Who's Consensus?

From Counterpunch

September 22, 2008
Who's Consensus?
Lost in the Rhetoric of Crisis


The New York Times did its best on Sunday to render this economic crisis
not so much understandable as human. A charming piece on the men behind
the $700 billion bailout set up two characters – Mr. Paulson, the
hard-talking Wall Street alum, and Mr. Bernanke, the Ivy League theorist
– united to save America’s economy from imminent disaster.

These are men we can recognize, the whimsical professor and the
pragmatic businessman, and we can almost chuckle at the sitcom-ready
oddity of their working together – until of course we remember that this
union of chalk and cheese is a measure of the moment’s gravity. But we
can take comfort that the specialists have arrived ensconced in
recognizable adjectives, complete with their alchemical knowledge of
that mystifying chaos of forces suddenly cannibalizing us from within,
the economy.

Suddenly we’re deep in the rhetoric of crisis. Even the media waxes
poetic: the abyss is upon us and banks are languishing bloodied. All too
sadly, we know what Cassandra-ing means for our ability to think as a

So we don’t learn about the causes and effects, or even the projected
consequences of this odd couple’s plan. We learn about the specialists;
that they’re working hard around the clock to craft their remedies; how
many hours of sleep they’re getting, what sodas they respectively drink
to stay awake, and – Heaven be praised for their cultural capital - that
they’re managing to bond (well, “in part”) over baseball. The message,
if not unproblematic, is clear: these good American men are facing a
crisis, and doing their best for their country. We must build our trust
on these shared symbols – baseball, Diet Coke, and institutional
affiliation (Princeton, Goldman) – and hope for the best.
I was struck by a passing quote (Bernanke’s): “There are no atheists in
foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises.”

So, we must set ideology aside, and believe. Sound familiar?

A caveat: I’m no economist, and I have no intricate knowledge of this
mysterious beast’s workings. That’s sort of the point. What I’m getting
at here is the confusion that I think I share with other Americans, and
that I believe is supposed to be assuaged first by the humanizing of our
newfound economic architects, and more profoundly by the paternal
discourse that calls on us to stop asking questions in times of crisis.

My confusion goes something like this: hang on a minute. Doesn’t
government intervention stamp muddy boots all over our deification of
the free market? Doesn’t that ideology underpin not only Republican
economics, but more fundamentally America’s crowing valorization of
individual hard work, boot-straps pulled up, and so on? So what
precedent is this enormous intervention setting for our country, both
financially and ideologically? Putting aside all prognostications of
America’s imminent relegation to Third World-dom – ranging in tone from
the self-righteously gleeful to the China-obsessed apocalyptic - can we
ask if this is a shift towards…socialism? A hybrid free market
paternalism? Crisis capitalism? What can we even call it?? And why has
debate been restricted to content, and not the structural dynamics of
the event? The answer to this latter, in my mind, is America’s knee-jerk
assumption that changes in economic policy might acknowledge a flaw in
its pristine exemplification of free market capitalism. Can this really
be as trite as protecting a petulant national ego, one that takes silent
pride in being the referent of the Washington Consensus?

It’s been a nagging concern of mine, watching the sweeping changes
enacted by the Bush administration, that new government powers are put
into place in the name of a crisis without a murmur of what it means for
the future of this country, one whose leaders after all can stake
political legitimacy on precedent. So without a doubt we should be
asking, very pragmatically, what this bailout means as a function of the
(at best) quixotic tax calculations that we will someday have to pay.
But we shouldn’t let our very justified fears of a tax bill prevent us
from asking why, once again, the American people is being infantilized
by crisis rhetoric, patted on the head by CNN specials about minimizing
our individual risks, and assured that even if we don’t know what is
actually going on in our economy, we can comfort ourselves that, at
least, the guys fixing it like baseball.

Anne-Marie McManus can be reached at: anne-marie.mcmanus@yale.edu

No comments: