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Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Political Economy of Fear and Disgust; or, In Praise of 'The Housewives'

In a recent post, Professor Jonathan Simon makes the impassioned case that there simply isn't enough money any more for the state of California to invest in both education and imprisonment.  Sure, when times were fat, we could support our wasteful fear habit.  But today we must choose -- exactly by a kind economic compulsion -- between "fear" and "hope" -- investment in our future or the repressive and retrograde policies of the past.  "Hope," of course, has been wielded spectacularly effectively as a political weapon -- it's what we've got now, and what the other guy didn't have and couldn't deliver.  And now Professor Simon wants to imbue hope with a kind of economic hegemony too; we can invest in hope, but if we do, there's just no money for anything else left. 

Professor Simon is infinitely more knowlegeable about all things Californian than I ever will be.  Still, I wonder whether he severely underestimates the economies -- the money -- that can be generated by both fear and disgust.  Indeed, it may well be that fear and disgust generate much more money than does hope. 

But how to think about these economies practically?  In the blue corner, representing the political economy of hope, we can imagine, for example, the current President, and there is no doubt that he has ably deployed "hope" to churn up great political excitement.  That excitement has translated into a whole lot of cash, especially for the causes he champions.  But in the red (or maybe, the black?) corner, representing fear and disgust, we've got...what exactly?  Standing 6'11'' and weighing in at an awesome 280 pounds is the imposing reality television industry, with its endless celebration of schadenfreude, loathing, and abasing behavior.  The feelings of fear, hate, and disgust that these shows are perfecting obviously generate piles of money, since they seem to be the most profitable future for TV entertainment.  And atop the gloriously putrescent heap is, at least for me, the Housewives of Orange County. 

The Housewives is that perfect combination of fear and disgust in a reality program, and both qualities are mutually reinforcing.  The wastefulness, vapidity, and meanness of the Housewives' lives, in combination with their extravagantly (really, extravagant is too soft a term -- words fail me) lavish lifestyles, generates a kind of loathing fascination.  Are they so wealthy exactly, and only, because they are so hateful?  Or is it the wealth that has made them so despicable?  These and other great mysteries vex the viewer, as he descends deeper and deeper into the intrigue.  Given the popularity of the show, and the spin-offs in cities all around the country, hatefulness clearly sells, both in this Reality TV show and in so many others.  There is an enormous and thriving political economy of disgust. 

If disgust sells, why not fear?  Thus far, Reality TV has not yet taken on the prisons (though there are some MSNBC shows that truck in this sort of thing), but I wonder whether there is not a real economic opportunity waiting for some shrewd producer to exploit.

At all events, I am not at all sure that Professor Simon is right to argue that there simply is not enough money to pay for both hope and fear.  Fear and disgust generate shamefully, ostentatiously, large quantities of cash, quantities that in all likelihood dwarf whatever is stimulated, so to speak, by hope.  If only we could siphon some of it off to pay some of the social cost for our 'fear addiction' -- a powerful dependency which Professor Simon documents so extensively, and so eloquently, in his posts on this page.     

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on November 22, 2009 at 11:09 PM | Permalink

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