Posts Tagged ‘novel’

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For years now, I’ve been writing about the various ways capitalism inflicts its punishments—including killing people (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

It’s as if capitalism is Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov, who formulates and executes a plan to kill a pawnbroker for her cash—and, in an attempt to defend his actions, argues that with the pawnbroker’s money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime.

The question is, what are the good deeds capitalism performs to counterbalance its crimes? Because we now have more evidence that, like Raskolnikov, capitalism kills.

According to Maia Szalavitz, capitalist “inequality raises the stakes of fights for status among men.”

Obviously, potential murderers don’t check the local Gini Index – the most commonly used measure of inequality that looks at how wealth is distributed – before deciding whether to get a gun. But they are keenly attuned to their own level of status in society and whether it allows them to get what they need to live a decent life. If they can’t, while others visibly bask in luxury that seems both impossible to attain and unfairly won, those far from the top often become desperate.

And so, as capitalist inequality rises, men at the bottom are more inclined to kill other men—all in the name of honor and respect.

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That conclusion is supported by a 2002 comparative cross-country study, published in the Journal of Law and Economics (pdf), whose main conclusion is that an increase in income inequality has a “significant and robust effect” of raising violent crime rates.

Perhaps those who defend capitalism think it possesses enough fortitude to deal with the ramifications of its crimes against humanity—that it even might have the right to perform those crimes. And the ability to get away with them.

Dostoyevsky, of course, suggested it’s better to confess and accept the appropriate punishment—which is exactly what Raskolnikov, at Sonya’s urging, finally does. But, alas, we don’t live in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

In fact, in the United States, we are witnessing rising inequality and, for the first time in decades, rising homicide rates.

no one knows what time lag to expect between a rise in inequality and a rise in murder – but if it does take a few decades, this could be the start of a troubling trend, not a blip.

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Special mention

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Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

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There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.

 

*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.

Mainstream economists argue that time makes money. According to the Austrians, production takes time, because of “roundabout” methods, which creates the additional value that flows to capital. Neoclassical economists have a different theory: the return to capital is the reward for savings created by time-deferred consumption. However, in both cases, time is the basis of the value that is captured as profits.*

In Cosmopolis, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (adapted for the cinema by David Cronenberg in 2012), Erik Packer’s “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, explains they have it backwards:

“Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.”. . .

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today,” she said, looking slyly into her hands. “To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.”

DeLillo (via Kinski), as it turns out, is right—at least when it comes to healthcare in the United States.

According to a series of reports in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet (confirming the results of a study I wrote about last year), increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts.

As economic inequality in the USA has deepened, so too has inequality in health. Almost every chronic condition, from stroke to heart disease and arthritis, follows a predictable pattern of rising prevalence with declining income. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening since the 1970s, with the difference between the richest and poorest 1% now standing at 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.

The obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the United States is responsible for increasingly unequal health outcomes.**

In addition, both structural racism (the “systematic and interconnected web of institutions and factors that lead to adverse health outcomes”) and mass incarceration (on prisoners, their families, and their communities), according to two other studies, exacerbate class-based health inequalities.

While the authors of one of the studies argue that “the health-care system could soften the effects of economic inequality by delivering high-quality care to all,” they conclude that the U.S. system falls “far short of this ideal.” That’s because disparities in access to care—based on income, race, and unequal rates of imprisonment—are far wider in the United States than in other wealthy countries.

Moreover, according to another study, even after the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion, twenty-seven million Americans remain uninsured and, even for many with insurance, access to affordable care remains elusive. At the same time, unneeded and even harmful medical interventions remain common (due, in part, to the fragmented health-care delivery system), corporate administration consumes nearly a third of health spending, and wealthy Americans consume a disproportionate and rising share of medical resources.

Thus, the editors of the series conclude,

Although a Series about health published in a medical journal may seem far removed from the political arena where much of the decision making about how to address these factors lies, the message of this collection of papers transcends that distance. . .it is no radical statement to say that Americans deserve better and, most importantly, the time for action has arrived.

It is time, in other words, to make the necessary changes so that money is available to provide decent healthcare for all Americans.

 

*One neoclassical economist, the late Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (pdf), did have the intellectual honesty to admit that the absence of future markets represented a severe shortcoming of capitalism, a coordination failure, and supported the case for a socialist economy.

**The authors also note that the medical system in the United States itself influences inequality, as an employer of nearly 17 million Americans. Although physicians and nurses are generally well paid, many other health-care workers are not:

The health-care system employs more than 20% of all black female workers; more than a quarter of these health-care workers subsist on family incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and 12.9% of them are uninsured.

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Utopian novels, it seems, are no longer published.* Instead, bookstores now feature non-fiction books about utopia (the latest of which is Erik Reece’s just-released Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea) and, as a counterpoint, a burgeoning section of dystopian fiction. Whereas books about actual utopian experiments (especially, as in Reece’s book, those that were imagined and enacted in nineteenth-century America) are inspired by a sense that things could be better (indeed, much better), and we might have something to learn from our radical predecessors, dystopian novels move in the opposite direction, imagining a much worse world, one created by our own evil impulses and institutions (or at least each author’s fears concerning the possible effects of one or another negative feature of contemporary reality).

