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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  • Filippo

    At minute 19 the gentleman refers to “neo-liberalism” being responsible for deregulation of markets. Why would it not rather be “neo-conservatism” responsible?

  • This is being linked to from the Open Knowledge section of the daily free Open Source Everything Highlights at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog (twitter hash #openall short url to the stack http://tinyurl.com/OSE-ALL

    I am an intelligence professional, leading the third era, the era of the Smart Nation that builds on Harold Wilensky’s Organizational Intelligence while integrating Collective Intelligence, and my chief focus is on information pathologies — fog facts, lost history, forbidden knowledge, missiing information, weapons of mass deception, weapons of mass instruction, etc.

    There is a lot of resonance here with Howard Zinn and the fact that history is written by the wealthy and the dictators, not the public and the victims. It would be good to see, before 2013, a solid piece on what went wrong and how to fix it. I believe the greatest treason has been that of the two political parties that not only block ballot access to the Independents and four active small parties (Constitution, Green, Libertarian, and Reform), but also sold the public out to stay in power, for a standard 5% kick-back on each earmark.

    Semper Fidelis,
    Robert Steele
    THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth, & Trust (cheapest at Amazon)

  • orangescissor

    I think Judt’s main point, which Lears reiterates, is that we have to remember why we have our governments in place in the first place. In the case of Europe, the European Union was created so as to never again repeat the violent nationalism that plagued the continent in the first half of the 20th century. A federated union would ultimately pacify great powers, advance postwar reconstruction, and deter aggression. In the case of the U.S., the Constitution decentralizes power so as to take it from kings and elites and give it to the people who are represented by different branches of the government. In this current crisis, as Judt and Lears point out, both visions have been lost.

    In Europe, they can’t come close to a federal response to the sovereign debt crisis, and there is no political union to speak of. Had the EU leaders forced banks to recapitalize, as is what happened after Lehman in the U.S., the debt crisis would be much more containable. Now it’s a big problem in Spain, where bank debt on undercapitalized banks (who were undercapitalized in 2008, 2009, 2010 etc.) will be absorbed by public books prompting another wave of IMF bailouts and real debt contagion possibilities across Europe.

    In the U.S., as Lears points out, the government has been taken over by people representing personal or corporate interests whose unabashed aim is to cut government as much as possible. Additionally, technological advances and economic globalization has further fragmented state policy such that transnational organizations have become more powerful than most national governments. This essentially strips democratic government of many of its powers to govern, and as a result takes away power from the people in a democratic system and transfers it to supranational personal and corporate interests.

    This conversation is great because it shows that to solve some of these crises, we should work to restore democratic government, not be anti-government, which is a prevailing attitude. I still have hopes that the current administration is on the right track, and am willing to bet that Super PAC money will paradoxically have a detrimental effect on the GOP in particular, but also Obama to the degree that his campaign banks on Super PAC ads. It will force them into unteneble political positions and do more to expose corruption and corporate influence that even the most muckraking journalism. In the future grassroots movements might be successful against giants, as people become more educated about corrupting influences – and all indications show that the conversation is already happening.

  • Ralph Stuart

    Mentioning the idea of money as being something too mystical to discuss in public led me to think of my 2 sons’ choices of money-oriented careers (business and economics) in the 2000’s. In the 1970’s, science and technology were what caught my attention as a future of social power, since technology would power the future. Growing up in the 1990’s, they didn’t get that message and money seemed to them to be the future…

    – Ralph

  • Robert Zucchi

    In late May the novelist Richard Ford (“The Sportswriter,” “Independence
    Day”) discussed his new novel “Canada” on Diane Rehm’s talk show. I inferred from the discussion that Ford was not so much exalting Canada in his work as using it as a plot device to provide the refuge his narrator needs and happens into following his family’s disastrously bad choices. But then there is this:

    Diane Rehm: Did you spend a great deal of time in Canada?

    Richard Ford: I have, for an American who’s never lived there. I spend as much time as I could have. I’ve lived a lot of my adult life very close to Canada and always was happy to go there. I always felt like it was an awfully good country. There’s a certain — particularly [having lived] in north-central Montana and in Mississippi … there’s a certain exigence about living in America. America is just at you all the time in one way or another.

    …. It’s either our crazy politics or something else. But there’s just — something’s banging on you all the time.

