Notes on the Economic Unconscious
In 2004 I helped start an unlikely organization: Billionaires for Bush. Dressed in tuxedos, top-hats, gowns, and tiaras, we took to the streets with slogans like "Blood for Oil," "Free the Enron 7," and "Corporations are People, Too." Through a combination of irony and infotainment, we hoped to enter the political fray and paint Bush as a handmaiden of the corporate elite. The media and our audiences ate it up. We grew to 100 chapters and became a celebrated part of the grass-roots effort (that eventually failed) to defeat George Bush.
But there was more to our success than funny slogans and well-packaged schtick. Whether we'd intended to or not, we'd tapped into something deeper -- you might call it the economic unconscious, or the mythic dimension of money --a contradictory complex of taboos and fantasy that we all have around money.
Extremes of wealth and poverty are an unspoken Other, maybe less celebrated in academic-chic circles as their gender, race, and noble savage cousins, but nonetheless conjuring up all sorts of unconscious projections: from exotic fascination, to dreams of limitless freedom, to bloody-minded justice.
We told ourselves that we were putting on our tuxes and hitting the streets because it was a creative and effective way to make the case to regular folks that their economic interests would not be served by another four years of tax cuts for the wealthy and no-bid contracts for Halliburton. But what we unconsciously dug down into to animate our characters and theatrical energies was a complex brew of guilt, envy, fascination, and class hatred.
For us mostly middle-class social-justice-minded Lefties, B4B provided a kind get out of jail free card, a moral license to let our id run wild over a number of ideological taboos. Under cover of irony and high-concept theatrics, we were free to class-bash the upper crust, instruct the (misguided) working class about their own economic self-interest, all the while indulging our own (largely unacknowledged) fantasies of being rich beyond imagining.
We weren't doing this in a vacuum, of course. Our culture as a whole fosters a schizophrenic relationship to money. We love it, and we also love to hate it. We want it, but we want to be free of it -- and somehow, if we just had enough of it, we think we could be. Meanwhile, those who have vast amounts (too much?) of it, we revile and revere in equal measure. Money is the epitome of bad faith, as well as the ultimate truth teller. Can you deliver? Show me the money. Why does the world work as it does? Follow the money. It reveals the hand of power.
And revealing the hand of power was exactly what we were trying to do. "It's a class war and we're winning," we proclaimed with glee. By inhabiting the voice of the corporate elite and cheekily celebrating their narrow self interests without the sugar coating of Bush's faux-populism, we aimed to drag their normally hidden agenda out into the open, and paint as much of an Us-vs-Them, the-Super-Wealthy-vs-the-Rest-Of-Us, picture as possible.
This picture was not always easy to paint. Economic inequality, though more extreme than anytime since 1929, remains largely invisible. Bill Gates looks just like any other white collar chump in khaki's and a polo. So we had to pull our characters and costumes from a broader repertoire of archetypes: top-hatted Gilded Age robber barons, Southern debutantes, Arabian Sheiks, Texas oil magnates, cigar-chomping CEOs, Thurston Howell IV, long-white-gloved uptown society ladies, etc. Not the face of modern wealth at all, rather an outlandish and over-the-top tableau reflecting the denizens of our economic unconscious or "wealth imaginary." Up against this, at events or in on-the-street interactions, our audience would find themselves in the role of the straight man -- a regular American middle class Joe Sixpack kind of straight man.
But not everyone played along. Though the recent financial meltdown has shifted these numbers a bit, Americans overwhelmingly identify up the economic ladder. In 2004, a full 20% thought they actually were among the richest 1% of income earners, while a further 19% thought they one day would be. When nearly 40% of Americans are identifying with the richest 1%, it makes it harder to paint the wealthy as Other. While we were trying our damnedest to say "The rich are not like us," much of our target audience was saying "The rich are us, or soon will be."
In some ways, money is the last taboo. You're more likely to talk to your buddies about your herpes sores than to share salary figures. In the public sphere, there's the great shame of America: how can such poverty live amidst such wealth? And the (literally) billion dollar question that no one wants to go near: do the wealthy have too much and what to do about it? And for all of us, there's the ever-repressed knowledge that money is a pure abstraction, a consensual hallucination hiding a profoundly arbitrary system of value -- and don't be the one to wake us up, because this teetering house of cards will all fall down. For all these reasons, great and small, our culture is uncomfortable talking honestly about money. Maybe what made B4B of such enduring interest, was how its strange mix of directness and indirectness provided a rich and relatively safe space to poke at an area of public life laced with taboo.
Sometimes, in fact, too safe... There was a moment at the Republican National Convention when we were all dressed-up, affecting our upper crust accents, drinking champagne as we shuttled from party to party in the back of a limo (which we'd hired to be more "authentically" in character), when I realized we'd become a kind of cult -- a fun and politically effective cult, but a cult, nonetheless -- an elite club of ironic faux-riche activists, that in some weird self-congratulatory way, was microcosmically mirroring the real elite club of super-wealthy planet-destroyers we were supposed to be taking down a notch. And so, a final note to all self-styled economic revolutionaries, even ironic ones: the repressed will always find a way to return, keep an eye out.
Photo by Erik R. Bishoff, courtesy of Creative Commons license.