Just Above Sunset
October 31, 2004 - We're not in Kansas any more? Oh yes we are!

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Joseph, our expatriate friend who has settled in France and no longer lives out here in my little corner of Los Angeles, sends this along -


Robert Sennet, and American writing in the Guardian (UK), argues that the difference between the red states and the blue is that in today's outsourced, automated hi-tech meritocracy (no BMW, no MBA = loser), more folks in the red states feel insecure, because they are the losers in this equation.


States like Ohio have surely taken a lot of the brunt - 200,000 jobs gone in four years.  It might irritate some in a place like that the people who seem to matter today are on the coasts.  They're the ones with the cool cars and beach houses, the cool jobs and the cash, the ones who are on TV and the ones who decide what is on TV.  That could make folks feel they don't matter, and somehow that desire to matter is transmogrified into culture war.  Or something like that.  And let's face it, it's easier to hate the guy with the beach house than the guy who outsourced your job.  After all you know where the guy with the beach house lives.  He lives in California.


Ouch.  But I don’t have an MBA or a BMW.


Here's Robert Sennet’s central argument (with its British spellings) –


It's become a journalistic cliché to divide America into red and blue states.  The red states: southern and western, Republican, godly, abortion, gay and feminist unfriendly, militaristic.  The blue states: eastern or coastal, Democratic, secular, identity-friendly, diplomatic.  The country thus appears divided exactly in half.  What these clichés don't get at is something red and blue share, America's confused, fear-inducing experience of class.


In a book that has come into its own this autumn, What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank ponders how poor people in that heartland state, threatened with loss of work, lack of health insurance, or mounting family debt, address these woes. Preventing abortion or gay marriage seems some sort of solution; economics gets translated into culture. Like the retired union organisers in Fanelli's who yearn for the working-class politics of New York in the years after the Great Depression, Frank invokes "false consciousness" to explain what's happening now.


Translating economic into cultural insecurity is nothing new. Nearly 40 years ago, when we researched The Hidden Injuries of Class , Jonathan Cobb and I found white workers in Boston blaming drop-out hippies and black ghetto culture for their own, unrelated labour and communal problems. And as an ideal, the cultural conservatism of the working classes idea stretches back into the 19th century and across the ocean, as in Disraeli's famous image of "angels in marble", the working classes whose everyday solidity awaits the sculpting hand of conservative leadership.


What is new is the class map. Ironically, the British conservative Ferdinand Mount has drawn it in his new book, Mind the Gap. In the last generation, large numbers of people have come to feel excluded from the "skills society" or "meritocracy" of Blair's Britain and Clinton's America. These are people whose beliefs in self-discipline, hard work and family sacrifice do not yield much control over their own lives. As Mount points out, they feel left out and treated by the more agile with - at best - indifference. At Spiegelman's talk, he got a good laugh by saying he didn't know anybody in the American heartland.


Loss of control is an economic fact, but a subtle one. More than in Britain, the wealth of America's middle classes has stagnated as the upper 10th has dramatically improved. To counter this stagnation, the middle class has taken on consumer debt it can barely manage, as Robert Manning has recently documented in Credit Card Nation. People have tried to spend their way into status, and now the bills are coming due, as personal bankruptcies have taken off.


The same loss of control appears, famously, in the shrinking number of jobs.  The familiar villain is outsourcing of work to Mexico, China or India, but the familiar villain misleads. Automation has finally arrived in America, shrinking white-collar service jobs and manufacturing alike. In the past 20 years, for instance, the US steel industry increased its productivity by four per cent while cutting its labour force from about 212,000 to 79,000 - a transformation due mostly to automation. Again, young people now leaving university find themselves offered jobs that formerly went to secondary-school graduates. As in Britain, low-wage immigrants in America flourish in the cracks of the formal economy, but their children and grandchildren increasingly do not.


Is it "false consciousness" to counter these changes by prohibiting abortion or gay marriage? Translating economics into culture is both irrational and logical. In the wealthiest country on Earth, the economic engine rouses Ricardo's ancient spectre of uselessness; the class map is shrinking the number of people who matter, who are included. The new class map breeds fear, and the counter to fear is to assert that the old values matter. By shifting the centre of gravity, you assert your own value when confronted with conditions you can do nothing about.


Indeed.  And by the way, in Just Above Sunset you will find a discussion of Frank's Kansas book here - July 18, 2004 - The Importance of Martyrdom to the Conservative Movement and here - July 25, 2004 – Kansas and here August 1, 2004 - Cain's Question.


Rick the News Guy in Atlanta, adds this -


I'm surprised that I'd previously overlooked the observation implicit in this guy's argument, that the blue states on the coasts represent "management" and the decision makers in the economy, whereas the red states represent the nation's increasingly marginalized labor force. (I wonder; has any good anthropological study ever been done to show that the relatively more intelligent people tend to live relatively near some ocean or other?)


But this also throws into better light the fact that the red states are throwing their support behind a guy who -- although born in New England to a rich and powerful patrician family, and who's stump style borrows in equal parts from Hollywood, on the west coast, and Madison Avenue, on the east -- swaggers and talks tough and looks to them like the kind of common-sense guy who takes no guff from all those bigshots on both coasts -- from, in a word, management!


Which also explains what I heard one beltway pundit mention the other day, that when she asked some recently-laid-off worker in Michigan (I think it was) why he was still voting for Bush, he said he just doesn't blame Bush for this economy. In other words, he has met the enemy, but he's pretty sure it's not Bush.


By the way, I have to remain an agnostic on the abortion and gay connection to all this -- that these folks are so frustrated with their miserable lives that they sublimate all their negative energy into those issues. I'm pretty sure many of them feel that way anyway, and that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar -- an allusion that has, of course, lost much of its power to persuade in recent years, for reasons I'd rather not discuss.


Ah, Monica and the cigar.


I had no time to comment, and no computer resources, but Vince in upstate New York commented –


Regarding the loss of our beloved cigar allusion, you obviously refer to the deaths of George Burns and Groucho!  Long may they smoke…


Ric shot back –


Not what I had in mind, but it will do for purposes of discussion, at least until the kids' bedtime.


When I get back on line again perhaps I will join in all this.



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