    — and I don’t want to say that this is true of Canada [as a country], but it’s true of my experience of going there. When I go there, I feel a sense of refuge for myself. And maybe it’s just to get away from … your own exigencies. But, for me, that was probably one of the reasons … I wanted to find … a place being a refuge for someone [i.e., his narrator].

    Ford’s observation (“America is just at you all the time in one way or another … something’s banging on you all the time”) comes to mind every time I hear one of Mr. Lydon’s interviews with a distinguished academic or economist or respected public intellectual. These discussions are discerning, absorbing, and instructive, and I’m grateful for them. But in our splintered glass house of a republic, with its thousand ructions on view simultaneously, it’s hard to escape the impression that these conversations are too professorial, too neutrally analytical … not nearly engaged enough, and almost never prescriptive. No one is prepared to honestly answer Dan’l Webster when he thunders, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?”

    Charles de Gaulle had an answer for old Dan’l. You Americans had your civil war, and you’re still fighting it.

    (To be fair, this interview with Dr. Lears is candidly headed “Too Scary to Talk About.” I get the point.)

    Item: An Alabama judge has sentenced a man to a 624-year prison term in a rape and kidnapping case. Here is “justice” served up in the form of a sadistic farce.

    Item: Toni Morrison said recently that with regard to political rhetoric, we are no longer citizens but merely taxpayers. As I reflect on this, I believe I see what she means: the rights and responsibilities of citizenship have been supplanted by an invitation from pants-wetting pols to work up a permanent grievance for having to contribute ANYTHING to the common weal. (Of course the Department of Perpetual but Righteous Warmongering will be exempt from any harangues about overspending.)

    Item: The (war? handover? drawdown? rock-’em, sock-’em?) in Afghanistan costs you and me two billion dollars a week (much of it borrowed), not to mention the deaths and maimings and mental scars inflicted on our fellow citizens. After a decade of this debauched militarism, is there no one in authority who will ask Joseph N. Welch’s question: Have you no sense of decency … at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

    Item: Every year in this country there are nearly 30,000 gun deaths, 70,000 gun injuries, and almost 20 mass murders. Yet we continue to genuflect before the firestick idolaters and their political enablers. This circumstance is to authentic democracy as the word “civilization” in the mouth of Generalissimo Dubya Bush (or Feldmarschall Obama) is to the concept of a just war of self-defense. And what are the gun-rights absolutists really saying to their fellow Americans? That their compatriots cannot be trusted, and are the enemy presumptive until they prove otherwise?

    No democracy can survive unless its citizens broadly share democratic values. Fair and respectful treatment of all citizens by those who claim authority over them. Equal justice under the law (NO to ex post facto in one state or the rebarbative piling-on of double or triple life sentences in another). Equality of access to opportunity, and to the ballot box. Conditional assistance in times of personal or general economic setback. Defense, yes, but renunciation of “wars of choice.” Majority rule but with respect for minority rights. Leading and legislating in a spirit of compromise. Toleration of, and a measured response to, citizen demos, critical mail, phone campaigns, and other political actions.

    In a country as wildly multifarious as this one, the repudiation by one of our only two viable political parties of programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) that everywhere else propend toward social cohesion and a unifying sense of common purpose poses an existential threat to our continuance as one nation. If the government has no obligations to us taken together, what obligations do we owe to one other? Or to our government, big or small? “Sauve qui peut” rather than “E Pluribus Unum” makes a People’s Republic joke out of “United” States.

    I’m haunted by a quotation from Schicklgruber by way of Speer: “On the whole, no such thing as an American people exists.”

    If we allow this contemptuous judgment to become a prophecy, our enemies need only to wait. We will wreak the devastation on this country that they planned to inflict on us themselves.

    • Sean McElroy

      Zucchi you’re white hot!

    • The Parrot

      I’ll add to Sean’s sentiment: Bravo Mr. Z. Keep ’em coming.

    • Potter

      Bravo Zucchi. You hit every mark.

  • Firestick Idolator

    Wow. Wish someone would genuflect to ME.

    Here I thought I protected my right to keep and bear arms because as a queer elder woman of color with pro-abortion and other lefty beliefs, I tend to get picked on.

    Put me on the 2 a.m. bus, and I guess Mr. Zucchi would see me as far more virtuous raped and dead in an alley than fighting back. I guess like Mr. Akin he’d argue that no truly virtuous woman ever gets victimized, or has to use lethal force to right her life.

