War, Welfare Queens, and the Measure of Capitalist Success (p.1)

10.27.08 | permalink | 2 Comments

Over at Inkwell, the blog written by the “Independent Women’s Forum,” yet another instance of a conservative organization masquerading as “bi-partisan” (ladies, please), Allison Kasic says “amen” to a letter sent by a dude named Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek to the editors of the Wall Street Journal:

Robert Inlow writes that “Liberals have been responsible for gaining women equal rights” (Letters, October 24).  To make such a claim is akin to crediting the diplomats who negotiate an enemy-country’s military surrender for doing all the hard work that won the war.  Capitalism’s ethos of freedom of contract – and its creation of inexpensive washing machines, vacuum cleaners, disinfectants, and other household appliances and products – have done far more to promote women’s rights than has any “liberal” crusader or politician.

It made me laugh at first, because ha ha at capitalism congratulating itself as the savior of women.  But then I made myself consider what might be of value before I started to articulate what the punchline really was.  I’m trying to be less cynical, you see.  Acc-cen-tuate the Positive and all that.

So yes, let’s talk about economics and women. Boudreaux puts an interesting spin on the progress of women in American culture, and I think it’s the start of a worthwhile exchange which I am thinking might reveal a serious liability hindering modern economic theory.  This is the exactly right moment to discuss the intersection of American women and the state of our crippled economy–how we got here, where we’re at, and our place in the overall landscape–because the essential question being asked right now is of capitalism, the criticism of which Western feminism owes a great deal to.  In an interview with Chris Lydon last month, my loverboy Zizek reminded us that moments of great instability are a time to pull back and consider the past which is giving way to your future:

Dangerous moments are coming. Dangerous moments are always also a chance to do something. But in such dangerous moments, you have to think, you have to try to understand. And today obviously all the predominant narratives — the old liberal-left welfare state narrative; the post-modern third-way left narrative; the neo-conservative narrative; and of course the old standard Marxist narrative — they don’t work. We don’t have a narrative. Where are we? Where are we going? What to do? You know, we have these stupid elementary questions: Is capitalism here to stay? Are there serious limits to capitalism? Can we imagine a popular mobilization outside democracy?…Things are happening. We don’t have a proper approach. It’s not only that we don’t have the answers. We don’t even have the right question.

If nothing else, the curious matter of Sarah Palin’s unsettling wink becoming visual shorthand for a moment of national befuddlement might indicate that the right questions to ask could have something to do with us broads.  It’s feminism’s time to step up.

Ye olde economist Thorstein Veblen was a lover of women in more ways than just stirring the guts of all his colleagues’ wives.  Veblen, of little use to modern economists because it required them to think harder than the simplistic predictability of an unconditionally “rational man,” identified the ruling factions of a society as the “class of leisure.”   Veblen is remembered best for his ideas on conspicuous consumption, but he holds up well under a pretty unflinching feminist reading; he claimed the gruntwork of menial and domestic labor was recurrently assigned to the lower classes, and that the leisure class contributes in mostly gestural ways—think of the difference between the object of so much neocon venom, the immigrant day laborer and a strategist at a huge financial firm, for example.  In effect, the purpose is to keep the labor class exceedingly occupied with survival, economically, physically, and psychically; they must be too exhausted to afford a moment of pause to consider their position, to imagine themselves as upwardly mobile, or to demand/seek out information and education.

Veblen especially focused on the cultural values that affirmed these stratas, chiefly that violence and the “glory” of warfare were celebrated by the leisure class, who would hardly take the bulk of casualties suffered during military conflicts, but secure the admiration and status of the “heroic” regardless—that might explain why something like the Dover Ban continues to forbid all imagery showing the coffins of deceased soldiers who died overseas, but not the coffins of American civilians; civilians employed by the military are overwhelmingly members of the leisure class, and the intent would be to manipulate the public sense of tragedy, distorting the loss of one “more valuable” life over another.     (To his credit, McCain was in vocal opposition to the rest of his party who all upheld the ban in 2004.  Both he and Obama, who became a senator in 2005, support the Fallen Hero Commemoration Act, which again seeks to overturn this policy.)

Similarly, women and domestic work are subject to the very same standard, not only objectified as trophies of status, but secured in this position by the cultural lack of equity assigned to all domestic affairs, of which women for whatever reasons are typically the driving force of.  Their time spent occupied by child care, maintenance of home, agriculture (like a garden) etc is at once demanded of them yet diminished as trivial, unworthy of wages, and inconsequential to the success of an empire/nation/society.

Both Kasic and Boudreaux appear to appreciate the fallacy of this relentless belittlement of women’s work, which in itself is something to be lauded; while the hyenas of the left laugh a little too hard and loud at the possibility that Sarah Palin’s maternal experience might help inform her capacity to lead, the barely masked contempt neocons have for those living in poverty, especially if they aren’t white, makes its appearance as an official talking point of the McCain campaign.  While McCain I’m sure would continue to serve up more disingenuous naiveté when asked to explain the consequences of his diction, just three days ago, Hannity & Colmes aired a segment with Dick Morris (who himself is said to owe $452,367 in back taxes and penalties as of April this year) where he says the following about Obama’s proposed tax cuts, allowed to remain largely unchallenged due to a missing Colmes:

Now I can finally say it. You are not cutting taxes for a hundred million people. You are giving welfare checks to the 55 million people of those hundred that don’t pay taxes at all.

