Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is the Left the Prisoner of the Professional-Managerial Class?

That's a reasonable contention these days when the left is not only divorced from the working class, but doesn't even seem particularly interested in it. Instead left activists, now primarily drawn from the professional-managerial class (PMC), seem far more concerned with demonstrating their commitment to cutting-edge cultural battles than reaching the working class. If the working class doesn't "get it", it just shows how hopeless and reactionary they are.
That's kind of peculiar by standards of the historical left. One way to understand this development is by a class analysis of the PMC itself, a term that was popularized in the 1970's by Barbara and John :Ehrenreich. A short new book by Catherine Liu does this (available at a very low price from Amazon or even free if you rummage around on the internet). James Foley, in a useful review-essay on Brave New Europe, comments on and summarizes the book's argument as follows:
"Working-class associational life...reached a peak and collapsed, not just in party organisation and trade unionism, but also in religion, sport and culture. A working class (though changed) remains the social majority, but a “void”, as Peter Mair said, separates it from political and cultural representation.
Conversely, the traditional middle classes were transformed by the expansion of universities and white-collar occupations. This also reached a peak, somewhat later, when the over-production of cultural elites collided with the post-2008 breakdown of the capitalist system. Graduate wages fell to levels often indistinguishable from working class occupations. But economic convergence was matched by cultural and political divergence. While graduates entered the left and the unions in droves, their hunger for distinction entered with them. For this reason, universalist appeals to ‘the 99%’ fell flat: today’s leftism presents itself as an immense accumulation of subcultures, all seeking moral differentiation from a fallen cultural majority....
The great historical irony is that post-2008 left experiments, styling themselves against the establishment, would eventually reinforce the sociology of the Third Way. Perhaps the quintessential case, despite its early promise, was Labour’s recent lurch to the left. “Ideologically, Corbynism was a break from New Labour centrism,” notes Chris Bickerton, “but sociologically, it was more Blairite than Tony Blair.” Cynical though this assessment might sound, it is reasonably founded in fact. Blair’s clique had emphasised the “Southern question”, the need to break Labour from its “northern heartlands” (as Peter Mandelson is said to have sneered, who else would they vote for?) and speak to a younger, aspirational middle-class who had embraced market globalisation. By the time the Corbyn experiment had concluded – or, by the time the People’s Vote had colonised Momentum – this base of broadly liberal voters was effectively the party’s new heartland.
The result, not just in Britain, is a leftism where class dare not speak its name. Stimulated by a postmodern curriculum, graduates encourage – indeed, mandate – wrenching self-examination of whiteness, heteronormativity and patriarchy. Privilege, as they call it. But, on class, they have built paranoid, insulated walls against critique. When the question is even asked, some retort (correctly) that the “working class has changed”, implying (incorrectly) that they are the vanguard of a new social majority that passes through top tier universities. Others bristle at the tag PMC, the mere mention of which invites charges of “class reductionism”, now regarded as the greatest academic sin one can commit.
Within living memory, there were socialist cultures that defined themselves as working class, sometimes at the cost of silliness. At any activist get-together, there were Mockney accents, tracksuits and flat caps aplenty. Perhaps it was necessary to break from this live action role playing. But today, all of that has been replaced by an excruciating silence, punctuated by occasional explosions like 2016, which only reinforce a paranoid distrust of class analysis. Discussing the left’s class profile has thus become the proverbial minefield.
In that sense, Catherine Liu deliberately treads on just about every landmine. Virtue Hoarders, a book she styles as a “short introduction to the false consciousness of a class”, charts the decline of American intellectual life, the advance of PMC cultures, and an attendant hostility towards the working-class majority – all of it legitimised by radical rhetoric....They serve the (post)-neoliberal epoch by providing its moral vocabulary, built on the holy trinity of meritocracy, managed transgression and the centring of excluded voices.
The book’s central concept, “virtue hoarding”, offers a useful window into contemporary leftist dispositions. “The post-68 PMC elite,” Liu observes, believes itself to comprise not just our era’s best and brightest, but also “the most advanced people the earth has ever seen”. Yet while their elitism may be pronounced, it is also historically peculiar. Today’s leftists are not the first to style themselves as a vanguard of virtue. Traditional Leninism, to its critics, was guilty of adopting the lofty vantage point of the “true” proletarian, in contrast to the masses deluded by false consciousness. Much ink was spilled – often, ironically, by postmodern academics – condemning this outlook’s pretentiousness. Nonetheless, even at its worst, the Leninist stance implied a dynamic relationship to the majority: the goal was to “win” or “guide” the masses to the truth.
By contrast, today’s ideal-typical activists are radically different. Our vanguardists of virtue have no time for proselytising among workers – not even notionally. Instead, their goal is distinction, culturally, against a fallen majority, what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables”. Virtue isn’t spread but hoarded. This explains the curiosity that, even where this group’s libertarian value system enjoys majority support, they continue to act as excluded moral minorities. Rather than stress common ground, which, ironically, has grown abundantly over the neoliberal epoch, they stress whatever makes them better than the masses....
Meanwhile, among peers, competitive virtue becomes a zero-sum game: I can have it only insofar as you are denied it. And, at the risk of reductionism, this directly mirrors the rationality of their class position: graduates specialising in symbolic manipulation – the hallmark of the PMC – compete for a shrinking number of jobs. Since their contributions are not measured in abstract numerical units, such as profit and loss for capitalists, or productivity for workers, their employability is defined by intangible status competition. Virtue here becomes a marketable commodity – and all the more when perceived as scarce."
Very provocative. Very interesting. I don't doubt that Liu has put her finger on one important factor explaining why today's left frequently seems so detached from political reality.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Could Biden Be the New Reagan?

