Bodies Economic | Annie McClanahan | Narratives of Debt


ANNIE MCCLANAHAN:
Thank you so much. I sort of tend to be somewhat
on Graeber’s side in terms of not describing social
and personal obligations in the language of debt. So I’ll just say that I’m
deeply grateful to Peter and to Emanuel for
inviting me, and also for the staff, [INAUDIBLE] and
the rest of the staff, who were so helpful in organizing this. Thank you so much. I also begin with
an apology, which is that this talk is not exactly
on debt in a very direct way. And it’s also not at all
about culture per se. I’m feeling some amount
of regret about that now. But this is sort of a
part of a side project that I got interested
in a couple of years ago on stagnation and
stagnation theory. And I’ll sort of
explain what that is. So I think it has
relevance, but the relevance may be tangential. A specter is haunting
mainstream economics– the specter of
economic stagnation. In 2013, the American economist
and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers gave
a speech at the IMF, in which he began by
congratulating his colleagues on their, quote, “great
achievement of resolving the financial crisis of 2008.” And yet in the four years
since the end of the recession, he went on to observe
neither unemployment nor GDP had improved. There’s something
odd, he mused, about this continued slow growth. In light of this, he went
on to argue, perhaps, quote, “a set of older ideas
that went under the phrase secular stagnation.” Ideas which he
acknowledged had been, quote, “firmly rejected” in his
own economics courses at MIT were relevant again. Despite Summers’s
relatively phlegmatic tone of curiosity about
this something odd, his prediction caused
economists and observers to pretty much freak out. The Economist, Wall Street
Journal, and Time all covered secular stagnation,
while Ben Bernanke debated it with Summers. And Paul Krugman grumped
that he had been saying the same thing for a long time. In 2015 alone– I should
also say that actually these headlines– at least two or three
of these headlines are from the last
year and a half. So this debate has
continued well past 2013. Sorry, I lost my place. In 2015 alone, three major
works of economic theory agreed with Summers. Robert Gordon’s The Rise
and Fall of American Growth argued that the US
economy was in a period of permanent stasis. Finance expert [INAUDIBLE]
claimed that, quote, “The central illusion
of the age of capital endless economic
growth is ending.” And economist Mohamed
El-Erian rejected his own 2009 prediction of restored growth
and forecasted, instead, total global stagnation. Summers himself has not only
continued to make the argument, but in fact made it even more
forcefully in the six years since. In this talk, then,
I want to consider a few of the all too few moments
in bourgeois economic thought when the conventional belief in
capitalism’s limitless growth faltered. I want to note that both prior
to and alongside neoclassical and developmentalist theories
of perpetual improvement and expansion, there are
alternative predictions of economic innovation
and decline. Indeed, I want to suggest
that rather than reading these grimmer predictions
as marginal cases or superseded moments
of heterodoxy, we might even read them
as a crucial, if hidden, undercurrent in the history
of economic thought. Stagnation theory,
I will suggest, illuminates the tension between
the two accounts of crisis bequeathed by Marx to
the heterodox tradition. One of cyclical crisis,
which regularly, quote, tosses up big storms
on the world market, but eventually resolves itself. The other of terminal crisis– the long term
tendency of capital to exhaust and expel the
very resources it requires. These two offer foundationally
distinct dramatizations– the temporary blowout
on the one hand, the permanent
impasse on the other. This distinction– is the
crisis punctual or permanent– accounts for no small amount
of contradictory appearance within bourgeois
economics and also in the more radical
forms of thought that likewise try to apprehend
the present conjuncture. Mainstream secular
stagnation theory resolves this
paradox by imagining a kind of zombie capitalism– a slow or no growth economy that
somehow neither falls nor is replaced, but simply continues
limping forward in perpetuity. A capitalism whose
slow innovation might not end in violence– an argument that seems frankly
less and less persuasive today. Yet I want to suggest that
the figure of stagnation might also offer us some
insight into the experience of the present. The experience, that is, of
a capitalism gone spongy, saturated with too much
capacity, and too many goods, and too many unemployed, with
no ability to move and nowhere to go, but still
persistently, sluggishly slouching toward some
far off Bethlehem, going out more
