Hopkin’s idea is that the rise of what he calls “anti-system politics” comes from the fact that the economic sphere is consigning more and more people to poverty and precariousness, yet politicians do nothing about it. This goes on for election cycle after election cycle. People vote one party into power, then another, and yet nothing ever changes! Why is that? Hopkin says it is because all ruling centrist parties across the wealthy democracies have effectively signed onto the same basic economic philosophy:
[11:00] Jonathan Hopkin: “The story isn’t just an economic one; it’s also about how democratic institutions have failed to deal with the economic problem. And a big part of that story is why competitive elections have not been enough to give people channels to address their grievances and elect people who will do something to help them.”
“A big part of the story there is that if all the political parties are signed up to a particular way of doing things—lets just for shorthand call it neoliberal economics—then voters can vote, but it won’t make any difference. There might be marginal differences—some of them quite important—between political parties, but the underlying system of management of the economy is not going to change if all the parties are signed up to the same model. And that same model has been entrenched across all of the Western democracies.”
“I’m not trying to suggest there’s no difference between the way capitalism works in the United States and the way it works in Sweden. And I’m not trying to suggest that there’s no difference between Tony Blair and David Cameron, to take the British example. But it is true that all of these countries and all of these politicians have been signed up to this kind of pro-market way of thinking about the economy…“
Both political parties have signed onto a neoliberal consensus regarding the economy that says politicians must never “interfere” in the workings of the Market. In essence, Neoliberalism is a back-to-the-future retread of Classical English Liberalism, or laissez-faire, which was the prevailing economic philosophy up until the Gilded Age. Today, dozens of well-funded think tanks once again defend and promote this philosophy and deny any alternatives. The economics profession is basically united behind promoting neoliberalism as the only valid form of economic organization.
I think this is the reason why so few people actually turn out to vote in the United States. When did voting ever change anything? Paychecks keep getting smaller, benefits keep getting more stingy, and things like housing and education keep getting more expensive, regardless of who is in power. It’s simply what the Market decrees, and politicians of any party are powerless to stop it.
At this point, they introduce a very important term: neoliberal democracy.
[24:12] Mark Blyth: “…You have a term of art: neoliberal democracy. What do you mean by that?”
Jonathan Hopkin: “Just to confess, it isn’t my term–Colin Leys dreamt up that concept. It’s the idea that in a neoliberal system, if you take the view that that markets not only are the best way of organizing the economy, but they need to be protected from political interference, because the Public Choice School always argues that democracy is a big threat to the market system because voters will vote for nice things rather than just deserts…”
MB: “What they should get…”
JH: “…What they should get, yeah. And so neoliberal democracy is really a system in which the market is protected from democracy. It means a democratic system which can’t actually enact any change. Some of the things you were talking about earlier like central bank independence is a great example of neoliberal democracy. Supranational rules set by non-majoritarian institutions. ‘Non-majoritarian’ is a political science term to mean ‘not elected’ and ‘not accountable’ institutions. So, like the European Court of Justice when it comes to things like product market rules and labor market rules, or the ECB (European Central Bank) or the Fed (Federal Reserve) or the Bank of England when it comes to monetary policy.”
“So, in essence, it’s democracy without democracy. Its the trappings of democracy without any possibility of a popular majority really bringing about a change to the market system.”
Neoliberal democracy is a system where the market is protected from democracy. And that’s why people don’t bother voting—because it doesn’t really change anything. This is by design!
So my contention is that, because we can’t really change anything in the economic sphere with our vote—even though the economic sphere has the biggest influence over our lives by far—all we are left to fight over is meaningless “culture war” issues: transgender bathrooms, abortion, guns, gay marriage, drug use, racist jokes, cancel culture, and other such idiotic bullshit. Our leaders are okay with us fighting over this stuff, because it doesn’t affect their wealth or their bottom line. They can go on strip mining society to increase their wealth with impunity. They can move capital around the world and hire and fire people just as easily.
Meanwhile, the people being crushed by this system are kept constantly at each others’ throats over religion, race, sex, and so on. They are unable to unite to provide any kind of concerted opposition. Is the oldest play in the book: divide and conquer.
When you are powerless to change the economic conditions you live under, “values” are the only thing left to vote on. Thus you get the rise of so-called “values voters.”
Seen in this way, wokeness is yet another weapon of Neoliberalism. It’s deployed by the media and corporations as the essence of what it means to be on the “Left” in America, and it’s certain to alienate the working classes and keep them in a perennial state of agitation against the “politically correct” liberals in the boardroom who allegedly despise them. Yet, of course, both blue collar and white collar workers have been proletarianized. But by keeping them from developing class consciousness you stop any effective resistance from forming, because that requires things like solidarity and collective action. Wokeness, deployed by these “Kayfabe-Left” institutions like Hollywood and the corporate media, keeps that from happening.
I heard a quote from Andrew Yang recently that made the same point:
“Right now, if you say to someone…you’re with this person in Ohio and you’re like, ‘Hey get out and vote!’ They look at you, and they’re like, ‘this does not fucking matter to me at all.’ Like, my vote does not matter. And they have in many cases decades of experience telling them just that. And then there are people who will never come near it because they are completely in despair, or they’re completely disconnected from civic society. And that to me is not extraordinary anymore.”
“And its not even irrational. That’s the toughest part, Anand. You cant be like, ‘Hey if you just get off your ass and vote everything will be okay.’ Not really. You know, they could come and vote and their person just gets co-opted, or that person is just one vote in a chorus. The power dynamics are so broken. And then selling to them [that] ‘this vote’s going to do it for you. If you can just get that person into city council or school board or…'”
“You know that’s not true. You know that these systems, when they get there, even if they’re good they’re going to get their hands cuffed, and they’re going to be beholden to some assholes, and they’ll be outvoted by the crazy cohort on the city council, or a school board, or the state legislature, or the U.S. Congress, or whatever it happens to be…”
The voters that Yang talked to during his presidential campaign told him, in essence, My vote does not fucking matter. They know this is true, because the market is insulated from democracy. And Yang can’t really dispute this. From the standpoint of the voters, its totally rational not to vote. After all, they’ve reliably gone out and voted year after year after year. If they’re old enough, they’ve lived through the switch from Democratic control to Republican control back to Democratic control, back to Republican control, and what’s changed for them, really? Nothing! As Joe Biden assured wealthy donors: Nothing will fundamentally change.
This gives us a framework for understanding why that is: neoliberal democracy, which is, in essence, democracy without democracy. They then talk about the anti-system politics of Trumpism in the U.S.:
[26:32] JH: “…I think one of the real misunderstanding of Trump, especially over here, is that underneath the chaotic rhetoric there is quite a clear political line there, which is that its anti-globalization. It’s pro-market, but its markets embedded in a particular view of society, right? So there’s a social order that he wants to protect. It might be a racialized social order; its not an egalitarian social order. But it is a social order in which the market should not be allowed to wipe out the livelihoods of particular groups which have been hard done by, and which Trump would like to protect. Obviously there are other types of groups he doesn’t care for. But it is a vision of society in which the state should have the capacity to shape the market to achieve political and social ends.”
MB: “And that’s very un-neoliberal, and that’s basically in a sense, to bring us back around, why this is an anti-system moment. One of the things you note in your book…is that when you look at the party platforms and speeches and pronouncements and actual polices of all these different anti-system parties, none of them fall into the neoliberal box. It doesn’t matter if they’re Left or Right, they’re all much more pro-state, is that right?”
JH: “Yeah, that’s right. So, I took this data from what’s called the Comparative Manifestos Project. It’s a way of trying to score the positions of political parties in elections all across Western democracies ever since the War. So it’s a huge data set.”
“And what you can get from that is there have been clear shifts in the kind of positions parties take. You can also observe in this data that Social Democratic or Center-Left parties have increasingly abandoned economic interventionism over the post war period. It started to come back a bit in the last decade or so, but they’ve kind of given up on the idea that government can try and shape the market in that that which you were just describing Trump aspiring to do.”
“So you can see in this data that the anti-system parties whether they’re on the Right: Trumpism, Le Pen; or whether they’re on the Left: Sanders, Corbyn, Podemos in Spain, and so on—they’re very different on what we call the socio-cultural dimension of policy: things to do with racial equality, gay rights and so on, but they are very similar actually in economic policy. They’re all arguing for a return to the state; for a return to government having a role in shaping the economy.”
“And in some ways, they’re actually really rather similar. If you look at the British example, Jeremy Corbyn was fairly unenthusiastic about the European Union, partly because the European Union has strict competition laws that mean that governments can’t bail out failing companies, and they can’t have an industrial policy. Well, here we have a new government in Boris Johnson who, before the pandemic, had all kinds of plans for industrial policy in Britain to try and revive the post-industrial north.”
“So there’s actually a strong connection. These parties are way apart on other things, but when it comes to the economy they definitely have a view that the government should get involved. So it’s not neoliberal democracy. It’s actually a form of democracy. It’s a form of government which allows people to take back control, to use the Brexit phrase, of the market economy.”
This next portion ties into exactly what I talked about in the previous post:
MB: “So why do you think it is that most other scholars playing in this area really haven’t made that connection? Really, nobody else points this out. Why are you the only person that’s noticed this?”
JH: “…I think the problem is we both inhabit a world which is geared to not understanding this, right? We are in prestigious academic institutions which have benefited from globalization, which have benefited from some aspects of neoliberalism even though many people in our universities would like neoliberalism to be mitigated…”
MB: “Oh yeah. Many six figure salaries have been made writing about how bad neoliberalism is…”
JH: “Exactly. And I think that this prejudices us a little from seeing how this may look at the sharp end.”
“There was a great example of this. Andy Haldane, who’s not an academic—he’s a Bank of England technocrat; a very honest analyst of what’s happening in Britain—was talking about how a few years back he went up to Sheffield in the north—a very, very depressed region–to talk about the economy. He’d been looking at some data beforehand that his assistants in the Bank of England had been pouring over, and he was thinking, ‘Well, things don’t look too bad, you know, the economy’s recovering and things are looking in the right direction.’ And he got to Sheffield and he suddenly realized that everything was terrible, [and] that people were desperate. And I think in universities, we suffer a bit from some of this, that we don’t get out there enough to see what things are like at the sharp end.”
This is exactly what I said last time: the technocrats look at statistics which tell them that everything is fine. What they do not do is actually go out and visit communities devastated by globalization. Andrew Yang, quoted above, did so, and came to a very different conclusion. But notice that Yang is not an economist. Also note that his remedy—a Universal Basic Income—would be deemed quite impossible by neoliberal economists. How would we pay for it?
They conclude by looking at what the future holds for anti-system politics:
[39:20] JH: “…I think where things will really become clear is when it becomes less of a public health problem and more of an economic problem, which might happen pretty soon. At the moment we’ve got both. But the full implications of this economic shutdown are going to be clearer and clearer as the year goes on. And you can expect [?] to become more and more unpopular.”
“So where we have mainstream parties in government, you would expect that it would give [?] to the anti-system parties. But the really interesting thing is to see where anti-system parties are in there already, and are coping not terribly well with this crisis, what is the effect? Do people revert to the establishment? Or do they go for a different type of anti-system [?]?”
“My guess is if you revert to the establishment, you’re going to very quickly be disappointed. So if the outcome in the U.S. is Biden wins the election, I think anybody who’s contemplating voting for Sanders, and a lot of people who supported Trump and lost are going to be really furious very quickly.”
“There’s no sense in which we’re going to return to neoliberal democracy as a satisfactory way of managing the economy, not until we get growth back. And there are all kinds of reasons for thinking that growth is never going to come back to some extent, that that is going to do the job.”
“So we need to fundamentally change the way the economy works, and my position—and I’m sure you would agree with this as well—is that in one way or another, that’s going to involve government taking much more responsibility for the way the economy works and getting much more involved in distributing investment and opportunity, and giving people security. There’s no way you can do that in the old neoliberal system. So things are going to have to change, and the question is who’s going to be able to deliver that.”
MB: “…Well that all depends on the quality of your government. If you have a state that you actually trust and seems to know what they’re doing—for example, the Danes—then you’re perfectly willing to hand over fifty percent of your income and let them provide public goods. If you’re the United States or the United Kingdom, there’s pretty good reasons for not believing that these people know what the hell they’re doing, and you don’t want to hand them that chunk of change. That perhaps goes some way to explaining the political polarization that’s out here.”
JH: “Yeah, that true, but its also true that there’s no way around this that doesn’t involve the government becoming the buyer and seller and lender and seller of last resort, right? A huge chunk disappeared from the economy, and you don’t get that back by just the government sitting back and doing some fix like negative interest rates or something, and saying, ‘Let the market sort it out.’ That’s not going to be enough. So it’s going to involve the government getting involved whether or not we really think they’re up to it.”
MB: “But what if they get involved with another healthy bout of austerity…?”
Conclusion: Polanyi was right: Really, all this confirms what Karl Polanyi wrote over fifty years ago. Polanyi argued that an attempt to create a “pure” market society separate from politics would lead to “the destruction of society.” People would not tolerate being subjected to the whims of the market—of watching their livelihoods be destroyed, of watching their businesses go under, of watching people be priced out of their homes, and so on. They would demand redress from their politicians.
The politicians during the first wave of globalization believed that markets were “self-regulating” and therefore should be kept free from “interference.” To that end, they attempted to shield the Market from any kind of attempt on the part of the populace to subject anarchic markets to democratic oversight for the good of the populace as a whole. Now we see neoliberalism doing the exact same thing as its Classical Liberal predecessor: protecting markets from democracy.
The chaos supposedly self-regulating markets caused ultimately led to the Great Depression and the subsequent rise of fascism in Europe and the New Deal in the United States. The common denominator of these movements was to subordinate the Market to the needs of society. In the U.S., the happened democratically. In Europe, this was implemented by fascist regimes that suspended democracy and introduced an us-versus-them dynamic to retain power. As Hopkin noted above, this desire to subjugate economic forces to democratic control can be done by regimes of very different socio-cultural values, from those which preach harmony and inclusiveness, to those who preach racial hated and competition. The form it takes depends on the society. While neoliberalism is regarded as “centrism” today, the populist, or anti-system alternative represents a type of governance that transcends traditional Left-versus-Right. That’s why you get these silly debates over whether the Nazis were “left wing” or “right-wing”. The desire to transcended the Market for the good of society does not map so easily onto the uni-dimensional political axis of today.
In the end, big business will always try and promote an authoritarian/fascist option to prevent a genuine leftist movement from coalescing that would curtail their power. This failed in the United States the last time, but it appears to be succeeding this time around in the United States as well as in many other countries. The wealthy have much more power and more effective means of propaganda at their disposal than they did back then. Neoliberalism, sadly, appears poised to die the same way it’s utopian philosophical twin did several generations ago: through economic collapse and a global conflagration where millions upon millions will perish.
…The passing of the market economy can become the beginning of an unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedom generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.
Yet we find the path blocked by a moral obstacle. Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be the essential of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery….
Freedom’s utter frustration in fascism is, indeed, the inevitable result of the liberal philosophy, which claims that power and compulsion are evil, that freedom demands their absence from a human community. No such thing is possible; in a complex society this becomes apparent. This leaves no alternative but either to remain faithful to an illusory idea of freedom and deny the reality of society, or to accept that reality and reject the idea of freedom. The first is the liberal’s conclusion; the latter is the fascist’s. No other seems possible.
Who are you going to believe, me, or your own lying eyes?
A lot of digital ink has been spilled recently on the rise and spread of agnotology in America. Why don’t Americans listen to experts anymore? Why don’t they trust scientists? Why do they instinctively assume their leaders are lying to them about everything? Why don’t they trust mainstream news outlets anymore? Why are they instead listening to “outsiders” who are obviously shills and charlatans? Why are they listening to “alternative” medical practitioners and quack doctors? Why are they giving credulity to seemingly outrageous conspiracy theories shared online? Why do they reject basic facts?
A lot has been written about that already, so I’m not going to review it here. I’m just going to interject one reason that I haven’t read about anywhere else that I know of.
That reason is economists.
Specifically, the fact that economists told middle America since at least the 1980s that free trade would be good for everyone in America, and that anyone who said otherwise was an ignorant rube who didn’t understand basic economic “science.”
The economists who incessantly proffered this view were “experts” from the most prestigious schools in America—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Georgetown, the University of Chicago, and the like. They claimed it was a settled argument, and that economics had “proven” it beyond the shadow of a doubt through equations as surely as we had proven the movements of the stars and planets. Even the way they framed the argument backed this up. They invoked the “Law” of comparative advantage, suggesting that this was a law of the universe on par with those of physics or chemistry. Anyone who disputed it might just was well believe that water runs uphill or the earth is flat, they claimed (although they weren’t above invoking a little magic on occasion):
[David] Ricardo attempted to prove theoretically that international trade is always beneficial. Paul Samuelson called the numbers used in Ricardo’s example dealing with trade between England and Portugal the “four magic numbers”. “In spite of the fact that the Portuguese could produce both cloth and wine with less amount of labour, Ricardo suggested that both countries would benefit from trade with each other”…Ricardo’s theory of international trade was reformulated by John Stuart Mill. The term “comparative advantage” was started by J. S. Mill and his contemporaries… (Wikipedia)
This became a nearly universal creed among economists and journalists. If there was one article of absolute faith, this was it. Surveys of economists indicated that nearly 100 percent of them agreed with statements about how free trade is always beneficial, and that it always benefits everybody. These economists claimed that free trade was an unstoppable force of nature as inevitable as the tides or the seasons, and that it would make all of us much better off in the long run. The most notable proponents of this creed wrote for the influential New York Times: Princeton economist Paul Krugman; and Thomas Friedman, whose boundless enthusiasm and turgid prose in defense of untrammeled trade and cosmopolitanism seemed at times to border on the absurd. Friedman, a multi-millionaire, published several books on the topic over the ensuing decades, celebrating the wonders of globalization and free trade.
So these were the so-called “experts” Americans were listening to throughout the eighties, nineties, and 2000s, right up until 2008.
Free trade—and its universal benefits—became the standard orthodoxy for both major American political parties beginning in the 1990s. The effect of this cannot be overstated. There truly was no alternative. And voters who pushed back against this orthodoxy were belittled and marginalized by both political parties in the ensuing decades.
Now picture the reality on the ground for ordinary middle Americans, particularly in areas that are considered to be Trump bastions in the heartland of the U.S. today.
Businesses that had been the cornerstones of communities for many generations began to disappear left and right. They either lost out in the newly globalized struggle for profits and went under; moved most of their operations overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor; or were bought out in the accompanying wave of financialization and were “restructured.” In each and every instance, these businesses—formerly the sources of prosperity for so many Americans—were gone, never to return. This happened throughout the eighties and nineties.
Just like an ecosystem, a local economy is a sort of trophic pyramid, and once the primary producers have died off, it will affect all the smaller levels of the pyramid above. The money circulating in the community began to dry up for other businesses in the “food chain” of the local economy like small businesses, bars and restaurants. The people who would have been their customers no longer had jobs, and hence the money to pay for local goods and services. What this meant was that small local businesses with tight margins now had less customers and subsequently went under. This led to the phenomenon of “boarded up main streets” seen in small towns all across America. All as the result of free trade agreements.
At the same time, a flood of cheap consumer goods inundated the market in the United States. These ultra-cheap goods were shoddy, Chinese made garbage, practically made to be thrown away, but Americans had no other choice but to buy them thanks to their shrinking incomes and the lack of alternative sellers who had long since gone under due to cutthroat price competition. Gigantic mega-businesses who could most effectively take advantage of far-flung global supply chains drove local businesses under, even while wresting generous subsidies and tax breaks from local governments. As local businesses fell one by one, this led to a domino effect throughout local economies where the businesses that were once cornerstones of the community went under, their market niches invaded by the transnational big-box chain stores. The small corner store getting replaced by Wal-Mart became a cliché repeated thousands of times over across the United States in the past several decades. Everybody knew it was happening, but no one could stop it.
In almost every small town in America, commerce today is dominated by a few behemoths like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, Costco, and chains like Applebee’s, Chuck E. Cheese and Taco Bell. All the money that would have circulated in the local economy was instead pulled out and sent to stockholders in New York, San Francisco, London, and other distant financial centers. Whatever small businesses that remained were dealt another successive death blow by the rise of online shopping and the dominance of Amazon’s monopoly over e-commerce. This “retail apocalypse” was ignored by politicians of both parties. Additionally, local newspapers shut down because they could no longer support themselves through ad revenue—everything was now increasingly online and all the ad money now went to Google and Facebook. This led to information black holes in small towns all over America. People now increasingly went online to get their information, and this online world became a perfect vector for spreading disinformation by bad-faith actors like bots and trolls.
And what happened to the jobs? We were told that people who worked in factories were expendable, and that “making things” was only for dumb losers. Farm jobs had long since been eliminated thank to Big Agriculture. The party that ostensibly defended the working class just told everyone to go out and acquire “more education,” and that this would somehow solve the problem. Yet education did not become more accessible at this time, rather it became prohibitively more expensive and harder to access. Four-year college degrees were practically unobtainable without extensive parental support. The staggering amounts of debt one had to take on without this support practically ensured a lifetime of indentured servitude. This debt became impossible to discharge even in bankruptcy—a change supported by both political parties. Meanwhile, collages and universities became virtual empires overnight, building pharaonic architecture to attract rich students with deep pockets (often foreign-born) and raising tuition into the stratosphere to compensate.
Those who had the financial wherewithal and academic inclination were able to escape to the few remote college towns and distant big cities where such colleges and universities were located. Everyone else was left to drown. The small towns fell into ruin. The Republican columnist Keven Williamson sneered that they “deserved to die,” although it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was referring to the towns themselves or the people living in them. And the other party was no different either, abandoning Middle Americans and making their pitch exclusively to those areas that were, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “diverse, dynamic and moving forward.” High-level Democrats openly enthused that they would have a solid electoral majority once the people in these small towns finally kicked the bucket.
It was a sorting operation on a grand scale—winners from losers, sheep from goats. The “losers” remained behind in the small towns that were drained of their most entrepreneurial inhabitants; the “winners” moved away to a handful of high-tech hubs and exurbs that were growing exponentially, especially in the Sun Belt. Because all of the economic activity was now concentrated in a very small number of cities, the cost of real estate in these cities exploded, making even educated, affluent “winners” economically precarious due to sky-high housing costs. Yet no one in the political or professional economic classes offered any real solutions, or even acknowledged that it was happening.
Meanwhile, back in the small towns, the only jobs left were those in the service industry that paid paid minimum wage or close to it—a wage that had peaked in the 1960s and declined ever since. Here is a graphic of the largest employer in every state. Notice that the “red” states are dominated by Wal-Mart.
The only other alternative was the “Eds and Meds” economy of colleges and hospitals. Both of these metastasizing economic sectors were predatory and extractive, bleeding their customers dry even as they provided the only source of employment in rural areas that paid above minimum wage and offered decent benefits (aside form the prisons that were increasing located in rural areas and filled with the economic “losers”). The graphic above makes this dynamic painfully obvious.
America became staggeringly unequal. An entire infrastructure of poverty developed consisting of payday loan stores, car title loan stores, cash-4-gold stores, blood banks, urgent care clinics, Dollar Stores, pawn shops, and other predatory businesses. Cash-strapped small towns instituted aggressive policing tactics to compensate for lost tax revenue, including issuing very expensive tickets for every minor infraction (which often disproportionately targeted minorities). Tent cities sprang up from coast to coast like dandelions in the springtime. At the corner of seemingly every major intersection and at every freeway off-ramp were people holding up cardboard signs begging for spare change. People started GoFundMe sites to pay for ruinously expensive health care costs, since their low-wage, part-time jobs didn’t offer health insurance coverage. Then, to add insult to injury, beginning in the late nineteen-nineties they now also had to compete for low-wage jobs with immigrants from across the border who were arriving by the truckload in small towns across America in a race to the bottom, while politicians of both parties looked the other way. Any concern over this situation was castigated as “racist.”
All this occurred even while billionaire monopolists become incomprehensibly richer. People in these towns who couldn’t make ends meet no matter how hard they worked were treated to the spectacle of America’s billionaires going to bed at night and waking up billions of dollars richer the next morning, day after day, while their own lives fell apart due to things like unemployment, divorce, drug abuse, arrests, and just plain old bad luck.
What was the “expert” response to all of this? How did the economists from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite institutions react to this economic earthquake?
Free trade is good. Full stop. Anyone who says otherwise is a dimwitted dolt who doesn’t understand the fundamental laws of economics. Besides, nothing can be done about it. They pointed to the affordability and ubiquitousness of ultra-cheap goods made by sweated labor in the global South as proof positive that free trade had benefited absolutely everyone. “Just look at your iPhone!,” they exclaimed.
Americans in small towns and suburbs were also told by these same elite experts that their suffering and that of their close friends and neighbors was justified because Chinese workers were bring “lifted from poverty” even as Americans were increasingly falling into it. Any concern over the increasingly dire poverty and deaths in Middle America was derided as backward parochialism by by professional economists and the neoliberal politicians who listened to them.
These experts, of course, were the same people in big cities who owned almost all the stocks and had benefited handsomely from globalized free trade. These members of what eventually became known as the “Professional Managerial Class” had managed to insulate themselves from foreign competition through legal means such as hard-to-obtain licensing requirements and hyperexpensive education, even while valorizing “competition” for everyone else. Both political parties were one hundred percent in the tank for globalized free trade: the Democrats toothlessly pushed for more education and means-teased social programs for the poorest of the poor, while the Republicans preached an old-fashioned grit-and-bootstraps ethos that castigated people who fell behind for their own lack of gumption and blamed poverty on poor character and moral failings (e.g. having children out of wedlock, excessive drinking). Republicans claimed the real threat to Americans was “dependence on big government” rather than unemployment or economic disintegration.
This message was broadcasted incessantly day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year by professional economists burnished with impressive credentials from America’s finest institutions. They all sang from the same hymnal in absolute harmony. I live in the Rust Belt, and it’s impossible to overstate just how aggressively this message was pushed throughout the eighties, nineties and early 2000s. There was no dissent in the mainstream corporate media; none whatsoever. The “losers” in this system were told that they deserved what they got, we were told, and each and every one of us were now competitors in the high-stakes, winner-take all struggle of globalism, whether we wanted to be or not. There was simply no alternative.
Yet older people remembered a time that it didn’t used to be that way. They remembered when people could easily find a local job if they wanted one, even without a staggeringly expensive degree and massive debt. When you didn’t have to move far away from your family if you didn’t want to. When you could afford to raise family on a single breadwinner’s salary. When you could buy a house in your 20s. A time when there weren’t quite so many boarded up storefronts, panhandlers, food banks, or people living in their cars. When small local businesses thrived instead of just Wal-Mart and Amazon. They told these stories to their children as if they were describing some sort of long-vanished and forgotten culture, even though it had existed within their own lifetimes. As the satirical Onion headline put it, “Remains Of Ancient Race Of Job Creators Found In Rust Belt.” But the unfortunate circumstance of institutionalized racism during this time period allows any sort of nostalgia for this lost era to be dismissed as “racist” by members of the PMC.
