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  • The Moralized Economy in Hard Times
  • Michael J. Shapiro (bio)

All that one needs to moralize is to fail to understand.

Gilles Deleuze


In this article I engage the moralizing of economy by bringing it into an encounter with political perspectives that displace moralizing with critical, philosophical and ethical thinking. Taking as the initiating provocation the U.S. government's bailout of the American auto industry during the recent financial crisis, my analysis focuses on the ontological depth of automobile culture in the U.S. and proceeds not through direct argumentation but through interpretations of a series of artistic genres - a television drama, a comic strip, a series of novels, and a film - all of which deal in varying degrees with aspects of "automobility" (the economy, culture, and car-driver complex of automobile transportation) as it developed throughout the twentieth century.1 The temporal context for my investigation is encompassed in the expression "hard times," which references periods of an intensification of the process through which some people experience misfortune while others achieve financial gain. While moral economy is constituted as institutionalized inhibitions to certain kinds of exchange, a moralized economy is a specific historical event in which there is live debate about the morality of a new or altered kind of economic activity or policy. To enact the conceptual orientation I pursue, I begin with an analysis of two episodes of a television drama that is situated in a particularly eventful period in the development of American capitalism and end with an analysis of a film about economic hard times in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, shortly after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, when licit and illicit forms of predatory capitalism are accompanied by violent animosities that have all but displaced conviviality and friendship. Although a swerve to a film situated in Kiev runs the analysis mostly off the road, there is a special significance of a car that is featured in the film narrative. Moreover, as an object of analysis here, the film has two virtues. Kiev's cityscape offers a useful contrast because it does not appear to be a well-developed motorscape (unlike what is the case of most major cities) and because of the way the film's coverage of tensions between exchange and friendship allows me to stress the kind of ethico-philosophical thinking (as opposed to moralizing) that one can discern in cinema.

"Mad Men," Automobility, and the Racial Order

The AMC television channel's Mad Men (2008-2010) follows the professional and personal lives of a group of men and women who work at Sterling Cooper, a fictional, early 1960's Madison Avenue advertising firm. As each episode makes evident, by the 1960's the American economy had become so focused on the identity-vulnerability of the consumer that selling images rather than things had become widely accepted. In comparison with the beginning of the century, when it was deemed immoral to seek to arouse desire for commodities, no moral obloquy seems to afflict the personnel of Sterling Cooper, whose executives and staff, as well as their clients, take for granted the shift in economy from the production of things to the production of desire. As Lawrence Birken aptly puts it, in the new economic paradigm (well entrenched by the era of Mad Men), "commodities themselves were not so much material goods as desired objects"2 By mid century, "the land of desire" had developed to the point where mass production had been unapologetically accompanied by "mass consumer enticements that rose up in tandem to market and sell the mass-produced goods."3 And the Sterling Cooper advertising firm, in which the "mad men" toil, has as its main "product," enticement. Nevertheless, even in the era in which enticement had begun to displace production as the main driving force of economy, there remained inhibitions. As Fernand Braudel points out in his monumental treatment of the history of commerce, as systems of exchange have expanded, culture has served as a form of inertia or inhibition.4 Two episodes of Mad Men, which reflect some of the tensions between culture and economy in the U.S. in the mid twentieth century...