I have finally finished my dissertation prospectus, and I'm going to try a little experiment: posting some of it here. I've mentioned my project in at least one other post, so I thought that it might make sense to put some of it here. Ultimately, though, I'm doing this for a couple reasons. First, it feels like a monumental achievement (even though I know that the hard work is really ahead of me now), and I want to show it off. Second, I'm happy to hear comments, suggestions, etc. that might help make it better. In the interest of not overwhelming anyone, I'm going to leave out my literature review and just put in the stuff that outlines what my project will be. Enjoy!
A Brave New Economy: Rhetoric, Identity, Privilege, and Economic Citizenship in the 21st Century
On September 14, 2008, Lehman Brothers, one of the largest investment banks in the United States closed its doors and filed the largest bankruptcy in the country’s history ($613 billion in debt at the time of the filing). The same day Merrill Lynch, another large investment, bank, announced that it was being purchased by Bank of America. While the economy had been slowing down for all of 2008 prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, this unfortunate event became the most visible touchstone for a sharp, sudden downturn in the American economy, which in turn resonated through other economies around the world. This downturn has been referred to as the biggest since the Great Depression. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that “Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has grown by about 5.3 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.4 percentage points. Half of the increase in both the number of unemployed and the unemployment rate occurred in the last 4 months.”[i]
Since then, the Federal Government has stepped in with a few substantial programs to address the financial crisis that has erupted since September 2008. On October 3, 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which established the Troubled Assets Relief Program, among other things. This program enabled the Secretary of the Treasury to use $700 billion to purchase or insure troubled assets owned by financial institutions that they could not get rid of or sell on their own because they would result in a huge loss for the companies and worsen the economic crisis. Measures authorized by this program included bailout money to some of the country’s largest investment banks, major American auto manufacturing companies, insurance companies, and mortgage brokers. On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which instituted a number of measures designed to stem the tide of economic decline. Among the measures included were tax cuts, expansion of unemployment benefits and other social welfare provisions, as well as domestic spending in education, health care, infrastructure, and energy. On June 1, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the bankruptcy and structured reorganization of General Motors, the nation’s largest auto manufacturer. The agreement resulted in the federal government taking a 60% ownership stake in General Motors. These events have shaken Americans’ perception of its economy to its core. As a result, the sudden and strong economic recession combined with numerous rounds of bailouts instigated a moment of reflection among individuals and groups throughout the country. Specifically, this cultural moment has opened a space to examine the way that identities are constantly made and remade. The identity of the CEO, the hourly worker, the union member, the consumer, the producer, and even the citizen are in question after the destabilization of the American economy in 2008. These identities are not just a matter of introspection but are always manifested in relationships that involve questions of power, status, and privilege.[ii] These questions of identity are both affected by and affect “the articulation of identities, ideologies, consciousness, communities, publics, and cultures.”[iii] The relationship between identity negotiation and questions of privilege and power are, therefore, necessarily rhetorical, since they involve “the mobilization of signs” for that very purpose.[iv]
In my dissertation, I would like to examine the relationship between privilege and identity that have contributed to the (re)definition of economic citizenship in the economic crisis and bailouts. I am interested in understanding how privilege and identity have come to be understood and have affected the way that American people have situated themselves both individually and communally, particularly with relation to the American economic apparatus. This project seeks to engage the following questions thoroughly: how have Americans come to understand themselves in light of the worst American recession since the Great Depression? What kind of economic citizen have discourses regarding both the economic crisis and the Federal Government’s response to it produced? How has this production happened? What are the conditions of possibility for this rhetorical reorientation of social relations in relation to the economic bailouts of late 2008 and 2009? How has our understanding of privilege shifted in light of these new circumstances, and how has this shift affected identity formation and negotiation on both individual and communal levels?
I argue that the rhetorical articulation of the bailouts in the United States at this time produces an economic citizen with an enhanced sense of personal responsibility to engage the economy in new ways. Overall, though, these discourses become configurations of a larger populist narrative that emerges around this time that has two prominent strains: one pits “the people” against Wall Street investors and CEOs who, from this perspective are primarily to blame for causing the crisis; the other sets “the people” in opposition to the Federal Government and finds fault with its response to the economic crisis. These two strands of populism presume a negative sense of privilege in its characterization of “elites,” a more positive sense of privilege in its positive view of “the people” in the United States, and various points along this continuum. “The people” presume the right to speak out against the injustices they see. They also demand accountability from the ones they hold responsible for the economic crisis, and they seek new ways of engaging with the broader economic landscape throughout the United States. This engagement takes numerous forms, and some of those forms will be examined as case studies in the chapters of this dissertation.