What did the highly credentialed experts in economic “science” have to say to these folks? Sorry pops, that world is gone forever, and it’s not coming back. Suck it up, buttercup. Or else they refused to even acknowledge that anything had changed. Educated academics like Harvard’s Steven Pinker told Americans that’ “You literally never had it so good,” as did columnists in the New York Times like Nicholas Kristof. Anyone who said otherwise was derided as a backward parochialist who couldn’t’ understand cold, hard facts. Concern over America’s domestic disintegration—i.e. ordinary Americans who had been harmed by globalization—was derided as hopelessly ignorant and racist by members of the PMC who disproportionately staffed the corporate media and academic apparatus.
So, given the experience of the average American on the ground that I described above, is it really any wonder that experts began to lose their credibility? The average American looked around them and saw with their own two eyes what was happening right in front of them. They saw the increasing joblessness, homelessness, and poverty. They saw how their neighbors were struggling to make ends meet. They saw the boarded up storefronts, the tent cities, the crumbling infrastructure, the payday loan stores, the aggressive police, the people living in their cars, the people working for peanuts at Amazon and Wal-Mart, the foreclosures, the opioid overdoses, the suicides, and on and on and on.
And what did the professional economists continue to tell us? That none of it was happening! There was nothing to worry about, they insisted. After all, the statistics informed us that everything was fine. Throughout it all, economists assured us that free trade was good for everyone, full stop, and both political parties agreed with that assessment. This was the unassailable word of the so-called experts—the very smart economic “scientists” with high IQs and fancy degrees.
During this same time period, economists also told the public that there was little to no inflation. Now there really has been very little inflation, based on what inflation actually measures—a sustained increase in the average prices of goods you normally buy over time. As stated above, the prices of goods actually fell during this time, due to things like global wage arbitrage, automation, price competition by emerging oligopolies, and efficiency gains. Whether it’s towels, furniture or silverware, previous generations often paid much more for their manufactured goods than we do. The price of computers and electronic goods has fallen sharply, to the point where even poor households can afford large flat-screen televisions and smartphones.
The problem is, the average American doesn’t understand what “inflation” is as economists define it. All they know is that their paycheck doesn’t go as far as it used to. They saw the costs of housing skyrocket. They saw education and health care costs practically double each year. Inflation doesn’t measure those things, and there is a good reason for that. Their costs are not determined as much by the overall supply of money as by status competition and monopoly. Real estate is a local market, and the reason for its precipitous rise in growing urban areas is the one we already touched on above.
Nevertheless, such sophisticated arguments fell on deaf ears. Economists persistently told Americans inflation was low, yet the fixed costs of necessities like housing and health care were killing them, which are the very things inflation indexes specifically omit! Economists did a poor job of explaining this logic to the public, in large part due to elitism. By eliminating the very things American were going broke paying for from the inflation calculus, people began to assume that economists were somehow “cheating” or “covering up” these costs on purpose. The fact that these were “official government statistics” made people lose faith in the veracity of what the government was telling them more broadly: “How can ‘inflation’ be low when a hernia operation coast $100,000 and my school just doubled my tuition?”
The other thing economists told middle America was the unemployment rate was low. This, of course, was measured by the “official” unemployment rate. Due to this rate being low, the politicians were able to wave away concerns from their constituents about rising costs and inequality. After all, if the the official unemployment rate was low, they thought, then what are these people complaining about?
But this official unemployment statistics covered up a very different reality experienced by ordinary people on the ground. Sure, unemployment was officially low, but most of the jobs were awful! Competition for higher-paying jobs became ever more fierce over the years, and good paying jobs with benefits ever more out of reach for most people, especially if you didn’t happen to live in an urban area. Big corporate employers in the service sector routinely pared back working hours to avoid paying benefits, and even you worked just one single hour a week you were counted as officially employed. Underemployment was also not counted, meaning that people who had gone out and gotten expensive degrees but could only find low-paying wage work were invisible in the statistics. People dropping out of the workforce were also not counted, and neither were prisoners—both significant numbers of Americans. Finding a job in the era of automation and outsourcing became something like a game of musical chairs.
So this divide between lived experience and “official” government statistics further deepened the rift and sowed mistrust in political institutions and credentialed experts.
The average American also didn’t understand complex financial institutions like the Federal Reserve that increasingly seemed to control everything from behind the scenes. All the average American saw was that Wall Street and the wealthy investor class were repeatedly bailed out and made whole at every turn, while the average citizen was left to drown during the financial crisis. This led to the rise of all sort of kooky conspiracy theories such as those outlined in the notorious best-seller “The Creature from Jekyll Island”, which has been aggressively pushed by libertarian conspiracy theorists like Ron Paul, who insist that “fiat money” is the real reason behind the nation’s economic pain. Such theories obscured the actual reasons for this pain, such as a generation of stagnant wages, financial engineering, the demise of unions, global competition, corporate consolidation, and both political parties being run by and for a small group of wealthy oligarchs.
This was the economists’ gospel in a nutshell: Free trade is good; unemployment and inflation are low. That was the mantra from their eighties onward through today. And, even though some of the confusion is based on misunderstanding, this “reality” described by economists was 180 degrees opposite from what most Americans have experienced in their own lives from the 1980’s onward.
So, given all of the above, is it any wonder Americans stopped trusting the experts?
Think about that. Let me just say that again: the experts told them that what they saw happening all around them was not actually happening. So that’s what I mean when I say that economists are a major reason why people have lost trust in both credentialed experts and the mainstream corporate media.
And yet they somehow they trust Donald Trump. Why? Because back in 2016 Trump acknowledged that what they saw all around them was actually happening! In fact, he was the only politician to do so. It’s true that a few others like Bernie Sanders did as well, yet the Democratic party was successful in stifling his message and keeping him off the ballot. The Republican Party, ironically, had much less control over its rank-and-file members. These members of the party finally had a candidate who said out loud what they all knew to be true, and had been true for a long time. He phrased it crudely, and with an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism, but at least he acknowledged what the experts had arrogantly and confidently told them wasn’t happening.
So is it really a surprise they now trust Donald Trump more than these so-called experts? Given what I outlined above, is any wonder that the people who live in the small towns and rural villages across the country transferred their faith and loyalty from the credentialed experts to Trump? After all, the credentialed experts had been saying that free trade was good for everyone for nearly forty years. Trump said otherwise, and was the only one who did so (outside of the dissident parts of the Left that had been expelled from the mainstream Democratic party and had no political home, that is). Given the number of times I referred to columnists at The New York Times above, is it any wonder why people in small towns believe that the Times is “fake news?”
Of course, as I’ve said so many times before on this site, economics is a pseudoscience, and economists are really pushing political agendas rather than doing any sort of objective “science.” But I believe that the sneering dismissal of the ignorant rabble that emanated from the ivory towers of academia over the past forty years of neoliberal globlization set the stage for the rejection of any and all expertise that we are now experiencing on the part of the common people. The blowback means that real scientists—actual, legitimate physical scientists and medical doctors—are not being listened too either, thanks to the specious scientific pretensions that economists claimed while free trade was gutting the middle class. To the average American, these are yet more experts pissing on their leg and telling them its raining, just like the economists did for all those years. Why should we believe them?
For example, the conspiracy theories invoked to explain why inflation was low in the statistics but seemingly high in real life took on a life of their own. After all, if you can believe in a secret cabal of bankers and politicians running the Federal reserve, and government statisticians manipulating the unemployment rate, is it that big a leap to believe in a secret cabal of businessmen deliberately engineering a recession, or a secret cabal of virologists secretly engineering a global pandemic? We’ve practically been primed to believe it thanks to the economists’ pretensions of dressing up of political opinions as economic “science” over the past several decades.
The real reason for the economic pain of so many Americans was obscured because it had to be. If people really knew the truth, it would inevitably lead to a push for Leftist politics of the type promoted by Bernie Sanders, and this is the greatest fear among the oligarchs who run America. To avoid that (from their standpoint, terrifying) outcome, the oligarchs had no choice but to peddle paranoid conspiracy theories as the alternative. But now, like the sorcerer’s apprentice from the fairy tale, they have lost control of their own creation. The politics of conspiracy and paranoia have been let loose from Pandora’s Box and are beyond anyone’s ability to control and manipulate at this point. The duplicity of economists, the corporate media and politicians pushing globalism as good for everyone has destroyed the credibility of all experts, not just economists. It has killed faith and trust in media and the experts, no matter how reasonable or accurate those experts may be. This will not end well. We are truly lost, and cannot even find our way to the truth anymore, nor recognize it if we could.
But it all started with economists. Remember that.
ADDENDUM: The economics profession was also instrumental in getting us to ignore environmental limits and denying the consequences of climate change. In doing so, they attacked the credibility of actual scientists, and that has also contributed to the lack of faith in experts we are seeing today.
We’ve talked extensively about how the basic constituent of human society is the extended kinship group. In many parts of the world, this is still the default form of human social organization. If there is any “natural” form of human social organization discernible from evolutionary biology, this is it.
From it all the basic structures of traditional societies are derived: religion, politics, law, marriage, inheritance, etc. We’ve frequently mentioned Henry Sumner Maine’s book, Ancient Law. The entire book can be summed up in the following passages:
[A]rchaic law … is full, in all its provinces, of the clearest indications that society in primitive times was not what it is assumed to be at present, a collection of *individuals*. In fact, and in the view of the men who composed it, it was an *aggregation of families*. The contrast may be most forcibly expressed by saying that the *unit* of an ancient society was the Family, of a modern society the Individual.
We must be prepared to find in ancient law all the consequences of this difference. It is so framed as to be adjusted to a system of small independent corporations. It is therefore scanty, because it is supplemented by the despotic commands of the heads of households. It is ceremonious, because the transactions to which it pays regard resemble international concerns much more than the quick play of intercourse between individuals. Above all it has a peculiarity of which the full importance cannot be shown at present.
It takes a view of *life* wholly unlike any which appears in developed jurisprudence. Corporations *never die*, and accordingly primitive law considers the entities with which it deals, i. e. the patriarchal or family groups, as perpetual and inextinguishable. This view is closely allied to the peculiar aspect under which, in very ancient times, moral attributes present themselves.
The moral elevation and moral debasement of the individual appear to be confounded with, or postponed to, the merits and offences of the group to which the individual belongs. If the community sins, its guilt is much more than the sum of the offences committed by its members; the crime is a corporate act, and extends in its consequences to many more persons than have shared in its actual perpetration. If, on the other hand, the individual is conspicuously guilty, it is his children, his kinsfolk, his tribesmen, or his fellow-citizens, who suffer with him, and sometimes for him.
It thus happens that the ideas of moral responsibility and retribution often seem to be more clearly realised at very ancient than at more advanced periods, for, as the family group is immortal, and its liability to punishment indefinite, the primitive mind is not perplexed by the questions which become troublesome as soon as the individual is conceived as altogether separate from the group.
On the difference between laws based on lone individuals, and laws based on social groups, he writes:
…It will be observed, that the acts and motives which these theories [of jurisprudence] suppose are the acts and motives of Individuals. It is each Individual who for himself subscribes the Social Compact. It is some shifting sandbank in which the grains are Individual men, that according to the theory of Hobbes is hardened into the social rock by the wholesome discipline of force…
But Ancient Law, it must again be repeated, knows next to nothing of Individuals. It is concerned not with Individuals, but with Families, not with single human beings, but groups. Even when the law of the State has succeeded in permeating the small circles of kindred into which it had originally no means of penetrating, the view it takes of Individuals is curiously different from that taken by jurisprudence in its maturest stage. The life of each citizen is not regarded as limited by birth and death; it is but a continuation of the existence of his forefathers, and it will be prolonged in the existence of his descendants…
As we saw last time, these are called identity rules, as opposed to personal rules, which deal mainly with specific, unique, individuals; and general rules, which theoretically apply to everyone equally, regardless of one’s rank, kinship group, ethnic background, religious beliefs, wealth, or any other intrinsic characteristic.
Last time we saw that general rules came about because it became impossible for rulers to sort people by religion after the Catholic Church fragmented, despite numerous failed attempts by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Religious minorities began springing up all over Europe like mushrooms after a rain, challenging the old ways of ruling. Martin Luther only wanted to reform the universal Church; instead he broke it apart. Luther’s emphasis on a personal relationship with God through reading the Bible directly (something that was only possible in Early Modernity), meant that the intermediaries between man and God—the Church and priesthood—saw their power and influence diminish. This, in turn, empowered ambitious Early Modern rulers.
General rules supplanted the ancient laws described by Maine above, leading to a more fragmented and individualistic society. This, in turn, allowed for the commodification of land and labor which is necessary for capitalism. For example, the selling off of the monasteries seems to have kickstarted off the first large real estate markets in England. As Maine argued, status became replaced by contract; Gemeinschaft became supplanted by Gesellschaft.
But, in reality, individualism in Europe was under way long before that.
Europe has long shown a curious lack of extended kinship groups, that is, tribes. If you’ve read Roman history, you know that the Western Empire came under pressure by large migrations of tribal peoples that we subsume under the label “Germanic”, due to their languages, along with some other exotic breeds like the Asiatic Huns (the ancestors of modern-day Hungarians). Their tribal structure, from what little we can determine, seems to have been quite similar to tribal peoples the world over, including in North America, Africa, and Asia.
I’m sure you can recall the names of some of them: the Lombards, the Alemanni, the Burgundians, the Lombards, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Frisians, the Angles and Saxons, the Beans and Franks, and many, many more. The Goths managed to devastate the Roman Empire despite their mopey attitudes and all black clothing, while the Vandals left spraypaint up and down the Iberian peninsula and down into North Africa.
As I said last time, ancient societies were collectivist by default. But this all changed, particularly in Western Europe. But why Europe? Why was Europe the apparent birthplace of this radically new way of life?
That’s the subject of the paper I’m discussing today, which has received a fairly large amount of press attention. The paper itself is 178 pages—basically a small book (although much of that is data). The idea is that these extended kinship groups were broken up by the Roman Catholic Church via it’s strict prohibition against marriages between close kin, especially between cousins.
[A] new study traces the origins of contemporary individualism to the powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Europe more than 1,000 years ago, during the Middle Ages.
According to the researchers, strict church policies on marriage and family structure completely upended existing social norms and led to what they call “global psychological variation,” major changes in behavior and thinking that transformed the very nature of the European populations.
The study, published this week in Science, combines anthropology, psychology and history to track the evolution of the West, as we know it, from its roots in “kin-based” societies. The antecedents consisted of clans, derived from networks of tightly interconnected ties, that cultivated conformity, obedience and in-group loyalty—while displaying less trust and fairness with strangers and discouraging independence and analytic thinking.
The engine of that evolution, the authors propose, was the church’s obsession with incest and its determination to wipe out the marriages between cousins that those societies were built on. The result, the paper says, was the rise of “small, nuclear households, weak family ties, and residential mobility,” along with less conformity, more individuality, and, ultimately, a set of values and a psychological outlook that characterize the Western world. The impact of this change was clear: the longer a society’s exposure to the church, the greater the effect.
Around A.D. 500, explains Joseph Henrich, chair of Harvard University’s department of human evolutionary biology and senior author of the study, “the Western church, unlike other brands of Christianity and other religions, begins to implement this marriage and family program, which systematically breaks down these clans and kindreds of Europe into monogamous nuclear families. And we make the case that this then results in these psychological differences.”
Although reported as if it were some sort of new discovery, this concept is hardly new. In fact, this hypothesis has been around for quite a long time—since at least the 1980’s. Francis Fukuyma’s book, “The Origins of Political Order,” even has a chapter entitled, “Christianity Undermines the Family,” where he expounds this hypothesis in detail. As another example, the most popular post on the notorious hbd chick’s blog is entitled, whatever happened to european tribes? (hbd chick does not use capital letters), and dates from 2011. She quotes a paper from Avner Grief (whom we met last time): “Family structure, institutions, and growth – the origin and implications of Western corporatism”.
“The medieval church instituted marriage laws and practices that undermined large kinship groups. From as early as the fourth century, it discouraged practices that enlarged the family, such as adoption, polygamy, concubinage, divorce, and remarriage. It severely prohibited marriages among individuals of the same blood (consanguineous marriages), which had constituted a means to create and maintain kinship groups throughout history. The church also curtailed parents’ abilities to retain kinship ties through arranged marriages by prohibiting unions in which the bride didn’t explicitly agree to the union.
“European family structures did not evolve monotonically toward the nuclear family nor was their evolution geographically and socially uniform. However, by the late medieval period the nuclear family was dominate. Even among the Germanic tribes, by the eighth century the term family denoted one’s immediate family, and shortly afterwards tribes were no longer institutionally relevant. Thirteenth-century English court rolls reflect that even cousins were as likely to be in the presence of non-kin as with each other.
Hbd chick speculates as to why this might be the case (again, no caps for her):
the leaders of the church probably instituted these reproductive reforms for their own gain — get rid of extended families and you reduce the number of family members likely to demand a share of someone’s legacy. in other words, the church might get the loot before some distant kin that the dead guy never met does. (same with not allowing widows to remarry. if a widow remarries, her new husband would inherit whatever wealth she had. h*ck, she might even have some kids with her new husband! but, leave her a widow and, if she has no children, it’s more likely she’ll leave more of her wealth to the church.)
but, inadvertently, they also seem to have laid the groundwork for the civilized western world. by banning cousin marriage, tribes disappeared. extended familial ties disappeared. all of the genetic bonds in european society were loosened. society became more “corporate” (which is greif’s main point).
Now, for us Westerners, the idea of marrying your cousin is kind of gross (which might be an additional confirmation of the thesis). If you’re in the United States, jokes about marrying your cousin and inbreeding are common to use against people living in Appalachia. The movie Deliverance cemented this in the popular consciousness.
But if you know anything about anthropology, you know that cousin marriage isn’t all that uncommon around the world; in fact in some societies it’s considered the most desirable match! Societies use kinship terms to distinguish between parallel and cross-cousins. In most societies, cross-cousin marriage is okay (maybe even preferred), but parallel cousin marriage is a no-no. That’s why the term for “sibling” in many languages often encompasses parallel cousins. That is, marrying your parallel cousin is the same as marrying your brother or sister, i.e. it’s incest. What the Church did, then, was greatly expand the definition of incest:
In many societies, differentiated cousin-terms are presriptive of the people one can/should or is forbidden to marry. For example, in the Iroquois kinship terminology, parallel cousins (e.g. father’s brother’s daughter) are likewise called brother and sister–an indication of an incest taboo against parallel cousin-marriage. Cross-cousins (e.g. father’s sister’s daughter) are termed differently and are often preferred marriage partners. 
And, of course, the choice of marriage partners in a hyper-localized world with basically nothing in terms of mass communication and very little in the way of long-distance transportation would have been much more restricted than we are used to. The simple invention of the bicycle in the 1800s caused marriage partners to become more differentiated:
The likelihood of finding a suitable marriage partner depends not only on the degree to which one becomes acquainted with the possible marriage partners in a region but also on the changing boundaries of what constitutes a region. A great many studies, on all parts of the globe, have demonstrated that most people tend to marry someone living close by. On foot in accessible terrain – that is, no mud, rivers, mountains, and gorges – one can perhaps walk 20 kilometers [12.4 miles] to another village and walk the same distance back on the same day.
This distance comes close to the limit of trust that separated the known universe from the “unsafe” world beyond. If marriage “horizons” expanded, young suitors would be able to meet more potential marriage partners. The increase in the means and speed of transportation brought about by new and improved roads and canals, and by new means of transport such as the train, the bicycle, the tram, and the motorcar brought a wider range of potential spouses within reach. These new means of transport increased the distance one could travel during the same day, and thus expanded the geographical marriage horizon. 
Arranged marriages between kin are designed to keep land and wealth in the same extended kinship lines, rather than breaking them up or turning them over to other families. In societies where lineages are ranked, losing such land and property means a downgrade in social status. That’s why you get extreme versions like sibling marriage in ancient Egypt (with the associated birth defects). Even in fairly modern times, European royalty had a very small pool of suitable marriage partners to choose from (Prince Philip is, in fact, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth—no jokes about Prince Charles, please).
Although in the modern, developed world, cousin marriage is fairly rare, it’s somewhat more common in societies which are often labelled “traditional”. It does occur among some communities even in the West, however: Did my children die because I married my cousin? (BBC). And I’ve always found a great irony in the fact that Darwin himself married his first cousin.
So, for anthropologists, the prohibition against cousin marriage is a big deal.
WEMP and HL
Anthropologists and historians also discern a different and distinct marriage pattern in medieval Western Europe from much of the rest of the contemporary world; distinct enough to merit the uninspired name of the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP). It’s distinctive features are:
– Strict monogamy, i.e. no polygyny. We think of this as normal, but in terms of sheer numbers, most cultures have been polygynous (one man being able to marry multiple wives). Monogamy was the norm for Indo-European cultures even before Christianity (e.g ancient Greece, Rome, India).
– Relatively late age of first marriage. Many cultures married off women at puberty or shortly thereafter – anywhere from 13 to 16 years old. This was seen as necessary in an era of high infant and maternal mortality. But in Europe, both men and women married much later—often in their late twenties, or even older for men. Also, the difference in ages between men and women was slight—typically only a few years. Yet in many parts of the world even today, very young women will be married off to prestigious men who are old enough to be their grandfather! Some people, of course, still lament this change, specifically Judge Roy Moore and everyone involved with Jeffrey Epstein.
– Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage was seen as a lifetime commitment, and divorce was accordingly hard to get – just ask Henry the Eighth. Of course, given higher mortality rates – especially in childbirth – in practice this meant “till death do us part” was less of a commitment back then. Today we practice serial monogamy – one partner at a time, but less of a lifetime commitment.
– Marriage was voluntary on the part of the woman. No forced marriages here (unless it was to secure some kind of political alliance).
– Fewer children. Rather than just pump out a litter, European couples had fewer children, yet the population still grew overall. No one is quite sure why, but the relatively high status of women may have had something to do with it. Of course, it’s harder to have a large number of children with just one wife, although some people like J.S. Bach managed to do it. As Wikipedia summarizes, “women married as adults rather than as dependents, often worked before marriage and brought some skills into the marriage, were less likely to be exhausted by constant pregnancy, and were about the same age as their husbands.”
– Neolocal households and “nuclear” families. Leaving your parents’ household and establishing your own separate household is, again, fairly standard for us Westerners, but in many places it is atypical. Married couples often live with their extended families in much of the rest of the world: Africa, Asia, Oceania, etc. Even in eastern Europe it was fairly common for couples to live in an extended family household under the control of a patriarch (leading to all sorts of drama). Speaking of Eastern Europe:
The reason it’s called the *Western* European Marriage Pattern is because there is an imaginary line dividing it from the rest of the continent. The divergence in marriage patterns and inheritance practices was discovered by a demographer called John Hajnal, and hence it is called the Hajnal Line (HL). It runs roughly from Trier to St. Petersburg. Some areas of Western Europe, such as Ireland and parts of southern Europe, are also “outside” the Hajnal line as well.
To the west of the Hajnal line, about half of all women aged 15 to 50 years of age were married at any given time while the other half were widows or spinsters; to the east of the line, about seventy percent of women in that age bracket were married at any given time while the other thirty percent were widows or nuns.
The marriage records of Western and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century illustrate this pattern vividly; west of the Hajnal line, only 25% of women aged 20–24 were married while to the east of the line, over 75% of women in this age group were married and less than five percent of women remained unmarried. Outside of Europe, women could be married even earlier and even fewer would remain celibate; in Korea, practically every woman 50 years of age had been married and spinsters were extremely rare, compared to 10–25% of women in western Europe age 50 who had never married.
The idea is that the difference was brought about by the actions of the Catholic Church. More exposure to the Church meant weaker families and less kinship ties; less exposure meant that the “default” extended family system was maintained.
Furthermore, there are some ideas that follow from that:
– Western Europeans have weaker family ties.
– Western Europeans have a greater sense of individualism and independent thinking, and a correspondingly higher tolerance for deviants and misfits than other cultures.
– Both of these traits were crucial for the development of capitalism.
The idea is that, since extended kinship groups and tribes disappeared, inclusive institutions were formed in Europe by necessity rather than elsewhere. These inclusive institutions, as we saw last time, were critical for the development of general rules and Liberalism. Those developments, in turn, allowed for disruptive institutions of capitalism, as described by Marx, to rework social relations: “all that is solid melts into air.” Those developments led Western Europe to subsequently dominate the modern world. For example, this paper from 2017 by one of the new paper’s co-authors advances the hypothesis that institutional developments gave Western Europe the edge:
Why did Europe pull ahead of the rest of the world? In the year 1000 AD many regions like China or the Middle Easter [sic] were more advanced than Europe. This paper contributes to this debate by testing the hypothesis that the Churches’ [sic] medival [sic] marriage regulations constituted an important precondition for Europe’s exceptional economic development by fostering inclusive institutions. In the medieval period, Churches instituted marriage regulations (most prominently banning kin-marriages) that destroyed extended kin-networks. This allowed the formation of a civic society and inclusive institutions. Consistent with the idea that those marriage regulations were an important precondition for Europe’s institutional development, I present evidence that Western Church exposure already fostered the formation of city level inclusive institutions before 1500 AD
An important building block of the argument is that extended kin networks are detrimental to the formation of a civic society and inclusive institutions. The European kin-structure is unique in the world with the nuclear family dominating and kin marriages are almost absent. In parts of the world, first and second cousin-marriages account for more than 50 percent of all marriages. Kin-marriages lead to social closure and create much tighter family networks compared to less fractionalized societies where the nuclear family dominates for biological, sociological, and economic reasons: kin-selection predicts that the implied higher genetic relatedness increases altruistic behavior towards kin, kin-marriages decrease interaction with and therefore trust in outsiders, and they change economic incentives: supporting one’s nieces and nephews simultaneously benefits the prospective spouses of one’s own children. More importantly, though, in the absence of a supra-level inclusive institutions [sic], the family provides protection and insurance creating a stable equilibrium where individual deviation from loyalty demands is costly. Excessive reliance on the family, nepotism, and other contingencies of strong extended kin-groups in turn impede social cohesion and the formation of states with inclusive institutions.
In line with Acemoglu, Johnson, Robinson and Yared’s notion of critical junctures this paper provides evidence that the Churches’ marriage regulations changed Europe’s social structure by pushing it away from a kin-based society, and paved the way for Europe’s special developmental path. The Churches’ marriage regulations – most prominently the banning of consanguineous marriages (“marriages of the same blood”) – were starting to be imposed in the early medieval ages. Backed by secular rulers, this ban was accompanied by severe punishment of transgressions and was very comprehensive – the Western Church at times prohibited marriages up to the seventh degree of relatedness (that is, marriage between two people sharing one of their 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents). Clearly it was impossible to trace and enforce the ban to this degree, yet it demonstrates its severity. The eastern Church also banned cousin-marriage but never to the same extent (providing variation within Christian countries). 
