One of the more interesting (if also more depressing) externalities of teaching is how obvious generational divides become as time passes. Or, as Matthew McConaughey said, “I get older, they stay the same age.” I’m 29 years old, probably one of the last cohorts to be lumped into “Generation X” before our culture became so standardized that we stopped naming generations. For Gen-X’ers and all who have come after us, I often wonder (usually while teaching) if most of us even realize that there are alternatives. I mean that in the grandest sense – that there are alternatives to the market worship that defines not only our economy but our politics and social structure as well.
It’s unsurprising that skepticism and the ability to even conceive of (let alone advocate) alternatives to our economic system died in the 90s – the decade when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair jointly declared that the era of regulation and government was over, signifying the atrophy or death of whatever tatters of liberalism the Democrats or Labour maintained. No more populism, they promised; “We too will be friends of business,” protecting the elite from the annoyances of unions, regulation, or opposition of any kind. But the decision of the political left to lie prostrate at the feet of society’s rightful elite was merely a logical extension of what was happening to America as a whole.
It was the decade of CEO worship, the decade when the stock market was going to make everyone inconceivably rich, the decade during which the equation of Deregulation + Privatization + Globalization = Eternal Happiness and Wealth For All was so often repeated and just so goddamn obviously true that no alternative could be taken seriously. Remember? It was the decade when History Ended and the free market Won. It was a decade when “class” ceased to exist because everyone could buy mutual funds and CEO’s wore jeans and long hair while tossing Frisbees around their Modernist “campuses.” Hacky rags like Wired and Fast Company sprouted to serve no apparent purpose aside from mindless, obsequious hand-jobbing for our new betters and the free-market libertarianism-as-freedom nonsense that dominated to exclusion. Suck-ups like Thomas Friedman actually said things in 1998 like “I don’t think there will be an alternative ideology this time around. There are none.” Read that again.
After a 10 year barrage of that nonsense followed by the Only Ideology’s spectacular 8-year failure, it is not remotely puzzling that so many people, especially younger ( < 40) ones, look at this colossal clusterfuck of an economy and society and can’t muster the brainpower to come up with any solution other than to do what we’ve been doing, only harder. If free market libertarianism is the Only Way, should we be surprised that failures can only be understood as our failure to be true enough to Its Rules? Our economy is a trainwreck; hmm, better cut taxes some more. I mean, that’s what we do when the economy suffers, right? What other alternatives are there? Having not been mentioned for 30-some years, it is unsurprising that we can’t remember any. What I hear from the current presidential candidates are largely differences on “social” issues and Iraq. Yes, you can fill the comments with what you perceive to be the mountain-sized differences between Obama and McCain on economic policy. Unfortunately, I think their differences there can only seem large in the context of how thoroughly the idea of a real liberal economic worldview has been wiped clean from the political landscape. Obama, following Kerry’s footsteps, meekly asserting that he’ll raise taxes on the comically wealthy (of course, if elected even that pittance would fail to materialize from Congress) is our pitiful excuse for “choice” in the New Economy. Market-worship is all about freedom and choice and Ron Paul's wet dreams – yet no one sees the irony in the fact that the market offers us infinite freedom except the freedom to choose not to have the market as the sole arbiter of every aspect of our society and politics. We have choice, says the market – your mall has five shoe stores. What we seem unfree to choose are solutions to our problems that involve government or the meddling, anachronistic common good. We are free to choose as long as we choose the market. Henry Ford, the ultimate caricature of old, stodgy, industrial pre-90s capitalism, famously represented the limitations of that era by saying the customer could have any color he wanted so long as it was black. Today we congratulate ourselves for having modified that equation. We have an infinite array of “choices” – colors, in Ford’s analogy – but within the confines of the universal truth that we have no alternative to buying a proverbial Ford.