Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From the Guild Practitioner

Anthony Taibi is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina. He can be reached at anthonytaibi@ This article (c) copyright 1997 by Anthony D. Taibi, all rights reserved

Meet the new boss: same as the old boss.
—The Who

It cannot be seriously disputed that the greatest threats to the lives and communities of ordinary people derive from structural changes in the economy. The globalization of finance and production, new technologies in communications and information, and new methods in the organization of work are producing vast changes in society that will redound to the detriment of most non-elite people, both in America and in the world. Politics that is not concerned with how the economy functions and changes can do little to make real improvements in the lives of working and poor people. Despite this reality, an awful lot of what is called “the left” has had little to say about political economy for about twenty-five years, choosing instead to concern itself with largely cultural, racial and sexual matters.

This is really strange. In the past what defined the left was its stand on economic issues, and although many left institutions were hospitable to cultural and sexual non-conformists, many others were not, and the avant garde could be found across the political spectrum. What differentiated the old left from the old right was economics and its control—not sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll.

As the century draws to a close, however, free market economic ideology is transcendent across the conventional political spectrum, and it is largely in the realm of socio-cultural ideologies that what we call the “left” and the “right” do battle. I believe that the headline-grabbing conflicts in contemporary American politics should be understood not in terms of left vs. right, but rather in terms of how the aspirations of people who identify with those conventionally denominated groupings are linked to the conflicts between the old elites of the regional, manufacturing economy and the new elites of the emerging global information age. Or, as Tom Frank puts it: “The culture war is a contest largely fought out between square corporate ideologues and
hip corporate ideologues.”

How did this happen? As the drama and passion of the labor struggles of the 1930s faded, desegregation became the focus of social justice activism. This shift had profound consequences for left thought: progress in the arena of the struggle for racial justice seemed to underscore the fading utility of old-style class analysis, which saw the oppression of African Americans only as the most visible indicator of class-based oppression. In both theory and practice, racial justice at that time was better served by the new civil rights liberalism than it was by leftist dreams of some millennial class struggle.

The shift in consciousness and strategies adopted by the civil rights leadership, however, also had the effect of narrowing the scope of the movement’s social critique in exchange for more immediate results: the manifest contradiction between the promise of the American creed of equality and the reality of Jim Crow was resolved with the new liberal paradigms of meritocratic individualism, institutional universalism, and minority rights.

In addition, since the sixties, other forms of oppression, such as those based on gender and sexual orientation, have seemed better explained by civil rights analysis than through older radical left modes of thought, reinforcing the dominance of liberalism and enlarging its constituency. Although much good was accomplished through civil rights, certain aspects
of the liberal worldview that indeed were liberatory at one time are precisely the crucial determinants of both liberalism’s failure and of conservatism’s recent emergence as the new dominant paradigm. Specifically, the following two implicit aspects of the liberal worldview account for both its widespread adoption in the past and for its more recent widespread rejection: first, liberalism’s focus on individual choice, expression, and achievement, and its concomitant lack of attention to structural economic analysis; and, second, liberalism’s promotion of rights that vest in individuals, and corresponding antagonism toward local self-determination, the institutions of civil society, religion, and the family.

As to the first of these, liberalism’s focus on individual choice, expression, and achievement tends to support institutional arrangements that are remarkably consistent with laissez faire economics by rendering opaque the role of class and structural economic power in determining both individual opportunity and the context in which individual choices are made. In its defense of individual lifestyle choices and market outcomes, as long as they are based solely on merit, liberalism is indistinguishable from laissez faire and conflicts with any higher aspirations of social uplift.

The second difficulty with the liberal paradigm is that policies which sought to liberate individuals from stifling, parochial, status-based power resulted in the weakening of the authority of the church, family, and other institutions of civil society, and the assumption of their roles by the institutions of the bureaucratic and professional class, both public and private. Liberalism’s aspect as the liberator of the individual from stifling social structures widened its constituency during the post-war boom because many who were indeed unhappy with parochial social norms were not economically oppressed.

The liberal coalition accordingly expanded to include all of those who wanted the freedom to be cosmopolitan. Today, however, fewer people are looking for cultural liberation and more people are looking for something to hold on to, often finding meaning in family, community, and religion.
Conservatism’s allure at this moment lies in the fact that people need to be connected as much as they need to be free.

In the emergent conservative paradigm, liberal policy responses to identity politics are often framed in terms of their economic effects, and usually found wanting on those terms. This in part explains how conservatives can plausibly argue that liberals are the elites, in spite of liberal protestations that they speak for the oppressed. Conservatives argue that they are the ones who care about the social and economic issues that will ultimately be of real help to the poor. Many conservatives argue that economic growth is the fair and, in the long run, only sustainable social program (i.e., way to help the poor), and that only through laissez faire will economic growth be achieved. Liberal programs, conservatives argue, are nothing more than vehicles by which an elite keeps itself employed in the “helping” professions, as policy elites, educators, health professionals, non-profit organization workers, government bureaucrats and the like. Such liberal professionals, conservatives argue, buy political support by subsidizing social deviance, particularly that social deviance exhibited by the inner city poor.

