Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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The working-class—at least the white working-class—has become the main theme of the post-election narrative in the United States. That’s not surprising since, as Jim Tankersley explained:

Whites without a college degree — men and women — made up a third of the 2016 electorate. Trump won them by 39 percentage points, according to exit polls, far surpassing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 25 percent margin. They were the foundation of his victories across the Rust Belt, including a blowout win in Ohio and stunning upsets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The last time around, these voters comprised more than one-third of the Americans who voted for Barack Obama—and Hilly Clinton failed to duplicate that success, especially in any state that mattered in the final electoral-college tally.

Clinton’s supporters want to blame their campaign debacle on racism (in addition to sexism and nativism) and, in recent days, have expressed their fear that responding to Trump’s victory by reaching out to the white working-class will lead to people of color being marginalized. It seems they’re returning to and rehashing the old, tired debate of class versus identity politics.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Bernie Sanders managed, however maladroitly, to put together a message of economic populism that challenged mainstream Democratic identity politics. He reiterated that view after the election:

Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.

In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.

Second, as Ben Casselman has pointed out, it’s far from clear Donald Trump will be able to keep his promises to the white working-class.

Trump, if he sticks to his campaign pledges (a big “if”), will probably do little either to help the working class or to hurt the elites, at least economically. What’s more, this simple dichotomy completely leaves out the people who stand to lose the most, based on what little we know about Trump’s plans: poor and low-income families in urban and suburban areas.

Third, and perhaps most important, there’s no necessary contradiction between identity and class politics. The Democratic establishment and American liberals presume such a contradiction is hardwired into the U.S. polity and electoral politics. But, in order to move forward, we need some fresh thinking about the possibility of a real working-class politics.

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We need to keep in mind that, historically, political movements around identity were also informed by and infused with working-class politics. Consider, for example, International Women’s Day, which was originally called International Working Women’s Day—the earliest observance of which was held in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America, in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Or the Civil Rights Movement, which in 1963 organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history. One of the March’s key demands was “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” In both cases, movements for new identity-related rights were based on working-class organizations and class-defined forms of grievance and redress.

We also need to understand, as Chris Dillow has pointed out, “the very notion of a ‘white’ working class plays the ruling class’s game of divide and rule.”

This isn’t just because it pits class politics against identity politics, but also because it imputes a racism to workers which is perhaps just as prevalent – and more damaging – among the boss class. It downgrades the many other genuine problems workers have, such as stagnant wages, insecurity and workplace tyranny. And it has the absurd implication that ethnic minorities aren’t part of the working class too.

The flip side is that the interests of the working-class are—or at least can be, with the appropriate discourses, identities, and forms of political organization—the interests of most people. As I argued in Sydney, the working-class can “challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to abolish the wages system itself.”

As Dillow succinctly put it,

the working class is not a problem in politics. It’s the solution.

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Yes, the late Richard Rorty got it spot on:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . .

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace.

That’s from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally published in 1998. And Edward Helmore [ht: ja] is right to cite Rorty and to note that passages from the book have gone viral in the wake of the election.*

But that’s about all Helmore gets correct. Maybe I’m getting old. Or journalists like Helmore need to spend more time talking with actual leftists. Or probably a combination of the two.

Let me explain. First, I find it hard to believe that Rorty is “obscure” now. Maybe he is. But he certainly wasn’t in 1998, when Scott Stossel referred to him as “one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States.” Me, I’d just change that to one of the most famous previously living philosophers in the United States. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a monumental achievement—a riposte to the long post-enlightenment tradition of reducing the problem of knowledge to one of representation.

And while some on the Left (especially those in the Rethinking Marxism tradition, who have long been critical of all forms of essentialism, in both epistemology and methodology) have benefitted from reading Rorty, many other left-wing thinkers, especially those who remained wedded to realism, rejected much of what came to be called the postmodern critique of representation.

As for Rorty himself, he wasn’t a leftist. He did write about the Left (both Old and New, modern and postmodern) but he was by his own admission a Cold War (anti-communist) liberal.** He believed fervently in liberal democracy and argued for strengthening it. His own politics harkened back to a quite different tradition, the pragmatism of John Dewey.

That doesn’t mean Rorty was wrong or that his work, both philosophical and political, doesn’t still have a great deal to offer the contemporary Left.

Me, I think Rorty should remain on our reading lists, if only because postmodernism has been blamed (by, among others, Peter Pomerantsev) for a wide range of recent disasters, from 9/11 to Donald Trump.***

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

While I hate to admit it (because I don’t share many of his views, especially those expressed in recent years, nor his general attitude of arrogant disdain), Stanley Fish does offer the appropriate response:

postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.