whimper than bang. The practice of
ruthless critique has long been associated
with the liquefication, or the unfixing, of what
is rigid or reified. All that is solid
melts into air. Yet capitalism and
stagnation seems to require us to re-solidify,
to think in terms of stall, immobility, stasis. In this talk, then, I
offer a very abbreviated intellectual history
of stagnation theory, attending in particular
to its naturalization of economic limit. I then take up the two
sides of stagnation theory’s demographic coin– its anxiety about birth rates,
one that goes all the way back to Malthus, and its
much more recent concern about mortality and morbidity. The barren, exhausted,
overworked body, I suggest, functions
in stagnation theory both as empirical cause– because the theory names
underpopulation as the origin of economic slowdown– and as a rhetorical figure. In the end of this talk, I
turn to a different figure of reproductive
exhaustion to think about the language
and the politics of generational immobility. So where did this older idea
Summers evokes come from? It comes most directly
from Alvin Hansen, a student of Keynes who
first used the phrase secular stagnation in a 1938
address entitled Economic Progress and
Declining Population Growth. For Hansen, then,
secular stagnation– and I should mention
here that secular– this may be obvious, but people
have asked, so I’ll explain it. Secular here means the
opposite of cyclical, not the opposite of theological. So for Hansen, then,
secular stagnation described a condition
of low growth that was more than just a
business cycle downturn, but was instead an intractable
long lasting feature of the global economy, which
he believed tended inevitably towards permanent low growth
and high unemployment. Hansen was also
bearish on the degree to which fiscal policy
alone could drive a slowing economy ever forward. And, like Summers
after him, believed that the power of
technological innovation to drive economic profitability
was both naturally limited and historically waning. And in a way, this thesis
about technological growth is kind of the most
interesting and most persuasive thing about his argument. I don’t talk about it much
today, but it is interesting. And we could talk
about it in the Q&A. Of course, this idea of slowdown
wasn’t new to 1939 either. The prediction that
economies inevitably tended to fall into stasis,
or at least were always in danger of doing so, was
quite common to much of 18th and early 19th century
classical political economy. We are most likely familiar
with the ideas articulated by Thomas Malthus, whose
dismal science held that economic history
tended toward decline. But Adam Smith, JS
Mill, and others also saw the low growth,
quote, “stationary state”– that’s the term that’s
used most frequently in the 18th and 19th century– as the inevitable end point
of economic development. For Smith, the economy was
both national and natural. And the national container
could only hold so much. Once the nation was,
quote, “fully stocked with natural
resources” and, quote, “fully peopled with
workers,” its economy could grow no further. Yet classical political
economies theory of economic finitude
was itself not long for this world, done in by the
pyrotechnic growth of the world economy that happened
in the latter half of the 19th century. Sometimes I think I could
just give an entire talk just about this one slide. Smith’s and Malthus’s belief
that economic growth was limited because land
was limited made sense in the organic economy of the
pre-industrial period, in which productive capacity depended
on how much energy one could command, but less sense in the
wake of the massive expansion of technological productivity
of the early 19th century. So basically, this theory
of economic finitude as a sort of natural
state gets undone by what happens with the
Industrial Revolution, both in terms of the exponential
growth of profitability, but also just because of the
way that a certain understanding of the machines and of energy
sort of transforms people’s understanding of what is
natural in the first place. In the wake of the
Great Depression, however, Hansen could develop
a very different perspective on the inevitability
of capitalist progress and have much less faith in the
exponentially transformative energy of capitalism. The opening of his
1939 essay thus makes obvious the connection
between a certain account of constantly
advancing, constantly changing capitalist expansion
and a certain account of historical
consciousness as such. “Throughout the modern era,
Hansen writes, ceaseless change has been the law
of economic life. Every period is, in some
sense, a period of transition. The swift stream of
events in the last century offers, however,
overwhelming testimony in support of the thesis
that the economic order of the Western world is
