The battle with bullshit
One of my pleasures over the holiday period has been reading The Baffler‘s third book-length collection of articles, No Future For You. (I read the first one, Commodify Your Dissent in the early 2000s, but missed the second one.) For those new to The Baffler: it is a radical American magazine, published three times a year, that has mostly been going since 1988. The list of authors in this latest collection is impressive, from Baffler founder Thomas Frank to Susan Faludi, Evgeny Morozov, Rick Perlstein, Barbara Ehrenreich, and David Graeber. The collection of subjects ranges wide across the sociopathies of our late Potemkin-capitalism, from gentrification to LinkedIn, to Vice, NewsCorp and the Washington Post, to Sheryl Sandberg and the Waltons, to Fifty Shades of Grey and Prometheus to all of the President’s biographers. I bought the book to have a print copy of David Graeber’s magisterial essay “Of Flying Cars And The Declining Rate of Profit” on the failure of innovation in the digital age.
If there is a theme that binds these different authors and their disparate subjects, it is that The Baffler has a sharp eye for hucksters and hucksterism. And more: that in our present era of late capitalism, with its “morbid symptoms” manifested by a failed order desperately trying to keep itself and its privileges afloat, hucksterism is the latest, or last, symptom of therentier economy.
Susan Faludi’s fine take-down of Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In starts with Sandberg doing a live-streamed pitch in Menlo Park for the Lean In “community” (which, she notes, was a fully staffed organisation even before Sandberg’s book was published), then opens out to describe the Lean In community, accessible, of course, only through Facebook, the high profile “members”, and later on the somewhat empty commitments made by Lean In’s corporate partners. And the way in which Lean In stresses individual success over the structural or political change needed to help women succeed – something that Sandberg is evidently not willing to talk about – is a sign of the times.
The scene at the Menlo Park auditorium, and its conflation of believe in yourself faith and material rewards, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a Sunday inside a prosperity-gospel mega-church or watched Reverend Ike’s vintage “You Deserve The Best!” sermon on YouTube. But why is the same message now ascendant among the American feminists of the new millennium? (p205)
Of course, money – and I mean real money here – offers a better class of hucksterism. If you’re going to do self-promotion, not to say misdirection, billions of pounds and some expensive art certainly helps. In “Hoard d’Oeuvres”, on the top end art world, Rhonda Lieberman has the heiress Alice Walton in her sights.
“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin. In precisely this vein, Walton’s new Crystal Bridges museum offers American-made art to strategically cover up the ugly reality that Walmart has created. Spanning the colonial era to the present, the exhibition space’s fulsome celebration of the American spirit eulogizes the nation of shared confidence and abundance, sustainable mortgages and worker dignity that Walmart has brutally demolished. (p127)
After all of this, it’s almost a relief to read about the late American artist Thomas Kincade, who was clearly just another American hustler, albeit one with a singular vision and some sharp-edged business practices.
Reading these essays in succession it is clear that there is a tone and a method to a Baffler essay. Tone: The Baffler is the knowing and knowledgeable outsider, who doesn’t always have to spell things out completely because it knows its readers are already at least half way there. So, in his essay on the notion of urban “cultural vibrancy,” Thomas Frank writes:
We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not [vibrancy] works, but part of the project is nonetheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the phrase, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant … Our leadership class looks out over the trashed and looted landscape of the American city, and solemnly declare that slavation lies in an almost meaningless buzzword – that if we chant the buzzword loud enough and often enough our troubles are over. (p115)
The method: typically a Baffler essay starts close up, documenting the circumstances of its subject in some detail. Then at a certain point it zooms out to the wide shot, to bring in some relevant perspective that is normally overlooked in these discussions. As the saying goes, “The only thing new in the world is the history you never knew,” and this is one of The Baffler‘s operating principles. So, for example, Susan Faludi’s essay on Sheryl Sandberg moves out to the history of the women’s movement in the United States and the weavers of Lowell, Massachusetts. Similarly Evgeny Morozov explains Tim O’Reilly’s thinking first through a 1975 book (Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk) by Neil Postman and from there to the Polish thinker Alfred Korzybski, as a way to explain how O’Reilly has, repeatedly, removed the politics from the issues he has embraced and profited from.
