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A Revisionist Reading of the Midterm Elections, or the Unmentionable Contradictions of the New Knowledge Economy

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One can read the results of the 2014 mid-term elections in the United States in terms of whatever dominant political inkblot they favor.

The narrative of the American right-wing, of course, is that the resounding Republican victories at both the Congressional and gubernatorial levels constituted a resounding repudiation by the voters of the Obama administration’s policies and pari passu the much vaunted progressivist politics that seemed to have finally taken solid root in American political soil with the 2008 election.  At the same time, they view it as a victory for the sovereigns of “free enterprise”, the new economic elites.

The story told by the left naturally focuses on the failure to mobilize the so-called “Obama coalition” of young voters, minorities and women as well as the power of Republican PACs to finance a constant juggernaut in virtual every media market of political advertising, particularly the nasty and negative variety.  It has also manifested in a somewhat predictable condescension toward, if not in some cases outright demonization of, the predominantly white and male electorate that prevailed in the landslide win.

On the other hand, exit polls – which usually have more semiotic heft than political theorists acknowledge – tell a somewhat different tale.

No one knows exactly why certain constituencies stay home (when Obama was re-elected in 2008 the Republican base, not overly excited about Mitt Romney, did exactly the same thing).   But those who did vote, according to the pollsters, frequently defied expectations, as a New York Times post-mortem has suggested.

Somewhat more Hispanics voted right-leaning candidates this time as well as the much vaunted “Soccer mom.”   At the same time, overall voter preference surveys have continued to show a bias toward liberal candidates over conservatives, a discrepancy which some commentators such as noted economist and columnist Paul Krugman have blamed on the ignorance of the American voter who ushered in what he terms a “triumph of the wrong.”

It is the Economy, Stupid!

But these standard triumphalist, or blame-altering, accounts siphon our attention away from the more complex, more trenchant, and far more consequential matters at which we are not unfortunately taking the hard look we should be.

When they win, politicians always commend the wisdom of the voters.  When they lose, they dismiss them as fickle or misinformed.  Yet electoral politics in genuine democracies rarely and simply follows “the issues,” as the political class would like to frame it.

The famous line from the Clinton era – “it’s the economy, stupid” – as well as the Carter-era phrase “malaise” have stuck with us as enduring tropes for the more deep-lying discontents among the electorate toward which our “experts” routinely tend to turn a blind eye.

Concerning the 2014 election some diagnoses have concluded that from the voters point of view, it was the economy (and you’re stupid, if you didn’t get that).   Even though the Democratic establishment trumpeted the very real improvement in the aggregate economic statistics for the United States since 2012, and an even greater one since 2008, public opinion obviously didn’t buy it.

As John Weeks writing in The Huffington Post right after the election sardonically opines, “it’s the facts, stupid.”   The economic “facts” indicate that while GNP has been on a fast upward swing (while the stock market has been reaching ever new spectacular heights), and the number of jobs (mostly low-paying and part-time) have been rising, individual and family incomes continue to stagnate and decline.

In other words, growing income inequality and the “immiseration” – if we can use Karl Marx’s famous term – of the middle class has been accelerating under the very regime that promised to reverse the global trend toward redistributing wealth upward into the hands of shadowy and unaccountable asset-holders (the infamous and quasi-mythical “1 percent”), who strangle the productive deployment of capital into the creation of new employment opportunities and economic growth trajectories that benefit the masses of people.

It is this failure of so-called “progressive” politics to push back the surging tide of neo-liberal expropriation of the planetary productive apparatus itself that was the real sleeper in this election. And a surprising reason may be that progressive politics, at least in a putatively “egalitarian” America, feeds far more than its exponents believe off the very economic forces that are pushing the world toward income inequality.

The Real Nature of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

One set of clues to this anomaly arises out of the recent arguments and discussions over French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book that has been hailed by some as the most important work in political economy since the publication over a century ago of Marx’s Capital, or Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in the 1930s.

Piketty’s book, an elephantine tome noted for its modest economic theorizing, wonkish policy pandering, and sprawling machinery for data assemblage and number crunching became a sensation in America earlier this year because it documented extensively for the first time the surge in economic inequality worldwide. Piketty focuses more on wealth inequality than wage inequality, a discrepancy upon which critics on both the right and left have seized.   But the two cannot be separated easily, and it is in this statistical twilight zone where things are not always as they appear that the sources of many of our present day global economic dysfunctions can begin to be discerned.

As Megan McArdle observes, the real issue is the social and economic inequality fomented inescapably by the new “knowledge society” itself.   She writes:

“A society that used to offer broad security, stability, and opportunity to the top 75 percent of households is now increasingly divided into an educated elite and a low-skilled workforce for whom work is uncertain and not very well paying… Among people without a college diploma, life looks more and more like it did for the welfare-dependent underclass in the 1980s: exploding levels of single parenthood with multiple partners and low levels of participation in civic groups such as churches and bowling leagues.”