None too subtly, of course, Morris is evoking the grand old (party) tradition of propagating the destructive myth of the “Welfare Queen,” a phrase first coined by this nation’s most brilliant economist, Ronald goddamn Reagan.  The success of his platform on this very issue signaled a shift in the national consciousness about poverty, removing it from its place as an issue of the economy and framing it as a symptom of personal or cultural weakness, an implication that easily lent itself certainly to racism, but also again capitalizing on the economic underrepresentation of women, and reinforcing the equation of that which is feminine to that which is weak (and thus undignified), without personal agency, and a hindrance to social progress.

It’s no coincidence that McCain uses the word “welfare” to derride Obama’s economic policy, an attack which has been discredited among our more reliably bi-partisan fact-checkers.  Morris avoids using the word “queen” when he tows the campaign line, which would draw immediate attention to his questionable integrity and inappropriately gendered language, but that’s because he doesn’t have to; in the minds of Americans across the spectrum, “welfare” has become indelibly tied to the vivid portrait painted by Reagan and the GOP over 30 years ago of hidden pockets of paradise flourishing from inside the nation’s most poverty stricken urban centers, a population of extravagant and sexually ravenous black women who keep themselves in constant bloat with a new baby, which they will use as leverage to strong-arm the exceedingly compassionate federal government into funding their decadent lifestyles.  There is little mystery to its use as a pejorative—if it wasn’t, McCain wouldn’t be using it.

In what may as well be called the neoconservative version of Moses descending Sinai to deliver the tablets, the impact of 1994’s Contract With America was yet another great breath of life into the effort to feminize a purported “moral decay” of the American people.  According to neocons, that decay, far beyond any other issue, was most plainly evidenced by the parasitic unwed teenage mothers who were said to have made a career out of suckling from the “government teat,” bleeding dry both federal and state funds which would be more useful invested elsewhere, in things for like, strengthening our respect in the sanctity of life.  Like, you know, war.  The recurring theme here, of course, is that government assistance programs were best suited to build a nation full of “pansies.”  If you wanted a nation of “strength” and “honor,” public policy must reflect a people who would “man up” to the challenge.

The offense is not in the suggestion that programs to assist those in need are due for reform, restructuring, or even that some might argue actually harmful to overall economic/social health.  It is the remorseless, dogged conflation of the economically vulnerable with the feminine, and that feminized element being identified as the cornerstone of our cultural weakness.  It is a crime of language which should concern all of us, especially in this dire economic situation, and a powerful lie that touches our lives in unquantifiable ways.  In order to make meaningful steps towards economic stability and elevated cultural standards, it’s a narrative that needs to be aggressively confronted and exposed for what it is: misogyny.

And Obama is hardly a magic wand who will make it all go away; if anything, the shaky territory which might lay ahead has the potential to make itself even more destructive.  I don’t think we have the luxury of handing over all trust and blind faith to our leaders, no matter how much they appear to echo our own views.  Most of us will never know Obama any more intimately than we do George Bush; our admiration for political leaders is largely projection, a response to constructed identities in the public sphere.  We can’t afford to forget that ever again.

It’s significant to me, however, that Obama has been maligned by the GOP by making an effort to spin suspicion of intellectual and racial “otherness” into concrete proof of how his values are a dangerous path to moral collapse and could not possibly reflect the values of “real Americans,” nor have their greater interests at heart.  They’ve painted him as an effete, overeducated pacifist and socialist, a pampered son of white privilege and inauthentic black identity, a man of “dubious” national, racial, religious, and political allegiance.  They’ve got fractured narratives all over the place, his insatiable greed for power finding him at once plotting a radical “black power” uprising to overthrow the white establishment a la Reverend Wright, harboring a “Jewish Problem” and ‘insufficient loyalties’ to Israel, and yet even more secret sympathies with the exotic threat of brown skinned “terrorists” because, as it’s reasoned, “it’s in his blood.”  It echoes too closely the neocon epidemic of straw “Welfare Queens,” dark and wild and feminine, invisible and yet ubiquitous, feeding their unbridled self-interest with resources leeched from the fruits of America’s wholesome, Protestant, white work ethic.  There was and remains to be absolutely no legitimate evidence to support any of these claims.  Not about Obama, and not about those struggling against poverty.

The lie that providing support for those in need is inexorably coupled with a neutered military and the death of “self determination” is, frankly, just intellectual lethargy that doesn’t want to bother with meaningful discussion.  Neocons do not hold rationality or reason as a virtue, they operate squarely on faith, the divine arrogance to believe they are right even when they are wrong.  They are not thinkers.  They will only stall the search to find new ways of imagining our economy.  Some find it easier to divide the world in two and pick a side, rather than find the courage to face the daunting complexity of the real world.  Instead, they wish to remain stagnant and rooted in the past; McCain says he will make changes to ensure that nothing changes, as Zizek puts it.  But the guiding principles which founded this country were designed to be elastic, to move and respond to pressure in a way that was loyal to our origins, but never so unbending we might find ourselves strangled to death by the roots of our own family tree.

There is possibility here, but it does not involve indulging the pornographic delusions of neoconservative paranoia.  Priorities need to shift on all fronts, and with that, higher expectations for our politicians, our media, and ourselves; we need to nurture a practice of personal accountability first in terms of speech, we must own the words we say and the ways they affect the lives of others.  The legacy of “Rovian truth” is hard pressed to be understood as anything but some sort of agent provocateur, having now degraded the integrity of our word as a nation, as citizens, cheap on every level.  Remember when you didn’t have to be ashamed to call yourself a Republican, and it wasn’t necessary to feign a bi-partisan agenda just to lasso the youth constituency like some sad, desperate cult?

I mean, I don’t, seeing as I was born in 1984, but I’ve been told it wasn’t always such blight on one’s character once upon a time.

PART DEUX: And what of the feminist or female debt to the free market? (tomorrow, maybe, if I don’t explode)




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