What’s The Matter With Democrats?

Thomas Frank, the author of What’s The Matter With Kansas? (and the new book, Pity the Billionaire, on the Tea Party and populism) suggests an interesting answer when talking about populist anger at inequality and decline of the middle class in the U.S.:

I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it. 


One of the problems with liberalism in this country is that it’s headquartered in Washington and its leaders are a very comfortable class of people. Washington is one of the richest cities in the country, maybe the richest. It’s not a place that feels the crisis, that feels the economic downturn. By and large, the real estate market stayed OK. The city continued to boom. The contracts continued to flow. What we’re talking about here is the failure of modern liberalism. At one time it was a movement of working-class people. The idea that liberals wouldn’t feel economic pain was ridiculous. That’s who liberals were. No more.


It is true that the Democrats completely imagine themselves as being the party of the professional class, and that is an elite. It’s not the elite, but it is an elite. The Democrats very definitely identify with academia. That’s the home of the professions, where they come from.

Frank does note, and correctly, that the Tea Party’s assertion (shared by many non-Tea Party people on the right) “that the free market is an act of rebellion against [this elite] seems pretty fanciful. I can say it stronger than that. It is absolutely preposterous.”

Democrats have essentially become a bloodless party, one in which passion is intellectually and emotionally suspect. (UPDATE: And yet, Democrats are also not a terribly intellectual party either. They haven’t jettisoned thought in quite the same way, or with the same fervor, that the GOP has, but they have generally substituted sentimentality and “professionalism” as substitutes for actual ideas.) Technocratic professionals don’t get angry, andy they expect all others to be technocratic professionals. (Barack Obama, as an African American man, would never have had a political career had he ever showed any kind of anger publicly, or been rumored to even have a temper. It would have been the kiss of death. So technocratic “competence” [sic] works well with his personality. But it also means, in the post-Bill Clinton Democratic Party, he trusts and believes bankers and other assorted “experts” far too much.) It is as if the Midwest clerisy, which is phlegmatic and reasonable to its moist and sentimental core, has come to dominate the Democratic Party and its elites.

The problem is, most people aren’t professionals. Most people don’t have careers. They work at jobs, and they do so not for personal fulfillment or to save the world, but to care for the people they love. (And can there be any better reason to do anything?) They see the core of the Democratic Party, grounded as it is in academia, for the elite it truly is. One that is not open to many people, dismissive of the way they live and work, and terribly disconnected from the realities of their lives. (And this is the reason I believe identity politics to be a distraction, because it’s a way to keep the clerisy amused with something that is more or less trivial, or at least tertiary to the real exercise of state and social power.) If Occupy Wall Street gained any traction, it has largely been because the ranks of the clerisy — where so many young liberals feel entitled to encamp — are increasingly closed and increasingly insecure. Now professionals are feeling the pinch that mere workers felt in the 1980s and 1990s when factories closed and their jobs made obsolete. THAT wasn’t supposed to happen to the do-gooder administrators of society, who were always supposed snuggle down securely in tenured positions making sure we all think good thoughts about each other (always punishing us when we don’t) and hoping those good thoughts alone will make the world a better place.

Ahh, but I’ve just let some of my resentments show.

Like Frank, I’m not sure where things go. Neither American political party is capable of dealing effectively with the world we inhabit. And I’m not sure I’d have anything good to say even if they did.

Some Observations on Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street reminds me an awful lot of the anti-globalization movement that arose in the 1990s. The people are roughly the same, much of their critique of the world is the same (though more deeply rooted this time), and I’m afraid much of what they want is the same too.

My closest encounter with the anti-globalization folks was in 2000, when I was working for BridgeNews in Washington covering one of the annual World Bank-IMF summits. (Such are the privileges of being a financial journalist.) I was Bridge’s “outside” man, covering the demonstrators, who had stated they wanted to blockade the summit and shut it down. In response, the DC police — who seemed to recruit several legions of auxiliaries out of nowhere — showed up in their armed and armored finest. It was a week of continuing stand-offs, the entire center of the District of Columbia shut down. I got pepper sprayed several times by the police (because as a reporter, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time) and because I was a reporter with IMF credentials, none of the protestors would talk to me. I have a bunch of photos from the demonstration. 
As I think about that time, I am reminded of something John Payne wrote recently in The American Conservative about Occupy Wall Street:

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod.

A lot of what the anti-globalization movement was trying to do, I think, was to take the international institutions central to the “world order” — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization — make them somehow accountable to people other than the global elites who run them. And to better serve the needs of the world’s poor. And it’s not that I think either of these things are on their face bad ideas, but they are impossible ones. The only thing worse than sclerotic, pretend nation-state democracy would be sclerotic, pretend global democracy. There is simply no way to create global institutions that would in any form be accountable to people other than those who run them. The Left’s idea of democracy — deliberations that lead to consensus — combined with the ideological desire to achieve certain kinds of outcomes is a recipe for endless committee meetings (trust me, I’ve been there) combined with a bullying of those who refuse to agree with the “desired” outcome. This can barely get done by a dozen people. (Seen that too.) You cannot do this in a world of (now) 7 billion people. Nothing else would ever get done.

