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Wednesday, April 23, 2014


In response to my apologetic response to JD's thoughtful reaction to my snark at Ross Douthat [so much for provenance, as they say in the art world], JD himself and Bill Glenn, Jr. posted thoughtful and rather moving comments about what we might call true, as opposed to faux, conservatism.  Together, these comments raise very important issues about which I have tried on occasion to write on this blog, though not, I think, with great success.  Rather than react to the latest Supreme Court decision or to a Ukrainian situation that I genuinely do not understand, I thought I would try today to expand on what JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. said.  My deeper purpose is to address once again what most concerns me, namely how, if at all, we can mobilize an effort to derail the disaster of American capitalism.

Both JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. give expression to a powerful sense of loss.  JD puts it this way:  "personally I feel doomed to wander a world cut off from my ancestors, which is thereby in a certain way stale, lacking dimension, left to feasting in a crowd where the only song we all know by heart is likely to be "The Bohemian Rhapsody." " Bill Glenn, Jr. adds:  "The completely amoral capitalism that reemerged under Reagan drove out the last vestiges of the post-war capitalism that was at least partially constrained by moral and social norms and did contain some of the communal values JD recognizes we now lack."

I think both of them are right.  Let me begin my meditation on their voiced discontent by referring to a movie I saw maybe ten years ago.  It is called Seabiscuit, a rather saccharine account of the Depression-era successes of an unlikely race horse by that name, whose come-from-behind victories on the race track captured the imagination of a nation struggling with poverty and historic levels of unemployment.  I could as easily pin my thoughts to the much, much finer movie, The Grapes of Wrath, the Henry Fonda vehicle made from John Steinbeck's great novel.  But in Seabiscuit, the director Gary Ross made the inspired decision to intercut the conventional Technicolor sequences with grainy black-and-white stills from the Depression itself  of striking workers, bread lines, soup kitchens, and street scenes of ordinary working men and women.  I am not much for racing, whether it is horses or cars, and I would rather watch the weather channel than a NASCAR event, but I wept openly at those pictures of the Depression.  I wept not because of the poverty and misery they showed, but for the lost fellowship, the comradeship, the community of those whose response to hard times was to band together and form labor unions, who saw poverty not as a shameful condition to be hidden from view, but as an evil inflicted on good men and women by the toffs wearing the fancy clothes and driving the fancy cars.

America during the Depression and World War II, and into the early years of the Post-War era, was a society in which the objectively real class divisions found immediate surface expression in such things as the clothes people wore.  Go back and watch some of the films -- the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics, the endless comedies of life among the rich, the Edward Arnold vehicles in which that wonderful old actor strutted his villainous best.   The rich wear evening clothes to dinner or a nightclub, they drive cars that look different from the cars driven by ordinary people.  Their voices are different, they look different, and you know with a visceral certainty that if smellovision had ever caught on, they would have smelled different.

Remember, that was a time when almost no one went to college, when most jobs were blue collar, not white collar, when working men wore caps, men in the lower middle class wore fedoras, and the rich wore top hats.  You could place a man or a woman economically and socially at fifty paces.   This was the heyday of the American labor movement.  A few statistics tell the story.  In 1954, union membership peaked at 35% of the labor force.  By 1983, three years into the Reagan disaster, this had declined to 20.1%.  Today the figure stands at 11.3%, with more than a third of public employees in unions and only 6.7% of workers in the private sector in labor unions. 

The very term "working class" has disappeared from public discourse.   Politicians on the left as well as the right cannot stop talking about "Middle Class America," even though, by any rational definition of Sociological or Economic categories, most Americans are Working Class, not Middle Class.  Why this terminological obfuscation?  The short answer is race.  "Middle Class" in today's political discourse carries the unspoken but inescapable meaning "not Black or Hispanic."  White people earning the minimum wage and qualifying for food stamps refuse to self-identity as Working Class, let alone Poor, for fear they will be mistaken for light-skinned colored folks.

What happened?   Why did two-thirds of unionized workers leave the only collective organizations committed to fighting for their interests?  And how did it come about that clear class lines, visible to the naked eye, dissolved, so that the rich could pass as jes' folks, despite their trust funds and gated communities and private clubs?

The answer is complicated, and only a suitably nuanced answer can begin to capture the historical and social reality.   The first factor was the transformation of the American economy into a post-industrial economy with an ever-expanding Service sector, a shrinking industrial sector, and a vanishing agricultural sector.  This transformation was accelerated by the outsourcing of production jobs as corporate managers went in search of ever cheaper labor unfettered by health and safety regulations.  A second factor was the dramatic expansion of post-secondary education, raising the proportion of the adult population holding a Bachelor's Degree from 5% shortly after World War Two to 35% or so today.  These two changes sundered the intergenerational solidarity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.  The old dream was for the father to arrange for his son to apprentice in a craft job and gain membership in the father's labor union.  The new dream was for the father to underwrite his son's college education, thereby gaining for him an escape from hard manual labor, however well-paid and protected by union contracts.

At a critical moment in this transformation, Republicans launched an assault on the labor unions themselves, symbolized by Reagan's successful effort to break the Air Traffic Controller's union.  A raft of "Right to Work" laws undermined the ability of labor unions to organize, and the comfortable, established, well-paid condition of the union leadership drained the movement of its revolutionary and liberatory potential.

