"When the World Is Turned Upside Down and Protest Is Privatized"

Friday, 18 March 2011 09:37 By Joseph Natoli, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

"When the World Is Turned Upside Down and Protest Is Privatized"
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (Photo: Bob Jagendorf / Flickr)

"How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!" -Lewis Carroll, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

"It was like science didn't matter." -Carla Greathouse, Environmental Protection Agency researcher, quoted in The New York Times, March 4, 2011.

"The truth will out." -Shakespeare, "Merchant of Venice."

Poll results right now regarding collective bargaining for public employees are a whole lot clearer than usual: 60 percent are behind the protesters. But those results have already been flattened to a wash: Americans are evenly divided, as Judy Woodruff of the PBS "NewsHour" remarked as a lead to her questioning of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. She also throws in the "fact" that public employees are paid more than private employees, even though a Berkeley professor on the previous night's "NewsHour" had stated and restated statistics proving the opposite. Fox News is solidly behind Gov. Chris Christie in proclaiming that what's going on in his state and elsewhere is class warfare: tax payers against public employees. Christie is on the side of tax payers and, thus, etches his populist credentials as he preps for the presidency. You have to assume then that "populist" and "class warfare" are what postmodernists would call floating signifiers," meaning that what they mean is determined by dispute, by a clash of power, by words in fact. Humpty Dumpty put it best: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

Polls are like confirming statistics, unimpeachable truths, relentless rationality, incontrovertible facts and words that "make this crystal clear": the Big Endians have them and the Little Endians have them, to bring Jonathan Swift's cynicism into play. Actually, polls not only reveal opinions, but are subject to opinions. My opinion, for instance, is that all Rupert Murdoch affiliated enterprises - and there are too many for anti-trust apparently to deal with - reveal Murdoch's opinions. A majority of Americans must like them because more Americans get their opinions from Fox than any other source, a reliable source where "the truth will out."

We live now in a country which is perceived, according to a decreasing (increasing?) number, as having turned upside down. A plutocracy has emerged from previous aspirations toward egalitarian democracy; a "trickle down" economics in which tax burdens are transferred from rich to poor persists even though it has only continued to redistribute the wealth to the wealthy; a tax rebate to the wealthy, which increases the national debt, is insisted upon by those who seeks massive cuts in government spending in order to decrease the national debt; a monumental collapse of the economy resulting from the reckless finagling of financial institutions results in an "austerity" campaign against the working class and the middle class; the largest wealth gap among all industrialized nations is defined as a war between taxpayers and public employees; a privatized energy industry has silenced a major threat to its profits - global warming; programs which have greatly benefited the majority of Americans - Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid - face a continuous attack by the wealthy and a capitulating response by its defenders ...

You could continue this sort of cataloguing, but only, of course, if you yourself haven't been turned upside down. Then, everything looks all right. The point is that, when the world turns upside down, it takes reason along with it. It's sort of a parallel universe of where the irrational has become rational. I would like to make crystal clear that everything in a world turned upside down stinks of the irrational. Did I say "crystal clear"?

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When the world is turned upside down, one could argue that the free market is protected by a stable middle class that is motivated to retain the status quo. In this truth story, the middle class enjoys a sufficient level of economic well-being to shield it from traditional revolts of the poor against the rich. Such stability is not the case in the present; all manner of insecurity, anxiety, frustration, bewilderment and impatience infect the middle-class psyche. Everything that led to the creation and sustenance of an American middle class that buffered any clash between Winners and Losers is fast disappearing. Empowered on social web sites, but powerless to withstand or comprehend the sort of deviltry that led to the Great Recession of 2008, the American middle class should be primed to react. If the world, of course, hadn't turned upside down.

Since Reagan, a neoliberal notion of both economics and politics has been so absorbed by those who are already "under water" or barely managing to keep their heads above water that attempts on their behalf - political "engineering," or the free play of democratic institutions without power lobbying, for the common good - are seen as provocations to revolt. This is truly astounding and dumbfounding, but it is, nonetheless, a very real possibility that a populist revolt in the US, a storming by thousands of the public square as in Tunis and Cairo, would be a populist revolt against the purveyors of the "common good," a populist revolt on behalf of a professional meritocracy of about 20 percent of the population, who are well compensated for serving the 0.3 percent of the population who have as much wealth as the lowest 40 percent. When the world is turned upside down, this seems to be a rational possibility.

We imagine the world in a certain way and then produce a needed rationality to support that imagining. We don't live in worlds that we imagine are upside down. We always live in worlds that make sense in more ways than they don't. Perhaps, the pivotal point is that we think we can and hope we can make sense of things, even making sense of a decision not to think about something, say, for instance, politics or poverty or our own mortality.

I think the battle over what will dominate and constitute the American cultural imaginary precedes necessarily the battle of reason and debate simply because we're suspicious now of reason's tools and minions, from polls and statistics to "crystal clear" affirmations. And because the results of the 2010 Congressional elections empowered an imaginary that would vehemently oppose all my examples of the world being upside down, I must conclude that both the dominating American cultural imaginary and the rationality it engenders are - because I am here focused on the possibility of a revolt in the US - too embedded to allow the possibility of such revolt to be conceivable.

We are far in our imaginations from seeing ourselves in a similar position as a global underclass, although there is no economic reality that would now prevent a total (if not total already) collapse of the American middle class into that downtrodden position. The middle class is threatened, at various times and to various degrees, with a repeal of a Obama's limited measure to provide health care, with an reduction of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and perhaps a privatization or elimination of all three; an elimination of minimum wage and unemployment benefits; a further reduction of any "safety net"; a call for "work not welfare" at a time of double-digit unemployment; an elimination of pensions, collective bargaining, and any form of job security or retirement security.

Because we are in an upside down world, but imagine ourselves in the ways a plutocracy has created for us, none of these actualities move us toward the sort of revolt that is breaking out in the Arab world. Rather, we imagine ourselves like the Irish, who brought on their own collapse with grandiose greed and a bail out of underwater banks; or like the Greeks, who spent too heavily on "entitlements" and suffered a moral hazard whereby they lost their competitive edge; or like the EU, whose "socialism" and governmental intrusions in the "free play of the global market" on behalf of The Losers has undermined their own currency. We do not, in short, imagine ourselves as the victims and easy marks of a global wealth class seeking to maintain a status quo that suits them well. We imagine ourselves as indomitable, patriotic individuals, who can show "tough love," assume personal responsibility, win the lottery and join the fabulous wealthy, suddenly become celebrities because we can sing or dance and who can assert a self-empowerment and a will to win that cannot be challenged. Within this imaginary, the only revolt is against a personal failure to seize the day, to compete and win, to be entrepreneurial, to will powerfully enough for what you desire. You can say that, in this imaginary, in this world turned upside down, revolt has been privatized.

Joseph Natoli

Joseph Natoli taught postmodernism at Michigan State University. He is series editor for "Postmodern Culture" (SUNY Press 1995-2009), "Tracing Literary Theory, Literary Theory's Future(s)" (University of Illinois Press 1989), "A Postmodern Reader" (with Linda Hutcheon) (SUNY 1993), and other article and books.

Last modified on Friday, 18 March 2011 10:08