Sunday, July 13, 2008

In the transnational underground: writing neoliberalism in Three Dollars and Capital volume one [ASAL remix]

[Below is a conference paper presented at the 2008 ASAL Conference: Australian Literature in a Global World. It's a re-mix of parts of previous drafts with some newer riffs and lines of argument added. Any comments would be appreciated.]

In a chapter from the 2002 Collection Departures: How Australia Re-invents Itself, Paul Gillen writes 'The word 'Globalisation' is everywhere these days: in books and journal articles, the speeches of pundits and politicians, news items and everyday conversations.' Gillen suggests 'it may be useful to think of it as an example of what Richard Dawkins calls a meme . . . a semantic entity that successfully reproduces itself.'

What Gillen then does in this chapter titled "Globalism and its discontents" is to analyse and compare two modes of writing, from an Australian perspective, about globalisation. On the one hand he works through a reading of John Wiseman's Global Nation? Australia and the Politics of Globalization and McKenzie Wark's Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: the Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World and finds that there is a positive and optimistic engagement with the potential of transnational civic structures and technological and cosmopolitan cultural networks in these works published in the years 1998-1999. On the other hand Gillen's reading of three Australian novels of the same period have 'an entirely different ambience.' The novels Gillen selects here are Bernard Cohen's Snowdome, Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars and Anthony Macris's Capital, Volume One and he finds '[t]he novelists sound like people who have just lost their jobs. They are sardonic, angry and upset. They are not interested in solutions. They want to grumble, make trouble and lash out.'

I want to add to Gillen's readings by approaching Three Dollars and Capital, Volume One as responses to neoliberalism rather than globalization. And I want to place the ideas of a different non-fictional 1998 text alongside these novels - Mitchell Dean and Barry Hindess's Governing Australia: Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government - in order to offer the sort of reading enabled by substituting globalisation as a heuristic with Foucault's notion of neoliberalism as a form of governmentality and political rationality.


There is a moment near the end of Elliot Perlman's popular novelistic critique of economic rationalism - Three Dollars - when the narrator Eddie Harnovey launches into a philosophical reflection on the proper conduct of a free will. This working through of an ethics occurs in the novel after Eddie has lost his public service job, having refused to water down his environmental impact report which is heavily critical of plans for an industrial development. Not only has Eddie lost his formerly secure job with a Government Department of Environment, but his young daughter has recently started to have epileptic seizures, and his wife's academic career and PhD thesis on the death of Keynesian political economy, have been overwhelmed by her casualisation at the university where she tutors and the return of depression.
While waiting for the suburban train that will take him home Eddie sits above the underground train station [Melbourne's inner-city Flagstaff Station], unemployed for the first time since leaving university and just having had an absurd counselling session with a government psychologist whose avant-garde managerialism Eddie parries with argument and sardonic replies. Fighting back self-pity he reflects on the uses of free will:

It was growing increasingly overcast. As I saw it, the only real use we could have for free will as a concept was in an ethical or moral sense. Free will, although we really mean free action, is the construct we have to use to assess whether or not an action is an appropriate candidate for an ethical judgement. . . [S]o long as an individual feels free from other people's coercion in his or her choice to do or not to do something, it does not matter that innumerable previous and present events have determined which choice the individual ultimately makes. For among the causal events will be past ethical judgements and the present expectation of future ones. Such an understanding of free will makes it possible for us to describe people's behavior as moral or immoral. Without it everyone is amoral.
I wondered how Kant and Hume and the others did this stuff without the benefit of a railway station.

It's not the logic of the argument that I find interesting or persuasive but the way by which Eddie's situation - unemployed and waiting for the train to take him home - acts on the argument. In anthropologist Mark Auge's terms Eddie's thinking on ethical conduct occurs on the precipice of a non-place: a place that is not a home or destination; often a place of commerce like a shopping mall, or a hub for transport like an airport. But more than just a non-place there is a temporal dimension to the moments at the train station which range from waiting to leaving, if the timing is right, to being too late if the timing is wrong. Eddie in Three Dollars is waiting for the next train to take him home.
Eddie's precarious state is framed by the orderly expectation of the next train arriving to take him home. His ethical thinking, like the train that will come, has a destination. Eddie's active citizenship, his social liberalism, generates its own good timing. In other words Eddie's acts of citizenship throughout the novel - whistleblowing, helping a homeless man to find the owner of a lost dog, helping a woman with a headache - are on track to arrive back to him: all good deeds are recognised in the cosmic calculus of this novel's portrayal of social liberal citizenship. And this is precisely the narrative logic of the novel when Eddie's free-falling descent into pauperdom is caught by Nick at the homeless shelter who teaches Eddie the tricks of surviving on the street: returning Eddie's prior stranger-sociability.
In Three Dollars time at the edge of the non-place of the train station is for the abstract logic of an ethics that shares much with the logic of capitalist commodity exchange: investment in strangers will ultimately pay dividends. The train will come.

