Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Economist as Hipster

...and so if in the midst of civilization -- founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect -— in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed he subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.
It is time to tell the truth. Those are the first words of an astonishing 31-page diatribe, The Fake Revolt, published in 1967 by one Gershon Legman.

Ostensibly, the pamphlet berates "the people behind" the hippies and beatniks of the 1960s counterculture. But Legman lingers just a tad too long and with too much relish on salacious anecdote and intemperate hyperbole to take his screed entirely at face value.

Almost in passing, Legman indicts a slew of no-so-innocent bystanders whose minds had long ago "been reduced to malleable pap" by the media, "all of which are totally hitched to saleable products, and are themselves for sale..." In short, the counterculture is no better (but no worse) than "the usual condescending flatulencies... the same old crap... the whole stinking old-peoples' mess" that passes for modern so-called culture.

So what does a rabidly homophobic and downright paranoid polemic against hippie merchants of perversion and hallucination have to do with macro-economic analysis? Only this: any attempt to "tell the truth" about the depravity of what passes for economics these days is bound to come across as a spittle-flecked rant rather than as a "reasoned critique."

Why? Because the economists are not serious. Legman fronts his discourse with epigrammatic quotes from Robert Lindner's 1944 Rebel Without a Cause (not to be confused with the movie of the same name) and Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" (1957). Both authors address the phenomenon of the psychopath but there is a subtle difference that becomes evident from consulting to the source texts themselves. Lindner was referring to the clinically diagnosed criminal psychopath, while Mailer was employing a metaphor of generalized psychopathology to define "the hipster" as a "philosophical psychopath" -- a psychopath "and yet not a psychopath but the negation of the psychopath for he possesses the narcissistic detachment of the philosopher."

The economist of today is a hipster... and yet not a hipster, but the negation of the hipster.

"A totalitarian society makes enormous demands on the courage of men, and a partially totalitarian society makes even greater demands for the general anxiety is greater."

If we grant a certain naïvety to the 1950s technocratic "confidence that time could indeed he subjected to our will," what could be said about the insidious restoration of that obsolete posture, long after C. Wright Mills, Robert McNamara and even the maestro himself, Alan Greenspan, have come and gone? Is it mere cynicism that compels a macro-economist to not only assume but to belligerently insist upon a hypothetical production process that encompasses no actual human relationship between the workers and the work that they perform? Is it some technocratic tic that induces a "progressive" economist to confuse the static, retrospective nature of statistics -- and models based on them -- with the dynamic process of production? These examples are not anomalies: they are canonical. To object is to reveal oneself as some kind of crank.

Or is there a more sinister explanation? Are we witnessing, once again, the "stench of fear," the "collective failure of nerve" that pervades an age when intellectuals know full well that dissent constitutes a note, "which could be called in any year of overt crisis." Not that the economist is going to be marched off to a concentration camp, insane asylum or shot. It is just that the economist's analysis -- and therefore the economist, too -- is a salable product and the market for "time-less," "labor-less" macro-economic analysis is so much more lucrative.

Afterthought: Mailer's essay was 9,000 words, Legman's pamphlet 32-pages. My blog post is 600 words. There is an economy of condensation and of transience at work in what can be said today. In other words, very little. "tl;dr."

1 comment:

D. Ghirlandaio said...

You might want to post a link your rant here too.

It applies just as well.