The Plutocratic Imagination

The Plutocratic Imagination

Books discussed in this essay:

A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, Knopf, 2010, 288 pp.
A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, 2012, 328 pp.
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown and Company, 2007, 400 pp.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 608 pp.
The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, Dial Press, 2010, 432 pp.
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010, 304 pp.
The Trouble with Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2006, 243 pp.
“Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”, by Ralph Nader, Seven Stories Press, 2009, 512 pp.
Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, Pantheon, 2008, 272 pp.

If we still take the novel as a register of politics and culture, it is not a good time for social democracy. Since around 1990, a new wave of American fiction has emerged that focuses on the dominance of finance, the political power of the super-rich, and the decline of the middle class. This new wave marks a turn in the political novel: the fiction of the 1970s and 1980s tended to expose conspiracies under the surface of formal government, whereas this new wave tends to see government as subsidiary, with the main societal choices occurring within the economic sphere. The novels animate the turn to neoliberalism, and thus we might aptly categorize them as “the neoliberal novel.”

This turn is evident in perhaps the most prominent novel of the past decade, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Freedom depicts the dramas of a professional, middle-class, middle-American family around the turn of the new century. But rather than the novel’s just being a family drama, its plot explicitly hinges on politics. The protagonist, Walter Berglund, a lawyer, is a lifelong environmentalist who has declaimed population growth since his college years. (The other main characters are Walter’s wife, Patty; his best friend from college—and eventually Patty’s lover—Richard; and Walter and Patty’s son, Joey.) During the main action of the novel, Walter moves from his job working for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota to work for a nonprofit foundation inside the beltway in Washington, D.C., the Cerulean Mountain Trust. The trust is funded by a super-rich benefactor named Vin Haven, who has made his money (nine digits, the book coyly notes) in energy but now has taken a special interest in protecting songbirds such as the cerulean warbler. The rub is that Vin will strip-mine the land before he donates it.

That the moral ambiguities of such a deal spur the plot is not really a surprise. But Walter’s rationale is. Rather than just a pragmatic compromise, Walter explains the political principle to Richard:

The problem with governments is that they’re elected by majorities that don’t give a shit about biodiversity. Whereas billionaires do tend to care. They’ve got a stake in keeping the planet not entirely fucked, because they and their heirs are going to be the ones with enough money to enjoy the planet. The reason Vin Haven started doing conservation on his ranches in Texas was that he likes to hunt the bigger birds and look at the little ones. Self-interest, yeah, but a total win-win. In terms of locking up habitat to save it from development, it’s a lot easier to turn a few billionaires than to educate American voters who are perfectly happy with their cable and their Xboxes and their broadband.

Walter goes on to elaborate this not as a one-time deal but a more general strategy to solve environmental problems: “Vin’s idea was that if two hundred really rich people would each pick one species, and try to stop the fragmentation of their strongholds, we might be able to save them all.”

This is a surprise, because Walter seems to be a quintessential liberal. In fact, part of the brilliance of Franzen’s book is that he depicts Walter not only as a presumed Democrat, but as someone whose liberal politics permeate his life. Having begun his career as a corporate lawyer for 3M, Walter works for a nonprofit, is careful to use politically correct language, worries about the carbon footprint of his car, and tends toward lower meat consumption (with the exception of one wild and desperate moment on the road when he goes for a steak at a chain restaurant).

But although Walter appears to be progressive, his reasoning follows much of the neoliberal creed: government is cumbersome and inefficient, social problems can be more effectively handled through private means than public ones, the super-rich are not only entitled to political power but also make the best political choices, their interest serves the public interest, and those not rich are naturally supplicants to those who are. Moreover, the novel renders liberal procedural solutions—solutions that were articles of faith during the heyday of the American welfare state—impracticable; we can only successfully solve problems through private means and individual action. Though Walter affects a liberal bearing, in political principle and practice he channels Ayn Rand, extolling the rightness of the rule of the rich. We should make no mistake about this: Franzen’s Freedom portrays contemporary America as a plutocracy rather than a democracy. Rand would approve.

