Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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Yesterday, in a comment on my “Culture Beyond Capitalism,” which was reposted on the Real-World Economics Review blog, “Econoclast” requested I post the entry on “Capitalism” I wrote for Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

Here, then, is the text of the pre-publication version of that entry.

Capitalism

David F. Ruccio

While the capitalist system is generally celebrated by mainstream economists, American cultural studies scholars will search in vain through their writings for actual discussions of the term “capitalism.” Instead, neoclassical and Keynesian economists refer to the “market economy” (in which individuals and private firms make decisions in decentralized markets) or just “the economy” (defined by scarce means and unlimited desires, the correct balancing of which is said to characterize all societies) (Stiglitz and Walsh 2002; Bhagwati 2003; Krugman and Wells 2004; Samuelson and Nordhaus 2004).

In contrast, discussions of the term capitalism have long occupied a central position in the vocabulary of Marxian economic theory. References to capitalism in American studies and cultural studies draw, implicitly or explicitly, on the Marxian critique of political economy: a critique of capitalism as an economic and social system, and a critique of mainstream economic theory. Karl Marx and latter-day Marxists criticize capitalism because it is based on exploitation, in the sense that capitalists appropriate and decide how to distribute the surplus labor performed by the direct producers, and because it periodically enters into crisis, imposing tremendous costs on the majority of people. They also criticize the work of mainstream economists for celebrating the existence of capitalism and for treating capitalist institutions and behaviors as corresponding to human nature (Mandel 1976; Resnick and Wolff 1987; Harvey 1989).

Much of this scholarship draws on Marx and Frederick Engels’s critique of political economy in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and the three volumes of Capital (1867, 1884, 1894). In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels compare capitalism to other forms of economic and social organization such as feudalism and slavery. What they have in common is that all are based on class exploitation, defined as one group (feudal lords, slaveowners, and capitalists) appropriating the surplus labor of another (serfs, slaves, and wage-laborers). At the same time, capitalism exhibits a distinct dynamic. For the first time in history, it “established the world market,” making it possible for the capitalist class to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere” and giving “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country” (1848, 486, 487). It leads to radical and continuous changes throughout the economy and society, since, as Marx famously put it, “all that is solid melts into air” (487).

If the goal of the Manifesto was to challenge the prevailing belief that capitalism had eliminated classes and class struggles, the point of Capital was to analyze the specific conditions and consequences of the class dimensions of a society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. Capitalism presumes that the products of labor have become commodities, in the sense that the goods and services human beings produce have both a use-value (they satisfy some social need) and an exchange-value (they can be exchanged for other commodities or money). The existence of commodity exchange, in turn, presupposes a culture congruent with the “fetishism of commodities”: a culture whereby individuals come to believe and act such that they have the freedom to buy and sell commodities; that the commodities they exchange are equal in value and that the commodity owners meet one another as equals in the marketplace; that individuals have well-defined property rights in the commodities they sell and purchase; and that they are able to calculate the ability of external objects to satisfy their needs and desires. The existence of commodity exchange is not based on the essential and universal human rationality assumed within mainstream economics from Adam Smith to the present. Nor can the cultures and identities of commodity-exchanging individuals be derived solely from economic activities and institutions. Rather, commodity exchange both presumes and constitutes particular subjectivities – forms of rationality and calculation – on the part of economic agents (Amariglio and Callari 1993).

In both the Manifesto and Capital, capitalism refers to a system in which capitalists are able to produce commodities that will, at least in principle, yield them a profit. The source of the profit is the value created by the laborers who have been forced (historically, through a process Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation,” and, socially, through capitalist institutions and cultures [1867, 871–940]) to exercise the specifically capitalist “freedom” to sell their ability to labor as a commodity. Under the assumption that all commodities (including labor power) are exchanged at their values, a surplus-value arises based on the ability of capitalists to appropriate the surplus labor performed by the wage-laborers and to realize that extra labor by selling the commodities that are produced. Struggles consequently arise over the “rate of exploitation” (the ratio of surplus-value to the value of labor power labor) and over the subsequent distributions of surplus-value (to managers, state officials, and other capitalists, who receive portions of the surplus). The keyword “capitalism” thus designates not just an economic structure, but also the conflicts, contradictions, and subjectivities inherent in that structure. Both the initial emergence and the subsequent reproduction of capitalism, if and when they occur, often lead to social dislocations and acute crises; they are also conditioned by the most varied cultures and social identities.