Three Dollars has had a busy public life, helped by the 2004 film adaptation and its subsequent harsh reception by News Limited commentators and by prominent neoconservative intellectual Keith Windschuttle. The chief complaint of these reviewers was the unrealistic speed of Eddie's fall from middle-class security. Regardless of the main intent of these reviews, which targetted the movie as an anachronistic attack on what they saw as the settled question of economic rationalism, the melodramatic fall of Eddie, once unemployed, disfigures and spoils what is up to that point an interesting, funny and complex narrativisation of the ascendance of neoliberal governmentality.
In an essay accompanying the screenplay to the movie - "The Human Cost of Economic Rationalism" - Perlman writes:

What can perhaps be regarded as the fundamental axiom of economic rationalism holds that the workings of the completely free market, that is, one unimpeded by government intervention or regulation, will deliver the best possible social outcomes, that is to say, maximum material benefits and the optimal distribution of these benefits.
If this return to the economic jungle is the abrogation of the social contract upon which civilised society is predicated, then so much the worse for social contract.

Perlman in both this essay and in his debut novel does make some valid even persuasive points. Indeed, whether you talk of a Foucauldian neoliberalism or economic rationalism there is certainly the effects of privatisation of previously state administered utilities and concerns, and there has certainly been a loosening of the regulatory controls in key sectors, most notably in the finance sector following the clean float of the exchange rate and the loosening of foreign bank controls. However, it would be mistaken to think that because one mode of regulation and governance has been removed that there is therefore no regulation or governance; or that the state can’t regulate in the interests of multi-national corporations. Rather than there being no regulation a state regulating in the interests of capital is different to one in which the state is powerless. So, I think that while Perlman is on the right track in criticizing the direction of the relatively recent shifts in government, I think he has mis-diagnosed changes in regulatory regimes for the absence of regulation. And here is where the Foucauldian concept of governmentality starts to explain what Perlman misses.

Writing more recently about the utility of Foucualt's concept of governmentality, Mitchell Dean argues that while it has been used to give thick descriptions and analyses of 'the rationalities, techniques, goals and identities formed in the practices that seek to guide the conduct of oneself or others', there is a also a critical side to such analyses when they can detail the disjunction between the 'programmes of government' and 'the domain of effects.'
So, if some of the programmes of neoliberal governmentality aim at forming the self as flexible, accountable, entrepreneurial or efficient, then rather than the portrayal of economic rationalism as a free-market ideology that is able to be resisted because outside the self - as in Three Dollars - in Tony Macris's Capital, Volume One the 'domain of effects' is continually presented in a very different use of a train station and through beginning, rather than ending, the novel with an unemployed figure: 'Ever since he was unexpectedly laid off from work three weeks ago ('The recession, I'm afraid,' were the only words of explanation), his days have been spent keeping his spirits up by arranging outings - preferably those that are either cheap or free.' [18]
And it is towards one of these outings that that the novel begins,with a young Australian traveller on a inner-London bound train recounting the delays that have made him late to meet a friend who he will go on to see a movie with. This initial everyday suspense – will he make the connection – is heightened by not knowing what the time is. So a low-level anxiety pervades the opening of the novel and this underscores the minutely detailed descriptions of the advertising in train’s interior and the other passenger’s faces. In Bakhtin’s terms the novel opens with the chronotope of a modern metropolitan journey structuring its timespace, but the arrival at the train station and finally discovering how late the young Australian actually is ends this chronotope – the journey is over. So, what happens next?

It’s at this point that the narrative splits – the next chapter is a first person episode in the life of a young suburban Brisbane boy walking to school: this is start of a journey as well with the young boy headed along a white concrete footpath which he imagines as having the shape and form evoked by 1970s pop songs and the Superman movie. On the footpath he spins a 2 cent coin, the Queen and the frill-necked lizard start to come to life, as does the coin itself: its 'spinning shadow precedes it, acid grey swarming with amber particles over the hot white concrete'[15].
This split narrative – alternating chapters between the London Underground narrative which is continuous and occurs over a period of about half an hour, and the first-person negative epiphanies of the young Brisbane boy at various moments in his life: from the pre-pubescent schoolboy to working as a teacher in London – is a similar technique to the one Frank Moorhouse named discontinuous narrative. The effect here is to rupture a developmental temporality, especially one of organic growth. The first-person episodes are ones of disillusion, humiliation, loss and even violence where commodity and market culture breaks up the identity and integrity of the narrator and separates him from others. The global market, in cultural products especially, is thematised in these first-person chapters as the means by which the citizen-subject has their desires formed. The figure of David Bowie is prominent in both narrative threads as a commodity-producing industry that deposits desires in the narrator that become stockpiled and useless over time:

