Once upon a time at The Baffler, Thomas Frank explained the backwardness of American politics by reference to the false consciousness of the benighted masses out there in Kansas and elsewhere. You remember them, they were repeatedly hoodwinked into voting against their own working-class interests—which Tom of course knew better than they themselves did because he went to the University of Chicago—by conservative rascals who made social issues like abortion the regulative principles of political discourse. Like Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Alan Brinkley, and dozens of other intellectuals mystified by identity politics and the success of conservative ideologues, Old Tom was also upset by liberals who wouldn’t reinvent the New Deal and talk about economic issues. But mainly, he blamed the victims of ideological manipulation.
Steve Almond, bless his beautiful soul, cast a wider net last year in the resurrected Baffler. He explained the backwardness of American politics by reference to the false consciousness of y’all—everybody entertained by the anchors of Comedy Central, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. You remember this earnest piece. Almond accused these two of violating the sacred principles of political humor, of validating the corporate agenda of the parent company, of downright cowardice, and in the process he made all their viewers—that would be most of us—eager co-conspirators.
Where once we could blame the benighted masses, we could now indict ourselves! That’s what I call progress.
And now David Graeber, the esteemed author of Debt (where the endless argument finally boils down to capitalism = debt = war), adds new weight to this intellectual momentum. In the current issue of The Baffler, he writes something so confused that I hesitate to call it an essay or even a blog post. It doesn’t matter, I guess, because Graeber goes Almond one better. We’re all stupid, he announces, because we all believe our fellow citizens are stupid.
Magic is crucial to the argument, if what he writes deserves the dignity of this designation. In the first paragraph, he notes that the US economy has been driven for thirty years by “the magical creation of wealth through financial securities and derivatives.” In the second, he declares that “we understand that this kind of magic is everywhere.” In the third and fourth paragraphs, he departs for Madagascar and his encounter with a magician named Rokoto at the foot of a sacred mountain, where his female friend declines an offer of a love potion.
“What would a theory of America look like that featured stories like this one?” Graeber then asks. Good question, I suppose, if you’re an anthropologist embittered by the absence of protest against the powers that be. Here’s the answer:
“It would start by calling out our telltale assumptions that all political systems must possess some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of those over whom they rule. It would then note that our own system attains its legitimacy by asserting a series of simple belief statements, such as ‘America is a democracy,’ ‘We are all equal before the law,’ and ‘In a free market everyone is rewarded according to his or her merits.’ Next, the theorist would observe how our politics, conducted in this fairy tale universe, is largely a matter of trying to convince everyone to believe that these statement are true.”
The third sentence in this paragraph can’t be true if the second sentence is. But that egregious idiocy aside, what happened to the magician? What happened to a theory of America that included him? Here’s a clue from Debt: “There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun.” Translation: “modern money is based on government debt, and governments borrow money in order to finance wars.” (p. 364)
And it seems everybody already knows this about the bankers, our magicians. For Graeber goes on to explain:
“But as anyone who has spent time at working-class bars or diners or picnics can testify, almost no one in America really believes ‘We are all equal before the law’ or ‘America is a democracy.’ Instead, the controlling assumption is this: most Americans are utterly convinced most other Americans believe such things. Most Americans, that is, think most other Americans are profoundly stupid.”
Let me get this straight. Most Americans don’t believe the magicians, but, like anthropologists in the field, they assume that somebody must believe the potions the magicians peddle. Doesn’t that suggest a certain ideological sophistication rather than the nihilistic “hucksterism” Graeber attributes to the benighted masses?
No, not according to the anthropologist. We’re all not merely complicit in this “fairy tale universe,” as Almond would have it, we’re too stupid to know how stupid we are.