One of the interesting things about following the blogs I follow is noticing inter-blog conversations. So, this morning Mark Thoma, who blogs at Economist’s View, posted an excerpt from a National Review blog, which was itself a discussion of an article in National Review magazine (which is behind a pay wall, so I won’t bother with the link). Thoma also wrote a column on basically the same subject published this morning. (If I was a documentary maker, I would want to make a film about Mark Thoma and how he blogs and writes and also keeps up with his professorial duties because holy crap how does he do it all?) Paul Krugman today wrote about the National Review blog post and then Matt Yglesias also referenced the NR piece in a post on Vox. The topic of all this inter-blog discussion is how the white working class is abandoning the GOP establishment to vote for Trump, because it turns out that they don’t really care about cutting taxes and eliminating government.
When I read the post at the National Review I had a curious response: I found myself in agreement with the author about the moral failings of the white working class who feel entitled to government welfare and who cheat on their partners and do drugs. Krugman pointed out that the NR is demonizing whites in the same way they once demonized non-whites. But when the NR was doing that, I found I was nodding my head. As soon as it was pointed out that this was, in fact, hypocritical moralizing, I was given pause. Why was I so quick to hate on the white working class?
I find I often have recourse to thinking of James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. He grew up in Dublin, and left in his early 20s, living almost all his adult life as an exile in Italy and Switzerland. His first major work was a collection of stories about the people of Dublin, and it was not a flattering portrait. The final story, “The Dead,” is an achingly gorgeous tale of shallow, useless people, leading their meaningless, stupid lives, and having not a clue. Joyce has nothing but contempt for romanticized Irish culture, nor the celebration of 19th century poetry, or anything else that animated the lives of his kinsmen. And yet he was reportedly upset when Dublin began undergoing physical changes in the 1920s and 30s. He didn’t like the changing of streets and places. He had enormous contempt for Dublin, but he couldn’t imagine it changing, and it upset him when it did.
Metaphors of death have been popular now for awhile – the success of shows “The Walking Dead” and “True Blood” are good examples – as well as eschatological fantasies like “World War Z.” Maybe they’re always popular. There is the saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is imagine minor adjustments to capitalism. A pastor friend of mine once told me that one of the most affecting things he ever heard from a preacher was “Jesus Christ came to bring the dead back to life.”
When the writers at the National Review were talking mad smack about white working class getting what’s coming to them, there was a part of me that really agreed with that assessment. The part of me, maybe, that wants to see vengeance rained down upon all those rednecks for being racists and sexists and, well…jerks. I think a little of that goes back to my experience being around crust punks and hippies and “travelers” – it always galled me that people would get all romantic about living free out on the road when it just smacked of privilege and entitlement to me. And a lot of the men (most of them are men in general) that belong to that particular subculture are assholes. They will lie, steal, whatever, because they can rationalize it as doing what they have to survive. And that of course makes me want to scream at them: “How can you claim to be free when you are a slave to necessity?!”
But I’m getting a bit far off topic here – my point is that, although I can see clearly enough that nobody really deserves to be crushed by the irresistible logic of capitalism, some part of me is nevertheless gratified by the idea that, after years of voting for Republicans who cut the safety net, the white working class is at last feeling the effects. On the one hand, perhaps white working class people will at last be equal to non-whites. On the other hand, it would be because they will all be equally poor! All these years white people thought they deserved their privileges, and now maybe they are discovering they can be deprived just as easily as anyone else. And the angry part of me wants to see white working class folks suffer under capitalism as so many others have. See!?! You are not so special!
But also I find myself deeply disappointed that what I seem to hear from most discussions does not really go very far beyond immediate realities. We can imagine getting paid more, but we cannot imagine building better infrastructure. We can imagine having higher levels of personal consumption: bigger cars, bigger houses, more stuff – but anything that would really change the shape of society seems beyond the realm of discussion. Major infrastructure projects are just total non-starters, both in the US and everywhere else. China is on the verge of social meltdown because it doesn’t know how to get beyond the entrenched hierarchy of agrarian society.
In the meantime, there are unbelievable horrors occurring in the world right now. Not only the civil war in Syria, and the unrest in the broader Middle East – which have led to the European migrant crisis and will perhaps catalyze the breakdown of the EU – but also the slow dissolution of society in Russia, and in the countries along its fringes, the demographic crisis in Japan, the exploitative financial settlement reached between US investors and Argentina, and so on and so on. The United States, meanwhile, can’t even think beyond its own boarders. To listen to the conversation going on over the elections, you would think that what we want is to go back to the 1950s. We want plentiful manufacturing jobs, small towns, big cars, and segregation. And capitalism, which is supposed to be able to deliver anything, keeps failing to deliver the goods. Where does this take us? The Atlantic recently put together a piece that explores the possibilities of a mid-sized cities across the country reinventing themselves – its a very hopeful piece, with lots of can-do-it-ism and entrepreneurship and such – but for me it seems at odds with macroeconomic trends. Like, okay, great, but we’ve still got this problem of people with gigantic piles of money that are given perverse powers over the rest of us. Capitalism is still problematic – it keeps the show going, sure – but there are still huge problems that we just aren’t dealing with. That we don’t even seem aware of. And it troubles me when I see myself wish for misfortune upon the white working class – in part because its never good to desire the suffering of another, or to find justice in it – but in a larger sense, because I am not so unlike other people. While the country is going to hell, we are arguing over whose fault it is rather than doing something about it.