What most conservatives fail to see, of course, is that their neoclassical economic program has done more to undermine community and civil society than the “nanny” state of the social engineering left ever did. Significantly, we are already seeing tensions within the conservative movement between its commitment to laissez faire economics and the growing recognition that laissez faire driven policies are anything but conservative for culture, religion, the family and community life. In the last presidential election Pat Buchanan often sounded like the only candidate who did not believe that what was good for the rich was necessarily good for the poor. It seems the only way for a socialist presidential candidate to get noticed is to be a National Socialist. Threatened by the appeal of Buchanan’s economic populism, liberal and conservative elites alike simply demonized not only Buchanan, but also his proletarian white supporters.

The economic problem at the heart of the liberal paradigm is that no matter how many social programs we save or expand, no matter how sensitive we all become, and no matter how many glass ceilings are shattered, there are and will continue to be not nearly enough of the sorts of managerial, professional, and technical jobs that liberals focus upon, while economic and cultural changes are eroding the foundations of working class life. Popular culture and the dominant myths of the article-writing class to the contrary notwithstanding, most folks are and will continue to be lower middle class. The optimistic vision of America as the land of upper middle class jobs is false. It is a myth that allows policymakers to ignore the quality of working poor and lower middle class life by holding out the hope that everyone can aspire to be an upper middle class professional. They cannot.

Moreover, conventional success requires people to be driven, selfish, individualistic and manipulative—hardly the moral qualities which the left ought to promote, even indirectly. Incredibly, some continue to suggest that as women, people of color and other members of traditionally excluded groups enter the halls of power, establishment institutions will become kinder and gentler: Margaret Thatcher and Clarence Thomas belie that crazy idea. Thus, for both practical and ethical reasons we must shift our concern from people who want to break through the glass ceiling and instead worry about the folks who clean up broken glass. In other words, we must focus less on social mobility and the diversification of the ruling class, and devote our attention to how to improve the lives of ordinary folk where they are. In their own ways,
grassroots community organizations, whether self consciously “liberal” or “conservative” or “religious” are trying to do just that.

Perhaps it is possible for grassroots working class leftists and grassroots working class conservatives to forge a new politics that joins together global structural economic analysis with a decentralized cooperative vision. This new politics would respect the enduring traditions and systems of meaning that emerge from specific groups of people living and working in particular places, while respecting America’s cosmopolitan diversity. Creating such a coalition is a worthwhile endeavor, in spite of the dangers. The coalitions that comprise our current political spectrum are radically unstable. The Left-liberal-Democratic coalition is an unholy alliance of largely upscale “lifestyle” libertarians and labor union liberals, together with increasingly marginalized African Americans. No less fractured, the Republican-conservative coalition is an unholy alliance of globalist business libertarians and social conservatives.

That so-called “vital center” advocated by President Clinton and others unites rich folks from across the political spectrum to better oppress working folks from across the political spectrum. This brand of “bi-partisanship”—and its parallel form of “internationalism”—must be strenuously resisted. The Wall Street–Hollywood, bi-coastal libertarian elite is interested in
unencumbered sex and the exploitation of “multicultural” global markets, workers and symbols: these people will never give more than lip service and charity to economic justice. On the other hand, I know that many on the left doubt whether our Christian, working class neighbors can learn to be more socially tolerant. As difficult as that might be, it is a hell of a lot more likely than millionaire liberals supporting socialism. And whatever bad one can say about the Promisekeepers, their brand of “racial reconciliation” seems more authentic than a lot of the self-congratulatory bourgeois multiculturalism that goes on in “progressive” social spaces. A new majority coalition must include Reagan Democrats: ordinary, boring, middle class heterosexual Christian white guys.

Every social movement must pick its battles and determine which issues to emphasize and which to soft pedal. The Left could not be doing a better job of alienating ordinary folk if that were our chosen ambition. Instead of focusing on those issues which appeal to ordinary folks—as the left-Democrat coalition did from Roosevelt to Kennedy—we focus on those issues which trouble them. Then we further infuriate them by using undemocratic means like the courts to ensure that they cannot respond.

The Left needs to get off its high horse and stop demonizing social conservatives, and start figuring out how to proselytize them instead. I think that the current boycotts of the Walt Disney Corporation may present just such an opportunity. The Southern Baptist Convention has begun a boycott of Disney because its members object to Disney giving domestic partnership benefits to its relatively well off salaried employees. Many leftists are also boycotting Disney because of the company’s use of sweatshop contractors in Haiti and elsewhere. The use of sweatshop contractors in the Third World has devastated the American textile industry, an industry largely concentrated in the rural South. And the dominant religion among displaced Southern white textile workers is Southern Baptist. Some of the Baptist boycotters would undoubtedly join in the leftist boycott if we would only ask them.

In addition to the joining of boycotts based on very different underlying politics, Marxist theorists and Christian conservatives share more than they know in their understandings of how Disney is destroying children’s imaginations in order to turn them into consumers. We ought to join conservatives in condemning the degradation of culture into entertainment, but promote recognition that these problems are more the product of capitalism than they are of liberal permissiveness.

As the square old 1950s national industrial capitalist elite dies off and is replaced by the hip multicultural global postmodern capitalist elite it will perhaps become more clear that cultural liberation is no help for structural economic oppression. The capitalist elite has always turned liberatory impulses opposed to established authority and culture to its own advantage.

Thus, we must ask of leftist intellectuals: Which side are you on? Do you stand on your class interest as lawyers, teachers, policy analysts, and journalists. Or do you stand with the working class. And if “left” is not just another word for “hip” then we better learn to broaden our cultural horizons to include those we would revile as narrow.