The following Ibishblog interview was conducted a few weeks ago with Chris Lehmann, author of the new book Rich People Things (ORBooks, 2010). I heartily recommend this excellent satire of contemporary American class politics and the cultural mores, and I think Ibishblog readers can get a great sense of what's in the book and what Lehmann has to offer in general through the following conversation.
Q: Let's start with the title of the book and the genesis of the online column that gave rise to it. What I really like about it is how malleable this progression of non sequitur words really is. They could be three utterly separate words simply following on each other randomly, or it could be, as in the most obvious interpretation, things that belong to rich people or characterize the activities, beliefs and interests of rich people, which is the manifest meaning. Or it could be rich people ARE things, a hostile objectification of rich people which is I think the latent meaning of the title.
A: I think it works on all those levels and in various chapters of the book and various columns there will be times when I do just write about anything, like the chapter on Damien Hirst and his art and how that reflects the money culture.
Q: There are quite a few columns that talk about individuals, turning rich people into things.
A: Exactly, and their own jobs, one could argue, is to turn their own carbon lifeforms into rich people playthings.
Q: They have commodified themselves.
A: They have commodified their argument, or a certain vision of success, cultural achievement and the way that reward and punishment are distributed in the economic realm. These are all rich people things and they are all things produced by and for rich people, so I think even though it was very much a retroactive title slapped on an accidental column, it's proved a really good way to conceptually frame whatever it is I'm doing here.
Q: What is it that you're doing here?
A: I'm trying to insist that economic populism is an issue, or shall we say there is a useful way of looking at social and political class as an American cultural issue, and what's interesting to me is how that stable of ideas has been systematically subverted, buried or distorted beyond recognition in the official ways in which we have of understanding our economy, politics, and media culture. There are times when the columns in the book are a kind of media criticism. I try to think of my task as to go beyond the casual kind of deceptions, and lies frankly, about what it means to have a discussion about tax policy, say, where it's permissible to think of anyone making even more than $250,000 now as essentially middle-class. Right now in the debate over tax cuts the Republican Party has rather brilliantly framed this debate as Democrats trying to foment "class warfare" as it's called, which as you will note is something that is only discussed in America as coming from the bottom up, never the top down.
Q: Yes, there is only one class that engages in class warfare here.
A: Right, and it's also the least organized, least ideologically disciplined class is the one in question, so if they're making war, they're doing it with foam rubber swords. And, meanwhile, the Republican mantra that comes up whenever the subject of tax cuts arises is that "we want to extend the Bush tax cuts for everybody." That sounds so inclusive and unifying, right? Who doesn't want to pay lower taxes? What's interesting, at this very moment, as this debate is going on in Congress, is that there was a poll released by CBS at the end of last week that only 26% of Americans, when the issue is explained rationally to them, say that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for people earning $250,000 or more. So we're in this kind of Lewis Carroll moment.
Q: So, your book is a general attack on mystification.
A: Yes, that's the word I was trying to summon up earlier. How did we get to this point where the party that says it's representing “everyone” in this debate is actually contravening the stated will of 74% of the American public?
Q: Class warfare from the top down, but not recognized?
A: Yes, and cleverly concealed. If my book has a use, it's to insist on that concealment and point it out.
Q: And that's your conclusion, which is about mystification and the gutting of signification in economic language, class language etc.
A: Right, so we are in this through the looking glass moment where the other mantra you hear from the right now is, and every day you see examples of this, where Republican leaders will get up and deride elitists. But only liberals now are elitists. I often thinking casually scanning the news that an alien visitor would come to this country and encounter all this discourse and expect a liberal to basically be wearing a periwig and bloomers, with a snifter of some sort. The genius of this kind of rhetoric is that the GOP now represents the heroic mass resistance to these elitist fops. Just last week the incoming governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who used to be a Republican congressman, gave this barnstorming speech about tax cuts where he said that all conservative governors want from Washington, all we're telling to the leaders in Washington, is: let my people go. That is to say, stop all this talk of increasing taxes and let us destroy the barriers to wealth creation and let the economy get started again. This is a trope from the civil rights movement, going back to the book of Exodus indeed, but somehow I missed the moment in which Pharaoh became the Liberal tax hikers. It is rhetorically brilliant, but you also can't believe that things have deteriorated to this point.
Q: Some of this is very old. You find that an incredible swath of Americans consider themselves to be middle-class ranging from a household income of $20,000-$150,000 per year. And that has been true for a long time. It's almost meaningless as a term.
