that of "Wall Street vs. Main Street" which immediately became not just a theme of both presidential campaigns, but also a regular feature of newspapers covering the collapse, who often, following the "Person on the Street" style of interviews and reporting, asked repeatedly what the harsh times on "Wall Street" might mean for "Main Street," presumably an Anytown, U.S.A. where everyone had worked hard and soundly (they thought) invested their hard earned cash in order to achieve the American dream.

The move to WSVMS (as I will call it) I take to be about the reclamation of agency. After all, one thing the popular and media discourses during the crisis agree is that there was a general sense of fear and anxiety tied to the opacity of the economic situation: not even those on Wall Street knew what was happening, but the rapid report of economic crisis was making it clear that the economic interconnectedness which was thought to raise all boats might in fact hoist "Main Street" on its own petard of dreams. With "ordinary America" lacking economic agency in public discourse, reduced to little more than an epiphenomena of broader market trends in a rapidly moving global market, the language of populism becomes an appealing way to reclaim a sense of self: after all, the investment in "the people" treats them, ideally, as an all-knowing and ominscient form of the self, magnified intensely and projected as a powerful political force with good judgment (we may leave our critiques of "the people" as demagogues at the door here: of course, they are, but for the purposes of that projecting act of future imagining, they conceive of themselves as powerful and right, even more so in the context of an American where socio-cultural discourses coach us that individualism is the sine qua non of rightness).

While Obama rode to victory in part on his credibility as an economic reformer, the kind of anti-Wall Street sentiment that he fostered had an element of humility in it: he regularly in campaign speeches and stump stops, like one in Ohio in mid-October, acknowledged that part of the crisis was the ordinary Americans had been spending too much. Contrast this with the emergence of the Tea Party, whose discourse understood metaphorically "real Americans" to correspond with "successful Americans:" rather than positioning ordinary American as fallible folks capable of making a financial mistake (one that turns the financial crisis into a kind of representative anecdote for the necessity of humility in arranging orientations towards the world) the conservative populism of the Tea Party took financial failings as an index of one's meaning as a person: if you were suffering you were, in Rick Santelli's words, a "loser" who didn't deserve to get bailed out. What the effervescent rhetoric of the Tea Party did was to transmogrify a frustration with Wall Street (and also a frustration with a lack of agency) into anger at those whose irresponsibility was harming the American economy.

These are some brief thoughts: more refined ones soon.