I remember reading an anecdote from Jared Diamond a while ago, and I can’t remember whether it was in an interview or in one of his books (I wish I could find it). He was describing how someone in the village in Papua New Guinea where he was staying wanted to open an ice-cream shop to bring to glory of ice cream to the rest of the village. But this fellow ran into a small problem. In small villages in tribal New Guinea, everyone is basically related to everyone else in some way, however remote. When the budding entrepreneur tried to charge his cousins for an ice cream cone, they reacted with indignity. Charging your relatives for something was considered a severe faux pas! The village was still primarily a reciprocal gift economy. They simply could not get their heads around their concept that they had to pay for stuff. In the end, he could either make a profit or alienate everyone else in the village whom he depended upon. The ice cream shop folded.
Why did the church do this? The authors speculate that it may have been less about scripture, and more self-serving:
…the church’s focus on marriage proscriptions rose to the level of obsession. “They came to the view that marrying and having sex with these relatives, even if they were cousins, was something like sibling incest in that it made God angry,” he says. “And things like plagues were explained as a consequence of God’s dissent.”
The taboo against cousin marriage might have helped the church grow, adds Jonathan Schulz, an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University and first author of the paper. “For example,” he says, “it is easier to convert people once you get rid of ancestral gods. And the way to get rid of ancestral gods is to get rid of their foundation: family organization along lineages and the tracing of ancestral descent.”
While the Hajnal line was discovered back in 1965, it was unknown why marriage was so different west of the line than east of it until a 1983 book by Jack Goody called “The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe.” Goody was an anthropologist who specialized in marriage customs and inheritance patterns around the world—things like dowries, bridewealth, primogeniture, partiable inheritance, etc. From his study of Medieval Europe, following Hajnal’s discoveries, he was the first to put forward the idea that the Catholic Church’s prohibitions were the critical factor in the demise of the tribal structures and the subsequent rise of Western individualism. This is from Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order:
Goody notes that the distinctive Western European marriage pattern began to branch off from the dominant Mediterranean pattern by the end of the Roman Empire, The Mediterranean pattern, which included the Roman gens, was strongly agnatic or patrilineal, leading to the segmentary organization of society. The agantic group tended to be endogamous, with some preference for cross-cousin marriage. There was a strict separation of the sexes and little opportunity for the women to own property or participate in the public sphere. The Western European pattern was different in all these respects: inheritance was bilateral; cross-cousin marriage was banned and exogamy promoted; and women had greater rights to property and participation in public events.
The shift was driven by the Catholic church, which took a strong stand against four practices: marriages between close kin, marriages to the widows of dead relatives (the so-called levirate), the adoption of children, and divorce. The Venerable Bede, reporting on the efforts of Pope Gregory I to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the sixth century, notes how Gregory explicitly condemned the tribe’s practices of marriage to close relatives and the levirate. Later church edicts forbade concubinage, and promoted an indissoluble, monogamous lifetime marriage bond between men and women.
…The reason that the church took this stand, in Goody’s view, had much more to do with the material interests of the church than with theology. Cross-cousin marriage (or any other form of marriage between close relatives), the levirate, concubinage, adoption, and divorce are a what he labels “strategies of kinship” whereby kinship groups are able to keep property under the group’s control as it is passed down from one generation to another….the church systematically cut off all available avenues had for passing down property to descendants. At the same time, it strongly promoted voluntary donations of land and property to itself. The church stood to benefit materially from an increasing pool of property-owning Christians who died without heirs.
The relatively high status of women in Western Europe was an accidental by-product of the church’s self-interest. The church made it difficult for a widow to remarry within the family group an thereby reconvey her property back to the tribe, so she had to own the property herself. A woman’s right to own property and dispose of it as she wished stood to benefit the church, since it provided a large source of donations from childless widows and spinsters. And the woman’s right to own property spelled the death knell of agantic lineages, by undermining the principle of unilateral descent.
The Catholic church did very well financially in the centuries following these changes in the rules…By the end of the seventh century, one-third of the productive land in France was in ecclesiastical hands, between the eighth and ninth centuries, church holdings in northern France, the German lands, and Italy doubled….The church thus found itself a large property owner, running large manors and overseeing the economic production of serfs throughout Europe. This helped the church in its mission of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, and it also made possible a vast expansion of the priesthood, monasteries, and convents. But it also necessitated the evolution of an internal managerial hierarchy and set of rules within the church itself that made it an independent political player in medieval politics. 
Despite all this, it remained just a speculative hypothesis, and remained unproven. What Henrich et. al’s paper does is amalgamate a large amount of interdisciplinary data to try and back up the hypothesis. Their idea is that such prohibitions wold have altered the cultural behavior of those societies relative to the ones around them, and that cultural behavior can be detected through things like church records, the use of intermediary financial instruments, the frequency of blood donations, and even unpaid parking fines. By establishing a correlation between Church exposure and these sorts of socio-cultural behaviors, they argue, we can see the roots of the cultural differences between the rest of the world, and what they term WEIRD cultures: Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic.
In the course of their research, Henrich and his colleagues created a database and calculated “the duration of exposure” to the Western church for every country in the world, as well as 440 “subnational European regions.” They then tested their predictions about the influence of the church at three levels: globally, at the national scale; regionally, within European countries; and among the adult children of immigrants in Europe from countries with varying degrees of exposure to the church.
In their comparison of kin-based and church-influenced populations, Henrich and his colleagues identified significant differences in everything from the frequency of blood donations to the use of checks (instead of cash) and the results of classic psychology tests—such as the passenger’s dilemma scenario, which elicits attitudes about telling a lie to help a friend. They even looked at the number of unpaid parking tickets accumulated by delegates to the United Nations…In their analysis of those tickets, the researchers found that over the course of one year, diplomats from countries with higher levels of “kinship intensity”—the prevalence of clans and very tight families in a society—had many more unpaid parking tickets than those from countries without such history.
The West itself is not uniform in kinship intensity. Working with cousin-marriage data from 92 provinces in Italy (derived from church records of requests for dispensations to allow the marriages), the researchers write, they found that “Italians from provinces with higher rates of cousin marriage take more loans from family and friends (instead of from banks), use fewer checks (preferring cash), and keep more of their wealth in cash instead of in banks, stocks, or other financial assets.” They were also observed to make fewer voluntary, unpaid blood donations.
This builds on Henrich’s previous finding that such WEIRD cultures score differently on certain psychological tests than people in cultures in the rest of the world. That paper was a widely-cited bombshell. For years, psychology studies confined themselves to Western Europeans, particularly undergraduate college students where the studies were carried out. It was simply assumed that people thought pretty much the same way everywhere, and therefore Western college students could safely be used as a stand in for humans more generally.
Henrich, an anthropologist, took those studies and gave them to people from diverse tribal peoples around the world, which, remarkably, hadn’t been done before. The results he got indicated that using Westerners—particularly rich, well-educated ones—as stand-ins for the entire human race in psychological tests was fundamentally flawed. We are, in fact, outliers when it comes to human behavior. This has profound implications for economics and sociology.
If Westerners really are different, then why is that? This paper attempts to answer the question.
Kinship vs. Capitalism
Both Max Weber and Karl Marx realized that the destruction of large corporate kinship groups and the separation between the household and the market economy were the prerequisites for later capitalist production. Both traced this change to sometime between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Weber focused on the culture of Protestantism as the cause, while Marx focused on the changing methods of economic production during the time period, such as Enclosure movement and subsequent explosion of rootless wage laborers. Weber’s ideas were later expanded by sociologist Talcott Parsons. Karl Polanyi also traced the change to Market Society from householding economies and cottage industries to this time frame.
However, a very influential book called “The Origins of English Individualism,” by Alan Macfarlane argued that England was basically an individualistic culture by 1250—long before its continental neighbors.
By shifting the origins of capitalism well before the Black Death, we alter the nature of a number of other problems. One of these is the origin of modern individualism.Those who have written on the subject have always accepted the Marx-Weber chronology. For example, David Riesman assume that modern individualism emerged out of an older collectivist, “traditional-directed” society, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its growth was directly related to the Reformation, Renaissance and the break-up of the old feudal world. The “inner-directed” stage of intense individualism occurred in the period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though a recent general survey of historical and philosophical writing on individualism concedes that some of the roots lie deep in classical and biblical times and also in medieval mysticism, still, in general, it stresses the Renaissance, Reformation and the Enlightenment as the period of great transition. Many of the strands of political religious, ethical, economic and other types of individualism are traced back to Hobbes, Luther, Calvin and other post-1500 writers.
Yet, if the present thesis is correct, individualism in economic and social life is much older than this in England. In fact within the recorded period covered by our documents, it is not possible to find a time when an Englishman did not stand alone. Symbolized and shaped by his ego-centered kinship system, he stood in the center of the world. This means that it is no longer possible to “explain” the origins of English individualism in terms of either Protestantism, population change, the development of a market economy at the end of the middle ages, or other factors suggested by the writers cited. Individualism, however defined, predates sixteenth-century changes and can be said to shape them all. The explanation must lie elsewhere, but will remain obscure until we trace the origins back even further than attempted in this work. 
Macfarlane claims that already by the thirteenth century, the evidence indicates that England was no longer what he terms a “peasant society,” or what we’ve been referring to as a “traditional society.” Even way back then, he says, England had many characteristics in common with later capitalist societies than with more traditional ones: freeholding of land, wage labor, free choice of marriage partners, individual inheritance, alienable property, geographical and social mobility, and so forth. From a review of the book:
The bulk of this short book is taken up by attempting to demonstrate that the characteristics of peasant society did not apply to England from the thirteenth century onward…In peasant societies land is not individualized but is held by the entire family through time and is seldom sold, since it is greatly revered; in England from the twelfth century onward, land was held by individuals (both men and women) and was often sold to nonfamily members, especially since geographical mobility of families was high and since children were sometimes disinherited.
In peasant societies the unit of ownership (the joint family) is also the unit of production and consumption; in England at the time the nuclear family (rather than the stem or joint family) was predominant, and the children often worked as servants for other families, rather than for their own families.
In peasant society, the families are economically almost self-sufficient, production for the market is small, and cash is scarce; in England at that time, the economy was highly monetized, agricultural production for the market was important, and the existence of elaborate books of accounts of farms attest to their “rational” attitudes toward money making (there was even money-lending for interest in rural areas).
In peasant societies there is a certain income and social equality between families that work on the land and a large gap in income and social status stands between them and other social groups, so that little mobility occurs between classes; in England at that time, considerable differentiation of wealth among the rural workers could be found and, in addition, some mobility between classes occurred.
Finally, in peasant societies women have a low age of marriage, their marriage partners are selected for them, and few remain unmarried; in England at that time, women apparently had a moderate age of marriage, selected their own partners, and, in many cases, did not marry at all. 
What this means is that the sociologists and economic historians who use England as the exemplar of a transition from a feudal, peasant society to a capitalist one are looking in the wrong time period! the transition took place long before the time they were examining, as Macfarlane explains:
…if we are correct in arguing that the English now have roughly the same family system as they had in about 1250, the arguments concerning kinship and marriage as a reflection of economic change become weaker. To have survived the Black Death, the Reformation, the Civil War, the move to the factories and the cities, the system must have been fairly durable and flexible. Indeed, it could be argued that it was its extreme individualism, the simplest form of molecular structure, which enabled it to survive and allowed society to change. Furthermore, if the family system pre-existed, rather than followed on industrialization, the causal link may have to be reversed, with industrialization as a consequence, rather than a cause, of the basic nature of the family. 
Macfarlane’s book did not answer the question as to why the English were so different from the rest of the continent (for additional criticism, see this [PDF]). However, beginning with Goody’s book, attention became focused on the efforts of the Catholic Church to break up kin groups in Anglo-Saxon England. This may have been where the practice began, as Henrich noted in a 2016 interview with Tyler Cowen:
When the church first began to spread its marriage-and-family program where it would dissolve all these complex kinship groups, it altered marriage. So it ended polygyny, it ended cousin marriage, which stopped the kind of . . . forced people to marry further away, which would build contacts between larger groups. That actually starts in 600 in Kent, Anglo-Saxon Kent.
Missionaries then spread out into Holland and northern France and places like that. At least in terms of timing, the marriage-and-family program gets its start in southern England.
This might explain why Anglo-Saxon culture is so manifestly different than other cultures, with its emphasis on individualism, hustling, shallow social ties, and “making your own way.” This was further cemented by the fact that England was conquered by a foreign people in 1066—the Normans—who inserted themselves as a new ruling strata above the local lords in the prevailing feudal system. As one of my readers pointed out, the Normans had contempt for those beneath them, so much so that they didn’t even bother to learn the local language of those they ruled over. The “Norman yoke” might be another ingredient in the origins of English attitudes toward individualism. As Brad DeLong put it, “The society of England becomes more unequal because William the Bastard from Normandy and his thugs with spears—300 families, plus their retainers—kill King Harold Godwinson, and declare that everyone in England owes him and his retainers 1/3 of their crop.” And besides, with such a hodgepodge of peoples—Normans entering an already multicultural society of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, various Celts, and so forth—it’s hard to see how a tribal society could have persisted without strict prohibitions against intermarriage in any event on one small island given the circumstances (for example, Japan has a similar lack of tribes, except for minorities like the Ainu people).
The feudal system, with its emphasis on contractual obligations, was itself a substitute for the tribal solidarity that by that time had already been eroded. Henry Maine argued that feudalism was an amalgamation of earlier tribal customs with imported Roman legal systems of voluntary contract:
Feudalism…was a compound of archaic barbarian usage with Roman law…A Fief was an organically complete brotherhood of associates whose proprietary and personal rights were inextricably blended together. It had much in common with an Indian Village Community and much in common with a Highland clan. But…the earliest feudal communities were neither bound together by mere sentiment nor recruited by a fiction. The tie which united them was Contract, and they obtained new associates by contracting with them...The lord had many of the characteristics of a patriarchal chieftain, but his prerogative was limited by a variety of settled customs traceable to the express conditions which had been agreed upon when the infeudation took place.
Hence flow the chief differences which forbid us to class the feudal societies with true archaic communities. They were much more durable and much more various…more durable, because express rules are less destructible than instinctive habits, and more various, because the contracts on which they were founded were adjusted to the minutest circumstances and wishes of the persons who surrendered or granted away their lands.
The medieval historian Mark Bloch also noted that feudalism was a substitute for earlier social ties which had been abandoned:
Yet to the individual, threatened by the numerous dangers bred by an atmosphere of violence, the kinship group did not seem to offer adequate protections, even in the first feudal age. In the form in which it then existed, it was too vague and variable in its outlines, too deeply undermined by the duality of descent by male and female lines. That is why men were obliged to seek or accept other ties. On this point history is decisive, for the only regions in which powerful agnatic groups survived–German lands on the shores of the North Sea, Celtic districts of the British Isles–knew nothing of vassalage, the fief and the manor. The tie of kinship was one of the essential elements of feudal society; its relative weakness explains why there was feudalism at all. 
I should note that medieval guilds were also a response to this need for security; some historians of guilds trace their ancestry back to frith gilds, which were brotherhoods explicitly established for protection and defense.
And so, a society governed by explicit contracts and legal institutions centered around individuals became the norm in Western Europe far before the rest of the world. In the patchwork quilt of post-Roman Europe, some areas escaped infeudation altogether and retained elements of older, more traditional social orders. It was these remote communities that were studied in the late nineteenth century in order to uncover the lost world of Europe’s past tribal organization (for example, in Laveleye’s Primitive Property ). In other parts of Europe, feudal contracts took a myriad of alternative forms as Maine noted above—so much so that medieval historians today dislike even using the term feudalism to describe the political arrangements of this time period, because the contracts themselves were so varied. They often note that what we call feudalism was hardly one monolithic system. But it does seem as though the specific arrangements of feudalism from country to country determined the subsequent and divergent paths that various Western European countries would take. In a paper entitled, “English Feudalism and the Origins of Capitalism,” political scientist George Comninel argues that the specifics of English feudalism allowed capitalism to develop there, rather than in neighboring France:
The specific historical basis for the development of capitalism in England- and not in France – is ultimately to be traced to the unique structure of English manorial lordship. It is the absence from English lordship of the seigneurie banale – the political form of parcellised sovereignty which was central to the development of Continental feudalism – that can be seen to account for the peculiarly ‘economic’ turn taken in the development of English class relations of surplus extraction. The juridical and economic social relations necessary for capitalism were forged in the crucible of a peculiarly English form of feudal class society.
In France, by contrast, the distinctly political tenor of social development – visible in the rise of the absolutist state, in the intensely political character of the social conflict of the Revolution, and as late as the massively bureaucratic Bonapartist state of the Second Empire – can be traced just as specifically to the centrality of seigneurie banale in the fundamental relations of feudalism.
The effects flowing from this initial basic difference in feudal relations include: the unique differentiation of freehold and customary tenures among English peasants, in contrast to the survival of allodial land alongside censive tenures of France; the unique development of English common law, rooted in the land, in contrast to the Continental revival of Roman law, based on trade; the unique commoner status of English manorial lords, in contrast to the Continental nobility; and, most dramatically, in the unique enclosure movement by which England ceased to be a peasant society – ceased even to have peasants – before the advent of industrial capitalism, in stark contrast with other European societies. 
I’ve banged on for too long already, so I’m just going to close with a few notes.
Unfortunately, many of the ideas I’ve written about above have been largely discussed in the context of white supremacy and racialism, and this research will give succor to those who believe that the “white race” is unique and therefore superior to all other people on earth.
I don’t think that’s the intent of the paper at all, although I am a little disturbed by the associations with George Mason University—the epicenter of the Koch Brothers’ takeover of a wide swath of economics. However, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
While the racialist and HBD moments online are determined to reduce everything to genes (in a perverse inverse of blank slatism), it seems to me that these are cultural developments more than anything else, and are worth studying.
The desire to have such cultural differences rooted in biology is mainly an attempt by the Reactionary Right to justify the course of history and reify the status quo. For example: why is Africa poor? It’s not because they have been—and continue to be—exploited by Western colonial powers, it’s because they are stupid. The flip side to that is, or course, that Europeans are naturally smarter and more pro-social, and this is baked into the genes, meaning that reform is unnecessary and impossible—it’s just “the way things are.” The Just World philosophy on the level of nations. It also rationalizes why immigration—no matter how limited—is bad, without admitting to pure racism. Rather, it’s “just science,” claim the HBD crowd, that Europeans are different and superior at the genetic level, and therefore must remain “pure and undiluted” in order to maintain Western civilization.
But I doubt that there is any genetic basis here. Yes, institutional and cultural beliefs are very persistent, and these are indeed barriers to “Westernizing” the rest of the world. But to put all of this down to genes without evidence—where is the gene for “clannishness?”—is just not scientific, it’s political: exactly what they accuse the “radical Left” of engaging in.
Finally, I’ll just note that the places where kinship groups were broken up the earliest seem to have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and mental illness to this day, while those parts of the world that retained embedded human relationships—although significantly poorer—seem to be far happier and more content with life. It forces one to contemplate what the ultimate purpose of “progress” really is.
 Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: Some Surprises, pp. 270-271
 Quoted in Fukuyama, p. 236
 For example, Primitive Property, Chapter XV, p. 212:
Emile Souvestre, in his work on Finisterre, mentions the existence of agrarian communities in Brittany. He says it is not uncommon to find farms there, cultivated by several families associated together. He states that they live peacefully and prosperously, though there is no written agreement to define the shares and rights of associates. According to the account of the Abbé Delalandre, in the small islands of Hœdic and Houat, situated not far from Belle Isle, the inhabitants live in community. The soil is not divided into separate properties. All labour for the general interest, and live on the fruits of their collective industry. The curé is the head of the community; but in the case of important resolutions, he is assisted by a council composed of the twelve most respected of the older inhabitants. This system, if correctly described, presents one of the most archaic forms of primitive community.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I thought I’d proffer a few observations on the Zizek/Peterson debate, which I’ve finally had an opportunity to watch.
My first thought was the sheer bizzareness of the basic premise for the debate: Capitalism versus Marxism, which is better for happiness? Er, how about none of the above? As Peter Joseph opined:
“The title of this debate is ‘Happiness: Capitalism versus Marxism.’ An unfortunate decision because it sets up a binary position between assumed ideologies, while throwing in the world “happiness,” which muddies the issue even more, since what defines happiness is sociologically vague when it comes to causality…and yet, people are going to watch this, especially young people, and this is going to be their limit of debate. This is going to be how they’re going to frame their sense of possibility in terms of future social organization…”
I think a better topic might be, rather, what kind of capitalism do we want to have? Indeed, I think that’s the conversation we should be having. After all, most everywhere is basically now capitalist to one degree or another (with the exception of maybe, oddballs like North Korea).
And that would be a far easier question to answer. If I a participant in that debate, I would make the following points:
The first is that every indicator of overall happiness, well-being and life satisfaction that we know of for as long as I can remember puts the Nordic countries—especially Scandinavia—on top. Finland, Norway and Denmark are the perennial leaders in happiness rankings every single time, closely followed by other Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Iceland, and then followed closely by other Nordic countries like Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Occasionally a few Asian and Anglo-Saxon countries with good showings in the ratings, countries like Japan, Australia, and Peterson’s own native Canada. The United States is almost always lower than these democratic socialist countries, but higher than desperately poor failed states found in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, which is a rather sad point of comparison. For example:
So the empirical evidence here is pretty overwhelming and unequivocal. If happiness is your goal—which was one of the core premise of the debate—then the Nordic countries can’t be beat. And in my view, much of what constitutes the so-called “radical Left” in America today is merely advocating a move in that direction, and not for any kind of revolutionary socialism or Communism. This is evident from the policy proposals of the most notable Left-wing politicians in America today: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and their ideological allies.
The second point is a quibble with Peterson’s assertion (paraphrasing Churchill) that capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others that have ever been tried. Here’s Peterson:
“I heard a criticism of capitalism, but no real support of Marxism, and that’s an interesting thing…Zizek points out that there are problems with capitalism. I would like to say that I am perfectly aware that there are problems with capitalism. I wasn’t defending capitalism actually…I was defending it in comparison to Communism, which is not the same thing. Because, as Winston Churchill said about democracy, it’s the worst form of government there is, except for all the other forms.”
“And so you might say the same thing about capitalism–that its the worst form of economic arrangement you could possibly manage except for every other one that we’ve ever tried. And I’m dead serious about that; I’m not trying to be flippant…”
Except he’s wrong about that. We *have* tried another form of capitalism. It goes under a variety of names, but it was, in essence, the type of managed capitalism we had from the end of the Second World War up until the mid-1970s or so.
After 1980, we embraced a new “software” running on the “hardware” of Capitalism—Neoliberalism, initially put in place by Thatcher and Reagan in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and then spreading to the rest of the industrialized world to one degree or another. Under the “Washington Consensus,” it became the dominant model for the developing world as well after 1980. It continues to try and usurp all other competing forms of capitalism, including that of Northern Europe, often under the guise of “disaster capitalism” caused by fiscal crisis, political crisis, or deliberately imposed austerity policies (c.f. Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”).
The tenets of this new philosophy of capitalism can be summarized as follows:
Globalization. That is, unrestricted capital flows between nations. Western workers would now be in direct head-to-head competition with the billions of increasingly-educated workers all over the globe. Often referred to as a “race to the bottom.” Corporations and businesses are unmoored from any particular state, as if floating on a barge, free to go anywhere to seek the highest returns anywhere on earth.
Deregulation (really re-regulation) of corporations and financial institutions, trusting that markets will be “self-regulating.” and that somehow self-interested parties left to their own devices will keep the system stable.
Financialization, or the leveraging of money and debt, along with gambling, to increase wealth as opposed to investing in productive enterprise. This has led to things like leveraged buyouts and asset-stripping on a massive scale. Sometimes referred to as “casino capitalism.” Much wealth has been reallocated rather than created due to this process. It’s also led to repeated bailouts of the financial system, often referred to as “privatized profits and socialized losses.”
Putting the notion of “shareholder value” front-and-center, ahead of all other business concerns—such as those toward employees, contractors, suppliers, the environment, and the wider society in general—per Milton Friedman’s doctrine. Focusing on immediate, short-term returns instead of long-term stability, sometimes called “quarterly capitalism.” This is exacerbated by compensating CEO’s with stock options instead of salaries, which has also dramatically increased inequality.
Austerity—the idea that the government must always run balanced budgets and pay down excess “debt” even in times of financial crisis and instability. This has led to deep, recurring cutbacks in government-provided social services all across the developed world, especially in the Eurozone with its common currency system. More generally, it promotes the idea that governments are perennially “broke” and cannot–and should not–provide for basic social welfare provisioning.
Drastically reduced taxes on wealth, with correspondingly high government budget deficits. Passive investment income like capital gains and dividends are taxed at a much lower rate than salary and wage income. Government relies more and more on regressive taxation like FICA and VAT rather than steeply progressive taxes, as it once did.
Privatization of government services and a drastically reduced role for government as opposed to the private sector. The idea is that citizens are best served by becoming “consumers” shopping around in “free” markets using their own resources, rather than relying on collectively-provisioned government services, which are derided as “inefficient” and “wasteful” despite all the evidence to the contrary.
A much more “flexible” labor market, and a concomitant hostility to labor unions. A general reduction in employer obligations to workers (but not the reverse), and the rise of abusive labor arrangements such as the “gig economy” and “zero-hours contracts.”
A commodification of all aspects of life. Things that used to be provided for free are turned into commodities to be bought and sold (“Markets in Everything”)–even things like childcare, food preparation, advice, and companionship.
Massive consolidation of entire sectors of the economy in the hands of just a few participants, often referred to as “monopoly capitalism.” More precisely, many market sectors have become oligopolies, with only a handful of big companies exerting titanic influence over entire sectors, such as wholesale agriculture and Internet provision (Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.) In the online world, companies like Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon and Instagram dominate with no real competition. Mergers also serve to concentrate wealth and eliminate competition, and they are completely legal. While not a part of Neoliberal economic doctrine pe se, it has been the effective end result, especially in the United States where monopoly regulations are no longer enforced, even those that are already on the books. Much competition in the business world is more imagined than real.
Mass surveillance of the citizenry. While also not a doctrinaire aspect of Neoliberalism, it has been the result all over the world, most disturbingly in the world’s largest and fastest-growing economy, China. I would argue that the need to aggressively police markets (such as IP protection), and dealing with (i.e. jailing) the inevitable portion of the populace that cannot meet their needs through market forces alone, requires such authoritarian surveillance and draconian legal structures.
The list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea.
In the late 1930s a group of intellectuals, including Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and others adopted the term “neoliberalism” to describe their agenda based on the conviction that laissez faire was not enough. The Great Depression paired with the rise of mass democracy meant that the market would not take care of itself. Wielding their ballots, electorates would always vote for more favors for themselves — and, thus, more state intervention into the economy — crippling the combination of market prices and private property upon which capitalism depended. From this time onward, as I describe in my recent book, one of the primary dreams of neoliberals was for institutions that would constrain democratic demands and protect the free movement of capital, goods, and (sometimes, but not always) people across borders.