What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realise that in every discipline – every laboratory of description – there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.

If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view.

Without such a measure, what we have is a contest of discourses—each of which, of course, has different effects.

What that means is, if we can’t rule out Trump (or any other economic or political disaster) in the name of some kind of “reality” or capital-T truth (and I don’t think we can), we still have two formidable weapons: critical thinking and political organizing. And, while liberals continue to deny it, the Left is still the best place to find and develop those weapons.

 

*According to Jennifer Senior, Rorty’s book has now sold out and “Harvard University Press is reprinting the book for the first time since 2010.”

**See, for example, his conversation with Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett (pdf).

***Both Max de Haldevang and Victor Davis Hanson have also referred to Trump as a “postmodern candidate.”

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Class issues became central to the 2016 presidential campaign in ways that I can’t recall for any other election in my lifetime. And even now, during the post-election debate, the references to class remain widespread.

It’s not that the discussion of class in relation to the election has been particularly interesting or revealing. Americans, especially political pundits, still fumble around with what class means and how it can or should be defined. And one would be hard-pressed to find anything even close to or informed by a particularly Marxian notion of class in the many books, articles, and columns that have appeared in recent years.

So, while I move ahead with my own analysis of the class conditions leading up to Trump’s victory and the class implications of Trumponomics, I thought it would be useful for readers to list in one place references (in chronological order, from oldest to newest) to some of the pieces I’ve written (pertaining only to the United States) over the course of the past couple of years.

Class wars

“There are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid”

Health and class

Race and class

A coming class war?

Class and children

Class and the Goldilocks principle

Class warfare—Democratic and Republican style

Trump and trade

What’s class got to do with it?

Middle-class nation?

Generation screwed—and working-class

Vicious cycle of class inequality and segregation

“Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class”

Class politics

Middle-class cities?

Class myths

Higher education for the working-class

Flat or falling

Class struggles in America

What about the white working-class?

Condition of the working-class in the United States

Institutions and inequality

Feminism and class politics

Blame globalization?

Mainstream economists, globalization, and Trump

To be clear (as I’ve written many times before), I don’t think one can or should reduce the election to class—to attempt to explain its conditions and consequences only or even primarily in terms of class. That would be a serious mistake. But it would be equally mistaken to ignore or overlook class in attempting to make sense of what is going on right now in the United States.

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Over the course of this past year, I warned on numerous occasions (e.g., here, here, and here) we needed to pay more attention to the ways class politics were playing out in the 2016 presidential election.*

Now, it’s true, there was considerable attention before 8 November on white working-class men. But the other members of the American working-class were largely overlooked.

That’s certainly true of Black and Hispanic workers as well as white working-class women. The presumption was, because of the nature of Donald Trump’s campaign (as well as his past boorish behavior), working-class voters other than white men would flock to Hillary Clinton and ensure her victory.

As it turns out, the majority of women (54 percent) did vote for Clinton. But white women didn’t (by a margin of 10 points). And white women without a college degree even less: only about one-third (34 percent) voted for the Democratic candidate, while the vast majority (62 percent) went for Trump.**

The Clinton campaign was clearly counting on the support of universal “sisterhood.” But it failed—in no small part because it forgot about “economic inequality, or more specifically, economic inequality among women.”

As Kathleen Geier explains,

economic inequality among women is just as large, and has been growing just as fast, as economic inequality among men.This economic divide among women has created one of the most significant fault lines in contemporary feminism. That’s because professional-class women, who have reaped a disproportionate share of feminism’s gains, have dominated the feminist movement, and the social distance between them and their less privileged sisters is wide and growing wider. In the decades since the dawn of the second wave, educated women gained access to status jobs, but working-class women experienced declining wages and (because of the rise of divorce and single parenthood among the working class) shouldered an increasingly heavy burden of care. Yet mainstream feminist groups and pundits have consistently stressed the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses. . .

The class divisions between women came to a head in the 2016 election, when Big Feminism failed women, big-time. Mainstream feminists sold women a bill of goods, arguing that the election of a woman president would improve the lot of women as a class. . .

if you’re a woman living paycheck to paycheck and worried sick over the ever-diminishing economic prospects for you and your children, you’re unlikely to be heavily invested in whether some lady centimillionaire will shatter the ultimate glass ceiling.

The upshot is, both the Democratic Party and the feminist movement are badly in need of reform when it comes to class politics.