Dystopias are, perhaps not surprisingly, popular among young-adult readers. Just think of the success (in both book and film form) of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels, The Hunger Games, which take place at some unspecified time in North America’s future. Part social commentary (in the case of the Katniss’s world, a critique of both reality TV and of grotesque inequalities in the wider society), part a mirror of adolescent disaffection and angst (of life with unsympathetic parents and cruel schoolmates)—they’re mostly about “what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”

Adult dystopias are something different—more didactic, more scolding, in which the author often issues a dire warning about the dangers of one or another current trend. They make sense when the idea is readers can do something to correct the situation, which most adolescents do not share. The latter are caught in the maelstrom; adults are supposed to be able to shape events (or at least to be held responsible for not doing the right thing).

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is certainly that. It warns, it scolds, and it seeks to teach—perhaps even more than other novels in the new sub-genre of dystopian finance fiction. Given the financialization of the U.S. economy in recent decades and the spectacular crash of 2007-08, which has come to be closely identified with the bubble-and-bust trajectory of Wall Street, it should come as no surprise that the sub-genre itself exists.

But The Mandibles is perhaps even more didactic than other novels in the area, such as the closely related Cosmopolis: A Novel (published before the crash, in 2003) by Don DeLillo. While DeLillo’s novel certainly presents a disturbing view of reclusive billionaire Eric Packer and his financial machinations (including a spectacular bet against the yen, which goes badly for him as he travels in his limousine across New York City to get a haircut), it is more an exaggerated portrayal of certain features of contemporary life (including the deregulation of finance, the growth of inequality, the role of information, and the decline of affect) than a clear explanation of why and how we’re headed to the apocalypse if things continue as they are.

Shriver, however, uses the saga of four generations of the Mandible family after the “crash of 2029” to tell such a didactic story. And the story she has chosen to relate is a pointedly right-wing libertarian version of a cascade of possible events (reinforced by some absurd future slang) that stem from, in her view, a bloated Keynesian state and its escalating national debt (accompanied by out-of-control migration from south of the border and a coalition of hostile foreign powers).

The thinly veiled critique of contemporary political economy, borrowed in equal parts from Rand Paul and Donald Trump (with, toward the end, a celebration of the Free State of Nevada, of which Ayn Rand would be proud), does have its humorous, liberal-tweaking moments. I had to chuckle as I read about the head of the Federal Reserve (Krugman) and, later in the novel, the new presidential administration (of Chelsea Clinton), as well as the fact that one group of academics (economists) are mostly left unemployed as the economic crises unfold.

But, overall, the economics of the novel (and the author does present a great deal of explicit economic theorizing, from the mouths of members of all four of the generations, especially the precocious self-taught economic savant Willing) are decidedly from the right-wing of the current political and economic spectrum. The economic apocalypse that engulfs the Mandible family and the entire country stems from the precipitous decline in the value of the U.S. dollar occasioned by a debt-financed explosion of federal financing for entitlement programs. A desperate nation (led by a Hispanic president) renounces its debts, both foreign and domestic. Other nations respond by devising an alternative currency, the “bancor” (the hypothetical name for the international bank money of an international currency union once devised by Keynes), which is not convertible into U.S. dollars. To refill the treasury, the federal government confiscates citizens’ gold, right down to their wedding rings.

We are then witness to the inevitable slide that tears apart the entire country, with a focus on East Flatbush where the various members of the clan are forced to gather. Fortunes are lost and people are evicted from their homes. Hyperinflation causes mind-spinning changes in prices, shortages provoke hoarding, and then, when basic goods are no longer available, life as we know it devolves (the replacement of toilet paper by cloth “ass-napkins” is the final ignominious assault on middle-class sensibilities). As for public order, the crime rate soars and public utilities no longer function properly (with water now in short supply). The Mandibles are forced to escape by traveling upstate to work on a farm (although a mercy killing-suicide en route means not all of them make it).

Years later, the remaining members of the clan (at least those who haven’t died or made it across the wall into the newly prosperous Mexico), led by now-grownup Willing, travel across the country, past factories (now owned by foreign capitalists and staffed by low-wage American workers) and geriatric facilities (for the elderly sent from abroad, attended to by low-wage American orderlies) to the only remaining sanctuary: the Free State of Nevada. The seceded state is on the gold standard, with a flat tax rate of 10 percent, no social safety net and no gun control, and where everyone has a chance to be a successful entrepreneur. It’s a society everyone there describes as “not a utopia”—with the obvious implication it’s the best alternative to the oppressive liberal-paradise-turned-dystopia the Mandibles have left behind.

If only they’d listened to the warnings about the “dodgy hocus-pocus” of Keynesian economics and the social-welfare state. They could have avoided the breakdown and their self-inflicted dystopia. That’s the lesson Shriver wants us to learn today.

As readers know, there is a well-founded critique of Keynesian economics and the problems of contemporary capitalism (which I’ve attempted to develop in some detail on this blog). However, the pressing issue, at least in the United States with its own sovereign currency, is not national debt or “easy money.” That’s for the Chicken Littles who stoke fears about a falling fiscal sky and want nothing more than low taxes, a diminished safety net, and the freedom of capital.