Even economic growth and GDP—supposedly the end-all and be-all of capitalism—was actually higher for much of that earlier period compared to the subsequent Neoliberal period, especially after the year 2000. Of course, much of that growth came from rebuilding after the Second World War, but that just shows that rapid economic growth is often more dependent on external forces than the vicissitudes of economic regulation (such as tax rates or trade). After the global financial crisis in 2008, growth outside of developing countries has almost completely stalled, causing problems all over the world, including the rise of reactionary populism.
The neoliberal assumption is that no one deserves anything, and everyone should have to do mortal combat for everything. That is, no one deserves healthcare, an education, an income, retirement?—?these things only belong to the “winners” of a never-ending social contest, in which the stakes are life or death. So it’s not exactly a surprise that neoliberalism set fire to the world. That the Champs Elysees is in flames, that Britain melted down, that American life simply fell apart. The fundamental idea was always going to fail: to make everyone fight everyone else for everything all the time?
So, once again getting back to the original premise of the debate, which type of capitalism leads to greater happiness? If I were setting the terms of the debate,I would personally want to argue not so much for Marxism (whatever that means) as against Neoliberalism. After all, let’s face it, Marxism is still underground and marginalized, while Neoliberalism is, by far, the most forceful and dominant economic orthodoxy in the world today. There’s just no comparison.
Had I been a participant in the debate, I would have waved around copies of the Case/Deaton report, which extensively documented a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair” after the 2008 financial meltdown. Can there be any more damning an indictment of Neoliberalism’s effect on happiness, especially in the contemporary United States? Here’s an interview with Deaton from 2017:
“[I]f you look at white, non-Hispanics in midlife, in their early 50s for example, their mortality rate after 100 years of declining had turned the wrong way or at least flattened out. This is not happening to other groups in the U.S. It’s not happening to Hispanics. It’s not happening to African-Americans. And it’s not happening in any other rich country in the world. This is happening to both men and women. Perhaps the most shocking thing is that a lot of the deaths come from what you might think of as behavioral factors, which are alcohol – alcoholic beverages – from suicides and from drug overdoses. Many of those drug overdoses are accidental overdoses from prescription drugs. People often think the health system is responsible for our health. In this case, the health system is responsible for killing people, not actually helping them. … It’s like there are two Americas out there: the people with a B.A., and people without a B.A. The mortality rates of white non-Hispanics without a B.A. are going up faster than the average. They’re much more subject to opioid abuse, suicides, alcohol-related liver disease and heart disease, which has been a major cause in mortality decline. Mortality from heart diseases stopped declining and started rising. There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on, especially for this group without a B.A.”
Or, take the report by Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights who visited the United States a couple of years back:
My visit coincides with a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty. The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. It is against this background that my report is presented.
The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty…
American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.
Which is immediately followed by a long list of damning statistics indicating a dramatic social breakdown inside the United States over the past few decades, unique among the world’s rich, industrialized nations, especially after 2008 (over ten years ago). I would have waved those statistics all over the place as well.
In 1918, a pandemic of Spanish flu infected approximately one third of the global population, killing between 20 and 50 million people. In the United States alone, more than 650,000 people died, enough to contribute to a decline in the country’s life expectancy. For a century, this was the worst decline in American health. Until this year. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that, between 2016 and 2017, US life expectancy dropped from 78.7 to 78.6 years. This marks the third consecutive year that life expectancy in the US has decreased.
We have not had a drop like this since the 1918 flu pandemic. What does our lack of attention tell us about how we think about health in this country?
…perhaps we have come to accept the longer-term trend in which US life expectancy has lagged relative to other economically comparable countries. Perhaps knowing that our health is not terrific is simply the American condition. But, of course, it is not and our health was not always worse than our peer countries. As recently as thirty years ago we were in the top half of the pack…Shouldn’t we then start paying attention to the worst American health deterioration in a 100 years?
What makes people unhappy? Stress about money. Precariousness. Poor physical health. A bad diet. Homelessness. Unemployment. “Social distance.” Random violence. Abuse. Johann Hari recently wrote about these factors in his book about the causes of depression, and depression is the biggest drain on happiness that there is. Yet these are the inevitable fruits of Neoliberalism. Yet there are alternatives, and yes, alternatives that have been tried, do exist right now, and do not require us to abandon markets or capitalism, and certainly do not require us to all become politically-correct Marxists. So I wish we had less of a binary debate about “Capitalism versus Marxism” and more about the type of capitalism we want to have, because there are versions that have been proven to work well and versions that don’t.
What I think were Peterson’s best comments came in his first 10-minute response. It’s also a good summary of his philosophy. He made some good points here, but also a few things to quibble with:
“He [Zizek] said, well, what [are] the problems with capitalism? Well, the commodification of cultural life–all life–fair enough. There’s something that isn’t exactly right about reducing everything to economic competition. Capitalism certainly pushes in that direction; advertising culture pushes in that direction; sales and marketing culture pushes in that direction. And there’s reasons for that. I have a certain amount of admiration for the necessity of advertisers and salesmen and marketers. But that doesn’t mean that the transformation of all elements of life into commodities in a capitalist sense is the best way forward. I don’t think it is the best way forward…”
Good! It seems Peterson might be receptive to the ides of Karl Polanyi. In fact, Polanyi, too, rejected Marx’s ideas of class conflict and the arbitrary division into capitalists and proletariat as needlessly simplistic. So there’s some agreement there. That brings to mind another very important point that Peterson himself brought up, and I think is one of the most important things he said all evening:
“There is, by the way, a relationship between wealth and happiness. It’s quite well defined in the psychological literature. Now it’s not exactly obvious whether the happiness measures are measures of happiness, or whether they’re measures of the absence of misery. And my sense is, as a psychometrician who’s looked at these scales, that people are more concerned with not being miserable than they are with being happy. Those are actually seperate emotional states mediated by different psychobiological systems. It’s a technical point, but its an important one.”
Yep, I agree with that, and I think it’s important.
“There is a relation between absolute level of income and self reported lack of misery or happiness. And its pretty linear until you hit, I would say, something approximating decent working class income. So what seems to happen is that wealth makes you happy as long as it keeps the bill collectors at bay. One you’ve got to the point where the misery is staved off as much as it can be by the fact that you’re not in absolutely economically dire straights, than adding more money to your life has no relationship whatsoever to your well being.”
“And so, its clear that past a certain minimal point, additional material provision is not sufficient to, let’s say, redeem us individually or socially. And it’s certainly the case that the radical wealth production that characterizes capitalism might produce a fatal threat to the structure of our social systems and our broader ecosystems. Who knows?…”
What makes these comments so extraordinary is that, to me, they are excellent arguments not for libertarian winner-take-all capitalism but rather for democratic socialism! Let the capitalists make their fortunes, sure. But tax away the highest fortunes, and the happiness of the rich will not be negatively effected at all, since what we really want is not wealth but status, and status is inherently relative. Then use that wealth created by the capitalists to subsequently provide a basic social provisioning to all of your citizens, including those excluded from market participation for one reason or another. Provide the basics of survival (food, housing, education) so that people have a basic sense of security. After that, it’s up to them. That’s a recipe for societal happiness.
Is that Marxism? I don’t know, but it seems like a fair compromise to me. Good on Peterson for making these points. His next points are a bit more problematic, however:
“I didn’t hear an alternative, really, from Dr. Zizek. Now, he admitted that the rise to success of the Chinese was in part a consequence of the allowance of market forces and decried the authoritarian tendencies. And fair enough, that’s exactly it. And it also seemed to me that the social justice group identity processes that Dr. Zizek was decrying are to me a logical derivation from the oppression narrative that’s a fundamental presupposition of Marxism. I never heard a defense of Marxism in that part of his argument as well. And so, for me again, it’s to ask what is the alternative?”
“I also heard an argument for egalitarianism, but I heard it defined as equality of opportunity, not as equality of outcome, which I see as a clearly defined Marxist aim. I heard an argument for a modified social distribution of wealth, but that’s already part and parcel of most free market economic states with a wide variation, and an appropriate variation of government intervention, all of which constitute their own experiment. We don’t know how much social intervention is necessary to flatten the tendency of hierarchies to tilt it so terribly that all of the people at the top have everything and all the people at the bottom have nothing. It’s a very difficult battle to fight against that profound tendency. It’s much deeper than capitalism itself, and we don’t know what to do about it, so we run experiments. And that seems to be working reasonably as far as I can tell…”
Here, the thing is, Peterson is debating his own imaginary form of Marxism which has no relation to the real thing! In fact, at the very start of the debate, he admits to reading the Communist Manifesto (and only the Communist Manifesto) for the first time in something like forty years. And yet, all this time he has been going all around the world denouncing Marxism!
I don’t think Marx and Engels ever advocated for absolute equality of outcome or total leveling. So why, then, does Peterson constantly—and I mean constantly—argue that it does? If you claim that Marxists must believe X, and then you have a dialogue with a Marxist who doesn’t advocate for X, and doesn’t know anyone else similar to him who believes X, then there are only two options. One is to argue that your opponent is, in fact, not a Marxist, which is what Peterson does (the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Or, you could admit that you were wrong the whole time about what you assumed that your opponents believed, which I think is the right response.
Zizek himself points this out at one point:
“Where did you find this [idea of] egalitarianism? There is one passage in his late ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme‘ where Marx assesses the problem of equality. And he dismisses it as a strict bourgeois category–explicitly, explicitly. For him, Communism is not egalitarianism…”
So the idea that Marxism calls for an absolute equality of outcome is a just figment of Peterson’s imagination (i.e. a Straw Man fallacy). I was curious to learn more about this, so I did a quick Google search, and here’s what I found:
…Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.
Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.
If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”. As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.
Marx and Engels Were Not Egalitarians (anarchopac). Seems like a good recipe for happiness to me. In fact, Marx’s theory of alienation appears to be the first serious attempt to actually think about the economy’s effects on life satisfaction by any economic thinker, which stands in stark contrast to many of the Classical Liberals, who seemed to think of people as simply work machines without their own goals or aspirations.
So, a simple Google search, not to mention a five-minute conversation with someone who, you know, has actually read Marx’s work beyond the Manifesto, would have invalidated this specious argument. The reason Dr. Zizek wasn’t advocating for equality of outcome is simple—it has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism! Neither does political correctness or identity politics.
The second point I highlighted above is Peterson’ claim that we don’t know how to do anything to fight inequality. This is a major objection that I’ve had with his views for a longtime. He’s repeated this statement quite often in his interviews and speeches, such as in his interview with Russell Brand.
Now, he is somewhat correct in the sense that we don’t know how to create a system that eliminates all inequality, or that can operate a complex, technological society without any sort of hierarchy. But as I said, many of the ideas which have been systematically dismantled by Neoliberalism did do a reasonably good job in containing inequality, and helped assure that the wealth generated by capitalism was more broadly shared. And I think the denial of this fact, intentionally or not, is intellectually dishonest. In the previous style of capitalism that existed before Neoliberalism, there was a much more equitable distribution of resources sometimes called “the Great Compression.” Wikipedia talks about this, and gives some reason why it happened:
Economist Paul Krugman gives credit for the compression not only to progressive income taxation but to other New Deal and World War II policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. From about 1937 to 1947 highly progressive taxation, the strengthening of unions of the New Deal, and the wage and price controls of the National War Labor Board during World War II, raised the income of the poor and working class and lowered that of top earners. Krugman argues these explanation are more convincing than the conventional Kuznets curve cycle of inequality driven by market forces because a natural change would have been gradual and not sudden as the compression was.
Explanation for the length of the compression’s lasting have attributed to the lack of immigrant labor in the US during that time (immigrants often not being able to vote and so support their political interests) and the strength of unions, exemplified by Reuther’s Treaty of Detroit—a landmark 1949 business-labor bargain struck between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors. Under that agreement, UAW members were guaranteed wages that rose with productivity, as well as health and retirement benefits. In return GM had relatively few strikes, slowdowns, etc. Unions helped limit increases in executive pay. Further, members of Congress in both political parties significantly overlapped in their voting records and relatively more politicians advocated centrist positions with a general acceptance of New Deal policies.
The end of income compression has been credited to “impersonal forces”, such as technological change and globalization, but also to political and policy changes that affected institutions (e.g., unions) and norms (e.g., acceptable executive pay). Krugman argues that the rise of “movement conservatism”—a “highly cohesive set of interlocking institutions that brought Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to power”—beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought lower taxes on the rich and significant holes in the social safety net.The relative power of unions declined significantly along with union membership, and executive pay rose considerably relative to average worker pay. The reversal of the great compression has been called “the Great Divergence” by Krugman and is the title of a Slate article and book by Timothy Noah. Krugman also notes that era before the Great Divergence was one not only of relative equality but of economic growth far surpassing the “Great Divergence”.
The major obstacles to implementing ideas that would reduce inequality today are the Neoliberal ideas which are embraced to one extent or another by both major political parties in the U.S. The polices that would accomplish this compression—and I would argue allowed capitalism to continue to function at all—are now only advocated by people who are considered to be “far Left,” and are depicted as Stalinists, Maoists, and utterly reviled by the conservative media, including Fox News (where Peterson is a frequent guest).
I purposely did not quote from Peterson’s opening 30 minute remarks, which I thought were not nearly as good, largely because they focused on a criticism of Marxism was obviously not well-informed. Admittedly, Zizek did not seize on this, instead reading a rambling and prepared statement which basically constituted his personal intellectual hobby-horses and did not really address the topic at hand. Here, I will again quote Peter Joseph:
“My focus here will be Jordan Peterson’s [arguments] which are conservative and are on the side of capitalism, if you will…What he does is create a massive straw man, addressing and criticizing the Communist Manifesto, written almost 200 years ago by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. His attacks on this book, which as I will explain, are extremely poorly thought out and just wrong, become a proxy for attacks on contemporary activists and thinkers looking to alter the capitalist structure or remove it. His perspective is consistently Libertarian in the modern sense of the word, and his pathological fetish with taking a psychological position rather than any kind of synergistic, sociological relationship in terms of causality or social structure, is to me what makes him one of the more regressive intellectuals out there today, especially considering how popular he has become.”
“And since I’m about to be thrown in to defending Marx, and Progressive thoughts in general, let me make on thing extremely clear. I am not a Marxist, or a Communist, or a Socialist, or whatever. I don’t identify with any of that. I see Marx’s writing as equivalent to other philosophers, from Thomas Hobbes, to Hegel, to Thorstein Veblen, and many others. It’s all information; and some of it is good, some of it is bad–you weigh it all out. The faster all of you people see all of this as information rather than ideological dualities or symbols of something, the faster we can progress the conversation.”
“Likewise, let me clarify one other very important thing. Those that invoke disapproval of historical communism–and rightly so–almost universally say it was a consequence of the writings of Karl Marx. And I would argue that it’s a consequence of the writings of Karl Marx in the same way the Columbine massacre was a consequence of the music of Marilyn Manson. Any respected historian and theorist recognizes that the Soviet Union was actually state capitalism in the extreme. It never achieved any level of theoretical socialism, and certainly not Communism, and if you look at the writings of Vladimir Lenin, he admits to this fact. And again, that’s not defending anything; I’m being intellectually accurate…”
Indeed, it is important to be intellectually accurate, although I don’t know if I’d qualify all of Peterson’s statements as explicitly libertarian, though. Some of it is, but in a few important ways he strays from the libertarian orthodoxy. For example, in his 10-minute response, he says the following:
“I mean, it isn’t obvious to me when Dr. Zizek is speaking in more apocalyptic terms…that we can solve the problems that confront us. And its also not a message that I’ve been purveying that unbridled capitalism, per se, as an isolated social-economic structure, actually constitutes the proper answer to the problems that confront us. I haven’t made that case in anything I’ve written, or any of the lectures that I’ve done, because I don’t believe it to be true…”
It seems that what Peterson really rejects is authoritarianism, which he erroneously conflates with Marxism. If he made a distinction between the two, I would take him more seriously. Authoritarianism—where power is exercised by whim and naked, raw power and without the rule of law and democratic oversight—is the real villain that led to all those needless deaths. Such absolutism can be embraced by people on either side of the political spectrum. Criticize that, absolutely, but don’t smear a long intellectual tradition using silly conspiracy theories, especially if you have not read any of the relevant literature. And, by the way, there are psychologists who’ve done serious, empirical work probing the psychological basis of behind authoritarian political beliefs—Robert Altmeyer in particular—and I wish Peterson would pay more attention to this scientific work (in his own field!) rather than spending all his time bashing “radical Leftists” feminists and “Postmodern Neo-Marxists.” I think he’d be more effective this way if he really is serious about preventing that sort of thinking, and not just bashing phantom enemies. Identity politics, too is a serious problem that crops up on both the Left and Right ends of the political spectrum (anyone remember Sarah Palin and her “real” Americans?)
As Ben Burgis trenchantly noted, Friedrich Nietzsche was appropriated by the National Socialist movement in Germany, and many Nazis were big fans of his writing. But that is unfair to Nietzsche—not only was he not around to defend himself, but he was opposed to things like German nationalism and antisemitism during his lifetime. Yet Peterson has no problem with studying the works and thoughts of Nietzsche. So why does that same logic not hold for those who want to study Karl Marx?
Peterson concludes his statement with this:
“I’ll close with this…There is a positive relationship between economics as measured by income and happiness, on psychological well-being which might be the absence of misery. I certainly do not believe—and the evidence does not suggest—that material security is sufficient. I do believe, however, that insofar as there is a relationship between happiness and material security, that the free market system has demonstrated itself as the most efficient manner to achieve that, and that was actually the terms of the argument.”
“So that’s if the argument is capitalism versus socialism with regards to human happiness. It’s still the case that the free market constitutes the clear winner. And maybe capitalism will not solve our problems. I actually don’t believe that it will. I have in fact argued that the proper pathway forward is one of individual moral responsibility aimed at the highest good, and something for me that’s rooted in our underlying Judeo-Christian tradition that insists that each person is sovereign in their own right, and a locus of ultimate value; which is something that you can accept regardless of your religious presuppositions, and something that you do accept if you participate in a society such as ours. Even the fact that you vote—that you’re charged with that responsibility—is an indication that our society is structured such that we presume that each person is a locus of responsibility and decision-making, of such import that the very stability of the state depends upon the integrity of their character.”
“And so what I’ve been suggesting to people is that they adopt as much responsibility as they possibly can, in keeping with their aim of the highest possible good, which to me is something approximating a balance between what’s good for you as an individual, and what’s good for your family, in keeping with what’s good for you as an individual, and then what’s good for society in the larger frame, such that it’s also good for you and your family. And that’s a form of an elaborated, iterative game; a form of cooperation. It’s a sophisticated way of looking at the ways society can possibly be organized, and I happen to believe that that has to happen at the individual level first, and that’s the pathway forward that I see.”
So there’s much to like here. I’ll note that every single criticism of Peterson I’ve read from the Left—including my own—do not have any objections to his attempt to help people accept responsibility and lead better lives. None. Not one. In fact, most such commentaries are usually highly complimentary and supportive of his attempts to do so. The worst I’ve read about his advice is a dismissal of it as simplistic, facile, or merely common-sense. Clearly, it is not simplistic or common-sense, otherwise there would not be such a receptive audience for his ideas, and such remarks smack more of bitterness than anything else. So I think we should take these efforts by Peterson seriously.
Here’s what I see as Peterson’s most important idea: I think that, sometimes, people use the problems of the world-at-large as a cop-out to avoid dealing with their own problems. In addition to that, people do sometimes use their anger at the wider society as an excuse to justify their own fuck-ups. They rationalize every failure as someone else’s fault instead of accepting the appropriate responsibility for their own actions and behavior. And also, they project their own personal disasters out onto the world as objective facts, when they are really just reflections of one’s own personal issues.
These are real phenomena! And to the extent that Peterson points them out, and helps people to overcome them, I think he does a great job, and I give him all the credit for that. People do sometimes wrap themselves in their own anger and misanthropy when really they should be focusing on fixing themselves and making improvements to their surroundings, including their relationships with their immediate friends and family, and improving their ability to function as a competent individual in the world.
Focus on being a good person first. Do things that contribute to society and to your own family’s well-being. Focus on those first instead of perceived slights and injustices, many of which are subjective anyway. Realize the world is sometimes unfair, no matter what you do.
Yes, absolutely. 100% agree.
Okay, now for the “but.”There are a lot of problems that cannot be solved at the individual level. For example, if you take responsibility by getting training for an essential profession, and you are crippled with student loan debt because of that, that cannot be solved at the individual level. Similarly, if you have a medical condition where some company buys the patent on your medication and jacks up the price 2000 percent, that is not something that can be solved at the individual level. I’m sure you can come up with numerous other examples.
By keeping us all isolated, working perennially on ourselves alone, it prevents any kind of constructive change. We become solipsistic. We are all a part of society, and cannot cut ourselves off from it. Zizek himself makes this case at one point. He points out that telling someone suffering under the dictatorship of North Korea to make their bed, or to set their own house in perfect order, is ridiculous. The thing that brought down the Berlin Wall was people getting fed up with the system and taking collective social action. The thing that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union was people taking collective social action.
The two are not in opposition. You can work on your own house, sure, but you are still influenced by the broader society around you, and that is unavoidable. And we can and should make that society better, if we can, and that sometimes involves collective action and—dare I it say it—social justice.
“What I don’t quite get—why do you put so much emphasis on ‘We have to begin with personal change?’ This is the first or the second—forgive me I don’t remember—of [the] slogans in your book. You know, ‘First set your house in order, then…'”
“But I have an extremely common-sense naïve question here. What if, in trying to set your house in order, you discover that your house is in this order precisely because the way the society is messed up? Which doesn’t mean, ‘Okay, Let’s forget about my house,’ but you can do both at the same time.”
“I will give you now the argument example: yourself. Isn’t it that you are so socially active because you realize that it’s not enough to tell your patients ‘Set your house in order?’ Much of the reason of why they are in disorder is that there is some crisis in our society…So my reproach to you would be…you know that joke, ‘Tea or coffee? Yes, please.’ Like, ‘Individual or social? ‘Yes, please.'”
“This is obviously an extreme situation…I hope we agree [that] to say to somebody in North Korea, ‘Set your house in order, ha ha!’ But I think in some deeper sense it goes also for our society. I’m just repeating what you are [saying]. You see some kind of a social crisis, and I don’t see clearly why you insist so much on this choice…”
On a final note, there seems to be little correlation to a county’s overall wealth and the observed happiness of its citizens in any case. In many cases, the connection is actually inverted, as in the case of South Korea:
My native South Korea is something of a star performer. With per capita income of around $20,000 (on a par with Portugal), it is not one of the richest countries, but we are talking about a country whose income was less than half that of Ghana’s until the early 1960s. With an annual per capita income growth rate of just under 4%, it is one of the fastest-growing OECD economies.
Once a byword for hyper-exploited sweatshop labour, churning out cheap transistor radios and trainers, the country now possesses the only thing that stands between iPhone and world domination (the Samsung Galaxy). It is also a world leader in industries such as shipbuilding, steel and automobiles.
The country is, per capita, the third most innovative in the world, after Japan and Taiwan, when measured by the number of patents granted by the US patent office. It has one of the world’s highest university enrollment ratios, and schoolchildren who rank in the top five in virtually all standardised international tests.
So, when things seem to be going so swimmingly, why are Koreans clamouring for big changes in the run-up to the general election next week? Because they are desperately unhappy.
According to a recent World Values Survey, Koreans are the second unhappiest people (after Hungary) among the citizens of the 32 OECD countries studied. Worse, its children are the unhappiest in the rich world, according to a survey of 23 OECD countries done by Yonsei University in Seoul. In 2009 the country topped the international league table for suicides, with 28.4 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan was a distant second with 19.7. But Koreans never used to be this unhappy. Until 1995 its suicide rate was, at about 10 per 100,000 people, just below the OECD average. Since then it has almost tripled.
Recently, yet another survey came out, this one supposedly on the “most stressed” and “least stressed” countries in the world. What’s interesting is that both the top and bottom of the scale tend to be relatively poor countries. The top countries were all in Latin America, while the bottom were all in Africa or the Middle East. Of course, the bottom countries tended to be failed states or theocracies dealing with acute hunger and civil war. Apparently Chad has the most negative experiences, which I could have told you from personal experience, LoL.
The annual Gallup Global Emotions Report asked people about their positive and negative experiences. The most negative country was Chad, followed by Niger. The most positive country was Paraguay, the report said. The US was the 39th most positive country, the UK was 46th and India ranked 93rd.
Interviewees were asked questions such as “did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” and “were you treated with respect?” in a bid to gain an insight into people’s daily experiences.Around 71% of people said they experienced a considerable amount of enjoyment the day before the survey. The poll found that levels of stress were at a new high, while levels of worry and sadness also increased. Some 39% of those polled said they had been worried the day before the survey, and 35% were stressed.
Latin American countries including Paraguay, Panama and Guatemala topped the list of positive experiences, where people reported “feeling a lot of positive emotions each day.” The poll claims it is reflective of the cultural tendency in Latin America to “focus on life’s positives”.
Despite Chad’s high score for negative experiences, people in the US and Greece were more stressed than Chadians. Greece had the most stressed population in the world with 59% saying they experienced stress on the day before the poll. Around 55% of US adults said they were stressed.
To me, this indicates that happiness has as much to with culture as with economic systems, unless the system can’t produce the most basic Maslowian needs like housing, healthcare, food and personal safety. Zizek makes some interesting comments along these lines in his first 10-minute statement, which would seem to apply to Latin America:
“Years ago I was in Lithuania, and we debated when were people in some perverted sense–and this is the critique of the category of happiness for me–happy. And we came to the crazy result: Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s [after the Soviet intervention]. Why? For happiness, first, you should not have too much democracy, because this brings the burden of responsibility. Happiness means there is another guy out there and you can put all the blame on him. As the joke went in Czechoslovakia, if there is bad weather, or a storm, [some] Communist screwed it up again.”
“The other condition, the much more subtle condition–is that life was relatively, moderately good, but not perfect. Like, there was meat, but maybe once month there was no meat in the stores. It was very good to remind you how happy you were [when there was meat.] Another thing, they had a paradise which should be at a proper distance: West Germany–affluence. It was not too far, but was not directly accessible.”
So, maybe in your critique of Communist regimes–which I agree with you–you should more focus on something that I experienced. Don’t look only at the terror; at the totalitarian regime. There was a kind of a silent, perverted pact between power and the population, which was: ‘Leave us the power and don’t mess with us, and we guarantee you a relatively safe life, employment, private pleasures, private needs, and so on.’ For me, this is not an argument for the Communists, but against happiness…You know, people said, when the wall fell down, ‘What a wonder!’ in Poland. Solidarnosc, which was prohibited a year ago, now now triumphed in the elections. Who could imagine this? Yes, but the true miracle, in a bad sense, was that four years later democratically the ex-communists came back to power.
For me, this is not an argument for them, but simply for the, let’s call it, the corrupted nature of happiness. My basic formula is: Happiness should be treated as a necessary by-product. If you focus on it you are lost. It comes as a by-product of you working for a cause. That’s the basic thing for me…”
While the Republican candidates for the presidency in 2012 were still battling in the primaries, Mr Obama singled out front-runner (and eventual nominee) Mitt Romney to compare educations. Two degrees from Harvard instead of one? “Snob” Mr Obama joked. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36172823
It’s looking more and more like a Trump-Clinton race. What I can’t get over is the fact that of the two parties’ candidates, the one most hostile to the Neoliberal paradigm, and most well-positioned as an outsider candidate threatening the status quo, will be the Republican candidate.Wow.
