Let them eat flat screens

Referring to a recent widely remarked-upon Heritage Foundation report that described the material wealth of America’s nominally “poor,” Cato Unbound editor Jason Kuznicki frames a familiar defense of free market capitalism against its “progressive” critics:

It takes remarkable upper-lip musculature to sneer in such circumstances. But some do manage. “Let Them Eat Cake,” says one progressive commentator about the report — hardly an outlier.

Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.

“Let them eat cake” was taken as a catchphrase not because the idea of the poor ever eating cake was an “unthinkable absurdity,” but because it expressed the total lack of empathy on the part of a queen for her starving subjects.  Kuznicki’s reading reflects the same syndrome in its assumptions about who the poor are in a system that cannot be understood except as a global one.  The flat screen that the American “poor” person is enjoying in the imaginary depiction was likely assembled by someone far away and unknown, someone who, along with his or her family, is very likely a much better representative of today’s poor, or at least of that segment inducted into wage slavery. To the small extent such people even exist for the American libertarian, whose ideological rejection of “government” corresponds to a determined rejection of the principle of the whole, they simply do not because they cannot matter, just as the hungry poor of France were “unthinkable” to the Queen (not that social liberals do very much better in any meaningful sense).  It’s one example of what such exercises in rigorously non-dialectical materialism have to leave out in order to make a traditional defense of free market liberalism – “it’s so productive!” – internally coherent.  The argument wins out, on the basis of something like the Rawlsean compromise (in brief, as long as the poor benefit materially, let the wealthy continue to grow wealthier), but remains sustainable only within artificially defined borders without which its appeal to the pure selfishness of an utterly empty self would be exposed not just in its self-insignificance, but in relation to what must be destroyed to keep it materially if not morally alive – at least until the day that the absurdity by whatever unthinkable and therefore totally unexpected way impinges on it as though from the outside, the externality revealing itself as always having been internal after all.

12 comments on “Let them eat flat screens

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  1. Big thumbs up! Although my thumbs both probably have carrot cake or at least blueberry pie remains on them.

  2. The day when something unexpected impinged on our ability to keep believing in the free-market lie was Katrina. Facts and figures were drowned. We saw the poor. The artificial borders broke down and then the anti-thesis type response came as the rich built even higher walls with their neo-con lackeys (in the Tea Party especially) watching the gates for them ever since. Shamefully, the liberals with enough clout to get invited settled for actually having tea inside the walls.

    • Katrina was no doubt an example of the revealed internality of the external, but I think it’s only a partial or foreshadowing one, since Kuznicki could happily point out that many of the poor ended up with flat screen TVs in their emergency housing.

      The mode of “revelation” is impossible to ascertain ahead of time – so the scripture says, and is probably right, but may not go far enough. The revelation could be ongoing, but always forgotten, until not merely seen, but undergone.

  3. No, Katrina was due to the local levee boards squandering the funds on repairs, the state and local officials including Ray ‘the Cable man; Nagin refusing to use the resources at his disposal, to promptly evacuate the low lying areas, and throw on
    the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers, for flavoring,

  4. Qell it’s kind a sidebar, but what is the alternative, that is being offered, Marina Sitrin’s Occupy mirage, refracted through her
    time as Prensa Latina press hack

  5. Good point on how the relative comforts of the American poor basically come off the backs of even poorer unseen foreigners. Also, why so few comments on American income touch on the extent to which even what we consider “middle class” is rooted in debt remains a painful puzzle.

    • You mean in the sense that the crisis of the late ’70s was handled by putting the US economy as a whole on the credit card?

      Just speculating here, but we can use Kuznicki’s idea of “real” progress – essentially technological progress replacing relative economic progress, to outline the deal for the middle class: security plus enhanced consumption in exchange for frozen incomes, and static or negative asset accumulation (debt instead of wealth). As long as “we” get that, then the rich and the relatively much larger stratum of upper managerials and professionals get to divvy up money-power. The third class citizens – women and minorities, mainly – receive a mixture of tangible and intangible pay-offs. The system is relatively stable, but not invulnerable. Its internal contradictions are real, and the still-ongoing financial crisis (arguably a profit crisis) foreshadows the potential for a system-wide and macro-level danger, but has not yet been realized as a true political crisis of the whole, at least not yet.

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