Friday, May 21, 2010

Political Capital: Civil Rights in the Ownership Society

Rand Paul’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Acts illustrates something about the privileged place money holds in our culture. By taking issue with the parts of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit discrimination in private businesses, Paul is at pains to repeat that he’s not a racist himself. He opposes racist laws like Jim Crow and he would never want a public institution to be racist. He just thinks it’s okay if people want to be racist when they sell things. A “No Blacks” restaurant would be allowed in Paul’s revision of the Civil Rights Act because he sees private commerce as a first amendment issue. The owner of the restaurant is only expressing something by denying a black person service, you see.

The libertarian reverence for money over public action allows Paul to attack the very inhumanity he just made possible. For partisans of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul, the ultimate punishment for such a vile establishment would not be imprisonment or civil trial. No, the ultimate punishment would be that offended white people no longer eat there. Mind you, black people don’t get to choose whether to eat at the restaurant or not – that choice has already been lawfully denied by Paul’s money exemption from the Civil Rights Act. But white people are hereby liberated to be the saviors, for it is their boycott, not the black person’s boycott, which really counts.

You may recall that boycotts played a significant role in the civil rights struggle – but only in places where such a boycott was possible. In Paul’s revision of the Civil Rights Acts, it is the racists who get to wage the boycott and it falls to liberated white people to wage a counter-boycott of any significance. Liberty remains something only white people can confer or concede, not something others can demand as a matter of human right.

By making an exemption for economic behavior, the Tea Party not only has the license to be racist in their economic behavior, they also have a self-congratulatory method for fighting racism. The only problem with this conception of Civil Rights is that it excludes the very people who suffer from the denial of civil rights. Both Paul and members of the far left will continue to invoke charges of racism in all the wrong ways to ensure that the debate remains closed. The real issue is not whether Paul is a racist, but what kinds of racism he would permit in America. Of necessity, this requires a re-examination not just of Paul’s ambitious conflation of the First Amendment, but of what we mean by public/private life and how money unavoidably connects the two.

These are terms that Paul is happy to engage. He wants desperately to contain the Civil Rights debate to the durable binary of government-versus-private individuals and avoid any accusation that he, himself, is a racist. He says the government should never be racist, but private individuals can be racist all they want. This is true insofar as one’s racism remains a thought, a belief, or a spoken/written expression. And one is free to make, buy, sell, or wear a racist T-shirt. But it is not the product or the content of the expression that matters; it is what happens when that product or expression becomes a wounding action. When racism manifests itself in behavior beyond free expression, including economic behavior, it has traversed the boundary of ego-privacy and become a public, inter-subjective action with civic and legal consequences. In other words, it has surrendered the protection of the First Amendment.

You may have noticed that other laws and prohibitions don’t care if you’re breaking the law on your own property or not. Murder used to be legal on private property, but I defy anyone to name a candidate who would advocate for such a faithful exercise of Tea Party logic now (although Arizona’s immigration hysteria gives one pause). We don’t limit the rape statute to public employees; it applies to all of us, everywhere. Paul’s Civil Rights exemption for economic activity doesn’t necessarily make him a racist. Paul just sees money as an extension of his private soul – how else could money be such a privileged medium for expression and such a sublime executor of justice? The tragedy of the Tea Party (white, upper-middle-class men approaching or enjoying retirement) is that it only knows how to spend justice – it has no idea what it takes to earn it.

MONEY = SPEECH

If you already believe that “money = speech” (or further: that what you spend and buy says more than what you say or how you vote) then it’s an easy leap to the soothing White Man’s Boycott revenge fantasy Paul builds for himself above. But just as corporations became the real beneficiaries of the 13th Amendment, the libertarian/conservative idea that “money = speech” tries to tap the common sanctity that all Americans feel for the First. Such overlaps in ideological reverence are rare in a country as magnificently heterogeneous and dynamic as the United States. We all defend the freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Liberals err on the side of Political Correctness and conservatives err when they confuse expression with consumption. All of us should recoil when such an irreducible freedom is perverted through metaphor to license the cruelties of racist economic discrimination.