In the case of the United States, the last two centuries have witnessed the widening and deepening of capitalism, both domestically and internationally. Initially a market for foreign (especially British) capitalist commodities, the original thirteen colonies oversaw the establishment and growth of domestic capitalist enterprises, which sought both raw materials and markets for final goods within expanding geographical boundaries and across a heterogeneous class landscape. One result was that noncapitalist – communal, independent, slave, and feudal — producers were eventually undermined or displaced, thereby causing waves of rural peoples – men, women, and children of diverse racial and ethnic origins – to migrate to existing and newly established cities and to sell their labor power to industrial capitalists. The opening up of new domestic markets (through the determined efforts of retail merchants, advertisers, and banks), capitalist competition (which drove down the unit costs of production), and government programs (to establish a national currency and regulate trusts and working conditions) spurred further capitalist growth. The continued development of capitalist manufacturing provoked vast international migrations of laborers: initially, from Africa and Western Europe; later, and continuing to this day, from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa (Dowd 1977; Duboff 1989; Amott and Matthaei 1996).

The movement of capital that accompanied the expansion of markets and the search for cheaper raw materials transformed regions outside the industrialized Northeast, including the relocation of textile mills to the South, the creation of foundries and automobile factories in the Midwest, the development of the oil industry in the Southwest, and the flourishing of capitalist agriculture and the movie industry on the West Coast. Capital was also exported to other countries to take advantage of lower wage levels and other cost advantages, thereby introducing economic and social dislocations similar to those that had occurred inside the United States. In both cases, governments, business groups, and social movements (such as trade unions, civil rights organizations, and political parties) struggled over the economic and social conditions and consequences of the new industrial capitalist investments – the boom and bust cycles of domestic economic growth; large-scale movements of populations; the formation of new social identities; and imperial interventions. The uneven development of capitalism at home and abroad has left its mark on the culture of the United States (Kaplan and Pease 1993; Jacobson 2000).

Recently, as during the Great Depression of the 1930s and many other times throughout its history, U.S. capitalism recently entered into an economic and cultural crisis. The conditions leading up to the current crisis have put new issues on the agenda of American and cultural studies – the exponential growth of inequality (Collins et al. 2008), the role of economists in creating the crisis (Grossberg 2010), the increasing importance of the financial sector (Martin 2010), the continued racialization of the housing market through subprime lending practices (Lipsitz 2011), and the heightened role of communication technologies and culture in processes of capital accumulation (Fuchs et al. 2010). The severity of the crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of neoliberalism and of capitalism itself (Clarke 2010).

In the analysis of this nexus of capitalism and U.S. culture, we face three major challenges that in turn open up new paths of investigation for American and cultural studies. The first concerns globalization. It is often assumed that the internationalization of the U.S. economy and society is a radically new phenomenon, something that burst on the scene in the 1980s. However, when measured in terms of movements of people (migration), goods and services (imports and exports), and money (capital inflows and outflows), the globalization of capitalism achieved, beginning in the 1980s, levels that are quite similar to those experienced almost a century earlier (Ruccio 2003). Because of these similarities and others (particularly the rise in the rate of exploitation and, with it, the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth), it is a mistake to describe contemporary developments as unprecedented (Phillips 2002). This is not to say that the forms of capitalist development during the two periods are the same. One of the challenges for students of American culture is to register these differences—such as the outsourcing of jobs, the growth of Wal-Mart, the spread of financial markets, the conduct of wars to protect petroleum supplies, the emergence of new media and communication technologies—without losing sight of the past.

The second challenge is to avoid treating capitalism as a purely economic system, separate from culture. The influence of capitalism on the culture industry— including the rise of a capitalist film industry and the export of U.S. culture (Miller et al. 2001; Wayne 2003)—has been widely studied and debated. What is less clear is that the capitalist economy is “saturated” by cultural meanings and identities. From this perspective, each moment of capitalism, from the existence of commodity exchange to the export of capital, is simultaneously economic and cultural. The point is not to substitute cultural studies for political economy, but to recognize—and analyze, concretely and historically—the cultural conditions of capitalism. Money, commodities, labor power, surplus-value, profits: all of these economic forms require the performance of specific, historically and socially constructed, meanings and identities. It is also important to understand the role of economic thought in influencing the development of U.S. capitalism and U.S. culture generally. These topics remain open, though a fruitful place to begin is by understanding the role that “languages of class” play in creating new class identities (Gibson-Graham et al. 2001), the complex interplay of capitalist and noncapitalist economic imaginaries (Watkins 1998), and the need to rethink the economy and economic knowledge (Grossberg 2010a).