A: No, there's nothing new there and what's brilliant is that mathematically the term “middle” has no meaning, because again you are spanning the low 20Ks to, now, in the tax-cut debate rhetorically millionaires will be included in the middle class. So what does the middle mean in that situation? We should just get rid of the term and call it the baggy undefined class or something. The class that has no name.
Q: The point is it's not a class, it's a whole group of very separate registers in the economic spectrum with different interests.
A: Yes, and various actors in the economic and policy debate can rhetorically say things like “let my people go.” If you're savvy enough you could step forward as the Williams Jennings Bryan or Che Guevara of these oppressed people and they could be anyone. And usually, it's a funny thing but in the 70s it used to be, when I think this shift in debate started, that the middle class were the people who worked hard and played by the rules. Let me mention my first column in this series. My former employers at New York magazine looked at the uproar over the AIG bonuses when we had spent $70 billion bailing out AIG at the beginning of the financial crisis and they were paying out these lavish bonuses to executives and this, you'll remember, was one of the times in the media where there was this phony kind of anxiety about a populist uproar, and will Obama be angry and populist in response to the public's anger over this. New York magazine, and I knew this would happen having worked there, looked at this issue and decided, “well, we have to get Wall Street's side of the story.” Because, you know, these are the victims, these are the people who now say they feel unsafe and they need to hire security guards outside.
Q: Obviously the arsonist's point of view of the fire is very important.
A: Exactly, so they duly went out and reported a piece of which the short-term inspiration was, as you may recall, an AIG executive at the time who wrote this op-ed in the New York Times saying, I wasn't in the financial services division that is principally responsible and yet I'm tarred with all this and I'm quitting my job. It was this Spartacus-like statement, striking a blow on behalf of his fellow financial industry professionals.
Q: He was mad as hell and he wasn't going to take it anymore.
A: Exactly, to use another populist trope from the 70s. So, this New York magazine piece quoted that and interviewed a number of other similarly aggrieved Wall Street executives who said things like, “people don't understand how hard we work," and "we are creating wealth,” and all that stuff you continue to hear constantly from these characters. And they were treated very sympathetically as the misunderstood Randian elite.
Q: It was a psychotherapy piece, basically?
A: In terms of how it was framed, yes, that's right. Let's talk about the feelings of these misunderstood financial professionals. They're still getting seven-figure bonuses but they're hurt. And it was all framed as well as the public conversation about compensation and something about that in particular rankled me because here we are in the gravest financial crisis since the Depression, and you'll recall during the new deal, FDR took a very different tack. During the '36 campaign he got up at the biggest rally of the campaign in Madison Square Garden and announced that he “welcomed” the hatred of the bankers. And they hated him. At several points in the book I try to make the point of drawing that contrast because I think it's very telling, because now we have a political culture where we are worried about the feelings of these people, in official media culture anyway. And it's a very different climate.
Q: One of the things that you say about your book at the end of the introduction is that you hope it will have a tonic effect. So it seems to me you wanted to have a kind of therapeutic quality, for you and for the readers. There is a kind of venting going on here isn't there?
A: Well, absolutely, and I think part of the challenge going ahead, certainly for me personally and anyone else interested in these issues from a democratic standpoint is you do have to learn to both swat down the official social mythology about wealth in our society and figure out how to talk about it yourself in a way that's compelling, because I do think that no matter how debased the populist tradition has become at the hands of the right, there is a lot left that's worth reclaiming as well. Because God knows, the government and the financial elites understand their own class interests so we have to get in the habit of isolating that, detecting when they are speaking dishonestly about it, but also to discern what our own class interests are. Like, it doesn't make sense for our elected representatives be pushing for a tax cut extension that the vast majority of us oppose and will not only not benefit from but will be actively harmed by.
Q: We will pay for it. It's going to be a bill for us.
A: We'll pay in all sorts of ways, not only in marginal taxes but also the looting of Social Security, the social safety net which is already threadbare. One of the many absurdities of this particular moment is that we are debating this at the same time Congress has let federal unemployment benefits lapse. I don't know how much more dramatically to put this.
Q: But, as you say, there has to be a register at which a lot of this populist rhetoric is recuperable even if it has been debased by the right because there's so much overlap between the critique that runs through your book and a lot of the critique of the tea party.
