30 May 2011

Diminishing ourselves to suit the crisis

The economic crisis has been a disaster for recent college graduates. Of course it's been a bigger disaster for young people who have not graduated from college, but that demographic for some reason consistently draws less interest from the media. Still, the collapse in life chances for the college-educated is remarkable. As The New York Times reports
The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008 . . . Of course, these are the lucky ones — the graduates who found a job. Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.
As the so-called recovery continues to peter out, those prospects aren't going to get any better. What we're seeing here is the advent of a lost generation.

These people are the innocent victims of a systematic global crisis of capitalism. Yet the letters published in response to this article betrayed no sympathy. The director of one college career counseling office condemned any recognition of the job market’s caprice: “We know how people get jobs, and luck rarely has anything to do with it.” How do people get good jobs? “The hard work of networking early on in a college career, wisely chosen internships, using summers well (which too few students do) and other positioning activities greatly enhance the chance of a good job after graduation.”

A Chicago career counselor advised recent grads to abandon their complacent belief that a degree entitles them to a job – what matters is "how directed candidates are and how they present themselves". Ultimately, "[s]tudents have to prove why they should be hired over others".

A final letter-writer counseled cold realism in response to the new normal: “Engineers, accountants, health care workers, computer scientists and highly skilled craftsmen will have a chance to achieve the American dream, but students double majoring in French and Spanish will be living in Mom’s basement.” “In a just world,” he admonished, “degrees in humanities would carry a warning on the diploma: ‘Earning this degree, while intellectually stimulating, may increase your chances of lifelong poverty and disillusionment.’”

A truly grim vision of “a just world”, this. Rather than demanding a world in which each individual is free to develop his or her potentials and find fulfillment, justice demands that we all succumb to that brutal force beyond our control, “the economy”?

The economy is not a force of nature, but an entity constituted by human beings. Still, the letter writer is right to recognize that it stands above us, outside us. It constrains our potential, fatally restricts our freedom, arbitrarily extinguishes the future of some, the very lives of others, while equally arbitrarily raising some of us – an increasingly small number – to unimaginable heights of wealth and power. What he fails to see is that a just world lies not in diminishing and deforming human beings to serve the needs of the economy, but in finally claiming control over the economy so that it serves human beings.

Yet the experience of neoliberalism seems to have made it nearly impossible for most people to locate our problems in the nature of the economy. Instead we have seen two broad responses to the crisis: first, a determination to adapt to the “new normal” – to discover those strategies of personal conduct (seen, eg, in these letters, and more broadly in the debate over whether a college education is “worth it”) or of public policy (most prominently, by slashing government budgets) that seem to offer efficacy under newly straightened circumstances. There are even those who openly embrace the shrinking possibilities of human society, like those who hope for a purification of society thru austerity. And this is by no means solely a syndrome of the right.

The other response has been resignation or despair. Unlike in the Arab world, where dissatisfied youth have fastened on their authoritarian governments as the source of their troubles, the dysfunctions of neoliberalism are in some ways less mystified in the United States. There is no convenient scapegoat to mobilize against; here we are confronted directly with the arbitrary nature of capitalism. Finding a decent job is “more about luck than anything else”, as one recent college graduate put it.

Yet fewer obstacles to seeing the real problem has not translated into a better understanding of it. Most kinds of subjectivity produced by neoliberalism seem incapable of grasping the social totality, and even less are they able to imagine a world organized on different principles. Incredibly, the crisis of neoliberalism seems to have actually further impoverished the social imaginary. When wealth was expanding, if only for the well-off, it seemed possible to make a better world by redistributing it. With stagnation that possibility is gone. When everyone’s labor was being exploited, renouncing work seemed like a way out. Now that it’s become clear that, under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited, what path is left? (This is a point made nicely by Crimethinc, once one of the worst offenders in the anarchist dissent against neoliberalism, tho they remain somewhat naïve of history.) Hence the paradox that, tho the left critique of neoliberalism has been vindicated with a vengeance, the left seems more helpless than ever.

