Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hipster Conservatism

Hipster Conservatism (or The Free Market, Christianity, and the Simple Life)

Barack Obama’s re-election should obviously not be read as the ascension of the American left. As many commentators have noted, Obama’s politics more closely resemble that of the more moderate Republican party of the 70s than anything even remotely ‘leftist’. The last president who might fit the bill of a ‘leftist’ leader would be Lyndon Banes Johnson who created two of our more *ahem* ‘socialist’ federal programs, namely Medicare and Medicaid. Even LBJ, however, is a far cry from the peace-loving hippies most people associate with the American left. After all, he IS responsible for the disastrous American ventures in Southeast Asia, including the wholesale slaughter of peasants in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. So I think it’s pretty easy to conclude he is no leftist, at least by self-proclaimed leftists’ standards. But, by conservative standards which exclude even entertaining the thought-experiment that an American president would NOT be involved in the murder of some population of people somewhere on the planet, LBJ just might very well have been in league with a nascent group of (very, very old) American Bolsheviks.

Yet even as the left enjoys little presence in the halls of American government, the American right (I include Democrats among this group) has been waging a fierce campaign against them and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the realm of culture where conservatism is enjoying a peculiar popularity. While the term ‘conservatism’ likely itself isn’t as popular, its basic economic principles rooted in the eminence of the ‘free market’ undoubtedly are, with both major political parties pledging unwavering fealty to them time and time again. At the level of political culture, I read the increasing number and prominence of self-described libertarians, especially, as the expression of the increasing cultural popularity of economic conservatism. By ‘cultural popularity’ I simply mean that people find it an attractive option to identify themselves with fiscal/economic conservatism; essentially, it is fashionable or in vogue. In particular, I have encountered a striking number of people who identify as socially liberal but fiscally conservative, especially LGBT men and women. While certainly social liberalism and fiscal conservatism aren’t inherently in conflict, I can’t help but suspect that its cultural popularity (reactionary as it is to a politically impotent left) is coterminous with the rise of the vacuous cultural cannibals we today call hipsters. Yes, my friends, I speak of a Hipster Conservatism.

Hipster conservatism is in love with the occult knowledge represented by the GOP and free market ideology in general. Leftism represents perhaps the most straightforward of answers—that humans and their institutions can and should take care of each other. Conservatism pretends to a different sort of humanitarianism, one that eschews the simplicity of human intervention in favor of a more mysterious and, I would argue, elaborate system of workings beyond the scope of mere mortals. The Free Market (I choose to refer to it as a proper noun due to the near-metaphysical properties attributed to it) is no human institution or system—as represented to us by the present-day GOP and free market ideologues, The Free Market (or TFM because acronyms are sexy) is otherworldly, divine in its perfection, and possibly imbued with all of the same righteousness found in Abrahamic scripture. You may think I’m embellishing—I’m not. Logically, one can only conclude that The Free Market is of divine origin, or at least spiritually rich in nature. And by spiritually rich, I don’t mean soul-edifying or any other sort of non-sense. I mean it involves a lot of spirits. Literally.

Let me explain. If The Free Market is at odds with leftism which advocates every variety of human economic intervention, all the way from state-guided economic planning to the radical socialist thought that individuals should care about one another, then it must follow that The Free Market is not a function of these things. Rather TFM is decidedly not human—it certainly involves humans in its processes but because it does not emerge from a decision founded in human reason that might deviate from profit-maximization, it cannot, itself, be human-derived. As represented in conservative economic ideology, even if one engages in philanthropy, it is under the auspices of The Free Market that one acts. Human agency is in a strange state of flux within TFM—if the public acts altruistically (through its agent, the state), exercising autonomy beyond the implications of a cost-benefit calculus, then it is not acting under the auspices of TFM. Yet, if you act as an individual, doing whatever the hell you want to do, you’re an agent of TFM—there’s no escaping it. Even as you, yourself, are not The Free Market, you are forced to do its bidding, because whatever you do, that’s what TFM wants you to do. While some might say that TFM, then, is simply a synonym for individual human autonomy, this cannot be the case.

Let me pretend I’m Socrates for a moment: can a human being act autonomously in such a way that she would not be exercising her autonomy? Obviously not—if you are truly autonomous, then whatever you do will be a function of that autonomy. Now, for a harder question: can an aggregation of autonomous human beings collectively act in a such a way that they would not be exercising their autonomy? It depends. If a collective of otherwise autonomous human beings can only properly express their autonomy if 100% of them agree to a single course of action, then it follows that democracy, governments, and corporations in general are completely antithetical to The Free Market—it is impossible to achieve a 100% consensus from a group of people on the scale of any sort of complex organization. But what if people within a collective agree to surrender aspects of their autonomy to representatives in a government who will make decisions for them? Would this mean that an individual exercised her autonomy in such a way that she ceased to exercise her autonomy? Again, the answer is still no as she was free to make that decision to begin with. A conservative would never say that signing a contract with another person is a form of depriving oneself of autonomy.

So we arrive at a strange impasse: either the theoretical basis for western democracy (Locke’s social contract) is, itself, antithetical to The Free Market because it is founded on people autonomously surrendering portions of their autonomy, thereby making The Free Market synonymous with Hobbes’ state of nature; or The Free Market has nothing to do with freedom and autonomy but, instead, supposes a hyper-individualist ideology that necessitates social and economic isolation. Philanthropic collaboration itself is the Satan and anti-Christ to TFM.

