Let’s give Thomas Frank credit. He was one of the first to pioneer the romantic idea of a class first left in his 2004 book What’s The Matter with Kansas?
Believe it or not this move was consistent with the postmodern post-Marxist post-left turn by the very intellectuals people see as elite. When it comes to intellectuals I am hesitant to call them elite as most trendy intellectuals like to do. If as Adorno says the radical part of art is its uselessness the same is true for ideas. If one can create ideas rather than materials that seems to be a good thing in a world where materials are destroying our ability to subsist.
My turn against the so-called populist left has earned me a lot of righteous finger wagging from elitist anti-intellectuals but it is a popular idea amongst people. The crude attempt to reclaim class-first leftism from post-Marxist intellectuals has only furthered the alienation most people feel from the left.
Much of the post-Marxist left are fully Marxist in that they critique and modernize Marx, echoing Karl’s own statement that he’s not a Marxist. Being post-Marxist is very different from being anti-Marxist although we need to do a better job at making such a distinction.
Frank’s 2004 book contends that there is a coalition between economic and cultural conservatism where the economic right always accomplishes their goals, the cultural right never does, and the economic right (not popular) gains its coalition from making appeals to the cultural right (popular) which it never follows through on.
There are a lot of mental gymnastics going on here and I like Frank. He’s fun and I am picking on him for the same reason I like to pick on Chomsky. There are many who take up these ideas without the intellectual integrity of a Frank or a Chomsky and hence this is part of the dangers of these ideas in the first place.
Most people know I am writing this on the heels of working people rising up to vote to protect the right to abortion in a state called Kansas where economic conservatism is popular. Workers go very progressive on single issues when they don’t have to vote for the Democrats. Consistently single-issue referendums such as the right to abortion succeed where Democrats fails against Republicans.
It turns out that when only cultural conservatism is on the ballot it has a very hard time winning. When Republicans can run against Democrats’ agenda of taxing the poor and cultural neutrality they have an easy time. However, when voters can vote for cultural liberalism on their own they do.
Hopefully, this ends the left’s scapegoating of the working class. The left says the working class is white, male and therefore bigoted. Wrong on all counts. The more complex part is why does economic conservatism have an appeal amongst the working class.
The problem we have is that we have accepted that statism is progressive while libertarianism is conservative. It is obvious that giving more power to the state is more conservative. And it is equally obvious that giving more power to corporations is conservative. Neither political party in the United States is progressive in this way. The perception is that Republicans represent corporate power and the Democrats state power. This is complicated and there is some truth to it.
But I think the question we should stick with for today is what do people actually want? Frank’s 2004 argument that culture won’t change and economics will is more impressive than the left’s current adaptation where we live in a culture war where economics are not on the ballot at all. Both come to the same conclusion about a backward working class that must be explained by intellectuals to other intellectuals but Frank at least recognizes economics are driving politics.
So if the working class is culturally progressive let’s table this and ask what is economic progressivism? The left wing of the Democratic Party, such that it exists, has doubled down on increasing taxes. Recall Bernie Sanders’ platform which is a bit of a parody of itself. Bernie, despite his MMT advisors, proposes a ton of tax increases on the rich that once done will pay for programs for the poor. The reason why the platform was never serious was that it involved something that was nearly impossible (taxing the rich) in order to do something that is very easily possible (taking care of the poor).
One could assume Sanders didn’t want to help the poor. That’s unfair. The question is what is his ideology? Why does he, like Joe Manchin, need a balanced budget? This is because he doesn’t want to decrease the relative power of the United States by printing money.
This is a nationalist position and the working class sees through it. The solidarity of the working class is being tested as the ruling class attempts a divide and conquer position with its war on people of various genders, states, sexualities, races, religions and citizenship. The left imagines a professional managerial class promoting identity politics to alienate the working class.
But the working class has proven to be more developed than its haters at every turn. Such divisions don’t hold and if anything so-called conservative populism has been related more so to workers voting Republican to support the industry they work in rather than the culture war team they support. It is the intellectual class that focuses on the culture industry very often because this is the industry that they work for.
For example, much of the Republican success that people claimed was based on the working class hating critical race theory was actually more about the Democrats closing schools and leaving working families in the lurch. Similarly, the problem with woke academia is not their wokeism but rather the fact that they leave people in debt without skills that create surplus value. Yet in a world where politics is driven by economics, this class will continue to hide behind culture. This is one thing I agree with Thomas Frank on.