It's Not a Crippling Recession. It's a Learning Experience!

It's a good thing this epic recession is an opportunity to "reset" our culture, as Kurt Andersen tells us, or slough off the chains of corporatism, as per Douglas Rushkoff. Otherwise it would really suck for all the unemployed people.

We haven't read Andersen's new book, called Reset, but we got a preview in his essay for Time a few months ago arguing that the economic mess that has one in eight Americans behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure is actually a good thing because it could herald a "rediscovery of the common good."

Rushkoff makes a similar, if larger, argument in Life, Inc., which makes the case that "the current financial crisis is actually an opportunity to reverse [the] 600-year-old trend" toward corporate domination of the minutiae of our lives.

Awesome. The 33 million people currently relying on food stamps [pdf]—up 18% from a year ago—will no doubt feel better about their plight with the knowledge that they can now fight back against "the branding of the self" that Rushkoff bemoans in our corporate culture. Or that "the meltdown and resulting reset might jar the culture" out of the tendency in "art and design and entertainment" toward "compulsively reviving styles and remixing the greatest hits of the past," which has always bugged Andersen.

This lemons-to-lemonade theorizing is inevitable and ultimately harmless. And both Rushkoff and Andersen are right that stupidity and navel-gazing and gluttony and complacency got us into this mess, and that it would be a good thing to not be stupid and navel-gazing and complacent. But we're getting tired of hearing cultural and economic evangelizing about the upside of the fact that people literally can't afford to eat from well-heeled, comfortable intellectuals whose book parties probably cost more than the median income in a lot of the decimated towns across this country whose misfortunes they are fetishizing as some kind of return to bedrock values. Andersen writes:

It's time to ratchet back our wild and crazy grasshopper side and get in touch with our inner ant, to be more artisan-enterpriser and less prospector-speculator, more heroic Greatest Generation and less self-indulgent baby boomer, to return from Oz to Kansas, to become fully reality-based again.... Yes, we must start spending again, and we will. But we've all known people who, having survived the 1930s, never lost their Depression habits of frugality. And so it will be again.

The reason people never lost their Depression habits of frugality is that they saw people starving on the streets, and they were terrified beyond reason that it might happen again. It's true that people learn valuable moral lessons from hardship, but those lessons don't make the hardship a good thing. People learn awful truths in war. That doesn't mean we should have more of them for educational purposes, or that they have an upside.

The problem with this finally-we're-getting-back-to-what-matters analysis is that the most severely hurt victims of this economy never got away from what matters. They were too busy working. Kurt Andersen and his friends might have lost touch with work or nature or reality, but they are going to be just fine, and can afford to look at their lean times as a spiritual journey. Again from Andersen:

[E]ven after the economy recovers, deciding to forgo that third car or fifth TV or imperial master bathroom or marginally cooler laptop will come more naturally.

Fifth TV? Yes, the recession could be a turning point for idiots who had five TVs. They might learn that they don't need five TVs. But Andersen may be surprised to learn that there are vast numbers of people for whom buying the marginally cooler laptop never came naturally, because they couldn't afford it. What lessons do they have to learn from the economic collapse?

Rushkoff's beef goes back to the Renaissance and the development of central currency; he thinks that by not having jobs we can "reconnect to our towns, to the value we can create, and mostly, to one another." It's a back-to-the-land-style argument, a call to rid ourselves of the abstractions of the postmodern economy and focus on the actual economic life in our neighborhoods. He was on the Colbert Report last night:

We can stop outsourcing our investment to Wall Street, stop outsourcing to banks and start investing in people we know, businesses that we start ourselves rather than faux businesses on the Forbes 400.

Again, quite reasonable. But coming from someone who describes himself as a "media theorist by trade," it's hard to swallow. We wonder how Rushkoff would make a living if we all stopped buying books from corporations and started investing in our friendly neighborhood media theorist. Probably about as well as the 16 percent or so of the population that doesn't have a job right now, or is underemployed, or has given up looking for a job because they're too busy reconnecting to one another and not eating.