In other words, the educated elites who increasingly drive the formation of progressive political agendas and condemn accelerating income disparities by seeking to exorcize the baleful specter allegedly responsible for the trend, ritually denominated simply as “capitalism,” are ironically as much the problem as the solution.

The transformation of “knowledge” into capital – and therefore into a new type of “surplus value” that alienates the value of labor, which in Marxian theory is inextricably tied to the corporeal substrate of economic production, even more than in the industrial era – and of the accumulation of such (“intellectual”) capital in the hands of globally hegemonic, digital über-capitalists like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg follows precisely the Marxist script, even though it is the new breed of academic Marxists who are the least aware (though someone like Althusser probably had a good inkling of it).

In my forthcoming book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2014) I develop this argument in more sophisticated conceptual analysis and richer detail, following Jean-Joseph Goux’s discovery a generation ago that those economic systems once dependent on those factors of production we term “labor” and “capital” have morphed into “symbolic economies”, energized to a large extent by what Baudrillard has termed “procession of simulacra.”

The fact that the last great “crisis of capitalism” in 2008 was quintessentially a financial crisis sparked by the virtualization of capital into a substance-less wheelworks of pure signification (“fetishism” in Marxist terminology) testifies to this hidden dialectic of history.   Economics is no longer a “materialist” science, but a weird kind of idealist one, an effort to theorize the inexorable, universal disconnect between etherealized value and the manufacture of tangible commodities.

Knowledge is indeed power, as Francis Bacon foresaw, but it is also a fantastic faux-productive process where “capital” per se functions as the sorcerer’s apprentice, delighting the proles with the latest cool app while the new cosmopolitan captains of the digitized dream industry stealthily emerge as plantation owners controlling the physical means of enjoyment, if not subsistence.

As Marie Antoinette might have said, if she were alive today: “let them eat avatars.”

The Digital Economy and the New Dialectics of Class Conflict

American politics today, therefore, betrays a strange and novel undercurrent of class conflict which those who prate the most about “class” must out of their own self-interest turn a dangerous blind eye. But this conflict is not manifest only in America, or in the West as a whole, for that matter.

The mounting tension between the new knowledge elites of the world and the undereducated and underemployable multitudes translates also, and often, into seemingly intractable culture wars where “progressive” values are perceived as colonial values. That is as true in Birmingham, Alabama as it is in Bangladesh. So-called “social issues”, therefore, mask unspoken economic class issues. Reactionary assertions (albeit in grandiose terms and aspirations) of particularized identities and outlooks – Olivier Roy’s new global “fundamentalist” imaginary – serve as subterfuges for resistance to the all-encompassing, neo-liberal “symbolic economy.”

Islamist rhetoric, for example, increasingly turns progressive narratives of female emancipation on its head, labeling them as ideologies of oppression.   Such rhetoric, furthermore, “reverse engineers” the easily available contents of networked forms of communications technology and social media to brand the very “democratic” culture that originated them as demonic and destructive of the identities of non-Westerners. The all-too-familiar distinction between the West and “the rest” thus marks out an invisible, but very real struggle for proprietorship over the fruits of the so-called “knowledge economy.”

In the West itself, where the nodes of power over such an economic order are lodged, what strike the progressive sensibility as the politics of reaction are paradoxically perceived at the ground level as the politics of insurrection. What the media without much historical finesse tends to name “populism”, usually expressed as voter anger simultaneously at big government and big finance, garners only a vague clue or two about wider, structural nature of this revolt.

The classism of the knowledge elites toward the undereducated masses, signaled in the familiar caricatures of dumb rednecks, “Archie Bunker” blue-collar menageries, dangerous indigenous jihadists, swaggering African-American “gangstas”, or even the more subtle but highly condescending and frequently cartoonish constructions of institutional “diversity” managers, only exacerbate this kind of historical conflict.

The intensifying “contradictions” that govern these new virtual integuments of global capital go hand in hand with the broader advance of the “immiserated” conditions of employment and the downward mobility of the more marginal members of the knowledge elites themselves, as dialectics itself would have predicted.   Think student loan slavery and the number of college graduates working as food servers.

Any meaningful political theory of the twenty-first century must be fortified, henceforth, with a radical and innovative take on political economy that compasses the new forces of global production and the distorted and disrupted lattices of social relationships, which the pseudo-materiality of electronic bits and bytes has brought forth upon the earth. Likewise, any political theology must begin to understand that any high and moralizing homiletics about predatory capitalism, social inequality, and the “stupidity” of those who don’t buy into such narratives must give way to a deeper appreciation of how the system actually works.

We are all conversant with Pogo’s famous dictum about who the enemy is. It is time we started staring that “enemy” in the face.

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