A/POLITICAL CAPITAL: IF MONEY = SPEECH, CITIZENS = MONEY

A quick social studies question: what does political capital mean in the United States?

If you just emerged from your Y2K hibernation bunker, you'd probably answer "Washington, DC” or “Juneau, Alaska.” Or “Albany, New York.” Before the 21st century, “political capital” referred to a public place where freely elected citizens gathered to legislate and administer the defense and public welfare of civilization. Today, that phrase connotes a financial, rather than a civic, transaction: political capital is the medium of exchange for change. (This is not an editorial digression; you can probably start to see how this ties into Rand Paul’s argument for a free market approach to Civil Rights.)

I first heard this suspicious phrase in the summer of 2002. George W. Bush still had an approval rating well north of 70% and his administration was just beginning to tune the Skinner Box for eight months of “9/11 = Iraq” programming. That example aside, I found something vile about the phrase itself: the idea being that votes of approval are like a sock full of rusty nickels, to be spent on whatever the bearer pleases. During the nascent debate about Iraq, one pundit used the phrase in the context of an even more offensive piece of Beltway wisdom: "When you have political capital, spend it." But “spending,” in this sense, doesn't mean the validation of those who voted to confer it; it means the bearer can afford to spend the same approval in pursuit of something that might reduce that store of approval at the same time. In other words, when W said he was going to spend his political capital, he wasn’t saying he was about to do what you wanted him to do when you voted to give him political capital; he was saying he felt free enough to spend you.

The second time I heard the phrase was 2004. Bush had been re-elected and he took his mandate as an infusion of still more “political capital.” This time, he quite explicitly told his audience (again: the very pennies and nickels that constituted his political capital) that he intended to spend it/them. As someone who didn’t vote for him, I had no idea what he meant by that. Was he going to spend it AT me? Was he going to spend my tax contribution on something one of his voters wanted? Or was he spending his own voters on something they might not want? Such are the motivations that get hidden by the tidy abstraction of “political capital.”

BUYING = BELIEVING

As Mike Daisey beautifully articulated in The Last Cargo Cult, buying is believing. "I don't buy it," is the phrase we use to dismiss something as unbelievable because it quickly communicates an intimate betrayal of confidence that all good capitalists can understand. Similarly, to own is to be responsible, but not just for what ideas, animals and things one owns. Ownership-as-responsibility also carries a forward imperative: to be a good citizen, you must go out and actively own things. Hence Bush's exhortation to retail therapy in the wake of 9/11, Paul’s insistence that “money is speech,” and the grander proclamations about the "ownership society."

I kid about the Skinner Box because I think the ramp-up to Iraq owes more to this idea of political capital -- a monetized polis -- than it does to media hoodwinkery. Say what you will about the horror of the aughts, but the pranks of Murdoch notwithstanding, ours is, on balance, a more informed public square, less prone to censorship and the top-down manipulation of news and history. It is rather the anti-democratic covenant of political capital that has governed our young century. More than anything, our faith in this abstraction enabled the clean conversion of rage from 9/11 to Iraq. It also explains the rapid ascent of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the Tea Party Movement. Most importantly, “political capital” is the fulcrum for Rand Paul’s conception of public-v-private life. If buying is believing … and voters are money … and money is speech … then the free market has everything it needs to operate democracy for us and fix civil crimes like discrimination with the dispassionate, unfailing force of … supply and demand, I guess.

So what's the going rate on voting rights? Can enfranchisement be outsourced? Well, according to Rand Paul the going rate for voting rights is whatever you'll pay to advance his campaign and enfranchisement should be outsourced because it will improve the efficiency and flavor of your freedom, provided you can afford it in the first place. If money is protected from civil law, it follows that civil justice can only be achieved with money and that public authority is only a matter of political capital.

OWN YOUR FAILURE

The 2008 meltdown (“crash” doesn’t quite seem to cover it) gave us a sharp, disorienting trauma, from which we can learn a thing or two about the Ownership Society. Is there any dispute that one of 08’s crimes was the use of private ownership as an infinite revenue stream? All you had to do to cash in on the benefits of the Ownership Society … was to own something. Once owned, that magic thing would produce income for you – even before you technically owned it (as any sub-prime profiteer can now tell you). The popular editorial expression was “people using their homes as ATMs.”

The Great Recession has taught us many things about the abstract machinery of cybernetic capitalism, but it also has the potential to teach us something about America’s consumptive ethos. Not just that we’re the fattest nation on earth (one index of growth that continues upward unabated), but that we loudly pride what we consume. Indeed, we stake our civic identity on consumption. As Rand Paul reminds us, we can only fix civil crimes through consumption, not through an assertion of human rights. And so it was with the Great Recession: when it became too hard for bovine America to get off the couch, we learned how to make the couch pay us for staying on it. By signing on the dotted line, we fulfilled a civic duty, cashed in on an economic revolution, and achieved a new magnitude of sloth in one stroke.

Not a bad day’s ownership, hey?

Slavery, you will recall, was a crime of ownership. We could not free the slaves by saying they were free to express freedom, but not free enough to break the private ownership that shackled them. Left to Rand Paul, the Civil War would have been waged by having the North secede from the South. Even if you take the narrow view that the Civil War was motivated by economic concerns or that slavery only ended because people wanted to be paid for their labor, you still have to reject Paul’s conception of a clean public/private boundary enforced by expenditures of cash. Such liberation required a more just redistribution of wealth, yes, but it also required a hard-fought assertion of human rights as rights in and of themselves. We lose sight of this with our lunch-counter example because it involves a prospective black customer, not a black laborer. But the point remains: public/private boundaries cannot be waged by economic action alone and economic action is not exempt from civil law like speech and assembly. Pay someone to murder on your behalf and you're guilty even if your mercenary fails to fulfill his end of the contract. The original sin of American slavery showed us the bloody intersection of who one is and what one owns. It is my contention that Paul’s Civil Rights debate shows us another. What we mean by accepted concepts like “political capital” and “money = speech” will tell us still more.

Faced with the unmistakable failure of the free market in 2008, Conservatives continue to blame the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act for its too-generous expansion of home ownership. And they should, so long as they can square this gripe with their own baleful praise for the Ownership Society. The CRA is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for the 2008 meltdown. Wall Street (the greatest assemblage of the greatest owners among us) is responsible for exploiting an unstable system and making it radioactive. Who can blame them? They were just riding the same speculative fantasy: that one can make money through the raw force of ownership, alone. Owning a house that only goes up in value is one way to do it. Owning a human being who does your work for free is another. Both represent the utopian promise of the Ownership Society: that one can escape the need to engage in concrete, creative production and consume one’s way to a state of perpetual consumption.

This infantile wish gets its fulfillment in American capitalism and what goes for the American Dream. Pace Ayn Rand, a dollar does not equal a dollar does not equal a dollar. Money has its own laws of gravity. A bum’s penny behaves differently when it is around other pennies. Not just in the sense that new things become affordable, but that the bum has accelerated one small measure closer to utopian escape velocity. With enough pennies, and a low-impact regimen of savings and investment strategies, the bum will no longer need to earn or search for any more pennies. Simply owning them will be enough, for now their magnetic accretion has become a purposive, generative force of its own. The bum has achieved escape velocity and exempted himself from productive employment. He is no longer moored by earthbound contingencies or demands for creative effort. With enough capital, he can glide unobstructed in a space of pure consumerism. He owns … therefore he earns … therefore he spends ... therefore he owns. At no point in this fantasy does the bum produce anything. His value as a devout capitalist American is proved not by what he does or how he votes, but what he withholds and consumes. A closed loop of emotional and libidinal reinforcement has been achieved -- a perpetual motion machine if ever there was one. And within this closed loop, the Reaganite wet dream continues to seduce the national imaginary.

The solution?

First, the ownership society must own its failure:




And second: all of us must remember that civil wrongs require civic action to correct. We are the government, not what we own. Skip to 17:20 to see what I mean:


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