A: No, and I often wonder where is the left's tea party? But you have to look at what's tactically very smart, and I'm sure well intended on the part of the tea party, for example the appropriation of the whole idea of patriotism, you know, it's been a weird problem on the left.
Q: But that's another thing that happened in the 70s, isn't it?
A: Yes, you had the rise of a certain kind of identity politics, and while I don't subscribe to the conservative critique of political correctness, there is a difficulty pointed out by a very good former Clinton speechwriter who wrote a really good book called Speaking American, in which he pointed out how the '92 Clinton campaign rhetorically did a very good job of putting the first Bush presidency very much on the defensive especially around economic issues. It was more than just the slogan, “it's the economy stupid,” but it's hard to go back to that time because in 1992 Bill Clinton championed universal healthcare, and had a pretty compelling and thoughtful critique of trickle-down economics, but the problem is he never intended to govern along those lines. He was very effective in framing a populist campaign, and there's a chapter in my book on how the Democratic Party's economic profile beginning with the first Clinton term and certainly by the end of the Clinton years is the party of the rich. The rich now have a much broader range of choice. You can go with the party that is culturally more permissive and good on separation of church and state and other sorts of social issues, or you can go with the hard-line theocrats who will be there when the shit goes down, as we're seeing now.
Q: Yes, but taking the layer of control and rhetoric at the top of the tea party out of the equation for a second, and looking at some aspects of the grassroots outrage that's genuine, how much is there separating that sentiment and those interests from a populist position in fact? Isn't it possible to argue that in there are all the elements of a genuine left populist critique?
A: Well, not all. I would say the tea party is kind of emotionally populist, which is what gives populism a bad name, and justifiably so in many cases because that can degrade into bigotry and ugly anti-Semitism and all sorts of other stuff. It's emotionally populist and philosophically libertarian, because this is the other thing when you look at our recent political history that in my view is so essential to understand: the idea that market libertarianism has become dominant and, even for would-be dissenting movements like the tea party, hegemonic. You cannot move outside of that force field. So during the healthcare debate you had this first order delusion in the tea party protests where you would have older people coming out to town halls and telling their elected representatives, “I don't want universal healthcare because it will take away my Medicare.”
Q: Or, I want don't government healthcare because it will interfere with my Medicare.
A: And that is a first order delusion but behind that is the idea that they don't think of their government benefits as government benefits. What's happened is that something like Medicare has become disaggregated from a mass politics and it's become this sort of inviolate, individual right. That is to say, it's MY Medicare, it's not our Medicare, and keep your goddamn hands off it. That, in a nutshell, is the triumph of market libertarianism in my view. It's going to be a problem for the people on the right who, believe me, would love to see Medicare go away, because it can't be done.
Q: This is the great thing about public healthcare. Once it's instituted you can never get rid of it. I've spoken with some hard-core libertarians in both developed and developing countries like Costa Rica where they have universal health care and I've never met a single one who, no matter how doctrinaire they are, thinks that it's either a good idea or politically plausible, whether or not there's any point in critiquing public healthcare as a theory, but as a fact, once it's there, it's a done deal and becomes unchallengeable. Which ought to tell you everything you need to know about public healthcare. Once it exists you can never get rid of it because people will lynch you in the streets if you try.
A: It turns out they really like it. I mean Rush Limbaugh went to Costa Rica to get treated, for gosh sakes.
Q: I'm sure he went to private hospitals, but it was funny that he said that if national healthcare were instituted he would move to Costa Rica, one of the few developing countries with national healthcare, which seems to elude him entirely. But I take it back. It's to give him credit for being sincere in any way. He just talks crap so I shouldn't even bother pointing out the glaring contradictions.
Q: So the problem you've identified is one of narratives. The free market libertarian sort of narrative that has become so hegemonic that there is no space for any other critique, in other words if there is a critique to be made it has to be a free-market critique of the free market. There is no other narrative. But why is there no other narrative? Obviously this is an overdetermined question, but I'd like to know what you think. Is it because the other narratives have simply failed to coalesce or is it because the existing non-free-market narratives have been discredited by performance in some way?
