Preliminary Notes on the Discourses of the Crisis

A crisis occurs sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves and that despite this the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them within certain limits and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will concede that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that the opposition organizes.

Gramsci, Prison Notebooks*

How might we theorize the discursive limits of the public debate over the latest implosion of the capitalist world-system? As Gramsci suggests, the appearance of structural crisis can be taken as a definite sign that certain contradictory aspects at the deepest levels of capitalist society have come to a head, resulting in an abrupt drying-up of capital liquidity, the widespread destruction of value and assets, and a general state of economic chaos and uncertainty that engulfs public discourse indefinitely. For some, such a seemingly blatant manifestation of system irrationality prompts the observation that it must be met with an equally systemic policy response at the national level; some argue that it merely represents a particularly steep slump in the normal capitalist business cycle, to be corrected again with due time – and without undue political interference; and some rail against the degenerate state of the prevailing culture, alleging its responsibility for the recent unpleasantness, and place virtue and moral regeneration at the center of any reformist vision. This period of greatly heightened ideological struggle, in tandem with the cascading effects of social and economic dislocation at basically every level of society, form the outlines of the historical ‘conjuncture,’ in which the everyday conflict over the dominant public meaning of widely-shared concepts, values, and ideals – indeed, sometimes over what can even count as “public” – is ratcheted up to a new level of intensity, as various social forces vie with one another to determine what shape will be taken by the unfolding judgment of history.

In the fall of 2008, after the abrupt, serial evaporation of a handful of absurdly over-leveraged investment banks and the ensuing panic in world markets, a discourse fairly quickly emerged in the U.S. media identifying the arcane instruments of a post-Bretton Woods form of finance capital as the main culprit. Dominant media channels did a pretty decent job analyzing and producing informed commentary on the world of financial derivatives, credit-default swaps, and other esoteric mechanisms for what essentially amounts to the creation and dissemination of fictitious capital, and, hence, fictitious value. It didn’t take too long for liberal and center-left commentators to begin arguing that these elements were just one piece of a much larger puzzle, which had to do with a massive speculative bubble in housing markets, which was itself based on massively over-inflated (false) housing prices, which were run up in a global credit market nourished by a larger historical trend of stagnant real wages and metastasizing household and state debt, which was itself a product of financial liberalization as a response to the long world crisis of the 1970s, which was caused by….

In other words, there was for a short time – let’s say, for sake of argument, from October 2008 to the end of summer, 2009 – some fairly serious reflection going on about the root causes of the crisis within a wide range of media channels, as public intellectual figures like Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Joseph Stiglitz argued the case for a correspondingly thorough policy response that would hopefully strike at those causes, and restore the conditions for renewed accumulation and growth. There was a fairly widespread call, in other words, for a systemic response to what clearly appeared to be a crisis of the system.

It didn’t take long, however, for a powerful counter-systemic discourse to set in. This shift largely parallels the time it took for a shell-shocked conservative political establishment, reeling from the double whammy of the economic crisis and a decisive defeat in the November general elections, to re-emerge with a powerful narrative that centered upon a particular explanation of the crisis based upon the morality and nationalistic virtue of “the American people.” Crucially, a key precondition of their success in this endeavor – which arguably was registered in the electoral results of the mid-term elections in 2010 – was a discursive reconstitution of the crisis that went beyond arid, center-left economic explanations to recast it as a much broader and deeper cultural phenomenon. This discourse subjugated the definition of the crisis as socially and economically produced to a deeper one that tapped into the fears and anxieties of broad swathes of the American electorate, for whom recent economic events were a mere manifestation of a more serious malaise rooted in a corrupted national ethos. From this standpoint, the ‘activist,’ overweening government of the Obama administration was simply driven by the machinations of a morally corrupt and ethically debased political cadre determined to fleece the middle-classes for pure, venal personal gain. From here, it was only a short step to the reconsolidation of the default neoliberal discursive stasis, premised upon an axiomatic faith in the idea that any government action is bad, by presumption, unless it can be shown to leave things as they are – that is, to leave untouched the foundational social relationships upon which economic life is organized.

The overall point is to illuminate one way in which enduring aspects of political hegemony in U.S. public culture have been operative in the discursive construction of the current crisis. While of course the discourse of reaction did not emerge ex nihilo, preformed and intentional in its activation of far-reaching paths of circulation and identification, it was assembled over time as conservative journalists, Tea-Party activists, Republicans, and – importantly – myriad lesser known bloggers and commentators struggled to give voice to inchoate feelings of dread and despair following the events of the fall of 2008. This was perhaps most iconically performed in Rick Santelli’s famous rant, the following February, in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, broadcasted on CNBC and quickly circulated at a viral rate throughout the conservative and far-right online community. This was the context in which the re-conjuration of “the people” took place, eventually replacing rationalized discourses of supply, demand, regulation, and economic stimulus with a static discourse of Being, grounded in the enduring images of the American middle-class as responsible, individualistic, and hard-working, which was itself premised upon the negation – abstract but terribly efficacious – of any form of explanation grounded in a concept of the social whole. Society, as Margaret Thatcher explained to us, does not exist – it is pure non-Being. This lived ‘reality,’ this common-sense, was merely reasserted, albeit with a difference, by the the establishment backlash following the inaugural meltdown of the neoliberal regime of accumulation.

*This quotation appears at the beginning of Gopal Balakrishnan’s essay “Speculations on the Stationary State,” New Left Review 59.


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