18 April 2016

The three estates: workers, consumers, entrepreneurs

Medieval societies, France especially, were divided into estates: nobility, clergy, and the rest, each represented in the rare representative assemblies of the nation. While anyone in theory could join the clergy, with that exception you were pretty much locked into the other estates. American society is different. You can choose to which estate you belong, and while that doesn't determine how you're represented in government, it can determine how you vote. Much of our political culture actually discourages working class people from identifying as such. More specifically, most of the political establishment doesn't want the working class to think of itself as a class, much less a proletariat. Thomas Frank recognizes this. The April Harper's ran an excerpt from his latest book, a critique of the American liberal establishment as embodied by the Clinton family and their foundation. The Harper's piece was concerned with debunking the trendy global fad of microbanking, as promoted by the Clintons. It gave Frank a springboard for his main thrust against Clintonism. Hillary Clinton's drive to make history echoes her family's commitment to breaking barriers to achievement, particularly those created by discrimination; "no ceilings" is a popular motto in their circles. There's nothing wrong with that in isolation, but what Frank perceives is that the Clintons and liberals like them seem more concerned with making it easier, through remedies from microlending to affirmative action, for people to become entrepreneurs than with making life better for the working class, the people who most likely always will work for someone else. Frank fears that, amid their concern that there be no ceilings, liberals neglect the threat of "no floors," no limit to the immiseration of the permanent working class. I'm sure that Clintonites will say that Frank's portrait is at least selective, at worst unfair. They might claim that Frank betrays a bias against entrepreneurs. Perhaps they're right, but if we can't all be entrepreneurs, despite the utopian dreams of liberals, libertarians and others, then someone has to speak for the working class and affirm the primacy of their concerns.

Perhaps the Clintonian embrace of "opportunity" is another expression of the Neo-Lincolnism evolving in our time. Lincoln, we're told, was all about eliminating barriers to achievement; that was why he opposed a slaveholding oligarchy that retarded opportunities for whites, by monopolizing and wasting land, while oppressing blacks. Lincoln, of course, was also the man who said, refuting the concept of "wage slavery," that Northern workers had only themselves to blame, with exceptions for very bad luck, if they remained employees all their lives instead of becoming entrepreneurs. Perhaps the Democrats under the Clintons, rather than the Republicans, are the party of Lincoln now. But for those who see themselves as workers rather than thwarted entrepreneurs, there's still the party within the party, the party of Senator Sanders. There's even the party outside the party, the party of Donald Trump. Each candidate reaches out more to the American as a worker than his rivals within each of the major parties. Each is a critic of modern American trade policy, which each man blames for the loss of manufacturing jobs. While Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, dismisses Trump as a misguided patriot, he regards Sanders and the liberals and progressives who support him as hypocrites of a sort. Assuming the progressives are "citizens of the world," he questions why they oppose free trade policies that have improved the lives of millions of manufacturing workers around the world. Does Bernie Sanders want these people to keep foreigners poor by denying them American markets? It's one thing for Trump to cry "America first!" but Goldberg thinks it odd for progressives to say the same thing -- forgetting the narrative that portrays Sanders and his supporters as populists. If that magical word means anything, then in this context it means that Sanders' first concern is with shoring up American workers' standard of living, while his second, at best, would be to improve working conditions for the rest of the world rather than their American market share, perhaps by using trade policy as leverage.

Even were Goldberg to abandon his sophistic argument against Sanders' alleged hypocrisy, he'd still say that Sanders is as wrongheaded as Trump about trade. When we come down to Goldberg's real argument for free trade, Trump and Sanders are wrong for the same reason. Each, on this issue at least, refuses to recognize Americans' primary identity as consumers. 'Free trade is good for most American workers and all American consumers, not just the “1 percent.”,' Goldberg writes. The columnist is a right-wing consumerist, as opposed to left-consumerists more concerned with quality than price (think Ralph Nader) and thus committed to a degree of regulation Goldberg abhors. For right-consumerists like Goldberg, only price matters -- or should matter. Any other consideration, presumably, distorts the workings of that all-wise singularity, the Market. It's also necessary for the citizen to think of himself as a consumer first and a worker second at best. Right wing consumerism differs again from the left wing variant by requiring you to define yourself as a consumer -- in effect, to renounce any solidarity with fellow workers that might require a sacrifice from the wallet. A consumer remains free to pay more for quality, but he should not feel pressured to subsidize "uncompetitive" fellow citizen when imports can be had for less. When Goldberg sneers in print that "American labor unions hate foreign competition," his hope that foreign competition will further  break down organized labor could not be more obvious. While union folk and many liberals will still tell you that organized labor swelled the ranks of the American middle class in the 20th century, Goldberg tells an alternate history according to which "it is largely thanks to trade that the average American worker is in the top 1 percent of earners in the world." In other words, you owe it not to yourselves but to consumers worldwide. In this narrative the consumers are always on the winning side of history, and to take the workers' side, probably superficially in Trump's case and perhaps more substantially in Sanders', is a chump's call. So there are your choices: liberal entrepreneurship and its risk of debt; conservative consumerism sacrificing all to competitiveness; or the world as it seemed to be not so long ago, when workers could make the market answer to them. Don't say you don't have any real choices in politics.