The populist candidate will be the Republican rather than the Democrat.
Think about how extraordinary that is. The Republicans have historically self-identified as “conservative” and been viewed through the twentieth century as the party of sober, responsible upper-class managerial elites dedicated to holding back the radical leftist tide which would lead to what they perceived as “mob rule.” The Democrats, in contrast, were seen as the party of the working man, the little guy, defending unions and fighting against the powerful insiders for working-class benefits like better pay, better working conditions, and social programs to combat poverty and promote equality. Republicans were the responsible middle-managers, businessmen and CEO’s; the Democrats were the wild-eyed proletarian radicals fighting oppression, sticking flowers in gun barrels and protesting against the “man.” Republicans were white-collar accountants who wanted balanced budgets and leave-it-alone capitalism; Democrats were blue-collar populists who wanted the government to take on injustice.
At least, that’s how it used to be. In fact, many people still think it is that way. Either that, or they spin the narrative that both parties have become “equally extreme” toward divergent ends of an arbitrary political spectrum of opinion (as defined by the opinion-makers themselves).
The Republicans will be fielding the outsider candidate opposed to free trade, globalism, militarism, and loose immigration policies, while the Democrats will be fielding a soundly Neoliberal candidate in favor of all those things, surrounded by Neocon foreign policy advisors, and whose major appeal is feminist identity politics and “experience.”
How did this happen?
It’s a major historical realignment, the third of three that have happened over the postwar period. Hence it’s a very big deal.
In a world of Trumpism and Clintonism, Democrats would become the party of globalist-minded elites, both economic and cultural, while Republicans would become the party of the working class.Democrats would win backing from those who support expanded trade and immigration, while Republicans would win the support of those who prefer less of both. Erstwhile neocons would go over to Democrats (as they are already promising to do), while doves and isolationists would stick with Republicans. Democrats would remain culturally liberal, while Republicans would remain culturally conservative.
The combination of super-rich Democrats and poor Democrats would exacerbate internal party tensions, but the party would probably resort to forms of appeasement that are already in use. To their rich constituents, Democrats offer more trade, more immigration, and general globalism. To their non-rich constituents, they offer the promise of social justice, which critics might call identity politics. That’s one reason why Democrats have devoted so much attention to issues such as transgender rights, sexual assault on campus, racial disparities in criminal justice, and immigration reform. The causes may be worthy—and they attract sincere advocates—but politically they’re also useful. They don’t bother rich people.
The first of these realignments I detailed over a recent series of posts. As African-Americans found their sharecropping jobs automated out of existence across the Deep South, they uprooted themselves and migrated en masse to the Industrial cities of the Atlantic Seaboard, Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Southern California. Arriving virtually penniless, they sought work in America’s booming industrial economy during the “all hands on deck” phase of postwar capitalism. As the factory jobs were first suburbanized, then automated and offshored out of existence over the succeeding thirty years, this population became a perennial urban underclass, increasingly reliant on government welfare checks and food stamps to survive as work dried up and vanished (and totally ignored by the mainstream media and academics, as I argued in those posts).
This trend coincided with the construction of the Interstate Highway System and the rise of the automobile. Public transportation was de-funded to keep blacks trapped in urban ghettos, while whites got in their cars and fled to white separatist enclaves in the cornfields and marshlands surrounding the cities, forming a parallel society where jobs were still abundant and incomes were still rising. At the same time, as America deindustrialized and air conditioning became standard, many major corporations relocated to the low-tax and low-regulation, non-unionized states of the South and Sunbelt, causing a major population shift away from the older, industrial regions of the country. The migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt caused shrinking populations and declining fortunes in the older, industrial areas of the North and East where most blacks now lived, further exacerbating white/black racial tensions.The political union of fleeing suburban whites with their socially-conservative backwoods rural cousins was animated primarily by a shared hatred of urban blacks and, due to social engineering, the federal government. This became the guiding philosophy of the “new” Republican party. Republicans ran as outsiders spinning a tale of Americans’ own government being some sort of outside, alien force that they promised to “wreak havoc” upon and “make squeal” like a pig.
When they got there, of course, nothing of the sort happened. Legislatively what occurred was a rollback of taxes on the richest Americans and a shredding of the social safety net. Anti-tax fervor translated into big tax cuts for the rich and a lack of oversight for cooperate malfeasance and open season for tax avoidance. Avoiding “inference” meant letting corporations do as they wished to workers. Stripping workers of union protections caused rising profits and out-of-control inequality.
The Democrats, for their part, continued to press for issues of racial equality and justice, further alienating downscale whites. Democrats became the party of “big government” – a government dedicated to large-scale social engineering in the interests of pursuing equality for people most whites regarded as their natural inferiors. Government became a dirty word, and taxes were seen as stealing from industrious white labor to fund the indigence of an urban, black underclass. The Republicans became the “white party” and Democrats the “black party.”
In other words, Southern whites who wanted to keep Jim Crow intact had plenty of reasons to steadily desert the Democratic Party and join the GOP starting around World War II. By the early 60s they were primed and ready to begin a massive exodus from the increasingly black-friendly Democratic Party, and exit they did. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP nominee, refused to support the Civil Rights Act that year, and influential conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley were decidedly unfriendly toward black equality. This made the Republican Party more and more appealing to Southern white racists, and by 1968 Richard Nixon decided to explicitly reach out to them with a campaign based on states’ rights and “law and order.” Over the next two decades, the Democratic Party became ever less tolerant of racist sentiment and the exodus continued. By 1994, when Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich won a landslide victory in the midterm elections, the transition of the white South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican was basically complete.
…The new middle-class utopia did, of course, exclude most nonwhite Americans. Although average incomes for nonwhites increased at about the same rate as incomes for whites in the postwar years, in 1959 the black poverty rate was still 56 percent, and blacks on average earned 53 percent what whites did. What could be said for the midcentury middle class, though, is that it generally worked astonishingly well for those who were lucky enough to be part of it — particularly for blue-collar workers. Probably no one in American history has achieved prosperity with the velocity of the men who grew up destitute in the Depression and, by their 30s, had factory jobs that paid (in 2016 dollars) upward of $50,000 a year.
The white- and blue-collar middle classes each tended to vote Democratic, which made sense: The new middle class’s good fortune was the combined product of the New Deal, postwar Keynesian economic policy, the G.I. Bill, organized labor and government-backed mortgages. But in retrospect, the Democrats’ hold on the white middle class was balanced precariously on the racial status quo — which, by the mid-1960s, was breaking apart.George Wallace, the segregationist Democratic governor of Alabama who ran for president in 1964 in protest of Lyndon B. Johnson’s turn toward civil rights, performed well not just in the South but also in white blue-collar enclaves in the few Northern states where he was on the primary ballot. When he ran again as an independent in 1968, the members of the United Auto Workers Union local at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., voted to endorse him.
By 1984, the extent of the damage to the Democrats’ postwar coalition had become clear.That spring, Ronald Reagan’s campaign aired its “Morning in America” ad, a Vaseline-lensed montage of overwhelmingly white suburban prosperity. Walter Mondale — the son of a small-town Minnesota minister whose politics radiated an austere, Scandinavian morality — spent the last days of his campaign unfurling increasingly dire pictures of urban and rural poverty and beseeching people to vote for an “America of fairness.” Speaking bitterly of Reagan’s commercial, he told a crowd at a church in Cleveland: “It’s all picket fences and puppy dogs. No one’s hurting. No one’s alone. No one’s hungry. No one’s unemployed. No one gets old. Everybody’s happy.” But Americans liked the picket fences and puppy dogs. Reagan swept every state in the country save Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Not long afterward, Stanley Greenberg, a 40-year-old Yale political scientist who moonlighted as a political pollster, was contacted by a group of Democratic Party and union officials in Michigan. They asked him to help explain what had happened that November in Macomb County outside Detroit. In 1960, Macomb voted for John F. Kennedy by a larger margin than any suburban county in the country. In 1984, it voted for Reagan by a margin of 33 percentage points. “The sense was that if we could figure out what happened in Macomb County, Democrats would go a long way toward righting the ship,” Rick Wiener, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party at the time, told me recently.
In one sense, what had happened was obvious. The postwar suburbs in general had been a racial fortress, their homogeneity enforced by a web of government policies and unofficial restrictions making it difficult for nonwhites to own property in them, and few more so than Detroit’s. The white ex-Democrats whom Greenberg’s team interviewed, he later wrote, “expressed a profound distaste for black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics. Blacks constituted the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives; not being black was what constituted being middle class.”
Still, Greenberg noted, Macomb voters had not defected en masse from the Democratic Party until after years of worsening economic circumstances — and until they perceived the Democrats as not only having taken up the banner of the urban poor and nonwhites but also having abandoned the white middle class. “These voters wondered why they weren’t the central drama of the Democratic Party,” Greenberg wrote. Greenberg suggested that Democrats offer a kind of grand bargain to the white middle-class voters he called “Reagan Democrats”: The Democrats would reinstate the middle class as the gravitational center of the party’s economic policy if those voters accepted an expanded definition of who was included in the middle class.
Among the Democrats who took Greenberg’s advice was Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who used the Macomb study as the playbook for his 1992 presidential campaign, which he built around the theme of “the forgotten middle class…”
The thing is, Bill Clinton pioneered the tactic of paying lip service to the “forgotten middle class,” while pursuing thoroughly Neoliberal policies that eviscerated said class.
“The era of big government is over” proclaimed Bill Clinton to cheering applause from both parties during his State of the Union address. Instead, we’d all become little J.P. Morgans, investing all the hard-earned cash from our tax cuts because “we know how to spend our own money better than the government.” Rather than guaranteed pensions and Social Security, we would save for our own retirement by investing our money in 401K’s and Roth IRA’s. Instead of the government subsidizing affordable quality education at state colleges, those budgets would be slashed and we’d instead save for our own education with tax-deferred 529 savings plans (too bad if your parents weren’t rich enough to do this), or head to the numerous for-profit colleges springing up everywhere. Instead of universal health care systems like Medicare/VA, we’d save up to fund our own medical procedures using HSA’s–health savings accounts (somehow knowing what our future medical expenses will be). Instead of reliable government services, we’d be offered “public-private partnerships,” with “efficient” private companies awarded exclusive government contracts. Monopolies were now seen as providing value and being the natural reward for efficiency.
With all the money saved from paring back “bloated” government, we’d be able to spend our tax windfalls purchasing only what we needed from the “free” market (except most of the tax cuts went to the wealthiest 10 percent, while the price of everything else went through the roof). In order to ensure that investors were free to get us the greatest returns possible on our wonderful new investment vehicles, Clinton happily abolished many of the “burdensome” regulations on Wall Street (with plenty of Republican help).
To lure back the aggrieved whites who had abandoned the party, Clinton promised much more of a meritocracy, in other words, no more government putting its finger on the scales to help undeserving blacks. No more social engineering – leave it to the Market. Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” – music to whites’ ears, for whom welfare had become the primary role of the Federal government and the ultimate source of the monster deficits they were told to fear by Republicans (despite never exceeding 2 percent of overall government expenditures). And “lock em up and throw away the key” became the watchword to deal with urban black poverty, as jails became the de-facto metal health centers and make-work programs for African-American ghettos. Incarceration rates skyrocketed as Democrats promised to “clean up” inner-cities and make them more business-friendly with things such as “three-strikes” laws.
But the biggest change may have been the full-throttled embrace of free trade deals, putting America’s working class in direct, head-to-head competition with the world’s poorest workers, including a Chinese workforce whose size dwarfed that of the entire United States population and who were often less than one generation removed from a pig farm, along with another equally large mass of Indian workers, in this case often well-educated and English-speaking. NAFTA cut twice – sending factories over the border into Mexico to become maquiladoras, and sending millions of economic refugees fleeing the beanfields north to look for unskilled work pitting them directly against downscale whites and blacks. Unions were portrayed as relics of a bygone age – when any job can be sent overseas with a few mouse clicks, it didn’t pay to coddle unions anymore, anyway. The real money was not in workers, but startups; not in unions, but in Wall Street and financial deals. American workers would just have to get ever-more education and get “worker retraining” in order to compete for the “jobs of the future,” or else join the low-paying Wal-Mart economy. It turned out however, that the jobs of the future didn’t exist, except for the children of the already wealthy Ivy-league educated upper 20 percent.
As I described earlier, the previously prosperous suburban and rural whites, who thought they could escape the fate of the black underclass who had been decimated by automation, had a rather rude awakening in the period of 1992-2008. They were hit by NAFTA and other trade deals, China joining the WTO, and the financialization and asset stripping of the productive economy by Wall Street thanks to deregulation. Yet, even as they continued to vote Republican because of racial solidarity and issues like gun control and fetus fetishism, they found themselves getting poorer and poorer and poorer, and more and more in debt. The religious fundamentalists who voted Republican found that a lot of lip service was paid to being a “Christian nation,” but nothing really changed legislatively except maybe the occasional plaque with the Ten Commandments carved on it and the occasional prayer breakfast. Although party leaders felt they could safely rely on hot-button social issues and religion to make the increasingly impoverished white lumpenproletariat support issues like tax cuts for the wealthy and economic deregulation forever, it turned out that the party’s new base consisted of many radical “true believers” who in turn changed the nature of the party to which they now pledged allegiance. The Party increasingly resembled not the original East-Coast managerial elites, but the radically anticommunist John Birch Society and the nationalistic European ultra-right parties. The break had started.
As working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party due to white racial grievance. The Democratic party in turn abandoned them. Affluent, socially-liberal, educated whites who had access to plenty of social and financial capital, and who didn’t have to compete with blacks or Mexicans for jobs, increasingly became mortified by the Republican party’s pandering to the ignorance and racism of the lower-classes: the coded dog-whistles, the crudeness of language, the intolerant religious fundamentalism, the know-nothingism, the hostility to science such as climate change and Darwinian evolution, the hatred of “intellectuals,” the authoritarianism, the militarism, the simplistic flag-waving jingoism. In reality, this was simply the Republican party reflecting who the members of the party now were – the vast intercoastal peasantry just a few generations removed from driving a tractor for a living whose parents had toiled away in the factories and provided the cannon fodder for Pax Americana. Their racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, ignorance, aggressive militarism, and bellicose religiosity now shaped and animated the party, to the abhorrence of the “cultured” WASP elites and intellectuals who had heretofore made up the party’s high commissars and apparatchiks. The “adults” had seemingly lost control. Where could they go?
Well, increasingly they went to the Democratic party, that’s where. And, as one would expect, they changed the character of that organization as well.
The Democrats increasingly became the party of the” cognitive elite,” the educated bicoastal elites who formed the nation’s white-collar corporate technocrats, scientists and middle managers, as opposed to the “big mule” used-car salesmen of the Heartland with their oversized belt-buckes, bolo ties, church potlucks and NASCAR rallies. These were the people who were the beneficiaries of cheap iPhones from China and cheap nannies from Honduras, but didn’t have to worry about a Chinese or Mexican worker taking their job, since they probably had gotten it through social connections anyway. These were people for whom there was never even a question of getting a master’s degree, only in what field. These were the people for whom their college choices weren’t whether to go, or how they were going to pay for it, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. These people almost never set foot outside of a cosmopolitan urban area, college town or bedroom community. Their lives are so far removed from those of most Americans as to be beyond comprehension; to them it really IS flyover country. Such people are committed to the idea a society of unremitting competition where the cream naturally rise to the top. They are obsessed with the idea of meritocracy, and see themselves as the natural winners based on their superior intellects and enlightened, cosmopolitan view of the world.
This caused the transformation of the Democratic Party into one increasingly aligned with the Davos crowd, or more accurately, with the twenty percent of affluent corporate technocrats, assorted intellectuals and celebrities, and “creative class” folks with large amounts of dynastic wealth and social and political capital whose jobs were not in the line of fire from immediate offshoring or automation, both urban and suburban:
In the 1980s, voters in the top ranks of the income ladder lined up in favor of Republican presidential candidates by 2-1. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush crushed Michael Dukakis among voters making $100,000 or more by an impressive 34 points, 67-33.
Move forward to 2008 and 2012. In 2008, voters from families making $100,000 to $200,000 split their votes 51-48 in favor of John McCain, while those making in excess of $200,000 cast a slight 52-46 majority for Barack Obama.
In other words, Democrats are now competitive among the top 20 percent. This has changed the economic makeup of the Democratic Party and is certain to intensify tensions between the traditional downscale wing and the emergent upscale wing.
The “truly advantaged” wing of the Democratic Party — a phrase coined in this newspaper by Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard — has provided the Democratic Party with crucial margins of victory where its candidates have prevailed. These upscale Democrats have helped fill the gap left by the departure of white working class voters to the Republican Party.
At the same time, the priorities of the truly advantaged wing — voters with annual incomes in the top quintile, who now make up an estimated 26 percent of the Democratic general election vote — are focused on social and environmental issues: the protection and advancement of women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change, and less on redistributive economic issues.
The tension within the current Democratic coalition is exemplified in, of all places, a 2012 poll of students and faculty at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a prestigious private boarding school founded in 1781. As Democrats have entered the ranks of the top quintile, their children have effectively realigned the student bodies of prep schools in New England and other northeastern states.
The Exeter survey found decisive majority support in the student body for Obama over Mitt Romney, but the more interesting finding was that among Exeter students old enough to vote, nine out of 10 identified themselves as liberal on social issues.
In the case of economic policy, however, these students were split, 30 percent conservative, 33 percent liberal and the rest moderate or unwilling to say.
“Morally, I am a Democrat,” one of the participants commented, “but my wallet says I am a Republican.”
A Democrat whose wallet tells him he is a Republican is unlikely to be a strong ally of less well-off Democrats in pressing for tax hikes on the rich, increased spending on the safety net or a much higher minimum wage.
“Morally, I am a Democrat, but my wallet says I am a Republican.” “The [social] causes may be worthy, but politically they’re also useful; they don’t bother rich people…” And therein you have the change.
Identity politics took the place of actually helping America’s burgeoning poor, because that might inconvenience the salary class who were the beneficiaries of the rising stock market prices, tax-deferred investment vehicles, and globalization. Increasingly, their needs were reflected in the Democratic party’s legislative agenda. If the Republicans were the party of socially-conservative, religious whites, the Democrats would be the party them and of various excluded minorities–racial minorities, gays, transgendered, feminists, etc. The social-justice agenda took the place of economic populism.
We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands. So the upper middle class often uses its political muscle to foil the fondest wishes of egalitarian liberals. This week offered a particularly vivid reminder of how that works. In the windup to his State of the Union address, Barack Obama released a proposal to curb the tax benefits associated with 529 college savings plans, which primarily benefit upper-middle-class families, to help finance the expansion of a separate tax credit that would primarily benefit lower-middle- and middle-middle-class families. Only 3 percent of households actually make use of these accounts, and 70 percent of the tax benefits go to households earning more than $200,000, so you can see why Obama might have thought no one would get too worked up about the proposal. If anything, he might have thought, and hoped, that his critics would get more exercised about his call for big capital gains tax increases, which would have allowed him to play the part of Robin Hood—a role Obama loves to play.
That’s not quite how things turned out. From the get-go, the 529 plan, like the capital gains tax-hike plan, was totally politically unrealistic, as Republicans in Congress were never going to sign on. But within days of the State of the Union, the Obama administration was forced to reverse course and abandon its plan to make 529 plans less generous. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, and House Budget Committee ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who represents the wealthy Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., were the key drivers of the decision, according to a report by Rachael Bade and Allie Grasgreen in Politico. My guess is that both Pelosi and Van Hollen saw firsthand the fury of upper-middle-income voters who sensed that Obama, normally a paragon of upper-middle-class virtues, was daring to mess with one of their precious tax breaks. Paul Waldman, writing for the Washington Post, had it right when he observed that “the 529 proposal was targeted at what may be the single most dangerous constituency to anger: the upper middle class.”
And in turn, the party lost its commitment to the wage class, and instead decided that “nothing could be done” about globalism; there were just natural winners and losers, and that’s that. They felt bad about losers (“I feel your pain…”), but, “nothing could be done.” Globalism was just a force of nature, like an earthquake or drought. Instead of dealing with economic inequality, Democrats pushed an agenda of social equality which was just about making sure that minorities has just as much of a shot at getting into the upper-class cognitive elite as anyone else, and that insensitivity was banished from the college campuses that the rural white working classes could no longer afford to send their kinds to.
As [Thomas] Frank notes, today some people are living much better than others — and many of those people are not Republicans. Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, “well-meaning billionaires” and any public policy offering “innovation” or “education” as a solution to inequality. He spends almost an entire chapter mocking the true-blue city of Boston, with its “lab-coat and starched-shirt” economy and its “well-graduated” population of overconfident collegians.
Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party — once “the Party of the People” — now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class. In the book, Frank points to the Democrats’ neglect of organized labor and support for Nafta as examples of this sensibility, in which “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.” In more recent columns, he has linked this neglect to the rise of a figure like Sanders, who says forthrightly what the party leadership might prefer to obscure: Current approaches aren’t working — and unless something dramatic happens, Americans are heading for a society in which a tiny elite controls most of the wealth, resources and decision-making power.
The problem, in Frank’s view, is not simply that mainstream Democrats have failed to address growing inequality. Instead, he suggests something more sinister: Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.
“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes. From this mind-set stems everything that the Democrats have done to betray the masses, from Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform policies to Obama’s failure to rein in Wall Street, according to Frank. No surprise, under the circumstances, that the working class might look elsewhere for satisfying political options.
This elite is separated by geography as well as class. While previous suburbanization allowed whites to flee from blacks, the new gated exurbs are too exclusive even for white members of the working class, who instead find themselves trapped in “slumburbia” and commuting an hour and a half to work. In the Nineties, elites decided they liked walkable cities and urban amenities since Clinton’s tough crime laws had cleaned up the streets and moved back to the trendy abandoned inner cities. Gentrification soon priced out the working class. Some coastal cities became refuges for a global wealth class who used houses as safe asset storage, driving housing prices to ludicrous heights. It was all part of globalism, about which both parties agreed, as did the economists and media pundits along the Acela corridor and CalTrans route, “nothing could be done:”
For one thing, pundits and politician are unlikely to work in the regions where most Americans live. Cities where prestige industries like media, policy, and tech are centered—New York, Washington DC, San Francisco—have witnessed economic growth along with a skyrocketing cost of living. In fact, the vast majority of American wealth is clustered in a corridor of Northeastern cities stretching from Boston to Washington DC. The rest of the country, particularly most areas of the South and the Midwest, has seen massive job loss, while cost of living remains more affordable. A few southern cities, including Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas, have boasted post-recession job growth. But even these tend to be are surrounded by rural regions mired in poverty.
In effect, we have two American economies. One is made up of expensive coastal zip codes where the pundits proclaiming “recovery” are surrounded by prosperity. The other is composed of heartland regions where ordinary Americans struggle without jobs. Over 50 million Americans live in what the Economic Innovation Group calls “distressed communities”—zip codes where over 55% of the population is unemployed. Of those distressed communities, over half are in the South, defined generously by the census as the region stretching from Maryland and Delaware to Oklahoma and Texas. The rest tend to live in Midwest rust belt cities that have long suffered from economic decline, like Gary, Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio. It is nearly impossible for Americans of the latter group to move to the cities of the former group—or to work in the industries that shape public perception of how the economy is going.
This affluent twenty percent is increasingly Democratic, and increasingly separated from the rest of the country. For these people–the “salary class,” much of whose wealth comes from investments and who are fully equipped to take advantage of the investment vehicles I named above–the economy truly is doing well. And for those for whom it’s not, the problems is seen as just not getting educated enough, or making poor lifestyle choices:
Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, [Thomas] Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party.
[Historian Steve] Fraser agrees with Frank that the Democratic Party can no longer reasonably claim to be the party of the working class or the “little man.” Instead, he argues,the Republican and Democratic parties now represent two different elite constituencies, each with its own culture and interests and modes of thought. Fraser describes today’s Republicans as the party of “family capitalism,” encompassing everyone from the mom-and-pop business owner on up to “entrepreneurial maestros” such as the Koch brothers, Linda McMahon and Donald Trump. The Democrats, by contrast, represent the managerial world spawned by modernity, including the big universities and government bureaucracies as well as “techno frontiersmen” like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. These are two different ways of relating to the world — one cosmopolitan and interconnected, the other patriarchal and hierarchical. Neither one, however, offers much to working-class voters.
The poor are increasingly powerless, and lack any influence at all. They form a constituency that’s angry and hurting, and ready to try anything to make the pain go away. Hence the rise of Trump and Sanders:
The lack of leverage of those on the bottom rungs can be seen in a recent Pew survey in which dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit. This 10th place ranking is likely to drop further as the gap widens between the bottom and the top fifth of voters in the country.
It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.
For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.
This split is reflecting the realignment of the parties. As the Democratic party increasingly reflects affluent bicoastal elites, it further alienates working class Heartland Republicans whose jobs are automated and offshored away, and find themselves in low-paying service work. The Democrats are now alienated both culturally, and in terms of economic interests. Meanwhile, the Republicans have transformed that party into what I have previously described as a “right-wing authoritarian movement.” And one thing all such movements need is a leader. Hence the rise of Trump.
The animating, guiding force of the post-civil rights era Republican party was hatred of blacks, not love of trickle-down economics or offhshoring. That just came along for the ride. Plutocrats cynically used this hatred to get the working class to vote against their own interests, playing them for rubes. And who could blame them? As Thomas Frank opined, hot-button social issues conveniently distracted the peasantry from being gutted like a fish. But the working classes were not as stupid as they appeared. They clearly saw their communities being decimated by globalism. They clearly saw all of the unskilled jobs being taken by immigrants. They clearly saw their paychecks stagnating and their jobs disappearing, while everything was getting more expensive. And they certainly saw the social fallout from those trends in their own lives. Trump was just the first person to harness white working-class rage and resentment to an economic populist agenda.
The revolt of the Republican masses bears out the thesis of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Non-college–educated whites have been suffering from an epidemic of false consciousness that took hold during the Reagan Era. While their self-interest aligned with Democratic policies designed to help insulate the vulnerable from economic transition, Republicans managed to persuade working-class voters to support the very policies that were doing them harm. They accomplished this by diverting the attention of less-educated whites with coded racial appeals, emphasizing cultural issues like abortion and gay rights, and stirring resentment against liberal “elites.”
Working-class Republicans are waking up to the reality that their new party doesn’t represent them any more than the Democrats did. On issue after issue, Trump’s supporters are at odds with GOP dogma. They don’t support free trade and globalization. They don’t favor tax cuts for the wealthy, or bailouts for banks, or financial deregulation, or the rollback of consumer protections. They’re against privatizing Social Security, paring back Medicare, and eliminating other government programs that aid the middle class. While they’ve been encouraged to regard Barack Obama as an extraterrestrial, they’re not demanding the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Though nationalistic, their families are the ones that paid the human cost for the neoconservative fantasy of bringing democracy to Iraq.