But that’s Shriver’s story and she spares no moment or patch of dialogue over the course of more than four hundred pages to attempt to drive it home.

 

*In fact, Fredric Jameson argues in his recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, that the last real utopian novel was Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, published in 1975.

Map of the day

Posted: 9 April 2014 in Uncategorized
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In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which I’m teaching this week in the labor section of the course on Commodities: The Making of Market Society), Jurgis manages to land a job at the South Works steel mill, after Juozapas, Teta Elzbieta’s crippled child, while looking for food in the local dump meets a woman whose fiancé happens to be a superintendent in the mill.

It was quite a story. Little Juozapas, who was near crazy with hunger these days, had gone out on the street to beg for himself. Juozapas had only one leg, having been run over by a wagon when a little child, but he had got himself a broomstick, which he put under his arm for a crutch. He had fallen in with some other children and found the way to Mike Scully’s dump, which lay three or four blocks away. To this place there came every day many hundreds of wagonloads of garbage and trash from the lake front, where the rich people lived; and in the heaps the children raked for food—there were hunks of bread and potato peelings and apple cores and meat bones, all of it half frozen and quite unspoiled. Little Juozapas gorged himself, and came home with a newspaper full, which he was feeding to Antanas when his mother came in. Elzbieta was horrified, for she did not believe that the food out of the dumps was fit to eat. The next day, however, when no harm came of it and Juozapas began to cry with hunger, she gave in and said that he might go again. And that afternoon he came home with a story of how while he had been digging away with a stick, a lady upon the street had called him. A real fine lady, the little boy explained, a beautiful lady; and she wanted to know all about him, and whether he got the garbage for chickens, and why he walked with a broomstick, and why Ona had died, and how Jurgis had come to go to jail, and what was the matter with Marija, and everything. In the end she had asked where he lived, and said that she was coming to see him, and bring him a new crutch to walk with. She had on a hat with a bird upon it, Juozapas added, and a long fur snake around her neck.

 

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The problem is, the mill is too far for Jurgis to return to the boardinghouse in Back of the Yards during the week, so he travels home only on the weekends. 

The steel-works were fifteen miles away, and as usual it was so contrived that one had to pay two fares to get there. Far and wide the sky was flaring with the red glare that leaped from rows of towering chimneys—for it was pitch dark when Jurgis arrived. The vast works, a city in themselves, were surrounded by a stockade; and already a full hundred men were waiting at the gate where new hands were taken on. Soon after daybreak whistles began to blow, and then suddenly thousands of men appeared, streaming from saloons and boardinghouses across the way, leaping from trolley cars that passed—it seemed as if they rose out of the ground, in the dim gray light. A river of them poured in through the gate—and then gradually ebbed away again, until there were only a few late ones running, and the watchman pacing up and down, and the hungry strangers stamping and shivering.

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This week, in A Tale of Two Depressions, we taught Don DeLillo’s extraordinarily prescient novel Cosmopolis (which was later made into a movie by David Cronenberg).

We presented it as a description of our time—of the conditions leading up to the crash of 2008 and, as it turns out, of the conditions that still obtain even now in the midst of the Second Great Depression. In the scene above from the movie, Eric Packer learns that his prostate is asymmetrical—and, toward the end of the novel, his would-be assassin, Benno, reminds Packer that “You should have listened to your prostate” (p. 199). Why? Because in attempting to predict movements in the yen, Packer forgot about

“The importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides. I know this. I know you. But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The misshape.” (p. 200)

What we didn’t plan on was the publication of Michael Lewis’s latest, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which—much to the consternation of Wall Street, which Lewis didn’t anticipate—documents the profits that can be and are made through a form of insider trading based on the asymmetry of information caused by the difference in speeds of placing and fulfilling orders. As Elaine Wah explains,

Virtually all modern financial markets match orders continuously – that is, as orders arrive to the exchange. Continuous-time matching is essentially a winner-takes-all race. A high-frequency trader who receives and acts on new information faster than others can readily pick off orders sitting on exchanges – over 40 venues are competing for the same orders – before others can react. So being faster by as little as one microsecond is enough to grab all the profit.

This is how the “flash boys” win.

Apparently, high-frequency traders have been listening to their prostates.

We also spent a great deal of time in class arguing about whether Packer, in all his posthumanist will to become “cosmic dust” (p. 206), is an accurate representation of our contemporary subjectivity. The general opinion was that, no, Packer lives in a virtual world devoid of “real” human contact and is too callous and lacking in empathy to tell us anything about ourselves. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that today—more than a century after Nietzsche and when we communicate with and learn about others (and, of course, ourselves) in the on-line world of  Facebook and other social media—Packer does tell us a great deal about what we have become or, at least, are on our way to becoming.

Of course, I could have also made the argument that we have become a nation that cuts food stamps and extended unemployment benefits for our fellow citizens. And of not changing faulty ignition switches directly linked to the deaths of at least 13 people because it would have added about a dollar to the cost of each car.