Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

(Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank.)

I’ve just read this book, but it was first published at the tail end of the Obama presidency. It articulates concerns I share and have attempted to express here a number of times: the growing invisibility of class as a social division (as compared to other divisions such as gender, sexuality etc), and the way that political parties on the political ‘left’ have ceased to identify with the interests of working class people and becoming instead the mouthpieces of the liberal professional class.  Frank is writing specifically about the American Democratic party.  This is ‘still a class party,’ he says. ‘In fact [Democracts] show admirable concern for the class they represent.  It’s just that the class they care about doesn’t happen to be the same one that Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.’*

Frank asks why the Democrats are ‘so bravely forthright on cultural issues’ [by which he means ‘culture wars’ issues such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage…] and yet ‘their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy.  What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question [massive and increasing inequality of wealth] is beyond their control?’  He notes that the standard explanation for this is the power of money and the ability of moneyed interests to influence politicians through campaign finances etc, but he suggests that this is only part of it.  He argues that there are ‘different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them -the hierarchy of money- many of the Democrats’ failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning and status.’  He goes on to say that ‘We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase “the One Percent”; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative however, what we need to scrutinise is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.’

He observes, ‘We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place…we think of them merely as “the best”.  They are where they are because they are so smart…’  Ceding authority to professional experts is, he acknowledges, ‘tolerable to a certain degree -no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example…. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”?  What happens when they abuse their monopoly power?  What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?’

Myself, I see this happening around me all the time.  I don’t mean by this – and I don’t think Frank is saying this either- that the professional class is acting in its own interests knowngly and cynically.  We human beings have a need to see ourselves as ‘the good guys’, and we rationalise our self-interest in various ways as being in the common good.  What I see is liberal professional people telling each other, sometimes pretty stridently, that they are the real left, the real good guys  (being as they are against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc), asserting that their view of how the world should be run is simply correct (because they, after all, are the class of experts), and becoming increasingly hostile to the elements of their own working class that no longer accepts their authority.  Like all powerful classes, they (and really I should say we because it is my own class I am talking about!) believe themselves to be both entitled and virtuous.  One of the great things about being a highly educated elite which is against sexism, homophobia etc etc is that you can be pretty certain that the less educated, less intellectual part of the population will tend to subscribe to more old fashioned views than you do on gender, sexuality and so on, thereby making it rather easy for you (in spite of your privileged position) to claim the moral high ground.  You just have to keep class off the agenda.

‘When the left party in a political system severs its bonds to working people,’ Frank observes, ‘-when it dedicates itself to the concerns fo the particular slice of high-achieving affluent people- issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.’  I have certainly noticed over my lifetime how the idea of social justice has gradually stopped being about reducing disparities of wealth, and has come to be about equal opportunities, about ensuring that everyone can make use of their talents.  As Frank notes: ‘Another term for this understanding of equality is Meritocracy, which is one of the great defining faiths of the professional class.’  He quotes the journalist Chris Hayes** who writes:

The areas in which the left have mad the most significant progress -gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination- are the battles it has fought for making the meritocracy more meritocratic.  The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality- are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.

The trouble with meritocracy, it seems to me, even if such a thing could ever be achieved (which is dubious given that successful meritocrats can easily ensure that their children get a head start in the supposedly meritocratic race), is that it has nothing to offer to people who are not especially talented or skilled: and after all, half of the population  is by definition of average or below average ability.  And this is the trouble even with the idea of meritocracy as a desirable political goal.  A meritocratic culture is one that celebrates high achievers, that fetishises exeptional ability  and exceptional attainment (Frank describes this very persuasively), and has no interest in those who are merely ordinary.

This fact may rebound on the ideology itself, though.  Frank observes that, although the Democratic Party (like the British Labour party) consciously uncoupled itself from its old blue collar allegiances, it nevertheless assumed that it could continue to rely on blue collar votes because working class voters had nowhere else to go.  Recent events, in the US and America, suggest that this assumption may be spectacularly wrong.  As the musician Brian Eno observed:  ‘There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’


*Frank doesn’t discuss the British Labour Party at all, but its own transition is, in a way, even more striking, given that the much older Democratic Party has represented all kinds of interests over the years (including those of slaveowners and segregationists) but the Labour Party’s very name reflects its origins as a party specifically created to ensure that the interests of the working class were represented in Parliament.

**From Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.   (A book I have not read.)

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