Banks and credit companies are, strictly speaking, the direct source of their illusory “income.” But considered more abstractly, it is their bosses who are lending them money. Most households are net debtors, while only the very richest are net creditors. In an overall sense, in other words, the working classes are forever borrowing from their employers. Lending replaces decent wages, masking income disparities even while aggravating them through staggering interest rates.
—Kim Phillips-Fein “Chapters of Eleven”
The Baffler No. 11, 1998
Note: Since I began this blog by writing about golf, I originally wrote a short paragraph tying what follows to the FIFA scandal, on the perhaps-tenuous connection that the Clinton Foundation had accepted money from FIFA and Bill had been the chairman of the U.S. bid for the 2022 World Cup. But I think the piece works better without it.
“Why is it that women still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked recently in, of all places, Michigan. But the more natural question in the Wolverine State might seem to be the question a lot of economists are asking these days: “Why is everyone getting paid less?” Economists like Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, who says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928.” Or Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” But while it’s not difficult to imagine that Clinton asks the question she asks in a cynical fashion—in other words, to think that she is a kind of Manchurian candidate for Wall Street—it’s at least possible to think she asks it innocently. All Americans, says scholar Walter Benn Michaels, have been the victims of a “trick” over the last generation: the trick of responding to “economic inequality by insisting on the importance of … identity.” But how was the trick done?
The dominant pedagogy of the American university suggests one way: if it’s true that, as the professors say, reality is a function of the conceptual tools available, then maybe Hillary Clinton cannot see reality because she doesn’t have the necessary tools. As well she might not: in Clinton’s case, one might as well ask why a goldfish can’t see water. Raised in a wealthy Chicago suburb, on to Ivy League colleges; then the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas and the White House; followed by Westchester County, then back to D.C. It’s true of course that Clinton did write a college thesis about Saul Alinsky’s community organizing tactics, so she cannot possibly be unfamiliar with the question of economic inequality. But it’s also easy to see how economics is easily obscured in such places.
What’s perhaps stranger though is that economics, as a subject, should have become more obscure, not less, since Clinton left New Haven—and even if Clinton should have been wholly ignorant of the subject, that doesn’t explain how she could then become a national candidate for president of the party. Yet at about the same time that Clinton was at Yale, another young woman with bright academic credentials was living practically just down the road in Hartford, Connecticut—and the work she did has helped to ensure that, as Michaels says, “for the last 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities.” That doesn’t mean of course that the story I am going to tell explains everything about why Hillary asked the question she asked in Michigan, instead of the one she should have asked, but it is, I think, illustrative—by telling this one story in depth, it becomes possible to understand how what Michaels calls the “trick” was pulled.
“In 1969,” Jane Tompkins tells us in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” she “lived in the basement of a house on Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut, which had belonged to Isabella Beecher Hooker—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s half-sister.” Living where she did sent Tompkins off on an intellectual journey that eventually led to the essay “Sentimental Power”—an essay that took up the question of why, as Randall Fuller observed not long ago in the magazine Humanities, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by most literary professionals as a cultural embarrassment.” Her conclusion was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was squelched by a “male-dominated scholarly tradition that controls both the canon of American literature … and the critical perspective that interprets the canon for society.” To Tompkins, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “repressed” on the basis of “identity”: Stowe’s work was called “trash”—as the Times of London did at the time it was published—because it was written by a woman.
To make her argument, however, required Tompkins to make several moves that go some way towards explaining why Hillary Clinton asks the question she asks, rather than the one she should ask. Most significant is Tompkins’ argument against the view she ascribes to her opponents: that “sentimental novels written by women in the nineteenth century”—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—“were responsible for a series of cultural evils whose regrets still plague us,” among them the “rationalization of an unjust economic order.” Already, Tompkins is telling her readers that she is going to argue against those critics who used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to discuss the economy; already, we are not far from Hillary Clinton’s question.
Next, Tompkins takes her critical predecessors to task for ignoring the novel’s “enormous popular success”: it was, as Tompkins points out, the first novel to sell “over a million copies.” So part of her argument is not only the bigotry, but also the snobbishness of her opponents—an argument familiar enough to anyone who listens to right-wing talk radio. The distance from Tompkins’ argument to those who “argue” that quality is guaranteed by popularity, and vice versa—the old “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich” line—is about as far from the last letter in this sentence to its period. So Tompkins deprecates the idea that value can be independent of “success”—the idea that there can be slippage between an economic system and reality.
Yet perhaps the largest step Tompkins takes on the road to Hillary’s question simply concerns how she ascribes criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to sexism, or Stowe’s status as a woman—despite the fact that perhaps the best-known critical text on the novel, James Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” was not only written by a gay black man, but Baldwin’s based his criticism of Stowe’s novel on rules originally applied to a white male author: James Fenimore Cooper, the object of Mark Twain’s scathing 1895 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” That essay, with which Twain sought to bury Cooper, furnished the critical precepts Baldwin uses to attempt to bury Stowe.
