Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Affective Transference and Confusion. Or, Questioning "Julia"

Peter Kirsanow, a talented contributor to the well regarded conservative magazine National Review has a regular feature on their weblog The Corner called "Today's Questions for the President." Today's question is regarding the new federal advertising campaign featuring the fictional character "Julia," whose life story is told in concert with detailing and itemizing the benefits this fictional character derives in her life from government programs (You can watch an MSNBC segment on Morning Joe thats highly critical of the advertisement as well here). In a number of ways the campaign fails progressives in a way sure to generate distrust (Julia is white, wants children) out of its attempts to triangulate to a broader audience.

Kirsanow summarizes the enormous mounting weight of the federal debt, then asks, essentially, two questions: 1) how do you expect us to pay for this, and 2) what have you done to make sure there aren't more Julias who "need" federal assistance? (Just for fun, on the first case Kirsanow tosses in the typical reference to how much of Julia's benefits China will need to fund.)

We can set aside the larger debate about how deep the revenue crisis is (short answer on my perspective is: a more robust economy fixes that vast majority of all existing spending problems with the exception of Medicare, and yes, we have to be prepared to preserve Medicare with higher taxes on both the wealthy and the middle class. As far as more support for programs recently axed and reformed, in terms of cost those pale in comparison to the Medicare issue but are also resolvable with a better/broadly stronger economy. (So yes, if you have an axe to grind with people who think our taxes should be higher, you should grind it here.) What really interests me about the first claim is how it plays upon a certain kind of emotional confusion and transference that utilizes existing economic anxieties and makes the budgetary constraints faced by the government into an analogical phenomenon.

At least three major arguments are working in the background of Kirsanow's question. The first is the current anxiety over the European debt crisis, and Greece specifically. Check out for example this chart from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) linked by The Weekly Standard that depicts how much debt America has on a per capita basis, and how our crisis is even worse than Greece's on a per capita basis (one issue I have with the graph is that is measures debt on a per capita basis but does not also account for the enormous potential overall wealth in the tax base nor differences in say, natural resources). If you want more anecdotal evidence, fire up twitter and search "Greece" "debt" and "Obama" and you'll find a multitude of posts (hashtagged "tcot" for "top conservatives on twitter") linking Obama to a future where the U.S. faces mass austerity riots just like the Greek government.

A second background operation being performed here is the insistence on debt as a supreme danger to the polity. This is often accomplished by recourse to analogies which position government spending and household spending as equivalences, in order to make the threat of debt existential. For just one example, look at the clever slide employed by Sarah Palin in her keynote address to the Tea Party Convention in Nashville Tennessee in 2010: governments she says, like households, are sunk if they can't balance their budgets. Such logic elides the fact that credit is not a necessary evil but is instead the lifeblood of any effectively functioning economy: sample any doomsday article from the 2008 financial crisis and you'll find out very quickly that the threat of mass credit paralysis loomed larger than any other problem as a central issue flowing from the banking and investment crisis. Another issue with the analogy is that households don't have tax bases while governments do: unless you like in a polity like California where there are constitutional restrictions on raising taxes, the truth is that the government is more capable of producing income on demand through the exercise of political will than a household is able to "will itself" to more income.

The third argument present is an implicit one as well, one that preys on the dimunization/reduction in overall agency in order to encourage an active identification with the government. A recent piece in Theory & Event did a nice job of identifying how the reduction in individual agency (economically, we might think about this as the reduction in real wages relative to inflation for the lower and middle class starting in the eighties) enabled easier identification with state power in the wake of September 11th. Massive expansions of government power were legitimized and indeed, identified with, by the citizenry because they were one way for citizens rendered inert and powerless to imagine themselves as capable of exercising some sort of agency. The piece, by Elisabeth Anker and called "Heroic Identifications: Or, You Can Love Me Too--I Am So Like the State" is wonderful because it outlines how people might come to think of themselves as aligned with the state, even though the structure of American political government is built to institute a difference between "the people" and the state for their own protection (cf. On Revolution by Hannah Arendt.) We might envision something like an obverse side of this agency argument occurring in this moment, where people, incapable of actually making ends meet on their own owing to increasing costs and stagnating wages (or perhaps to mortgages they couldn't really afford) experience the economic agony of the state (and the threat of bankruptcy). This allows them to experience the threat of economic destitution but through an externalization of the question of responsibility and action (understanding one's own role in ending up in a state of economic hardship is very difficult within the terms of liberal individualism that operate on the American discursive landscape; in part this accounts for the success of government-suspicious discourses like those of the Tea Party or previously the Birchers).

