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Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Abstractions are important, but when they are too far detached from the mulch of things they become pabulum. If the abstractions are firmly rooted in Tradition, it becomes harder to both question them and show that they belong to another age that makes little sense in our time. Obama’s speeches are glorious. They are a joy to listen to and to read later. He is able to dig deep into the rich rhetorical tradition of the Christian world and of the Founding Fathers, and to articulate a call for awakening that is powerful. But how far is it from our world, from our time? There is an anachronistic edge not only in the cadence, but also in the logic—nothing here about the desertion of populations by the government, the allowance of the few to dominate the wealth produced by the many, and the turn to violence when other means wither in the quiver. Ethical systems cannot be built upon each other without any consideration of social transformations. It is not language alone that we must attend to, but even more so to the social context of the language.

Celebrations of “American character” and of the “God-given promise that all are equal” are emotive, powerful symbols of an age that is now no longer with us. Ours is the age of the jobless economy, where character and equality removed from structural impedimenta are cruel sentiments. In 1976, the Nobel Prize in Economics went to Milton Friedman for, among other things, his pioneering work on the “natural rate of unemployment.” Friedman argued that if the economy neared full employment, prices would rise and create the inflationary condition for social disaster. For which reason, he argued, it is a good thing for the government to manipulate monetary policy to maintain a certain section of the population outside the workforce. This is just what U.S. monetary policy is all about, keeping a substantial section of the population away from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment numbers.

Around the time when Friedman’s ribbon was pinned to his tuxedo lapel, the American workforce underwent a dramatic shift: developments in communication and transportation, as well as new regimes of trade policy, allowed firms to disarticulate production to various points of the planet, taking advantage of lower wage costs to increase their profits. Rather than invest in the aging U.S. industrial sector, capital fled to the U.S.-Mexico border, to East Asia, and to other places, building factories in “export processing zones” that took advantage of under-organized (mainly female) migrant workers. The U.S. economy entered the phase of jobless growth, where the Gross Domestic Product grew as a result of the dramatic increase in the financial sector (a sparse employer), and the demise of industrial production produced mass joblessness at a scale not known for decades.

In 1976, only half of the high school graduates went to college, and for those who did not, the job situation was bleak. It would continue to be abysmal for their lifetime, as full-time union wage jobs declined and the minimum wage stagnated below 1973 levels. Because of this, the tragedy of the civil rights struggle was that it won just when privatization, the demise of social welfare and globalization eviscerated the chance for people of color to enjoy the statutory equality that they had just won. It was in this period that the Urban League ruefully reported, “More blacks have lost jobs through industrial decline than through job discrimination.” Globalization and NAFTA hurt these millions of Americans in ways that have not been fully appreciated by the intellectual elites. For those left out, refuge in the abstractions of “American character” and the “God-given promise that all are equal” is essential for their psychosocial well-being, but they are insufficient as a program for social development. When the politically-crafted economy is wedded to joblessness and the “natural rate of unemployment,” the promise of equality is cruel beyond measure. Anachronistic abstractions drawn from the elite Founding Fathers helps with morale, but it does not conform to the needs of the multitude, and to the multitude’s common sense.

A new set of civic virtues that are consonant with our reality would need to acknowledge that our current politically-defined economy has created disposable people—those who are in the criminal justice system (7.2 million), those who live in the forsaken “inner city” slums, those who have been unemployed for so long that they have abandoned the system entirely. Children among the disposable class who are not incredibly self-driven are cast off into proto-jails (with metal detectors and standardized tests, forms of surveillance that prepare them for prison and the low-end service sector). The “common good” that binds the citizenry together has been broken, with the peoples of the gated community and those of the slums driven asunder to the point where their reconciliation is near impossible. The first gets chills to hear talk of character and noble ideas; the second is comforted, but is also told in the same breath that they must take “personal responsibility” for their ills, and that they must throw away the cold Popeyes Chicken and turn off the television to move their children from the ranks of the disposed. Meanwhile, the Food and Culture industries are granted dispensations from taxation and from regulations in order to pollute society with the very things that the elect warn the population against. Here again is the cruel illusion, as the disposable are told that the only things that give them comfort are bad for them. Nothing else is on offer: no hope of structural reform. There is no new ethic in what Obama has to offer as yet, no new civic religion that confronts the constraints of our time. There is hope, because, without the promise of hope, reality would be unbearable. Obama has reaffirmed the necessity of hope, but as yet there is no new covenant. If that does not come, then bewilderment.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]