Monday, August 14, 2023

Other Scenes: The Ideology of the Economy/The Economy of Ideology

One of the most pernicious effects of the Marxist schema of base and superstructure is that it posits the economy and ideology as two separate and distinct levels. The base is where the economy does its work, silently and materially, and the superstructure does its work reproducing the relations of production by remaining entirely separate and distinct from the economy, by addressing morals, religion, the nation, everything but economic necessity. This rigid division makes it difficult to think of the ideological dimension of the economy and the economic dimension of ideology. 

First example, in analyzing the much discussed, and hopefully fiercely fought cuts at West Virginia University one point comes up repeatedly. Which is that humanities courses like languages and literature, generally bring in more money than they cost. Humanities professors are cheaper than faculty in other departments, such as business, and generally courses involve less costly technology than courses in STEM. There have also been suggestions that other aspects of the university, like its football team, are not only more expensive, with something like fourteen assistant coaches, but cost more than they bring in. I am not sure about that last point, however, and am honestly not going that deep into the matter. There are also larger points about the general decline in state funding for higher education. I am not suggesting that one make an argument defending education primarily in terms of costs and returns--far from it. 

My main point here is that eliminating language programs is not the result of a simple cost/benefit analysis, a comparison of revenue in and out, but from what could be considered the ideology of economic rationality. Languages, culture, and even puppetry just seem to be extravagant even if they are not. While an instrumental calculation tells us that courses in such departments bring in more revenue, more students, our idea of what is economically rational tells us that they are expensive and not essential to whatever we think a university is, increasingly a job training center. Economical is often a representation of calculation, an idea of what is worthwhile or expensive, rather than an actual calculation based on costs and revenue. 

Second example: and this comes from Adam Kotsko's post about streaming, streaming services, like other app based transformations such as Uber and Airbnb, seem to be the very model of market efficiency. They have effectively eliminated the middle man, the cable provider, television network, or video store, bringing more profits directly to the studio and more choice to the audience. I am not going to get into the failure of the latter (better reserved for another post), but the truth of the matter is that streaming has not been profitable with most services working at a loss for years. Nonetheless, streaming seems profitable and a model of what it means to be successful capitalist enterprise. So much so that when my university was cutting programs a few years ago a member of the board said that he wanted the university to be like Netflix not Blockbuster, by which I assume that he meant efficient, new. and online. It is the idea, or ideal of disruption, of change and obsolescence that, explains the interest in streaming services and not their actual profitability. Of course it is possible to say that part of the fetishization of apps has more to do with the long game, with the role they play in deskilling work and making working conditions more precarious in order to replace employees with workers with even less security and lower wages. The long game, the overall social effect, is something that capitalist from Adam Smith to Milton Freeman have argued companies are not supposed to not consider--their only concern should be immediate self-interest (or in Freeman's case shareholder interest). 

Third example, by now you have probably heard of the viral online hit “Rich Men North of Richmond" by Oliver Anthony. I am not going recommend the song as a song, but I have copied some of the lyrics below to discuss it as a cultural moment (albeit one probably forgotten by the time you read this). 

Livin' in the new world
With an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don't think you know, but I know that you do
'Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end
'Cause of rich men north of Richmond

I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
And the obese milkin' welfare

Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground
'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down

I am going to skip right over the Qanon part about islands of minors and go straight to the representation of the economy. First, we get the usual demon of the right, the welfare queen or king, the song doesn't give us gender just height and weight. That this fiction persists long after the end of "welfare as we know it" is a testament to its power as a myth. To quote Jeff Sharlet, "You can't fact check a myth." Along with this myth that welfare is an incredibly easy life we get one of the other persistent themes of the right, the strange obsession with exactly what poor people consume, in this case fudge rounds, the Little Debbie snackcake that retails for less than three bucks for a nine ounce package. A cheap vice, all things considered. The song seems to suggest that at some particular body mass ratio it would be acceptable for the state to provide these snack cakes, but it is unclear where the cut off is. If you ask me we would be better worrying about the consumption habits of the wealthy than the poor: the former are going to private jet the planet to death while we are drawing cut off lines for snack cake consumption, but I digress.

The real line that strikes me in this passage is "Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end." This passage is often cited as the real working class pain that is at the heart of this song. It is hard to deny the first part, the past few years of inflation have driven the buying power of the dollar down. The second part, however, is more dubious. There is no tax increase that explains that decrease. Rates have gone down nationally, but that varies by income bracket, and Virginia (where I assume this is coming from) has remained in the middle range of state income tax with a top rate of 5.75%, West Virginia is slightly higher at 6.50%. However, I would argue that as much as taxes cannot be the true cause of the economic anger at the core of this song, they are its necessary false cause. (To cite Spinoza, "inadequate ideas follow from the same necessity as adequate ideas)

To discuss inflation, wages, and so on as causes of the decline of the dollar, of working class conditions, is to criticize capitalism, albeit obliquely. Capitalism, the economy, is not something one can critique, not because it is beyond reproach, held sacred, but because it is seen as a fact of life, the way of the world. To criticize capitalism would be to acknowledge it as an institution, as a human creation. Instead the critical force is reserved for politicians, for those rich men North of Richmond, who have imposed taxes.  Of course it is unclear why they would do this, the profit motive is a fairly clear motivating force for exploitation, taking it off of the table often means coming up with even more baroque explanations as to why the rich men are doing what they are doing. 

To some up briefly, my point here is not that there is nothing like economic determination, or material conditions and causes, but just that even material causes cannot be separated from their representation, how we grasp or image them. The economy, the other scene of politics, has effects only in and through that scene, and vice versa. 

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