But the protestors weren’t wrong about the global institutions that were the focus of their ire. When I worked in DC, the World Bank had just acquired a brand new headquarters, a building of steel and glass that would have looked wonderful after a thorough pelting by rocks and bricks. (Though I do fondly remember the Bank as the place where I actually ran into Yasser Arafat!) The most I can say for the IMF is that it has an amazing cafeteria in the basement. And don’t get me started on the folly of trade managed by treaty and international regulation….

That week of protests, NPR ran a piece about some of the protestors in DC, and what they sought. One bit of audio included a young man rather sloppily strumming a guitar singing

Why do we have to pay for food?
Why do we have to pay for rent?

I think that more or less encapsulates the economics of what calls itself “The Left” (for lack of a better term) in the West, or at least North America, these days. To call it Marxist would be unfair, because there’s almost no intellectual substance to their economic aspirations. I suspect real Marxists — and I know there have to be a few out there, somewhere in San Francisco and Berkeley and New York — would on the one hand consider this a teachable moment and on the other deride all this as tawdry sentimentality. It’s the sort of primitive communism that animated the likes of the Diggers (look it up). John Derbyshire put it this way in a review of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind when he describes the economic and social outlook of the Left as:

a shallow and jejune utopianism. Corey Robin wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary.

This is the whole of the Left that I have experienced since sometime in the mid-1990s. No one reads Capital anymore. No one even bothers to read Horkheimer, Adorno and Gramsci anymore (with the exception of Matt Frost). They have read third- and fourth-hand distillations of cultural Marxism penned by third-rate intellects, they’ve read about Derrida and Foucault, and they’ve absorbed the pointlessness of identity politics, and seem to think that the reason the world is the way it is is because cruel and greedy people are in charge instead of kind, decent, compassionate and selfless ones. That fairness and kindness and sharing — their understanding of socialism — would just work if it’s actually tried.

Like so many people educated in the West anymore, they have a critique of power without any real understanding of power because they aren’t really educated in the ideas and methods of power. No one, not even young white men from prominent families, are formally educated in the ways and ideas of power unless they pick those books up themselves. Because universities in the West no longer teach about power (and its too-often tragic outcomes), about the nature of power and the character of those who wield it, they simply teach the critique of power. And learning a critique without learning the thing itself is building a house without a foundation. It will crumble at some point. (I got this foundation-less education at both Georgetown and LSTC.)

And so they critique a world they don’t really understand, and believe their sheer earnestness will fix things.

That, I think, is the whole of this movement. It does reflect an honest frustration with the world — there is moral hazard for those who borrow thousands to go to school but not for those who leverage billions trillions in speculative credit default swaps. The rules are rigged in favor of those with more against those who have less. That allegedly liberal or progressive politicians do little to further real progressive goals once in power. To the extent that Occupy Wall Street (and the anti-globalization movement that came before) shine a light and ask some good questions, then I support them. I won’t join them, but I can sort-of support them.

But to the extent that they want to enact sentimental and unrealistic goals, that they want to attempt to rearrange the world toward utopia, well, the 20th century tells us how that ends. Thankfully, they are so muddled in their thinking that action — real action — will likely not be possible. Since they will all be too busy in meetings trying to find consensus to act.

On the Clerisy and Occupy Wall Street

I came across possibly the best analysis I’ve seen yet of the phenomena that is Occupy Wall Street, from self-confessed Marxist Kenneth Anderson over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Anderson, referencing Christopher Lasch’s analysis of the protestors as part of a “New Class” of managerial workers, has this to say about the protestors, what has driven them into the parks, and what their demands probably really are:

The problem the New Class faces at this point is the psychological and social self-perceptions of a status group that is alienated (as we marxists say) from traditional labor by its semi-privileged upbringing — and by the fact that it is actually, two distinct strands, a privileged one and a semi-privileged one. It is, for the moment, insistent not just on white-collar work as its birthright and unable to conceive of much else. It does not celebrate the dignity of labor; it conceived of itself as existing to regulate labor. So it has purified itself to the point that not just any white-collar work will do. It has to be, as Michelle Obama instructed people in what now has to be seen as another era, virtuous non-profit or government work [italics mine – CHF]. Those attitudes are changing, but only slowly; the university pipelines are still full of people who cannot imagine themselves in any other kind of work, unless it means working for Apple or Google. 

