Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Corbett, the Starving State, and Anorexics against Austerity

Yesterday, at the end of Tom Corbett’s “conversation” with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the moderator asked the Pennsylvania governor what he would say to the protestors gathered outside. Before getting to his response, two points: First, as demonstrators, we succeeded in impacting the tête-à-tête between a neoliberal governor and his neoliberal business chums. Our chants, the pounding of the drums, and the fact that everyone entering had to pass by us shaped the conversation: our demands could be neglected, but this neglect would be an active process, the willed refusal of the governor to admit our claims as deserving response. And so the second point: Corbett could have spoken to us, he could have directly dispensed to us the neoliberal claptrap he would give freely to the Chamber. The governor, it seems, is so taken with austerity measures that he must also economize his words, his appearances. Indeed, Corbett (with assistance from the PPD) had to take extreme pains to not talk to us. Protestors blocked every point of egress from the venue. Corbett would avoid an encounter with us by exiting through the rear and driving the wrong way on Sansom Street. (We had this point covered, too, but it was the thinnest point, and I don’t think people were much up for getting arrested.) So keep this image in your head: A governor fleeing the people by driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Against the Einbahnstraße of revolution, perhaps.

But what would he have told us? First, Corbett would tell us that our desires are out of sync with mechanisms for their realization. “They want good jobs,” Corbett said of the protesters. “But they want to tax the corporations. If you ask the business people here, that’s incongruous.” Tom is doubly stupid here: aside from the nonsense economics subtending his claim, the desire Corbett ascribed to the protestors was not, in fact, the desire that brought us out. We were out to protest a budget that a) slashes funding for schools and b) increases funding for prisons. If Tom had bothered to read a sign, he wouldn’t have seen shit about jobs; instead, he would have read any number of demands that we decarcerate Pennsylvania, fund the schools, and (linking the two) abolish the school-to-prison pipeline. So Tom ascribed a desire to our protest that we did not articulate so as to place us firmly in a terrain where neoliberal slogans might control the discursive field. 

Second, after telling us that we’re all stupid and don’t understand the way of the world like Philly’s illustrious Chamber of Commerce, Corbett would give moral advice to the protestors. “I understand that you’re upset because we’ve had to put the state on a diet, for want of a better description,” Corbett said. “I haven’t met anybody who likes to go on diets. It is not easy. It is not what we want to do.” Note how the mood of the utterance and pronominal shifts strive to achieve a consensus from above. First, Corbett inscribes himself into the utterance: he hears, he understands, he gets us. Then he addresses us in the second person indicative, as if we are actually in hearing-distance, as if he actually addresses us. He then presents an experiential fact (who likes diets?) to simulate a consensus: thus, when Corbett says “It’s not what we want to do,” it is unclear if the “we” refers to state agents of austerity or a human collectivity who hates dieting, a collectivity that would include the protestors. Corbett’s shifts—from self-representation (“I”) to a particularized address (“you”) to a generalized collectivity (“we”)—corresponds to the jump in scale that his metaphor enacts. Really, could the individualized, embodied logics of restricted consumption that we call “dieting” really be isomorphic with the logics of state austerity? The metaphor isn’t quite accurate, anyhow. Dieting is an ends-oriented practice that presumes a quantifiable moment of completion (five pounds, ten pounds, etc.) Tom’s state now diets for the sake of dieting and without stating a terminal point. “I will lose x+1 pounds!” swears the neoliberal dieter. When restricted consumption without end defines one’s mode of life, we’re not talking about dieting anymore. We’re talking about anorexia, an anorectic state. The state needs to be as slim as possible, irrationally slim—its bones jutting out, the fat melted off. Lean unto death.

The fact that Tom’s pedagogy of austerity is organized by a metaphoric embrace of anorectic under-consumption is intriguing. Let’s be clear: Yankees are not used to talking about fiscal austerity. At least, popular willingness to give the name “austerity” to programs to slim U.S. states’ budgets is, I think, somewhat novel. Austerity happened elsewhere sometime in the 70s and 80s and 90s, in the Global South, where IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs decimated post-colonial social programs that supported social consumption. Our state wasn’t austere—no! It was efficient, and state austerity through the years of the Washington Consensus simply facilitated tax breaks that would, in fact, promote consumption. Indeed, the transfer of wealth from the South to the North through the Reagan-era and the concomitant availability of easy credit actually produced a cultural phenomenon of people anxious about the possibility of consuming too much. (Of course the individual etiology of disordered eating is way more complicated than this.) The modern figure of the anorexic was born in the 80s and 90s, the perverse double of those whose consumption was restricted by state austerity measures. Landmark scholarly and popular research into anorexia—such as Hilde Bruch’s Eating Disorders (1973) and Kim Chernin’s The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (1981)—emerged at the same moment that IMF SAPs were setting off food riots in lands where lives were adjusted by austerity measures. We might think of anorexia and food riots as two split registers of by which the possibilities of over- and under-consumption were managed—utterly distinct, differently impacted by neoliberal policies and the uneven geography of capitalism. But we can also see something of a structural link that articulates these practices at a world-systemic level. The austerity measures in SAPed states induced food riots that challenged the mechanisms by which capital and commodities flowed to the global north; anorexia here might appear as an ethical refusal to consume via the structured starvation of others. And, as we know, both responses to neoliberal restructuring are deeply gendered, women filling the ranks of food rioters and (for reasons that are of course irreducible to neoliberal capitalism) anorexics.