In posing this solution, Freedom parallels Ralph Nader’s “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” This 2009 novel imagines a group of billionaires led by Warren Buffett and including Ted Turner and Barry Diller, alongside celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Phil Donahue, and Warren Beatty, banding together to save the United States. Nader’s novel is clunky, schematically drawing its characters and having them make wooden speeches, so it’s much less artful than Freedom, but it’s more hopeful, in the American tradition of such utopian novels as Looking Backward. Politically, Nader has it both ways: the only solution is his team of wealthy superheroes, but they work to check the spoils of wealth. They fund an initiative for a renewed formal democracy called Agenda for the Common Good, supported by a new Clean Elections Party.

We should make no mistake about this: Franzen’s Freedom portrays contemporary America as a plutocracy rather than a democracy.

This seems the most magical move of all: that those who have become rich on the basis of neoliberal capitalism really want to eliminate capitalism and shed the privilege that they have worked, schemed, or fought to accrue. Conversely, the novel allows the “People” to have power—not through their own agency but through the action of a select few in oligarchical control.

In contrast to Nader’s magical but redemptive hope for democracy, Freedom is fatalistic. It is not that Franzen advocates neoliberalism, and in fact he exposes some of its dubious values, but, adhering to the conventions of literary realism, he cannot imagine any other possibility. It is a disturbing sign of the times that the most bruited novel of the past decade, declared on the cover of Time magazine to “show us the way we live now,” and a utopian novel by a longtime liberal-left gadfly both assume that there is little chance for fundamental change through normative democratic channels. Liberal procedures have been tossed in the nostalgia bin of history, supplanted by a direct appeal to the super-rich.

This presents a very different prospect from the political novels of a generation earlier, which often depict conspiracy undermining government. They caustically wash away naïve illusion, but usually find efficacy in the exposure of corruption, pilloried as scandal or ridiculed in parody. Several novels in the 1970s, such as E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, target political scandals of the postwar era, although the best expression of this tendency is probably in nonfiction, most notably in All the President’s Men (1974; film, 1976). They are generally moral fictions, expressing outrage and disappointment at the corruption of democratic politics, without relinquishing a faith in the ultimate good of the liberal welfare state. Exposure brings reform.

Through the 1980s, the conspiracy novel tended to portray conspiracy less as a particular act and more as a metaphysical condition of contemporary life. For instance, several of Don DeLillo’s novels, such as The Names and Libra, Joan Didion’s Democracy, and Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost represent the shadowy world of the CIA or FBI underneath the visible political world. They imbue the political novel with a postmodern sensibility, envisioning political action as uncertain and mired in a sea of complexity. The exposé lays blame at the door of specific actors, whereas in this later fiction the system itself is the problem. This suggests a loss of faith in government or its rational possibilities, although it still features the political world as a main stage.

The neoliberal novel shifts from moral allegory to a resigned realism. Instead of conspiracies underneath the surface of society, the machinations of the powerful are no longer hidden, nor expected to be. And power resides not with those in government but explicitly with the super-rich. In a sense, the novels depict a world shorn of rudimentary ideology: we know the rich rule, so we adjust accordingly. The neoliberal novel depicts the inside of plutocracy, or the consequences of plutocratic policies, particularly on the professional-managerial class. In 1950, Lionel Trilling could claim that “the liberal imagination,” which placed its faith in the rational administration of society, permeated American culture; now, a more fitting designation might be “the plutocratic imagination.”

Although one could note titles such as Tom Wolfe’s 1987 Bonfire of the Vanities, I would mark Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in 1991 as the first major neoliberal novel, portraying the rise of neoliberalism during the Reagan era and its hyper-acquisitive impulse. With its relentless inventory of high-end consumer products and the utter anomie of its super-rich protagonist, Patrick Bateman, an heir to a New York investment house, Psycho obviously satirizes newly ascendant neoliberal thinking that rolls back regulation and worships economic gain (Bateman tells people that his field is “Murders and Assassinations,” although everyone hears it as “Mergers and Acquisitions”). Political figures like Reagan or Oliver North occasionally flicker in the background on television, similar to the way that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney appear spectrally in Freedom, but the real action occurs among the rich, and one tendency of this new vein is that we see the world through the eyes of millionaires.

