Posts Tagged ‘class’

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Chris Dillow writes that an under-appreciated feature of last week’s election in the United Kingdom is that “social class has become less important as an influence upon voting behaviour.” His argument is that, based on Lord Ashcroft’s polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Tony Blair’s Labour got in 1997, and Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working-class.

But there’s another way of looking at the class dimensions of the most recent election—not in terms of who voted but how they voted.

One of the interesting questions in Ashcroft’s exit polls concerns capitalism:

Q.12 Do you think of each of the following as being a force for good, a force for ill, or a mixed-blessing? Please give each one a score between 0 and 10, where 0 means they a very much a force for ill, 10 means it is very much a force for good and 5 means it is a mixed blessing. Capitalism

As it turns out, 61 percent of those who voted Labour consider capitalism at best a mixed-blessing, in contrast to 36 percent of Tory voters. (Green and Scottish National Party voters are even more opposed to capitalism—with 68 and 67 percent, respectively.)

A similar but somewhat less dramatic difference exists between socioeconomic groups (the closest the UK Office for National Statistics gets to classes). Only 44 percent of AB voters (in higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations) consider capitalism a mixed-blessing or worse, as against the 58 of DE voters (in semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations) who hold a negative view of capitalism.*

One possible interpretation of the snap election called by the Theresa May and the governing Conservative Party, then, is it was less a referendum on Brexit and more on capitalism. And on that score, with rising inequality and the threatened cutback in social services for those at the bottom, class still does matter for voters in the United Kingdom.

 

*The one surprising result in Ashcroft’s poll is how little difference there is in terms of age: while 53 percent of voters age 18 to 24 hold a negative view of capitalism, that falls to only 45 percent among voters 65 and over.

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Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

 

*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.

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Finally, after years of near-orgiastic celebrations of the internet of things—including, of course, Jeremy Rifkin’s extravagant claim that it would move us beyond capitalism and usher in the “democratization of economic life”—commentators are beginning to question some of its key assumptions and effects. What they have discovered is that the internet of things is, “in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Nathan Heller, for example, finds that, while the gig economy can make life easier and more financially rewarding for many “creative, affluent professionals,” it often has negative effects on those who do the actual work:

A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.

On top of that, the fact that the so-called sharing economy has become a liberal beacon (including, as Heller makes clear, among many Democratic activists and strategists) has meant the displacing of “commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism” by acts of individual internet-based exchange.

Perhaps even more important (or at least more unexpected and therefore more interesting), Adam Greenfield focuses on the problematic philosophical assumptions embedded in the ideology of the internet of things.

The strongest and most explicit articulation of this ideology in the definition of a smart city has been offered by the house journal of the engineering company Siemens: “Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service … The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

As Greenfield explains, “Every aspect of this argument is questionable,” starting with the idea that everything—from users’ habits to energy consumption— is perfectly knowable.

Because that’s the promise of the internet of things (including the gig economy): that what individuals want and do and how the system itself operates can be correctly monitored and measured—and the resulting information utilized to “provide optimum service.” The presumption is there are no inherent biases in the monitoring and measuring, and no need for collective deliberation about how to solve individual and social problems.

The ideology of the internet of things is shorn of everything we’ve learned about both epistemology (that knowledges are constructed, and different standpoints participate in constructing those knowledges differently) and economic and social life (that the different ways the surplus is produced and distributed affect not only the economy but also the larger social order).

It seems the conventional ways of thinking about the internet of things are merely an extension of mainstream economists’ ways of theorizing the world of commodity exchange, allowing a definite social relation to assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.

That’s where metaphysics and theology leave off and the critique of political economy begins.

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What happens when you combine conspicuous consumption and consumption productivity?

You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.

When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”

The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.

In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.

Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.

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Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.

What’s next, corsets?*

 

*Here again is Veblen:

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .

the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.

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