Stowe’s work, Baldwin says, is “a very bad novel” for two reasons: first, it is full of “excessive and spurious emotion.” Secondly, the novel “is activated by what might be called a theological terror,” so that “the spirit that breathes in this book … is not different from that spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches.” Both of these reasons derive from principles propounded by Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
“Eschew surplusage” is number fourteen of Twain’s rules, so when Baldwin says Stowe’s writing is “excessive,” he is implicitly accusing Stowe of breaking this rule. Even Tompkins admits that Uncle Tom’s Cabin breaks this rule when she says that Stowe’s novel possesses “a needless proliferation of incident.” Then, number nine on Twain’s list is “that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone”—the rule that Baldwin invokes when he criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “theological terror.” When burning witches, after all, it is necessary to have a belief in miracles—i.e., the supernatural—and certainly Stowe, who not only famously claimed that “God wrote” her novel but also suffused her novel with supernatural events, believed in the supernatural. So, if Baldwin—who remember was both black and homosexual—is condemning Stowe on the basis of rules originally used against a white male writer, it’s difficult to see how Stowe is being unfairly singled out on the basis of her sex. But that is what Tompkins says.
I take such time on these points because ultimately Twain’s rules go back much further than Twain himself—and it’s ultimately these roots that are both Tompkin’s object and, I suspect, the reason why Hillary asks the question she asks instead of the one she should. Twain’s ninth rule, concerning miracles, is more or less a restatement of what philosophers call naturalism: the belief “that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And the roots of that idea trace back to the original version of Twain’s fourteenth rule (“Eschew surplusage.”): Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, gave one example of it when wrote that if “a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do by several.” (In a marvelous economy, in other words, Twain reduced Aquinas’ rule—sometimes known as “Occam’s Razor,” to two words.) So it’s possible to say that Baldwin’s criticisms of Stowe are actually the same criticism: that “excessive” writing leads to, or perhaps more worrisomely just is, a belief in the supernatural.
It’s this point that Tompkins ultimately wants to address—she calls Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity,” after all. Also, Tompkins doesn’t try to defend Stowe against Baldwin on the same grounds that two other critics tried to defend Cooper against Twain. In an essay named “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist argue that Twain doesn’t do justice to Cooper because he doesn’t take into account the different literary climate of Cooper’s time. While “Twain valued economy of style,” they write, “such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work.” They’re willing to allow, in other words, the merits of Twain’s rules—they’re just arguing that it isn’t fair to apply those rules to writers who could not have been aware of them. Tompkins however takes a different tack: she says that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “it is the spirit alone that is finally real.” According to Tompkins, the novel is not just unaware of naturalism: Uncle Tom’s Cabin actively rejects naturalism.
To Tompkins, Stowe’s anti-naturalism is somehow a virtue. Stowe’s rejection of naturalism leads her to recommend, Tompkins says, “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements but rather a change of heart … as the necessary precondition for sweeping social change.” To Stowe, attempts to “alter the anti-abolitionist majority in the Senate,” for instance, are absurdities: “Reality, in Stowe’s view, cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment.” Apparently, this is a point in Stowe’s favor.
Without naturalism and its corollaries—basic intellectual tools—it’s difficult to think a number of things: that all people are people, first of all. That is, members of a species that has had, more or less, the same cognitive abilities for at least the last 100,000 years or so, which implies that most people’s cognitive abilities aren’t much different than anyone else’s—nor are they much different from anyone in history’s. Which, one might say, is prerequisite to running a democratic state—as opposed to, say, a monarchy or aristocracy, in which one person is better than another by blood right. But if naturalism is dead, then the growth of “identity” politics is perhaps easy to understand: without the conceptual category of “human being” available, other categories have to be substituted.
Without grouping votes on some basis, how could they be gathered into large enough clumps to make a difference? Hillary Clinton must ask for votes on the basis of some commonality between voters large enough to ensure her election. Assuming that she does, in fact, wish to be elected, it’s enlightening to observe that Clinton is appealing for votes on the basis of the next largest category after “human being”—“woman,” the category of 51 percent of the population according to most figures. That alone might explain why Hillary Clinton should ask “Why are women paid less” rather than “Why is everyone paid less?”
Yet the effects of Tompkins’ argument, as I suspect will be drearily apparent to the reader by now, are readily observable in many more places than Hillary Clinton’s campaign in today’s world. Think of it this way: what else are contemporary phenomena like unpaid internships, “doing it for the exposure,” or just trying to live on a minimum wage or public assistance, but attempts to live without material substance—that is, attempts to live as a “spirit?” Or for that matter, what is credit card debt, which Kim Phillips-Fein was explaining in The Baffler so long ago as 1998 as what happened when “people began to borrow to make up for stagnant wages.” These are all matters in which what matters isn’t matter—i.e., the material—but the “spirit.”
In the same way, what else was the “long-time” Occupy Wall Street camper named “Ketchup” doing when she said, to Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones, that the “‘whole big desire for demands is something people want to use to co-opt us’” but, as Tompkins would put it, refusing to delineate “specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements?” That’s why Occupy, as Thomas Frank memorably wrote in his essay, “To the Precinct Station,” “seems to have had no intention of doing anything except building ‘communities’ in public spaces and inspiring mankind with its noble refusal to have leaders.” The values described by Tompkins’ essay are, specifically, anti-naturalist: Occupy Wall Street, and its many, many sympathizers, was an anti-naturalist—a religious—movement.
It may, to be sure, be little wonder that feminists like Tompkins should look to intellectual traditions explicitly opposed to the intellectual project of naturalism—most texts written by women have been written by religious women. So have most texts written by most people everywhere—to study a “minority” group virtually requires studying texts written by people who believed in a supernatural being. It’s wholly understandable, then, that anti-naturalism should have become the default mode of people who claim to be on the “left.” But while it’s understandable, it’s no way to, say, raise wages. Whatever Jane Tompkins says about her male literary opponents, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t free anybody. Abraham Lincoln—by all accounts an atheist—did.
Which is Hillary Clinton’s model?