This ideological disintegration has been years in the making. I believe one fundamental cause is that after winning the allegiance of millions of “Reagan Democrats” — mostly white, blue-collar, and Southern or rural — the party stubbornly declined to take their economic interests into account.
Traditional Republican orthodoxy calls for small government, low taxation, tight money, deregulation, free trade and cost-saving reforms to entitlement programs. If I were independently wealthy, that might seem an agreeable set of policies. Ditto if I were one of the “small-business owners” to whom GOP candidates sing hymns of praise.
But most working-class Republicans are, get ready for it, working-class. They are more Sam’s Club than country club. They don’t own the business, they earn wages or a salary; and trickle-down economics has not been kind to them. Their incomes have been stagnant for a good 20 years, they have seen manufacturing jobs move overseas and job security vanish, they have less in retirement savings and home equity than they had hoped, and they see their young-adult children struggling to get a start in life.
This segment includes military families that have borne the awful weight of more than a decade of war. Repeated deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have caused tremendous strain; “wounded warriors” have returned bearing grievous physical and psychological scars.
What adjustments did the GOP establishment make for these voters? None.Most of the governors, senators and former somebodies who ran for the presidential nomination, and failed, offered nothing but flag-waving pep talks and demagoguery on social issues — along with promises to stick with trickle-down orthodoxy and intervene in trouble spots around the world. Only Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who were dismissed as yesterday’s news, seemed to realize that working-class Republicans even existed.
Did Trump cunningly craft a message for these orphaned voters, or did he stumble across his populist appeal by way of beginner’s luck? At this point, it hardly matters. He offers policies, however far-fetched, that address their wants and needs. He rails against the free-trade pacts that he says robbed the nation of manufacturing jobs. He promises not to cut entitlements and often hints at boldly expanding them. He pledges an “America first” foreign policy that withdraws from entanglements and eschews interventions.
Trump also plays on these voters’ insecurities, resentments and fears. He makes Hispanic immigrants and Muslims his scapegoats. He goes beyond attacking President Obama’s policies to also impugn his identity — in effect, portraying the president as the incarnation of demographic change that many white Americans fear. And Trump delegitimizes establishment Republicans by painting them as cogs in a system that is rigged to favor the rich and powerful. (In this, he’s basically right.)
As for the Democratic spit, the Democrats had a change to nominate their own alternative candidate in Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, a populist outsider who would have been a genuine threat to the status quo, was narrowly defeated by the most ultimate of insiders, Hillary Clinton. The good news is that a candidate who on paper looked unelectable – a 72-year-old self-identified socialist born in Brooklyn and serving a tiny east-coast state, has challenged Clinton every step of the way, filling auditoriums to capacity from coast to coast and winning a large number of states outright. Sanders’ successful campaign has presented the most potent challenge to the rightward/Neoliberal drift of the party, and the first serious attempt to realign it to its New Deal roots and reclaim its abandoned working-class populism on economic issues.
Nevertheless, it looks like Sanders will not pass the post, while Trump will. Why? Well, I suspect in part it’s because the obvious frontrunner status of Clinton scared a lot of Democratic challengers off, so it became just a two-person head-to-head race. For the GOP, by contrast, with the sitting vice-president bowing out and no logical successor to Obama, you had the GOP “clown car,” with all sorts of ridiculous candidates splitting the votes multiple ways. Why did Trump emerge victorious? Here’s Paul Krugman:
…why did Mrs. Clinton … go the distance, while the G.O.P. establishment went down to humiliating defeat? … [B]asically it comes down to fundamental differences between the parties and how they serve their supporters.
Both parties make promises to their bases. But while the Democratic establishment more or less tries to make good on those promises, the Republican establishment has essentially been playing bait-and-switch for decades. And voters finally rebelled against the con.
First, about the Democrats: Their party defines itself as the protector of the poor and the middle class, and especially of nonwhite voters. Does it fall short of fulfilling this mission much of the time? Are its leaders sometimes too close to big-money donors? Of course. Still, if you look at the record of the Obama years, you see real action on behalf of the party’s goals…
Things are very different among Republicans. Their party has historically won elections by appealing to racial enmity and cultural anxiety, but its actual policy agenda is dedicated to serving the interests of the 1 percent, above all through tax cuts for the rich — which even Republican voters don’t support, while they truly loathe elite ideas like privatizing Social Security and Medicare.
What Donald Trump has been doing is telling the base that it can order à la carte. He has, in effect, been telling aggrieved white men that they can feed their anger without being forced to swallow supply-side economics, too…
The problem is, Mr. Krugman is the quintessential “new” Democrat: an educated east-coast liberal former Princeton professor, former economic technocrat in the Reagan administration, and now an opinion maker at the pro-Democratic mouthpiece The New York Times. Somehow, I doubt his opinions are much aligned with unemployed workers in small-town North Dakota. Krugman famously defended free trade as the factories were being offshored (as did the Times in general: the primary platform for Thomas “The World is Flat” Friedman). He tirelessly defends the ACA–a giveaway to health care industry designed to fend off single-payer. And he has authored a number of sloppy hatchet-jobs against Bernie Sanders from his post at the Times all during this election season, dismissing Sanders supporters as an unthinking “cult,” portraying his populist economic proposals as “unrealistic,” and repeatedly calling for him to quit the race.
People like Krugman are the new face of the party. Incrementalism. Make deals. Aim low. It’s what Jacobin Magazine calls “fortress liberalism” – protect what remains, don’t think big. In that sense, the Democrats have now become the true “conservative” party.
The Bernie Sanders model of change has all the subtlety of an index finger raised high above a debate podium. Lay out a bold, unapologetic vision of reform that speaks directly to people’s basic needs. Connect that vision to existing popular struggles, while mobilizing a broad and passionate coalition to support it (#NotMeUs). Ride this wave of democratic energy to overwhelm right-wing opposition and enact major structural reforms.
The Hillary Clinton model of change, on the other hand, begins not with policy or people but with a politician. Choose an experienced, practical leader who explicitly rejects unrealistic goals. Rally around that leader’s personal qualifications, while defending past achievements and stressing the value of party loyalty (#ImWithHer). Draw on the leader’s expertise to grind away at Congress and accumulate incremental victories that add up to significant reform.
For most of the Left, Clinton-style “incrementalism” is just a code word to disguise what is effectively a right-wing retrenchment. Nevertheless many self-identified progressives have backed Clinton’s “theory of politics” as the most realistic path to achieve Sanders’s objectives.
“As a temperamentally moderate figure,” the liberal Boston Globe argued, Clinton is best positioned to “take concrete steps to get relevant legislation enacted.”
Other editorial boards, corporate legal bloggers, and billionaires in the back seats of limousines have likewise endorsed the Clinton model as the only serious form of politics in a polarized republic. But they struggle to identify a major progressive victory that Clinton-style incrementalism has won in the past half-century.
Clinton’s eight-year term in the Senate produced bills to regulate video game violence and flag burning, both of which died in committee.
Bill Clinton’s eight-year term in the White House gave us an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and a small children’s health insurance program — but also NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill, welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, financial deregulation, and a grand bargain to gut Social Security that was only thwarted by a timely sex scandal.
The pragmatic, piecemeal, and irreproachably moderate achievements of Jimmy Carter are still more dispiriting. Even judged by the charitable standards of American liberalism, the forty-year balance sheet of “incremental progress” is decidedly negative.
Beltway pundits scoff at Sanders’s model of change, meanwhile, as if the Vermont senator thinks he can defeat a Republican Congress by getting a few hundred protestors to yell slogans outside Capitol Hill.
They naturally fail to mention that as a matter of historical record, the Sanders model happened to produce Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid.
So you had two Frankenstein coalitions just ready to fracture. The Republicans were the party of robber-baron plutocrats allied with trailer-park retirees in Medicare scooters and white supremacists and other militant radicals of various stripes (Christian reconstructionists, sovereign citizens, oath keepers, militias, etc.). The Democrats united upwardly-mobile, college-educated, socially-liberal urban workers with African-Americans and other assorted minorities terrified by GOP racism. The Republicans scared off socially-liberal businessmen and intellectuals who fled to the Democrats, and the Democrats’ increasingly business-friendly policies led to the revolt of Sanders’ supporters–the working-class core of the party who had not fled to Republicans, but who wanted a more populist agenda that actually helped the working classes rather than just promote a vague concept of “social justice.” The contradictions of The Republican Party’s embrace of downscale flyover-county whites, and the Democratic party’s coddling of wealthy, educated east-coast elites is now completing the transformation begun years ago. All bets are off. Which party repents the working class and which the donor class is no longer clear-cut.
I’ve often described today’s political climate as the Democrats being the pre-Reagan Republican party, and the Republicans as the John Birch Society. It’s worth noting that one of the key differences between the GOP mainstream and the JBS was opposition to globalism, immigration, free trade deals. So Trumpism should not come as such a surprise.
…if Michael Lind is right, Trumpism and Clintonism are America’s future. Lind’s point, which he made last Sunday in The New York Times, is that Trumpism—friendly to entitlements, unfriendly to expanded trade and high immigration—will be the platform of the Republican Party in the years going forward. Clintonism—friendly both to business and to social and racial liberalism—will cobble together numerous interest groups and ditch the white working class. Which might be fair enough, but Lind didn’t mention rich people. Where will they go?
The Democratic Party has not been a total slouch, offering policies friendly to health-care executives, entertainment moguls, and tech titans. In fact, financial support for Democrats among the 1 percent of the 1 percent has risen dramatically, more than trebling since 1980. Traditionally, though, the Republican Party has been seen as the better friend to the wealthy, offering lower taxes, fewer business regulations, generous defense contracts, increased global trade, high immigration, and resistance to organized labor. It’s been the buddy of homebuilders, oil barons, defense contractors, and other influential business leaders.
Trumpism changes the equation. If homebuilders face workplace crackdowns on illegal hiring, their costs go up. If defense contractors see a reduced U.S. military presence in Asia and Europe, their income goes down. If companies that rely on outsourcing or on intellectual property rights see their business model upended by discontinued trade agreements, they face a crisis. Sure, many rich people hate Obamacare, but how big a deal is it compared to other things they want: more immigration, sustained and expanding trade, continued defense commitments? Clintonism, by comparison, starts to look much more appealing.
All good, say some Democrats. The more people that Trumpism scares away, the broader and more powerful the liberal-left coalition will be. But nobody offers their support without expecting something in return. It’s not dispassionate analysis that causes Chuck Schumer to waffle on the carried-interest tax loophole, Hillary Clinton to argue for raising the cap on H-1B visas, or Maria Cantwell to rally support for the Export-Import Bank. The more rich people that a party attracts, the more that the party must do to stay attractive.
The more that Democrats write off the white working class, which has been experiencing a drastic decline in living standards, the harder it is for them to call themselves a party of the little guy. The more that the rich can frame various business practices as blows to privilege or oppression—predatory lending as a way to expand minority home ownership, outsourcing as a way to uplift the world’s poor, etc.—the more they get a pass from Democrats on practices that hurt poorer Americans. Worst of all, the more that interest groups within the Democratic Party quarrel among themselves, the more they rely upon loathing of a common enemy, Republicans, in order to stay united…
Things get darker still, for, if the G.O.P. becomes ever whiter, failing to peel away working-class voters of other races, then partisan conflict could look more and more like racial conflict. That is the nightmare. Our politics are bad enough when voters are mobilized mainly by culture-war issues, such as abortion, because compromise is often impossible. But when voters are mobilized by issues of identity, something most people can’t change, then nothing works. It’s just war.
Clinton’s big money supporters are trying to kill single payer in Colorado. Her possible VP pick has “a more nuanced position on abortion than many liberals.” John McCain’s right-hand man declared, literally, “I’m with her.” And the Jewish socialist from Brooklyn just won the Indiana primary.
Don’t you see, Doctor?” said Lasher. “The machines are to practically everybody what the white men were to the Indians. People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don’t apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
In my previous two posts, I documented that the mainstream conceit that the transition from a manufacturing/export-led economy centered around making things, to a highly-automated “post-industrial” economy centered around retail and food service, was not the painless, bloodless transition that the mainstream media and professional economists constantly make it out to be. Here’s a recent column by Chris Hedges describing a typical scene:
I spent a recent weekend in the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J., helping to clear out piles of old books, church records, plastic flowers, worn choir robes and other detritus that were dusty remnants of the white working-class congregation that filled these pews a few decades ago.
Elizabeth was devastated by the 1982 closure of its Singer plant, which had been built in 1873 and at one time had 10,000 workers. The 1,000 or so African-Americans at the plant worked mostly in a foundry that made cast-iron parts for the sewing machines. The work was poorly paid and dangerous. White workers, many of them German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish or Lithuanian immigrants, dominated the safer and better-paid factory floor. The city was built around the sprawling plant. Generations of residents organized their lives and their families on the basis of Singer jobs or income that the facility indirectly produced. And then, after a long decline, the factory was gone.
The year Singer closed its flagship factory in Elizabeth there were 2,696 plant shutdowns across the United States, resulting in 1,287,000 job losses. Singer workers in Elizabeth under the age of 55 lost all retirement benefits, even if they had worked for the company for decades. Small businesses in the city that depended on the plant went bankrupt.
In postindustrial cities across America it is now clear, after the passage of years, that the good jobs and stability once provided by factories such as the Singer plant have been lost forever. The pent-up anger and frustration among the white working class have given birth to dark pathologies of hate. The hate is directed against those of different skin color or ethnicity who somehow seem to have heralded the changes that destroyed families and communities.
A recent report from the census bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at a record 49.5 million when expenses are taken into account, or over 16 percent of the population, the size of a large country. A similar number lack basic health care. When concepts like “financially fragile” or “living paycheck to paycheck” are used (meaning little or no savings and income just covering expenses), numbers of over 50 percent are common. The amount of unemployed equals the population of Illinois, the nation’s fifth largest state, meaning there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are citizens in all but Florida, New York, Texas and California. The percentage of people actively in the workforce is down to what it was in 1981, before two-income families became the norm. Life expectancy is actually decreasing for the poorest members of society. Doubling up”, or multiple generations living under the same roof (dubbed “reduced household formation” by economists ) has been on the rise, and homeownership is down for the first time in decades. The age of cars on the road is an all-time high. Food banks are regularly overwhelmed with demand. From three to six workers exist for every new job opening, and job fairs regularly attract thousands from all over for just a handful of available jobs.
Drive through “flyover country” and you’ll see that all is not well in the heartland, from rural towns dominated by boarded-up storefronts, meth labs and food banks, to inner-cities dominated by crack houses, gun violence, panhandling and homelessness, to older suburbs dominated by foreclosures and dollar stores. Everything just worked out okay? But all of this is ignored in the mainstream media, who instead continue to insist that jobs are plentiful and all is well in the post-Fordist deindustrialized economy.
In fact, since the factories were shut down in the 1970-1990’s, there have been any number of “[fill-in-the-blank] economies” peddled by professional economists (“knowledge” economy, “information” economy, “service” economy, “FIRE” economy, “sharing” economy, “gig” economy, etc.). They insist that making things is so twentieth-century, and that the demand for “service workers” and “knowledge workers” is bottomless. The one constant between these ever-shifting adjectives is they have all been abject failures in the real world at providing lasting prosperity for anyone outside of a tiny circle of wealthy elites.
One reason we’ve been able to ignore reality for so long is because the worst of the fallout from automation was dumped on the African-American community, whom we then scapegoated and ignored, as I’ve documented in the last couple of posts. That community has totally collapsed, and the success of a few winners and the easing of institutionalized discrimination was used to justify the horrible abuse, injustice, and deprivation doled out to the majority who were castigated as “lazy” and “moral failures.” But the effects of automation have affected not just African-Americans. They have decimated a vast swath of society, and it’s been largely ignored and covered up by government and the media. This does not bode well for the future.
That’s the topic of this important post by Richard Serlin, who makes the point that, when it comes to automating away the livelihood of a large number of Americans, it has, in fact, already happened! Serlin focuses not just on African-Americans, but on all workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid. He points out some inconvenient facts which contradict the “everything just worked out okay” narrative:
People today typically debate the future with regard to robot/AI revolution, will it be much harder to get and hold a job that can support a family decently, or even pay minimum wage. Will it take much more education to achieve this? Will this happen in some hypothetical advanced robot and AI computer future? Well, for male humans, it’s not a will. It’s a has. It has, to a very large extent. The evidence…is very strong on this. And it hasn’t happened to just mere horses this time. Lower-skilled male humans are humans, and they’re vastly beyond horses. And already the robots, AI computers, and machines have brought them a long way toward the fate of the horses. And these brilliant machines are just getting started…
1) “Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men [age 25 – 64] without any formal labor-market earnings for an entire calendar year rose from 6 percent to 18 percent.” (page 11)
2) “The percentage of men working full time [age 25 – 64] has decreased from 83 percent to 66 percent over the same period.” (page 12)
3) “Nonemployment for an entire calendar year among men without high school diplomas [age 25 – 64] increased by 23 percentage points (from 11 to 34 percent) and among those with only a high school degree by 18 percentage points (from 4 to 22 percent)”. (page 12)
4) “One way to untangle the two phenomena is to examine the median earnings among all working-age men – this time including those who earn nothing at all. What appeared as stagnant earnings for workers is really an outright decline in wages for the median men of working age. The median wage of the American male has declined by almost $13,000 after accounting for inflation in the four decades since 1969. (Using a different measure of inflation suggests a smaller, but still substantial, drop in earnings.) Indeed, earnings haven’t been this low since Ike was president and Marshal Dillon was keeping the peace in Dodge City.” (page 12)
5) “Consider just men between the ages of 30 and 50, a group for whom retirement is rare. The median earnings of all men in this group declined by 27 percent between 1969 and 2009, which is nearly identical to the 28 percent decline for those who are 25 to 64 years old.” (page 12)
6) “Surely, the most astonishing statistic to be gleaned from the trend data is the deterioration in the market outcomes for men with less than a high school education. The median earnings of all men in this category have declined by 66 percent [not a misprint] [from 1969 to 2009]. At the same time, this group has experienced a 23 percentage point decline in the probability of having any labor-market earnings. Roughly 10 percentage points of the 23 percentage points is attributable to the fact that more men are reporting disabilities, even though work in physically demanding jobs has been declining for many decades. Men with just a high school diploma did only marginally better. Their wages declined by 47 percent and their participation in the labor force fell by 18 percentage points.” (page 13).
Now, it’s true that all of these statistics are just for men. The total number of jobs has increased, due to women entering the labor force en masse, and the population increasing. Still:
1) The total labor force participation rate, which considers all of this, has declined in the last 15 years from about 67%, where it was throughout the 1990’s, to about 64% (from the Current Population Survey).
2) You bring up horses to some economists, and other smart people, and sometimes the reply is, humans are different; humans are just so much more flexible and adaptable and creative than horses, as in the Dietz Vollrath quote at the start of this post.
The machines eventually got horses. They shifted the demand curve inward so much that the supply had to decrease by over 99% to keep the market wage for those horses that remained above the subsistence level. And you could have made the same argument for horses that you hear all the time for humans – It never happens. Hundreds of years technology has advanced, and we’ve always found jobs for as big, or bigger, a population of horses.
Well, you know what, after hundreds of years of technological advance, it finally did happen. Machines reached the point where they were so good at almost everything you could employ a horse at that there was no way for 99+% of the horses to do anything else that would pay even a subsistence market wage.
So, relatively low-skilled, low-educated males are not the entire group of humans. But, they are a class of humans, and a big one. And what these data show is that it’s not just a theoretical debatable thing about the future. It’s already very largely happened. They’ve already very largely gone the way of the horse in the face of advancing machines (and I’ll discuss alternative explanations)…
So, the key point is that if foreign workers in these kinds of relatively standardized, simple, and predictable environments, with these kinds of also relatively standardized, simple, and predictable tasks, are able to so devastate employment and wages for lower-skilled American males over the last half-century, then machines would have done it anyway. Because advanced machines largely can do the same things already, and it looks like there’s a substantial probability they will be able to do the vast majority of this kind of work within the next generation or two.
Automation and efficiency has largely already eliminated the need for workers with a high-school education or less from any role whatsoever in the economic order. We take this for granted, but it was not always so. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories of our penniless peasant immigrant ancestors migrating here with hardly any education at all and working their way up the ladder sweeping streets and selling newspapers, and such like. Before the 1930’s it was a reality. Not any more. We’ve already lost a great deal of labor.
High-school educated workers have already gone the way of the horse. That’s not a future scenario, it is right now.
Clearly, there have been serious and profound affects on the job market since President Johnson was warned of this phenomenon back in the 1960’s, yet we’ve largely written them off! All we hear from the economists is how we created plenty of new jobs in the age of automation. After all, the “official” unemployment rate recorded by government statistics is only five percent. Five percent!!!
The message is clear: There are still enough jobs for everyone, anyone who can’t get one is lazy, and anyone who is struggling just needs to head over to the nearest diploma mill and get some “skills.” Here are some facts about the job market you won’t hear in the official statistics, however:
Men have been leaving the workforce since 1970. this has largely been offset by women entering the workforce, to the point where it takes two incomes to purchase the living standards that one income did before the 1970’s. Since 2000, however, women have been leaving the workforce as well:
Since 2004 median income has fallen by 13% while expenditures have risen by 14% according to latest figures pulled by Pew Research. One in three Americans can no longer afford rent, transportation, and buy food.
The proportion of American workers who don’t have “traditional” jobs — who instead work as independent contractors, through temporary services or on-call — rose 9.4 million from 2005 to 2015. That was greater than the rise in overall employment, meaning there was a small net decline in the number of workers with conventional job.
In February of 2016, the media widely celebrated the official jobs report which claimed that 242,000 new jobs created. Here’s what they didn’t tell you: Of the 242,000 jobs added, 304,000 of them were part time. That means the economy actually shed 62,000 full-time jobs.
Of course, the bank technocrats have no explanation for this. Maybe we need more loans?
This blogger takes a closer look at the numbers and finds we’re largely creating jobs in food service. It’s doubtful that “more education” will somehow change that:
Since March 2011 — five years ago — the U.S. economy has added 12.4 million jobs. Here’s a sampling of where those jobs have appeared:
2.2 million in ‘leisure and hospitality,’ including 1.8 million in ‘accomodation[sic] and food services.’
2.6 million in ‘education and health services,’ including 2.1 million in ‘health care and social assistance.’
1.4 million in ‘retail trade’ including 300,000 in car dealers and 260,000 in ‘food and beverage stores.’
1.3 million in ‘administrative and waste services’ for professional and business services
And there you have about two-thirds of all those job gains.
Mind you, there are plenty of good paying restaurant jobs (though median wage data is as bad as you’d imagine). There are certainly plenty of good health care jobs. And there are folks who do well working at car dealerships, too. But this is not the sign of a modern economy awakening from a slumber. It’s more like an economy snoring during a nap…
I started down this road because of a great column about last month’s job gains from ZeroHedge.com. It explained rather brutally that Americans who are losing manufacturing jobs have had no trouble picking up jobs as wait staff in bars and restaurants. And that’s the problem. The fastest-growing job categories in from that “positive” March jobs report were food and drinking establishments, retail trade, education and health, and construction. Those four categories made up about 8 out of every 10 new jobs created last month. Meanwhile, manufacturing lost 29,000 jobs. Almost exactly as many jobs as food service created.
Here’s an even bigger step back. You’ve probably heard that America is now a service economy. Here’s what that means. The U.S. has 143 million nonfarm workers — with 102 million of them working “private service.” Manufacturing and construction make up 19 million, and government 22 million.
For a very rough mental picture: put 10 American workers in a room, and roughly 7 of them would be service workers, while 3 would be making something like a house or steel, or working for the government. For a further (rough) breakdown of those 7 service workers, 3 would work in retail or a bar, 1 would be a teacher or nurse, there would be 1 ‘professional,’ 1 working in finance or real estate, and the other one would be split among things like information services, transportation, and so on.
That certainly bears out on the ground what Richard Serlin’s statistics show. So we have less workers overall, and those workers are primarily working in low-wage jobs, primarily in food service, which are what the majority of jobs are (McJobs). And those service jobs are about to come under threat as Serlin describes:
You go to check out. No cashiers. The computer recognizes you, and everything in your cart, and says, “That will be $127.49 Mr. Delong. Would you like to pay with your Amazon Visa like last time?”
The (mechanized, computer driven) cart docks at a conveyer, and robots with amazing dexterity and speed bag up your groceries and call up your computer-driven car. Then, your mechanized cart (which you didn’t have to push or steer. It stayed with you.) goes to your car, and robots load the bags in. The shelves are stocked by robots, and most janitorial and other functions are done by them too. And if you read The Second Machine Age, Rise of the Robots, or just out, The Master Algorithm, you’ll see that robots aren’t that far from a lot of this even now. And solar, at least in the sunbelt (reporting from Tucson), powers all these machines relatively inexpensively. The roof of the supermarket is covered with solar panels, and the parking lot is shaded completely with solar paneled canopies – This kind of thing is not that rare even today in Tucson, and Moore’s law in solar is only accelerating after more than a generation. The sun food for the machines is, and especially will be, a whole lot cheaper than the farmed food for the humans.
All those low skilled supermarket jobs reduced to just a human manager, and maybe a few humans, if that, to fill in the gaps. And the same for restaurants, factories, janitorial and maid service,… I find it very hard to think of what jobs those low-skilled people will get instead, in anywhere close to equal numbers to those lost, where those who still have jobs and wealth will want to pay at least minimum wage for their services.
So, is more education the answer? The problem is, as with high-school workers above, the education requirements for having a job–any job–keep rising. And it’s doubtful than even if every one of us could get those requirements, there would be enough jobs to go around. In a society where everyone is an Einstein, Einstein sweeps the floor and empties the trashbin.
Education is more about rationing the remaining jobs than training people for the new economy.
…if you say: Oh, ok, it’s just horses and men who don’t make the effort to become skilled and educated enough, so no problem, they just get skilled and educated enough, and then the robots and AI’s are no risk. Then, what if skilled and educated enough so all this is no problem goes from high school diploma to bachelor’s at a nationally known respected research university, and with the commensurate skills? Or even the commensurate skills of just the top half of such graduates today, so we can’t just grade hyper-inflate our way out of this, and throw up a bunch of Potemkin colleges.
How are we supposed to get the vast majority of men, and women, up to this level of skill and education?
To do so would take a regime shift in our politics, and in public understanding of economics. By and large, one of our two major parties not only does not believe in global warming, or evolution for that matter, they don’t believe in externalities, asymmetric information, natural monopoly, contracting limitations and costs, and basically anything that says the pure free market is imperfect (except in cases where it benefits the rich). But providing a massive increase in the education, skills, and general capabilities for most of the population is something that free market companies could only extract a small fraction of the benefits from in profits. And therefore they alone would grossly underprovide this.