A: Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that there has been a 30+ year war on the new deal social contract and it actually began a long time ago. Jimmy Carter was a fiscal hawk, and he went after a lot of government spending ahead of Reagan. So, this is something that has very deep institutional roots in Washington. This idea of the vampire state or a demonized federal state has taken root in this country to such a degree that it's very difficult for anybody politically to challenge it. One of the very specific pieces of this dilemma is that Reagan not only declared war on the new deal social contract, he specifically declared war on the labor movement. So now we've gone from the mid-1950s where more than 30% of American workers were unionized, to where now it's 7% and shrinking. That is a shorthand way of explaining why the only popular planks now of liberalism are Social Security and Medicare from the Great Society because we still have old people. We don't have unionized workers, but old people vote. So as we've seen in the recent debate over healthcare, what ultimately won out was not the thing that was most popular in political terms, there was very strong support for a public option and single-payer wasn't on the table, but if it's ever explained as a rational policy people actually really like it. So the challenge then, if you're part of this force field of market libertarianism in Washington, is to ensure that it never gets to be part of the conversation and that's where the narrative comes in. It instantly got demonized, even before it was “socialist” in the rhetoric of the '09 health care fight it was “a foreign idea,” you know Canadians have it and, worse, the French! And that feeds into this debased populism because it's usually nationalist.
Q: You mentioned anti-Semitism. Have you seen any anti-Semitism from the tea party?
A: They've been very vigilant about it at least at the leadership level of routing out both that and racism.
Q: But there's been a decent amount of Islamophobia hasn't there?
A: Yes, and it's been underreported and undisciplined.
Q: Homophobia and Islamophobia, there's been plenty of both.
A: Those are acceptable. And you do see, like at the Glenn Beck 9/12 rally, racist signs too.
Q: Glenn Beck. Is he a mentally unbalanced subject? The only question I think worth asking about him is, does he need help, because someone like Limbaugh is plainly a businessman, he's making money, he's playing a role, and no need to ask what drives him. Is there something deeper and darker at work with Beck?
A: There is something deeper, and what I think it is, is that he has been treated: he's a recovering alcoholic who's become a Mormon convert. What's interesting about Beck is that he has the zeal of a convert, and that he actually uses this very particular image that's drawn from something that Joseph Smith supposedly said in the 19th century that “when the Republic is hanging by a thread the Mormon church will basically take charge.” It is a vision of theocracy.
Q: He subscribes to this?
A: Yes, there are many moments if you look through transcripts of his shows when he says that, and it's significant because it bespeaks a broader understanding of the world that is very much theocratic. In his view the Mormon faith saved his life and it will also save the American Republic in this time of crisis.
Q: So, America is an alcoholic basically?
A: Yes, which would explain the violent lurches of motivation that he attributes to the country.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the general category of rich people things for a second. What about the inverse, what about poor people things? Much of what's in here, also in its own way, are poor people things or working-class people things, or non-rich people things.
A: That's true, and I've tried to make a point in my weekly column of that. But the book is independent of that.
Q: There are some people who get particular opprobrium from you, and I was especially struck by your take on Malcolm Gladwell, who you seem to be particularly distasteful of. He generally speaking has a very good reputation, although I agree with you, so the question is what's the matter with Malcolm Gladwell?
A: Well, he's a very fluid writer, his prose is very readable, and he loves the move of going to the counterintuitive academic research and constructing a narrative such that everything you know about subject X is wrong.
Q: But, it's usually right isn't it?
A: Yes, and Steven Pinker has made this argument much better than I could, he sets up this straw man of common wisdom: what we all believe is X, but what the research really bears out is Y. His book Outliers is a perfect example, because it's an effort ironically enough to sort of take a very soft blow at the idea of the American meritocracy, and it turns out that material success doesn't correlate one-to-one with academic achievement, or that NFL quarterbacks who perform well are not necessarily the top draft picks. But as Pinker observes, college admissions offices or NFL coaches are betting in a system that guarantees a certain floor, it's not based on the performance of your number one draft pick or your summa com laude student.
Q: So, he's not looking at the whole casino, he's looking at the individual bet.
A: Right, and he doesn't understand that the house wins.
Q: Counterintuitive analytical gestures are often very rich but counterintuitive work based on research, alleged research, with an extraordinary degree of frequency turns out to be bogus, and Gladwell's an example. Foucault is another example, right? The analytical points he makes are extremely interesting, but he's wrong on almost everything factually. The great archivist was sort of completely full of crap and yet because his thinking is rich, he's still interesting. But Gladwell just only has the error, not the insight.
