Monday, June 14, 2010

The Methlab of Democracy: More on the Micropolitics of Neoliberalism

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, in a quip that is smarter than he knows, referred to Arizona as “the methlab of democracy.” His reference is primarily to the immigration law. Stewart probably just meant that Arizona’s law is crazy, hence methlab. (Crazy and racist, he actually gets in some good points about the latter as well, comparing the law to slavery era legislation). However, I think that there is a good reason that “meth” is the drug of our era, in the same way that pot, crack, and coke, all seemed to metonymically stand in for their respective eras, expressing the “tune out” rebellion of the sixties, urban poverty of the post-civil rights era, and "irrational exuberance" of the nineties. (This is something that the underrated TV series Breaking Bad has picked up on: the show not only deals with meth but is set in the strip malls and housing developments of New Mexico, reflecting America's new spiritual home.) The major ingredient of meth is synthesized in corporate labs, but it is “cooked” in trailer parks. Meth stands in for the short circuit between corporate power and rural anger that seems to define contemporary US politics.

The most recent Harper’s also offers an examination of Arizona as the laboratory of America politics, as a place in which the “tea party” has already taken power. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the following quote by an unnamed government worker:

“People who have swimming pools don’t need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don’t need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don’t need K-12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don’t see the need for government. Since a lot of the population are not citizens, the message is that government exists to help the undeserving, so we shouldn’t have it at all. People think it’s OK to cut spending because ESL is about people who refuse to assimilate and health care pays for illegals.”

Putting aside for a moment the odd racist conflation of non-citizens and the undeserving at the end of the passage, the first part is strikingly similar to a passage in Wendy Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism:

“As neoliberalism converts every political or social problem into market terms, it converts them to individual problems with market solutions. Examples in the United States are legion: bottled water as a response to contamination of the water table; private schools, charter schools, and voucher systems as a response to the collapse of quality public education; anti-theft devices, private security guards, and gated communities (and nations) as a response to the production of a throwaway class and intensifying economic inequality; boutique medicine as a response to crumbling health care provision; “V-chips” as a response to the explosion of violent and pornographic material on every type of household screen; ergonomic tools and technologies as a response to the work conditions of information capitalism; and, of course, finely differentiated and titrated pharmaceutical antidepressants as a response to lives of meaninglessness or despair amidst wealth and freedom. This conversion of socially, economically, and politically produced problems into consumer items depoliticizes what has been historically produced, and it especially depoliticizes capitalism itself. Moreover, as neoliberal political rationality devolves both political problems and solutions from public to private, it further dissipates political or public life: the project of navigating the social becomes entirely one of discerning, affording, and procuring a personal solution to every socially produced problem. This is depoliticization on an unprecedented level: the economy is tailored to it, citizenship is organized by it, the media are dominated by it, and the political rationality of neoliberalism frames and endorses it.”

As I have argued elsewhere, Brown’s passage and the remarks from Arizona, demonstrate a kind of micropolitics of neoliberalism. The way in which neoliberalism does not just operate at the level of state policy, but at the level of quotidian practices and daily transactions. These practices and transactions produce a subject that sees him or herself as isolated and autonomous, producing disconnection that alternates between absolute freedom and total alienation.

All of this is offered as something of a rejoinder to J.M. Bernstein’s recent piece for The New York Times philosophy column. Bernstein writes the following:

“My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.”

Bernstein primarily sees the Tea Party as a conflict between two views of freedom: one liberal, in which freedom is naturally given and must be realized, and the other Hegelian, in which freedom is a historical product, made possible by institutions. This is all well and good, but Bernstein then argues that the Tea Party is ultimately a metaphysical rather than political rebellion: they have no concrete proposals and are primarily reacting to a loss of a metaphysical ideal, that of the individual. The opposition between the metaphysical and the political overlooks the dimension of political economy entirely, or what I would prefer call, following the remarks of Brown and the anonymous citizen from Arizona, the micro-politics of political economy, the point where political economy intersects with and transforms subjectivity. An adequate response to the current conjuncture cannot simply return to the opposition of Locke and Hegel, or politics versus metaphysics, but must take seriously the transversal intersections of politics, economics, and metaphysics. (Incidentally, this is something that Hegel does in his discussion of “Civil Society”).


Shelton Waldrep said...

I really enjoyed this entry, Jason. I wonder if viewing _Winter's Bone_ will change any of your ideas here.

unemployed negativity said...

Thanks, Shelton. I really want to see that. I would like to hope that it will come to Portland soon.