18 July 2011

Economics is the Opiate of the People: When economics hides the cultural realities

I have been watching for some time, as have many, the struggle n the US over how to manage the economy, and specifically, whether to adjust the debt ‘ceiling’. Although this is clearly ‘economics’ it is strange how little it has to do with money.
What makes this stranger still is that it seems to upset Karl Marx’s slogan that culture (specifically religion) is "the opiate of the people.” ( Although Marx’s slogan was about ‘religion’ it is fair to say that in the terms he worked with, ‘religion’ was virtually identical to ‘culture’ (See Marx’s first published essay in English: “On the Jewish Question”). since Marx had no effective theory of culture, per se, this is what he had to work with.) Today, Economics is becoming the opiate of the people.

Religion itself has long since rendered many people comatose. Economics is the new drug. Perhaps it should be banned.

The American ‘debt ceiling’ is an piece of legislation that imposes and arbitrary amount of dollars as the ‘limit’ that the government can borrow. But there is no reason at all that there has to be a debt ceiling, or that it has to be a certain amount. There is no reason. And that is the problem.
The reason of a financial limit of this sort is purely moral, which is to say, a political goal that is conditioned by moral sentiments. It is therefore a cultural issue, not an economic one, and the reasons for the debate in Congress appear to be cultural, but are hiding behind the strongly-held American belief that there are economic ‘laws’. This is simply not the case.
In today’s New York Times, for instance, one columnist argues: "Politicians Can’t Agree on Debt? Well, Neither Can Economists"

The financial impasse in America then is less and less an issue of ‘finance’ and more and more an issue of belief. As a question of belief, then, it suddenly becomes possible to understand what is going on. If it were simply a financial issue, it could be settled by a more or less technical adjustment. Now, however, the extremity of the financial crisis has revealed that the core is not financial at all but cultural.
so long as everyone agrees that the issues are financial rather than moral and cultural, however, the crisis cannot be resolved. Strange to see culture hiding behind economics, since we have been taught in the social sciences that economics hides behind culture. Religion, for instance, is supposed to disguise the economic reality. The job of the social scientist, in the view of many, is to reveal the ‘underlying’ and ‘hidden’ economic ‘realities’ that lie hidden under a veneer of culture. This was the goal, at any rate, of the Marxist and left ‘cultural studies’ when it emerged in the 1970s.
Now it appears that Economics is the opiate of the people.

By ‘Economics’, of course, we mean the theoretical edifice of the formal discipline so called. As much as there has been an economic crisis in the last few years, it is fair to say taht there has also been a crisis in Economics, the discipline and the ideology of capitalism, neoliberalism and the world’s economic system with the IMF and World Bank, and the big economies at its core.
This has been taken by many to be almost a god-given ‘reality’. (Some American fundamentalists might well think that it is given by god, may god forgive them!). If Big Economics, however, is taken as religion, then we are back to Marx, only this time with Marx standing on his head. We can set him back on his feet, in today’s world, by recognising that there is no such thing as an ‘economic reality’, or ‘laws of economics’, and that when Economics becomes religion is can become the opiate of the people. And, worse, not just ’the people’, but of their ostensible leaders.
Is this sad, or just funny?

04 July 2011

Dominique Strauss-Khan, Global economies, & Gender

Global Economies, Gender and the DSK Affair
Prof. Robert Thornton
Wits University
4 July 2011
The most extraordinary aspect of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case is the remarkable similarity between DSK and his accuser: they are both global players. Each deploys gendered power in different ways within radically different but intimately linked frameworks. Far from being the exemplar of the powerful against the powerless, each shows agency in extraordinary ways.

Commentators have focused on the fact that they represent the polar opposites of global political and gender categories: a predatory and powerful male against a powerless and virtuous woman, one rich the other poor, Jew and Muslim, White and Black, European and African, French and American immigrant, a manager of vast wealth and a hard working cleaner who was there to pick up his tissues and wash his sheets.

The affair seemed to personify the great dialectical oppositions of race, class, and gender. What brings this affair to international notice, however, is not just their difference but that fact that both operated in global markets, each successful in their own terms.
DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund, while the Guinean hotel maid was an international multiple fraudster. According to the reports in the press, she had faked her appeal for asylum status by memorising a tape that she had bought from a man who specialised in sad stories of abuse and trauma.

These were not just any sad stories, but stories that Americans, and American immigration officials in particular, would believe. Her story revolved around being a devoutly religious woman who had been gang raped by out-of-control African men in the violence-torn streets of yet another African failed state.

The apparent back story is that this is where terrorist train and hide from American forces, but where good women who fear god, but who can also change bed linen and run a vacuum cleaner, also live in precarious balance with the forces of evil.

In a continent where HIV/AIDS prevention programmes pour hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting sexual abstinence, a masculine gang had forcibly raped her. By seeking to escape this antithesis of morality and good government, and by bravely standing against the oppression suffered by all women, she stood out as a beacon of what is called ‘hope’. Except she didn’t.
Instead, it turned out that she was a strongly motivated and clever player in the global market. The story that she told the US Immigration office, that she had learned by heart off a tape that she had paid good money for, had been worth its weight in any currency she might deal in. She had asylum status in the wealthiest country in the world, and was making a mint.