A: Right, he hasn't exactly filled out a persuasive analytical framework, it's just everything you know is wrong and also what ends up happening is that because the you he is tacitly addressing there isn't the average American, it's you the magazine editor or reader, and his book Blink is a perfect example of this. That's how he ends up drawing such exorbitant speaking fees from management seminars because he bears the message in Blink that every gut instinct you have is probably right, so if you are this middle manager at a major corporation and you're trying to develop some new sales pitch or some get rich quick scheme, then trust your instincts. And this is exactly what these people want to hear. It's a kind of mind cure, actually.
Q: It's a kind of anti-intellectualism of a rarefied variety.
A: You don't have to think analytically or critically about anything, just do it.
Q: Well, we've seen how that works at the level of national policy, under Pres. George W. Bush where much was determined apparently on the basis of gut and look where it got us, for example in Iraq. So there's some space left to defend the analytical, isn't there?
A: And it should be a growing space right now.
Q: But it's closing.
A: No, I agree, especially now in the wake of the last election the Obama administration seems determined to prophylactically surrender.
Q: You don't like the Obama administration.
A: Certainly I don't like its economic policies. To hark back to the experience of the new deal, what happened when the banks failed? Under FDR, he declared a bank holiday, he introduced a whole body of radical reforms saying to our financial institutions: you're doing business differently now, you can't co-mingle commercial banking and investment banking, there's going to be federal deposit insurance to ensure that you keep a minimum balance of holdings.
Q: Real reforms, structural reforms.
A: Yes, and what's just happened now is we've just had a bailout. And also three of the four bad actors in the '08 crisis were still making economic policy: Ben Bernanke, who I think if Obama had any FDR instincts his head would be among the first to roll; Tim Geithner, who crafted TARP when he was head of the New York Fed and got a fucking promotion to go head the Treasury Department; and then as if all that weren't enough he brings back Larry Summers, the genius who as treasury secretary under Clinton dismantled all these new deal protections and created the basis for the crisis. So, in economic terms, this administration has been a big disappointment.
Q: Is there anything about the administration you like?
A: Well, I mean…
Q: I mean other than the fact that we have a black president, and more importantly a black First Lady, and maybe most importantly two African-American little girls growing up in the White House in front of the whole country?
A: That's true.
Q: From my perspective the most important aspect of the Obama administration is probably Sasha and Malia. If we get eight years of watching them grow up in the White House, the country will never be the same, culturally.
A: No, I totally agree with that. Part of this whole attack on the new deal social programs obviously involved race, and attacks on the black family, and this is a very significant moment in symbolic terms.
Q: But on policies, is there anything good, or is it one degree of disappointment or another?
A: That is our lot.
Q: I was going to say that if you have to reach back to Roosevelt for anything good to say about any administration then the question can only be asked in deep hindsight. I mean we could have sat here in the 30s saying, “he hasn't done anything about segregation.”
A: Fair enough, but why indulge in the soft bigotry of low expectations?
Q: How is it that in the midst of this catastrophe driven by greed, driven by unrestrained excess, lack of regulation, etc., that Ayn Rand has become the heroine? How the fuck does that happen? But it's a serious question. A more loathsome figure you couldn't imagine, and a less appropriate one. How could she possibly be a corrective? It would make more sense to become a Jesus freak.
A: Only in America my friend. But no, it's a real question. But you're right, there is a religious quality to the veneration of Ayn Rand but it can only be religious because logically, as you were saying, nothing in this moment recommends her.
Q: Well, it's particularly gruesome in that her most accomplished disciple, Alan Greenspan, would be the villain in chief in the grand narrative of this calamity. So the mastermind of his philosophy which caused all of this has become the heroine promoted as the corrective of the very thing which her ideas produced.
A: Yes, not only do we have a political culture that is often anti-intellectual we have zero historical memory.
Q: So, we are perfect postmodern subjects? We know nothing, we remember nothing, we are 300 million Sgt. Schultzes?
A: And that's why when, at the height of the furor during all the bailouts and when the tea party took off, you saw people wearing T-shirts and brandishing placards saying, “who is John Galt?," the famous refrain from Atlas Shrugged.
Q: I. can answer that: one of the worst characters ever dreamed up by one of the crappiest novelists who ever put pen to paper, and who was particularly unable to write characters.
A: Yes, I dallied with her work as many American teenagers do when I was a kid, out of curiosity, and I reacted with revulsion.
Q: Was she popular with your peers?
A: Oh yeah, I grew up in central Iowa and the appeal of Ayn Rand is particularly to an adolescent mentality because it's all obviously the cult of the creative genius, the Howard Roarks.
