Thursday, June 1, 2017

Contempt for the working class

by Frank Brenner

Paul Krugman is a leading voice of mainstream liberalism, which gives his columns in the New York Times a larger political relevance than just records of his private opinions. 
Paul Krugman

A staunch and even aggressive supporter of Hillary Clinton (aggressive against Bernie Sanders), Krugman's first reaction to the election was to denounce Trump supporters as an unthinking mob motivated by "blood and soil, traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy." He soon backed off from that and instead adopted a more benign and bemused attitude, which amounted to: how could they have been so stupid? These two attitudes pretty much sum up the range of liberal opinion when it comes to the workers who voted from Trump: they're either "a basket of deplorables" or dumb-ass dupes. A term that covers both variants is white trash.

His latest column is in the head-scratching vein:

Krugman says that Trump's policies are all evidence of his "contempt for the voters who put him in office." He focuses on West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the country and one of the most dependent on federal govt programs like Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps. Trump's margin of victory there was over 40 percent. But Trump's budget cuts and Trumpcare would devastate West Virginians. Krugman is not exaggerating when he calls these changes "apocalyptic". "Hundreds of thousands would lose health insurance, medical debt and untreated conditions would surge, and there would be an explosion in extreme poverty, including a lot of outright hunger." 

After invoking an apocalype, Krugman concludes with the following: "Will they [i.e. West Virginia voters] ever realize this, and admit it to themselves? More important, will they be prepared to punish him [i.e. Trump] the only way they can - by voting for Democrats?" The disproportion between the severity of the situation and the thudding banality of the solution on offer is so extreme as to be laughable. 

It also points to Krugman's own contempt for the workers of places like West Virginia. He knows that these workers were already living through an apocalyptic decline in their living conditions long before the election. In 2015 a widely reported demographic study came out which found an unprecedented increase in the mortality rates between 1998 and 2014 for white middle-aged males with no college education. This was the only demographic group in the country to suffer such an increase, and those mortality rate spikes were due almost entirely to suicide and drug and alcohol abuse - amounting to over 500,000 premature deaths, comparable to the death rates for HIV-AIDS and much higher than Ebola. 

West Virginia is one of the epicenters of this contagion of what one journal dubbed "death by despair". Life expectancy there is 73 - a full TEN YEARS LESS than life expectancy in Washington DC, which is only a few hours drive away but is worlds apart when it comes to economic security and material well-being. 

Krugman has to ignore these facts because if he didn't, it would be obvious that the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, were responsible for creating this social disaster in the first place. And while Trump will make conditions much worse, the Democrats are only promising to preserve the status quo - which is to say, to perpetuate the disaster that is already going on.

Krugman acknowledges that a big part of Trump's appeal to working class voters was his promise to bring back well-paying jobs in industries like coal mining. It was a bogus promise, but at least it addressed the problem. The attitude of liberals like Hillary Clinton and Krugman was to dismiss the problem out of hand: Those jobs are not coming back FULL STOP. 

This is where liberal contempt for the working class becomes evident. Liberals are indifferent to the plight of these workers, whom they treat as collateral damage in the march of neoliberal 'progress'. The message to these workers is basically: You are useless and expendable, we'll give you a few handouts like Obamacare but don't expect anything more. And you are not only expendable, you are also dumb. Either dumb or racist and misogynist or all of the above - that's the only explanation for how anyone could have been taken in by a con artist like Trump. 

This kind of class contempt is now widespread among liberals and even self-described radicals. It is the most pernicious of political afflictions. A left which holds the working class in contempt is no longer a left.


Thomas Cain said...


Do you have any comment on the recent snap election in Britain in regards to the blog's topic?There has been a celebration over Labour's victories demonstrates a different kind of contempt for workers and left-leaning people, and it has even taken in ostensible Marxists. If one didn't know better, it would seem that Britain has achieved socialism by means of parliament! How does one go about dissecting this mistaken faith in Corbyn and pinning it to definite and concrete class interests?

Frank Brenner said...

My impressions of the UK election are similar to yours. While I think the surge of support for Corbyn is significant and points to an emerging radicalization, especially among young workers and students, the radical left in Britain has reacted with a 'join the bandwagon' approach. I'm thinking here especially of the biggest of the UK radical groups – the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The SP, led by Peter Taaffe, even organized rallies to back Corbyn, and their reporting of the official Labour party rallies was breathless cheerleading. The SWP's tone was more reserved but their material wasn't any more critical of Corbyn. The only notable exception on the left was, of course, the WSWS which made a blanket condemnation of Corbyn and (throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as sectarians typically do) denied the political significance of the electoral support Corbyn was getting.
What to make of all this? First I'd say it's rather similar to the problems of the American left with regards to the Sanders campaign. The SP counterparts in the US organized for Sanders and, if I'm not mistaken, even signed up members for the Democratic Party as part of that effort. So we're dealing here with a problem of the left rather than just specifically the UK left. It's a left that has been isolated for over a generation, with only the most tenuous links to the life of the working class. Now, almost a decade after the Wall Street crash, the political aftershocks have finally arrived, and suddenly dazzling possibilities have opened up for contact with the masses. For some radicals the dazzle has gone to their heads, like prisoners who've been locked away too long and are suddenly out in the sun. (The sectarian reaction is to rush back inside.) The job of Marxists isn't to join bandwagons but it is to engage the masses and help develop their political consciousness. Can you fight austerity within the constraints of globalized capitalism? Can you bring about fundamental social change that millions now want through the party of Tony Blair? These are issues which revolutionary socialists in Britain could use effectively to open up a dialogue with Corbyn's base.