Obama said he wanted to do this too, in the sense of supplanting the Reagan economic paradigm by a new paradigm that would do to Reaganomics what Reaganomics did to the New Deal. He didn't get there. Could Biden? Richard North Patterson thinks so and explains how/why in an excellent article on The Bulwark. I agree it's a live possibility and one that progressives should exert all their efforts to supporting. If we get there, so many, many other things become possible.
"On Tuesday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell warned lawmakers that “the economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain”—while minimizing the risks of inflation. Moreover, our unemployment statistics ignore people who have stopped looking for work, as many Americans rendered jobless by the pandemic have; if they are included in the total, the unemployment rate rises to a dispiriting 10 percent or higher.
Given all this, Biden refuses to cut his plan. To circumvent GOP opposition, he is using the budget reconciliation process which requires a mere majority in the Senate—meaning every Democrat plus Vice President Kamala Harris.....
Most likely, Biden will sign his proposal into law by mid-March—a major legislative victory which sets the template for his presidency.
But this is a mere down payment on his ultimate ambition: supplanting Reagan’s paradigm with his own.
His team envisions spending up to $3 trillion on a program which, as spokeswoman Jen Psaki described it, “will make historic investments in infrastructure—in the auto industry, in transit, in the power sector—creating millions of good union jobs [while] addressing the climate crisis head on.” His goal evokes the New Deal: creating a more resilient and inclusive economy through federal intervention financed by higher taxes on the wealthy.
Such a sweeping agenda will alienate Republicans and unnerve moderate Democrats. But, among other things, it is aimed at a problem which upended bipartisan support for free trade, and provoked Trump’s ill-considered tariff wars: the loss of American jobs through globalization—including to China.
In a penetrating article for the New York Times, Noam Scheiber describes its genesis: Biden’s desire to create stable jobs which would not require blue-collar workers to relocate their families or undertake extensive retraining. One focus is government investment in electric vehicles whose components could be manufactured in America—providing employment, addressing the climate crisis, and strengthening green energy innovation.
Such “industrial policy”—government intervention to fortify selected industries—has long been debated by economists and derided by conservatives. One effort during the Obama years, the failed solar panel company Solyndra, became a notorious example of federal fecklessness.
But, Scheiber notes, recent studies of governmental support for Chinese industries suggests enduring successes. If our archrival can strengthen its domestic manufacturers at our expense, the argument goes, why can’t we?
Between 2001 and 2007, Scheiber writes, America lost 3 million manufacturing jobs—most likely the result of our free trade policies toward China. Some prominent Republicans—Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Mitt Romney—have become particularly vocal about China’s predatory practices and economic sway. Even Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, for years a dedicated free trader, acknowledges the need to protect American workers from the downside of globalism.
This may create some space for bipartisan agreement. The potential for job creation underwritten by government is considerable: making electric parts; building or upgrading manufacturing facilities; creating and installing chargers. Economic nationalism is no longer brain-dead protectionism, but a potential strategy for spreading prosperity.
Certainly, it’s past time to rebuild our infrastructure, strengthen our broadband capacity, and protect our energy grid from calamity. To do otherwise means abandoning a first world economy.
No doubt Biden won’t get all he wants; likely he will have to advance his goals through piecemeal legislation, or through the budget reconciliation process, which carries other risks. But in challenging times, average Americans are far more concerned with their families and their futures than the nostrums of limited government."

