Saturday, March 17, 2012

O'Blogging on St. Patrick's Day: Main St./Wall St.

The emergence of the Wall St./Main St. theme in the 2008 presidential campaign was a crucial narrative moment. While political narratives opposing the "big city" economists to the ordinary economic agents of flyover America are as old as the progressive populism espoused by William Jennings Bryan (if not older), the salience of such themes fades in and out of public circulation on the basis of several contextual factors, including A) the current state of the economy, B) class sensitivity, and C) the visibility of the moneyed and urbane. While previous outbreaks of outrage at white collar workers for financial improprieties had been seen not only during the Great Depression but also during the S&L scandals of the 1980's, the Wall St./Main St. division that erupted in September 2008 was particularly important because it happened at the height of a hard fought presidential campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Almost as soon as the financial woes of Lehman Bros. were made public, a Wall St./Main St. narrative began to emerge in the media. On September 15, the Chicago Tribune reported that "Few Americans have a direct connection to the events unfolding on Wall Street, but practically everyone has a stake in the game." By September 18th it was reported in The Business Times that Wall Street had fundamentally "lost touch" with the economy. The explicit use of language contrasting Wall St. with Main St. increased, and became a staple of presidential campaign rhetoric up until the early November election.

Rhetorical theory teaches us one way to read the emergence of these discourses is that they serve as ways of ordering or making more understandable a world riven with anxiety and indeterminacy. As Kenneth Burke argues, the production of scapegoats is part of a ritual of victimage which serves to consolidate a collective identity in ways that render negative or threatening political circumstances as emerging in opposition to said collective identity. Rhetorical theorists have tended to focus on the political implications resulting from the use of such rhetoric, whether in Burke's incredibly important essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" or more contemporary efforts like Brian Ott and Eric Aoki's work on Matthew Shepherd, Jeremy Engels work on Nietzchean victimage, and Richard Nixon, or Barry Brummett's work on symbolic form.

Engels' essay is of particular interest to me, as his argument in his Rhetoric Society Quarterly essay "The Politics of Resentment and the Tyranny of the Minority" is about how scapegoating as a political ritual perpetuates its subjects' victimized status by allowing them to perpetually wallow and identify with their sense of resentment and anger at the world. Rather than understanding anger and anxiety as temporary conditions, Engels understands that there are rhetorical mechanisms that prolong these rituals of victimization. An angle I want to add is that it seems that there are also ways in which scapegoating discourses may unknowingly or unthinkingly perpetuate the angers and resentments they attempt to foster.

In the case of the "Wall St./Main St." binary, blaming Wall St. may have the effect of accelerating rather than postponing an existential crisis for the aggrieved subject. As has been written elsewhere and ad nauseam, American politics and society is saturated with a notion that the liberal individual is an absolute sovereign, and the individual choices/decisions carry a certain kind of legitimacy not on the basis of the results they create but instead from their simple, tautological status as individual decisions. Such a fantasy works with efficacy during times of relative economic prosperity because the individual investment into the economy at large is validated with recourse to a simple kind of correspondence: I am both acting and living, and the economy is going along well. We would expect, then, during times of economic destitution and crisis, that the capacity and competency of the self as an individual actor would be threatened, because a flailing economy indexes the flailingness of those subjects operating within it.

Here is where the scapegoating mechanisms of "Wall St./Main St." come in: blaming Wall St. for the large scale 2008 financial crisis resolves the crisis offered by economic disrepair by distributing the responsibility for blame at levels far above that of the average American. Such a maneuver taps into a historically rich tableau of populist narratives which paint good and hardworking "normal" Americans against an opposed and greedy moneyed class. However, what goes overlooked is that this rhetoric may actually serve to exacerbate rather than reduce the anxiety and tension in American subjects. After all, in order to believe the finance derivates, greedy financial managers, and loan-crazy banks were behind the financial crisis, one has to admit to their own lack of agency in the realm of economic affairs. Because most people have moved away from the "storing money under a mattress" financial model, they conceive of themselves as public economic actors. One needs nearly spend time detailing the wealth of financial avenues available to "normal" people, like the website eTrade which promises to elevate everyone's individual economic judgment to the plane of Wall Street and enable them to make their own sound investment decisions. However, in the case of a broad financial collapse, very few people are immune from financial ruin: not only because many people unknowingly or unwittingly invest their money in unstable sectors of the economy, but also because of a general credit crunch that results from a constricted financial environment.

One result of the "Wall St./Main St." demagoguery, then, is that it evacuates the agency of Main Street. Main St. can only be the passive victim of Wall St.'s sinister machinations if it has little to no say in the matter. This might not ordinarily be a problem, except that because of the tightly held fantasy of individual choice, the evacuation of "average America's" agency is not a minor matter but instead an assault upon the constitutive fantasy of individual identity: that the exercise of individual choice, is in and of itself, meaningful and tends towards "the good." Piling onto this is the rather massive "perspective by incongruity" that would be witnessed were Americans to interrogate their own investments and roles in the financial collapse: even if you believe that the 2008 financial crisi was primarily the fault of derivatives traders and an economic system going off the rails, it is undeniable that a collective investment in the idea of individual economic security contributes to Americans rolling the dice on risky financial decisions like "out of their depth" home loans.

Many have wondered why the political era of the Obama presidency has been besotten with extreme political rhetoric. (It is unclear whether this rhetoric is worse than in the past, but its effects on creating an atmosphere of partisanship in the Congress is uniquely terrible). I think one cause of this (aside from the obvious inputs of Obama's race, a collapse of the classic "southern states" strategy started by Richard Nixon, and the slow creep of pseudo-libertarianism into a central position in the GOP architecture) is that the 2008 financial crisis was as symbolically important as it was in real economic terms: the truth of it radically threatened to pull out the rug from the fantasy of liberal individualism held near and dear (and it should be noted, a support of liberal individualism is a fairly bipartisan fantasy). The initial anger over the collapse, which political operatives then doubled down on by facilitating and encouraging the "bailout anger" which eventually condensed around Rick Santelli to produce the Tea Party movement, was an anger that allowed subjects to disavow their own relatively miniscule agency in affairs of the economy, a miniscule amount of agency that would be tough to square with the pervasive fantasy of individual action as highly economically meaningful. The bipartisan character of this sentiment can also be seen in the emergence of the Occupy movement: both parties seem to understand that the economy is "bigger than all of us" but struggle to articulate intelligible demands to remedy the problem of extreme power disparities in our political climate (for the record, I think the incoherence of the Tea Party's political agenda signals that their disavowal is considerably more tragic: Occupy refuses to "double down" on the liberal individual for the most point, and its supposed "unintelligible demands" are a sign of its politicization of the economy rather than a kind of failure of New Social Movement).

We might then think about economic demagoguery as a type of particularly uncontrollable political rhetoric of scapegoating: in order for an audience to acede to its major premise, a major premise of American subjectivity itself is challenged and threatens. Because our identities are structured in the form of a sort of a defensive armor (qua Lacan) we should expect the defensive maneuveres on the part of identity in response to this existential threat to manifest themselves in the active affects and politically contentious discourses and actions of our current milieu.

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