"These things are old":

Common sense

posted by Vijay Prashad

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Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Abstractions are important, but when they are too far detached from the mulch of things they become pabulum. If the abstractions are firmly rooted in Tradition, it becomes harder to both question them and show that they belong to another age that makes little sense in our time. Obama’s speeches are glorious. They are a joy to listen to and to read later. He is able to dig deep into the rich rhetorical tradition of the Christian world and of the Founding Fathers, and to articulate a call for awakening that is powerful. But how far is it from our world, from our time? There is an anachronistic edge not only in the cadence, but also in the logic—nothing here about the desertion of populations by the government, the allowance of the few to dominate the wealth produced by the many, and the turn to violence when other means wither in the quiver. Ethical systems cannot be built upon each other without any consideration of social transformations. It is not language alone that we must attend to, but even more so to the social context of the language.

Celebrations of “American character” and of the “God-given promise that all are equal” are emotive, powerful symbols of an age that is now no longer with us. Ours is the age of the jobless economy, where character and equality removed from structural impedimenta are cruel sentiments. In 1976, the Nobel Prize in Economics went to Milton Friedman for, among other things, his pioneering work on the “natural rate of unemployment.” Friedman argued that if the economy neared full employment, prices would rise and create the inflationary condition for social disaster. For which reason, he argued, it is a good thing for the government to manipulate monetary policy to maintain a certain section of the population outside the workforce. This is just what U.S. monetary policy is all about, keeping a substantial section of the population away from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment numbers.

Around the time when Friedman’s ribbon was pinned to his tuxedo lapel, the American workforce underwent a dramatic shift: developments in communication and transportation, as well as new regimes of trade policy, allowed firms to disarticulate production to various points of the planet, taking advantage of lower wage costs to increase their profits. Rather than invest in the aging U.S. industrial sector, capital fled to the U.S.-Mexico border, to East Asia, and to other places, building factories in “export processing zones” that took advantage of under-organized (mainly female) migrant workers. The U.S. economy entered the phase of jobless growth, where the Gross Domestic Product grew as a result of the dramatic increase in the financial sector (a sparse employer), and the demise of industrial production produced mass joblessness at a scale not known for decades.

In 1976, only half of the high school graduates went to college, and for those who did not, the job situation was bleak. It would continue to be abysmal for their lifetime, as full-time union wage jobs declined and the minimum wage stagnated below 1973 levels. Because of this, the tragedy of the civil rights struggle was that it won just when privatization, the demise of social welfare and globalization eviscerated the chance for people of color to enjoy the statutory equality that they had just won. It was in this period that the Urban League ruefully reported, “More blacks have lost jobs through industrial decline than through job discrimination.” Globalization and NAFTA hurt these millions of Americans in ways that have not been fully appreciated by the intellectual elites. For those left out, refuge in the abstractions of “American character” and the “God-given promise that all are equal” is essential for their psychosocial well-being, but they are insufficient as a program for social development. When the politically-crafted economy is wedded to joblessness and the “natural rate of unemployment,” the promise of equality is cruel beyond measure. Anachronistic abstractions drawn from the elite Founding Fathers helps with morale, but it does not conform to the needs of the multitude, and to the multitude’s common sense.

A new set of civic virtues that are consonant with our reality would need to acknowledge that our current politically-defined economy has created disposable people—those who are in the criminal justice system (7.2 million), those who live in the forsaken “inner city” slums, those who have been unemployed for so long that they have abandoned the system entirely. Children among the disposable class who are not incredibly self-driven are cast off into proto-jails (with metal detectors and standardized tests, forms of surveillance that prepare them for prison and the low-end service sector). The “common good” that binds the citizenry together has been broken, with the peoples of the gated community and those of the slums driven asunder to the point where their reconciliation is near impossible. The first gets chills to hear talk of character and noble ideas; the second is comforted, but is also told in the same breath that they must take “personal responsibility” for their ills, and that they must throw away the cold Popeyes Chicken and turn off the television to move their children from the ranks of the disposed. Meanwhile, the Food and Culture industries are granted dispensations from taxation and from regulations in order to pollute society with the very things that the elect warn the population against. Here again is the cruel illusion, as the disposable are told that the only things that give them comfort are bad for them. Nothing else is on offer: no hope of structural reform. There is no new ethic in what Obama has to offer as yet, no new civic religion that confronts the constraints of our time. There is hope, because, without the promise of hope, reality would be unbearable. Obama has reaffirmed the necessity of hope, but as yet there is no new covenant. If that does not come, then bewilderment.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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7 Responses to “Common sense”

