The Financialization of Political Discourse (or more on David Frum)

As a follow-up to my earlier post on David Frum, it occurs to me that I overlooked one additional peculiarity in his use of the word “constituency.”

(Just as a reminder, this is the comment from Frum that sent me into such a tizzy: “[Obama] issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue.” I know, I know.  Political theorists can work themselves up over the durndest things.)

Not only does Frum assume the banks are Obama’s constituency. He also assumes the banks are the natural constituency in a debate about the national debt because they are the ones—perhaps the only ones—with an interest in how that debate turns out. It’s as if the debate about the debt is primarily between the bankers and politicos only.

Viewed historically, that’ s somewhat unprecedented. Public debt has traditionally been one of the major political questions of any era. It was a key issue, if memory serves correctly, in 18th century debates in Britain between the Whigs and the Tories (otherwise known as the Court and the Country parties). It was a leading cause of the French Revolution (perhaps all major revolutions?  Isn’t that one of Theda Skocpol’s arguments in States and Social Revolutions?  It’s been a while…), insofar as the French monarchy was veering toward bankruptcy (in part b/c of its support for the American Revolution) and had to convene the Estates General in order to raise revenue.  It was of course a major source of the divide between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, resulting in one of Hamilton’s most brilliant tracts, his First Report on Public Credit.  And as we now know from the debate about the current debt and the 14th Amendment, it was a major concern of the Reconstruction Congress after the Civil War.

That we now assume so easily that it’s the banks who care most about the debt because it is they who have most at stake, again, testifies to the steady financialization of not only our economy but also of our political discourse.

For more on this and related issues, check out this post and the discussion over at the excellent new blog The Current Moment, run by my friend Alex Gourevitch.


  1. Shane Taylor July 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm | #

    After reading Philip Mirowski, I’d say there is ample precedent under market liberalism. Numerous trade, monetary, and intellectual property issues have been cordoned off as the exclusive concern of neutral technocrats, provided they’re “economically literate.”

    That could only be counter-intuitive if market liberalism were mistaken for mere laissez-faire, which it’s not. The movement has long been more complicated than that–and schizophrenic. They legitimize the market state through agitprop about “spontaneous order,” but they know that the market state won’t construct itself. In fact, that’s what put the neo- in neoliberalism (back in the early days of the postwar era, when they self-identified as neoliberals).

    Mirowski said it best in his postface to this book, where he defined the political philosophy better anyone else I’ve read on the subject:

    And market liberals have been obsessed with redefining the very concept of the “rule of law,” expanding it to include many aspects of the market state. The goal, obviously, is to insulate as much of their political project as they can from the voting public. Raymond Plant wrote the book on that part of their project:

    • Corey Robin July 9, 2011 at 8:05 pm | #

      I’m not talking about the market or the economy in general. Nor am I talking about the trade and intellectual property issues you cite above. I’m talking about something quite specific — the public debt — which traditionally was thought to be so fraught with political implications and consequences that arguments about it helped constitute fundamental political divides, as well as revolutions. This wasn’t a general post about neoliberalism but about the politics of public debt.

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