She was not what she seemed: a poor hard-working African women without agency or power to oppose the forces of patriarchy, race and class that oppressed her. Instead, she had multiple bank accounts spread at least across the US, if not the world, and had received at least $100,000 into the US accounts in the last year alone. She had reported on her US tax return that she was the sole bread-winner for two children, (only one of whom turned out to be hers), and that her only income was from her job as a cleaner in a big hotel chain that catered for uber-wealthy clients like Domnique Strauss-Khan. She was cheating the welfare system for rent on a New York apartment, and a successful tax fraud. The female accuser has moved from a point of high virtue to someone that Americans seem to hate most: an illegal immigrant, a tax fraud, and a welfare cheat. Its all about the economy.

In fact, it turned out she had a boyfriend in jail in Arizona. He was a Wolof-speaker like her from Guinea to whom she exposed her plan on the telephone. Translated from an obscure dialect of Wolof, she assured him that she knew what she was doing with Frenchman, and that she expected to make a lot of money from the rape story. Her boyfriend had been caught trying to barter counterfeit fashion items, almost certainly made in China, for marijuana from Mexican drug dealers in Arizona. He was an illegal alien, and the prison recorded his conversations. All in all, this was an elaborate global deal involving people from most parts the world’s multiple economies.

A Times correspondent in France, Elaine Sciolino, commented after the new stories emerged that “Until today, it was white versus black, rich versus poor, man versus woman, Jew versus Muslim.” It seemed to reflect, in other words, the received wisdom about the standard categories of world conflict. Although these were also in play, what is perhaps more important is the fact that DSK as IMF primo represents that global public economy while his accuser clearly represents the other global economy: secret, mostly illegal, untaxed, mostly unobserved, dealing in drugs, fraud, money laundering, counterfeit goods and clever narratives that make it all work.
Both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser are part of opposite halves of the global economy. Their stories reveal its hidden double nature. The formal, public economy of the IMF creates as its dark twin in the unobserved economy that supports many people like the Guinean hotel maid, her children, and her boyfriend.

This is not just a story of rich and poor, white and black, macho male and guileless female. It is also a story of how the world really works as opposed to how it is supposed to work. When the accuser phoned her boyfriend to discuss how much money she could make off Strauss-Kahn, she was doing on a personal level what a Goldman-Sachs trader, or any banana-republic dictator, does on a daily basis: they gamble and deal with flows of wealth that span the globe, that knit its economies together, but also permit a range of economic practices that may be far from the norm, and far from legality.

Seen as a global player in the unobserved economy of drugs, fraud and cash, DSK’s accuser was a successful woman. She was making money despite her origins in a country that should have doomed her to poverty. Ironically, she is one of those who benefits most, as she is meant to, from the euro-socialist policies that Strauss-Kahn speaks for. That she does so fraudulently is built into the way the system actually works.

But the IMF is also accused by its many detractors of dealing very roughly with those who do not play by IMF rules. It imposes harsh penalties on countries that do not comply with its structural adjustment programmes. In some cases, those penalties drive people like DSK’s accuser all the way to New York where she can seek a kind of revenge on the chairman of the IMF itself. The IMF works at the level of states and complex institutions. DSK’s accuser works at the level of networks of hidden economic deals involving untaxed and unaccountable values and cash in an unobserved economy of a different sort entirely.

This has implications, too, for the way we understand gender. The political version of the gender story in this case is about the powerlessness of the female victim of male violence, the immigrant, the single mother, the black woman in the urban metropolis. When we are able to perceive the varieties of power that this woman is able to utilise, however, we also should be able to see how the realities of ‘power’ and gender is as multiple—or at least two sided—as the economies that DSK and his accuser participate in.

Gender here may indeed be less important that the social forms of gendered lives that oppose each other. Dominique is the pater familias supported by a loving wife and daughter. This is a powerful social form, not just a powerful ‘male’. This ‘domestic’ unit is opposed to the fatherless composite family that the woman supports with the help of a felonious boyfriend dealing global contraband and confidence stories.

Gender appears in this light far too abstract to comprehend the real struggles. It is the social forms of ‘family’ in which gender plays only a part that is far more important in the longer-term outcome of the alleged rape. A focus on the rape alone, like the focus on class, race and gender fail to illuminate much that is important. The small scale social forms of the ‘domestic’ and the daily life, as much as the global political economies in which they each participate, are as important as the grand categories of the usual social analysis.
In other words, the homogenising, binary concept of ‘gender’, like the concept of ‘the economy’ or ‘class’ obscures more than it reveals in an attempt to understand the DSK affair that concentrates so many of the grant dichotomies of today’s world.

To be ‘real,’ women need more than being assigned to the category ‘female’. The same is true for men. To be ‘real women’, in other words, women need what we call ‘flirtation’, and this is something that mere category of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or even ‘patriarchy’ and ‘the oppressed’ fails to generate. But more than this, it is hard to deny that the sense of danger, or of loss and gain as in a game, can be central to our sense of being who we are as ‘gendered’ selves. The fact that both DSK and his accuser are ‘predatory’, seeking gain with other’s loss, make this story even more compelling. While much has been written in the press, and said in conversation, about how ‘powerful men’ seem to need the predatory sexuality that seemed to be in play here, less has been said about how the ‘powerless’ deploy their own systems of predation. The fact that one is more successful than the other in long run is what makes class and gender the fundamental categories that they are, and we must not lose sight of the intricacies of the way they are played in the real world.