  1. Vijay Prahsad voices a hope that resides within us all, and that is the hope that speech which moves and inspires has its root in sincerity. Especially if we possess aspirations for a particular leader and his or her potential to change the “way things have been”, do we want to believe wholeheartedly in the vision they offers us. Although Obama moves us, Prashad argues, his beautiful phrases ring empty, his hope falls to pieces when confronted with the possibility that no real political changes will be made. They cannot be made in fact until speech includes discussion about what actually happens in America. The article not only makes the suggestion that communities and people are excluded as a result of monetary policy and inadequate governance, but that exclusion is the policy and pillar of current socioeconomic structures.

    Prashad’s mention of a “disposable people” echoes Charles Long’s discussion of the invisibility of non-Europeans peoples in American history and American myth. He too points out the use of a “cultural language of success and hope that conceals facts of domination”, and defines the invisible as those who cannot partake of this language or utilize it in the retelling of their cosmogonic past. It is therefore his suggestion that the exclusive celebration of normative tradition be overturned in favor of a new language, one in which “equality must express itself in theoretical terms also”. The stories we use to establish and maintain our identities are cyclical in nature, thus the reemergence of oft used symbols steeped in American memory. If we want to create the new America that our current President has suggested we may need to break this cycle and abandon the comfortable and compelling fuzzy words and warm tales.

    Very often noble language in the constitution is used to conceal “compromises” that in effect facilitate the exclusions Prashad touches upon. Compromises over territory and state autonomy may just as likely represent an agreement over the continuance of slavery and the denial of citizenship to an ethnic group. This is not dissimilar to the manipulation of a monetary policy that keeps people out of the workforce for the purported well being of those who already posses wealth. What this really illustrates is an uneven compromise in favor of the wealthy, or in Long’s article, to the dominant voices of European culture and religious belief. There seems to be then different realities within the lived life of Americans , some of these realities find little to no resonance in mainstream discourse and are themselves not prominently expressed. They may be spoken for or on behalf of but it is not as certain if they feel a part of a national discussion. Do we really even know the “they” which Prashad talks about? Knowledge of the existence of communities who do not feel like effective participants in their own country call us to question our own involvement in politics. Is simply voting enough? Does passive participation make us a part of the systems of inequality and thereby rob us of our ability to change the course of national events? How much can we change in our own country?

    Ideas and actions only remain noble because of our ability to replicate them in the present. Action against the old covenant, one that no longer serves us, can be incited by new speech. This opens up consideration of the political place of serving as a witness.The political witness is a citizen who is not interested in personal advancement or election to office. Here speech is not used to persuade others to grant power to another, but, to reintroduce them to their own power; its misuse and positive potential. There may be no new covenant as yet and therefore in Prashad’s opinion, no hope. The voice of this piece does however give me hope. Prahshad’s writing shows the place of social and political witness (similar to the role of the prophets in holy texts) and offers the hope that there are some who not only wish to align the divided experiences of America, but help us first to realize their existence underneath the veil of even the best of speeches.

  2. avatar Katharine McCain says:

    Vijay Prashad and Caitlin Scott both raise interesting questions not only about the flimsy hope our president has presented us with but how that hope works into our definition of being “American.” The “They” that Prashad speaks of—the “They” we may not even know or understand according to Scott—are “They” American? Are these nameless, faceless people American in the same way that I, an educated, wealthy, white student am American? According to our Founding Fathers, no, they are not. John Adams believed an American government to be “instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” By those same words it must be understood that any man, woman, or child must be protected, safe, prosperous, and happy to truly be “American.” And yet, as Prashad has clearly brought up, all those who have been forced into the unemployed category of “They” do not have these basic characteristics. All they have are speeches referencing a time passed and the hope that Obama may find a way to incorporate old values into a new world. Is this enough? Our country rose through the nurturing of hopes and dreams but is the mere hope of someday obtaining these “god given” rights enough to sustain someone as “American”? I don’t think so. Just as Scott said that we truly don’t know who “They” are we also don’t truly consider them American. They are pushed to the side, hidden away until someone—hopefully someone soon—can find a way to either given them what is needed to be “American” or re-defines them all together.

