Introduction to The Baffler number 21, Your Money and Your Life, published in November 2012
The general elections were looming by the time we packed up these salvos, stories, poems, and graphics and laid our bindle on the doorstep of our printer in Pennsylvania. Yes, we went to print with an issue on politics, one eye blind to the outcome of the great contest.
Still, we sighted the cultural apparatus of American politics, the focus of the issue, spinning long past the pixie-dust trails and super-fascinating polls of the campaign season. November 6, one way or another, will have introduced fresh pickings into the same breed of high and mighty in Washington, where they will have already begun reproducing copies of images of their reflected mandates. And, in the core industries that produce the spirit-crushing consensus known as our national politics, only the bylines will have changed. The political media will be trolling the inside story of the struggle to control the story, just as the permanent government of nitwits and lobbyists will be feeling imperial as ever amid the new styles in favoritism and obstruction rolled out by the donor class.
Baffler 21, the third and last issue of our revival year, will have arrived in your mailbox several weeks after the spoils have been divided and then reconciled in the aftermath. Yet it’s sure to remain your most reliable debriefing book during the first hundred days of the next administration—or for as long as market populism remains the default position within the leading business schools, academic seminars, and editorial pages that hassle every new administration and corps of lawmakers.
The all-digital, all-the-time brand of political journalism at work today turns out to offer less cognitive resistance to this process of consensus formation than one might hope. From the direct-mail kingpins, alt-press agonists, and cult-stud professors, to the assorted media moguls, bloggers, and pundits described in these pages, the cultural apparatus standing between the public and its problems pursues a politics of brainshare; the game is won by click and by “like,” measures that mimic the market indexes. The hyperreality on our screens turns out to be useful, in this respect, for promoting lullabies, fads, and just-in-time demonologies. Knowledge may or may not be power. But knowingness drives the coverage on Politico, scripts the patter on MSNBC, and fuels the cauldron of excitations on CNBC’s Squawk Box.
It’s tempting to blame the conservative barons and their vested interests for all the dysfunctions of our political debate. It’s more interesting, though, to observe the cultural metamorphosis driving our collective lurch beyond the categories of true and false.
Once upon a time, let us say, reason guided our efforts to sort out the claims and counterclaims raining down from on high. Today’s political managers and messaging professionals are hyperconscious of unconsciousness, in tune with the irrational. Channeling video-game designers, admen, PR flunkies, celebrity editors, social media programmers, casino promoters, and cultural theorists, post-crash politics have moved out of the hand and into the head of inward-looking politicos. It’s not cultural critics, after all, but academic psychologists, brain scientists, and their popularizers who travel the gilded highways of the corporate speakers’ circuit, where they lay down common sense for the socially unconscious business class.
Against our age’s dreampolitik, we present our own act of imagination—a printed journal, no less, of unrepresented thoughts. We do so remembering our ancestors, who concluded that acting as if the world we wanted were true is a prime precondition of making it so. And so we assembled this issue as if it were perfectly normal to expect a political system without privileges, a culture without commodification, and a cooperative economy in which maximum return on investment is not the sole criterion of value.
The as-if attitude is certainly no more foolish, and a lot more fun, than the stylized despair of the American literati, or the cynicism peddled by our public intellectuals. If as if is to produce its expected effects, however, a certain respect for reality is required. A capacity for discerning the difference between hope and fantasy is also useful. And it’s on the latter distinction that we draw our terms of engagement and launch our salvos against the apparatus of dead language and dreamy self-delusion across the political spectrum.
The activist Left—the subject of our first salvo—is fired up by the dream of transformation, yet oddly reluctant to make demands that might expose it to acrimony and division. You might say the spirit of this magazine observes the same minor paradox in reverse. Every salvo and story, poem and illustration, sails under its own gusts, untethered to liberalism’s desire to reincarnate itself as a ruling creed or the Left’s hustling after a social movement to redeem mass suffering. Imagination is the name of our desire. There’s no higher mission than art and criticism updated for the age of investment capital and high-tech chicanery. Next year portends even greater awakenings for cheerfully independent muckraking—our twenty-fifth anniversary hearkens. So read on, citizen, and ye shall be saved from those who say ye shall be saved.