Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Justice Before Charity

Rob Martin of Pol Culture sent me a link this morning to an article on Salon by Michael Lind, "Liberalism without labor unions?" that I'm assigning as homework to all my readers. I fully admit I am jealous of how effortlessly Lind pulls togther so many themes and concerns I have struggled to present on this blog, as well as being profoundly grateful that he has done so.

It is succinct and almost unquotable because every bit of it counts. So please, take the time to read the whole thing. Here is the meat of the argument, all emphasis mine:

Looking back, we can see that the history of American liberalism since the Depression falls into two periods: the New Deal up until the 1970s, when industrial labor provided the muscle of the reform coalition, and the neoliberal period, when unions have been eclipsed in the alliance by the black civil rights movement and other social movements: consumerism, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. Necessary and important as they are, there are two problems with these liberal social movements as the base of a progressive party.

First, unlike unions, they are not membership organizations funded by dues from their members. They are mostly AstroTurf movements that depend on their funding and strategic direction on a handful of progressive foundations, and their leaders are appointed by donors and board members, not elected by followers. The work they do is valuable, but they cannot be substitutes for genuinely popular organizations.

Second, the members of most of these nonprofit movements are drawn disproportionately from the white college-educated professional class; their self-assignment to one or another single-issue movement does not disguise the fact that they tend to belong to the same social elite. Like the progressivism of the 1900s, but unlike the labor movement and agrarian populism, the progressivism of the 2000s is a movement of haves motivated by pity for the have-littles and have-nots, rather than a movement of have-littles and have-nots motivated by self interest. And because they are, or believe themselves to be, motivated by philanthropy, the progressive haves are less interested in the economic struggles of the have-littles of the broad working class than in rescuing a far smaller number of have-nots from dire poverty. And even those elite progressives who are concerned about the working class are motivated by noblesse oblige: "We're from Washington, and we're here to help!"

Astroturf and charity. I am less convinced by the first part of the argument because I know plenty of membership organizations where people pay money but end up being quite passive and disinterested. The real difference is that union membership is public - it is known who is a card carrying member of the organization. This contributes to solidarity, yes, but it also makes you a target. You really do need to hang together or risk it happening separately. Additionally, there are unions where the leadership and the membership disagree on the direction of the union, and where the leadership is not very responsive to the express wishes of the membership. All in all, I mostly agree, but don't find it as definitive as Lind does.

On his second point, however, I offer a full-throated "Hell yes!" and wish that I had come up with this formulation myself. The element he highlights, which I tried to address with my characterization of Democratic political modes as Truman or Stevensonian, is perfectly captured when he talks about charity as the motivating impulse.

Charity is enactment of a power relationship, an exercise of largesse from a have to a have-not that never need have happened and is fundamentally performed for the psychological satisfaction of the empowered party. It is capricious and, in that caprice, reifies the power of the giver and the powerlessness of the recipient.

Lind's key observation, which is simply brilliant, is the precarious position of the have-littles when charity is substituted for political interest. They aren't quite destitute or damaged enough to "deserve" the pity and charity of the social elites, but neither do they have the necessary tools or access to power to defend their very material interests. These are the people that Obama et. al. spoke of with such contempt throughout the election, Bubbas and Bunkers. The very real condition of the eroding living standards of the working class combined with contempt for them from both left and right for not having the good sense to transform themselves into something else (as though it is personal failings alone that account for the worker's limited conditions), serves to cut this class off from receiving social goods. The emphasis on identity politics, where much of the benefit goes to those already well off and who know how to work the system to claim disadvantage, further isolates the have-littles from the haves and the have-nots.

Lind asks:

Is the future of American liberalism a politics of charity rather than a politics of solidarity? ...[O]rganized labor, after a brief, unforeseen period of influence from the 1930s to the 1960s, is crushed a second time by neoliberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, leaving an America in which the only significant conflicts are those within the economic elite. In such a political order, the only left that counts will be the left based on money rather than votes or members. Progressivism becomes a movement of the privileged and charitable who are interested in doing good to other Americans rather than with other Americans.
Bingo. I would add that this is not necessarily a mark of failure, at least from the perspective of the haves. To be the one who is doing to rather than the one done to means you have power, privilege and protection - and you can keep the others out. Having to act in concert with others not of your tribe opens up the possibility of losing membership in your own group and the privilege that goes with it. Fear of loss and the resentment that clings to the knowledge that others enjoy what you no longer have are the two most powerful tools of the Right. Lind points out:
If the game of politics is a game that effectively is limited to the rich and the professional class, then the rest will find tribunes – usually affluent and well-educated themselves – who will propose to turn over the gaming tables and open the doors to the casino. Would the absurd distortions of the current healthcare-reform backlash resonate so strongly if the white working-class felt more invested in the modern version of liberalism?
My guess is no. But, then again, the modern version of liberalism is not exactly offering up shares of stock, especially after the performance of Dean, Brazile & Co. when it came to throwing every possible Democratic constituency under the bus. The track marks are still pretty deep on my back, and I am thoroughly a member of that social class. Imagine how someone who wouldn't ever stand inside the magic circle (no way to buy your way back in, no way to "pass" as a member of the tribe) would regard the high-handed derision.

If what you need is health care and you are sneered at for "wee-weeing" yourself over the only option that doesn't leave you screwed nine ways from Sunday, well, what's left? Relying on the kindness of strangers is not a sustainable substitute for good old fashioned interest politics.

Citizens want justice, not charity.


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cellocat said...

Lind says: "a politics that most Americans watch in frustration from a distance." I think that most Americans watch with indifference much of the time. Why get worked up over something over which one has absolutely no control after all, when the realities of job and family are so much more present and obviously affecting?

I wish more Americans really were consciously frustrated, and would parlay that frustration into long-term action. Yes, people have shown up at the town halls this summer and shouted, but it will take a much more sustained and organized effort to start to change the game.

The Other Elizabeff said...

You and Lind have put neatly into words what frustrates me so deeply about cause-based, 'Urban Archipelago' liberalism. Charity preserves the well-being of the creative class, whereas justice would upset it, as this class, my social class, depends upon leveraging cheaper labor and goods. That my fellow libs refuse to acknowledge this, that they dress up their self-interest as concern for others, enrages me.

show me said...

Not only is it bad politics but it is becoming dangerous. The rage is real. I went to a townhall for Claire McCaskill. The anger was not manufactured the misinformation was astonishing.

Anonymous said...

This is another must-read article for AJ readers.

Bait and Switch: Using Diversity to Disguise Inequality