This project’s first two case studies will examine public rhetoric surrounding the to major types of bailouts effected in late 2008 and 2009: bank and auto bailouts (messages of economic bailouts that were widely public, not technical or esoteric discourses involving economic theory). These two case studies should exist in a dialogue with each other to outline similarities and discontinuities between bailouts of banks and automotive industries. The first case study will examine the rhetoric related to the bailouts of the banking industry in late 2008. I will investigate the way that these bailouts were discussed in popular discourses, focusing on issues related to the bailout including questions of fairness and responsibility in company and CEO practices. Specifically, this case study will examine speeches by members of Congress and President Bush around the time of the passage of the bank bailout bill, the public scrutiny surrounding exorbitant practices of companies that received bailout money, the “too big to fail” label given to banks to justify the government bailout of banks, and the testimony that bank CEOs gave to Congressional committees about the use of bailout money. This chapter will also investigate the practice of publicly calling the Chief Executive Officers of the companies involved in the bailouts to testify publicly before Congress. Such testimony concerned questions of both the extent of the companies’ need for federal assistance as well as the individual consumptive habits of the companies’ highest ranking employees (large bonuses, expensive accommodations, etc.). The rhetoric in these various discussions centers on questions of individual responsibility for the poor performance of the companies as well as their role in addressing the issues. This chapter will examine the relationship between the testimony and the practices to determine the extent to which the blame for the economic crisis is placed on the CEOs and what that sense of blame produces both in terms of public discourse and in terms of understood standards of practice for individuals and corporations. The discourse that singles out selfish CEOs who indulge themselves with lavish homes, offices, and modes of transportation can shed light on current modes of populism that have arisen in reaction to the recent economic downturn.
The second case study will focus on the rhetoric surrounding the bailouts of the automotive industry. It will specifically examine the institutional and bureaucratic differences between the auto and bank bailouts, the testimony auto company CEOs had to give in from of Congressional committees regarding their personal actions, the additional issues that presented themselves when discussing auto bailouts (unions, plan for restructuring, necessary sacrifices), and the theoretical distinctions between bank and auto bailouts (e.g. the rhetorical implications of “wall street” vs. “main street”). Auto bailout rhetoric presents another perspective from which to examine the new sense in which economic citizenship is undergoing a transition in the current economic moment. Questions of identity as in economic class (both in terms of income and in terms of type of profession, such as white collar vs. blue collar employment), location (in terms of both geographic location of the country and rural vs. urban locations), and education present themselves in relation to privilege. Populism takes on additional components as we look at the rhetorical effect of automotive bailouts.
Third, this project will continue investigate the populist resurgence by examining The Daily Show’s critique of CNBC’s reporting on the economy from March 4 to March 12, 2009, which culminated in an extended interview between host Jon Stewart and CNBC personality Jim Cramer. This chapter will also look at popular news media discussions of the exchanges, including segments where Jim Cramer appeared on other programs to discuss Stewart’s critique and commentary on the controversy by other news media shows. The episodes, especially the interview with Jim Cramer, garnered some of the highest ratings for the Daily Show so far in 2009.[v] In the exchange, Stewart takes a quasi-Marxist position, blaming both the CEOs for manipulating the stock markets to the detriment of the general public and CNBC not only for allowing it to happen when they had an opportunity to raise critical questions but also for cheering the CEOs and the financial system that created a situation where the general public suffered from said manipulation. Not only does Stewart point out an abuse of privilege in its most negative sense by the CEOs of the offending companies, he chastises CNBC for abusing their privilege (in the form of access to high ranking officials of these companies) to remain complicit (willingly or unwillingly) in the defrauding of the American economy. The exchanges between The Daily Show and CNBC concern both the role that the dissemination of information plays in the free market and the relationship between flows of signification (as information) and flows of capital. The critique becomes a call for a more engaged media, but there is little beyond that. In this sense of populism, a role for news media institutions becomes clear, and the relationship between a vibrant media and an engaged populace is evident. The only responsibility that Stewart speaks to, however, is that of the media to become something akin to political parrhesiastes (truth-tellers) that Foucault discusses in Fearless Speech.[vi] Stewart’s criticism leaves us with a crucial question, though: what are the conditions of possibility of engaging that truth in a productive manner in the current economic climate? What role can a properly informed citizenry play going forward in such a drastic economic recovery?
