New book review: Matt Taibbi’s THE DIVIDE

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a small but determined Canadian Reformed newspaper. (I fall in with the oddest crowds; life’s more fun that way.) I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people. 

What Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap offers US readers is obvious: it lets us know, with relentless clarity, that our government has all the moral legitimacy of a bridge troll. It informs us that our Justice Department has a stated policy (google “Holder memo”) against prosecuting even obviously criminal activity when it is committed by giant employers (google “HSNBC cartel money laundering”). It tells of black people rounded up en masse and charged after the fact with offenses like standing in their own doorway. It tells of the effort required to fight these charges, effort that essentially precludes having a day job. It tells of welfare bureaucrats preemptively searching the homes of applicants, even rifling through immigrant women’s underwear to see if they own anything attractive enough to suggest unlisted male sources of support. (It’s all constitutional, by the way: 1971’s Wyman v. James found that the Fourth Amendment basically doesn’t apply to folks on public assistance.) It shows not merely that the US justice system is harder on the caught-red-handed poor than on the rich—who needs a book to see that? It shows us that our justice system willfully ignores the crimes of too-big-to-fail (or -prosecute) banks and actively aggresses against the poor:

If you’re the wrong kind of person and you get caught up in the criminal justice system, or stuck in the welfare bureaucracy, or mired in debt, you can’t get out without navigating a maze so complex and dispiriting and irrational that it can’t possibly even be mapped. … On the other side of the coin, the secret to conquering the financial bureaucracy isn’t savvy in a business sense, or the ability to spot a good entrepreneurial idea. Instead, it’s pure bureaucratic force, the ability to throw a hundred lawyers at every problem … In other words, you need to be a bureaucracy in order to survive a bureaucracy.

I hate violence and I distrust all talk of “revolution.” But by the end of this book I not only wanted to occupy Wall Street, I wanted to destroy it with my bare hands.

What The Divide offers to readers outside the US is less obvious, but just as substantial. In journalistic terms, it’s an extremely impressive piece of reportage. In literary terms, it testifies to Taibbi’s increasing mastery over the arts of clear and simple organization and polemical prose style. Some readers got turned off his excellent previous book, Griftopia, wherein he does things like calling Alan Greenspan the largest bodily-opening-of-interest-to-proctologists in the universe (he may not have said it like that), or likening Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” (I was about to call this a mixed metaphor, but it turns out vampire squids are a real thing. Who knew? Matt Taibbi, apparently.) In all of these cases, Taibbi provided more than enough history, context, and new reportage to justify such intemperate characterizations, but he forfeited that contingent of readers who equate passionate anger with journalistic unreliability. (Apparently some people live in a world where no fact, soberly analyzed, leads to rage. That’s cool. I live on Earth.) Those readers will get further with The Divide, which lets us construct more of the epithets for ourselves.

What the book also offers non-US readers is, I’m afraid, a vision of their possible future. In a mostly positive review of the book, the writer Maureen Tkacik—herself an essential chronicler of our political woes—takes Taibbi to task for failing to talk about neoliberalism, the ideology behind the conditions he decries. While I think The Divide is fine the way it is, I agree with Tkacik that our increasing global belief in the power of self-interest—uncut with any of Adam Smith’s passionate concern for human sympathy—is at or near the heart of all this. So is the neoliberals’ fanciful assertion that markets, if left alone by government (whatever that could possibly mean, given that governments make markets possible in the first place), will reach equilibrium at full employment. Everybody just manage your interests well, and we’ll all have jobs! In one virtuoso passage, Taibbi describes the “vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and the private sectors,” that have made it “literally a crime” to be poor:

[I]t attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are—namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.

But if the smart management of one’s own interests is our social contract, then need really does become something larger than a mere inconvenience—it’s a flouting of that very contract. You must not have been seeing to your own interests well, or you wouldn’t have lived in the kind of neighborhood where cops pick people up just, you know, because. And we’ll throw charges at you till something sticks, or till you miss a court date and thus acquire an outstanding warrant, or till you get so tired of being chewed-up in bureaucracy that you plead out. But your real crime was always need.

The more countries succumb to neoliberalism’s attenuated view of human nature and social order, which pretends to be science (read Yves Smith’s ECONned for more on that) while ignoring much of the evidence provided by, you know, actual history—it’s no accident that economic history has been marginalized within econ departments—the more transgressive simple human need becomes. This refusal simply to be the dependent creatures we are, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the dependents around us: this is the truly militant atheism of our time. And it makes Richard Dawkins look downright huggable by comparison.

The Bible calls all this “grinding the faces of the poor.” But what kind of loser reads that?

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