The Real Culture War, Or, The Ideological Mountain in front of the Fiscal Cliff

17 Dec

This is the first in a series following up on a previous post, in which we argued that the culture war should be carried into the heart of the American political economy, rather than presuppose the separation between culture and economics.

During the contest between Romney and Obama, lefties argued that the election was an instrument of political distraction. It focused attention on a false choice between Democrats and Republicans, which served mainly to narrow our sense of possibility and the full range of alternatives. They looked forward, therefore, to the day after the election, when ‘real’ politics could begin again. However, as the fiscal cliff debate reminds us, the American political system continuously produces and reproduces a narrow range of choices. How to cut trillions in dollars in spending in the midst of a post-crisis economic stagnation is a competition over who better fits in with the hegemonic idea of our time: limits.

What both sides agree on is that we have to expect less. The lesson of the past decade is people irresponsibly demanded more than the economy could provide, whether privately, through credit markets, or publicly, through state provision. Somehow we can only return to growth and progress by living within our means. Even the more significant recent expansions of the state – Obamacare in particular – have come with the rider that we should expect only the minimal humanization of capitalism, not its transformation. Extend health care to the poor, but don’t think that there could be a public option, and don’t even mention single payer.

Likewise, the fiscal cliff debate manufactures a climate of emergency that, in the name of sharpening the minds, just narrows our focus. While some liberals have fairly pointed out that fears about the cliff are exaggerated, and the product of wars and tax cuts issued the right-wing Keynesians of the Republican party, Democrats are just as much, perhaps more, the party of austerity. Even some liberals admit as much, though entertain the false hope that the party can be saved from itself. The oppressiveness of our political culture lies in its unrelenting ability to force upon us these limited choices, continually lowering our expectations. If there is a culture war to be had, it is this one.

(to be continued)



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