Indeed, as David J. Blacker has documented, companies are already divesting themselves as much as possible from funding for all education. Instead, companies dump all the costs for training onto the back of the individual, because they can. In fact, some people are literally selling stock in themselves just to afford the cost of education, in a twenty-first century version of indentured servitude. Those who get the remaining jobs will mostly be those who are best able to afford it, meaning a class-stratified society based on inherited wealth. All risk is transferred off of the corporations and onto the backs of the workers themselves. Also, Neoliberalism, the prevailing economic philosophy today, believes that everything must be provided by the competitive market, and if the market does not provide it, it simply will not exist–something that does not bode well for access to education.
Instead of dealing with this, in true American fashion, we’ve just let the “free market” take care of it, and what the free market has done is primarily create a string of chains of for-profit colleges preying on desperate workers who want to earn more than subsistence wages.
Look at the derision that Bernie Sanders’ proposal of giving a free college education to Americans (which many other countries already provide) is “unrealistic” and furthermore, the money simply isn’t there to do this in the world’s wealthiest nation. Moreover these sentiments are not just coming from the right, but from his Democratic rival Hilary Clinton, who mockingly claims that people support Mr. Sanders only because they want “free stuff.”
The externalities, contracting and enforcement problems and costs, adverse selection and other asymmetric information, and so on, are profound and enormous. This is why general education has historically been predominantly publicly funded. To say that now, so that most of the population won’t go the way of horses, we have to enormously increase our investment in Heckman-style early human development, education, public nutrition, healthcare, and more, from prenatal until at least well into a person’s 20’s, is to say that we should have an unprecedented increase in governments’ size and roles.
Right now, this is impossible, as the Republican party is dogmatically against any government, except for a small number of areas; mainly military, police, courts, prisons, and perhaps minimal public infrastructure and education.
Did we see such a massive investment in the African-American community after their jobs went away? Did we see the “Heckman-style” early childhood intervention which Serlin describes?
No, instead we saw jobless African-Americans portrayed as little more than animals, and now we’re seeing that sentiment directed against “white trash” today as well. Here’s a description of a now-infamous column by Kevin Williamson:
[National Review’s Kevin Williamson] a long-time critic of The Donald, essentially agrees that he doesn’t support any policies or rhetoric directly tailored to the working-class — particularly about jobs being taken by outsourcing and immigration— because it would be wrong to do so.
“It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces,” the NR roving correspondent writes. “[N]obody did this to them. They failed themselves.”
He then goes on to state that all the ills associated with downscale whites are a result of that class’s inherent depravity.
“If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that,” Williamson state.
He then goes on to make the conclusion that it’s great these communities are dying out because they have a warped morality and are a dead weight on the economy.
“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible,” the conservative writer says. “The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt [a blue-collar town in New York].”
This article isn’t the first time Williamson has harshly criticized trying to appeal to working-class whites. In one February article, he said that this class is made-up of “economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency.” He also claimed that their interests have no place in the “mainstream of American conservatism” and, in a follow-up post, said that the only message conservatives should give them is “get a job.”
While Williamson blames the people living in run-down white communities for their own woes, he does not apply the same principle to run-down minority communities. In his book and articles on the failures of Detroit, for instance, the National Review writer blames “progressivism” and unions for ruining the predominately African-American city.
That’s right, labor unions and “progressivism” are the root cause of Detroit’s failure, not automation or the loss of good-paying jobs, according to this line of thinking. And an angry “get a job” bellowed at the unemployed is the only answer worth contemplating, even as jobs disappear and pay less and less. Joblessness is all a result of individual failure and moral malaise–all people need to do is hit the books and climb in in the U-Haul; that is, make themselves amenable to the new economy using nothing but their own resources. And if they have little to no resources, well, then they need to grab a firm hold of their bootstraps. And to top it off, these are the same people who are diametrically opposed to raising the minimum wage. He’s using the exact same phrases and sentiments that have been used against African-Americans the past forty years.
Expect to see a lot more of this thinking coming from the Right’s propaganda outlets as automation accelerates.
As Serlin points out, the Republican party, which controls congress and statehouses across the country, virulently opposes expanding access to education, higher wages, or really any sort of investment in human capital whatsoever. In fact, they want to roll them back!
Of course, to win elections they have to favor Social Security and Medicare for seniors. But, from my study of politics, I think that most of those who control the party would like, if they could get away with it without losing political capital, to end Social Security and Medicare. And, in fact, they fought Social Security and Medicare tooth and nail when they were first enacted. And I also think that many of those in control of the Republican party would like, if they could get away with it at no cost in political capital, to eliminate most, if not all, publicly financed education, infrastructure, and research… Just read their platform, and the positions of their major candidates; it’s pretty obvious that the direction they’d like to go in is the opposite one.
Ayn-Rand inflected free market fundamentalism is the dominant philosophy of the executive class who control the nation’s wealth, and, via campaign contributions, its government. Does that sound like a society that’s going to make the investments in education necessary based on the above, or one that will continue to portray a society of “makers and takers” as the jobs are automated away?
Recall that the last candidate for president on the Republican ticket claimed to his wealthy backers (secretly) that forty-seven percent of Americans, because they pay no Federal income taxes, take no responsibility for their lives, and are just looking for handouts. And his vice-presidential candidate was fond of saying that America’s threadbare social safety net had become, “a hammock lulling people into lives of indolence,” and whose biggest political influence is Ayn Rand. Both called for a drastic shrinking of the safety net and massive tax cuts for the richest Americans, tax cuts that will probably ultimately help fund the technology that automates away even more jobs.
So Kevin Williamson’s thinking above is not fringe at all.
So, if it’s going to require a massive increase in human development, education, skills, and general capability for most men not to go the way of the horse, then that edification is not going to happen anytime soon. And things could get very bad. And for a large segment of the population, the statistics show it already has….
So, I don’t think we can take that much solace in the reply, all the low-skilled men have to do is become high-skilled to avoid going the way of the horse.
If everyone went to university, there wouldn’t be enough places for them. The best universities are predominantly located in urban areas with high rents, and besides, they already reject many of the people who apply to them for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, our expensive and inefficient education system is designed to take at least four years to complete because of unnecessary padding and frills (despite our insistence that it be a glorified vocational school). What are these people supposed to do in the meantime?
And even if we expanded online options, we would just have more underemployed people, or a more educated unemployed workforce. Online college won’t create new jobs (except, or course, for those providing the education). The economy isn’t primarily creating fast-food jobs because of a lack of education, instead, educated people are being forced to take on these jobs. Just being more educated does not automatically produce a job for that educated person. Education does not, in and of itself, produce more jobs. Only a growing economy does that, and we have had anemic growth since the 2008 financial crisis.
The destruction of African-American economic fortunes due to automation and the fallout from that were the major driving forces in American politics in the latter-half of the twentieth century, as we saw last time, yet this factor is almost totally ignored. Suburban sprawl, white flight, abandoned cities, ghettos, housing projects and automobile dependency can all be laid, directly or indirectly, at the feet of automation. Yes, automobile dependency–anything “public” is now associated with black people by rural and suburban whites, including public transportation, so they fight tooth and nail to prevent its expansion. Here in Wisconsin, Republicans blocked the (fully funded) train system from Milwaukee to Madison from being built by playing on white suburban fears of blacks streaming out of Milwaukee’s inner-city to steal TVs during the daytime. In Milwaukee, a streetcar line and expansion of the bus system are also being opposed by the same suburban whites.
Even the specter of “affordable” housing in Milwaukee’s distant suburbs, regardless of race, stirs virulent opposition:
We also saw that this was the primary driver of the rise of the far-right Republican party, and the near total conversion of the white working class to a strain of politics that defines itself primarily by hatred of “big government,” taxes, and welfare. This hatred of “big government” sprang up after civil rights, and opposition to welfare after the epidemic of joblessness in the inner-cities. Taxes became seen as primarily funding black indolence rather than education, infrastructure, defense, and so forth. Notice that there have been no major domestic legislation initiatives since the civil rights era (Obamacare being an exception, but that inefficient system passed largely as a giveaway to big insurers).
Republicans like to portray government as inefficient and corrupt, but it is so largely through their own efforts. If Republicans truly objected to inefficiency and cronyism in government, it seems unlikely that they would elect the candidates that they do. Instead, they are responding to tribal identifiers and dog-whistles.
Why do white working-class voters vote against their own interests? It’s no mystery, really.
What the opposition to government is really all about is white resentment at perceived favoritism toward African Americans and anger at social engineering. This led to the birth of a sentiment among whites that the best thing was to tear government down as much as possible, that is, to “drown it in a bathtub.” Republicans wrapped themselves up as much as possible in the markers of white (especially rural) tribal identity – hunting, fishing, shooting, pickup trucks, NASCAR, country music, Jesus, the military, religious fundamentalism, flag-waving, homophobia, opposition to political correctness, hatred of “feminists” and “intellectuals, and so forth. Watch this telling clip below:
We then saw that factors like the 1994 signing of NAFTA and the 2001 entry of China into the WTO, along with automation, decimated the white working class as thoroughly as the black one, once again with a small fraction of lucky and/or talented “winners” able to escape the deluge. And the same divide-and-conquer tactics are being played out yet again, this time along class, rather than predominantly racial, lines. And we’re now seeing those factors drive the next stage of our politics–candidates who promise to ‘Make America Great Again,” bring the jobs back, and rein in the excesses of the rich and Wall Street.
Automation is not some science-fiction scenario. We have been living with its effects for the past five decades. And it’s now accelerating.
Despite the obfuscation by professional economists and the media, those earlier warnings about the fallout from automation were not, in any sense, “wrong”–they were prophetic. We need to stop bickering and start dealing with this new reality, before Detroit becomes less of a warning sign, and more the reality of Americans’ day-to-day lives from coast to coast, regardless of the color of their skin. Sadly, I see few signs of us coming to grips with this new reality any more than we did in the past.
“Of course you’re right. It’s just a hell of a time to be alive, is all—just this goddamn messy business of people having to get used to new ideas. And people just don’t, that’s all. I wish this were a hundred years from now, with everybody used to the change.”
So what can we learn about the future of technologically-based unemployment based on the African-American experience? A lot, I think.
As the black employment situation deteriorated thanks to automation, the government attempted a number of ham-fisted responses to the problem that ultimately ended up making the situation worse, not better. It’s probably an overstatement to say that all of the political events in the latter-half of the twentieth century in America derive from those actions, but surveying the history, one is struck by how much this is the underlying factor in every major political development since the 1960s, when President Johnson was first warned of the situation.
Governments promoted “affirmative action” schemes–differential hiring policies–to give African-Americans an advantage in the job market, theoretically to make up for the disadvantages noted earlier. It favored the hiring of blacks for local government jobs which could not be shipped off to the suburbs. And it promoted minority scholarships to help blacks pay for higher education.
To cope with segregated schools, it began busing students from inner-cities to facilities throughout the city. The government funded housing “projects” to house the African-Americans unable to afford suburban homes of their own. These projects were based on utopian schemes promoted by European modernists after the war that the Europeans themselves had soundly rejected (Brutalist concrete towers devoid of green space surrounded by freeways).
The social-safety net, always statistically serving more white people than black people in absolute numbers, increasingly became relied upon by urban blacks who had their jobs eliminated due to suburbanization and automation and had nowhere else to turn as their jobs vanished. In such places, entire generations exist who have never known steady employment, leading to dysfunctional behavior patterns. Generations before, such people had worked in the factories which were now long gone.
What these policies ultimately did, however, was to drive a racial wedge between the population. Government became increasingly seen as serving “those people.” The narrative that government does nothing but steal hard-working (white) people’s money and give it to lazy (black) freeloaders became commonplace among the white population, fomented by a generously-funded right-wing media machine targeted to lower-income rural and suburban white voters. Conservative forces mined this racial resentment as a vehicle to dismantle the government which they had long despised due to it being a check on their power and limiting their wealth accumulation. Blacks were depicted as a parasitical “community” looking for handouts, whereas suburban whites were “rugged individualists” who earned their wealth by working hard in the “free market,” and taxes, although never popular, came to be seen as simply “theft.”
Busing became the match on the gasoline of suburbanization, as the last holdouts in the cities joined the mass exodus, leading to even more urban isolation and impoverishment. Affirmative action and minority scholarships fueled the racial resentment of lower-income whites, who had increasing difficulty finding jobs and funding expensive college educations for their own kids. Government and educational “quotas” became another reason for outrage directed at the Federal government. Housing projects promoted social stigma and exclusion, and ended up concentrating poverty, not alleviating it. The dense modernist flats looked more like cell blocks than homes, and were universally regarded as failures, with some even being torn down just decades after being built.
The Republican Party increasingly became the vehicle of white racial resentment and irrational hatred of government. Southern Whites, increasingly seeing the federal government as an agent of enforcing racial equality, flocked to the Republican banner. The Southern states had always resented the Federal Government going back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and this now intensified due to its support for the Civil Rights movement under Democratic presidents. The movement of population to the Sun Belt states (encouraged by air conditioning) gave the states in Dixie more and more political influence over the entire nation. The “Southern Strategy” pioneered by Richard Nixon recast the Republican Party as the maintainer of hierarchical racial order in the face of black assertiveness. The entirely of Dixie switched overnight from Democrats to Republicans, to the extent that The South and Sunbelt became effective one-party states under Republican rule.
But it wasn’t just the South–much of the country where blacks had migrated became “Dixiefied”–animated primarily by fanatical hatred and resentment of government at every level, and suspicion and disparagement of metropolitan areas (which nonetheless remained the major sources of economic activity and population growth).
In areas of the Northeast and Midwest that had seen a significant influx of black migrants who were now unemployed due to automation, racial resentment pushed working class whites into the arms of the Republican Party here too. The party transformed its identity from one that represented wealthy business interests and advocated limited government (The Rockefeller/Goldwater era), to one animated by downscale suburban and rural whites fueled by racial resentment and hatred (as well as religion). The Republicans cast themselves as the party of “law and order”– coded dog-whistle words for keeping minorities in their place. Democrats became seen as the party of minorities, and later “political correctness” in the eyes of rural and suburban white Americans. In other words, “the other team.”
This was cemented in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s first campaign stop was in Philadelphia Mississippi, the site of the murder of several civil-rights activists, calling for an assertion of “state’s rights.” (a common dog-whistle phrase opposing Civil Rights). Reagan touted the “Cadillac-driving welfare queen” (in reality a myth inspired by a single person), and “strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks,” as a way to gain support for destroying the social welfare system, something conservatives in America had desired since the New Deal. Affirmative action polices and quotas were used to stoke white racial grievance against the federal government. Even today, with the safety net in tatters, Obama is touted as a “food-stamp president” handing out free cell phones to poor urban blacks in right-wing Republican circles. (In reality, the size of the debt and the federal government has expanded much more slowly under Obama than under Republican presidents, especially Reagan).
The 1990’s began a conservative counter-revolution with the construction of think-tanks (The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, etc.), lobbying groups (ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce), and a right-wing media machine with vast reach and unlimited funds (FOX news, talk radio, et. al). In 1981, famed Republican strategist Lee Atwater admitted:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Then came the drug war. It began under Nixon and ramped up under Reagan. Ostensibly to stamp out teenage “drug abuse,” it resulted in an incarceration boom unprecedented in all of human history except for perhaps under Stalinist dictatorships (somehow, white taxpayers had no problem footing the bill for this). The illegal drug trade became one of the few avenues of decent incomes and entrepreneurship available to African-Americans due to its underground nature. There is even some evidence that drug abuse was encouraged in black communities to provide justification for this state of affairs. Police forces increasingly became, in David Simon’s words, “An army of occupation.” “Three strikes” laws, “Zero-tolerance” polices, “broken windows” policing, and “stop and frisk,” were all theoretical justifications for cracking down on crime, but enforced disproportionately against urban black populations. Some places became notoriously predatory, as demonstrated by the Federal investigation of Ferguson, Missouri (a ghetto created by the loss of St. Louis’ manufacturing economy).
Today, there are more African Americans in the legal system than there were slaves in 1860. One in four of the world’s prisoners rots away in U.S jails (despite having less than five percent of the world’s population), often under conditions described by the U.N as “torture.”Many of these prisoners are coerced to work for giant corporations for pennies (slavery for convicted criminals is legal under the Constitution). The United States is the only country where more men are raped than women thanks to the brutal conditions in U.S. prisons. Inner-city schools spend more money on police than on counselors, and a school-to-prison pipeline has emerged for African-American youth. The average black teenager is statistically more likely to go to jail than attend college. the U.S. has more internal police and locks up more people than Stalinist Russia.
Everything worked out okay???
Much like white women today, black women adapted better overall to the new “caring and service-oriented” job market than did men. The few inner-city jobs left in the ghettos after suburban flight were typically minimum wage service jobs, especially in the fast-food industry, and government work. Men no longer had the wages to form a family, and predictably family formation went down. Single mothers became the norm, much to sneering derision of wealthy, conservative whites (“baby mommas”). Many black men rationally chose a shorter life and higher income potential in the dangerous black market drug trade to humiliating dead-end work at pitiful wages.
Men increasingly took out their lack of self-esteem on women, and a misogynistic culture emerged (“pimps and ho’s”). Gangsters became lionized as heroes. “Thug culture” became a thing. Women increasingly turned up their noses at the black men who faced such bleak prospects, choosing rather to go it alone than have a potentially dangerous man in the house who was dead weight. The lack of hope on the part of men became institutionalized, leading to destructive attitudes passed along from generation to generation. Generations grew up without knowing their fathers, which became the norm due to lack of job and career opportunities.
At the same time, a small segment of African Americans took advantage of the new opportunities and did very well, indeed. Many moved into the professional class in various capacities–lawyers, doctors, businessmen, etc. In the post-civil rights world, this segment enjoyed opportunities that their ancestors could have only dreamed of. A few even became multi-millionaires, especially in music, acting, entertainment and professional sports. And, of course, the nation elected a president of African descent in the 2008 election.
The spectacular success of this small segment was held up as evidence that the blacks who had been left behind were simply not working hard enough, and were responsible for their own plight due to their bad behavior (rather than poor schools or a lack of jobs). Because the legalized, institutionalized racism had been removed, white America adopted a blame game where the African community simply refused to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
This is why the “automation came along and everything worked out allright” attitude is, in my estimation, extremely racist. It dismisses the pain and suffering of an entire class of people as just somehow inevitable, or as their own fault due to their inherent nature. The social pathologies that resulted from the fallout are then pointed to as a cause of the devastation. Ask any inner-city activist the biggest problem facing their community and what will they tell you? Typically the same thing: “lack of jobs” (or perhaps substandard schools, which is just the flip side of the same coin).
The White Ghetto and Trumpism
In the 1990’s two new factors emerged in this situation. The 1960s and 1970s began the rise of automation and movement of good-paying factory jobs to the suburbs and overseas for some industries (notably textiles). But economic activity still assured plenty of jobs for whites with enough family wealth to move to the suburbs throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.
In 2001, China joined the World trade Organization (WTO). With its bottomless supply of poor rural workers moving to cities, it could outcompete nearly the entire world on labor costs. Places like Shenzen and Pearl River Delta became the world’s factory floor, hollowing out manufacturing centers all across the United States and Europe. It was the death blow to these industrial economies (temporarily masked by real estate bubbles and banking fraud). China quickly became the world’s largest industrial economy in the span of only a few decades.
Several rounds of “free trade” deals swept across the world as economic Neoliberalism became the predominant economic philosophy of the global economy. Capital became fluid and mobile, even as labor remained tied to hollowed-out nation states. Billions of people joined the global labor pool, empowered by the Internet. The Democratic party in America abandoned its support for unions and the white working class (who had abandoned them in droves anyway), and fully embraced Neoliberalism, although tempered with a few nods toward the safety net (the programs that primarily benefited whites), and “politically correct” social inclusiveness rhetoric.
The movement of jobs overseas became an absolute deluge. The loss of factory jobs swelled, and the final shreds of industrial America were torn apart. Vast areas of the American “heartland” were hollowed out, leading to the rural landscape of shuttered factories, meth labs and boarded up storefronts along main streets we are familiar with today. Automation had finally come for rural and suburban white America. Cheap Chinese goods also enabled corporate behemoths such as Wal-Mart to undercut local businesses on price, destroying any vestige of a locally-owned economy and small businesses. McJobs replaced factory jobs as the base of the economy in most places.
As “more education” was touted as the lifeboat to get out of these communities, this, along with the aging of the the Baby Boomer population, caused an “eds and meds” economy to spring up. Education and health care became the only stable forms of employment in these remote places, ultimately sustained by government money (Medicare/Medicaid and student loans). These two industries quickly became predatory, leaving Americans wallowing in unpayable debts for their overpriced services. Campaign contributions ensured politicians looked the other way.
The job drain was slow enough and diffuse enough to prevent any sort of coordinated response on the part of unemployed workers. Instead they went as lambs to the slaughter, often voting for the very same people who had enabled it due to racial grievance and hot-button social issues of cultural affiliation (abortion, guns, NASCAR, etc.). Conservative media blamed “liberal permissiveness,” “entitlements,” and “Ivy-League elites” for the problems plaguing rural America, and stoked anger over imaginary issues such as “The war on Christmas.” Americans gleefully ate-up anti-union rhetoric promoted by the corporate-owned media.
Republicans, he said, use their support of gun rights as a cornerstone in their strategy to win elections by launching “an all-out, no-holds-barred assault on government”.
“The Republicans in some way, shape or form have become a neo-anarchist party, in that they don’t accept that there is much legitimacy at all to the existence of public functions,” he said.
“The second amendment has become sacred because it’s the best way for them to express how furious they are at government. They are willing to defend the right of individuals to take up arms against it. There’s no way to get farther right on anti-government rhetoric than that.”
Note that this level of government hatred and gun fanaticism was decidedly fringe, even among white America, prior to the Civil Rights era. Now it drives what is arguably the nation’s most powerful political party.
Drive though America’s small towns and inner-ring suburbs, and what do you see? Good things? Everything just worked out okay? Really??? To dismiss the effects of automation, we have to pretend that all of this doesn’t exist. Does automation truly create more jobs than it destroys? Drive through the urban ghettos and abandoned small towns of the Rust Belt and say that.
To say that “nothing happened to them” is stunningly wrong. Over the past 35 years the working class has been devalued, the result of an economic version of the Hunger Games. It has pitted everyone against each other, regardless of where they started. Some contestants, such as business owners, were equipped with the fanciest weapons. The working class only had their hands. They lost and have been left to deal on their own.
The consequences can be seen in nearly every town and rural county and aren’t confined to the industrial north or the hills of Kentucky either. My home town in Florida, a small town built around two orange juice factories, lost its first factory in 1985 and its last in 2005.
In the South Buffalo neighborhood of Lackawanna, homes have yet to recover from the closing of an old steel mill that looms over them. The plant, once one of many, provided the community with jobs and stability. The parts that haven’t been torn down are now used mainly for storage.
In Utica, New York, a boarded-up GE plant that’s been closed for more than 20 years sits behind Mr Nostalgia’s, a boarded-up bar where workers once spent nights. Jobs moved out of state and out of the country. The new jobs don’t pay as well and don’t offer the same benefits, so folks now go to the casino outside of town to try to supplement their income.
When you go into these communities and leave the small bubbles of success –Manhattan, Los Angeles, northern Virginia, Cambridge – and listen to people who work with their hands, you hear a uniform frustration and a constant anxiety. In a country of such amazing wealth, a large percentage of people are trying not to sink.
In Blossburg, Pennsylvania, Arnie Knapp walks five miles into town every morning, trying to keep his body in shape and not succumb to the various injuries he suffered working the mills. He started working at 14 and once they closed, he worked a series of lower-paying jobs. Unlike the characters profiled in the National Review article, he isn’t looking for a handout: “I haven’t asked for anything but work from anyone. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of jobs around here any more.”
Now, it’s true that cheap Chinese labor and the invention of shipping containers temporarily eliminated the need for automation due to the oversupply of labor and ultra-low wages. But had the Chinese workers not been there, automation would have done the job anyway. In fact, manufacturing output in America continued to rise during this period, even as manufacturing employment declined. China just happened to provide a quicker, cheaper way to temporarily increase profits and lower labor costs during this period thanks to global wage arbitrage.
Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.
A significant number of Americans simply weren’t needed in the economic order anymore. They were useless as workers, and, as they became ever-poorer, as consumers. Companies increasingly preferred citizens of the Third World not only workers, but also as consumers, as their disposable incomes were rising even as American wages were falling. Poorer Americans had no choice but to buy cheap Chinese made-consumer goods because it was all they could afford, leading to a downward spiral of lower wage jobs, offshoring, and ever-cheaper and shoddier goods.
The second major factor was the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Third-party candidate Ross Perot warned of “A giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the United States if it were signed into law, and he was right, despite losing the race. Not only did NAFTA allow jobs to migrate across the border, the dumping of heavily subsidized and mechanized U.S. corn on the Mexican market (see the cotton example in the previous entry), devastated the rural Mexican economy. The non-mechanized small farmers of rural Mexico couldn’t compete and threw in the towel.
Much like African Americans half a century before, they too began a mass migration to “El Norte” to look for work. Millions of migrants, primarily from Northern Mexico, flooded into the United States in a very short time span to do the work Americans supposedly “didn’t want to do.” Rural economies, especially in the Southwest, had long depended upon migrant labor from Mexico, but now that model was expanded to all aspects of the unskilled labor market–building and construction, child-care, cooking, cleaning, gardening, landscaping, laundry, food-service, delivery, manual labor, and so forth. America became a bilingual society overnight, and the ability to speak Spanish increasingly became a job requirement for many positions.
Unlike blacks who had been confined to the ghetto outside of Dixie, Mexicans went to all locations–rural, urban and suburban, forming a massive exploited proletariat willing to work for much, much less than native-born Americans. The third largest influx of foreign currency into the Mexican economy is remittances from Mexicans living abroad, mainly in the United States. The Mexican government no longer had to deal with poverty or unemployment within their own borders; they could export their poverty to the United States and watch the currency roll in. Despite handwringing, both major parties supported this trend, supported by campaign cash, even as they condemned it in public. Wages dropped and profits soared.
In the 1990-2000’s, competition from Chinese workers abroad and Mexican immigrants at home finally decisively broke the back of the white working class who had been able to escape the devastation wrought on black community due to automation in the 1960-1970s. At the same time, the costs of higher education soared into the stratosphere as college increasingly became the tollbooth to the few remaining middle-class jobs which had not been not offshored. Americans were required to mortgage their future and become indentured servants for even just a chance at acquiring jobs which paid more than minimum wage in the new “service economy” promoted by professional economists.
Older whites who were made redundant when factory jobs shut down used disability as a de-facto basic income guarantee scheme. Disability became the “white welfare,” even as whites continued to disparage black “welfare queens.” While welfare “reform” had shifted responsibility onto cash-strapped state and local governments, disability was still paid for by federal dollars. Just as with blacks, a lot of lip-service was paid to “worker retraining” for the nonexistent jobs supposedly created by automation. Social work, health care and government jobs became the only economic activity in vast swaths of middle America as the circle of prosperity receded. And, just like blacks, the whites were increasingly blamed for the reality of their own circumstances as the jobs disappeared.
