Tag Archive: economy


plutonomy, Michael Moore, & Canada

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

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Descartes3.jpg

In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.

We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)

But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.

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trusting Obama or not

With protests gearing up today to push the Obama administration away from its current timidity with its economic policies (see A New Way Forward and Democracy Now’s broadcast on it), it seems apropos to ask whether and to what extent the Obama administration should be trusted by progressives.

Open Left, one of the better progressive political websites, and one of the groups that greens should be building better alliances with, has an interesting discussion going on about this – see Chris Bowers’ Open Left:: The Case for Distrust.

For some background on Open Left, I recommend its take on the twentieth-century history of left politics in the U.S.

Similar questions as these could be raised about the administration’s environmental positions, where a notably strong set of opening strategies – particularly on climate change – seems to be growing a little limp. In particular, it will make a big difference whether carbon credits are given away to polluting corporations (effectively giving them what belongs to all of us, the air) or sold to them (and bringing in some revenue in the process). But at least with environmental issues we don’t have the same faces from the Wall Street-loving Clinton era as with economic issues (the Summerses, Geithners, et al.).

scenes from a recession

There are some great pictures to be found here, at The Big Picture: abandoned subdivisions and building sites, landscapes of unused freight containers (#34) and disused newspaper racks (#30), and “Free Weekly Tours of Quality Foreclosed Homes, Prices Won’t Last!!!” (#9, from Las Vegas). There’s something Ed Burtynskyesque about them…

On the topic of Ed Burtynsky: While the image quality is fairly poor when you blow it up to full-screen, Burtynsky’s TED Prize talk has him bearing his environmentalist heart on his sleeve (including his connection to the enviro-optimists at Worldchanging.com). Expect more on his photography and the work of other recent landscape-themed artists coming soon here…