The third potential stumbling block is the treatment of capitalism as an all-encompassing, unitary system that has colonized every social arena and region of the globe. While capitalism certainly represents a powerful project for making and remaking the world, deploying the concept of capitalism as a complete mapping of the economic and social landscape has the effect of obscuring noncapitalist forms of economic organization and cultural sense-making. “Capitalocentrism” (akin to the role played by “phallocentrism” and “logocentrism” with respect to gender and language) hides from view the diverse ways in which people in the United States and elsewhere participate in individual and collective noncapitalist economies— including barter, communal production, gift-making, and solidarity—that fall outside the practices and presumed logic of capitalism (Gibson-Graham 1996; Ruccio and Gibson-Graham 2001). On this view, U.S. culture is heterogeneous and contradictory with respect to different class structures. It contains elements that foster and reproduce capitalism and, at the same time, its noncapitalist others.

References

Amariglio, J. and A. Callari. 1993. “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism.” In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. E. Apter and W. Pietz, 186-216. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Amott, Teresa and Julie Matthaei. 1996. Race, Gender and Work: A Multi- Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Rev. ed. Boston: South End Press.

Bhagwati, Jagdish. 2003. Free Trade Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Clarke, J. “After Neo-Liberalism.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 375-94.

Collins, J.; M. di Leonardis; and B. Williams, eds. 2008. New Landscapes of Inequality. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research Press.

Dowd, Douglas Fitzgerald. 1977. The Twisted Dream: Capitalist Development in the United States since 1776. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop Publishers.

Duboff, Richard B. 1989. Accumulation and Power: An Economic History of the United States. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Fuchs, C.; M. Schafranek; D. Hakken; and M. Breen. 2010. Special issue on “Capitalist crisis, communication & culture.” tripleC (cognition, communication, co-operation): Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 8 (2): 193-309.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Gibson-Graham, J. K.; Stephen Resnick; and Richard Wolff, eds. 2000. Class and Its Others. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1998. “Cultural Studies vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 613-24. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

 Grossberg, L. 2010a. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2010b. “Standing on a Bridge: Rescuing Economies From Economists.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34 (4): 316-36.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2000. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang.

Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. 2004. Microeconomics. New York: Worth Publishers.

Lipsitz, G. 2011. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mandel, Ernest. 1976. Late Capitalism. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books.

Martin, R. 2010. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 418-30.

Marx, Karl. 1867-94 (1976-81). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. 3 vols. Trans. Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach. New York: Vintage Books.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1848 (1976). “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519. New York: International Publishers.

Miller, T. et al. 2001. Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute.

Phillips, Kevin. 2002. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. New York: Broadway Books.

Resnick, S. A. and R. D. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

Ruccio, David F. 2003. “Globalization and Imperialism,” Rethinking Marxism 15 (January): 75-94.

Ruccio, David F. and J. K. Gibson-Graham. 2001. “‘After’ Development: Reimagining Economy and Class.” In Re/presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Political Economy, ed. J.-K. Gibson-Graham et al., 158-81. Durham: Duke University Press.

Samuelson, Paul A. and William D. Nordhaus. 2004. Economics. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. and Carl E. Walsh. 2002. Economics. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Watkins, Evan. 1998. Everyday Exchanges: Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wayne, Michael. 2003. “Post-Fordism, Monopoly Capitalism, and Hollywood’s Media Industrial Complex.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (1): 82-103.

Wright, Handel Kashope. 2001. “Larry Grossberg on the Status Quo of Cultural Studies: An Interview.” Cultural Values 5 (April): 133-62.

 

 

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montréal.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.

 

*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.

elegy hillbilly

Last week, I promised a review of J. D. Vance’s new book‚ because I knew I could count on Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, University of Kentucky sociologist, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

J. D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working- class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

Vance notes that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from those who endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package, which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . .These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself.