  3. avatar Joey Krevolin says:

    Depressions and recessions are inevitable. While Prashad talks mainly about the 1970s, he does a great job of effortlessly connecting his analogies to this current Obama era. Katherine McCain in her comment focuses on the group referred to as “They”. She raises an extremely interesting argument based of Prashad’s piece and Scott’s response; however, I disagree with many of the claims made. Vijay Prashad focuses part of his essay on what it is to be American, to have the “American character” and the “God-given promise that all are equal.” He then moves on to discuss those ‘Americans’ who do not seem to have these “God-given” rights.

    McCain argues that our Founding Fathers would say that “they” are not in fact American. While that may be true, it is important to point out that while our country is based on a large set of freedoms, it is not based on a large set of economic promises. Capitalism lends to upward mobility. Every single jobless citizen has a fair chance to get an education the government sees as sufficient, and a job. Whether they capitalize on these opportunities is in their own hands. Sure, having money makes everything a whole lot easier, but nothing is keeping any “inner city” kid from becoming the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Hundreds, even thousands of middle to upper class white collar workers were laid off in the past few years due to our economic state. Does being jobless make them less American? In my opinion, no, it does not. Being jobless is American. It is capitalistic and it is democratic. Prashad doesn’t discuss the “natural rate of unemployment” for no reason. He is exhibiting that we need Americans to be unemployed to sustain the dollar, and everyone else’s jobs. Not having a job is just as American as being a CEO of a large corporation. It is what makes our country work. In 100 years maybe the CEO’s great-grandchild will be living on the streets, and Joe Schmo from the projects in Chicago’s great-grandchild could be the shortstop for the Yankees or writing on this blog. “They” are American as “us.”

  4. avatar Sarah Goldstein says:

    While Prashad does bring up some serious problems with America’s current social and economic structures I think he is being a little too cynical with his critique. For example I do not believe that our country has created a system where people can truly become so disenfranchised as to be disposable to the nation. It may be true that those in the slums and so called “proto prisons” are not doing much for the benefit of society, but that does not mean that we can throw them away, and await some social change that will wipe these people from the face of America. In this respect I agree with the comments above, made by Joey Krevolin. If the social system is as unpredictable as Prashad claims it to be, then what is there stopping some poverty riddled kid from rising to the top of the economic order? Did we not just experience a major economic collapse in which the market was turned on its head and many of America’s CEOs were left out on the streets? Our systems are constantly changing as is the common good for the country. What bound our founding fathers together, or even what bound the citizenry together 30 years ago is different than what brings us together today. With this in mind we then need to give our dear President Obama some time to draft reforms which have the potential of broad ranging structural reform. And in the mean time, as Prashad says, we must maintain our hope.

  5. avatar Alex Celia says:

    Prashad opens his dissertation with the notion that “Abstractions are important, but when they are too far detached from the mulch of things they become pabulum.” I would accuse Prashad of doing precisely that which he claims Obama does. His point of view is both abstract and detached from the reality of our nation’s condition. When Prashad uses the newly-liberated African-American worker as an example of the failures of a “politically-crafted economy”, he is naively assuming that it’s the government’s job to keep the societal status-quo instead of to promote economic progress. Such, however, is not a failure of our government, but the fostering of economic change and progress.

    Moments like these are not simply 21st century specific. Let’s turn back the clock and look at the industrial revolution of the early 1900s. From our country’s inception until this time of industrial boom, our nation’s economy was rooted in agricultural production. Farms and their caucasian farming families dominated America’s economic sphere. Just as the current movement from a manufacturing based system to a services based system (known as globalization) has outsourced jobs to developing nations across globe, the shift from a farming based to an industrial based economy devastated and misplaced the lower-class farming families of our country. However, such is but the mode of economic change and development. Our economy, like anything else, is not stagnant. Prashad’s assertion that the government is to blame for the disenfranchisement of workers is blasphemous. If anything he should be focusing on how well the government promotes growth and change rather than chastising it for allowing change at all.

