November 5, 2004

And Another Thing...

Ok, so yesterday's lengthy manifesto wasn't quite the last word I have on some of these issues. This morning, two things hit me so strongly that I felt compelled to say a bit more on them.

First, I want to extract out of my long essay one of the points I make along the way, just in case it gets overlooked by the four or five people who might actually read the whole thing. Quite a few commentators have observed that Bush is popular with some voters precisely because of his malapropisms, his anti-intellectual stance, because they see a resemblance to themselves and because that resemblance aligns them with him against educated elites. The reverse is equally true. A lot of us who voted for Kerry are astonished that the simple competence issue didnít carry the day by itself. What I have realized is that seeking competency and a respect for institutional process are cultural values that are parochially confined to educated elites. They're part of the everyday ethics of our work, part of our habitus. But this is not what some other social constituencies are looking for in a leader. We take codes and norms of professionalism as a matter of course and so forget just how class-bound and culture-bound they are as a value system. Yes, probably most everyone wants to "do a good job" at whatever it is that they do. But for some, that is simply working hard, or meeting their basic obligations, or not letting down the team. The union ethos of hard work, for example, tends to collide culturally in some really sharp ways with the ethos of professional meritocracy. Professional meritocracy prizes hierarchically-coded distinctions between particular individual professionals; the union ethos tends to suppress individuals from distinguishing themselves from the group. The upshot of all this is that a Presidential candidate who is unquestionably a better professional in the way he approaches leadership is probably never going to win a general election on that theme.

Second, on Thomas Frank. The more I re-read his book, and now his op-ed in the New York Times this morning, the more I realize that even though I mostly agree with his diagnosis of the red-state, blue-state question, I really, really radically dissent from his solution. In fact, I think his solution is a much more unmitigated disaster than the election this year has been. Frank thinks that all the Democrats need to do is uncompromisingly remind red-staters of their real economic interests, and to articulate those interests in terms of a moral problematic rather than a kind of policy-wonk one. He is right, for the reason given above, that policy-wonk rhetoric is useless, but he is wrong that the key lies in pushing some notion of "real economic interests".

Frank's argument reminds me of an old, deep discussion between intellectuals on the left about peasant rebellions in world history (somewhat echoed by a smaller but similar conversation about some slave rebellions, particularly marronage), a conversation that was most intense during and just after the Vietnam War. The basic question was, "Why do peasants who stage successful rebellions frequently simply reinstate or restore customary social relations with landlords instead of radically restructuring property relations in their own favor?" The parallel question about maroon revolts against slavery, was, "Why do the most successful maroon communities strike deals with slaveholders that reinforce the power of slavery outside of the boundaries of maroon society instead of insisting on the abolition of slavery?"

There were roughly three answers to be found in the literature on peasantries (again, echoed in the literature on maroons). One was that peasants do not choose revolutionary answers to their problems even when they successfully revolt because the hegemonic authority of landlord elites and their allies has had such power that these answers do not even occur to them--basically a false consciousness argument. There's a sort of teleological variant to be found in some Marxist writings that says, "Revolutionary strategies did not occur to peasantries prior to the moment in world history in which revolutionary strategies were properly produced out of a dialectic."

The second argument said, more or less, because peasants actually rationally assess their situation and realize that a revolutionary solution may actually be to their economic and social disadvantage in the end, and so settle instead for the most favorable enforcement of traditional landholding reciprocities that they can manage. In this context, revolts are simply a kind of pragmatic rights-enforcement. The "rational peasant" argument also tended to argue that peasants who resist modernization schemes often do so not out of a political or philosophical objection, but because they can see that most modernization schemes are going to cause more harm than benefit to their agricultural productivity.

The third argument said, "Because peasants have a culturally and intellectually particular conception of economic and social relations, because they choose a different ethical norm which does not require the maximization of their own economic interests". This is the "moral economy" argument, the idea that peasants don't mind giving away the surplus of their production to landlords or other elites because they view all accumulative activity with suspicion, because they have a value system which is focused on the deliberate maintenance of sufficiency. In this context, when peasants revolt, it is precisely to reinstitute their deliberately imagined vision of traditional social relations rather than to restructure them.

I think Frank's proposed strategy is likely to come to grief on exactly this issue. What I think he is missing is that red-staters are not dupes of plutocrats. They are not people who've been distracted by the "moral issues" trope from their "true interests". The red-staters are the people who have stayed behind while everyone else has left because they do not want to or cannot live the blue-state way, because they have an idea of moral economy that scorns getting ahead, rejects meritocratic values. They don't mind wealth achieved through pure serendipity, as Jackson Lears has noted in an interesting essay on gambling and fortune in the American imagination. But they do mind wealth achieved through individually differentiated effort, through accumulative aspiration.

You cannot promise to serve the economic interests of such communities if such service is about redirecting accumulative economies in their direction. Iím not even sure you can do it simply through the idea of directing public investment in the infrastructure of their communities in their direction. I think you can only do it one way, legitimately, the same way that nationalist governments in the developing world have done it from time to time, or the way that the National Party in South Africa did it for Afrikaners after 1948, and that is a massive program of public employment in which everyone in red-state communities has assured access to an entry tier of relatively non-hierarchical sinecure jobs within the government. Basically, by promising to make every red-stater who wants it into a postal clerk.

Maybe that is actually what Frank has in mind: it would fit with some of his rhetorical invocations of the old socialist left. It might actually work in some respect: certainly the National Party in South Africa got a powerful stranglehold on white politics after 1948 by basically agreeing to guarantee the employment of whites. If it is what Frank has in mind, though, then I personally--like most professional elites, Democrat or Republican--would want no part of it. If it is not what he has in mind, then I think any other vision of economic empowerment aimed at the red states is likely to lack appeal precisely because the red-state world at this point is a moral economy whose terms are deliberately stressed as oppositional to the blue-state economic and social world, and maintained as such by those who remain within it.