[Note: I don’t really believe that Locke’s theory of social contract actually provides the conditions for human autonomy; rather, I refer to the theory because of its almost sacrosanct position in justifying liberalism as the foundation of western society.]

Indeed, TFM supercedes even our basic autonomy as human beings—it places the individualist profit motive as the supreme Good of all humankind. TFM doesn’t fear ‘private’ collaboration because any firm or corporation that ignores TFM’s profit-motive will not long survive. Collective collaboration as the state, however, which wields its monopoly power over law, can act altruistically and not be eliminated through market competition. Consequently, conservative economic ideology has positively cosmic implications for humanity’s place in the universe.  TFM is a god—there’s no other way around it.

Using Christianity as an analogy, my point becomes more clear. If TFM were God, then The Invisible Hand would be Jesus Christ, TFM’s agent here on earth, doing its bidding and taking all the flak for the mistakes otherwise wrought by humanity. Just as God in many Christian sects is the total sum of everything, present in every iota of existence yet possessed by none of it, similarly is TFM a mysterious presence that encompasses the totality of all economic activity yet is not present in any particular individual or moment. I am not The Free Market, neither is Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Milton Friedman.  Yet, when operating on the scale where statistics become the language of choice for describing human activity, TFM manifests itself. The aggregation of economic activity is understood within conservative economic ideology to disclose itself as the The Free Market. So, while I, by myself, do not constitute TFM, when I am grouped together with a million other people, TFM can be said to be present among us. Thus it can concluded that TFM is a force that exists among and between humans—it is a mysterious spirit that rears its head as the sum of economically-proximate human beings’ activities. Radical.

And let’s not forget our older brother in this whole thing. The Invisible Hand likewise has to be some kind of spirit. First, of all—it’s invisible, the tell-tale sign that something is likely superhuman in some way. Yet, even in its invisibility, it is present where TFM is hanging around, except it’s taking an active, well, hand in guiding what a large group of people do. And, of course, he directs them on the one true path of righteousness and eternal glory. However, instead of proposing 10 job killing, bureaucratic restrict…I mean…’commandments’, TFM has kindly streamlined the whole process into one righteous imperative: maximize profits, minimize costs. And as long as you take part in the monthly liturgy of receiving a fat salary, you’re getting just the right amount of TFM-ordained Invisible Hand into your system.

Not to mention having TFM in your life makes things so much easier. When Christians do good unto others, they are said to possess the spirit of the Lord. TFM does you a solid and takes God’s goodness one step further—it possesses you, kindly relieving you of all responsibility to anyone, anywhere! When you become an agent of TFM (along with, say, 300 million other people), all you have to do is keep your eye on the scoreboard and everything will be AY-OK. As long as you’ve got more of TFM’s holy goodness than others, you’re fulfilling your duty to everyone else and, in a way, making sure they’ll be taken care of. Well, by ‘taken care of’ I mean…well, whatever happens to them, it’s TFM’s will anyways. After all, money is TFM’s corollary to God’s love—some people are blessed to have it; others, well, fuck them. They aren’t working/praying hard enough or some shit. It’s TFM’s will.

Religion is perhaps the most mysterious of human activities, worshipping god(s) who may or may not care about you and your neighbor, all dependent on your choice of scripture and interpretation. Yet even with its mystery and obscurity, core elements of hipster ‘taste’, religion remains unpopular among them. Maybe it has something to do with the simplicity of the message offered by several religious groups. Protestants offer eternal salvation in exchange for the simple task of accepting Jesus as your savior. Dull as shit. Where’s the science? Where’s the Derridian double-speak that only makes sense when under the influence of a particularly potent batch of pot brownies?

 It’s much cooler to talk about ‘science’, economics, and markets than it is to say we should simply care about one another. Hipsters use knowledge as a way of doing two things: (1) acquiring power over others and (2) avoiding responsibility, which is, perhaps , the very definition of economics: the science of avoiding responsibility. What most people associate with the term ‘hipster’ is someone who possesses an obscure knowledge about something (usually music) and uses it to establish a Foucauldian knowledge-power relationship and bludgeon their opponents into silence. Similarly mainstream economic conservatism has to constantly refer to obscure knowledges about aggregations of people’s labor in order to justify its policy recommendations. Conservatism is forced to beg the question about efficiency because it is not, and never has been, a human value. Efficiency is something that happens at a level of analysis  far-removed from everyday human storytelling and that’s why economics has to assume not only the existence of market efficiency but also its human desirability. It’s nearly impossible to speak of a ‘leftist economics’—if Marx was really a political economist it was only because he critiqued the shit out of capitalism. He never articulated the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom of Freedom precisely because it doesn’t exist. The Revolution is inexorably bound up in the HUMAN individual, not the worker-human that makes an appearance in name-only in economic treatises. The truly leftist project is one that abandons any pretense to economic ‘principles’ and proceeds instead on the basis of human values.

Unless conservatism really is God's chosen way of discursively representing human beings, then we can't even consider it a human science. No wonder hipsters love The Free Market: all the obsequiousness to obscurity contained in religion without any of the attendant responsibility! It’s a trust fund for your conscious!