And a couple of other things: they give their contributors space to write long, and in return they expect them to write well.
Of course, this isn’t unique to The Baffler. It could be argued that it is a hallmark of good American journalism (some of the New Yorker‘s long pieces also come to mind). The difference is that when The Baffler‘s writers do it, the history we never knew is about material conditions or ideological frames.
In particular, the pieces that The Baffler is trying to put back together involve reconnecting the politics of what’s actually going on in post-crisis America with the story that’s been told about it. In his essay on the role of the (pre-Zuckerberg) Washington Post in cheerleading for the 1%, Baffler senior editor Chris Lehmann notes the way in which, during the 2012 campaign, Obama talked about the inconsequential “Buffett Rule” (“a cosmetic simulacrum of serious tax reform (tellingly named for a billionaire) with zero chance of passing Congress”) while passing into law the Republican JOBS Act, which had nothing to do with actual jobs in actual workplaces, but instead removed from stock market flotations a whole lot of accounting and due diligcence requirements. As Lehmann writes:
Such staggeringly cynical displays are the sort of campaign messaging that matters in the orderly conduct of elections under a plutocracy. The JOBS Act serves as a reminder to skittish Wall Street donors that all this loose populist talk is just so much telegenic blather for the impressionable 99 percenters, just as the donor class suspected. (p293)
Similarly, Chris Bray’s essay on the various Obama biographies (one’s grateful that he’s read them to spare others from this labour) looks at the way in which much that is obvious about Obama is lying in front of authors who are unable, or unwilling, to make the connections. The story about the young Obama in 1960s Indonesia, with a stepfather working for the government as it brutally purged the communist party, and a mother working for a CIA front organisation, is told repeatedly in these books, but the implications are magicked away from their narratives. Instead, we learn a lot from the biographers about Indonesian snacks. And Guantanamo Bay, the subject of a dark satire elsewhere in the book (“The GTMO National Monument” by Mark Dancy), remains in place after six years, despite the promises and the protestations.
And we see something similar on the subject of Obama’s “centrism,” where Bray draws on Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men. Suskind quotes Wall Streeter Larry Fink as saying, “The president is much more of a centrist … in some ways he might even be called right of what used to be called center” [ellipses in original]. Or, as Bray observes, “It’s clear from all these accounts of the sensibly pragmatic exercise of power in Washington that the “center” is where corporations go to pick up their free cash.“ (p358)
As Bray observes as he reads across these multiple hagiographies, the facts are there in the accounts but the writers prefer instead to strip “meaning from events.” But there is a story there.
Surveying the body of self-congratulatory, pragmatically centrist literature celebrating this self-congratulatory, pragmatically centrist administration, it’s at last possible to understand the true character and scale of our plight: the nation is locked in an elite-made crisis – caused by regulatory capture, not by mythical deregulation – that has been extended and deepened by elite intervention constructed around further regulatory capture. … A country that can’t manage or mitigate the crisis of its failing institutions has at least found a way to avoid talking about it, five hundred pages at a time. (p360-1)
Throwing aside the curtain
All of the way through, in the 19 contributions republished in the book, the writers are trying to catch hold of the phenomena they are describing and haul them back down to earth, or, shifting metaphors for a moment, to throw aside the curtain to reveal the artifice at work.
And in 2015, when politics, media and the financial and technology sectors have become locked together in a way that is of mutual benefit to them (and not to anyone else) this is necessary work. In the American plutocracy, there are many loud voices who would prefer to drown out the stories that are true with the sound of the stories that they keep on repeating. The work of The Baffler is to help us spot these long cons rather than being taken in by them.