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London Calling

August 23, 2011

How many Marxists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

None.  The light bulb already contains the seeds of its own revolution.

It was one thing when it was just “the Arab Spring.”  It made sense that people with everything at stake would be able to overcome complacency and actually create historical change within their lifetimes.  When it’s Libya or Syria, it seems almost intuitive that a people would take dramatic action to overthrow a repressive regime.  But the importance of freedom and liberty in those countries seems to be lost on the western world.

American political theorists once assumed we had witnessed the end of history with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Victory Over Communism™, but now new narratives are being written while America sits on the sidelines.  With London ablaze in riots and a repressive Big Brother fulfilling apocryphal predictions, one starts to wonder whether the same is coming to the United States.  Sure, Americans protest from time to time, but we assume that we’re not about to sink to the level of rioting (like in Los Angeles that one time, or all those other times).  Why then, one might wonder, are we seeing more and more repressive defenses used in America?  Like shutting down cell phone service to quell a peaceful protest or arresting people for taking a video of police brutality.  Didn’t people riot over this sort of thing a couple of decades ago?

Rarely do we ever even question why Americans aren’t in open revolt.  One could assume a simple and straightforward explanation: the people already control the government.  The slightly more cynical and savvy amongst us figured that Americans aren’t in revolt because they are more or less satisfied by what the government offers them.  Or even more cynically, perhaps, the American people are satisfied and quelled by the products the economy offers them to fetishize.

Perhaps, more optimistically, America is not in open revolt because the United States has positive and healthy outlets of political activism.  However, there may be a risk that some of our best political activism is being tempered with a sense of irony and coolness.  The high-minded react to reactionaries with “level-headed” non-reaction.  For example, Sarah Silverman, in her latest political YouTube campaign, mixes her irreverence with an actual good idea.  Last time it was The Great Schlep (i.e., “Go to Florida and tell your Jewish grandparents to vote for Obama.”).  This time, it’s “Sell the Vatican, feed the world.”

In a way, this kind of political irreverence (as also seen in The Daily Show, The Onion) makes the joke the end of the idea.  The idea sabotages itself by making actual action politically unnecessary or unpalatable.  The idea’s constituency and potential supporters have been satisfied by the irreverence itself, being the ironic and cool audience that they are.  On the other hand, the Tea Party has succeeded in gaining so much political influence precisely because they have no compunction about protesting and demonstrating in a highly visible (and ridiculous) manner in a way that moves the dialogue of the echo chamber around them and their ridiculous positions.

Meanwhile, the more “polite” and “intellectual” segments of the polity have acquiesced to the substance of the status quo by virtue of their comparative inaction.  For example, enough time has blown by that America has essentially condoned massive bank fraud and payoffs, forcibly transferring wealth from the lower classes up to capitalistic entities and individuals (documentaries such as Inside Job notwithstanding).

Maybe it does come back down to a stakes game: Americans are willing to protest from time to time, but prolonged and extended attention to a subject seems more difficult to sustain.  Day jobs, families, and general lack of conviction all beset the vast majority of Americans to prevent this “silent majority” from being heard.  Note that it doesn’t stop the aged and retired Tea Partiers from waging their political campaigns.  The problem is that the forces stacked against the silent majority have figured out how to outmaneuver the silent majority by taking action in arenas that are difficult to understand, and whose effects can only be clearly seen in the long run.  And by then the cool and detached among us will deem the issue “too late” to act upon.

Of course, the existence of temporarily enraged and inflamed factions were predicted by the founding fathers in Federalist 10 (“But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”).  It was thought to be a virtue of a vast republic that her people could not easily come together to form a majority to “oppress” the minority with their desires to reappropriate resources in violation of the rule of law.  But the founding fathers may have failed to perceive the likelihood that the minority themselves would be able to do what they feared through regulatory capture.

Nouriel Roubini, who gained renown for being one of the only economists to accurately assess and predict the mortgage-backed security crisis, would identify one person who did not fail to perceive the likelihood of regulatory/capitalistic capture: Karl Marx.

Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proved wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality, and reduces final demand.

But will political and economic elites even listen to someone who doesn’t automatically sneer at the mention of Karl Marx?  Probably not.  Let’s hope they listen to Warren Buffet.  Or Ralph Nader.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 12:08 pm

    Pulitzer prize substance there.


  1. Why Do Marxians Seem So Alien? « The New Print

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