'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Postmodern Politics of the Clintons 

A great article by JoAnn Wypijewski about the Clintons:

The people never have been interesting to the Clintons, not in organized, confident form. They have been interesting as election props and poll numbers, and interesting as victims, atomized, whose pain could be felt, causes championed, and misery exploited. They are interesting to Bill on rope lines, as exemplars of popular adulation and individuals to be charmed or lectured. Hillary used to hate the rope lines, hate being touched, and in the 1992 campaign she used to make sure that big men were around her to keep the plebs at bay. That changed as her ambition grew and she discovered Purell instant hand santizer. Having purelled universal health care as a live issue for a generation, she's back at it, just where she wants to be, as an answer to a murmured prayer, among a populace mobilized for nothing but elections.

Wypijewski masterfully summarizes the amorality of the Clintons in terms of their political practices. But that is not the source of the brilliance of the article. Others, including her friend, Alexander Cockburn, have done it many times in the past, although her piece is an exemplary exampe of the genre, and should be read in its entirety for that reason alone.

No, the brilliance lies elsewhere. Despite the fact that she never once uses the term postmodern or alludes to the postmodern condition, she has, by interweaving recent political history, personal experience and subjective analysis, presented one of the most concise descriptions of it in recent memory.

Consider Wypijewski's introduction:

Three weeks before the Ohio primary Blanche McKinney, an assistant manager at Stark Metro Housing and a member of CWA Local 4302 in Canton, told me, "Do we have the time to get someone in there who's inexperienced? No. It's got to be someone who on day one can immediately begin solving problems, because we don't have the time." Her union brothers in the group I was talking to were still undecided at that point, but McKinney was for Hillary. The only thing she wasn't sure she liked about the candidate was her health care plan: "a lot of Canadians don't like their program." She seemed relieved when I assured her Hillary was not promoting a Canadian-style single-payer system.

McKinney is solidly in Hillary's most solid base: 59, white, a woman, making less than =$50,000, rural. Although she works in Canton's public housing, she and her husband are also small farmers. He doesn't buy anything unless the label says "Made in America". She says she "never seriously thought this was a problem" but asks her union brothers anyway about Barack Obama's name and the "Muslim connection back then in Indonesia": "You say that doesn't bother you even a little?" The four men, three white and one black, said they didn't think so. Dustin Robinett, white, 33, an AT&T repairman, explained what he saw as Obama's slim "connection to the Muslim nation" (his father's childhood religion, his step-father's religion) before going into an extended consideration of multiculturalism, the melting pot, global experience, religion and politics, the habits of men: "we're all afraid of things that are different."

"In God we trust", said Bob Ramsey wryly, a long-hair AT&T inspector in a camo baseball cap, 41, white.

These were the first people I talked to during a week in Ohio before the primary, so it wasn't until later that I noticed there was something else about McKinney that seemed common among Clinton's most passionate supporters. Most really believed Hillary herself would begin to solve problems immediately upon taking residence at Pennsylvania Avenue. For all the talk after her victory of Hillary as "a fighter" and Ohioans as "fighters" and all of that being a perfect match -- the boxing gloves she held up at events, the endorsement from world middleweight champion and Youngstown native Kelly ("The Ghost") Pavlik -- what seemed truer was that Hillary's solid rank and file aren't fighters at all, or haven't been for a long time. The late Youtube entry into the campaign, a sequence of visuals from Clinton's TV commercials and some still photos backed by John Stewart's "Survivors," made the point precisely. Clinton Country doesn't fight; it survives, and hopes for deliverance.

Within these four paragraphs, Wypijewski identifies many of the primary features of postmodern politics in the US: (1) the marginalization of class conflict; (2) the accompanying demoralization of people who significantly viewed the world through the lens of their class identity and acted upon it; (3) mistrust of collective action and collective political solutions to social problems; (4) a vulnerability to appeals to fear and uncertainty, or, to put it differently, a reflexive tendency to associate the prospect of social transformation with unacceptable risk; and (5) a pseudo-religious reliance upon others for one's protection, and, perhaps, even more broadly, a willingness to relate to external events in pseudo-religious ways.

Wypijewski's social realism paradoxically invokes the abstract theory of Baudrillard as manifested in his early 1980s book, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. In Silent Majorities, he rejected the notion that the masses or social classes existed in such a way as to render the utopian abandonment of capitalist society possible. Of course, Baudrillard was far from the only person to develop this insight, but he did express it in a way that retains great contemporary relevance.

With the collapse of Marxism, there remains, according to this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, only participation in the cultural creations of media and contemporary communications technologies:

Baudrillard's postmodern world is also one in which previously important boundaries and distinctions — such as those between social classes, genders, political leanings, and once autonomous realms of society and culture — lose power. If modern societies, for classical social theory, were characterized by differentiation, for Baudrillard, postmodern societies are characterized by dedifferentiation, the "collapse" of (the power of) distinctions, or implosion. In Baudrillard's society of simulation, the realms of economics, politics, culture, sexuality, and the social all implode into each other. In this implosive mix, economics is fundamentally shaped by culture, politics, and other spheres, while art, once a sphere of potential difference and opposition, is absorbed into the economic and political, while sexuality is everywhere. In this situation, differences between individuals and groups implode in a rapidly mutating or changing dissolution of the social and the previous boundaries and structures upon which social theory had once focused.

In addition, his postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior. Yet determination itself is aleatory in a non-linear world where it is impossible to chart causal mechanisms in a situation in which individuals are confronted with an overwhelming flux of images, codes, and models, any of which may shape an individual's thought or behavior.

It is tempting to say that the inevitable consequence of such a world, one which persists today, is disempowerment. In Ohio, Wypijewski encountered union members who could no longer respond to a presidential candidate who sought their active participation, and instead aligned themselves with the one who emotionally understood their passivity. But that requires us to speak in the language of a sociological perspective of the world that no longer exists.

Rather, it may be more accurate to say that in today's postmodern political environment, people have been conditioned through hyperreal experiences with media and communications technology to associate in ways that are hierarchical instead of egalitarian. The key phrase in the encyclopedia citation is the last one: Yet determination itself is aleatory in a non-linear world where it is impossible to chart causal mechanisms in a situation in which individuals are confronted with an overwhelming flux of images, codes, and models, any of which may shape an individual's thought or behavior.

Yes, you have the same question that I do: what does aleatory mean? Fortunately, wikipedia comes to the rescue: Aleatory means "pertaining to luck", and derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice. Aleatoric, indeterminate, or chance art is that which exploits the principle of randomness. If luck is an increasingly powerful determinant in contemporary social and political outcomes, then, paradoxcially, the consequence is the reenforcement, if not expansion, of the current neoliberal political order, as people are disinclinded to believe that their rational decisions will result in any beneficial outcomes.

One need only spend some time around gamblers to immediately recognize the truth of this statement. In my experience, they were either completely disassociated from mainstream social and political experience, or, if not, prone to taking the most cynical and self-interested interpretation of people and events, leading them, quite predictably, to express a negative, reactionary perspective. Their utopianism ended rather abruptly at the card table or betting window.

The Clintons, as described by Wypijewski, have quite skillfully manipulated these social conditions to their advantage. But they merely constitute a symptom instead of the disease. It is easy to vent righteous anger towards them, but the fault lies, as you might guessed, not with them, but with us.

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