Thursday, October 27, 2016

What's the Matter with Wigan Pier?

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Yup. And it makes little difference whether you come by this fossilized nugget of folk wisdom from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr or Jon Bon Jovi.

I've recently been reading a lot of Thomas Frank, and I was struck by some stark parallels with George Orwell's writings. I am not suggesting that Frank is cribbing from Orwell, but rather that the same class dynamics that Frank describes in modern day America were visible to Orwell in Depression Era England. Similar circumstances get similar results. Also, I am not comparing Thomas Frank to Jon Bon Jovi.

In his latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Thomas Frank points out that there is zero solidarity among professionals. They show each other professional courtesy, of course; but scant sympathy for colleagues who suffer misfortune. For example, the industry-wide abuse of adjuncts and grad students in academia raises little indignation from tenured professors. So much for a community of scholars. Pros' belief that we live in a tough-but-just meritocracy blinds them to systemic problems. If they acknowledge that such things exist at all, they still cling to a callous "every man for himself" ethic. Collectively fixing the system is alien to their mindset, if not an anathema: Hence their hostility toward both labor unions and government solutions. So instead, impotent victim-blaming reigns.

In short, they think that life is fair. And when it is not fair, the onus is on you to accept and adapt to the whims of the market and the machinations of management. Frank argues that this mindset played a major role in the Democrats' abandoning their populist roots and betraying labor as they first sought to woo professional class voters in the 1980s and 1990s. 

But while the political use of this attitude by the Democratic Party is relatively shocking and new, the attitude itself isn't. As George Orwell wrote in his 1937 book on class and poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier, this lack of fraternal solidarity has always been a familiar feature - or bug - in bourgeois thinking:
I have pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his family - to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering him night and day for failing to "get on." The fact that the working class know how to combine and the middle class don't is probably due to their different conceptions of family loyalty. You cannot have an effective trade union of middle-class workers, because in times of strikes almost every middle-class wife would be egging her husband on to blackleg and get the other fellow's job.(1)
Of course, it's not like this knowledge is buried in one of George Orwell's lesser-known works. Working folks have always touted their solidarity. Two years ago, David Graeber sardonically observed in The Guardian that caring too much was "the curse of the working classes." The professional class is unhampered by that inconvenient handicap. As Graeber wrote, "the ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity." And of course, there was also that poignant moment of professional collegiality in Terry Gilliam's 1984 film Brazil.

Thomas Frank revisits this dynamic in a recent article in Harper's - "The Swat Team: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders, and real reform." Of course, it's primarily about the corporate press' predictable bias against a socialist candidate. But at the end, Frank marvels at length at how journalists can talk-up the establishment's priorities even as newspapers are dying. Some pundits are quite comfortable, of course; but their colleagues are drowning. At first, this appears to be a paradox:
In other words, no group knows the story of the dying middle class more intimately than journalists. So why do the people at the very top of this profession identify themselves with the smug, the satisfied, the powerful? Why would a person working in a moribund industry compose a paean to the Wall Street bailouts? Why would someone like Post opinion writer Stephen Stromberg drop megatons of angry repudiation on a certain Vermont senator for his “outrageous negativity about the state of the country”? For the country’s journalists - Stromberg’s colleagues, technically speaking - that state is pretty goddamned negative.
Of course, part of this is the aforementioned absence of solidarity in the professional class. In the old days, being a newspaper reporter was a working class job. But in the mid-1960s, it became a "college boy" occupation bringing with it callous professional class values. 

But another, related factor was the state of the industry and Thomas Frank had to admit that pundit behavior had a certain dark logic to it: "As the rising waters inundate the Fourth Estate, it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge." So pundits become courtiers in the hopes of getting a coveted seat on the royal life boat. In other words:
When they laid-off the ombudsmen, I didn't say anything because I wasn't an ombudsman. When they laid-off the fact checkers, I din't say anything because I wasn't a fact checker. And fuck those guys. I write opinion pieces. We don't need those nerds. Jesus Christ! I am never punished for being wrong - which I usually am - so what the hell are they even here for?
To be clear: This is my metaphor, not Thomas Frank's. And the above anonymous quote is approximate.

The point being is eventually these professional opinion-slingers will probably prove to be as expendable as anybody else. But until the ax falls, they will identify more with their bosses than their colleagues.

To this I would only add that people are creatures of habit. And attitudes and habits of thought die hard if at all, even in the face of immense evidence - even if that evidence is their own recent lived experience. That professional class status is a badge and it becomes all the more important when you have lost all else. Think of poor whites in the Old South. Après le déluge, a degree will be the new white - at least for Baby Boomers. Perhaps they will be like the "shabby genteel" that Orwell described.

The ideology of meritocracy is a form of mass-flattery - not just of the target audience's skill and education, but of their worth as persons compared to others. While they last, fat paychecks are Pavlovian reinforcement for their ideology - worldview food pellets as well as tangible "proof." An immense sense of entitlement is central to their identity. Even if it weren't, the loss of their identity would be disorienting as well as frustrating. George Orwell wrote about this dynamic in The Road to Wigan Pier:
Large sections of the middle class are being gradually proletarianized; but the important point is that they do not, at any rate in the first generation, adopt a proletarian outlook. Here am I, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to? Economically I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie. And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with, the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners? It is probable that I personally, in any important issue, would side with the working class. But what about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who are in approximately the same position? And what about that far larger class, running into millions this time - the office-workers and black-coated employees of all kinds - whose traditions are less definitely middle class but who would certainly not thank you if you called them proletarians? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working-class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist Party.(2)
Obviously, if you want to avoid this dire scenario, some ordinary solidarity and empathy are required. What Thomas Paine said about the law applies everywhere else: "He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself."(3) The same applies in the ordinary work-a-day world everyone inhabits.

Or as Robert De Niro's guerrilla repairman character put it in Brazil, "We're all in this together, kid."


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(1) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1st American ed. 1958), 115.

(2) Ibid., 225-6.

(3) Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, ed. W.F. Adkins (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), 174.

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