Finally, this project will interrogate another form of populism that I outline above by examining the conservative organization of tea parties around the country. These are populist protests that echo the famous Boston Tea Party that took place on December 16, 1773 to protest the American colonies’ status of being taxed without being represented in the British Parliament. The tea parties function in this current climate as a protest against efforts by President Obama and the Congress (controlled by the Democratic Party) to use governmental means (taxpayer money) to address the economic crisis. These protests have been promoted on right wing websites and on Fox News, and many of them have been planned for April 15, 2009, the day by which all Americans that earn an income must submit file their income taxes. This form of populism presumes that while the government has the privilege of controlling the taxpayers’ money, the people have the privilege of their voices to influence the government’s policies in a more libertarian (or fiscally conservative) direction.
This project’s methodological approach is, to an extent, implicit in the literature review. Overall, both the method and the approach of this project will focus on the construction of the subject, specifically the economic citizen subject as it relates to the economic crash and subsequent bailouts. The economic discourses that will receive significant attention articulate the citizen’s role in political life: ways that citizenship is understood and practiced, narratives that proscribe new limits and conditions for economic citizenship in the 21st century, and potential implications for citizenship’s construction and negotiation in the new economic landscape. It is under the broader theme of the new economic citizen that concepts like populism, rhetoric, identity, and privilege will operate within this project. These ideas inform the practice of economic citizenship and vice versa. Given the complex and multi-faceted nature of the issues in this project, I believe that a poststructuralist theoretical lens would be most advantageous. Specifically, I believe that Michel Foucault’s discussions of power, discourse, and truth-telling would be extremely useful in interrogating populism.[vii] His work from The Archaeology of Knowledge on discursive formations, statements (enonces), and discourse might be useful for examining the case study involving the tea parties across the United States. The parties involve not only numerous different (and occasionally inconsistent) factions but also paradigms that can both overlap and diverge from one another. The contingent collection of these diverse elements of American politics in the tea parties includes libertarianism, religious fundamentalism, and xenophobia. Foucault’s work will be particularly instructive in figuring out the function of these protests at this particular moment.
Given that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have explicitly written about populism in the context of radical democracy, their discussions of articulation, antagonism, and hegemony will be helpful in discussing the final two case studies in particular, but they might also inform the first two to a lesser extent.[viii] Populism runs through each of this project’s case studies, and the approach of Laclau and Mouffe’s discussions of populism, radical democracy, and articulation provide a useful way of examining the diverse voices and statements that can be found in each case study. In the bailout chapters, for example, the collection of diverse perspectives from governmental, business, and individual voices articulate democracy, economic citizenship, and populism.
Gilles Deleuze’s numerous concepts provide some analytical tools that might push the project in new and exciting directions that may be difficult to see even at this point. His theories and those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have influenced Ron Greene’s work on “communicative labor” and “money/speech” that will be especially useful in discussing case studies involving the act of bringing CEOs to Congress to testify for their actions in light of the substantial financial assistance they have received from the Federal Government. The implications of CEO testimony and the Daily Show interview with Jim Cramer reach both linguistic and non-linguistic levels. Similarly, the rhetorical strength of the tea parties can be found in both the signs and slogans that are present at these parties and in the relative size of different parties, the structural organization of parties themselves, and the relationship between the locality of the gatherings and the national scope of their news coverage (particularly by Fox News). Overall, the case studies themselves are highly complex, and traditional rhetorical approaches alone will not provide the robust theoretical tools necessary to examine them thoroughly. Poststructural approaches offer the richness that will allow for a thorough interrogation of the various ways that economic citizenship and populism have provided a new way of understanding the relationship between privilege and identity.
[i] U.S. Department of Labor, “Employment Situation Summary: March 2009,” United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 3, 2009, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm.
[ii] Broadly speaking, I see privilege occurring when a person or group is able to enjoy a benefit or avoid a hardship that another cannot.
[iii] Kevin DeLuca, “Articulation Theory: A Discursive Grounding for Rhetorical Practice,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 32, no. 4 (October 1999): 346.
[v] Daniel Frankel, “Cramer boosts 'Daily Show' ratings,” Variety, March 13, 2009, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118001235.html?categoryid=1236&cs=1.
[vi] Foucault, Fearless Speech.
[vii] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction; Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2001) See also Barbara Biesecker, “Michel Foucault and the Question of Rhetoric,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 351-364; Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984); Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (University of Minnesota Press, 1988)
[viii] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001); Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory; Laclau, On Populist Reason; Laclau, “Populism: What's in a Name?”; Mouffe, “The 'End of Politics' and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism”; Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (New York: Verso, 2000); Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993).