The neoliberal novel shifts from moral allegory to a resigned realism. Instead of conspiracies underneath the surface of society, the machinations of the powerful are no longer hidden, nor expected to be.

Since then, an increasing body of fiction has foregrounded the conditions of neoliberalism, some of it spotlighting the rise of the super-rich, and some of it featuring those working for the super-rich, especially by writers from Franzen’s and Ellis’s generation (born around 1960 and coming of age around 1980 as neoliberalism gained hold in the Reagan Era), and by those in the so-called Generation X (such as Sam Lipsyte and Allegra Goodman), who came of age in the 1990s, as it solidified. Richard Powers’s Gain, for example, follows the development of a family-owned soap company from its artisanal roots in the early 1800s to its present-day form as a manufacturing leviathan with no direct personal control and helps dramatize the rise of the corporation in the United States. Like Freedom, Gain cannot imagine radical possibilities. Instead, it raises the question of whether corporations, whatever their ills, have also created better living conditions than in earlier eras.

Since the mid-2000s, there has also been a spate of novels foregrounding finance. Some critics have seen this as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, and that no doubt has spurred some of it, but I would emphasize that it continues within the general line of the neoliberal novel, although it probably moves away from the direct depiction of politics. One branch of these novels puts the CEO class center stage, for example, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, whose successful music executive protagonist continually eats gold flakes, or Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, whose main characters have made fortunes in Silicon Valley and through the magic manipulations of IPOs. Against the tendency of American literature that sees the rich either distantly or as villains, this vein of fiction sympathetically imagines their lives. Goon Squad and Cookbook Collector show the path to wealth as a typical event for white, middle Americans, and the 1 percent as everyday people.

Another branch focuses instead on the white-collar workers who carry out the global work of the super-rich and their corporate arms and who suffer precarious fates. For example, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End comically narrates the dwindling of a company’s white-collar workforce, caught in the vortex of downsizing, and Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King recounts the woebegone tale of a once successful middle-aged manager who is now nearly bankrupt and desperate to close a deal with the king of Saudi Arabia. This strand shows the poles of power through the eyes of the downsized, as well as the international reach of capital. In Hologram, the characters await the king in the desert for several weeks before he finally breezes in and awards the contract to the Chinese.

Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, another well-received entry, paints both sides of the class divide. It centers on Milo Burke, who works in a development office at the “University of New York,” but loses his job. The plot turns on his courting a super-rich donor, with whom he’d once shared a house in college, to get his job back. The Ask lays bare the new rationale of even nonprofits like the university, transformed from an altruistic institution intended to educate a widening pool of Americans to a pure neoliberal entity existing for self-accumulation. At one point, the dean in charge of Milo’s department articulates the new ethos: “we are not simply some heartless, money-mad, commercial enterprise. We are partly that, of course, but we are also a compassionate and, yes, money-mad place of learning.” It may be funny, but it’s also discomforting.

The Ask also lays bare the condition of the middle class, which does not work so much as “ask.” It is characterized as supplicant to the wealthy, the relation now more akin to begging rather than laboring and beholden to the beneficence of the “job creators.” On the side of the wealthy, the relation is not so much paying as donating. In Freedom and The Ask, they exercise their control through “venture philanthropy,” marshaling their resources outside the public tax system and under the auspices of charity to set up the property arrangements they want.