undergoing in this generation a profound structural change. We are passing, so to speak,
over a divide which separates the great era of growth and
expansion of the 19th century from an era which no
man, unwilling to embark on pure conjecture,
can as yet characterize with clarity or precision. We are moving swiftly
out of the order in which those of our
generation were brought up into no one knows what.” In the wake of the
various revolutions of the 18th and 19th
centuries, Marx and Engels could discern, quote, “constant
revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance
of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty
and agitation.” For Hansen, by
contrast, the profound and as yet unreckoned structural
change that defines his present is the end of the kinds of
change that defined the past. What threatens capitalism,
he suggests, is not explosion or disintegration,
but stagnant growthlessness and non-development. Or, as Summers later
put it, revising Keynes, if you die in the short
run, there is no long run. Mainstream economists,
especially mainstream economists who currently work
as consultants for hedge funds, like Summers, are
not exactly where we might think to
turn for a ruthless critique of present conditions. Yet it is nonetheless remarkable
that mainstream economists are talking about economic
slowdown in the first place. As a friend of mine
once said, during times of economic crisis, people turn
to Marx like they turn to gold. Likewise, the
mainstreaming of ideas once pretty firmly rejected,
to use Summers drastically understated phrasing,
suggests that a specter haunts not just the economy,
but economics as well. Theories of secular
stagnation rebut basic axioms of neoclassical
thought, including Say’s law and [INAUDIBLE]
in general equilibrium theory, both of which assert
that supply always creates a demand adequate to exhausted. For Smith, Hansen, and
Summers, by contrast, during periods of
stagnation, lack of demand creates lack of supply. Thus, the eventual
equilibrium reached when the economy’s supply
potential decreases is a stagnant economy with
what Hansen calls, quote, “weak and anemic growth.” We ought to pause, however, on
that language of the anemic. Stagnation theory
has long tended to deploy figures of nature
and especially of the body. Although Hansen’s argument
is addressed to 20th century Keynesianism, his
language, specifically these images of flood
and blood, situates him within what Catherine
Gallagher has termed the bioeconomics
of 18th century classical political economy. Images of natural
liquidity pervade classical political
economy, as in Smith’s idea that nations can
be, quote, “filled to the brim with
natural resources” or JS Mills’s description of
the no-growth economy as the, quote, “stagnant sea at which
all economic journeys end.” Inspired by new
anatomical science, like William Harvey’s– oops. Sorry, there’s that one. So here you see
the way that he’s using the language of tides,
and accretion, and floods. And inspired by new
anatomical science, like William Harvey’s
mid-17th century treatise, On the Motion of
the Heart and Blood, classical political economy
also uses metaphors of liquidity to represent money as
the vital lifeblood of the economic
community, imagining the circulation of currency
as a circulation of blood through the vessels
and the heart. For Hansen, similarly,
in periods of growth, change is a swift stream. In periods of
stagnation, by contrast, growth slows to a
sedimentary accretion. And a stalled economy
becomes a weakly anemic body. Stagnation is thus
metaphorized as the, quote, “unwholesome stillness
of water or blood.” One likely explanation
for Hansen’s use of these organic metaphors,
especially those of the body, is his emphasis on
population growth. Like the language of
natural illiquidity, emphasis on demography
recurs throughout the history of stagnation theory, reaching
at least as far back as Smith, who believed that once a nation
was fully peopled relative to its natural endowments, wage
growth would slow to a crawl, and continuing most
famously in Malthus, but remaining surprisingly
persistent in 20th and even 21st century economics. For Hansen, the declining
birth rates of the 1930s were, quote, “overwhelmingly
significant” as a cause of economic depression. Mature economies,
he argues, will experience chronic
unemployment, unless revitalized either by
technological innovation or by population growth,
and ideally, by both. For Summers, too, declining US
and European population growth means a declining natural
rate of interest and declining demand for capital goods
to equip new workers. Stagnation theory’s particular
use of demographic theory connects it to a long history
of racialized, nationalist, gendered, and heteronormativity
anxieties about the birthrate. We find this in Malthus’s
