The elaborate self?

by Carl Dyke

I’m butterfly-reading in the flu-encrusted post-semester haze, a little of this and a little of that, currently including a discussion of Hayek on the welfare state at Crooked Timber and more of Jim Livingstone’s provocation Against Thrift.

It strikes me that one of the more important current miscommunications concerns the origin of human personhood (and no, I’m not going to drag out Taylor’s massive tome to do this right). Some folks think you’re born with it; other folks think you earn it through a process of elaboration. The latter is the more ‘traditional’ notion, consistent in distinct but overlapping ways with the heroic origin-myths of noble orders, Protestant self-discipline, body-mutilating rites of passage and kicking lazy teenagers out of the house.

Or you can get your teenager/’welfare queen’ a primo data plan and feed it snacks while it facebooks and plays x-box. One nutshell of the current U.S. kulturkampf is the people who think personhood has to be earned worrying that they’ll end up doing all the work for everyone, that a shrinking minority of worker ant selves will be yoked to the lazy pseudo-selfhood of the grasshopper masses. This was clearly Hayek’s fear, and Ayn Rand’s.

Well, who can argue with the virtuous earning of important things? The cool move Jim Livingstone makes is to argue that this is now a false issue, because the modern economy has for at least a century made work, labor, elaboration an optional rather than essential human activity, and therefore an optional rather than essential foundation for human personhood. He asks us to think about a self that is more a matter of taste than necessity, and to consider consumer society as a kind of symbolic utopia, totemism unbound.

6 Comments to “The elaborate self?”

  1. Last night in my Kansas City hotel room I watched a documentary TV program about attempts to control methamphetamine use in the US. Rehab programs that focus on individual users seem singularly ineffective. What works best is controlling supply: reducing the meth cooks’ access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the only ingredients in meth that aren’t readily available in bulk. Now that wholesale supplies have been pinched off by the manufacturers, the main source of this essential drug is Sudafed, the cold remedy. Various means have been implemented to limit purchases of this pharmaceutical product: limiting sales to 3 boxes per customer, having buyers register by name, and, in OR and MS, making it available by prescription only. These methods have proven extremely effective in cutting meth sales, addiction rates, and rates of meth-related crime like theft. The biggest resistance, not surprisingly, comes from the manufacturer/distributor of Sudafed — Pfizer, which sold the product line to Johnson & Johnson in 2006. Their argument: head-cold sufferers have the right to a product that controls their symptoms, requiring a prescription imposes unnecessary time and money burdens on access to a product deemed safe by the DEA, reducing meth use should focus on influencing individual choice rather than forcibly imposing nanny-state prohibitions on supply. Estimated annual sales of Sudafed in the US = $100 million. Estimated annual societal cost of meth in the US (per Rand) = $23 billion.

    I suppose meth is like God’s punishment meted out against Livingstone’s live-it-up consumers. Evidently one hit of ultrapure meth blows out your brain’s dopamine production and neural uptake so completely that it can take thirty years to recover from the chronic grey-scale anhedonic funk.

  2. This is an interesting connection, especially since I’ve been watching “Breaking Bad” recently. I don’t take Livingstone to be a vulgar hedonist, any more than Marx was. And as Jim notes, Marx also saw a horizon to the work imperative. The goal is the usual one: responsible self-fashioning. What I take Jim to be arguing is that consumer culture actually offers unprecedented resources for this, and a new model that’s scary to us precisely because we’re still cognitively enslaved to the old work/sacrifice model of grim Bildung.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read Against Thrift. After reading his exchange with Barker, I’m definitely picking it up. He’s got a really good point, which I think Barker is missing. We have power as consumers that we will never have as workers.

    My definition of personhood is so incredibly tied to work. Sure, I’ve got tons of interests and ideas, but the *necessity* is making sure I provide for my kids. In a world with minimum guaranteed income, my x-box would be a university, my snacks would be learning to weld and making microprocessor-controlled kinetic water sculptures, and my meth would be finishing my god-damned novel.

  4. The bit of ironic moralizing about meth at the end of my comment was secondary to the Hayekian issue of restraining individual freedom to open up their sinuses, to enjoy a powerful recreational stimulant, to quit using said stimulant. Addiction could be defined as anti-Hayek: a biochemically-induced restriction on one’s individual freedom not to use.

    I agree completely that austerity is no more a solution at the personal level than at the societal level. If workers owned the means of production, then automation and other labor-saving innovations would have shortened the work week, increasing workers’ leisure and ability to enjoy what they make. Of course that’s not what happens: automation is an efficiency-enhancing measure that corporations use to reduce payroll while increasing profits. What the US public faces now is a reduced ability to pay without concomitant reduction in prices. Home borrowing offset the gap for awhile until that bubble burst. In a Keynesian system the government spends money in order to hire government workers during private-sector slowdowns. But now more than a million of those public workers have been let go during Obama’s tenure, while corporate profits are at record highs and jobs/pay continue to dwindle.

    Paying off the government debt is a non-issue, since any interest that the Treasury pays to the Fed is paid back into the US government. I say fire all of those private-sector government contractors and start up public-works programs. Either that or turn all corporate entities into anarcho-syndicalist, worker-owned, non-profit entities in which the big dogs can get paid only so much more than the little dogs. Then let the good times roll. Maybe that’s what Livinstone says too; I’ve not read his book.

  5. I thoroughly enjoy Breaking Bad, a pleasure that is enhanced just a bit by habitually and repeatedly bypassing the network’s intellectual property constraints.

  6. I say institute the Minimum Guaranteed Income, and watch the corporate people’s jaws drop when the surge hits them and they realize how much better it is when people aren’t just spending borrowed money.

    Maybe we just need to find a way to pit the corporate people against the financial people.

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