Monday, September 06, 2010

Happy Labor Day + Benn Michaels, "The End of Boom Culture" & Contemporary American Fiction

Happy Labor Day, readers.  Or should I say, let's all hope for happier labor days to come soon. 128 years after the first U.S. Labor Day was celebrated in New York City, the position of American workers, especially blue-collar workers, is precarious. As I need not tell any readers of this blog, 2 years ago the country began suffering its worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, the result of decades of terrible economic and political policies, from rampant deregulation and laissez-faire-ism to crony capitalism and supply-side tax policies that cumulatively undermined the foundations of the national and global economies.

Over this period the gap between wealth of those at the top of the US economic ladder and those at the bottom has widened to oceanic proportions; labor unions are at their weakest levels of influence and workers not in top management positions are in their most tenuous state in the last 100 years; the Supreme Court has taken an aggressively pro-business viewpoint in its rulings, most recently in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission; and both major political parties have increasingly legislated in favor of the richest and corporations, and have ignored and even demonized the needs of the poor and working-classes.  Today, in a country built by labor, we face 9.7% official unemployment (and upwards of 16% unofficially), with the already poor, black and latino men, undocumented immigrants, and younger workers disparately and negatively affected.

After the White House pushed and Congressional Democrats further trimmed an inadequate stimulus/jobs bill package in 2009, against the recommendations of some of the nation's top economists, the administration and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate did not sustain an argument on behalf of the evident but limited successes of this bill, or the need for more additional stimulus funds to create jobs in the short term and strengthen our national infrastructure for economic success in the future. Even with the historical backdrop of failed Hooverism and FDR's example, they have often seemed to be more concerned with and cowed by the Wall Street barons, who were bailed out on the backs of millions of everyday Americans. In addition, the White House and Democrats have been reluctant, grossly so, in pointing out how the economic, political and ideological approaches of the Republicans led to this disaste. Because of this silence, this void, right-wing populists, funded by the likes of libertarian billionaires, have filled the gulf, leading to the sort of Orwellian-palooza on display a week ago at the Beck rally in Washington. The tangible results are a potential November electoral sweep by the Right and few real gains for the average worker.

On tonight's PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, there was a segment (not online yet) focusing on the struggles of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union International (RWDSU) workers at the Mott's apple sauce plant in upstate New York. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., despite rising profits and burgeoning sales, tried to force the 305 workers at its Mott's subsidiary near Rochester, New York, to take a $1.50/hr wage cut, and reduced benefits. The RWDSU workers stood their ground, and since then, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. has also not budged, hiring temporary replacement worker at far lower wages, and pocketing the difference.  The CEO, meanwhile, is making well over $6.5 million per year, more than most workers at the plant or any plant in the US or anywhere else would earn in several lifetimes. On The Newshour, the Dr. Pepper spokesperson not only complained that the Mott's workers were paid more than prevailing wages in the area, and repeatedly cited "competitive[ness]" as the reason to stiff them, but without a bit of irony mocked the fact that forklift drivers at the plant earned $20/hr., averaging out to $41,600/year.  (The report noted that replacement forklift drivers were earning far less than this, or about $9/hr.)  Yet when asked about the CEO's high salary, and the gains by executives, the company spokesman claimed that was a side issue! Meanwhile, the union workers are still not working, and because of the high unemployment rate, desperate temporary replacement workers are readily taking their jobs.

Similar conditions exist all over the US. Corporate profits are up, and many companies are sitting on their cash; for them, as for economists, the Great Recession has "officially" ended. Yet they are not hiring, and the country is not creating enough jobs, especially decent-paying jobs, fast enough.  Beyond the potential wipeout of the Democrats, the disillusionment of their base, the exasperation of progressives, we shouldn't forget that the people likely to gain power could care even less about average workers--they held up renewing unemployment payments without blinking an eye--than the people currently in power.

If you do think about workers today, think also about how you--we all--might improve the situation for the majority of us.  Are corporate profits, which for years now haven't accrued to workers and sometimes not even to shareholders, and megasalaries for CEOs and upper management, the ultimate sum and goal of what companies exist to do in the world? Do workers, and the communities they--we--belong to, communities here in the US, no longer matter? Is capitalism, as we know it today, as it's operated in its neoliberal and libertarian forms for several decades, insufficient for the world we live in now? Doesn't "society" exist, and if so, how can ensure that it operates not just for the richest few, but for the many--the majority of us?

(Meanwhile, one of the main stories on the front pages of the local newspapers and local TV stations is the signing of New York Jet cornerback Darrelle Revis, who will be earning around $48 million over the next four years...yikes!)