fears about the status of family bonds among the
over reproductive poor and in Smith’s orientalist
belief that the Chinese, which he uses as the
sort of classic example of the stationary
state for Smith is China, that the Chinese
regularly, quote, “drowned their children like puppies.” Likewise, Keynes, authorized
in part by Hansen’s work, feared that the legalization
of birth control advice and the decline of
traditional patriarchal family arrangements would aid
in economic stagnation. And as he helped create
the post-war welfare state, came to support both gendered
and racialized limits on the formerly radical promise
of income redistribution. Mainstream contemporary scholars
of stagnation, like Summers, in turn, have connected the
rise of joblessness to a more general, quote, “flight
from the family,” which in turn is held
accountable for the decline in the American birthrate,
producing a heady ideological brew Melinda Cooper
terms pro-natalism– a moralizing, conservative,
reproductive ideology, which blames the
contraceptive pill, declines in, quote,
“traditional families,” and cultural feminism as
causes for economic slowdown. Here, too, we can see
the influence of Hansen, for whom the economy
is not just a body economic, prone to an inevitable
cycle of, quote, “growth, maturity, and
decline” and doomed to reach a point where it
has, quote, “spent its force,” but more specifically, a
reproductive body economic. Over and over, Hansen’s
empirical concern with demographics shows
up in figurative language of barren bodies and
stillborn children. Recall that stagnation is a,
quote, “sick recovery,” which dies in infancy. Against fantasies of endless
autochthonous growth, we might note in particular
a remarkably optimistic essay by Hansen’s own mentor, Keynes,
titled Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren,
which claimed in 1930– which is pretty crazy– that the power of
so-called accumulation by compound interest had
recently been, quote, “reborn.” Against this fantasy of endless
growth, Hansen asserts, quote, “a vigorous recovery is
not just spontaneously born from the womb of the
preceding depression.” Melinda Cooper is right
to connect Hansen’s work to demographic
economics pro-natalism, but I want to suggest,
too, that we might also read the language of stillborn
reproduction against its grain, understanding it as a
crystalline expression of what feminist political
economist Silvia Federici has termed a, quote,
“permanent reproductive crisis.” Capitalism can no longer
guarantee the reproduction of the livelihood, and
ultimately, the life of the worker herself, producing
a crisis in the production of the commodity labor power. In the US, the
investment in labor has taken the form of both
wage stagnation and rising underemployment. Given the simultaneous
rising price of basic necessities,
like health care, housing, and education, households
turn to credit for mortgages and credit cards
to student loans, and even more dramatically
exploitative forms of debt, like payday loans. In the decades since the crisis,
almost 95% of the new jobs added have been temporary,
part-time, or contract work. Student and household
debt continues to climb, and today’s young people are the
first downwardly mobile cohort in US history, the
first generation who will likely have a
lower standard of living than their parents. Put simply, reading reproductive
anxiety this way turns us away both from the pro-natalist
notion of a moral crisis in the family, understood as
a religious and moral form, and from the nationalist
use of the family as metaphor for
the ethnic state, and moves instead toward a
more radical understanding of a material crisis
in the household, understood as a purely
economic category. Yet there is another side of
demographic anxiety, too– not just birth, but also death. Declining birth rates is but one
marker of demographic decline. Rising mortality is another. In Hansen’s epic, the
role of life expectancy and demographic change
was not much of a concern. As a result of developments
in preventative and curative medicine, improvements
in standard of living, and a growing system
of state welfare, life expectancy and
standard of living steadily improved throughout
the 20th century. Yet this is no
longer true today. For the first time, US mortality
rates are no longer improving. 2017 was the third straight year
of declining life expectancy and a rising death rate– the first such three-year
period of decline in a century. Contemporary theorists
of economic stagnation are as worried
about this as they are about falling birth rates. Robert Gordon, for
instance, notes that the improvement in
life expectancy in the US has been slower than
that of other countries and explains that the declines
are worst within the lowest income quintile. As Gordon’s analysis suggests,
