It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Liberal and other partisan Democrats have spent no small effort trying to evade adult responsibility for Donald Trump’s presence in the White House and Republicans’ control of all three branches of the federal government along with most of the nation’s state governments – this in a nation that loathes the Republican Party. I’ve written extensively about the remarkable lengths to which Democrats have gone to block honest discussion of how their party’s craven captivity to the corporate and financial elite and their related allegiance to the values and ideology of the professional class have demobilized their “progressive base” and delivered a considerable portion of the white working class over to the arch-plutocratic, white-nationalist Republican Party. Ever since the election they couldn’t lose, the dismal dollar Democrats (DDDs) have been blaming others for their fiasco: the Green Party for running a “spoiler” campaign; Bernie Sanders’ backers, for daring to note and challenge the Goldman Sachs-greased global corporatism of Hillary and the Clinton machine; former FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute e-mail insinuations; Russia, for supposedly intervening in the United States’ supposedly democratic political process.
“Too Far Left”
Beneath this smoking shit-screen of externalized culpability, the DDDs continue down the same right-wing, corporate-neoliberal path that has led to their electoral marginalization – this while certifiable morons like the prattling MSNBC cretin Chris Matthews claim the Democrats have gone “too far left.” An essay posted on the Sandernista zine Jacobin last March bore the remarkable title “Democrats Against Single Payer.” Bruno Marcetic detailed how the dismal dollar-drenched Dems’ longstanding effort to “quell their base’s clamoring for a comprehensive, public health-care system” had morphed into “the open, public disparagement of such a goal — not just by Democratic leaders, but by leading liberal commentators…” as Marcetic observed, the criticisms that leading liberal Democrats like Paul Krugman have levelled at the obvious social-democratic national health insurance solution curiously mirror those that the right makes against anything and everything left progressives advocate: “too radical…too expensive; it’ll mean raising taxes; it’ll involve giving the federal government too much power.” Marcetic noted the absurdity of liberals denouncing Medicare-for-All even as the “moment is ripe for making the push for single payer”:
“It’s not just that the GOP has spectacularly failed to gut Obamacare. Polling suggests Americans are more amenable to the idea than ever… the last few months have seen a spate of editorials in local newspapers extolling the virtues of single payer and necessitating the need to pass it. The long list includes the: Redding Record Searchlight, Berkshire Eagle, Reno Gazette-Journal, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Grass Valley and Nevada County’s Union, Winston-Salem Journal, Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard, Napa Valley Register, and the Florida Times-Union. Similar editorials have also appeared in major papers like USA Today, the LA Times, and the Baltimore Sun…Even Mark Cuban has come out in favor of the policy. Do Democrats really want to be outflanked on the left by Mark Cuban?”
But, of course, it’s not about what Democrats do or don’t want. The Democratic Party is a brothel owned by elite capital. It’s about pleasing corporate and Wall Street paymasters, who are perfectly willing to be passed on the portside by that notorious health-care Marxist Mark Cuban (whose last name says it all). To make matter worse, the triple Ds pander not only to the One Percent (the 0.1 percent really) but also to the professional class, which has good employment-based health care thanks to its privileged position within the capitalist division of labor.
“It’s Going to be Okay”
Confronted with statements of concern and/or disgust over how they are giving the nation state away to an ever more neofascistic, white-nationalist Republican Party, “Indivisible” liberals I know tell me that “things are going to be okay” since their party will “win power back in 2018 and 2020.” The secret to this great transformation by these Democrats’ reasoning is that Trump’s white rural and working class voters are going to come back to their (dollars and) senses and vote their “pocketbook interests again.” This “rational” working class voting behavior will emerge when formerly deluded Trumpenproletarians realize that Donald Trump is a big super-rich bastard who played them with his faux-populist shtick and who is only in it only for himself and others in his billionaire class.
“Endless Sellouts of Working People”
Donald Trump certainly is that bastard. And if the normal historical pattern holds, the Democrats should pick up Congressional seats in next year’s mid-terms.
Still, there are four great problems with the liberal “things are going to be okay” argument.
First, the Democrats kicked the working class – white and non-white – and its lunch-pail “bread and butter” issues to the curb a long time ago. It hasn’t been anything remotely close to the “party of working people” since at least the middle 1970s Carter Interregnum. Its leading figures since – the Clintons and Obama – have been slimy and duplicitous vanguard neoliberals deeply committed to the rightward Big-Business friendly abandonment of the poor, the working classes, social justice, and the common good. The Democrats are the globalist and automation-happy party of NAFTA, financial deregulation, welfare shredding, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street – along with the socially liberal majority wing of the “educated” professional class (more on that entity below) and the giant Pentagon system, which pre-empts the social state with a war machine that eats up more than half of federal discretionary spending (even the “democratic socialist” Bernie F-35 Sanders is a noted “military Keynesian”) while functioning as a giant form of corporate welfare to high-tech firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
One of the secrets to Trump’s success with the white working class was his insistent harping on how the Clintons, Obamas and other Goldman Sachs-bought U.S. “leaders” from both major parties had eagerly participated in the “free trade” dismantlement of American manufacturing. The insane racist insult clown Trump wasn’t wrong about that. The DDDs let him absurdly pose as a protector of blue collar jobs by functioning as a party of corporate globalization for decades. “I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals,” candidate Trump memorably intoned, echoing the rhetoric of Democratic Party icon Franklin Roosevelt. “These,” Trump added for good measure, “are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.” As Thomas Frank notes in the new afterword to his widely-read book Listen Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?:
“There was brilliance in the billionaire’s bluster. By denouncing free trade and the culture wars, [candidate Trump] was dynamiting the consensus orthodoxy that had dominated Washington for many years. This orthodoxy had, among other things, made possible endless sell-outs of working people by Democrats, who could savor their Tom Friedman columns and celebrate globalization’s winners and still count on the votes of the angry working class because such people had ‘nowhere else to go.’ Clintonism would only work, however, as long as Republicans did their part and adhered to free-market orthodoxy. Take that consensus away and leave the Democrats as the only party of globalization, and they would immediately be exposed to a working-class revolt within their ranks…Trump was openly calling for such a revolt.”
The coup de grace was Trump’s claim that he could be workers’ “voice” since he was so wealthy that he didn’t need to depend on those Roosevelt called “the economic royalists” to attain and keep power.
The Myth of the Rational Voter
Second, even if the Democrats were to meaningfully serve the pocketbook interests of Joe and Jane Six Pack over those of the hyper-opulent global investor class, it’s not at all certain that would register in the voting booth. U.S.-Americans commonly vote the way they do for reasons that have nothing to with rationally calculated material interests. In their recent book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016), esteemed liberal political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show that deeply rooted social identities and affiliations influence political choices far more significantly than “individual rationality” in the United States. U.S. voters are badly informed about the issues and uninterested in politics. They act mainly on “emotional attachments,” not “rational choices.” Group affiliations tend to trump even their values, not just their interests. “Most [American] people,” Achen and Bartels find, “make their party choices based on who they are, not what they think. Partisanship, like religious identification, tends to be inherited, durable, and not about ideology or theology” (emphasis added). Party affiliations and voting behavior tend to be fixed in childhood, lasting across generations and despite changed circumstances.
Rational Hatred of the Professional Class
Third, liberal Democrats typically miss a key point on who the white working class most directly interacts with when it comes to the infliction of what the sociologist Richard Sennett called “the hidden injuries of class.” So what if Trump is an arrogant One Percenter? It is through regular and often aggravating and even humiliating contact with the professional and managerial class, not the mostly invisible corporate and financial elite, that the working class mostly commonly experiences class inequality and oppression.
Working people see hyper-opulent “rich bastards” like Trump, Bill Gates, and even Warren Buffett on television. In their real lives, they carry out “ridiculous orders” and receive “idiotic” reprimands from middle- and upper middle-class professionals —from, to quote a white university maintenance worker I spoke with last summer, “know-it-all pencil-pushers who don’t give a flying fuck about regular working guys like me.” This worker voted for Trump “just to piss-off all the big shot [professional class] liberals” who constantly disrespect and order him around.