Goldberg closes his column on a curious note:

One irony to this all of is that despite all the textbooks that claim nationalism and socialism are opposites, the reality is that when translated into policy, they’re closer to the same thing. The rhetoric may be different, but the economic program of nationalism is socialism, and the emotional underpinnings of socialism boil down to nationalism.

The curious thing about this is Goldberg's implicit repudiation of nationalism. You'd think any self-styled conservative would be a nationalist, on the assumption that the conservative is loyal to traditions, and particularly cultural traditions, while distrusting cosmopolitanism and individualism. Of course, Goldberg may mean something more sinister by "nationalism" than a mere synonym for patriotism, as he is the man who wrote a book called Liberal Fascism. But what is he actually defending by casting these aspersions? The individual, presumably, and the consumer especially. Above all, Goldberg defends the principle that if I can make and sell a product cheaper than anyone else, I deserve to win -- and I can never sell too cheap or pay too cheap. He's defending the idea that no one has the right to say I sell or pay too cheap, much less penalize me for it. When he invites you to think of yourself as a consumer, this is what he expects you to believe. And if you imagine yourself an entrepreneur, with help from Clintonian liberals, you'll have to think this way to if you want to survive in Goldberg's world. If you don't think that way and don't want to think that way, you'd better hope that another world is possible, no matter how unfair or unfree that world may seem to other people. You have to choose which of the modern estates you belong to, and you have to act and vote accordingly.


Anonymous said...

The problem with Clintonians, et. al. is that they never take their philosophy to it's logical end. To wit: If everyone is an entrepreneur, then no one will have any employees, as that would mean everyone works for themselves. Which means your business will NEVER get any bigger than that. More contracts? Too bad, you only have one person working for your business, so you are now limited to how much business you can accomplish in a work day. Want more money? You'll have to work longer hours and more days/week.

Anyone who depends on a paycheck signed by someone else had BETTER get with the program and realize/admit they are WORKING CLASS.

Anonymous said...

"One irony to this all of is that despite all the textbooks that claim nationalism and socialism are opposites, the reality is that when translated into policy, they’re closer to the same thing. The rhetoric may be different, but the economic program of nationalism is socialism, and the emotional underpinnings of socialism boil down to nationalism."

May as well go with fascism in that case. Not the typical ignoramus idea, but the basis from which Mussolini worked - minus the authoritarianism. That is, that the corporate interest and labor interest should both be bent to the interest of the state. As long as the understanding is that the people are the state.

Samuel Wilson said...

3:58 - The liberal-libertarian ideal isn't a society in which everyone is self-employed but a society in which even the ordinary employee is an entrepreneur in some sense, negotiating for position by marketing himself on the basis of individual talent, willingness to work etc. but not planning to work one job for life like his grandpa might have. That's the post-industrial dream, at least, once the robots take over all the grunt labor.

4:01 -- Only if you think Goldberg is right about this, and whether "the emotional underpinnings of socialism boil down to nationalism" is definitely open to question.

Anonymous said...

The problem with that "view" is that labor is controlled by the corporate sector and having to negotiate with every single person who seeks employment - especially at low to mid levels - would be far too time consuming and inefficient. In other words, it will never happen. The bigger the organization, the more generalized the lower level work force is as they are seen as nothing more than drones or "cogs in the machine", either way, parts which are disposable and easily replaced. The libertarian dream will never come true because a) libertarians think too small. b) those in power will not give up that power.

I think more likely, you will see more and more of the lowest levels of humanity shoveled into the continual war machine to be ground into history's dust.