anxiety about life expectancy does not operate in quite the
same register as pro-natalism. It is more
emphatically concerned with directly
economic indicators like wage growth, labor
force participation, and economic opportunity. Rather than evoking fantasies
of familial reproductivity and figures of
temporal futurity, it instead depends on a fetish
of economic productivity and figures of spatial mobility. That is, mobility that
is literally spatial, as in moving out of an
economically depressed region, and mobility that is
figuratively spatial, as in moving up from poverty. It also tends to
address anxieties around collective entities,
like classes, races, or regions, rather than individual families. Yet mainstream discourse about
rising mortality and morbidity has proved no less culturally
conservative and politically revanchist than discourse
about falling birthrates. Arguably, indeed, it
may be even more so. As one example, consider
the much discussed research of economists Angus
Deaton and Anne Case. In a series of well
publicized papers written for the centrist think tank,
the Brookings Institute, Deaton and Case argue that whereas
mortality rates have fallen among black and
Hispanic Americans, they have risen for whites
without a college degree. They also note rising
morbidity rates, deteriorations in self-reported mental
health, and rising reports of chronic pain
among this group. Noting this disparity
among trends in mortality and morbidity
across racial groups, Deaton and Case suggest that
the post Civil Rights era reduction in the black,
white wage gap, quote, “gave an enduring sense of
hope to African-Americans,” whereas for working
class whites, a, quote, “failure to meet early
expectations” has produced, quote, “a Durkheim-like
recipe for suicide.” Not surprisingly, these
findings made a splash in the wake of Trump’s
election, producing headlines like, Why the White Middle
Class is Dying Faster, Explained in Six
Charts, or, quote, “Deaths of Despair
Fuel Trump’s Victory.” I’ll just show you
a couple of these because the images
of these are crazy. I mean, I just kind of want
to write about the images. So we can notice, for instance,
that the figuration is always of men, and then also this image
of the sort of dying flower as part of this sort of way
that this is always connected to a kind of natural imaginary. OK, so producing
headlines like these, and buttressing
think piece claims of the white working class
had been left behind, and that that’s the explanation
for Trump’s victory. This has happened not
only on the right, but also on the left. According to leftist opiners,
like Mark Lilla and Adolph Reed, for instance, the plight
of the working class has been ignored because of an
overweening attachment to what Lilla terms identity liberalism
or what Reed describes as leftist excessive commitment
to so-called vertical inequality– inequality between
groups, as opposed to horizontal inequality. Such claims appear
to be confirmed by Deaton and Case’s argument
that although outcomes for nonwhites are improving
supposedly because we’ve paid attention to the
struggles of nonwhites, outcomes for working class
whites are deteriorating, and no one seems to care. In fact, of course,
Deaton and Case’s data confirms something
far less attention grabbing than the promotion
of their work suggests. Black Americans still have
significantly higher fatality rates than white Americans. That is, even though non-white
mortality is improving, while white working class
mortality is declining, these are trends,
not absolute numbers. Similarly, that Deaton
and Case argument about wage gains for
African-Americans in the wake of the
civil rights movement, there were wage gains, but there
was still a wage gap, right? So you have a sort of confusion
between absolute numbers and trend lines. I don’t think it’s a confusion. I don’t think it was an
intellectual confusion. I think it was an
intentional misreading. Blah blah blah. These are trend lines,
not absolute numbers. Black life expectancy
is still four years below white life expectancy. Moreover, arguably the
best case for thinking about a potentially urgent,
although here misused, category like diseases of despair– that’s Deaton and Case’s term– forms of bodily
suffering that are at once psychic
and physiological, individual and
collective, historical and uniquely
contemporary shows up in recent scholarship on
black mortality and racism. Such scholarship has
suggested that the differences between white and
black mortality are not fully explained
by the indirect effects of racial segregation, but
must be read as symptoms of racism itself in the
significantly elevated stress levels experienced by those who
encounter racial discrimination on a daily basis, or even
that the health consequences of racial discrimination are
