In the 2005 “dramatic documentary” The American Ruling Class, big oil heir turned Harper’s editor turned armchair socialist Lewis Lapham narrates the career choices confronting a group of shiny young Yale graduates. With their future at the crossroads, Lapham asks, will the nation’s brightest pursue private riches or commit to a pious life of public service?
Lapham, playing himself, leads his empty vessels through the streets of Manhattan, counterposing up-scale parties with wait staff slaving for tips. It’s a savvy piece of emotional manipulation designed to guilt the young rich into acknowledging the class structure that, above all else, got them to where they are. In one party scene, the hubris is intoxicating as a tipsy Ivy League cohort prepares, like their parents, to ascend to the heights of commerce, industry and influence.
Of course, this constructed ‘choice’ transcends the personal, reading as an obvious allegory for the nation as a whole. If the American working class has nothing to lose but their chains, Lapham clearly hopes a new generation will hand them the bolt cutters — a naive appeal to altruism perhaps, but one that continues to resonate as the economy tanks. Lapham’s choice is now more pressing, in that conditions have got much worse, and much easier in that elite opinion is again extolling the virtues of public service, always a potent (if submerged) strain of America’s DNA.
Two recent events have confused Lapham’s dichotomy — namely, the collapse of the Wall St investment banks that once promised grads an inside track to power and influence (in the doco, Jack must choose between the now-flailing Goldman Sachs and life as a writer) and the election of the Obama Administration. But perhaps the more important wildcard is the ‘West Wing effect’ where Jeb Bartlett’s passion for public policy collides with the burgeoning mythology around President Obama’s inner circle.
Consider the media frenzy over the past week surrounding the inauguration speech allegedly penned by 27-year old staffer John Favreau, the pain felt by Facebook-addicted staffers held hostage by outdated email-free PCs and the plight of press secretaries confronted by electronic doors — the touchy-feely anecdotes could fill a whole Blackberry. Which of Lapham’s formerly Goldman-bound Yalies could now resist taking the social policy reigns under a svelte 47-year old with a penchant for pickup games of two-on-two?
Add this to calls for a ‘new Keynesianism‘, big government and demands for massive tax hikes and a seachange seems unavoidable. Four years after Lapham’s intervention, the US is witnessing a wholesale rejection of the Patrick Bateman era, demanding personal commitments more in tune with the darkening reality of everyday life. For a nation on its knees, self sacrifice has again become sexy.
But perhaps a more difficult question is whether this new public-spiritedness is pointed in the right direction. The levers of government may be so corroded, and the policy making options of earlier eras so passé as to render the renewed enthusiasm null and void.
For a period in the late 90s and early 00s, progressive forces were searching for new modes of public engagement in the tacit recognition that national governments were no longer able to provide the kind of policy guidance beloved by post-WWII welfare states. In the best examples, domestic social movements crafted global networks that went beyond defensive postures towards what Alain Touraine calls “conflictive participation in the global economy”. Those networks have now become clogged as domestic ‘solutions’ again become fashionable.
What remains of welfarism after its trashing under Bush is still tilted away from the genuinely excluded (think The Wire) towards an illusory middle class receding irretrievably from view. US labor unions are mostly a defensive bulwark against the vagaries of global competition and not an assertive force for social change. Obama’s multi-billion dollar car industry bailout will benefit, first and foremost, Hillary’s white workers and not the forgotten of Detroit’s slums. The multitude of stimulus and bailout packages are an attempt to revive a failed settlement between capital and labour that passed its used-by-date decades ago.
The alternative for the legions of Obama fans is to take a good look at the fluidity that has re-made American society and fashion a conflictive social movement that engages directly with issues of cultural diversity and economic fragmentation. For their part, policy wonks should be looking less at off-the-shelf responses and instead at regulations that protect and extend cultural and economic autonomy — the contours of which will inevitably emerge, with or without the input of a new band of Ivy League do-gooders.