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Seduced by synecdoche, or the reports of the death of capitalism may be somewhat hyperbolic…

16 Oct

I am old-fashioned. I am a revolution sceptic. My study of history, European, British and Asian especially, has made me a sceptic. I know what the cost of romantic revolutionaryism has been, and I know that the results in most cases have not justified that cost. The pseudo-scientific Marxist version of this romanticism is no great improvement on anarchism or any other revolutionary philosophy in my estimation, which does not detract from the valuable insights and often service thinkers in that camp have contributed. None of this makes me a reactionary, though some may think I am, or makes me despair any less at the insanity that too often passes for right wing “thought” both here in Australia and in the USA — even more so over there. I find myself still at one with J M Keynes on this, that great 20th century economic thinker whose star seems to be in the ascendant again. (On Keynes see The Keynesian Revolution by Kit Sims Taylor.)

If ever there was a moment when capitalism was in real danger of dying it was in the early 1930s. (“Breathes there a man with soul so dead/ Who wasn’t in the 30s Red?”) But it didn’t happen. In 1932 Keynes said — and I quote from George Seldes’s marvellous left-wing The Great Quotations:

Both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our time — the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of our reactionaries who consider the balance of our economies and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiment.

Alongside my Quote of the Week from Bertrand Russell you have there in a nutshell where I stand. (In quoting atheist/agnostic Russell, by the way, I assert another principle, that given a choice between humanity and what is for humanity on the one hand, and religious orthodoxy or dogma on the other, I always side with humanity. Religion, for me, is too uncertain for any other choice. The religiously rigid too often reflect their own psyches rather than any authentic experience of or knowledge of God.)

So while I commend in most respects what Kevin Rudd had to say yesterday, reported in Greed is bad, says Rudd, I also have some reservations about some of what I hear and read.

KEVIN RUDD declared that “extreme capitalism” had failed comprehensively as he gave notice yesterday that his Government would seek to curb excessive executive salaries in the finance sector.

As a senior member of the US Federal Reserve admitted that the US had officially slipped into recession, Mr Rudd fixed his sights on corporate salaries, telling the National Press Club that greed and fear were “the twin evils” that had sent the global economy into a tailspin.

“Fear is the first of these demons we must see off. Dealing with greed which has caused the fear will come after that,” he said…

Look, I don’t have a problem with that, not really. In fact I welcome it. However, there are reservations, and Annabel Crabbe captures some of this in PM goes over the top in battle of bulging payslips.

KEVIN RUDD now speaks with the clipped air of a military tactician.

He doesn’t spend money; he deploys it.

He doesn’t enter a room; he advances into it.

And he certainly never has anything quite so mundane as a plan – not any more, now that things have taken a new and dangerous turn.

It’s always a strategy…

So does the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Carlin Romano, not referring to Kevin Rudd, in The ‘Wall Street/Main Street’ Bug: Curing Symptoms of Synecdoche.

Everyone uses synecdoche, even if no student can tell you what it is.

We say “Washington,” for instance, to loosely refer to the U.S. government and expect everyone to understand. No one parses the gaps between those supposedly comprised by the image (e.g., every executive-branch official who works in Washington, with the possible exception of Dick Cheney), and those perhaps falsely implicated (other U.S. government officials, such as members of Congress who oppose the president’s policies).

Lately we’ve heard so much about “Wall Street” and “Main Street” that foreigners might think America comes divided not into states or counties, or red and blue, but boulevards, highways, and the like. Yet lots of very different people have lived at both addresses. Part of figuring out where one stands intellectually amid the financial meltdown of the moment requires absorbing the disparate images and associations we identify with both phrases. Some book-assisted reflection on them might help glib media pundits and officials to admit that both images, like “lipstick,” “white flag,” and other false designators suddenly assigned symbolic dimensions, do no one any good…

…why not take a look at Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis, the novel by America’s first Nobel laureate in literature that made the other pole of our synecdoche circus a household phrase? Far from endorsing the current sense of the metaphor as a home for good, decent, hardworking Americans abused by Wall Street, Lewis saw his book as denouncing, in Matthew Bruccoli’s words, “the myth of wholesome small-town America.” Indeed, in his 1930 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Lewis declared that he’d meant to oppose the fictional tradition that “all of us in mid-Western villages were altogether noble and happy.” Rather, Lewis said he had learned from Hamlin Garland that “mid-Western peasants sometimes were bewildered and hungry and vile.”

Fraser, surprisingly, given the force of righteous indignation toward financiers’ chicanery that he documents throughout American history, suggests toward the end of his book that America’s sense of violation by Wall Street at its worst “has shrunk in our own day, supplanted by an air of comic bemusement and ironic detachment.” More recent remarks by Fraser to journalists indicate he may be revising that view. Simple lesson: When sizing up Wall Street, you can never be sure what’s happening until the final bell.

An indisputable conclusion, nonetheless, is that Gordon Gekko doesn’t live on “Wall Street” any more than the rest of us live on “Main Street” — or receive our mail at General Post Office. If Americans are to work through this mess and demand the naming of names, we need precise addresses too.

That is a call for some clear thinking, and is not inapposite.

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Posted by on October 16, 2008 in America, Australia, Australia and Australian, challenge, current affairs, globalisation/corporations, Kevin Rudd, Political, politics, USA

 

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