transmitted transgenerationally through the body’s biological
memory of harmful experiences. So there’s just really
interesting work right now coming out about epigenetics
and the effects of racism. Moreover, contrary to
Deaton and Case and Lilla and Reed’s fantasies of
an either, or economy of attention, crises of
mortality and morbidity actually illuminate
the intersections of race and class,
especially as those relations determine the way bodies
are valued and cared for relative to each other. The differential
valuing of certain lives via racist and
nationalist denigration is an effective means to drive
down wages for all workers, producing a ready made
hierarchy of disposability for further disciplining labor. The capital flight outsourcing
and hyper exploitation that are often part of capital’s
desperate search for renewed profitability in a
period of stagnation all depend on the ability to
thusly render whole populations or regions surplus. Racialization is the
most potent form taken by this logic of disposability. Thus in conservative
demographic discourse, even the so-called
white rural poor are represented as an
underclass, an underdeveloped colony, and a source of
unproductive waste, especially those who live in
the extractive zones where the opioid crisis has
had particularly devastating effects on life expectancy. The region of
Appalachia has long been associated with
stagnation of both the metaphorical and
environmental sort, and backwardness
precisely because it lacked in the statistical
measures of progress that mid-20th century
America had generated to measure material and
cultural advancement– education, literacy,
technological development, and mostly, life expectancy. National Review correspondent
Kevin Williamson, for instance, has made a name for himself
writing about the, quote, “bleak prospects” facing
the rural poor in places like Eastern Kentucky. Like Deaton and Case
and Gordon and Summers, Williamson emphasizes regional
disparity in mortality rates. Quote, “The truth about
these dysfunctional downscale communities is that
they deserve to die. Economically, they
are negative assets.” Williamson’s writing indicates
the most vile and violent version of the analogy
between land, the body, and cultural progress. In Williamson, as in
Smith and Malthus, descriptions of
land and landscape render economic stagnation
natural, and thus ahistorical and apolitical. Williamson describes
Appalachian culture as, quote, “a compound stagnation,” a
socioeconomic salt in sea that becomes more
toxic every year, imagining economic decline
as stagnant, unhealthy water in a way that would
have fit right in with Smith’s bio-economics. Contrary to Williamson’s
representation of Appalachian immobility as the
cause, rather than the symptom of economic
stagnation, of course, the possibility that a surplus
population of wage-less life might effectively dispose
of itself by dying young doesn’t necessarily
pose a problem for a capitalism eager to
discipline labor by any means necessary. So in fact, I just found
a headline the other day that was from– I can’t remember
if it was from– I think it was
from The Economist. It may have been
from Forbes– that was about how a bunch
of companies like GM, for instance, with massive
pension plan obligations have recently experienced
stock tick upgrades because they’ve realized
that declining life expectancy remove some of
the burden of their pension obligations. And so this poses both a long
term opportunity for them and also short term. In the terms of their
stock market value, it allowed them
to tick up a bit. This was about three weeks
ago that this was announced. So it’s not always
a problem when people die young for capital. Thus Marx, for
instance, describes the, quote, “stagnant surplus
population” of the unemployed, quote, “characterized
by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages.” If these surplus subjects
die, it matters essentially not at all to capital. So-called diseases of despair
likewise may be no more than a new way to decrease by
violent attrition the surplus population of the unemployable– a way of taking these negative
assets off the balance sheet entirely. Moreover, increases in
mortality and morbidity and diseases of
despair aren’t solely the purview of the unemployed,
but also of those earning the very low wages,
ever more common in an age of stagnant growth. Compared to other
wealthy nations, concentration of low pay
is highest in the US, while lifetime improvement
in wages is lower. Contrary to Williamson’s
fantasy of geographic mobility as economic mobility, US
adults are far more likely to cycle between low pay and
no pay than into high wage and out of low wage work. Low wage workers
are particularly vulnerable to deteriorating
working conditions and suffer disproportionately
