I’ve written before about William Connolly’s notion of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, a description of the cozy relationship that’s developed between the economic right and the social-moralistic right over the last couple of decades in the U.S. It’s not merely an alliance of converging interests, since the two groups’ interests don’t always align with each other at all; nor is it only the kind of discursive alliance that poststructuralist analysts like Laclau & Mouffe describe with their notion of hegemony as a process of co-articulation of interests between differently positioned subject-groups. For Connolly, there is also a micropolitical level of resonance that takes in affect, feeling, sensibility, ethos, and other things taking place in pre- and sub-rational dimensions of individual and collective life. (The updated version of Connolly’s piece is found in his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.)
Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which I just saw a few days ago, is a good example of the effort to forge a popular alternative to that. Moore tries to work on both the cognitive-discursive and the affective levels to, in effect, forge a kind of Christian-socialist-populist resonance machine — Christian in that it explicitly and repeatedly invokes the Jesus of the gospels (in a kind of reclaiming of the “what would Jesus do” discourse of the evangelicals), socialist in the small-s sense of valuing public control of our institutions, and populist in the way its critical barbs are aimed at, well, mostly bankers.
(On the Christian bit: see Moore’s interviews with Sean Hannity, rounds one and two, where the two tangle, sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes less so, over which of them carries Christianity in their heart (among other things). It makes for fascinating viewing…)
(And on the ‘socialism’: Every political-economic system in the developed world includes some mixture of small-s socialism and small-c capitalism, i.e., some combination of public and private ownership, management, and/or oversight of institutions, where “public”, in a democratic context, means by elected officials and “private” means by individuals or corporations pursuing their own goals. The difference is in how the lines are drawn between the two, with the U.S. erring on the side of minimizing the public role and most other countries seeking greater balance. Moore comes in somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but what he explicitly advocates is not socialism but democracy — which is another word for public oversight with the details being determined according to what’s in the public interest, not in the interest of the wealthy few.)
As a result of its discursive-affective strategy (with part of the latter being citizen Moore’s persona) the film won’t convert the unconverted unless they’re already leaning in this direction. But he does present a handful of tasty informational morsels that will hopefully send some viewers to their computers — as they did me — to find out more about them. One of those interesting bits is the idea of “plutonomy,” which comes out of a piece of political analysis developed by a trio of Citigroup financial advisors in 2005, well before last year’s economic crash. Jodi Dean has helpfully posted the group’s report here, along with its follow-up, and I highly recommend reading them. “Plutonomy” is similar to “plutocracy” (rule by the wealthy) and “oligarchy” (rule by a dominant class), except that it is not the direct power of the wealthy as it is its economic force that drives things (thus the “-nomy”). Investopia defines plutonomy as
“Economic growth that is powered and consumed by the wealthiest upper class of society. Plutonomy refers to a society where the majority of the wealth is controlled by an ever-shrinking minority; as such, the economic growth of that society becomes dependent on the fortunes of that same wealthy minority.”
I tend to agree with Levi Bryant’s reading of the report as “a mad scientist version of Marxist thought that uses analysis of the structuration of our contemporary situation not as a means for emancipation and developing alternatives but to even more effectively exploit us.” Which is what makes it such bizarre reading. Analysts on the left have known all along that the rich have been getting richer, the wealth gap has been widening (at least since 1980), and that the class interest of the wealthy has had a disproportionate influence on political decision-making, nowhere more than in the United States, but rarely does the right, or in this case innocent financial advisors to innocent investors, spell it out so clearly for us.
What surprised, and disappointed, me most in reading the Citigroup report is that my home country of Canada comes in ranking so clearly among the plutonomies and not among the “egalitarian bloc,” as the authors characterize it, of continental Europe and Japan. According to the figures they present, Canada and the U.K. both “pretty much follow the U.S. script,” while “Japan, France, and the Netherlands” are characterized as having been plutonomies “before the Great Depression, but the War, taxation, and new post-War institutional structures generated much more egalitarian societies, that hold
even today.” The details aren’t quite as obvious as that (see the figures on page 5 of the report) and the numbers trail off about ten years ago, so they’re not up to date, but it’s still saddening to realize how Canada’s more moderate brand of mixed economy is not as moderate as Canadians like to think. This goes against the grain of all the neoliberal and neoconservative rhetoric that’s been spouted — and made serious inroads — in Canadian public discourse in recent years. (I’m thinking of the whole spectrum of right-wingers from the academics and think tanks — the Tom Flanagans, Jack Granatsteins, and Brian Lee Crowleys, the ‘Calgary School,’ the Fraser Institute, and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, et al. — to the pundits like David Frum, Andrew Coyne, and pundit-tycoons like Conrad Black. With Stephen Harper’s Conservatives still solidly in power, though, and even with their apparent shift to the pragmatic center over the last year, I shouldn’t be too surprised.)
Bill Moyers, on his Journal this past week, interviewed two interesting figures: Marcie Kaptur, the firebrand Ohio congresswoman who featured prominently as a critic of the plutonomy in Moore’s film, and Simon Johnson, a former Chief Economist at the IMF. Johnson was a bit of a revelation to me — I guess he joins the ranks of the IMF/World Bank’s former-insiders-turned-critics (like Joe Stiglitz, et al.). There’s a slight difference of opinion between Kaptur and Johnson over Obama’s apparent coziness with Wall Street, which Moyers’s blog presents as a choice for debate, but really it’s Kaptur aligning herself with a future Obama, an Obama of the “not yet” (as Ernst Bloch might put it), and Johnson, as the outsider, coming out skeptical. But Kaptur has also had enough of the Tim Geithners and Larry Summerses. How long will we have to put up with them? And with the financial crisis, and the tremendous opportunity it afforded us, being largely smoothed over now — though the real crisis of housing and job losses, foreclosures, and the rest has only begun — how will we forgive our man Obama for such a lost opportunity?
If you’re not convinced, you haven’t been paying attention… See, for instance, Simon Johnson’s Atlantic article “The Quiet Coup” and his Financial Crisis for Beginners web site, which is one of the best places to get a quick education on what happened and why.
On second thought, I’m not sure that it’s fair to call Johnson an “insider-turned-critic.” While he’s critical of the U.S. oligopoly, he’s really just providing an IMF finance manager’s critique of it — a neutral (rather than vested) insider’s view — which is what makes his analysis that much more powerful. “We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries.” Not peak oil, but something more like peak growth. “If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.”