All of this went hand in hand with a quite striking cultural transformation.  It started [if I may be shamelessly superficial] with Jack Kennedy's decision not to wear a hat on his inaugural walk from the Capitol to the White House.  That sartorial quirk, a showman's demonstration of his youthful vigor, overnight killed the haberdashery industry.  Men stopped wearing hats!  In 1958, in an unsuccessful effort to look older than I was when going to teach a class, I affected a fedora.  By 1960, when my hat was stolen from the University Luncheonette on Mass Ave while I was having coffee, it seemed pointless to replace it and thereafter I went bareheaded.  At first, in the sixties, the rebellious young started wearing their hair grow long and substituting jeans for dress slacks or dirndl skirts.  You could still tell someone's politics, if not his or her social class, at fifty paces.  Ten years later, everyone was wearing jeans, and facial hair had made a comeback not seen since Edwardian days.  Endlessly inventive, albeit lacking any really distinctive politics, the young started piercing various body parts and getting tats, until they too became upscale fashion accessories.

Music too underwent a de-politicization.  In the old days, Black people had jazz, white people had syrupy ballads, and radicals had folk songs.  Grown-ups and the young listened to entirely different music.  Then the Beatles came to town, and it all changed.  I was, as you might imagine, considerably behind the times, for all that I had seen Hard Day's Night in Trafalgar Square in 1964.  Even in the 80's, when my older son was a teen-ager, I did not know whether Hall and Oates was a breakfast cereal or a singing group.

Where have all the flowers gone? as Pete Seeger asked in 1955.  JD and Bill Glenn Jr. really are right.  Things have changed, for all that new clothes and songs have come along to replace the old. 

Well, now I have managed to make myself sound like a cranky old geezer, so I shall pause and leave it to younger and livelier souls to comment.




Unknown said...

Dear Professor,

I wonder if you might say more about the deeper history of the problem of the (sense of the) loss of social and moral 'unity' that JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. point to. After all, it is not a problem that only emerges in the late 20th Century (even if it does become more acute): it is already evident in the philosophical response in Germany to the French Revolution, for example - in their different ways the Romantics and the Idealists were trying to make sense of this sense of loss.


Seth said...

An amusing comment on Piketty from Thomas Palley:

"Mainstream academic economists will try to block that and push the gattopardo tactic. My prediction is “r minus g” arithmetic will make its way into the curriculum, with the profit rate explained as the marginal product of capital; Chicago School economists will counter the economy has mechanisms limiting prolonged wide divergence of r and g; and Harvard and MIT graduate students will have opportunities to do market failure research arguing the opposite. The net result is economics will be left essentially unchanged and even more difficult to change."


Seth said...

I like Palley's remark because it is a good description of the way repression (in the Freud/Marcuse sense) operates in the academy. Unsafe thoughts are assimilated into forms which help to "rationalize" them away. Not unlike the way our immune system attaches antibodies to foreign cells/macromolecules in order to convey them safely to the waste disposal system.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Seth, I quite agree. As Upton Sinclair famously said, "it is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Nevertheless, I predict that Piketty's book will have a measurable effect, but only if men and women take hold of it and use it to organize. Professors of Economics are not going to suddenly notice that there is something fundamentally wrong with capitalism, anymore than the Pope, however lovely a man, will notice that there is something fundamentally wrong with religion.

Seth said...

And Krugman just blogged about the same post from Thomas Palley. Fun!

Bjorn said...

You forget a new force which is changing the dynamics you describe enormously.

I live in a small country. When I was growing up, everyone watched the same television channels, read the same newspapers. Now the internet age is eradicating monoculture here, and everywhere else too. People discover others with the same tastes and interests online. They read obscure blogs (such as this one), full of ideas that don't get much space in their local public sphere. They chat with people who have completely different life experiences. They create and participate in communities that consist of people scattered throughout the world.

For the first time ever, geographical location is no longer necessarily the all-dominant cultural influence in ordinary people's lives.

Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. For my part, I am optimistic. We may not have the intimate communal solidarity of previous generations, built through symbolism in shared physical space, but that solidarity always came at a cost. We now have something else, something pretty good, I think.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Lord, I hope you are right [even if you do put a dagger in my heart with the casual reference to "obscure blogs (such as this one)." :)

Unknown said...

Pertaining to social fads, it seems that the upper class is always mining the (true) lower class for lifestyle choices. Heroin use, tatoos, jazz music, etc. were all probably defense mechanisms against lower class misery, but the rich, always on the lookout for new kicks, thought there must be a positive experience there that they were missing. I have never understood the tatoo thing, which (when I was young) was popular only with enlisted navy personnel (usually from the lower class) and convicts. My favorite definition of a tatoo: A permanent reminder of a temporary feeling. The lower class can claim poverty-induced insanity, but the rich are just guilty of mindless stupidity.

Unknown said...

Mainstream academic economists will try to block that and push the gattopardo tactic. My prediction is “r minus g” arithmetic will make its way into the curriculum, with the profit rate explained as the marginal product of capital; Chicago School economists will counter the economy has mechanisms limiting prolonged wide divergence of r and g vimax pills ; and Harvard and MIT graduate students will have opportunities to do market failure research arguing the opposite. The net result is economics will be left essentially unchanged and even more difficult to change.