There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working-class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success.**

A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience.

It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.

The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam, among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.

I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber, which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber.

J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.

 

*Hillbilly Elegy premiered at number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books. It is currently ranked number 5 in the Amazon list of best-selling books and number 1 in various specific categories (Sociology of Class, Poverty, and Ethnic Demographic Studies).

** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see the interview with him by Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.”

1401x788-BGS-02959R__

The spectacular crash of 2007-08, once a public spectacle of economists, politicians, and bankers, is increasingly becoming a popular spectacle in art.

Alessandra Stanley reviews some of the recent films, TV series, and novels—from The Big Short through Billions to Opening Belle—that attempt to represent the causes and consequences of the worst crash since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Americans are once again paying for the 2008 financial collapse.

This time, though, it’s willingly.

Entertainment industry executives and publishers say there is a growing audience for movies, plays, television shows and novels that address the misdeeds and systemic failures that brought the economy to the edge of collapse eight years ago.

I wonder what impact these projects will have on the current political campaign in the United States, where both parties are being forced to deal with widespread discontent over the real-world spectacle of growing inequality, Too Bigger to Fail banks, and more instability ahead.

41GDU+UlrQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ culture

For most mainstream economists, culture is either a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

For Raymond Williams [ht: ja], culture was something very different.

Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.

Williams (along with, of course, many others, including Stuart Hall and Edward Said) redefined the meaning of culture, which provided “a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change.” Williams and the other “cultural materialists” of the time challenged both traditional humanities scholarship (which sought to identify and cultivate the elitist “finer values”) and traditional Marxism (according to which culture either reflected the “economic base” or, in its mass commodified form, forced workers to accept capitalist values).

Implicitly, Williams and the others also challenged mainstream economists’ version of culture, by emphasizing the idea that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

That’s the approach I took in my presentation last year in my talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

And it was in honor of Williams that I accepted the invitation to write the entry on “Capitalism” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and later, with Maliha Safri, to launch the Keywords series in the journal Rethinking Marxism.

prosperity0909

My essay, “American Hustle,” in which I respond to Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has just been published in the Journal of Cultural Economy.

Readers will find a preview here. The first fifty interested readers (actually forty-nine, since I downloaded a copy for myself) can download the text of the entire essay here.

HiBrowLoBrow_L

As we know, rising inequality, especially the hollowing-out of the middle, has undermined the financial viability of retailers and other merchants of consumption that, during the postwar period, catered to the middle-class—and boosted the prospects of particular lines and whole businesses that target those at the tiny top and growing bottom of the distribution of income. As the New York Times reported in February,

In Manhattan, the upscale clothing retailer Barneys will replace the bankrupt discounter Loehmann’s, whose Chelsea store closes in a few weeks. Across the country, Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants are struggling, while fine-dining chains like Capital Grille are thriving. And at General Electric, the increase in demand for high-end dishwashers and refrigerators dwarfs sales growth of mass-market models. . .

Investors have taken notice of the shrinking middle. Shares of Sears and J. C. Penney have fallen more than 50 percent since the end of 2009, even as upper-end stores like Nordstrom and bargain-basement chains like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar Stores have more than doubled in value over the same period.

Now, that same unequal distribution of income seems to be destroying the foundations of the postwar era of middlebrow culture. As A. O. Scott explains,

The middlebrow is robustly represented in “difficult” cable television shows, some of which, curiously enough, fetishize such classic postwar middlebrow pursuits as sex research and advertising. It also thrives in a self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.

But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away.

Universities and colleges, the seedbeds of a cultural ideal consecrated to both excellence and democracy, to citizenship and to knowledge for its own sake, are becoming either hothouses for the new dynastic elite or training centers for the technocratic debt peons of the digital future.

In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.

Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.

 

Off today to give a talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, to be held at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

I plan to start my multimedia presentation on how “culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life” with the original 1928 version of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen JNS.FoodGiveaway2

Our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, is now over (except, of course, for the final exam).

Here’s a link to the additional materials (songs, news stories, cultural responses, etc.) we made available to the students.

Here’s a link [pdf] to some of the charts we compiled to compare the first and second Great Depressions.

And, finally: maybe someday we’ll be able to offer this as a history course instead of current events.