The New Class has always operated across the lines of public and private, however, the government-university-finance and technology capital sectors. It is not a theory of the government class versus the business class — as 1990s neoconservatives sometimes mistakenly imagined. As Lasch pointed out, it is the class that bridges and moves effortlessly between the two. As a theory of late capitalism (once imported from being an analysis of communist nomenkaltura) it offers itself as a theory of technocratic expertise first – but, if that spectacularly fails as it did in 2008, it falls back on a much more rudimentary claim of monopoly access to the levers of the economy. Which is to say, the right to bridge the private-public line, and rent out its access.

Anderson goes on to say that the difference between these lower elites and the bankers of the upper elite is that the OWS protestors no longer have any social or economic position they can effective leverage in a global market. There is no demand for the skills they have, no desire to employ them at what they want to do, and thus they have absolutely no comparative advantage. And thus no rents to collect. As long as finance continued to produce the kinds of non-overtly subsidized profits that could continue to fund both the non-profit virtue industry as well as fund (and and other the end, pay for) student loans, then more then enough of the young and virtuous could be employed. But not anymore. As Anderson notes:

The asset bubble pops, but the upper tier New Class, having insulated itself and, as with subprime, having taken its cut upfront and passed the risk along, is still doing pretty well. It’s not populism versus the bankers so much as internecine warfare between two tiers of elites.

In effect, a generation of young people has educated itself very specifically, and now with the economy drying up, there is no demand for what they supply.

I think this is a fascinating analysis, and generally correct. It corresponds with some things that I have seen, embedded deeply in a seminary of a socially, politically and sometimes theologically liberal confession. Because what Anderson is describing is the clerisy, that class of educated professionals who have administered industrial democracy since its invention in the latter half of the 19th century. Economist Deirdre McClosky in her book on bourgeois virtues noted that the clerisy were deeply bourgeois in the values and social expectations but were also those group of bourgeois who were completely alienated from the actual production of wealth. They have no idea where money comes from, how value is added, how wealth is produced. Indeed, the clerisy tend to take the means of production, and the production of wealth, as a given.

The clerisy in the West is both secular and religious. But liberal protestant churches (such as the one I am in) are run by the clerisy, by people who effectively have no real understanding of, or much appreciation for, the creation of wealth. The general view of money and wealth for the liberal protestant  seems to be:

  • Money is icky and bad …
  • … But no one should ever have to struggle for money.
Now, there is a reality of any sophisticated, civilized society — that there will be enough surplus economic production to support a class of people who produce nothing of value, or something of unquantifiable value, and in doing these things, contribute to the well-being of the society. Clergy, government clerks, artists, poets, scholars, all of these people are subsidized to one extent or another because they do not “produce” or aid significantly in the production of goods and services. What the clerisy Anderson describes, people yearning to do “virtuous non-profit or government work,” forget is how dependent their work is on the wealth produced and either shared or extracted from others. Whatever the sins of the financiers — and they are legion — you cannot create a large class of people who exist solely on the backs of others. And across the Western world, from California to Greece, governments have found themselves unable to keep the promises made to government workers because they end up being far too costly. Every dollar paid to public employee or retiree has to come from somewhere. 
One of the great puzzles that mass society/social democracy/industrial capitalism has never been able to fully solve has been the puzzle of what to do with the fact that thanks to capital, fewer and fewer people can produce more and more wealth. What becomes of those who are superfluous? If John Taylor Gatto is right, a little more than a century ago, capital tried to permanently organize the world so that there was a place for everyone, and that everyone would find their place. But that arrangement did not hold for very long. Creating do-nothing managerial work, making some the permanent keepers and managers of others — especially earnest, angst- and guild-ridden young people who desire to do good and think the best way, or the only way, to do so is in the context of the therapeutic state — was one solution. But it may be in the process of falling completely apart as well. 
Which gets me to my last point in this missive. Anderson is right that the clerisy does not dignify labor. Indeed, the clerisy — particularly that of the liberal church — denigrates labor. The only work it truly values is work done on computers in cubicles. The only product it truly understands is paper. It does not know what to do with or how to value any other kind of labor. In this, I am with John Robb, that the future belongs not to those who lobby the state, but those who build resilient communities. The protestors are right to bring the sins of finance to the attention of whoever will listen — to borrow a slogan from ACT Up, I’d like to see someone wave a sign that said “Investment banking = death” — in hopes that someone’s conscience will be pricked enough to prompt action. Just don’t count on it.
It is, however, a fool’s errand to expect or demand that not-for-profit virtue work be made available again. It is also extremely arrogant, selfish and self-centered.
The only way for individuals and communities to survive in the coming age is for people to work together, and for individuals to have a real skill and to be willing to do hard work. By real skill, I mean making something you can sell, or fixing something so it can work again. And by hard work, I mean hard work — not in office buildings, not in business casual, not demanding professional credentials, and not producing paper.