Mitt Romney and the Question of Culture

To say that Mr. Romney’s references to culture are a masked economism is probably stating the obvious. But now that Mr. Romney has used culture to argue that certain cultures, like the Palestinians, are inherently not capable of developing at par with their others, his use of culture as a trope needs further inquiry.

Attributing material success to culture is not something new: theorists of nationalism, like Ernest Gellner, belive in the existence of a national high culture essential to developing a national space. It was on the question of culture, let us not forget, that Marx had given us one of his earlier major pronouncement. It was while responding to Feuerbach’s view of the culture, that Marx had invoked that beguiling term “in the last instance” that has given us so much to talk about. According to early Marx no matter what or where the culture is, it is economics that ultimately determines a culture in the last instance.

Mr. Romney, however, would rather have the reverse logic: construct a suitable culture and you will have a better economy. This thing called culture, thus, is static but material and can be built ex nihilo or so it seems. To compare Palestinian economy with that of Israel and to reduce its failure to the question of culture alone goes a long way in providing a scaffolding for the self that Mr. Romney wants to project. If culture is fixed and can be constructed out of nowhere, then one could posit that certain cultures are by their very nature unlikely to succeed while others, the neoliberal one for example, are bound to succeed.

When Mr. Romney invokes culture, what he really means is an economic system void of any redemptive governmental policies based in free market principles that allows the most ambitious and the most aggressive strain of humanity to succeed. That this success comes at a great cost to so many so-called wasted lives is of no consequence. But in this culture, financial success is apodictic and becomes the proof for its own existence.

By reducing the Palestinian condition to a question of culture, Mr. Romney can clearly blame the victims of a foreign occupation for their own failure. That the occupation might have something to do with Palestinian economy and their national world-view does not figure prominently in the minds of Mr. Romney and his ilk.

But while talking about culture, Mr. Romney and his minions never really mention the infrastructural scaffolding that allows the edifice of culture to be built and stabilized. That is why, for Marx, high culture was ultimately determined–in the last instance–through economy and the right mode of production.

It is also fascinating that Mr. Romney and his ilk seem to suffer from an extreme form of intellectual myopia: to read Adam Smith as a prophet of laissez faire economics and not also as a theorist of labor is an apt example of this vested blindness. To look at Palestinian lands across from his rich and lavish hotel room, surrounded by his rich supporters, and to not see the induced suffering of a people is also a question of culture. A culture that can produce a callous, self-righteous, and unreflective subjectivity such as that of Mr. Romney.

Yes, in the words of a Gibson character from Count Zero, “the very rich” it seems are “not even remotely human” but rather walking stick figures constantly spewing their own self-interest in the name of people and, yes, culture.

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