Obama and the New Spirit of Capitalism

9 Nov

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.

18 Responses to “Obama and the New Spirit of Capitalism”

  1. Paco Barragán November 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Dear author or authors of the article,

    It would be intellectually fair if you use the phrase/concept “The New Spirit of Capitalism” to quote the authors of the book Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski (Verso, 2005).
    Many writers, among them myself have used this title and benefitted from their focus and knowledge. And it’s obvious that the widespread use of this “catch phrase” is because of people reading and referring to their book.
    Politeness doesn’t have to be a sign of weakness.
    Kind regards,
    Paco Barragán (Madrid)

    • thecurrentmoment November 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Paco, that is certainly fair. We were assuming readers would know the reference but that might have been a mistake. In fact, the subtext for the post was to imply there is a move away from that ‘new’ spirit to a ‘new new’ spirit. After all, Chiapello and Boltanski were saying that the New Left culture of self-discovery and self-realization had been easily absorbed into the post-Fordist, high-tech, consumerist culture of late capitalism. But the ‘new new’ spirit is less about abundance, utopia, and self-realization, and more about sober self-discipline, personal responsibility, and living within our means. We might run a follow up making that point explicitly, in which case Chiapello and Boltanski will be cited directly.

    • Olivier Jutel December 20, 2012 at 1:13 am #

      If anyone is interested I have just published in an article in the International Journal of Zizek Studies entitled: “Barack Obama, the New Spirit of Capitalism and the Populist Resistance”. Its available at: http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewFile/380/448. ITs deals specifically B&C, Zizek and what I call the new spirit of commodity fetishism.

      THanks, Olivier

      • thecurrentmoment December 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

        Thank you, Olivier, for letting us know. We look forward to reading it.

  2. brent November 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    A sobering postscript to the post-election relief many of us are feeling. Your interpretation of Obama’s “if you’re willing to work” is fair enough, and your warning about how “his coterie of neoliberals, pragmatists, and opportunists” are planning to spin their victory–and spend their capital–in the “grand bargain” being negotiated as we speak–all this is salutary. But let’s also remember that the electorate managed, through all the obfuscation, lies, attack ads and neo-Randian gibberish, to reject a much worse alternative, in fact, a forced quick-step in the wrong direction. That electorate may not quite know what it’s doing, but it has an idea, and its idea is similar to the one you put forward more eloquently: late capitalism is not meeting its needs. Obama’s re-election gives us a small breathing space of compromise while holding the worst forces at bay. Now we need to help that new electoral majority understand what the real alternative might look like. On to the positive side of your argument!

    • Mara November 9, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      I would certainly assume that these authors are aware that the cultures at play in this election were conservative culture–as articulated by Hobbes, Burke, Southern elites (nod to Genovese), Hayek, et al–and a retrograde liberal culture that enables global capitalism by cohering working class Americans around maintaining or expanding civic rights, but rejects the social rights, the economic democracy needed to democratize the materialization of the bourgeois rights (civic and political). It is great that liberals can still win in the long dance with their conservative frenemies. But without a credible left threat, the liberals will never take rights beyond what is required to authorize current elite rule, and they still share with conservatives the view that the mass of Americans, of humanity is automatically, sufficiently ennobled just by dint of their exploited status.

  3. Douglas D. Edwards November 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    On Twitter Corey Robin attributes this article to Alex Gourevitch, but it isn’t signed and this is a multi-person blog. Is Alex Gourevitch indeed the sole author?

    • thecurrentmoment November 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

      The Current Moment is a co-authored blog. Though individuals posts tend to have lead authors, both authors take full responsibility for each post.

  4. Rutger November 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    Matt Stoller has furiously noted as much at Salon and Naked Capitalism more than once, but perhaps not with quite as much clarity as in this excellent piece.

  5. Paco Barragán November 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Perfect. Now, ‘new new’ sounds a little bit awkward, it’s like ‘post-postmodernism’ that starts to emerge here and there. I also suggested years ago ‘neo-modernity’, but be it neo-, alter, meta, new new… I’m afraid we’re only playing with words.
    The fact is that this capitalism is coming to an end. Maybe not now, maybe in 50 years. We are just in a decadent, kistch terminal phase.

  6. David Kaib November 10, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    Great post As usual, what’s most important is not what’s openly contested, but what’s taken for granted. The separation of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ issues serves no purpose but to obscure.

  7. Kiku November 14, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    “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.”

    This is indeed the economy that we currently have, correct. Lots of the middle class jobs have been shipped overseas. And yes, Obama thinks that equal opportunity is important.

    You are wrong, though, to say that Obama sees civil rights as the key to his economic agenda. The larger view of Obama’s economic philosophy is like Clinton’s, that he will grow the economy from the middle class by creating new opportunities, such as building our infrastructure, saving the auto industry, supporting small companies, leading the world in alternative energy, giving incentives to bring the jobs back from overseas, and many more initiatives.

    Contrary to what you say, Obama sees our countries success tied to global competition, and we need to be educated to compete. There was a time when we could bring the highly educated people here, but, as foreign economies grow, as in India now, many of the elite educated people are deciding to stay in their own country. Obama’s vision is long term, and it extends down to our kids.

    Part of that vision is civil rights, to give everyone the opportunities to participate through education, but that is not the core of his philosophy, as you propose.

  8. http://yahoo.com February 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    Your entire post, “Obama and the New Spirit of Capitalism thecurrentmoment” was in fact
    worth writing a comment here! Basically wished to state you truly did a great work.
    Many thanks -Brianne

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