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Democratic Road Forward on Immigration

In my latest for The Liberal Patriot, I consider the Democrats' dead in the water immigration bill and the various problems it indicates about the Democrats' approach to immigration writ large.
"The Democrats have put forward a very ambitious immigration bill. Ambitious, but without the remotest chance of passing. Republicans will not sign on to a bill that essentially does nothing to address their concerns about border security, so they will filibuster the bill in the Senate. And Democrats are not going to try to break the filibuster for this bill. Therefore it will not pass.
The timing is also peculiar. The country is still reeling from the twin covid and economic crises, which will take some time to resolve even if the Democrats are successful with their related legislative efforts and mass vaccination drive. Is this really the right time to pursue legislation that could drive increased border crossings, thereby melding border security with health security concerns?...
Democrats moving forward have to accept the reality of American public opinion and politics that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system."
Read the rest at The Liberal Patriot. And subscribe!

The Republicans Are an Incoherent Party. But Then Again, So Are the Democrats.

Peter Juul at The Liberal Patriot surveys the state of our two major political parties. It ain't pretty.
"[N]o matter who emerges on top in the coming internal GOP fracas – and Trump appears intent on remaining at the center of the party’s attention – it will still confront the fact that it lacks a coherent political and policy agenda. For lack of any real alternative, Trumpism will define Republican politics and policies for the foreseeable future – with or without Trump himself. In practical terms, Trumpism combined orthodox conservative economic ideology on tax cuts and deregulation with Trump’s own brand of vulgar xenophobia and a belligerent, neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trumpism broke with Republican orthodoxy on trade to little real effect, and a massive and often-promised infrastructure investment program never materialized.
Looking ahead, it’s likely that Republicans will hew to the substance of Trumpism while ditching Trump’s own offensive personal style....
For their part, Democrats face a crisis of political purpose that lurks beneath the surface of their recent electoral successes. While normie voters with bread-and-butter concerns remain the Democratic Party’s electoral base, the party itself has slowly but surely become a vessel for the preoccupations of a vocal faction of highly-educated professionals. This emerging progressive elite occupies high-status administrative and bureaucratic positions in institutions like think tanks, philanthropic foundations, and, when there’s a Democratic administration in Washington, the upper echelons of the federal bureaucracy.
These professionals tend to support left-wing proposals...that are ...unpopular among normie Democrats of all backgrounds. Worse, they often take otherwise popular policies like raising the minimum wage or maintaining social insurance programs and cloak them in the mantle of alienating – and sometimes incomprehensible – progressive political rhetoric."
Read the whole thing at The Liberal Patriot. And subscribe--it's free!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Grand Old Working Class Party?

Two new data analyses from Patrick Ruffini of Echelon Insights and Dante Chinni of NBC News cast some more light on the working class-ization of the Republican party. Ruffini's data are by race and education and are based on 2012-2016 exit poll data and their own cooking for 2020. Chinni's data are from (presumably pooled) NBC News surveys and are based on party ID within occupational categories (still trying to get more info on how exactly Chinni did this and definitions of blue collar/white collar).
Two different portraits of a decade's worth of change. Hardly the final work in either case, but should be very interesting indeed to all thoughtful Democrats.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Common Sense Democrat, Thy Name Is David Shor!

Noah Smith recently posted a terrific interview with David Shor, the extremely well-informed Democratic analyst and big data guy who is valiantly trying to drag the Democrats away from their fascination with counter-productive political slogans and strategies.
Shor explains how, If Democrats really want to win and make serious change this decade, they must learn to see beyond their class biases and pet causes to the ineluctable reality of the complex, contradictory American electorate and how difficult it is get enough of these voters on your side to actually get progressive things done. He does a great job of cataloging the class and cultural blindness that currently hobbles progressive thinking and how essential it is for Democrats to get beyond this. Democrats have plenty of winning, basically economic, issues, he argues, they just need to be put front and center instead of dwelling on the cultural values that animate educated elites.
His views on all this are really quite radical. They also happen to be correct.
Video interview: David Shor, political data scientist
Video interview: David Shor, political data scientist
The whiz-kid political analyst explains why Democrats need to talk about bread-and-butter issues