Like Dickens’s novels that occur amidst the expansion of Victorian commerce, these novels take place in the winner-take-all economy of neoliberalism, saying goodbye to the postwar welfare state and the Great Society. In some ways, they echo the fiction of a century before, such as Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903) and Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier (1912) and Titan (1914), which chronicle the massive accumulation of capital in their time. Their stance, however, is to inveigh against monopolies, whether of railroads or commodities, and in keeping with the language of that time, one might call them “anti-trust novels.” The current novels similarly represent our own gilded age, but do not take the prosecutorial stance of their predecessors. Their signature feeling is chagrin or numbness rather than outrage, and they are less oppositional than the previous generation’s political fictions, which excoriated coterie power.

The “neoliberal novel,” in short, focuses on class and the force of political economy rather than conventional politics. In this way, my use of the “neoliberal novel” differs from that of Walter Benn Michaels, who uses it to describe recent American fiction that emphasizes identity. Michaels finds that many novels celebrate difference, whether of race, ethnicity, or sexuality, rather than class and, as a result, are a smokescreen for neoliberalism, promoting prejudice as our primary social problem rather than inequality. This is in keeping with his arguments in The Trouble with Diversity, where he claims that diversity has become a shibboleth, and we need instead to concern ourselves with equality of wealth.

In my view, Michaels’s argument pitches the matter too much as an either/or between culture and economy or cultural and class difference. It seems to me crucial to recognize the injustice of status or other cultural markers rather than just of money. And there is a long tradition of the novel that dwells on identity, so it is in fact a customary feature of the novel. Should we only advocate socialist realism instead? As Irving Howe observed in his 1957 Politics and the Novel, it is a typical trait of American fiction to render politics “in the guise of religious, cultural and sexual issues.” Michaels himself notes the Jewish novel as a predecessor of the contemporary identity novel, which suggests that the concern with identity and difference is not new but has its roots in postwar liberalism, if not in the American myth of the melting pot.

The current novels represent our own gilded age, but do not take the prosecutorial stance of their predecessors. Their signature feeling is chagrin or numbness rather than outrage, and they are less oppositional than the previous generation’s political fictions.

To sharpen the distinction, I would call the kinds of novels that Michaels describes the “diversity novel” or the “multicultural novel.” They foreground racial, ethnic, sexual, or other cultural identity and respond to the politics of status and recognition in contemporary American culture. In contrast, I would reserve the “neoliberal novel” for those that foreground the economic and political consequences of the past thirty years. As the neoliberal novel echoes the anti-trust novel, the multicultural novel echoes the race novel of the 1920s and 1930s, and the assimilation novel of the 1950s. They do not cover up inequality but attempt to capture the longstanding tension that runs through American life and politics regarding race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class, and they are, in part, a response to the aftermath of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the ensuing culture wars of the 1980s.

Most recently, the emergence of the 9/11 novel suggests a new path for the political novel, although in many ways it extends the line of the neoliberal novel. It is often set in New York City and revolves around finance, bearing the imprint of neoliberalism, but it imagines the millionaires—the Wall Street analyst, as in the case of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland—as impotent in the face of cataclysmic violence. On the other hand, it casts the impoverished and alienated—the disenchanted protagonist of, for example, John Updike’s Terrorist—as those who hold the keys to enacting political change. This inverts the politics of the super-rich: if the neoliberal novel displays a world in which wealthy individuals dominate political power and there is no procedural recourse, then the only political option is not collective action but the individual action of the terrorist. The terrorist is the dark side of the Randian hero, fulfilling, even if perversely, the logic of neoliberalism. Like Vin Haven’s brand of politics, it is a vision that vacates democratic possibilities, although it despairs of them rather than overrides them.

The 9/11 novel might augur a new political imaginary, showing the cracks in a rapacious and ever globalizing neoliberalism. It might also express the perspective of a rising generation, after that of Franzen, Ellis, Powers, and Egan. But it remains to be seen whether this generation will create a new political imagination or if it will, like Franzen’s Walter, acquiesce to “venture philanthropy.”

Jeffrey J. Williams’s most recent book is The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics (co-edited with Heather Steffen, Columbia University Press, 2012). He teaches literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

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