Sunday, November 16, 2014

Labor and labour, Democrats and demography

If we are indeed in an era where identity politics wins elections, and the right is the natural winner of such contests because it's well versed in operating sans policy, what is to become of the left? This is the focus of a lot of navel gazing in America right now post the disastrous midterm elections. For example, this NYT piece lays out a battle between the populism of Elizabeth Warren and the elitism of Hillary Clinton. I've written before about elitism versus populism, which I think is the most important political dialectic of our age, so I'm very much on board with that characterisation of the situation.

The first possible solution is to do nothing. And yes, there are valid arguments for waiting for the cycle to turn by itself. Especially in America, the current trend of old white people having a disproportionate say in politics is an artefact of the Baby Boomer generation growing haggard and conservative. The boomers have dominated politics and general society since the 1960s, and this is their last struggle before their bulge finally disappears from the other end of the Python Stomach Of Demography. The Tea Party is filled with boomers who enjoyed the fruits of the welfare state, including free education in some cases, but they don't want to share the wealth any more and can't see the point of planning for beyond their own mortality. In the face of harsh electoral reality of voting patterns, it's a perfectly legitimate tactic by Generation X to shrug our shoulders, sigh and bide our time until we can wave the most selfish generation in history goodbye as they roll past in their pine boxes. We've waited this long, a few more years won't be so bad.

If you read a lot of American leftist bloggers - and I have been doing so lately - the clamour is now to embrace Warrenite populism, otherwise known as class warfare.
The Democrats will still keep the presidency most of the time and the Senate at least some of the time, but our country will remain stuck, our government will remain dysfunctional, and the people will suffer. The Democrats have to address middle class economic and social anxiety, and that means they have to focus on class more than race. This isn't a recommendation that the Democrats make winning over the elusive white male voter their top priority, at least not in the ways this has been attempted in the past. It's a recommendation that the Democrats begin focusing heavily on the issues that are making middle class folks from all backgrounds so anxious. I'm talking about the fact that people can't afford college, that their kids can't afford to move out of their homes, that formerly "good" neighborhoods are being decimated by opioid addiction, and that our infrastructure is crumbling.
Government action can't be seen as a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the poor or from whites to minorities, but as investment in our communities that used to be made as a matter of course.
The Democrats have to wage what the Republicans derisively call "class warfare" or this country is going to remain hopelessly polarized with no way in sight to stop the rise in income inequality.
There has been a lot of angst in the US left about the loss of the white male voter, as the Democrats have failed to offer the middle class worker much in the way of a helping hand even as the economy recovers from the 2007 crash. Wages remain stagnant, the recovery has produced a lot less jobs than previous such periods, and the guilty parties in the banks have not been punished while the middle class continues to suffer. Some of these things are not the fault of Obama, I know - I'm no supporter of the Green Lantern theory. Many Democrats are nonetheless just another part of the Washington village elite these days - albeit less of them since the Blue Dog Democrats were obliterated in the midterms - and the lack of a groundswell of support from elected officials behind Obama's jobs programs which are stuck in the GOP-blocked Congress speaks to their priorities. Warren isn't going to run for president, though, and the Clintons aren't known for being particularly leftist. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hillary will jump significantly to the left in the peaceful coronation that will be the Democratic nomination process for 2016 before stepping to the right during the campaign. She remains in control of the destiny of the party, so the conversation the left is having is mostly about where she will take it.

One other, related solution has been raised by various leftist bloggers: resuscitating unions. Newsflash: that's a dead parrot. Now, it's true that the right and the left used to be champions of capital and workers respectively, and that it is a big problem that the left's politicians in Western countries have moved away from unions and towards business, and this has caused a disconnect between the middle class and the left. Nevertheless, a reversion to the old Marxist dialectic is not going to work. Unions don't have solutions for the dilemmas of the future. As an example, witness this argument by Erik Loomis against the mechanisation of work. His postulation is that a Star Trek post-scarcity society is far less likely than a Player Piano scenario where automation removes human dignity.
Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.
Erik has spent too much time living in the moment of the Great Interregnum, and has not lifted his head and remembered that it is possible to disrupt power. I lived through the 1990s as I believe Erik did, so he should recall that the wheel of history may grind slowly, but it does turn in the long run. Eternal corporate zaibatsus are not inevitable. He and other leftist bloggers make dark jokes about tumbrels dragging the 1% of the New Gilded Age to the guillotine, and for good reason because the French Revolution is another salient example of how elite overreach will always fail.

Erik's piece could have been written by some reactionary old racist in the 1850s playing up fears of the Yellow Peril. The White Australia policy was largely driven by unions reacting against Asian immigration, just as the Tea Party is reacting against Latino immigration in the present day. Substituting machines for non-white humans does not improve the underlying argument. The union reactionaries were wrong then, and the anti-robot nativists are wrong now. The correct conclusion is that Asians, Latinos and androids all add to the sum total of wealth in a society, and fighting against their advent is the wrong war to wage. Better to focus on the distribution of wealth than prevent the accumulation of it.

He's right, though, that the future doesn't hold much in the way of power among workers. When there are no workers left to unionise, what use are unions? The left has to move on past the old bearded German, not to abandon the principles of protecting the middle class from the depredations of capitalism but to seek other ways of accomplishing the same outcome in less combative fashion.

Thus we come to perhaps the most tantalising prospect: the left as technocrats. In this scenario, the government does not stick rigidly to a single ideology, but acts like a market research firm. If leftist ideology doesn't work under the microscope of A/B testing to maximise whatever outcome the public wants (and/or is good for it according to a more amorphous definition of leftism), try another one until something does work. The Piping Shrike has long thought that Labor's technocrat moment has passed since a brief era from 2007 to 2009 under Kevin Rudd, but I'm not sure that is quite true. His position on this required him to pooh-pooh the Gillard government's achievements almost in entirety, which seems to me to be rather uncharitable, and constantly praise Rudd for his anti-politics posturing (which produced short term electoral results) when it became clear that his technocracy skills were severely lacking. Rudd disrupted Labor's old way, but he didn't have a Third Way worthy of the name to replace it.

My vision of the solution takes some elements from all of these approaches. This post is already too long, though, and it will have to wait for my next post, which will be this blog's 100th.

UPDATE: Apologies to Erik, who reacted on Twitter my above comments rather strongly. I did not mean to imply that he was racist in any way. I will not amend the text, but I will explain here that I was using rhetoric to try to make a point. Evidently I made the point badly, and I should have been more sensitive to the implications of using such an argument. Sorry, mate.

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