Obama and the New Spirit of Capitalism
AS IN HIS election night speech in 2008, Barack Obama used his second acceptance to blow the horns of victory for America’s meritocracy. “I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” However, unlike four years ago, Obama’s speech came in the context of liberal victories in the culture wars. Congressional races and ballot initiatives registered wins for gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion rights, and equality for women. Obama’s appeal to ‘minorities’ was a neatly crafted effort to define the relationship between culture and economy. This election, he wanted us to believe, was an affirmation of a particular ‘vision’: equal civil rights bring us closer to the ideal of a meritocratic political economy. This is a left-leaning nation embracing the principle of human equality expressed in the idea of equal opportunity.
Except, of course, this is not true. In the hullabaloo of election-handicapping and poll-predictions, it was easy to miss some of the most important facts of this new meritocratic political economy. As Mortimer Zuckerman reported in the Wall Street Journal the day before the election, “the U.S. economy has shifted in the direction of a part-time, low-wage workforce. The number of Americans now working part time has soared to 8.3 million… the number of Americans working full time has declined by 5.9 million since September 2007, while the number working part time has jumped by 2.6 million.”
Highly insecure labor is also low-paying: “Whereas lower-wage jobs were 21% of losses during the recession, they have accounted for 58% of new jobs since—and these have the highest proportion of part-time jobs. By contrast, mid-wage occupations were 60% of recession losses but have been only 22% of recovery growth. Higher-wage occupations were 19% of jobs lost and have been 20% of jobs recovered.”
Note, these are facts about the recovery not about the past. The new economy has become even more caste-like, with a dwindling proportion of secure, high-paying jobs, and an expansion of badly paying, insecure, part-time jobs that hold little hope of advancement. So it is not just that 93 cents out of every dollar of growth during the ‘Obama recovery’ has gone to the top 1%, nor that underemployment remains, by conservative estimates, 15%, and the employment to population ratio – a key measure of those even trying to find a job – is at historic lows. (Add in that the bottom 60% have seen a net loss in wealth to the top 40%.) It is also that the economy is moving towards the creation of two kinds of jobs, with even fewer, but bigger, winners and crumbs for the rest. This is the context for thinking about the coming four years and the way Obama and the Democrats politicize ‘cultural’ progress.
Liberal ‘cultural’ egalitarianism is the bright , white outline surrounding its deeply rotten, inegalitarian culture core. The modern meritocracy has been barely egalitarian at its best, and a far cry from its seriously egalitarian origins – when ‘equal rights’ meant equal rights to the ownership of property, not just to compete with millions of others for crappy jobs. The political culture of the modern meritocracy works by separating ‘cultural-social’ issues from those of political economy. Obama can endlessly celebrate cultural progress – improving attitudes towards ‘minorities’, legislative and judicial advances in civil rights for non-white non-men – so long as this understanding of culture is separated from the economy, and so long as economic questions are not understood to be ‘cultural.’ They are questions for the experts, not democratic values.
This is what lies behind all of the post-election talk about the new Democratic coalition as one of minorities, women, and rump segments of labor. An alliance of persecuted minorities can be brought together to fight legal discrimination and social prejudice so long as they continue to be seen as minorities, defined by their legal and social status. We are supposed to celebrate this so long as they remain a group of persecuted minorities. However, they are also a majority, and an increasingly growing one, if understood in terms of their place in the ‘meritocratic’ political economy.
In other words, this election is a sign of cultural progress only if we separate culture from the economy. If we understand the assertion of inegalitarian meritocratic values, the defense of personal responsibility, the demand to reduce consumption, and the mainstream approval of austerity, as cultural issues too, then it is much harder to exult in the forward march, or believe this is a left-leaning nation. To be sure, it is excellent that those denied civil rights are acquiring them, but there is no reason to let these small gains occlude the retrograde motion of our ‘culture’ as a whole. Already, the first sign of this ‘progress’ is Obama and his coterie of neoliberals, pragmatists, and opportunists trying to sell us austerity and grand bargains as the logical conclusion of this election.
“You can make it here if you’re willing to try,” says Obama. Apparently, the reason nearly 60% of new jobs are part-time and low-paying is because people aren’t trying hard enough. But with a little more belt-tightening, and with that spur of necessity pressing a little more sharply in their backs, then they will be seized by the new spirit of capitalism and finally take advantage of all those wonderful economic opportunities.