Here’s Paul Krugman discussing the shift:
…there was a great deal of alarm over the troubles of the African-American community, where social disorder was on the rise even as explicit legal discrimination (although not de facto discrimination) was coming to an end…There were all kinds of theories, ranging from cultural hand-waving to claims that it was all because of welfare. But some people, notably William Julius Wilson, argued that the underlying cause was economic: good jobs, while still fairly plentiful in America as a whole, were disappearing from the urban centers where the A-A population was concentrated. And the social collapse, while real, followed from that underlying cause.
This story contained a clear prediction — namely, that if whites were to face a similar disappearance of opportunity, they would develop similar behavior patterns. And sure enough, with the hollowing out of the middle class, we saw (via Mark Thoma) what Kevin Williamson at National Review describes as
the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy
And what is the lesson? Why, that poor whites are moral failures, and they should move to where there are opportunities (where?). It’s really extraordinary.
Oh, and lots of swipes at food stamps, welfare programs, disability insurance (which conservatives insist is riddled with fraud, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.)
It’s surely worth noting that other advanced countries, with much more generous welfare states, aren’t showing anything like the kind of social collapse we’re seeing in the U.S. heartland….the idea that somehow food stamps are why we’re breaking bad is utterly at odds with the evidence. (Just as an aside, since someone will bring it up: all of those other advanced economies are just as open to trade as we are — so whatever you think of free trade, it doesn’t necessarily cause social collapse.)
The rise of Donald Trump comes as no surprise, then. Trump combines the white racial grievance and hatred wielded by the Republican party to win lower-income white votes with a critique of the vanishing jobs and hollowing out of the labor market for lower-income whites due to outsourcing and mass immigration from Mexico. Other Republicans, dependent upon funding from the donor class who benefited disproportionately from outsourcing and immigration, could not pursue this line of rhetoric. Trump, a real estate magnate self-funding his own campaign for vanity reasons, could say these things. Polls show that a majority of Trump voters see discrimination against whites as a major concern. White Americans who had seen their lives and communities decimated by decades of globalism finally had a champion who promised to bring their jobs back, while keeping blacks and Mexicans in line; in other words, to “Make America great again.”
There was no Universal Basic Income for blacks left jobless by automation. There was no wealth redistribution. There was no compensating the “losers”. There was no “sharing the fruits of the technology.” Rather, there was scapegoating, dehumanizing, divide and conquer, blame, hatred, discrimination, resentment and abuse from the hard-working “winners” against the lazy, growing pile of “losers.” In the past that was mainly along color lines. Now, it’s increasingly along class lines.
What makes you think the new effects from ongoing automation will be any different? Does anyone think we will come to our senses and realize that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around? Or will we continue to insist on individual solutions for what are ultimately societal problems? While education may be fine to help one’s individual standing, it has never, in and of itself, produced jobs where there are none to be had.
What does the African-American experience portend about our future in the age of automation?
– The poor majority will become trapped in ghettos, homeless encampments, and “slumburbs,” as America Balkanizes along income lines. Your fate will be increasingly tied to the accident of where you were born. Already, social mobility is primarily determined by your ZIP code and what your parents’ income is. Libertarian economists are already predicting a future where 80-90 percent of us are “zero-marginal product” workers living in internet-enabled shantytowns with minimal public services and dining on canned beans, while 10-15 percent of Americans live “like today’s millionaires.”
– Rather than invest in methods to create new jobs, we will instead opt for a massive police state, prisons, guard labor, and mass incarceration. Already we see the police routinely using weapons that we would normally associate with war zones. Increasingly, keeping other Americans in line will become a major source of employment, and building prisons and exploiting prisoners will become a major profit center for corporate America, instead of selling new and innovative products, which most Americans will be too poor to buy anyway (aside from a few electronic toys).
– Education will continue to be touted as the “salvation” for people even as the amount of jobs declines and the educational and experience requirements keep going up for even the most basic jobs. People who are not able to acquire this lengthy and expensive education, for whatever reason, will be blamed for their own plight. Already employers are charging workers just to apply for jobs.
The social maladies caused by a disappearance of family supporting jobs and hope for the future will increasingly be pointed to as the cause of the dysfunction. Drug abuse is now causing devastation in the white community just as thoroughly as it has in the black community.
Charles Murray, an intellectual for conservative think-tanks, wrote a book called The Bell Curve in the 1990’s arguing that African-Americans’ inferior IQ’s were at the root of their plight. Now he’s saying similar things about poor whites left unemployed by automation. His new book Coming Apart argues that poor whites’ inferior moral behavior is the ultimate cause of the ongoing destruction of their communities. If they would just get married and hit the books, he claims, there would be no problem. Expect to see a lot more of this line of thinking coming out of right-wing think tanks and promoted in the corporate media as jobs continue to disappear.
– You also have a recrudescence of Social Darwinist philosophy. Those who can’t hack it in the “free market” deserve to die “for the good of the species,” according to a small but powerful segment of the business community enthralled by a crude combination of Ayn Rand’s writings mixed with a bastardization of Charles Darwin. (e.g. the “Dark Enlightenment” philosophy popular in Silicon Valley).
Even as certain quarters tout education as the way out, funding for education is being slashed at every level, particularly by Republicans. In his book, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, David J. Blacker points out that as corporate America needs less and less people, they simply don’t see a need to invest in mass education anymore; hence it is being dismantled. The people who already have dynastic wealth and resources will be fine; everyone else will not. The ladder to the middle class is being pulled up. With perennially too few jobs for workers, employees will just have to compete for the few remaining slots using whatever resources they have at their disposal in a winner-take-all, musical-chairs game. As for the rest, as Blacker points out, the precedent here is the eliminationist literature of the German Holocaust–what is the best way for authorities to deal with the excess “undesirables” in society?
In his online novel Manna, Marshall Brain imagines large amounts of people made jobless due to automation herded into vast open-air prisons and living as wards of the state. He’s overly optimistic. We already have such prisons today, and they are nowhere near as pleasant. Benign neglect is the best-case scenario. The worst is the work camps of the Holocaust. “Work makes us free.” American prisoners are already a major source of labor for corporations.
Forget Basic Income schemes. As the jobs disappeared over the past few decades, support for the safety net did not increase, in fact, just the opposite! The poorer people get, the stronger the desire to cast them as lazy freeloaders and shred what little remains of the social safety net, not expand it. In the 1990’s, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Even as jobs disappear, more stringent requirements for working and finding a job are foisted upon the poor. As the percentage of “minorities” in America increases to become the majority (a contradiction, I know), it becomes easier to attribute the lack of jobs on people just “not wanting to work” to conservative suburban whites who still have jobs, even as their numbers shrink. Consider:
Nearly all the states with the highest percentage of minimum wage workers — full-time jobholders making $290 a week, before taxes — are in the South. These are also the same states that refuse to expand Medicaid to allow the working poor to get health care. And it’s in the same cradle of the old Confederacy where discriminatory bills are rising. Don’t blame the cities; from Birmingham to Charlotte, people are trying to open doors to higher wages and tolerance of gays, only to be rebuffed at the state level.
Hundreds of thousands of people could soon lose food stamps as states reimpose time limits and work requirements that were suspended in recent years because of high unemployment, state officials and advocates for the poor said Friday.
Alabama Republicans say they want a new bill to drastically limit state welfare programs so that recipients will get jobs — but the bill eliminates the most common means of transportation to and from work…The bill, created by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, cuts the time frame for assistance from five years to three. It also creates a new layer of bureaucracy for poor people seeking help, including the requirement that they sign a contract vowing to adhere to the program’s rules. It also disqualifies people from getting food stamps or financial assistance for families with children if the recipients own cars, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
Automation has already made a huge portion of the workforce irrelevant. We just pretend that it didn’t happen. And the jobs intended to replace them, the ones “we couldn’t even imagine” turned out not to exist (so no surprise we couldn’t imagine them, then). This has been going on since the 1960’s, we just dumped it one specific group of people until very recently, people that we could treat as nonhumans thanks to our attitudes about race. Now it coming for all of us outside of a tiny slice of hereditary wealthy and well-connected elites. As Jeremy Rifkin writes:
Not surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetic revolution was black America. With the introduction of automated machines, it was possible to substitute less costly, inanimate forms of labor for millions of African-Americans who had long toiled at the bottom of the economic pyramid, first as plantation slaves, then as sharecroppers, and finally as unskilled labor in northern factories and foundries.
For the first time in American history, the African American was no longer needed in the economic system. Sidney Willhelm summed up the historical significance of what had taken place in his book Who Needs the Negro? “With the onset of automation the Negro moves out of his historical state of oppression into one of uselessness. Increasingly, he is not so much economically exploited as he is irrelevant…The dominant whites no longer need to exploit the black minority: as automation proceeds, it will be easier for the former to disregard the latter. In short, White America, by a more prefect application of mechanization and a vigorous reliance upon automation, disposes of the Negro; consequently, the Negro transforms from an exploited labor force into an outcast.”
Now we’re seeing white people join that same outcast community. And we’re seeing the exact same techniques used to write them (us) off as nonpersons.
Welcome to the future.
Next: The automation of the workforce has already occurred.
One of the things I always hear about automation is that all the predictions of the imminent demise of jobs to date have proven false. Every time we automate work away, new jobs spring up like daisies in the springtime to take their place, says conventional thinking, and we happily go merrily along working our forty hour work weeks, because of all the gains in productivity juice the overall economy, ending up in a net gain, even as population increases. Or, if the commenters are a bit more circumspect, they at least acknowledge a difficult and troubling short “transition period,” where a few people suffer a bit of hardship, but everything works out fine for everyone in the end. “Lump of labor fallacy” and all that.
I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments too.
The analogies between “Peak Horse” and “Peak Human” are fundamentally flawed, say such analysts. Horses are just horses. Humans, on the other hand, are infinitely adaptable, and can just learn “new skills,” whatever those happen to be, and will always be relevant to the economy. Permanent unemployment of a large portion of the workforce is just not possible, they argue.
The 1930’s The Technocracy Movement, a group of engineers and technicians, published a large amount of literature demonstrating that the productive forces that had been unleashed in the years prior, especially the mechanization of agriculture and the electrification of the assembly line, had made a large numbers of workers redundant. Overproduction would mean that the salaries necessary to purchase the products would not materialize, leading to economic crisis. During the Great Depression, when up to a quarter of the workforce could not find steady employment, it seemed their ideas were coming to fruition. The movement competed head-to-head politically for a time with Socialism the New Deal. After the global destruction unleashed by the war (which “stimulated” the economy), these issues were forgotten.
In 1964 a group of social activists and academics who called themselves “The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions” sent an open letter to president Lyndon Johnson warning that automation would soon lead to mass unemployment. They signed it as “The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution.” The committee “claimed that machines would usher in “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity” while continually reducing the number of manual laborers needed, and increasing the skill needed to work, thereby producing increasing levels of unemployment.” (Wikipedia).
Of course, those worries were all for nothing, say the economists. We have more jobs today than we did in 1964, and we’re working more than ever! It was just another in a long line of Chicken Little predictions that didn’t come true, because it can’t come true, because the economy will always produce enough jobs for everyone who wants one if they’re willing to work for it, say the economists. Say’s Law, and all that. After all, it’s 2016, and the “official” unemployment rate is only five percent!
Here’s an example of such a dismissal from a wealthy, white, Stanford University academic:
This is not the first time society has fretted over the impact of ever-smarter machines on jobs and work—and not the first time we have overreacted. In the Depression-beset 1930s, labor Jeremiahs warned that robots would decimate American factory jobs. Three decades later, mid-1960s prognosticators offered a hopeful silver lining to an otherwise apocalyptic assessment of automation’s dark cloud: the displacement of work and workers would usher in a new “leisure society.”
Reality stubbornly ignored 1930s and 1960s expectations. The robots of extravagant imagination never arrived. There was ample job turbulence but as Keynes forecast in 1930, machines created more jobs than they destroyed. Boosted by a World War, unemployment dropped from a high of 25 percent in 1933 to under two percent in 1944. And the hoped-for 1960s leisure society never arrived because the diffusion of information technologies created unprecedented demand for Drucker’s “knowledge workers,” and fueled the arrival of the service economy.
Let’s not abandon Keynes just yet: In 1930, Keynes observed that technological unemployment was a self-solving problem. On balance new technologies create more jobs than they destroy. Today’s job-shedding turbulence looks no different from what scared the bejesus out of observers in the 1930s and ’60s. For example, in 1965 the federal government reported that automation was wiping out 35,000 jobs per week, yet, just a few years later, it was clear that new jobs more than offset the losses. Of course, now as then, the new jobs will arrive more slowly than the old jobs are destroyed, and require ever-higher skill levels. We would be wise to worry less about extreme scenarios and focus on managing the transition.
Follow the new scarcities to the new jobs: Every new abundance creates a new scarcity that in turn leads to new economic activity. The proliferation of computers made information abundant, creating the demand for Drucker’s knowledge workers. And the material abundance made possible by machine-enabled productivity gains in turn contributed to the rise of an economy hungry for service workers. This moment is no different; immediate job losses are highly visible, while entirely new job categories run beneath the radar. Jobs will be ever less secure, but work isn’t disappearing.
Ah, yes the “knowledge and service” workers saved us, didn’t they? And we all lived happily ever after. Stupid Luddites!
I remember hearing a person making this argument recently. He was confidently assured that new technology would create new jobs, because it always did. He brought up the above track record (as they always do). He happened to work in tech. He happened to be white. He probably lived in the suburbs.
We happened to be close to downtown. When I heard this, I thought, “Take a walk a few blocks and look around. Do things seem to be going that great?” Walk a bit further and you’ll be in Milwaukee’s “inner city,” one of the most dangerous and segregated in the nation. Derelict buildings. Boarded up storefronts. Pop-up churches. Drug clinics. Homeless shelters. Food pantries. Shootings on a daily basis. People with cardboard signs asking for money standing at every street intersection. Vast areas of the city, and I mean vast, look like war-town Beirut, Sarajevo or Baghdad, and have for decades, and we just accept this as a normal fact of life in modern-day America.
How did it happen? It was not always like this. These neighborhoods were once prosperous, walkable, middle-class areas filled with factory workers. Well-kept bungalows and two-story flats occupied the narrow lots on each block, flanked on each corner by the corner tavern (the neighborhood social hangout) and the general store. Children walked to the neighborhood school. Public works were well-maintained, parkland was abundant, and the architecture was beautiful.
The factories have long since been closed and abandoned. Huge areas of town that employed thousands of people and made industrial products shipped all over the world a generation ago are as silent as the crumbling ruins of the Roman forum. Surrounding them are vast ghettos patrolled 24-7 by cops where residents live in daily fear of drive-by shootings.
Everything just worked out okay. Really??!
In order to accept that point of view articulated above, one must refuse to acknowledge the effect that automation has already had on our society.
You see, it’s pretty easy to be dismissive and nonchalant about automation if you’re white. And especially if you’re suburban. But to do that, you have to literally dismiss all of the above reality, which is exactly what we have done.
We’ve accepted the cratered cities, derelict neighborhoods, unemployment and social pathology as just the way things are. We’ve done this by writing off a large segment of the American people as simply unemployable. We forget that it was once any other way. Such is the power of creeping normalcy–things that would cause shock and action a generation ago just became “the way things are.”
I think there is an important message here in how we will deal with automation in the near future, one that is being ignored.
So, to say that “everything worked out okay,” which is the conventional wisdom promoted by the media, you have to just ignore all of this – the drugs, the crime, the social decay, the segregation, the mass incarceration of African American men, the single parent families, the welfare, the hungry school kids eating free lunches, the homelessness, the casual violence and predatory behavior directed against the African-American community by militarized police forces. To dismiss the effects of automation, all of the changes that have happened over the past forty years have to be simply imagined away.
This seems incredible, yet it is exactly what we have done! See the arguments, above, for example.
The conventional wisdom that everything worked out okay is pitched to suburbanites who live in the comfortable white-separatist enclaves which popped up in the corn fields next to freeway off-ramps thanks to America’s post-war freeway building frenzy. For whites, it was “drive until you qualify,” and hence you get the exurban cul-de-sac Levittowns devoid of social activity where a twenty-minute drive is required for the smallest errand, and children are heavily guarded and chauffeured around like royalty. Blacks got redlining, “sundown towns,” and being pulled over for “driving while black.” A single African-American family moving into a suburban neighborhood would “bring down property values” for the entire neighborhood. Ponder that for a moment.
Essentially we dumped all out unemployment on one particular community, isolated them form the rest of society in urban ghettos, and then blamed them for their own plight through a variety of various and ever-shifting reasons. It was either their “low educational attainment” or perhaps “lack of family formation.” As that community fell apart due to the lack of jobs, a large amount of literature was devoted to explaining how such people were “different” due to low-IQ’s and “work-resistant personalities,” or some other factor, possibly genetic (and thus futile to rectify). That is, it was simply their own fault–nothing could be done–such people were simply unemployable, went the arguments in the media.
Fearful whites watched nightly reports on the local news of epidemic crime and shootings in the cities which their parents and grandparents had abandoned. The only black people that these suburban whites ever saw were mug shots on the nightly news. Out of sight, out of mind. Blacks came to be regarded by these wealthy white suburbanites as little more than animals (“superpredators” in Hillary Clinton’s words). They could maybe become wards of the state, perhaps, dependent upon handouts and make-work jobs, but they should definitely stop reproducing, that is “having kids they can’t afford.”
Not so different than horses after all, then.
2. Black Lives Matter
In his excellent book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin devotes an entire chapter describing the effects of technology on the African-American experience. Blacks, predominately in the lower echelons of American society due to racism and the legacy of slavery, have been the ones particularity hit by it. This allowed whites to completely ignore the effects of automation on the job market until relatively recently. There were still plenty of jobs in the exurban strip malls and office parks where whites had fled during the race riots and busing of the 1960-1970’s. Even manual and construction labor was in demand as the suburbs continued to sprawl, amoeba like, away from the chaos and decay of America’s crumbling and abandoned central city ghettos.
The dysfunction of the black community was not always the case, despite what you may have been told. In fact, it was largely brought about through automation, something we still refuse to face up to.
The following are excerpted from chapter five of the book:
The arrival of the mechanical cotton picker in the South was timely. Many black servicemen, recently back from the war, were beginning to challenge Jim Crow laws and segregation statutes that had kept them in virtual servitude since Reconstruction. Having fought for their country and been exposed to places in the United States and overseas where segregation laws did not exist, many veterans were no longer willing to accept the status quo. Some began to question their circumstances; others began to act…
In 1949 only 6 percent of the cotton in the South was harvested mechanically; by 1964, it was 78 percent. Eight years later, 100 percent of the cotton was picked by machines.
For the first time since they had been brought over as slaves to work the agricultural fields in the South, black hands and backs were no longer needed. Overnight, the sharecropper system was made obsolete by technology. Planters evicted millions of tenants from the land, leaving them homeless and jobless. Other developments hastened the process. Federal programs forced a 40 percent reduction in cotton acreage in the 1950s. Much of the land was converted to timber or pasture, which required little labor. Restrictions on tractor production were lifted after the war, greatly accelerating the substitution of tractors for manpower in the fields. The introduction of chemical defoliants to kill weeds reduced the workforce still further–black workers had traditionally been used to chop down weeds. When the Federal government extended the minimum wage to farm laborers, most southern planters found it more economical to substitute chemical defoliants for hand chopping, leaving blacks with no source of employment.
The push for mechanization in southern agriculture combined with the pull of higher wages in the industrial cities of the North to create what Nicholas Lemann called “One of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history.” More than 5 million black men, women, and children migrated north in search of work between 1940 and 1970. The migration routes ran from Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia along the Atlantic Seaboard to New York City and Boston; from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama north to Chicago and Detroit; and from Texas and Louisiana west to California. By the time the migration was over, more than half of all black Americans had moved from South to North and from an entrenched rural way of life to become an urban industrial proletariat.
The mechanical cotton picker proved far more effective than the Emancipation Proclamation in freeing blacks from a plantation economy. It did so, however, at a terrible price. The forced eviction from the land and subsequent migration of millions of destitute black Americans to the North would soon unleash political forces of unimaginable proportions–forces that would come to test the very soul of the American compact.
At first, blacks found limited access to unskilled jobs in the auto, steel, rubber, chemical, and meat-packing industries. Northern industrialists often used them as strikebreakers or to fill the vacuum left by the decline in immigrant workers from abroad. The fortunes of black workers in the North improved steadily until 1954 and then began a forty-year historical decline.
In the mid-1950s, automation began taking its toll in the nation’s manufacturing sector. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the very industries where black workers were concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue collar jobs were lost in the manufacturing sector. Whereas the unemployment rate for black Americans had never exceeded 8.5 percent between 1947 and 1953, and the white rate of unemployment had never gone beyond 4.6 percent, by 1964 blacks were experiencing an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent while white unemployment was only 5.9 percent. Ever since 1964 black unemployment in the United States has remained twice that of whites.
Rifkin describes how factory work moved to the suburbs to take advantage of the fact that newer, smaller, suburban facilities were more amenable to automation, and the taxes were lower. The freeway system eliminated the need to be near railways and ports, so they could be located anywhere. The large-multi-story factories of the inner-city were replaced by one-story suburban facilities constructed in distant cornfields and wetlands accessible only bar car. Since union activity was centered in factories, these distant, diffuse facilities also permitted breaking union solidarity.
Despite the fact that Ford’s River Rouge plant had room for expansion, Ford’s management decided to locate as much production as possible in automated suburban plants away from the city to weaken the power of labor unions. From the late 1940s through 1957, Ford spent more than 2.5 billion on automation and plant expansion, and the other large automakers also made huge investments.
Together, the Big Three auto companies constructed twenty-five new, more automated plants in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. In addition, many smaller satellite manufacturers were forced to relocate or go out of business as automated production lines took over more of the piecemeal work, causing a further decline in urban manufacturing employment.
The number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit fell dramatically beginning in the mid-1950s as a result of automation and suburbanization of production. Black workers, who just a few years earlier were displaced by the mechanized cotton picker in the rural South, once again found themselves the victims of mechanization. In the 1950s, 25.7 percent of Chrysler workers and 23 percent of General Motors workers were African-American. Equally important, because the black workers made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force, they were the first to be let go because of automation. In 1960 a mere twenty-four black workers were counted among the 7,425 skilled workers at Chrysler. At General Motors, only sixty-seven blacks were among the more than 11,000 skilled workers on the payroll.
The productivity and unemployment figures tell the rest of the story. Between 1957 and 1964, manufacturing output doubled in the United States, while the number of blue collar workers fell by 3 percent. Again, many of the first casualties of the new automation drive were black workers, who were disproportionately represented in unskilled jobs that were the first to be eliminated by the new machines. In manufacturing operations across the entire northern and western industrial belt, the forces of automation and suburbanization continued to take their toll on unskilled black workers, leaving tens of thousands of permanently unemployed men and women in their wake.
The corporate drive to automate and relocate manufacturing jobs split the black community into two separate and distinct economic groups. Millions of unskilled workers and their families became part of what social historians now call and underclass–a permanently unemployed part of the population whose unskilled labor is no longer required and who live hand-to-mouth, generation to generation, as wards of the state. A second smaller group of black middle-class professionals have been put on the public payroll to administer the many public assistance programs designed to assist this new urban underclass. The system represents a kind of “welfare colonialism” say authors Michael Brown and Steven Erie, “where blacks were called upon to administer their own state of dependence.”
It is possible that the country might have taken greater notice of the impact that automation was having on black America in the 1960s and 1970s, had not a significant number of African-Americans been absorbed into public-sector jobs. As early as 1970, sociologist Sidney Willhelm observed that “As the government becomes the foremost employer for the working force in general during the transition into automation, it becomes even more so for the black worker. Indeed, if it were not for the government, Negroes who lost their jobs in the business world would swell the unemployment ratio to fantastic heights.”
The public image of an affluent and growing black middle class was enough to partly deflect attention away from the growing plight of a large new black underclass that had become the first casualty of automation and the new displacement technologies.
Today, millions of African-Americans find themselves hopelessly trapped in a permanent underclass. Unskilled and unneeded, the commodity value of their labor has been rendered virtually useless by the automated technologies that have come to displace them in the new high-tech global economy.
Rifkin is one of the few economists smart enough to realize that automation is at the heart of all this, and to remind us of the of the history. There is nothing “normal” about this situation.
So to just casually dismiss the effects if automation and nonchalantly say, “everything worked out okay,” is a very racist attitude, one which is all too commonplace. To accept this, one has to relegate African-Americans to the status of non-people, and these decaying communities as just an inevitable outcome of black people’s natural behavioral inclinations.
Now we’re seeing the exact same tactics being applied in the media, only this time, the casual dismissals of the unemployment situation, and the sneering derision of those being caught up in are increasingly directed at white people rather than just African-Americans.
Look at the black community today. That’s what’s coming for you, While America. Your dehumanization of black people has blinded you to this fact. Now the “betters” of your own race are giving you the same treatment you gave to them.
How does it feel?
SMITH: Bowen is a huge man, 6′ 7. And as we wade into the field, the plants only come up to his belt buckle. He’s going to send this crop around the world. Just like the Swiss make the best watches, the Germans perfected the sports car, Americans grow the most desired cotton in the world. And just like those watches and cars, American cotton does it by being high-tech.
This is the John Deere 7760; iconic green color, big as a houseboat. Bowen bought five of them last year. And they were not cheap.
FLOWERS: They’re right at 600,000 a piece. So we got in a big investment. We got to make something to make the payments on them every year.
SMITH:You bought $3 million worth of equipment last year to pick cotton.
FLOWERS: It’s crazy, isn’t it? Real crazy. We might need to have our brain examined.
SMITH:But these machines give Bowen an edge over small farmers in the rest of the world. He can pick cotton faster with fewer workers. Bowen can watch the progress of the pickers from his iPad sitting at home. And as cushy as it is for him, the driver up on top of the John Deere has an even sweeter gig.
Hey, we wanted to see if we could go a row with you.
I climb up a ladder up into picker number three to hitch a ride with Martovia Latrell Jones.
MARTOVIA LATRELL JONES: Oh.
SMITH: Hey, how’s it going?
SMITH: Everyone calls him Toto. He puts the machine into gear.
And then he lets go.
You just took your hands off the wheel. You didn’t even have to touch it.
SMITH: The picker feels the cotton plants. It makes all the adjustments itself. Toto just sits there, calls his wife on the cell phone, cranks up the blues station.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JONES: You all might not like my singing.
SMITH: Toto has a lot of time up here to sit and think. He was raised by his grandfather, George, who worked on a cotton farm before all this technology. Toto heard the stories.
JONES: Had to get down on their hands and knees and get some blisters and splinters in their fingernails and everything.
SMITH:You do realize that you probably harvest more in five minutes than he did all day long.
JONES:Ah, yeah. I can make a round and pick more than they picked in their whole lifetime.
SMITH: These machines are not only fast but, by the end of the process, the cotton they produce is clean. It’s pure. It’s untouched by human hands. And this is a big deal to the complicated factories around the world that make our T-shirt…