It is not lost on “the white working class” that much of the professional class elite tends to align with the Democratic Party and its purported liberal and multicultural, cosmopolitan, and environmentalist values. It doesn’t help that the professional-managerial elite is aligned with the politically correct multiculturalism and the environmentalism that many white workers have pocketbook and other reasons to see as a threat to their living standards, status, and general well-being.
White workers are certainly getting punked by Trump’s arch-plutocratic presidency. The Trump administration is loaded with members of the very same financial elite he denounced on the campaign trail. But the working class would also have gotten punked by an arrogant corporate-neoliberal Clinton II presidency if Hillary had won. And the same time, working class anger at all the professional class know-it-all with their Hillary and Obama bumper stickers on the back of their Volvos and Audis and Priuses is not based simply on some “uneducated” white working class failure to perceive common interests with the rest of the “99 percent” against the top hundredth. Among other things, a two-class model of America deletes the massive disparities that exist between the working-class majority of Americans and the nation’s professional and managerial class. In the U.S. as across the world capitalist system, ordinary working people suffer not just from the elite private and profit-seeking capitalist ownership of workplace and society. They also confront the steep oppression inherent in what longtime left economists Robin Hahnel and Mike Albert call the “corporate division of labor”—an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”
Over time, this pecking order hardens “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class — roughly the top fifth of the workforce —“controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the working class) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class,” as Albert labels the professionals, “looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done. It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and the higher incomes needed to support more expensive tastes.”
And it does so with a specifically meritocratic ideology that helps make it an enemy of the working class. As Green Party leader and Teamster union activist Howie Hawkins noted last summer, “The Democratic Party ideology is the ideology of the professional class. Meritocratic competition. Do well in school, get well-rewarded.” (Unfortunately, perhaps, his comment reminded me of a bumper sticker I’ve seen on the back of more than a few beat-up cars in factory parking lots and trailer parks over the years: “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student.”).
The other side of the coin of the professional class’s meritocratic ideology is that those in the working and lower classes deserve their order-receiving and poorly paid fate. They didn’t pay attention in class and do their homework. Professional class good and smart, working class bad and dumb.
It all comes with ballot box implications. Many white workers will vote against their supposed “pocketbook interests” by embracing an ugly, super-oligarchic Republican over a supposedly liberal (actually neoliberal) Democrat backed by middle- and upper middle- class elites who contemptuously lord it over those workers every day. This is something that distinguished law professor Joan C. Williams (herself the product of a white working class family) put her finger on two days after the 2016 election in a Harvard Business Review essay titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class.” As Williams wrote:
“For months, the only thing that’s surprised me about Donald Trump is my [academic and liberal] friends’ astonishment at his success. What’s driving it is the class culture gap. … One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that ‘professional people were generally suspect’ [in their families of origin] and that managers are college kids ‘who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,’ said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. … Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men also found resentment of professionals—but not of the rich. … Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. … That’s another part of Trump’s appeal…”
“Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. ‘Directness is a working-class norm,’ notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, ‘If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. … I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.’ Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being ‘a total wuss and a wimp.’ … Of course Trump appeals. [Hillary] Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.”
Middle- and upper-middle-class, college-educated liberals, progressives and leftists who cluck about how “foolish” Caucasian proles don’t know who their real 1-percent enemy is don’t get it. The white working class experiences and all-too rationally perceives the professional “elite” as its main class oppressor on a day-to-day basis.
Trump may not necessarily lose that many points with white working class voters for serving his fellow billionaires. He scores with those voters by smiting the smug, arrogant and disrespectful, two-faced and “politically correct” professional class.
“We are the [Indivisible] 99 percent” …NOT.
