Jackson Lears: Too Scary to Talk About

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg)

Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted copybook of Capitalism, and the intuition of a “pre-World War One moment,” coming up on a century after the Guns of August, 1914. A “perfect storm” in 2013 is what the doom economist Nouriel Roubini sees developing at the junction of European debt, the stall in US growth and East Asian production, and war in the Middle East, starting with Iran. But who’s to worry? Lears speaks of the suffering and anxiety that plain people know but politics avoids.

Our public process, he’s observing, still treats the Money Men as

“… a meritocratic elite that can’t be penetrated. It seems to me that this explains the Democratic Party in its attacks on Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party is in bed with Wall Street, too, just as the Republicans are. The attacks on Romney tend to focus on the question of his personal income tax. Will he release his returns or not? Or they focus on what he did when he worked for Bain Capital… rather than talking about the broad structural structural and systemic questions of what neo-liberalism generally has done to us — what the regime of deregulated capital that we’ve had in place for the last 30-plus years has done to everyday people and their everyday lives. This is something that is not admitted into the charmed circle of responsible opinion. You’re not supposed to ask: Is it really in everyone’s best interest to allow multi-national capital the kind of free-floating freedom that it now is allowed, world-wide. Is there in fact an argument? Tony Judt‘s argument would be: well, there’s only one way to build a humane social democracy, and that’s by creating a welfare state to contain the excesses of capitalism. And I would agree with that. My difference from him would be that you have to do it with an American accent; you’d have to do it in an American idiom which would be an idiom of small-market populism rather than European big-government. Because there’s a suspicion — and I think it’s a justifiable one — of “the state” in this culture, going back to Jefferson’s time. It tends to undermine any attempt to ‘Europeanize’ the American economy.

In Jackson Lears’ take, the same demons spook the almost-centennial of World War I.

As Mark Twain said: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes! … Even the Germans who are supposedly the models of fiscal responsibility have now seen their credit rating downgraded by Moody’s, so that national sovereignty is being abridged by these private organizations that have arrogated this power to themselves to evaluate the stability and strength of national economies. So we have this odd mix of globalized capital and national government power, national sovereignty, and nations often having to bend their knees to that globalized capital. This could very well provoke, and indeed already has provoked, a great deal of populist outrage, which could also end up being right-wing nationalist outrage… there is this ferment beneath the surface of anger, much of it economically based, much of it could be racially or ethnically motivated. Add that to the possibility of resource wars in the future, the possibility that countries like China and India are not going to want to restrict their own economic growth in the name of environmental responsibility, any more than than the U.S. has been willing to. You can see how the World War I analogy comes to people’s minds… as an instance of a general sense of imminent catastrophe and as a kind of unfolding apocalypse that comes from the inability of democratically elected leaders to come to terms and confront the powers they and their predecessors have unleashed… I think we’re looking at a crisis that was induced by specifically neo-liberal globalizing capital policies but has yet to reveal its true significance, and that of course is only going to play out over time.

Rescuing “capitalism” from its heavenly post somewhere between timeless Natural Law and “God’s work” undertaken by Goldman Sachs is another piece of Jackson Lears’ professional agenda, for another conversation. As teacher, writer and editor of the Raritan Quarterly, Lears’ object is encouraging the vigorous young “History of Capitalism” subfield in his ancient discipline. It’s part of the project that Daniel Rogers at Princeton also noted — to put history back into historical studies after Francis Fukuyama’s infamous The End of History.

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