Straight Theory: On the Ugliness of Niall Ferguson’s Mind

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Here is something remarkable that happened: several days ago, Niall Ferguson told a group of 500 investors that John Maynard Keynes’ economic philosophy was “flawed” because Keynes’s gayness led the famed economist to disregard the well-being of future generations. Today Ferguson apologized. I do not want to read the apology. Perhaps someone could tell me about it.

Tom Kostigen’s report* is especially interesting, providing as it does more than the usual sliver of context with which news readers are expected to make sense of controversial statements:

Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

Ferguson apparently followed up these comments with some speculation on Keynes’s “selfishness”–an obvious corollary, Ferguson suggested, to the economist’s “effete” worldview, and by implication, the renunciation of reproductive responsibilities.

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Kostigen notes that such analysis “takes gay-bashing to new heights” and “perversely pins the full weight of the financial crisis on the gay community and the barren.”

We are not without preparation for Ferguson’s remarks. Social media today was alight with reminiscences and concordances, tracking the latent homophobia over the decades of Ferguson’s self-invention as capitalism’s macho apologist.

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Other forms of education may also have prepared us for Ferguson’s remarks.

Queer theory, for example, has long insisted that conservatism’s contracts with the dead are perhaps less important than neoliberalism’s personification of the unborn. Queer theory has illuminated the centrality of what Lee Edelman calls contemporary capitalism’s “reproductive futurism.”** “Think of the children” is the generic slogan of all reactionary politics.

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The “fantasy subtending the image of the Child,” Edelman writes, “invariably shapes the logic within which the political itself must be thought.” That logic compels us, Edelman insists, “to the extent that we would register as politically responsible, to submit to the framing of political debate-and, indeed, of the political field-as defined by the terms of… reproductive futurism: terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.”

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In The Explanation for Everything, Paul Morrison explores the way that gayness, linked in the conservative mind with narcissism and consumption, has been singled out as the cause of civilizational decline. Care of the self, in capitalism, is mandatory. Bodybuilding or gay gym culture, however, is pathological. Shopping is a national religion. But gay men as consumers are either magical savants (as in the hosts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) or monstrous deviants, practitioners of various species of what Tim Dean calls the “numerical grotesque”–too much, too many, too often.

In studies like those of Edelman and Morrison, we can see the conservative rendering of homosexuality as a solution to the core ideological problem of capitalism-as-economic-theology: if endless production and athletic consumption are required in order to preserve the system (which is, after all, the only possible system, the only thinkable system, the only road that does not lead to serfdom), for how long can capitalism insist that capitalist work is both ennobling and to be avoided at all costs, that consumption is both a perfect realization of human desires and a pathetic species of empty materialism?

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Such an ideological deadlock usually calls for a scapegoat, and in this case, the fantasized homosexual is the perfect candidate. The creation of a demonology based on gay people’s fantasized refusal of “reproductive futurism,” then, is capitalism’s foundational Straight Theory, as important, in its way, as its right-wing cultural studies and its reactionary theories of gender and sexuality.

In announcing this Straight Theory to the world, Ferguson merely takes a highlighter to a common-sense proposition shared by his fellow mandarins (commentators noted that Greg Mankiw, for example, has articulated a similar sentiment, if in less incendiary form). What is so vexing about Ferguson’s remarks is not that he is a liar (his propositions are too vacuous and speculative to rise to the level even of a lie) but that he is   so thoroughly interpellated by capitalist ideology that he cannot recognize how internally contradictory are every single one of his presuppositions about economy, history, human behavior, and policy. There is something deeply sadistic about his queer-bashing of Keynes, as in his imperialist buffoonery and hallucinations about Obama, the familiar sadism of the bully who reaches an aporia, who receives a momentary flash of the dissonance and non-correspondence at the center of the cognitive network, and thus threatened with the dissolution of reality, punches someone weaker or shorter (or deader or darker-skinned) in the gut.

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I learned of Ferguson’s remarks as I was working on a paper on the topic of “make-work” in the midcentury American political economy. I have been thinking about the central terms of “make-work”– the requirement that employers hire an “extra man,” the printers’ habit of “setting bogus” (typesetting newspaper pages that would promptly be destroyed, rather than printed, in order to preserve jobs that would otherwise be eliminated via new technological efficiencies), “goldbricking,” “featherbedding” (terms especially pregnant with meaning about the false and the authentic, entropy and fatigue). These thoughts have led me to other thoughts: about the order that John Maynard Keynes helped to create and its vulnerabilities to the prophets of efficiency, creative destruction, austerity, and “freedom.” Under the Keynesian order, economic life was a game of repetition: on the line, in the shops, even on the dancefloor, even in the concert hall. Those who thought hardest about unions and labor and monopolies and the state in the 1950s and 1960s searched for homeostasis, for the proper valves and filters that would release the regularly pent-up aggression and maintain industrial peace.

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 3.00.19 PMWe wind back around to one of Edelman’s areas of inquiry: Freud’s “death drive.” “Death drive” is what comes into view when we recognize, as Freud suggests in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” that there is more to human motivation than can be explained by the “economic point of view.” The utilitarians’ “hedonic calculus”–still lovingly deployed by the likes of Niall Ferguson–is not the whole story of life under capitalism, is often not the main story at all. Ferguson knows this–that is why he poses smugly in front of a row of riot police in promotional photos for his colonialist cheerleading of the West’s “killer apps” (individualism, property rights, competition, etc). This is why the market libertarian love of difference and celebration of the anarchy of desire–capable of temporarily winning over Romantic daydreamers like me on a bad day–are  a hoax: the price of admission is deference to a future-orientation secured and bonded by marriage and baby-making. All of which is simply to say that the intrusion of love and hate, sex and death, bodies and fluids, into the putatively hygienic halls of political economy is not really an intrusion at all.

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And to explain why I was reading these lines of Norman O. Brown’s On Death, Time, and Eternity from Hegel to Freud in Todd Dufresne’s edited volume of Freud’s “Beyond The Pleasure Principle” and related essays on the day that Niall Ferguson called John Maynard Keynes “effete” and why they seem like the appropriate lines with which to conclude:

(Nietzsche)… shows how instinctual repression generates the flight from death, how the flight from death underlies both the religion of immorality and the economic institution of hereditary property: ‘All that is unripe wants to live. All that suffers wants to live, that it may become ripe and joyous and longing… ‘I want heirs’–thus speaks all that suffers, ‘I want children; I do not want myself.’ Those prejudiced against Nietzsche might compare his concept of ‘wanting heirs’ to John Maynard Keynes’ critique of purposiveness: ‘Purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The ‘purposive’ man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; not, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam tomorrow and never jam today. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.’


** Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

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