    Besides, globalization offers an opportunity for other nations to experience economic and social advance. It gives them the chance to have a presence in the global economic sector that they rightly deserve. And although, as Prashad mentions, this movement often sees the exploitation of “under-organized” workers, such is life. Everybody has to start somewhere. Not even one hundred years ago sections of our nation’s cities were marked by slums and tenements not dissimilar in comparison to the harshness of modern-day migrant and foreign labor systems. The success stories of our once desperate and impoverished immigrant workers should serve as evidence of what these workers could become. I contend that Prashad’s claims are much closer to the pabulum-like abstractions that he opens his argument with than he probably would care to admit.

  6. avatar Sarah Silverstein says:

    Vijay Prashad makes some very interesting points in this article. The idea that our “current politically defined economy has created disposable people” is a sentiment I find to be very true. As many times as we declare that our nation is a country of equal opportunity, a place where regardless of what class you are born into, you have an outstanding possibility to climb the economic ladder, this is not case. While possible to change your economic status, the climb is a difficult one and almost always requires assistance from someone on the outside. These “disposable” people, as Prashad puts it, who live in near poverty, have to fight a long and trying war in order to rise above the “proto-jails” they have been cast into. Yes, as Joey Krevolin points out, some may be able to escape the fates decided for them by society, but as Prashad elaborates, these are the ones who are “incredibly self driven.” However, in the communities of the disposable class, it is common for such ambition to be lacking. This is due to the wide spread opinion that the system supposedly set up to protect them, has abandoned their cause completely. Also, there is a lack of available resources for them to turn to to help them succeed, and, most importantly, there is an absence of support needed to support their endeavors. It is merely a lucky few who have the ability to escape the “caste” that they have been abandoned in. While this “rags to riches” story may seem to be a common one, this is a falsity. Those disposable few who have “changed their strips” have their story exploited, as it is retold to the point of nausea by those welcoming them into the ranks of the economically “elite.”

    While I agree with Prashad that this disposable class is so far removed from those of the gated community that “reconciliation is near impossible,” I cannot agree with the idea that this makes them less American. The fact alone that there is the hope for a better future forever celebrates their “American Character” and the “G-d given promise that all are equal.” Although the possibility for equal opportunity is slim, the inescapable truth that the possibility is even there reaffirms the ideals that America was founded upon. To me, this is what Obama stands for; this fight for equal opportunity. Yes, he may well be one of the select few who was able to combat the standards set forth for him by society, but the fact is that he was successful. Therefore this idea of “equal opportunity” is not an abstraction as Prashed labels it. Instead it is a powerful sentiment that reaffirms this covenant of “American Character.”

  7. avatar Maia Schoenfelder says:

    Prashad speaks to some very thought provoking ideas in this post. Ideas of disposable people who are so far detached that they are abstract, of American systems that through their repetition and tradition will stick around although they should be changed, and of a country who isn’t living up to it’s promises of equality. The idea that struck me the most was the one of lost promises through tradition.

    As happens every four years, Americans come to the stand to preach hopeful and progressive ideas in hopes that we will vote for them to rule our country as president. How many of these ideas that have interested us enough to vote for a president have been fulfilled? How many dreams have been made a reality? Do those without “power” have less right to equality than those with wealth and jobs? Since when was it okay to push those in the slums into a category of disposable people? The people in power should give us all hope, but they are also responsible for carrying out those ideas and making them actions. Actions that should also be carried out starting at the bottom of our class hierarchy. Although we have been part of the tradition of creating a huge gap between the poor and the rich, this doesn’t mean that this is the correct thing to do. In doing this, we are essentially creating an entire population of disposable people.

    I believe that is it just as important to spread hope as it is to recognize where we have gone wrong as a country, even if it is something we have done wrong over and over again. Although as Prashad said, America has a group of disposable people, I think it is us who has created them. It’s our responsibility as people who can still be considered ‘Americans’ to see our wrong, and take the actions necessary to fix them. Going back to the idea of equality. That’s truly American.

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