If there is to be any hope of escaping the crisis, much less of attaining that just world of true freedom in which we control our own fate, we must reject both the narrow immediacy of falsely “realistic” approaches as well as the temptation of despair. But hope cannot be based solely on a negation; it requires an analysis to justify the idea that something different is possible, and it requires the direction provided by concrete steps that hold out the promise of fulfilling that hope. The absence of these is perhaps the left’s greatest failure.


  1. I had hoped to put together a more coherent post, but then I figured it would be better to try and kick off some discussion here rather than delay any further. I wonder if part of the reason that there isn't a bigger reaction to the horrible state of the economy is that many college graduates have little desire to pursue a career that is primarily economically rewarding. Some are still receiving economic support from their parents, and are content to pursue their interests even if they aren't fully able to subsidize their lifestyle in that way. I wouldn't want to put too much faith in this, but this is perhaps one factor among many others.

    Those who are devoted to economic advancement may be more hesitant to criticize the system that they have been taught to admire and respect. Perhaps it's simply too early for them to realize that an alternative has become necessary. In any case, alternatives have yet to begin emerging...

    And is the US capable of formulating the alternative that will be needed to end this crisis? There are some who think that given rising labor costs in China, we will be able to bring manufacturing back to the US. Do we think that this situation is likely, and where will this leave China? Failing this, would we be likely to see the basis for a new political approach springing up in the US?

    Another point I'd like to raise is that there is also a positive dimension to neoliberalism, in that there has been a real commitment to developing the freedom of the individual, that has not been limited to either the political right or left, but has been manifested in different ways on both sides. Nor should we overlook the real gains in personal freedom, just because of the ascendency of right wing populism. Currently the right-wing emphasis on personal freedom is contributing to a political field in which it is seemingly impossible to take action that can effectively address the problems in the economy.

    Obviously this isn't a problem with personal liberty in an abstract sense, but seems to show that in our current social formation, there is no basis for understanding collective goods. As you say, the principles of neoliberalism have become ingrained as a kind of common sense that constitues a horizon of possibility. We are left with an impoverished calculus of self interest that illuminates no road forward, only a rapid descent deeper into the current crisis.

  2. Ok, a lot of points here. First I'll try to respond to the issue of China. Manufacturing in China is definitely getting more expensive as wages rise, inflation continues to run pretty high despite significant govt efforts, and the currency increases in value. But that doesn't mean manufacturing will shift to the US - those companies leaving China are mainly going to Vietnam, Bangladesh, Central America, etc. And keep in mind that even tho costs are rising in China, other forces are moderating that impact, above all rising productivity.

    In any case, new manufacturing capacity in the US will be even less labor intensive than in China, so I'm doubtful it's a potential solution to the jobs crisis. As for China, the big issue is how to make a gradual transition away from export-led, investment-driven growth to a consumer economy. Losing some of the cheap, labor-intensive industry would actually facilitate the process, if it didn't happen too abruptly, by clearing the way for the so-called higher value-added sectors. The much bigger question right now is how well the state will manage the deflation of the real estate bubble, which might already be underway.

  3. "I wonder if part of the reason that there isn't a bigger reaction to the horrible state of the economy is that many college graduates have little desire to pursue a career that is primarily economically rewarding."

    This is an interesting point. It speaks to one of the significant cultural developments under neoliberalism, at least in the US - the emergence of people's 20s as a new phase of life marked by instability and uncertainty but also experimentation and a sense of possibility (The New York Times Magazine wrote about this last year - worth reading tho predictably unsatisfying).

    On the one hand this is obviously a product of the casualization of labor so typical of neoliberalism. But on the other hand it's also clearly related to the neoliberal valorization of individual freedom that Chris brought up. And at least for that group of 20-somethings who are fairly privileged and can rely on their parents as they do unpaid internships, travel, or "find themselves", it's also related to the surpluses generated by the rising productivity of capital.

    A lot of these people are insulated from the impact of the crisis by their parents' resources, or they experience the crisis as simply a continuation of the instability of their earlier youth. They don't understand that the crisis is a real turning point and is now foreclosing their possibilities for the future. Even if they did, they are mostly incapable of thinking the social in political terms. How to reach these people - most of whom reject the grasping individualism of the generationally distinct Tea Party - and mobilize them behind a new politics should be a real priority.