Q: It's an Oedipal fantasy, you're asserting your own phallic power.
A: Yes, and in this case that is no metaphor. There is a raging phallic mayhem in all of her novels. And it's no accident that in literary terms most successful one and her breakthrough novel, The Fountainhead, is about an architect who rapes his protagonist.
Q: And who builds giant phallic structures. Plus it's in the title anyway. It's pretty undisguised, as crude as the James Bond films I wrote about a few weeks ago.
A: But there is at least wit in the James Bond films.
Q: There is wit, and there is lots of conscious self-deprecation and self-parody. They don't pretend to be a grand philosophical project to overthrow the evil Immanuel Kant.
A: The other thing about the prototypical Ayn Rand character that I noticed when I reread a lot of this stuff for the book is that they have no family relationships unless they are fiercely Oedipal as you're describing.
Q: And as Whittaker Chambers pointed out, there are no children in any of her writings and no possibility of children. It's not a world for children.
A: In a weird way, it's almost Soviet.
Q: I really loved Chambers' review even though I don't identify with the spiritual side of it because his main rejection is of her materialism, but he had her number like nobody's business, and there's this great passage where he says that like her protagonists, she can't like children because she creates names of bankers like Midas Mulligan, and you can fool adults with this but children will always squirm uncomfortably knowing something isn't right, but not knowing exactly what. But they'll know something is all wrong with this. It's certainly a sociopathic worldview.
A: Society is a delusion that's used to enslave the creative individual.
Q: It's a philosophy that would be embraced wholeheartedly by an irate panther, living alone in the rain forest not wanting to see or meet another panther except once or twice in its life strictly for purposes of procreation, sleep most of the day and just emerge at night to kill and drink.
A: I kind of feel like you're maligning panthers.
Q: I probably am: they're just doing what panthers do, whereas she's telling people to do what people don't normally do. I am maligning panthers — they're noble creatures. Whereas her characters and people who follow her “philosophy” or dictate are ignoble. So I may be maligning panthers, but still you wouldn't want to hang out with somebody with the mentality of a panther.
A: And you definitely don't want them making your economic policies. There was this comical moment when Alan Greenspan was finally dragged before Congress and asked, “Jesus, dude, what happened here?” And he confessed. He said he had this core faith that the markets would regulate themselves and it seems to have been a flaw in his thinking. My bad. Except, and this is the beauty of the Randian worldview, there is zero personal guilt.
Q: Well, since he fulfilled his will perfectly, what's the problem? He fulfilled his own destiny. The consequences are beside the point.
A: Everyone else has to deal with it. Early on during the worst of the subprime loans when they were targeting inner-city neighborhoods, a number of the community activists and others went before the Federal Reserve and said, you don't have to be a genius to see that these people aren't really going to be able to pay their mortgages, especially when they go up. And Greenspan actively dismissed their concerns and said moreover that it's not the job of the Federal Reserve to do this kind of regulation. To which, I think, our national response should be: what the fuck is the job of the Fed in that case? It's supposed to control the money supply as an instrument of making economic policy. So maybe he could've referred these issues to HUD or Congress but he didn't do that, he just batted the concerns aside derisively. There is a perfect specimen of the Randian faith in market self-regulation.
Q: Sticking with popular culture for a second, because that's where Ayn Rand lives being utterly dismissed by any intellectuals and academics worth their salt, and certainly one of the worst writers I've ever read…
A: Well, her books are readable at a certain level.
Q: Gladwell is, but what with Midas Mulligan and everything I just can't deal with Ayn Rand.
A: You go through it much more quickly when you're 14.
Q: One of the most surprising entries in your book is the one on reality television, which I wouldn't necessarily think was a rich people thing except insofar as all TV shows are made by rich people. But it raises some very interesting questions. First of all, the whole category is an oxymoron. There couldn't be anything further from reality than TV and never the twain shall meet.
A: And there's something especially perverse about manipulating the appearance of reality to make it seem as though it is documentary vérité. I only came upon this as a subject because my wife was a TV writer and critic for a long time, and consumes it a great deal.
Q: My mantra was always do TV but don't watch it. I did go through a period of doing a lot of it, but now I try not to.
A: I know, it's an unhealthy relationship to have.
Q: Very. Toxic, is it not?