I knock my forehead against the toilet door; I want to cry. There must be some way of getting all this Bowie junk out of my head. I feel as if I had been poisoned, years of afternoons in front of the record player unwitting sessions of exposure to low-level radiation, my brain drip fed with sterile data, passive data that lies there inert, blocking the flow. I feel like a cat taught how to use a can opener, given an unlimited supply of Whiskas and left to eat itself to death. How did all that brain junk get in there in the first place? I put it there. Pocket money from my parents, Christmas money from my relatives, TEAS cheques from the Department of Finance, dole cheques from the DSS pay cheques from Pancakes, all spent on records. But it’s not only my fault. RCA is to blame. Tony Defreak is to blame. David is to blame. (150)

Franco Moretti in his chapter on Joyce’s Ulysses in Modern Epic argues that in Ulysses the use of multiple voices – or polyphony – is deanthropomorphised and the voices are institutional ones. Macris takes this dehumanist narrating technique further in the London Underground where the labels on chip packets and sports drinks start to generate textuality and speak directly to us. The London Underground becomes a space in which the writing moves with the focus and rhythm of a range of modern cameras: sometimes it slows the frames down to lingering like a still image, and at other points the rushed mass-movement of train commuters in the tunnels reads like a time-lapse sequence. The camera-eye also zooms in and out: at one point honing in on a piece of grit caught in a commuter’s eye, at one point tracking the slow-motion sequence of a lucozade bottle performing an acrobatic tumble.

In his 2007 essay '"The Strangest of Station Names": Changing Trains with Kracauer and Benjamin,' Barry Langford writes: 'the railway station is a site of magical departures, and not despite but precisely by virtue of its irrevocable instantiation of the everyday.' And this everyday-ness is, for Langford, one of the 'twin technological marvels and avatars [in affinity with cinema] of urban modernity, shrinking and rearranging the cultural experience of space and time, running . . . on parallel tracks [and constituting one of the key] commonplaces of the cultural history of modernism' (emphasis added). As a commonplace - a rhetorical figure - the train station comes with a cultural history that is conjured into the zone of a text's reading: a figure of time-space compression. Time-space compression - a concept from the Marxist geographer David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity - is the experience of urban modernity as the capitalist system makes its way out of crises of accumulation by speeding up and shrinking time-space. Harvey's basic argument is that the cultural experience of post modernity is largely determined by a shift in the regime of capitalist accumulation prompted by the breakdown of the solid regimes of the post World War II Keynesian Bretton-Woods system. From solid to flexible regimes. This moment in the early 1970s is also the moment in which the Chicago School economists begin to ascend over the Keynesians: the moment in which neoliberalism finds its purchase in response to the crises of consumer capitalism and its Fordist-Keynesian-Welfare State government.
The question that Three Dollars ultimately poses is how do 'we' get out of or surmount the neoliberal system, neoliberal governmentality? But first the novel needs to prefigure the living hell of neoliberalism, slowly building toward a experiential crisis that reflects the social-political one moving with the force of a tidal wave into University and Government Public service areas. And this brings us back to Langford's train station: that commonplace figure 'shrinking and rearranging the cultural experience of space and time.' Three Dollars invoke this figure of the underground rail station only to position the narrator largely on the mouth of the underground, having Eddie go down the escalator a little, only to seek a way quickly out: ultimately with the job offer of a position in human resources in a large bank left ambiguously dangling at the novel’s end.
Had Eddie descended into the train station underground the quotidian experience of neoliberal governmentality's shrinking and rearranging of time-space might have been offered to the reader. But Eddie only dips his toe into the underground. The figure of the train station forms at the edge of the [political] unconscious of Three Dollars.

Whereas in Capital, Volume One around half an hour spent moving through a few tunnels and platforms plunges the reader into a decompressed time-space where the self is radically re-formed, like the economy under Paul Keating, with the unemployed Australian tourist trapped in the underground, '[H]is whole head seems to be at the mercy of the wind that has finally succeeded in penetrating his ears, nose, mouth, and is free to roar through the network of tunnels and passageways under his face. He tries to step forward, but the wind is now so strong that it is nearly impossible.' [226]

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