Checking out the MSNBC roundtable on the Julia ad supports this point: even the most "liberal" member of the roundtable doesn't think the video is helpful because, as avowed Marxist Mika Brezinski notes "I don't think it helps....we are at a state, time in this country where people feel there is no hope" and they don't wanted to be reminded that one of the only sources of hope is the government. Donnie Deutsch further underscores this point, reminding us that "Our character is John Wayne, rugged individualism...Yes the government is there, but we feel weak in that...nobody, not even a progressive guy like myself, wants to see America portrayed that way." Individualism offers the promise of success as a result of the competent exercise of individual agencies and faculties. When things are going bad, its a might bit more difficult to encourage broader introspection about the failure of individuals to contribute to a world that might have been otherwise (to do so might point inductively to a problem with liberal individualism on the whole). To the extent that discourses can focus on how bad a job the government has done, this might enable a disavowal of our individual roles in financial calamities (and I want to be clear: this can extend to ideological complicity with the status quo as much as it might be a decision to say, buy a flatscreen tv on layaway or take a large mortgage).

The difficult is that the government does do lots of things for lots of people all of the time. We drive on roadways produced by a federal government. We don't end up in the poorhouse because we're paying for an elderly relative's medical care (or at least, because of Medicare a lot fewer of us do). Local and state programs benefit us continuously  (and I would contend we may process federal and state policies in the imaginary quite differently, but that this separation might not survive much scrutiny). Many of us patronize organizations that benefit from federal tax exempt status. Those of us who don't make much money benefit from the EITC. And so on and so forth. One reason why this "Julia" video might have generated such scorn is precisely the reason identified by Brezinski and Deutsch: it hits too close to home. Our agency is routinely minimized and circumscribed, in sharp contrast with the "work hard, chicken in every pot, Chevy in the garage" narrative that we have been fed (and feed, when we buy into it and coproduce a reality that lines up with such thoughts).

We wallow in government debt because it does two things simultaneously: it affirms to us that we are like the government (struggling financially) while also reaffirming a traditional narrative sympathetic to the individual (the government is too incompetent to take care of itself.) Anxiety about the economic survival of a household is projected as a general condition of the government itself (even if this is not exactly true, as far as thing go: the government basically has a Visa card with a credit limit the size of the U.S. tax base). If the government and "the people" are both stuck in a financial crisis, then this gives cause to support the more radical sentiment (if not actual policy recommendations) that now matriculates from the small-government GOP base: rhetorics about taking our country back, calls that Obama is a socialist, etc. are all more intelligible if the fundamentals of the country are at stake as opposed to facing a temporary bump in the road.

Thus Kirsanow's second question (What have you done to ensure there are fewer Julias?") comes from an intelligible ideological position: it begins from the premise that strengthening the broader economy is more important than producing federal support programs. This is probably a belief that few in the Obama administration would disagree with, they would simply disagree with the causes of the economic collapse (market failures compared to say, heavy regulations/taxation). Starkly, the quesiton begins from the premise that individuals are entirely separate and distinct from the government as a natural order of things: the government might, through intervention, unmake and distort individuals, and only its exit from the market can restore a certain kind of order.

American exceptionalism has a long tradition. Some of it is about proving that we are definitely better than other countries (Manifest Destiny and whatnot) while other elements are actually about demonstrating our exceptional victimage (9/11 as a sign of our divine ability to suffer, struggle, and rebuild). Sometimes, these goals intersect, as in this case, where the real credit crisis in another country is taken to be an index of the future that America might face, one that can only be overcome by a kind of divine double down on the will, strength, and redoubtable power of the individual. This move  is secured by the production of a government that is exceptionally poor at managing its budget by pointing to its enormous debt load. The result of this is to analogize the government to households, which elides/obscures the fact that plenty of well functioning households do, to some extent, carry debt and oftentimes are incapable of paying all their bills on a month to month basis. Rather than encounter this second fact as an opportunity for ironic introspection about how exactly lives are lived, we turn to the repetition of anti-government jeremiads which, by condemning the government for its inefficiency and incompetence, serve to repeat and reify our clever and centralized trust in our selves against the external Other of the government.

Affects are structures of feelings. These structures of feelings operate, according to some, prior to signification and the function of language. They help to answer the question of desire (or if you prefer in English, the question of how a narrative comes to be or cohere even when there is not necessarily a ready-made reading guide for the consumer). Why the repetition of certain themes, structures, ideas, and modes of thinking? It's owed not to some arbitrary force, but rather to repetitions, and how repetitions are appealing in and of themselves because they are familiar (familiarity does some work to certify something like "truthiness"). We constantly "re-up" the familiar because we are invested  in it (see Lauren Berlant's brilliant essay "Cruel Optimism" for a more extensive treatment of this subject). Wallowing in the fantastic struggles of the government to make ends meet helps produce a continuously familiar world, one where the government's own incompetence covers over something else about broader levels of competence amongst the civic folk. That is to say: what is familiar is our goodness, and what is also familiar is the untrustworthiness of the Other. Private anxieties, privately earned, are transfered to the public as public anxieties, earned "publicly" but by no individual, owned instead by the monolithic "government" who bureaucratic failings provide a ready made explanation for the crisis. In this way personal struggles are externalized, and the just rage of the economically deprived can be understood as a public phenomenon, evading the liberal judgment that would be visited upon those whose economic issues were understood in advance as private.