A: So she was watching all these shows and it suddenly dawned on me that the topics were not surprisingly based on, because who else would want to do such a thing, desperate people who wanted a quick buck.
Q: It's what always drew people to become circus freaks.
A: I think the right analogy is that of the geek, the original geek, someone who would bite off a chicken head for cash. Two things gradually struck me. One was, there is literally a show on VH1 called “I love money” in which people really scheme and debase themselves and subject themselves to horrible, total exposure and at the end of the show they go to the vault where you're voted out and it's all very symbolically rich and repulsive. And you have this show called “toddlers in tiaras"…
Q: Sounds like kiddie porn.
A: It's very close. It's kiddie beauty pageants.
Q: How disgusting.
A: I will literally leave the room any time my wife has this on.
Q: You mean you've actually seen this?
A: In passing. And only for purposes of research.
Q: They always say that.
A: I read it for the articles. But seriously, what I realized is that in all these spectacles, what they are doing is they are presenting a public theater taking poor people who have the wrong sort of ambition and punishing them, humiliating them publicly. The tacit script of all these shows is, despite all the mythology about social mobility in America, there evidently is a class of people who we relegate to geek status. For all the talk about economic reward, and we should be having a conversation about what Wall Street gets paid or whatever, this is the economic punishment side. This is the moment where we hold that these people who are just less educated, vulgar, have bad social skills and family relationships, and we just say, you don't belong.
Q: So it's similar, in that sense, to another place on TV where the same kind of thing happens on those daytime sort of spectacle shows where they'll bring on the goodies and baddies, people who are supposedly deviating from the normative bourgeois mores of American society, and the audience is supposed to boo and hiss or applaud in order to reinforce the way you're supposed to behave.
A: It's a symbolic kind of show trial. In a Sally Jessy Raphael show in the 1990s, and this is a perfect example, economics aside, about how there is something immoral, to use a quaint term, about this because what they are doing is fucking with people's heads. They took this homophobic man and had a gay coworker of his publicly confess a crush, and humiliated him, and eventually the guy went and killed him.
Q: That was bound to eventually happen, wasn't it?
A: You invade other people's psyches, and you humiliate them publicly, and what the fuck do you think is going to happen eventually? All these spectacles have that undercurrent of risk, and what's going on beyond that though is your making the statement that there is a class of people who it's okay to fuck with. And they signed a contract, so we are legally covered, and let the gladiator exhibition began. It is hard not to think of ancient Rome.
Q: The chapter I disagree with the most is the first one, the one on the Constitution. Your critique is often sound, and it's very rooted in the kind of classic revisionist view of Charles Beard and so forth, and there's a very long tradition of this in the 20th century, particularly the first 70 years, of this sort of critique. My own sense is that there are places in which you are unduly harsh. I don't think there's anything you've said about the Constitution that's wrong, but I think there is a whole other angle to it that isn't there. So it's perfectly true that in the parts of the Constitution that were constructed to protect minorities, the minority that they had in mind was the propertied class, the creditors. And, what they wanted to protect them from was the wrath of the majority, that is to say the debtors. And so they were very concerned that if you create a democracy people would vote themselves out of debt, vote themselves into property, vote propertied people out of property, and this is not acceptable. But it didn't take that long for those provisions to metastasize into legal protections for all kinds of minorities and it continues to happen, so even if there is some kind of very questionable origin of some of this stuff it's played out in a way that's often been very salutary and you don't really allow for that.
A: Well, I don't dismiss it.
Q: You don't dismiss it, but to my reading you don't give it enough credit.
A: That's a fair criticism. I would say, though, that, as is the case in dealing with mystifications, one has to be firmly insistent at times.
Q: I wouldn't ask you to back down on your assertions about the propertied class. No one who is aware of the founding and the debate at the Constitutional convention and the arguments between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists can doubt it. That's what they were worried about: non-propertied people and their use of voting rights, they weren't worried about racial minorities or women or anything like that. They were worrying about poor people legislating against rich people. That's what they were arguing about.
A: And your point is well taken that the genius of the document is that as a social basis of American democracy expanded, the Constitution was able to adapt and move forward and use the language and provisions it contains to apply to other purposes and categories. Which is true.
Q: In other words, it seems hard for me to simply look at the Constitution and say, “oh, rich person thing.” It is of course that. But at certain crucial moments, and decisively so, it's been available to others as well. Now of course not without sometimes the permission of rich people, or the thwarting of rich people against their own anger and resistance, usually by other rich persons such as during the new deal.