“So We Bounce On”
Fourth, so what if the dismal Democrats get back in power? Given their proven, longtime status as craven whores to big capital, their strong connection to the elitist, worker-hating professional class, their fierce attachment to nasty, working class-shaming neoliberal identity politics and the underlying inability of even an imagined social-Democratic president (a Bernie POTUS) and party (dream on) to bring about meaningful progressive change in a neoliberal and globalized capitalist system, we can be fairly certain that the Democrats’ next time in office will simply give way to another round for the ever more apocalyptic, ecocidal, and neo-fascist Republicans. As Frank notes at the end of his new Afterword to Listen Liberal:
“Even after the debacle of 2016, liberals show little taste for…self-examination. On the contrary: They have just run a campaign that embodied everything objectionable about the professional class outlook, and in the aftermath of its failure, they have insisted on blaming everyone but themselves. As I write this, Democratic insiders can be heard blaming Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Or blaming the sexism of the public. Or blaming ‘fake news.’ Or blaming real news. Or blaming Russia. Or blaming the FBI. I have even heard some declare that any effort to win over working-class voters is a tacit capitulation to racism. Better to lose future elections than to compete for the votes of those who spurned their beloved Hillary….”
“So we bounce on, from government by one group of affluent people to government by a different group of affluent people. Consensus-minded centrism [ala the Clintons and Obama] yields to authoritarianism [ala Dick Cheney-George W. Bush and Steve Bannon-Trump], which will self-destruct in time and allow the consensus-minded another shot, which they will inevitably fumble, and so on….” (emphasis added).
If we’d gotten Hillary or even Bernie in 2016, we’d be looking at Trump, Pence, or some other rancid, arch-reactionary white nationalist and horrid right winger with Republican control of Congress and the states in 2020 or 2024. I’m not sure it wasn’t better to get Trump in 2016 than Trump (or some other horrid right-wing monster) in 2020, to be brutally honest. You can get neo-fascism now or later under neoliberal hegemony.
Everything’s not going to be okay when and if Democrats get back into power.
For “A New Organizing of Institutions”
I was very impressed by this comment from Yasser Louati, talking to Amy Goodman about the election of the revolting anti-worker neoliberal investment banker Emmanuel Macron as President of France two weeks ago: “France does not need an umpteenth new president; it needs a new republic, a new constitution, a new organizing of institutions.”
Much the same can be said about the United States. Political institutions that claim to be “democratic” while offering voters a binary choice between regressive and dissembling neoliberal shills like the Clintons, Obama, Emanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, and Angela Merkel on one hand and neo-fascistic white nationalists like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry and Donald Trump on the other hand do, not deserve our respect.
The United States doesn’t need a new and 46th president as much as it needs a democracy, a new constitution, a new organizing of institutions – including its absurdly archaic and plutocratic election and party systems, which don’t even include direct popular election of the U.S. presidency for crying out loud.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the end of his life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in “men” as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them. He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters. He had no interest, of course, in running for the White House of all things.
The Orange-Tinted Royal Brute who currently befouls the Oval Office is an offense to humanity. Perhaps he will be forced or voted out of office in coming months and years. In the meantime, there’s “the fierce urgency of now” (King). We need to be building great social and political movements for King’s project and Louatti’s recommendation now. The environmental clock telling us to undertake a radical and eco-socialist “reorganizing of institutions” is ticking with each new carbon-cooked planetary day.
The U.S. ruling class is divided and befuddled like no time in recent memory. Good. Let us build the organizations that might carry out the great popular and democratic revolution required to save the social and ecological commons and thus preserve chances for a decent and democratic future. Given capitalism’s systemically inherent war on livable ecology – emerging now as the biggest issue of our or any time – the formation of such a new and united Left popular and institutional presence has become a matter of life and death for the species. “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued sixteen years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”
1. Listen Liberal is a good and witty read because the self-confessed “New Deal liberal” Frank is of course quite brilliant and clever. I’m not sure there’s anything in the book I didn’t already know. Many of his arguments are ones I’ve made myself in more explicitly left and radical ways without his nostalgia for the Democratic Party that once was and with none of his hope that the Dems will ever be anything all that better than what it is now. One very laudable thing that really stands out in Listen Liberal though is the significant extent to which he connects the DDD’s failure not just to its corporate/Wall Street/1% captivity but also to its allegiance to the values and ideology of the professional class. I think Frank may tend to under-sell the significant extent to which he already had this analysis in the concluding parts of his heralded 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? because he got oddly and embarrassingly seduced by the hopey-changey Barack Obama phenomenon and candidacy (sort of the ultimate epitome of the very convergence of corporate neoliberalism and professional class ideology that Frank so cunningly critiques) in 2007 and 2008.