from job related physical injuries and
strain, as well as from indirect health impacts,
such as cardiovascular disease. That’s another way to
describe the insights of recent demographic
data is this. Capitalism dragging
through a long downturn is not only happy to
let the unwaged die. It is also happy to work the
low waged to an early death. Of course, in the 19th century,
during an ascendant capitalism, there was indeed a risk
involved in working too many of one’s workers to death. Thus, Marx argues that when
the industrial population is depleted by low
wages and overwork, a still vital rural
population, violently removed from formerly communal lands,
comes to take its place. Capital depended
on its periphery, whether newly enclosed farms
or newly dispossessed colonial frontiers, to restore
growth to its core. Today, the core produces
its own surplus populations by automation and outsourcing. And the devastating
results are often felt first in rural spaces. Meanwhile, in the
periphery, population growth continues, while
labor demand dwindles. As those from the global
south migrate north, they meet a US
workforce threatened by wage stagnation, a
failing social welfare state, and, at least among the
non-college educated, the rural young people
and people of color subjected to intensified
forms of state violence by various forms of bodily,
social, and economic despair. The result is what
geographer Phil Neel calls a new serration of
capitalism’s geography and landscape. Neel’s account attends
neither to birth nor death, but rather to
population movement. He describes a, quote,
“demographic inversion,” where the poor move just behind
capital, except always a little too late to catch up. Drawing on natural metaphors,
fire and flood, blood and oil, sedimentation and
geological stratification, Neel’s account shares
stagnation theory’s bio-economic
imaginary, as well as its specific emphasis on images
of illiquidity and immobility. The low economic output of the
hinterland, he writes, causes, quote, “a slowness that gets
to you, sinking into your body and wrapping itself like
molasses around your bones.” If you take anything
away from this talk, it’s that you should
read this book. It’s a really good book. It’s not a perfect book. It’s very provocative,
and some of it I fundamentally disagree with. But it’s really [INAUDIBLE]
generou and amazing. Blah, blah, blah. Sorry, plug there for that book. He’s a grad student also. He’s amazing. He also adopts stagnation
theory’s figurative attention to the effects of economic
despair on the body. Recalling Hansen’s images
of stillness and stillbirth, we should note Neel’s
description of the economy as a non-reproductive
landscape body. The de-industrial hinterlands,
he writes, are, quote, “like a vast sunken
continent that met its ruin in some ancient
cataclysm, populated now with broken looking
people, sifting through the rubble of economies
stillborn or long dead.” For Melinda Cooper,
persuasively, such images of economies stillborn
reflect stagnation theory’s preoccupation with
birth rates and thus sustain a discourse of
reproductive futurity. In this talk, I have attended
instead to the other registers of the demographic, particularly
those surrounding mortality and morbidity, as well
as to the language of demographic immobility
out of identities, regions, and landscapes deemed
doomed to decline. I have suggested that
demographic discourses, like the diseases
of despair thesis and its liberal
equivalents, tend to be propped up by a zero
sum theory of race and class as subjects of attention. Such accounts present
race as a, quote, “merely cultural category” and class
as the more properly economic concept. Yet their own
definition of class is largely culturalist,
dependent on ideas about the good old days of
trade union politics, churches, families, moral
fortitude, and so on, while their account
of race fails to attend to racialization’s
economic substrate. Moreover, and again,
despite a pretense to the cool objectivity of
an economic account attentive to supposedly non-political
forces like demographic change, such stagnation theories
tend to resurrect a long familiar racialized
and regionalized discourse of economic slowdown
as a consequence of cultural, social,
or bodily decline. The barren bodies
Cooper identifies in reproductive
demographic discourse become the anemic, weak, and
often raced bodies of mortality demographic discourse. In both instances, such
bodies catachrestically appear both as
cause and as figure. Yet I have also suggested
the demographic data, if not demographic discourse,
about mortality and morbidity may reveal something powerful
about the relationship between the individual body,
raced and gendered, exploited or surplus, and the collective
experience of a population, raced and gendered,
exploited or surplus. One name for the way