A: You need a defecting group within the ruling class.
Q: Well, and also they defected in order to save capitalism from itself. They were not Bolsheviks, and that was their whole point: we don't want to become Bolsheviks but the next step is a bunch of Bolsheviks. So it wasn't very much of a defection.
A: And you need an expansive welfare state in order to save capitalism from itself, and that was the new deal. I'll stipulate that FDR was wrong in this move, but he felt it was necessary to try to pack the Supreme Court and add justices after the court struck down the national recovery administration to preserve the new deal as constitutionally robust. In a way, the same Janus-faced argument applies to the Supreme Court. The court has extended the reach of the Constitution, and vindicated the rights of formerly oppressed minorities, but at the same time, especially right now, we are looking at a court that is unbelievably skewed toward the propertied classes.
Q: I don't have the same problem at all with your chapter on the Supreme Court. The court has always been an explicitly political institution, the third branch of government, and only attenuated from the political system in certain ways. There is no one except the most mystifying law professors and historians who could be naïve enough to say of Bush v. Gore, well that was an extraordinary thing. They voted along party lines and they reversed their normal positions in order to do so. Okay, wow! Who'd a thunk it? Well, me and everybody else with half a brain, that's who. Because this is a political institution based on political appointments and it's the product of the political process. The Constitution's relationship to the political process is much more indirect than the courts', although of course it is the court that determines what the Constitution says. At least for now. It's still completely a document that serves to legitimate what power wants to do, but it functions in a radically different way than the court.
A: Yes and no. Because it exists in our common life as it is interpreted by the Court. But yes, I understand your point that once these core principles were instituted and made the founding document of our nation they took on this life of their own.
Q: It seems to me the biggest critique in economic terms to be made of the way the Constitution has been interpreted and applied has to do with the personhood of corporations. Which is simply a bizarre reading of the document, but it also seems to have been inevitable. It is not in the Constitution, and you have to torture that poor document to get it in there, dragging it back and forth between the rack and the chamber of little ease before you can get it into the right shape for that, by stretching it and crushing it and stretching it and crushing it, but it couldn't have been any other way. The social and economic structure of this country demands that. You really couldn't have had another interpretation, no matter how bizarre it is. It had to be there. Much in the same way that some things liberals like about privacy rights and such, again not to be found anywhere in it, have to be read into it.
A: What's the famous phrase from Rove v. Wade, shadows of penumbras or whatever? There's clearly no guarantee of a right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution.
Q: Except that we now hold there is.
A: And there is no direct language about separation of church and state either. So you have on the left people wanting there to be privacy for the sake of abortion rights or people on the right, even though the Constitution disestablishes state religion, will say it's not in the Constitution to separate church and state.
Q: Well here's the thing: it's just a pile of language, so has no inherent meaning, other than the meaning through which it is interpreted. One chapter you don't have in your book that might be there is one on so-called constitutional “strict constructionism.” Strict constructionism is certainly a rich person's thing, but it's also a no thing, so to speak, given the fact that at the time of the adoption of any of these passages in the Constitution itself, or the Bill of Rights, or any of the subsequent amendments, almost never has there been, or at least rarely has there been, unanimity or even consensus among the people who adopted the language about what exactly they thought the language meant. There was merely a consensus of the choice of words, but at the time raging battles about what they meant even though people could agree on the literal words. So this is all fatuous, and not only fatuous from the point of view of anyone who understands how language actually functions, but also fatuous in terms of the historical record.
A: Absolutely, and in part that's why it's interesting to me that taking the strict constructionist or originalist view of the document I think you can make a strong case that the most incontrovertible stuff is the economic stuff, it's about contract law, it's about no state can make their own currency because that would cause inflation and decrease the value of credit.
Q: Except for the crucial thing: the legal personhood of corporations, which we could not do without.
A: Yes, it had to be tortured through the 14th amendment, which of course was originally designed to protect the rights of the freedmen, former slaves.
Q: And from there it becomes a charter for corporate personhood.
A: Yes, and from there you have the Citizens United decision.
Q: By the way, it really does sound like an extremely bad S/M movie: “Strict Construction.” Doesn't it?
A: And, in a sense, it is. Dudes in black robes.
Q: Well, I guess that's it. Congratulations on a great new book and I hope everybody reads it. Thanks for your time, and I look forward to doing this again very soon.