The Intellectual Situation
A Boom Deferred
A few new economy boosters were able to pass themselves off as thinkers during the five years (1995–1999) we now think of as the “Nineties.” But Being Digital and Rational Exuberance and their genre-mates are now just historical curios. The bubble popped, and where are they?
There is a different story to tell about those of us who really were young during that era—not just borrowing our dizziness from the market—and beginning to think about the world we’d grown up into. What happened? It’s a long way from over yet (the Dow’s still bullish; America’s still preeminent; we still drink that expensive potent coffee) but things are not the same. “We were so young!” we say already, flipping through a deck of snapshots of ourselves in foreign places. “And the dollar was so strong!” Generations whose youth coincides with periods of great optimism are forever marked by the experience.
Not utopia, but it was nice. If the end of the Cold War meant scores of countries crumbling into civil war, it also offered a chance of general peace that we and others might not be so dumb as to pass up. Our own chances of being incinerated seemed markedly reduced. Yes, wage arbitrage in the global economy was getting ugly, and America couldn’t remain the world’s buyer of last resort without acquiring a serious balance-of-payments problem. And if something swells like a bubble, and shines and shimmies like a bubble . . . Still, the Nineties brought more peace and prosperity than we’d ever expected. If we ourselves weren’t making much money, and were sometimes jealous of former classmates who were, there was comfort in feeling we could always sell out, if we wanted to.
A boom! But what if you didn’t like it? Another World is Possible, went the slogan. Only nobody could tell us which world. “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” Thus spake Jameson. The economy was very busy on the surface with its creative destruction, but that didn’t conceal a basic stasis. It seemed the important things would never change, and maybe we’d grown up into a stilled world.
Things feel different now. Our classmates in Silicon Alley lost their jobs and applied to graduate school. (Welcome.) The balance-of-payments problem worries the bond-traders these days as well as the socialists. Clearly the Republican Party will cut the taxes of the rich (though Clinton’s tax hikes ignited the boom) and spend make-believe money until the Rapture. Can we live in their big houses then? If there’s comfort to be had when you think about the US economy, it’s in Balzac’s maxim that only petty debtors are ever in danger; a big enough debtor is too big to fail. Right?
Our feeling is one of mortgaged ease. Some of us can still live like before—but the confidence is gone. In the cities it is commonly assumed that your twenties extend well into your thirties—or are those merely your teens? A cultural thing, sure, but look at the base underneath. For some people, a superannuated youth means postponing the question of whether you made it into the middle class. For others, it means mom and dad can still cover the emergency expenses, should they arise.
The situation tells in the available attitudes. Can anyone encounter that tone of proud, inoffensive cleverness so characteristic of our generation’s way of making art, and fail to hear the child at the dinner-table boasting of his playground triumphs? Another way of being an overgrown dependent is to be so embarrassed about class that you identify “reality” with poor and foreign people, and can’t think about yourself. (What is more rare than honest talk about money? Especially unearned money?) Among artists, an eager-to-please manner is often the social face of a desperate fear of being unable to make rent. There is the constant if unconscious awareness that our generation hasn’t got the money or the numbers. Powerlessness can infect even the most powerful will, so that what should be rage and blasphemy nonetheless feels like a prank.
Well, it’s not. The older generation that sometimes paid for our health care is also the generation overseeing the wreck of our economy, democracy, and climate. The great nation that let us into its prestigious schools now signs bad checks like a star giving autographs. This society that cosseted us, and now permits us to try a new restaurant once a month, bribes our poorer contemporaries off to Iraq.
So the Nineties turned out to be the lie we always said they were. Those gains in productivity? That was from unpaid overtime at Wal-Mart and the high commissions brokers got from the stocks they hyped. The co-prosperity sphere of NAFTA? Mexican jobs went to China, and unemployed Mexicans to America. The popular inevitability and inevitable popularity of free-market views? Try hawking that idea in Brazil or France about now. Already we’re nostalgic for our days as superfluous men and women; a part of our integrity, a part of our dissent, was to be of no use to anyone. Edmund Wilson: “One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud.” Sure. Still, it was pleasant there for a few years to suspect we might be wrong about everything.
And now they’re telling us capitalism didn’t work out here, either. What do you know. At least the nightlife is nice, what with all the naked people and the metro closing at 1 am. And it’s a relief to be away from all that trouble back home. It was getting out of hand. Here at least no one knows us; we’ve been involved with no one, have hurt the feelings of no one, have broken promises to no one, and no one wants to go to dinner or maybe have a coffee.
Как хорошо, что некого винить,
как хорошо, что ты никем не связан,
как хорошо, что до смерти любить
тебя никто на свете не обязан.
That’s another Russian poem.