Biden’s Philosophy of “As If” How transformational is Bidenomics? We have become virtual reality avatars: the revolution, perhaps, has begun
German philosopher Hans Vaihinger created the term “as if” to refer to a system of thought where ideas are not taken as true in themselves but merely experienced as true. His point is that it does not really matter if they are true, provided one regards them as true. Today we would call this virtual reality.
It is a powerful way of thinking and almost indispensable if we want to make sense of American politics in our time. Take the case of Joe Biden. His presidency is developing between two levels of perception, which at first may look contradictory. One: the Biden presidency is a moment of radical transformation, we are living the dawn of a new economic era, and Biden himself may well be compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the boldness of his vision and predictable impact on the shape of American society and the American economy. One media outlet suggested he is reengineering America. “He may not have sought transformation, but transformation found him.”
To many people, these claims may seem almost laughable. They might say, like Alicia Silverstone in the classic Clueless: “As If!” It is true that, trillion and after trillion, the recovery plans approved or announced by the administration might add up to something like real money. But this is very different from the kind of structural changes we associate with Roosevelt. Money has a way of creating powerful fictions without changing the underlying realities. It is not a coincidence that Biden failed to pass an increase in the minimal wage to $15. Modest in scope as the move would be, it seemed to Congress and even many Democrats as too radical. It could start to change the actually existing power relations. Instead, Biden is seeking policies that can produce an immediate appearance of change without any transformation in social and economic reality. His administration has no intention to rethink the role of the state in society and the economy. He may well succeed in raising corporate taxes but only to an extent that leaves everything else unchanged. Unsurprisingly, he is now planning to forgo an expansion of the estate tax. As Ramesh Ponnuru puts it, “for all of the Democrats’ ambitions to transform the country, there’s not a lot of transformation under way.” A ban on assault weapons. Statehood for the District of Columbia. Expansion of the Supreme Court. Limits on carbon emissions. A $15 minimum wage. An amnesty for illegal immigrants. Measures to increase unionization. The Equality Act. “What these policies have in common, besides thrilling progressives, is that they are not on track to become law.” Even Janet Yellen is already signalling that the new spending programs cannot become permanent.
Why then the ambition to change America that we find everywhere in statements from the White House as well as, of course, in the fawning media coverage? It is about the myth, the “as if.” The action takes place at the level of political myth. And here, ambition reigns. Progressives have been waiting decades now for the coming of a new myth, a figure that can, as Eric Levitz puts it, exorcise the ghost of Reagan from American politics and “raise the New Deal Order from its grave.” The pandemic “reinforced this intellectual fashion for a new economic order, while appearing to open up political space for its construction.” David Brooks argues that the very “role of government is being redefined,” but then adds that this is not really socialism because the federal government is not taking control of the economy and “this is not a bunch of programs to restrain corporate power.” Biden is something new but not something new.
What is remarkable about the contemporary situation in American politics is the way it is subject to two opposing demands. With Biden, the public mood is to regard his presidency as a transformational or even revolutionary moment, even though it is nothing of the sort. The second demand, then, is that it be nothing of the sort. The weak foundations of Bidenomics are not a bug but a feature. The country wants Biden to fail as a transformational president while succeeding as a myth maker. The genius of the process is that you get the best of both worlds: revolution without the real costs of social instability.
Thee are two levels: reality and myth. They may seem contradictory, but this is a productive and fully intended contradiction. Transport yourself on an epic journey into the heart of revolution through the magic of virtual reality completely immersed in a fully dynamic and interactive living world.