Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Outrage & Its Symbolism

Here's some needful perspective on the bonuses-for-boneheads miasma from Matt Yglesias:

The AIG bonuses are largely irrelevant to the recovery issue, and while important as a social justice matter they’re primarily of symbolic social justice importance. It’s good that people are outraged by this—it’s outrageous! And it’s good that in response to the outrage the government is now working to correct the problem. That’s the media-political-outrage cycle at its best. But it’s not healthy to just go ’round and ’round in circles over this issue endlessly. If 18 months from now the economy’s still shrinking and unemployment’s at 15 percent, nobody’s going to feel particularly happy about the fact that we stuck it to some scumbags from AIG back in early ‘09.
It is outrageous, but it's also a single tree in a large forest.

That said, it's useful to unpack the symbolism and notice what has so captured the public imagination as to merit continuous, breathless, front-page news coverage and commentary. I state only the obvious when I say it speaks to the brute fact of material inequality, an inequality that seems ever more permanent and self-perpetuating. It speaks to a diminishment of work and workers -- making things, improving things, creating tangible value -- and a valorization of manipulation and schemers -- running confidence games, gambling by another name, converting piles of money to larger piles of money. It speaks to a sense of unease over declining prospects. It speaks to what John Edwards and others have called "the two Americas," one a sweaty treadmill sprint to nowhere, the other a pleasant stroll through a lavish resort. Of course, this could as well be seen as "the two worlds" depending on where you sit.

Part of the long view that Yglesias did not bring out is the justificatory framework (to use an ungainly phrase). Many of us are old enough to remember being hectored, day in and day out, on the evils of communism and how they contrasted with the glories of capitalism. Every person should be grateful that the Soviet system is broken and dead, but the moment we face and the future we behold does not speak well of what buried it. If the schemers at AIG -- and CitiBank, Lehman Brothers, Enron, and the rest -- point to the character of the really-existing alternative to really-existing communism, the day's outrage may represent, most significantly, a longing for an alternative to the alternative. And I am not naive enough to believe that alternative is likely to take a benign form.


Mike said...

Dale, an old quote from Willi Schlamm (via William F. Buckley) has been coming to mind a lot lately. "The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists." The answer seems to be something else, but no one has figured out what that should be or how it would work.

Dale said...

Mike, I like the quote but I'm finding it pretty hard to sustain right now. I am not inclined to push this whole mess onto 'bad apples.' This tree has grown bad apples too many times!

Mike said...

Quite true, Dale. The difference implied in that quote really doesn't matter to most people. It's like a disreputable dive bar. It may be a shady business or it may just attract bad people, but the end result is the same.

twoblueday said...

There is a certain canonization of wealth (wealthiness) in capitalist societies. A sort of celebrity worship, if you will, in a celebrity-addicted culture.

I sometimes think the problem is "isms" per se. Take a single problem/issue. Try to work out a workable solution, maybe even a good one. Isn't the result worthwhile on its own? If national health care (now, for some reason, called single-payer) such an issue? Whether or not it is a good idea is, to my way of thinking, independent of whether it can be railed against for smacking of "socialism." How about humansism for a rubric.

Here via Cafe Philos.