My point here is that concerns about individual under-consumption in the form of disordered eating are somehow linked to state under-consumption in the form of austerity measures. Culturally, Yankees are more familiar with the former than the latter, and for this reason the latter provides the legitimating cultural logic in which austerity measures are grounded.  (In SAPed places, on the other hand, austerity has a much livelier cultural life; see, e.g., Balogun’s Adjusted Lives.) Tom invoked a “diet” for “want of a better description” of neoliberal reform. Bullshit: of course other and better descriptions are available to explain austerity. For instance, the sum total of historical experiences of SAPed nations. But these experiences, of course, do not in any way legitimate contemporary austerity measures; they do quite the opposite. Austerity is thus filtered through the logic of the anorexic because a) gestures to “better descriptions” based on history would erode the legitimacy of austerity measures and b) as a keyword, “austerity” has not accrued cultural meanings in the U.S. and so requires a mediating logic for the ideology of austerity to make sense. Whatever radical implications the figure of the anorexic might have possessed are being repurposed to facilitate the legitimation of neoliberal restrictions on social consumption. Tom probably imagines the dieter, in fact, as an ideal liberal subject, a good business, one who could hang out in the Chamber of Commerce: He keeps careful accounts of calories, striving to maintain the proper balance between debits and credits, always afraid of consuming too much. The state is incorporating the biopolitical accountancy of the anorexic and transforming it into a logic of neoliberal rule. We know how to “starve the beast” because we know how to starve ourselves. If you’ve ever dieted, you can be governor.

I’m suggesting, in short, that the cultural phenomenon of (pathologized) anorexia makes austerity thinkable today. This, despite the nonsense scale jump required to think patterns of individual action (pathological or not) as the basis for state rule. Of course, that is precisely what liberalism from Smith through the marginalists up to today's neolibs do: they isolate a single privileged figure and, through a cursory demonstration of the formal logic impelling that figure's activity, establish the rules for collective activity. The rational entrepreneur and the pathologized anorexic now form the dual figure that grounds the logic of neoliberalism. We need to refuse this state instrumentalization of what is taken to be a social pathology. As someone with a history of (at best) disordered eating, I’m imagining the formation of a group of ana-anarchists, named “Anorexics against Austerity.” On one hand, our work would consist in refusing the conflation of individual and state habits of restricted consumption; our practices of self can in no way subtend, organize, or provide a logic that enables the state to snatch food from the mouths of others. On the other hand, we would strive to re-positivize the anti-austerity social meanings that anorectic practices might once have possessed. Is there a way of thinking anorectic freedom that does not reinforce neoliberal ideologies in which austerity and induced under-consumption read as freedom from the state? I think so. It would take too long—and be too phenomenological in orientation, too personal—to recover the political potentialities that inhere in consumption practices that now register as “disordered.” But let’s recall Coetzee’s Michael K, who refuses to consume as a means of refusing the corrupted sociality that surrounds him, who refuses to consume that which he does not grow—but who takes joy in the simple taste of his homegrown pumpkins, who has developed a mouth for a different kind of consumption. With Michael K, we see how an apparently anorectic refusal of consumption in one modality actually opens a space for a different kind of consumption, a different relation to food—a space, indeed, in which food sovereignty becomes thinkable, practicable. In truth, we’ve already seen this: life at Occupy encampments was nothing if not austere, and this austerity involved a reduction of access to food (no matter how awesome—and they were awesome—the food committees were). This willed austerity touched on the logic of the anorexic, sure; our consumption there could only appear as “disordered” to the dominant. But we can thus see how the anorectic logic of occupation touches on communal freedom. The very materiality of food—how it was cooked, how it was distributed, how it was consumed—was present as an object of political consensus. If the austerity of the encampment can be metaphorized as anorectic, this is not because Occupiers don’t like to eat, but because they refuse to consume in some ways and demand to consume in others. The anorectic freedom at work there did not demand that the people consume less (as austerity promotes)—even if, in fact, they did consume less. Rather, the anorectically free have developed a different kind of mouth, new sense organs, a la Michael K: we’re hungry, most of all, for the political.

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