Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dying Days of Liberalism: Max Forte nicely summarizes Tom Frank's Listen Liberal

Well, of course it would happen that a few days after posting I have yet to see a decent summary of Thomas Frank's new book Listen Liberal, I find one.

First, a tip of the hat to Yves at Naked Capitalism, for linking to Canadian anthropology professor Max Forte's Donald Trump, Empire, and Globalization: A Reassessment, which is a very long but excellent and important article. Because of its length, I will plug it again in another post on Saturday, so people can wade into it over the weekend.

For now, let me point you to Forte's much shorter January 2017 posting, The Dying Days of Liberalism How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

Forte is professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Concordia University in Montr�al, Qu�bec, and is a member of the Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA), the trade union body for full-time faculty, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). His two writings I have perused so far are wonderful essays combining the knowledge and methodology of several disciplines, making for some of the best political economy I have read in a while. And, as I wrote at the beginning, his article includes an excellent summary of Listen Liberal:
....Thomas Frank�s Listen Liberal is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to �The Theory of the Liberal Class,� which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam�s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, �a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it�.

Rather than focus on �the One Percent,� Frank asks that we look critically at �the Ten Percent,� which includes �the people at the apex of the country�s hierarchy of professional status,� from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are �qualified� to govern and �knowing what you�re talking about�. Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: �The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise� (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize �courtesy� with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the �knowledge economy� and �education� as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is �inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public� (p. 24). Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an �enlightened managerial class� of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank�s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).
I want to emphasize "Inequality is essential to professionalism." It goes a long way in explaining why the devotees of identity politics came unhinged over Bernie Sanders's campaign; they are now vehemently arguing "Minorities are sick and tired of being told that economic equality will fix all the racism, sexism and the social injustices in the world" as someone commented in a recent posting of mine on DailyKos.

On pages 32-33 of Listen Liberal, Frank writes:
There is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The very idea contradicts the ideology of the well-graduated technocrats who rule us�. Leading members of the professional class show enormous respect for one another�what I call �professional courtesy��but they feel precious little sympathy for the less fortunate members of their own cohort [such as] colleagues who get fired, or even for the kids who don�t get into �good� colleges. That life doesn�t shower its blessings on people who can�t make the grade isn�t a shock or an injustice; it�s the way things ought to be.
Frank identifies the terrible consequences this professional class ideology has for liberalism and democracy. One important consequence is that professionals hold the traditional Democratic Party base�organized labor and the working class�in low regard, bordering on contempt. This contempt surfaces over and over again when a professional class twit points to industrial automation as being the cause of lost jobs, absolutely refusing to even discuss the result of the disastrous policies of globalization and free trade. Here, for example, is the founder of DailyKos a few days after the November 2016 election: Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for. Here is an investment advisor who is a minority, indulging in some particularly cruel class consciousness: We are going to outsource your job. And there is Hillary Clinton's use of the label "deplorables" to describe her opponent's working class supporters.

This contempt for the working class, Frank writes, has been documented in study after study of the professional-class. For the professional class, unions, factory work, farm work, and most any blue collar occupation �signify lowliness, not status.� This was well understood by Thorsten Veblen: at the very beginning of his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (And Frank named his first chapter �The Theory of the Professional Class�), Veblen writes:
the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed ; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches� the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank�. Manual labour, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class.
Frank continues:
Professionals do not hold that other Democratic constituency, organised labour, in particularly high regard. This attitude is documented in study after study of professional-class life. One reason for this is because unions signify lowliness, not status. But another is because solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies. The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn�t require specialised training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.
The result is not pretty. As Forte writes near the beginning of his essay:
Liberal democracy has been reduced to a shell, more a name than a fact that deserves the name. For many years, liberalism has been liberal authoritarianism or post-liberalism or neoliberalism, with a high elitist disdain for democracy and a fear of the masses everywhere. Promises of inclusion, fairness, and welfare, were replaced by sensitive-sounding rhetorical tricks and tokenism. Moral narcissism, virtue signalling, identity politics, and building patchwork quilts of diversity were the order of the day....

...It�s not a small thing that has fallen here, not merely the defeat of Hillary Clinton and Americans rejecting Obama�s �legacy�. We are dealing with a series of institutions, an expert class, and a network of political and corporate alliances, that is being shaken beyond repair. We are in the earliest days of a historical transition, so it�s not clear what is coming next, and the labels that have been proliferating demonstrate confusion and uncertainty�populism, nativism, nationalism, etc.
....liberalism will not disappear outright, and not instantly. Ideas don�t ever really die, they�re just archived. [Emphasis mine.]

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