Wednesday, September 01, 2004

What's the Matter With Thomas Frank?

Around here the NY Times is the local paper, but it still carries a lot of ideological, and, truth be told, intellectual weight. So when three of its regular columnists (Dowd, Ehrenreich--OK, she's just a guest columnist--and Kristof) cite Tom Frank's new book as "brilliant," "important," etc., you gotta go buy the thing and figure out what's happening at the paper of record.

So I did, and I guess the charge of liberal media bias is correct. And come to think of it, if I'm right to say (1) that contemporary liberalism is a big tent that still contains socialism but also (2) that liberalism is still the political mainstream (see Michael Moore's piece yesterday [8/31] in USA Today), why wouldn't the media be biased in favor of liberals? From this standpoint, conservatives of every kind have a hell of a long way to go. But not according to Thomas Frank.

His book, What's the Matter With Kansas? is subtitled "How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" (Henry Holt, 2004). It is yet another sneering critique of the "cultural Left"--the academic Left, that is, which seems incapable of addressing economic issues in terms that allow for class consciousness and organization. It's designed as a critique of those conservatives in Kansas and elsewhere who use cultural issues as the stalking horse for economic programs that free capitalists from any constraints; but the real villain here is the cultural studies crowd, which allegedly ignores "material realities." We already know this villain from books and essays by Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Martha Nussbaum, Alan Sokal, et al., and by now we can recite the argument in our sleep.

It goes like this. If only the Left would stop talking about identity politics and promoting cultural politics--if only it would start talking about "economic arrangements" and class privilege rather than babbling about "new social movements" and their supposedly subversive manipulation of consumer culture, why, it would kick ass. At any rate it would protect the livelihoods and neighborhoods of working people, and would, in turn, receive their votes. As it is, these people vote disproportionately for the conservatives who destroy their unions, their jobs, their cities, and their farms by cutting taxes and empowering businessmen.

But why do they cast these "self-denying" votes, as Frank calls them? Because the conservatives narrate the recent past as social decadence and moral catastrophe, and promise to reverse this decline by appeal to the traditional bulwarks of bourgeois society, particularly church and family, but also by using government to enforce certain "family values." In doing so, they address the working people who feel that they have been somehow left behind by the sudden transformation of the global economy and, more importantly, by the cultural revolution of our time. (By the way, Left Behind, the apocalyptic serial novel, sells millions among the same crowd that votes for the conservatives who keep citing "family values" as their moral-political compass. Duh. It depicts a world of decent, hard-working doubters and sinners who are left behind when the righteous and the innocent are taken up to heaven by Jesus; it is a world of pain ruled by the devil and his decadent minions, but it is a world still redeemable by those who have to stay in their callings and put in their time on earth. Seems to me that we should be reading it closely if we want to understand the fears--and hopes--of the red states.) But the conservatives can only look backward to a set of traditions that is moribund at best. They have nothing to say about the future of, say, work, not to mention the global economy. All they have to offer are nostalgic nostrums. We can do better.

But they--the conservatives--win elections, don't they? How to explain this sad fact? False consciousness, baby. Working people don't know their own interests, get it? As the esteemed Molly Ivins says in her blurb for the Frank book, "many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests." Hmm. Barbara Ehrenreich's blurb goes further: "delusion" is what's the matter with Kansas. Frank himself is no less frank. On page one he asks, "How could so many people get it wrong?" His answer amplifies Ivins: "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about."

OK, EVERYBODY's deluded, at least when it comes to politics--except us intellectual types, of course, who have no "material interests" and thus stand safely above the fray we describe. This idea, this notion of false consciousness for them (but not us), is so primitive as to be laughable, but there it is. Tom Frank rehabilitates the most vulgar Marxism, and significant contributors to The Nation and The New York Times get all giddy.

Let me tell you just how primitive Frank's methods and ideas are (and then we'll take up Louis Menand's latest attempt at political commentary in The New Yorker, where he decides that Philip Converse had the last word on "mass belief systems" and voting behavior, thus ignoring the most important political scientists of the 20th century: V.O. Key, E.E. Schattschneider, Walter Dean Burnham, Robert Dahl, and Charles Lindblom).

To begin with, the bizzare notion of false consciousness. It requires a god's-eye view of the world, the kind of "objectivity" no working historian, bartender, journalist, or janitor can subscribe to. Whose consciousness is not false--that is, not partial, provisional, incomplete? Kenneth Burke said it best: "Every insight contains a certain blindness." Even the insights of the educated, Tom. The teleological vision at work here is preposterous: the working class, goddamn it, is not doing what it was supposed to, so we get to blame it for the lack of political progress.

Turn that vision into the inane question asked by the ignorant Sombart in 1904: Why is there no socialism in the US? Well, the appointed tasks of the revolution have not been fulfilled by the, er, right people, or party, or, class. Well, OK, let's get even more Leninist about it: the Left hasn't done its job. "By dropping the class language that once distinguished the [Democrats] sharply from Republicans, they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns." (245)

Notice the cause and effect sequence assumed here: Democrats wouldn't be vulnerable to the cultural stuff if they had stuck to the language and programs of the New Deal ("By all rights the people in Wichita and Shawnee and Garden City should be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it.") But notice also the other foregone conclusion built into the same formulation: the category of class has political priority no matter what, no matter when. Why? Shouldn't this remind us of Mike Gold scolding V. F. Calverton and Kenneth Burke, among others, in the 1930s? What makes this category the regulative principle of social organization, the necessary foundation of political struggle, and the obvious insignia of intellectual seriousness? Isn't the capital-labor relation itself a historical artifact? Hasn't the salience of class in political discourse declined insofar as a post-industrial society has emerged? The working class as traditionally defined by social scientists and trade unions stopped growing in the US (as elsewhere) a long time ago. Why should we assume it is still the key to the political future?

More to the point, how and why should we assume, as Frank does, that political progress is purchased by excluding "business rationality" and the "business community" as such from the movement for reform? (see pp. 128-29, 132-33, 176-78, and passim) Isn't socialism a cross-class construction, like its predecessors (republicanism, liberalism, capitalism) from the 18th and 19th centuries? The working class, however defined, has no exclusive option on reform, or, for that matter, on socialism. Nor does the capitalist class, however superannuated, have an exclusive option on reaction, or, for that matter, on capitalism. No one wants "free markets" or the end of the welfare state except certain outspoken and well-funded radicals on the right. They are opposed by wealthy liberal businessmen and foundations as well as trade unions and progressive organizations.

Social origins do not determine political allegiances. By the same token, social standing does not determine economic interests. You'd think we'd have figured this out by now. OK, you'd think Tom Frank and his blurbers would have. But no, they insist that they know what your interests are--again, because they're above the fray--and if you don't agree with them, why, you're deluded, not them. Ye gods, it's back to Mike Gold's doppelganger: Christopher Caudwell has risen from the dead after all.

It gets worse. Frank's book has convinced me that our intellectual infatuation with Populism, which is an interesting story in its own right, has become downright dangerous. We seem unable to understand that what was once radical--say, the Populism of the 1890s--is now reactionary. But that's in the next installment.