[All photos, from Labor History Links Chronological Sites]


Labor also has me thinking about something else. Over a year ago, University of Illinois-Chicago professor Walter Benn Michaels published a provocative short essay in the February/March 2009 Bookforum, entitled "Going Boom." In it he discussed the economic collapse of 2008-9 (and I'd argue 2007-2010 and counting), or in his words, the arrival of a historical, economic and briefly political moment that was "bad for markets" and which upended what was a 25-year economic bonanza only for the rich few.  Benn Michaels thought this vanished "boom," which had gone boom for those who'd been its primary beneficiaries, might lead to the ideological struggle that not only not occurred in the streets and cul-de-sacs of America, but which had also not been portrayed in the American novels of this period.

Instead, argued Benn Michaels, during this period, a different sort of novel had prevailed.  Citing Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) as a chief example, he argued that instead of addressing the current economic and political crisis, and what made it possible, most of the major and most highly praised American novelists over the past 25 years had turned to historicity, particularly where it intersected with identity politics, and were reflecting, if their works treated contemporary topics at all, the rampant neoliberalism and free-market ideology that had brought us to this precipice.  Emblematic of this was the rise of personal memoirs, which have tended to turn on individual consciousness and perspectives, often refracting every life event through the prism of affective struggles, thus reflecting yet again the broader neoliberal ethos.

In contrast to these types of works, Benn Michaels extolled several counterexamples, such as Bret Easton Ellis's critically reviled but popular novel American Psycho (1991) and David Simon's HBO series The Wire (2002-8). For the novels of today, he suggested the following changes:

So—no memoirs, no historicist novels, what else? Actually, a lot of other novels will have to go, too. The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results. For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t. You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing (“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”) than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.
And you get an even better sense of it from something that’s not a novel at all, the TV series The Wire, the most serious and ambitious fictional narrative of the twenty-first century so far. Unlike its more widely watched competitor The Sopranos (which really is about what David Chase always said it is about—“family”), The Wire is about institutions—unions, schools, political parties, gangs. It’s about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the world our literature pretends it has. If American Psycho harks back to the great novels of Edith Wharton—novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always what’s at stake—The Wire is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the deification of the market is going out rather than coming in. Although, of course, you had to pay the HBO subscription fee to watch it.

Benn Michaels later elaborated on this in his April 2009 New York Public Library conversation with Simon, and authors Susan Straight and Dale Peck. (Unfortunately, given Benn Michaels' longstanding take on race and his critiques of Morrison and contemporary literature on slavery and immigration, no black, latino or first-generation immigrant writers, of whom there are many in New York City, was part of this conversation).  While I agree to some degree with Benn Michaels about the paucity of novels dealing with the larger economic and political forces over the last few years--though I think he overlooks other works that do what he's suggesting--I also feel that he underplays the ways in which explorations of history, and of slavery in particular, by their very nature must treat economic and political questions, and the systems that put them in place. (This occurs in both Beloved and A Mercy, as it does in The Known World, in a number of works on the Holocaust, and so on.)  Benn Michaels has argued for years that the focus on race subsumes a discussion of class, but addressing the former need not cancel out the latter, and in the US race is often a proxy for class, and vice versa. In the broader public sphere, in 2010, when pundits speak of poor people, for example, their examples are often poor black or latino people, rather than poor whites, who constitute the majority of the poor and working classes in this country.  Narratives of family also need not cancel out questions of the larger economic forces at play all around us, and the same is true of immigration.  

Quite telling for me also in the NYPL conversation was the fact that aesthetics, in terms of form and literary quality, appeared to have far less bearing for Benn Michaels that ideological and political value. I personally do find literary merit in Bret Easton Ellis's work, but in terms of quality, Theodore Dreiser, while important in terms of ideas, is a drudge to read. (If you have read Sister Carrie, you know what I mean.)  Nevertheless, the article really got me thinking about a lot of things, among them how the literary system (undergraduate and graduate literary studies and writing programs, the commercial publishing industry, the literary media, etc.) validate certain kinds of literary texts, particularly fiction and creative nonfiction, while ignoring or offering only glances to others, and how, to a great degree, the ideological labor that Benn Michaels has pushed for has been taken up by the  avant-garde poetry world, or some sizable segments of it (cf. the Columbia conference I wrote about earlier this summer).  Many of Benn Michaels' arguments and his emphasis on ideological readings could easily be made on behalf of the work of a good number of poets. I also thought today, though, that far fewer people will be reading those poets than, say, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the literary sensation of the moment. And so it goes....

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