Friday, August 19, 2005

Taxonomy of Subjection

About ten years ago, Dion Dennis published an essay in my old journal online, UnderCurrent. The essay is a critical reading of the 1992 film Falling Down about the decline and fall of a displaced military defense engineer in the post-Cold War era, and significantly set in Los Angeles, postmod capital city of the 3rd World. While ten years is about a century in Internet historicity, you can still find his essay here:

Today Dion Dennis is back with another essay online, again a timely analysis of the present. A lot has changed in the past decade! His new essay appears online in CTHEORY and is titled: The Christo-Terminator: The Unsustainable Present, the Nostalgic Glance Back as Prequels to the New American Legitimation Principle .

What should interest us greatly here today is the excerpt below from the middle of Dennis's analysis:

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

In the midst of the last major legitimacy crisis (for the U.S.) that was triggered by the onset of dire economic circumstances (the Great Depression), a young Robert K. Merton tendered a theory (and a taxonomy) of anomie tied to that American context. For Merton, anomie was a macro-structural effect which emerged from a rupture between culturally prescribed ends and the conventional means for attaining these ends. At the heart of Merton's 1930s Depression-era analysis was the gap between the dominant cultural goal (of upward economic and social mobility that has been the American Dream, with its emphases on material success and social status) and the availability of conventional means for achieving this goal in 1930s America. Formulating a mid-level structural-functionalist theoretical analysis of deviance, Merton posited that when the public demand to fulfill the American Dream was greater than the legitimate means available (through jobs or education), people re-orient themselves vis-à-vie the means, the goal, or both. In his general typology of how individuals and social groups respond to culturally defined means and ends, Merton offered up five possible adaptations. Commonly taught in introductory college and university sociology courses, the table (below) summarizes Merton's oft-cited (and taught) taxonomy:

Table One: Mid-20th Century Progressive Capitalism's Mertonian Taxonomy

  Adaptive ResponseEnds

(+) (-) (±)


(+) (-) (±)

  1. Conformity++Practitioners of the Protestant Ethic: College students enrolled at inexpensive institutions, thrifty savers those who practice deferred gratification of desires, etc.
  2. Innovators+-White Collar Criminals
  3. Ritualism-+Formalistic bureaucrats, OCD sufferers
  4. Retreatism--Drug addicts, alcoholics, hermits, etc.
  5. Rebellion±±Social and Political Revolutionaries

In the table, (+) symbolizes acceptance, (-) symbolizes rejection, and ( ±) rejection and substitution of new ends and/or means.

For the next two generations, this model had considerable suasive power. Facing internal threats to legitimacy in the 1930s, and the real and imagined threats of the Soviet Union and China during the height of the Cold War, U.S. domestic economic policy, from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s, favored the growth and maintenance of the middle class, as a bulwark against domestic destabilization and as an ideological lynchpin of post WWII anticommunism. For these reasons and others, mid-20th Century progressive capitalism fortified the creation of conformist stakeholders in the American Dream, even while generating all five types of Mertonian responses to social and economic conditions.

From the early 1980s on, the major components of this configuration dissolved. As Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren has noted,

There was a fundamental change in the early 1980s, and the fundamental change was that we switched over to letting all of those little boats go it alone. And the focus moves to the two ends of the spectrum. We all thought the middle class was strong enough to take care of itself.

Neo-liberalism and its political agenda took root precisely as an avalanche of structural changes and economic events reconfigured the social, cultural, financial and fiscal makeup of the U.S. and much of the rest of the globe. In the U.S., some manifestations of these recursive changes are as follows: Wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing and white collar jobs; the rapid and discontinuous effects of the information revolution; multiple rounds of massive tax cuts for the meta-wealthy, the aftermath of the tech-stock speculative bubble of the late 1990s, the current real estate bubble of the 2000s, the obese tumescence of consumer credit card and fiscal debt, and the still-to-come tragic consequences of irresponsible domestic and international political decisions promulgated on a portable mélange of lies, self-deception, cowardice and a lust for short-term gain. Arguably, the current operative political and economic "game plan" mimics a political ideology (and class stratification schema) exhumed from the zenith of the Gilded Age, the McKinley Presidency.

The result of this amalgam of policies, practices, and ideology has been a "creative destruction" that has gutted the long-term constitutive ground for a reinvention of the American middle class during the first part of the 21st Century. James Fallows is right. Since the late 1980s, the U.S. has abandoned any substantive commitment to savings, investment, education and innovation, in maintenance of an unstable and materially voracious status quo. In that sense, the traditional notion of the Protestant ethic, with its historically defined ethos of deferred gratification, is on Schiavo-like life-support. Structurally, it has been replaced by a short-term arrangement whereby the U.S. gobbles up, on a daily basis, more than four-fifths of the world's available savings/lending capital. With a debt level accelerating toward six trillion dollars, the current frenzy is an unsustainable level of consumption, as the U.S. has become the globe's only net consumer nation. The baby-boom generation has already bequeathed a long-term fiscal, financial and political indebtedness that will consume the prospects of subsequent generations.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~
{essay continues at link above]


Post a Comment

<< Home