Again, here’s Geier:

Feminists would be well-advised to ease up on pop culture navel-gazing and corporate pseudo-feminist drivel like Lean In. They need to shift their central focus from the glass ceiling to the sticky floor, which, after all, is the place where most women dwell. A feminism that delivers for working-class women by addressing their material needs could expand feminism’s base and bring about a much-needed feminist revival. A feminism that delivers for working-class women by addressing their material needs could radically expand feminism’s base. And should feminism once again become a vibrant bottom-up mass movement instead of a top-down elite concern, there’s no telling how far it could go.

Most U.S. feminists know this. But they—and, with them, the working-class—were betrayed by the kind of feminism sanctioned by the elite, which was and remains silent on class politics.

 

*Although, as I explained, “American politics has always been about a lot of things (from nativism and racism to foreign entanglements and so-called cultural issues).” Still, while U.S. politics shouldn’t be reduced to class politics, ignoring or marginalizing class issues leads to a fundamental misunderstanding—on the part of politicians, pundits, and pollsters—of what is going on out there.

**According to Clare Malone,

Preliminary exit poll results show that while she won women by 12 points overall (Trump won men by the same margin, a historic gender gap), Clinton lost the votes of white women overall and struggled to win women voters without a college education in states that could have propelled her to victory.

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It is now (almost) possible to walk across the continental United States—East to West, from Maine to Oregon (or California or Washington)—and only step foot in counties that a Republican won in the presidential election (as in the green line in the map above). The only remaining gap is the solid-blue state of Vermont.

Of course, it has long been possible to take a similar walk from North to South—from the Canadian to the Mexican border (the black line on the map).

Just saying. . .

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TPP

Late last month, I argued Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to international trade. But his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters. That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer in recent weeks than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.

And now we’re witnessing the free-trade, anti-Trump backlash.

Thomas B. Edsall cites the same Peter Goodman article I did last week, which included this astute observation:

Across much of the industrialized world, an outsize share of the winnings has been harvested by people with advanced degrees, stock options and the need for accountants. Ordinary laborers have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety.

But then Edsall goes all in with the mainstream economists who, as part of their unchanging mantra, celebrate free international trade.* He cites, as one example, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management:

No nation can succeed by trying to protect the past from the future. We will succeed by having the confidence to embrace competition, and leveraging our comparative strengths, which are numerous. We have the largest, most productive and most technologically advanced economy that’s ever existed on this planet. The more open the world economy is, the more we have an opportunity to leverage our many strengths.

My sense is that mainstream economists are doubling down on their free-trade argument, forgetting about the “ordinary laborers [who] have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety,” for two major reasons.

First, they fervently believe in free trade, because their models are designed to ignore the unequal costs and benefits of international trade. That is, the “gains from trade” that supposedly accrue to everyone are literally baked into their models. And they’re afraid to admit that some gain, and many others lose, under existing international trade regimes and agreements. They’re afraid because admitting the unequal outcomes opens the door to intervening and creating patterns of trade that might actually help workers and other losers within the current arrangements. They’re also fearful of incurring the wrath of other mainstream economists, who attack any exceptions to the free-trade mantra with a vengeance (as even Paul Samuelson discovered).

Second, mainstream economists are doubling down on their defense of free trade because they’re willing to say anything and everything to attack Trump. Just the fact that Trump has had the temerity of criticizing free-trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby creating (in the eyes of mainstream economists) the specter of protectionism, has led them to cast aside all caution and reinforce their uncritical support for free trade. (Edsall even invokes the long-discredited idea that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was “one of the principle causes” of the first Great Depression to make the case.) But, of course, in their determination to oppose the Republican candidate, mainstream economists also dismiss the indignities and injuries many of Trump’s supporters have suffered in recent decades.**

International trade is not the only thing hurting American workers. It’s probably not even the major factor. Decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality, outsourcing, and job-displacing technological change created by their employers are, in my view, even more important. But mainstream economists’ and pundits’ all-out defense of free trade, their refusal to recognize the unequal benefits and costs of globalization, and their determined efforts to let employers completely off the hook are among the important reasons that, against all odds, Trump is only 5-6 points behind in the national polls.***

 

*It should come as no surprise that, according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, the solution to the problems of international trade is. . .more trade.

**Many of Clinton’s supporters have also been harmed by U.S. economic policies, including international trade agreements.

***I wrote this post before the revelation of the 2005 Trump tape and the Wikileaks publication of the emails concerning Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Given the media coverage of the two events (plus whatever happens in the Sunday debate), my guess is the new polls will register a much larger lead for Clinton—and there will be much less discussion of international trade (or economics of any sort) in the weeks ahead.