Monday, August 01, 2011


When the housing/credit crisis hit in the US a couple years ago and we started to see the first reports house repossessions and the evisceration of suburbs and residential neighourhoods in the US, I remember asking myself where these people went.

Now, with US economy well into depression, and their debt-ceiling crisis narrowly averted but at the trade-off of unexamined and insane budget cuts, the demise of the US continues and even more people will fade into underclass.

The BBC's Paul Mason has completed a moving exploration of this growing problem, comparing it to the Depression 1930s in Steinbeck's novels. We see farmers in drought days away from moving on, former middle-class living in shelters, and that Arizona lawman and his expanding open-air camps for undocumented migrants he rounds up. Odd on that last one, how the paranoid in the US are worried about FEMA camps, but ignorant of the prison camp model already in practice. All you need to do is put a fence around a tent city.

Paul Krugman often highlights the shift in political concern for tangible jobs to abstract deficits and taxes in dealing with US economic malaise. I find this distinction illustrative and also alarming as it exemplifies a shift from a concern for people to a concern for balance sheets. We would expect this from corporations geared to maximising profits, but across the political class, the neoliberal worldview becomes, perversely, even more entrenched. The social world, people, do not exist in the calculus. Sure, policymakers and economists are concerned about the rising unemployment numbers in the US (and here), but their solutions do not reflect a direct concern with these numbers. Instead they fiddle with the sums with the idea that somehow this will magically find rain for crops, and management positions and credit for the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

It is interesting to see where this preoccupation with abstract 'metrics' crops up. A criticism I have of a great deal of applied social research, some of which attempts to tackle problems like those in the US, is its preoccupation with indicators and models. Social researchers avoid a discussion of the emotionality or psychological impact of a crisis on a group of people or individual, and instead talk about things like 'social capital' and 'networks' and spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to find the perfect description and analysis of indicators around an event. When I first noticed this, I thought it was because the state of the field saw that this was the most effective way of analysing phenomena of social crisis or the social response to change, given modernity's ideas of objectivity and rationality. Now I'm starting think that there is a resistance on the part of policy-makers, researchers, and others to engage with a crisis like this on the human level, because it makes them uncomfortable on a personal level.

If you expose some of them to the emotive reality of an event, they will accuse you of 'guilting' them into acting, as if feeling something about the plight of a fellow human being is somehow an inconvenience. Heaven forbid one have to act upon their feelings! Maybe it's no wonder anti-depressants are so popular.

We live in a cultural system that fictionalises emotion and feeling. We read books, and more often television and movies that concentrate and intensify our emotional experience enough that we feel something, but we feel it safely because they characters on screen are not our friends, neighbours, citizens, and fellow humans. Paradoxically prophylactic.  Even those media "nonfictions" based on real events are portrayed by actors with names we recognise, providing us with a reality safety-net.

So in looking at the US conversation around debt-ceilings with Obama vs. GOP vs. Tea Party and the conversations about arbitrary numbers, I don't see asked the question of what these numbers, present or absent, mean for the lives of the very real people in Paul Mason's essay. There's no empirical work behind them. The lunatic GOP/Tea Party pulls budget cut numbers out of their collective ass based on their blinkered ideologies and ignorant base. Obama played their game. Nowhere in there did stories appear about the real impacts of things on Americans (or anyone else in the world for that matter). Doing so might have caused the public to feel some concern about their fellow humans. Instead, fingers are pointed, and the only people mentioned at the emotional level are the bodies with calculated characters, sitting in tailored suits around the Capitol building and Whitehouse meeting rooms.

Not the ever growing legions of impoverished people - and their stories - in what is still wealthiest nation on the planet.

1 comment:

Scanner said...

I was reminded of "Let Us Now Praise famous Men" ( ) by your comments about the social sciences. This book is everything the commentaries you speak of are not. Perhaps another will come out of our current agony - which is due to become much worse, soon. What do you think will happen to those farmers whose land laid flooded until late July? Will they be able to recover next year? Will they survive economically til next year? Will the floods come again, followed by drought?
This last week it was raining in the drought-stricken areas of east Africa, making things even more miserable for the refugees. With the rains will come mosquitoes.