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!


  1. So, for a Christian, is Free-Market conservatism idolatry?

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  3. - "Leftism represents perhaps the most straightforward of answers—that humans and their institutions can and should take care of each other."

    One can't legitimately claim to be interested in "taking care" of people whose opinions differ from her own when she would see them punished for following their own standard of living in stead of the one she prefers. The type of leftism you describe isn't about caring, it's about leveraging stolen authority in order to achieve a subjective ideal - the core motive of any legislation or intervention ever. There's no moral superiority to be found there, for rightists or leftists: that's the base level of human behavior, and on the left it gets wrapped in the guise of social enlightenment.

    1. The point you're trying to make is rooted in what is perhaps the core antagonism between the left and right about the sort of freedom/autonomy we want to foster. The goal of this piece isn't to make the case that 'freedom from want'should always trump the economic freedom advocated by the the American right; rather, I am merely trying to demonstrate an idolatrous relationship between Christians and free market ideology.

      Having said this, however, I'm willing to offer a brief rejoinder to your argument. First, you assume that because I am using the vague terminology of "left vs. right" that I, myself, advocate every form of leftist economic intervention. I don't. If you re-read my piece, I describe the leftism as containing every possible variety of human economic intervention in order to arrive at an abstraction sufficient to demonstrate my point about the central dividing principle between the right and left: that of economic intervention. You need to do more careful reading in the future. My point is merely that contained within the scope of leftism is the whole spectrum of interventionist economic advocacies, from state-centric economic planning, to bottom-up social revolutionary tactics. Taken in the abstract, the right prefers the God of the market, the left prefers the God of humanity. That's my argument.

      Second, I think a moral superiority can be found in creating the basic material conditions in which people can realize their autonomy. You don't understand your own position which supposes the moral superiority of property ownership above everything else. When you say that intervention is an exercise of "stolen authority" you are making a moral claim. Your position necessitates the moral inviolability of property accumulation. And I contend that this is bad because property literally becomes more important than human life. If your right to accumulate property is more moral than the capacity to help other people, you live in a very bleak, scary world.

      Third, I never said that economic intervention has to be product of some sort of "social enlightenment". While I do believe in the importance of Marx's social revolution, I think realistic steps to alleviate human suffering can be advocated without a total social awareness of the philosophical necessity of such interventions.

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  5. "Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the type of world you want."

  6. My response is at my blog here:

    I will also paste it in this feed:

    My buddy Mike wrote a great post comparing Free Market ideology to Christian ideology (ultimately making a convincing argument that Free Market Conservatism is a form of idolatry). I liked his analogy so much that I wanted to make a contribution. Please read Mike's blog post first, so that you understand the context.

    The left, at its best, does not claim access to Truth. “There is no big Other,” as Lacan said. Instead, the left-at-its-best only points out that which is not Truth (which is essentially everything). The left-at-its-best tears down ideology; while, conservatism, at its purist is an attempt to maintain the dominant order—an order built on ideology. The left tears down (the critique), and the right builds-up and reinforces (the apology). (Perhaps I’m not perfectly capturing the right-left dynamic, but I think it fits this discussion of this particular political divide quite well.)

    Mike used the acronym TFM for The Free Market, “because acronyms are sexy,” so I’m going to adopt his terminology.

    The central difference between conservative and leftist economics right now, is that conservatism has faith in TFM (the God of the Market); whereas, the left has doubts. And there is good reason to doubt TFM. Because TFM has never and will never exist. It is a utopia, a construct, a dream. Like mercury, it combusts as soon as it is taken out into the air. This is because if ever there is a single government involvement in the market, the tiniest “distortion” and the market is no longer TFM. This is useful to conservative ideology. When markets fail--and they have a tendency to collapse spectacularly--Conservatism can always shield its faith in TFM by blaming government. The market never fails because of TFM; if the market fails it is because TFM was driven away by the unholy presence of government. If TFM is the Holy Spirit, then “government” is Satan’s presence on Earth.

    So for conservatives in 2008, it was not the derivatives market that failed, instead it was government intervention in the housing markets that caused the biggest credit crunch since the Great Depression. (Never mind that the derivatives market was the primary driver of the housing bubble, and never mind that the derivatives market was expressly exempted from regulation by the CFMA). When the God of the Market fails them, conservatives see it as a test of their faith in TFM’s principles.

    There is another factor complicating my analogy, however, because anyone who has read Coase should also know that the markets rely on governments to provide a basic structure—rules that allow a market to function. Without police, “property rights” become empty. Mob rule, and violence can take the place of voluntary market transactions if there is not a strong regulatory structure. As a result, without government, the market devolves into a Hobbesian state of nature. Government is a necessary condition for efficient markets.

    “Government,” TFM says, “can’t live with it; can’t live without it.” This puts us humans in a double-bind--no intervention, and the market falls apart; some intervention (such as subsidizing the rich by paying for the enforcement of their property rights) and suddenly there are distortions that get rid of perfect TFM. We can't win.

    Perhaps, the reason we never seem to be worthy of TFM is because we live in a carnal and fallen state. Our only hope, is to give ourselves entirely to TFM, devote our lives to it, and hope that TFM will make-up the difference. Hence, Free-Market conservatism is idolatry.

  7. I mean, what the hell is a "free market?" Like I pointed out earlier it is a concept that lacks cogency. It is not useful because it is bereft of meaning. Which means conservatives can simply put whatever meaning they want into it in order to suit their purposes. Because of TFM's emptiness, even when people are trying to improve the smooth functioning of markets they are susceptible to criticism for interfering with TFM.

    Case in point--the PPACA. The PPACA creates insurance exchanges which expand access to the insurance market. Thanks to Obamacare, individuals can purchase insurance at the same rates as large companies. Thereby expanding access to that market. Awesome market based reform of health insurance, right!? Apparently, No. Because according to conservatives I talk to, TFM abhors Obamacare.

    TFM makes no sense.

    If conservatives want to try and authentically reclaim TFM and try to turn it into something useful, more power to them. However, this critique should reveal that as it currently exists, TFM is a religious concept; it is not a useful, cogent economic concept.

  8. Ironically, through criticism and reform, the left is doing much more work to force markets into alignment with the utopian dream of TFM. Because the left takes reducing human pain and suffering as its starting point, and then tries to figure out how to take these imperfect, roughly defined, things we call markets and make them work to our advantage. The right, on the other hand, (as befits people who call themselves conservatives) want to simply sit on their laurels and "let the market work it out." Thereby, eschewing the hard work of figuring out what we can do to improve things.

    When you take TFM as you're starting point, you don't get very far, because, as I said, TFM has lost all meaning. It is a stand in for a litany of inconsistent conservative policy talking points that has little or no relations to actual economic problems and choices facing the country.