this relationship is read through and on the
body is immiseration. Immiseration in
this context might mean both the immiserating
tendency of capitalism as a structure, and also
something more immediate and intimate– a condition of
livelihood and life itself. It might, in other words,
provide the grounds for an economic determinism
that would resist the highly conservative nature
of the stagnation theorists with their desire to
ascribe responsibility to a declining culture or a
decaying social structure. But that also isn’t exclusively
an impersonal structuralism. That might provide
a theory committed both to the economic
as last instance cause, while also attuned to the
urgency of embodied experience and individual consciousness. To get a little closer
to that promise, I want to conclude with
one final notion, one I will get at by
returning to the essay from Hansen with which I began. We are passing, so to speak,
over a divide which separates the great era of growth and
expansion of the 19th century, from an era in which no
man, unwilling to embark on pure conjecture,
can as yet characterize with clarity or precision. We are moving swiftly
out of the order in which those of our
generation were brought up, indeed, into no one knows what. Hansen here is trying to
describe a change marked by the end of change– the end of growth, development,
and progress, as well as a change that is
the familiar now passing into the uncertain
new of the future. The language he uses to
describe that shift from what is known to what is not yet is
the language of the generation. That same language shows
up in Gordon’s book, too, which, as he
describes it, quote, “ends by doubting that
the standard of living of today’s youths will
double that of their parents, unlike the standard of living
of each previous generation of Americans back to
the late 19th century.” It shows up in
Neel, as well, who notes the relationship between
the uneven distribution of development, not only
by geography, but also by generation, and who describes
his millennial cohort as, quote, “one of the poorest
generations in recent history, debt and rent the defining
features of our lives.” And it shows up in
one final instance of stagnation discourse, whose
contours I want to limb– the discourse of
millennial burnout, which evokes the stilled, the
stalled, the stagnant by way of the language of paralysis. We’re deeply in debt, working
more hours and more jobs for less pay and less
security, struggling to achieve the same standards
of living as our parents, operating in psychological
and physical precariousness, one widely circulated
article on burnout explains. The category of the generation
has been criticized widely, of course, derided as,
quote, “overly schematized and ridiculously reductive,” as,
quote, “arbitrary” and, quote, “deterministic.” The discourse of
millennial burnout has been accused of the
same thing, excoriated for its tendency to
define a whole generation via the experiences
of a small subset– typically white middle and upper
middle class, college educated. And indeed, the
language of burnout tends to assume a subject
who had something to burn, who once believed, with
a kind of cruel optimism, that they had a high achieving
successful future ahead of them, and then had
that future snatched away. And that seems to
disregard those for whom such promises
were always bankrupt. In another essay on
burnout, a respondent answering the question, what
does burnout feel like for you, answers, quote,
“As a black woman, I feel as if I were born tired. My mother was a social worker. My grandmother was a teacher. Her mother was a slave. I was born burnt out.” These critiques
are certainly true. It’s true that categories
built on generations generalize and homogenize,
so do categories like class. And it’s true that
they do so in what might seem like
arbitrary ways, though so do historical periods. Yet in a language of stagnation
and generational hopelessness, I think we might see the
utility of the concept of the generation if
carefully deployed. It suggests a subject
historically determined, but also possessing a
certain clear eyed awareness of that determination–
a subject in the midst of a history not of her
choosing, but perhaps able to make and change that
history nonetheless. And in Neel’s description
of a generational crisis, in which his is,
quote, “not a single temporarily fucked
generation, but instead, the first in a grand
parade of the futureless,” we see yet another
possibility for images of stalled reproduction
and stilled mobility. Not as the loss of the future
promised by and to the past, but as the uncertain certainty
that what comes next cannot be the future that
always came before, but must instead be something
altogether different. Thanks. [APPLAUSE]

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