  • The Parrot

    I’ll offer my unsolicited $0.02 on the gun issue, since it’s been brought up here. The second amendment is an example of an end whose means no longer exists. A militia to defend the government, or defend itself from the government, is no longer relevant. Anyone who thinks a militia of pea shooters could defend the country or defend itself from the government with a contemporary military has taken leave of their senses. They are locked in a distorted cave. Those who cling to these ideas demonstrate their fealty to the darker angels, and believe the darker angels are the only reliable agents to hold sway over the course of human activities. And by such necessities, impose their phantoms upon people such as myself, who see the clinging of the psyche as the darker source. We are rife with banal demonstrations carried out in our private and common spaces, in our homes, streets, movie theatres, schools & universities, donut shops, restaurants, political meet-ups, military bases., etc

    It seems to escape most amendment two advocates that death by ambush takes the lives of those who are unarmed and unprepared, as well as, those who are well armed and well trained in the application of lethal force. Thus, sword, as ploughshare, are no protection against the ill-designs of one human upon another. It is the heart & mind which guide the hand and body in the performance of these acts, not the gun, bullet, or bomb. They are simply instruments of death and property destruction (or should I say collateral damage? … I notice our media doesn’t apply the term to these homegrown exercises in meting out death on american soil. That might seem callous.)

    The engine and fuel of the mind & heart are ideas, among other things. Ideas travel across time and space. Ideas can change and move the human heart & mind to activity. Ideas, can quiet the storms of the mind & heart, or inflame them. It is the human heart & mind, the soul’s collective and individual expression, which resolves such problems, or propagates them in perpetuity.

    The bullet, the sword, the ploughshare have their day & night, but those days and nights are of limited span. Ideas, do not rust nor rot, and travel at speeds of fast and slow across distances small and large. They can change to accomodate the times and places they find themselves. A bullet can stop a heart. A ploughshare can yield a temporary necessity. But neither can change one’s spiritual and intellectual dimension. No bullet, no ploughshare can convince us of anything other than their uses of application. The heart & mind is where people can be moved. And has often been stated, the toughest twelve to eighteen inches one can travel is that journey between the heart and mind. To make such a journey, one has to speak the language of the human heart & mind. There are few generals, few political leaders, and fewer petty killers that will be remembered in the course of things, but spiritual and cultural leaders who speak the language of the heart & mind are unbounded to time & place. It is for one simple reason, the heart & mind recognize the language without need of tutoring or context, de facto in a contemporary setting, even if the beliefs no longer apply.

    I find it probable that the second amendment will be with us for quite some time for this reason, though it’s coupling to a militia is no longer compelling nor relevant. The idea that we mean to do ill towards each other speaks plainly enough, and doesn’t need my further enumeration. The murmurs of the psyche are unequivocal in their clarity. An idea can travel far & wide, unimpeded by the friction of space-time. This is as old as Cain & Abel. No, older. And because it’s old, we need to respect this. It won’t be dismantled until we respect its roots, understand them, and come to terms with them. Is this the work of government? Education? Laboratory? Pulpit? Temple, mosque, church? Town halls? Media? Capital Markets? Occupy movements? Gun shows? What institution(s) can wrestle with such a monumental task? Mercifully it’s not up to me to suggest nor dictate. And, the collective response to such a problem has been too varied to cohere. Consensus is not general agreement, but the absence of sabotage. Thus, benighted we will proceed. Well armed and certain, we will “load up on guns, and bring our friends.”

  • Potter

    Resource wars reminds me of your conversation with Jeff Sachs awhile back.

    I think what you were talking about amounts to the need for serious global governance to address issues such as climate change and it’s effects, managing global resources etc. As well we here do need a strong welfare state to counteract or balance the side effects of globalization or globalized capital. The case, which is potentially a very strong one, is not being made. We expect it from the left, from progressives. Here we are stuck with having to get behind Obama- as Lears puts it- he who opted for an “un-exalted form of pragmatism” and “martial heroism” like his predecessor. On the other hand going after the release of Romney’s tax returns is important. It’s symbolic of the larger issues of inequality, privilege and class. Go for it and broaden the discussion!

    Good point about the inability of democratic leaders to come to terms with what they have unleashed through deregulation.