Waging or Resisting Unwinnable Wars: A Response to Donald Gutstein

13 Feb

Across Canada and every other place where austerity has become a household term, the idea of generational conflict has come out of retirement (pun intended). In Canada, intergenerational issues and tensions garnered a bit of attention during the Occupy encampments, and resurfaced again in the wake of the Prime Minister’s nonchalant announcement, in Davos, that the age of eligibility for OAS might be raised two years.

Both of these events churned up public commentary and debate, most of it (according to my unscientific count of newspaper columns) positioning people in my parents’ “generation” as the villains who’d spent themselves into debt and mortgaged my “generation’s” future. (I’m going to cut it out with the danger quotes now – but want to register my resistance of the term “generation” when what we mean, if we’re being precise, is cohort).

In “Stoking the False War Between Generations”, his recent piece in Vancouver’s The Tyee, Donald Gutstein argues that this master narrative of selfish, indulgent Boomers and their “screwed” progeny is the unfortunate product of a bait-and-switch spurred on, if not crafted, by “corporate and political elites.” What they’ve done, writes Gutstein, is “shifted the blame” for the economic downturn from themselves to the Baby Boomers.

For the most part, I think Gutstein’s point is a valid one. And that’s not easy to say, as someone who really appreciates the work of Paul Kershaw, whom Gutstein criticizes at length. Thus I do not have a critique so much as an extension – a point that I think his short article failed to adequately drive home. (This is particularly evident in some of the comments.)

The crux of his argument is this:

“When deregulation and greed led to the market collapse of 2008 and forced governments to spend massively to prevent total economic meltdown, corporate and political elites set out to shift the blame for the near collapse from the actions of the one percent — who caused the collapse — to the Boomer generation, which had nothing to do with it.

For Gutstein, the real culprit is neoliberalism, as a political ideology and, I would add, a governmentality. I agree with him there. I especially agree, and I’m most alarmed, by the way the generational conflict rhetoric has been taken up by those who would like a smaller, more neoliberal state, and used to defend cuts to social spending and taxation.

But I don’t think one can argue that the people who came of voting, working and procreating age just as the juggernaut of neoliberal policy started rolling in earnest have “nothing to do” with the fact that it kept on rolling, and picked up speed.

To uphold that sort of argument, one has to dispense with the core sociological notion that people “contribute, however minutely, to the shaping of [their] society and to the course of its history, even as [they are] made by society and by its historical push and shove.”[1] In plain, one has to deny individuals and the collectivities they form, consciously and on purpose, or unconsciously and by demographic and socio-historical accident, any agency over the direction of political affairs, or the content of social norms and cultural values.

Now, I’m not being a very good social scientist here. I don’t have the data to back any of this up. But I’d like to armchair theorize that the “neo-liberal plan to privatize education”, along with the other “neo-liberal goals” Gutstein lists in his article, enjoy a great deal of support from the over-50 crowd, particularly when such goals are linked, in political promises, to lowering personal taxes. (I also accept that if nothing changes, these same goals and plans will get support from people my age, too, as their incomes rise [if that actually happens], their personal orbits shrink, and caring for the well-being of others comes to mean tending to children’s needs).

Yet Gutstein maintains his point: “These ills have little to do with the alleged activity or neglect of Boomers,” he writes. Instead, we should blame the new “agenda”, originating in the “right wing thought collective” of the 1970s, to “crush union power, cut regulation and taxation (at least for the rich), reduce government’s role in the economy, cut social spending, impose free-trade deals, offshore good-paying industrial jobs, and offload costs onto the environment.”

But in throwing light on the “neo-liberal agenda”, and pushing the “Boomers” out of the frame, Gutstein fails to give adequate attention to one of neoliberalism’s defining features – and the most dangerous thing about it.

Specifically, neoliberal governmentality works because it convinces us, no matter how old or young we are, that we want it – that a smaller state is in our best interests, that downloading social costs to individuals is virtuous, that the economy is society, and that the taxpayer is the citizen.

Neoliberalism achieves this – its dominance, politically and socially – because it involves the erasure or denial of alternatives. It tells us that there are external, non-negotiable economic and market forces, the effects of which our governments (and our corporations, too) must simply manage, as they are (they tell us) powerless to control; Margaret Thatcher’s famous “there is no alternative” is, perhaps, neoliberal strategy in a nutshell.

Over the last thirty years, this rationalization has come to be accepted as common sense. That’s how public assets get sold off with public support. It’s how “austerity” goes unchallenged even by people who are about to see their benefits slashed and their job security disappear.

For a while, the inversion of society and economy – the submission to the “invisible hand” – was working for enough people in the short term, so they went along with it. And I would argue that these same people are still going along with it, because it is what they know. To them, it’s logic. It’s rational. It’s common sense. And it is all of these things because the people who built their lives in the heyday of neoliberal governance are neoliberal subjects.

The power of neoliberalism is that, unlike other arrangements of power and domination (like authoritarianism, feudalism, etc.), it depends and thrives on the creation of subjects who internalize its goals and essentially govern themselves. Neoliberal subjects do not self-identify as submitting to a dominant power, because they’re invested in the image of themselves as “morally responsible” for their successes and failures, and as best-served by “rational choice and cost-benefit calculations grounded on market-based principles to the exclusion of all other ethical values and social interests.”

It appeals to people because, unlike past ideologies that socialized people to accept “their lot” for the good of the whole, neoliberal ideology says “forget the whole”; it says “you can do better – but it’s up to you.” Neither part is true, but just as we like to believe that a regimen of shakes and cleanses will whittle our abdomens, we like to believe that each of us is in sole command of our own socio-economic standing.

There is reason to suspect that the people who feel most like these atomistic, self-responsible rational-choosers are those whose subjectivities, as working, voting, spending, procreating adults, were forged when the flames of neoliberalism burned brightest. (We do know that younger people today are more supportive of social democratic values and socialism.) This suspicion, along with the need to combat the myths older people believe about people my age, is what leads me to argue that older generations should shoulder some of the blame for the economic shitstorm in which my friends and I are looking for work – not to mention the political doldrums so many in my cohort feel disenfranchised from.

Neoliberal governance certainly depends on the very obfuscation of power that Gutstein warns of – the “anonymity of the corporate state” characteristic of “inverted totalitarianism” – and this is exactly what makes the blame game simultaneously so enticing, dangerous and difficult. We can, and should, continue to blame the corporate and political elites who have the power but claim not to. But we don’t live in a world where reclaiming or redirecting power is as simple (albeit gruesome) as lopping the head off of the king. We have no king, and although that appears to us as a realization of freedom, it finds expression in our felt and possibly actual impotence.

How do you blame an ideology? Who do you hold responsible, when the dominant mode of seeing and managing society depends on the diffusion of responsibility? How do you prod people to let go of the common sense that appeared to deliver them the comforts they now can’t live without? And how do you make sure their subjectivities aren’t passed down, with their (shrinking) inheritances, to their kids? These are the questions we must ask, if we want to steer ourselves toward a more just, more equal, more self-consciously interdependent society.


[1] C.W. Mills, 2000. The Sociological Imagination, 6.

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