Of the Force of Economic Identities

Economics texts are stories. A work initially written to describe the world exactly as it is will, because of the seeming exactness of its resemblance, paradoxically reshape the world in its distorted spectral echoes. Karl Marx wrote Capital while buying potatoes on margin and pretty much living in the London public library. Within 80 years of its initial publication, nearly half the world had reshaped itself attempting to live up to a thing supposedly describing itself. Truth is chased and chases ominously in return; felt as much in its implications of the present’s lacking as its seeming descriptive powers.

As Montaigne wrote in “Of the Force of Imagination”:

Simon Thomas was a great physician of his time: I remember, that happening one day at Toulouse to meet him at a rich old fellow’s house, who was troubled with weak lungs, and discoursing with the patient about the method of his cure, he told him, that one thing which would be very conducive to it, was to give me such occasion to be pleased with his company, that I might come often to see him, by which means, and by fixing his eyes upon the freshness of my complexion, and his imagination upon the sprightliness and vigour that glowed in my youth, and possessing all his senses with the flourishing age wherein I then was, his habit of body might, peradventure, be amended; but he forgot to say that mine, at the same time, might be made worse. Gallus Vibius so much bent his mind to find out the essence and motions of madness, that, in the end, he himself went out of his wits, and to such a degree, that he could never after recover his judgment, and might brag that he was become a fool by too much wisdom. Some there are who through fear anticipate the hangman; and there was the man, whose eyes being unbound to have his pardon read to him, was found stark dead upon the scaffold, by the stroke of imagination. We start, tremble, turn pale, and blush, as we are variously moved by imagination; and, being a-bed, feel our bodies agitated with its power to that degree, as even sometimes to expiring. And boiling youth, when fast asleep, grows so warm with fancy, as in a dream to satisfy amorous desires…

The US at present is fascinated at the moment with things that, like the great books, don’t seem to be either dead or alive but possessed with supernatural powers for being neither-werewolves, vampires, ghosts, Frankenstein’s monsters…

And at a house party in Seattle where attendees dressed as zombies a shooter came, and for a time the partygoers were unsure what was happening, unsure who was dead and who was exceptionally good with a makeup kit. In the Treblinka death camp the first woman to escape and return to warn the others of their intended fate was only able to do so by pretending to be dead and then sneaking out by cover of night, and when she told them they didn’t believe she was who she was or that what she was saying was true.

The most contentious issue and decisive initial choice made in any economics text is how to gerrymander and prioritize the various archetypal performative roles one sees in an economy. None of these roles are historically a given, a thing that always-already existed on clean lines. So the most convenient starting point for deconstructing any work of political economy usually begins with an analysis of this decision. It’s the single fuse that can be cut to turn off all the lights in the house or modified to make them switch on and off interchangeably in brilliant displays…

So we see the shift in cultural adoption of Smith toward Marx towards Keynes towards the Chicago School and beyond as what they are; a shifting series of parts to be played with varying degrees of revisionism or shrinking senses of disappointment, imaginary men conjured in a seance whose image we’re taught to squirm under in our failure to embody or avenge…

The primary shift from the classical economists toward the neoliberal ideologues of the present was the shift from the self-conception of the…let’s call them the eternal 99%, from the identification as the worker toward the identification as the consumer. The neoliberal text always frames liberation in terms of the drop in price of goods and their continued increase toward providing the imagined perfect consumer with the peak of convenience. They state these imagined narratives mostly in the most simple, calm fashion the new “folksy”-the literature of pats on the back, the literature of free cookies-can provide.

We should be immediately suspicious of any person too eager for us to understand them; underneath the clean simplicity of a prose can lurk the demanding neediness and need for control that it seems to cover up. Emerson gives a helpfully unspecified warning:

Theoretic kidnappers and slave-drivers, they esteem each man the victim of another, who winds him round his finger by knowing the law of his being, and by such cheap signboards as the color of his beard, or the slope of his occiput, reads the inventory of his fortunes and character. The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness.

And so the new definition of man as consumer wriggles and squirms in and out of various incarnations and social formations within and around these constraints, as have others. It is said “You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house”. But isn’t the lesson of the dialectic that the master’s tools will dismantle the house of their own accord? So the man of prolific consumption becomes the learned master and vice versa; the roles melt into each other around a violent and awkward dance toward validation or revenge for having not been validated.

We find the imagined self of many people most easily in what it is they take offense at. I recently was embroiled in an argument on Twitter regarding my essay on superheroes. The person tweeting back at me claimed that Alison Bechdel was “redefining the superhero” and spoke of seeing the Broadway production of Fun Home. I claimed that, for what wonderful things Bechdel is doing, they don’t have much of anything to do with superheroes besides a shared form in the comic book. She grew angry and inquisition-like demanded to know if I’d read any of Bechdel’s work. I’ve read most of it; this is why I feel confident in my assertion as such. We go into conversations wanting something. She wanted her self as a consumer validated. I’m not especially sure what I wanted out of the exchange. But then, it’s easier to observe a thing from the outside.

This need for validation as consumer defines much of the internet discourse surrounding media, most of which is a flimsy runaround for the act of gatekeeping by means of shaming or validating the person for their exploring whatever regions of the world of words and pictures are considered off-limits. The consumer can never be satisfied lest they stop consuming, and if they are disturbed in their dream of this self this may well happen. Think of the “DVD extra”, which usually just consists of more “legitimate” persons than the viewer patting the viewer on the back for having viewed. The advertisement for a thing the person already bought; an advertisement for the continued legitimacy of the self as consumer. On the internet, people seek out something resembling the DVD extra and exhort the producers of discourse to provide this and scream bloody murder when they don’t. The invisible fence words build around themselves to keep other words out as though they were the Cliven Bundy of things we tell ourselves.


Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. His comedy album wants you to listen to it; he could honestly care less at this point. Anyway, whatever, it’s here.

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