There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.
-Pat Buchanan, 1992
The idea is that the state doesn’t have rights to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we’re seeing it in our society.
-Rick Santorum, 2003
The Cricket has thus far avoided making any commentary on Rick Santorum other than “huh huh huh, huh huh huh, he said Santorum.” It is now March 2012, however, and Not-So-Slick Rick has persevered in the GOP primaries for long enough that he has earned his place in the political-economic analysis this blog specializes in.
After the crash of 2008, it seemed that social conservatism had reached a permanent dead end, almost as though it had been a luxury that the country could only afford when the unemployment rate was at “reasonable” levels. With millions more suddenly out of work, nobody much cared who was smoking what or who was fucking whom and in what orifice. But now all of a sudden, we hear that the Obama feds are cracking down hard on medical marijuana, that American right has launched a “war against women,” among other things.
The culture war politics the Republicans have engaged in for the last several decades is at heart a small variation on their “Southern Strategy,” which dates from roughly the same point of origin. If the Southern Strategy said to white working class men: “Willie Horton just escaped from prison and he’s coming after your lily white daughter with a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and his big black dick in the other,” the culture war said to the same group of voters: “Your lily white daughter–and wife–are kind of turned on by Willie’s willie, your son just purchased that new Ice-T album with the song about killing cops, and your other son is a homosexual who also wants a piece of Willie’s magic johnson.” All of that–plus the fact that another Willie just signed NAFTA and now the plant you worked at all your life just moved to Red China–is the fault of . . . wait for it . . . the left!
That last part, about how the Democrats have been complicit in selling the American dream down the Rio Grande and ultimately the Yangtze River, has been absolutely critical to the success of the right’s culture war politics all these years. The truth is, it was the Democrats who abandoned the NASCAR dads and security moms, not the other way around. It was this class-blind third way neoliberal Clintonist bullshit, which substituted diversity for equality and told poor white people–collectively–to blame their own bigotry for their deteriorating circumstances instead of the greed of the one percent, that drove so many American workers into the arms of their worst enemy. (As an aside, it should be noted that Clintonism has increasingly, over the years, albeit subtly, told poor black people–collectively–to blame their lack of family values for their perpetually dismal circumstances–one might call this Cosbyism).
Rick Santorum is currently trying to capitalize on this culture war tactic, which has proven so successful year after year during our lifetimes. We are, however, living in a period of history unlike any that has existed in our lifetimes (unless you happen to be old enough to remember the 1930s). Because the capitalist system is beset by internal material contradictions, the ideological superstructure that the ruling class uses to maintain its popular legitimacy likewise is beset by contradictions. Chief among these ideological contradictions is the tension between saving and spending, between frugality and indulgence, between abstinence and ecstacy. A capitalist is compelled to constantly set aside a part of his profit for reinvestment instead of spending it all on limos and prostitutes and blow. The ultimate id motivating the capitalist to postpone gratification in the short run is the promise of even more limos and prostitutes and blow in the future.
Under the pretty fiction of equality under the law, workers really are capitalists, and their saving and spending habits are to be evaluated in the exact same manner. In reality however, the saving and spending habits of capitalists are a truly personal matter–if a certain capitalist overindulges too much, his business fails, the market punishes him justly, and another capitalist, with better self-discipline, takes his place, end of story.
The saving and spending habits of workers in the aggregate, however, are of interest to the capitalist class in the aggregate. The owners of capital–collectively–depend on as many workers as possible constantly spending, constantly indulging, constantly fulfilling their desires through the act of exchange, in order to stay in business. Each individual capitalist, however, wants his own workers to be as frugal as possible, to be good savers, to abstain from pleasure and excess. That way they can be paid as little as possible and still show up for work every day.
The serious strategists of capital understand that the system will not recover from the global crisis now afflicting it any time soon and that the means by which it recovers will not involve another speculative bubble, another mania where people start spending money with a ferocity worthy of a gay crystal meth orgy. The real “correction” that must take place before genuine growth can resume is the “deleveraging” of the American dream itself. For decades, the good times were kept on life support by easy credit, but now that bill is finally due, and there is no way out for America’s investor class other than to force American workers to be more “competitive” with workers in other countries. The “competitiveness” of workers is really a euphemism for their willingness to settle for less while producing more–to be more like those Chinese Foxconn workers who make your iPhone.
That the family values conservatism Santorum and his ilk preach seems so antithetical to the libertarian “freedom” talk that conservatives–often the same ones–also promulgate should not be so confusing once one understands that the former message is only aimed at and only really applies to the working class. The rich will continue to drink and smoke and fuck and do blow and have mistresses and father out-of-wedlock children and engage in all kinds of exotic homosexual acts and maybe even do “man-on-dog,” and Rick Santorum will never chastise them for any of it. In fact, the only reason the rest of society is being pressured by the top one percent to have stable, two parent families and not to have extramarital sex and not to enjoy any kind of sex for that matter and to spend our Sundays in church instead of, say, at the mall, is so that we may, by our sacrifice, by our abstinence, by our self-denial restore the economic conditions that permit that top one percent to resume both their literal and their metaphorical orgy.