Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trump's Triumph Over the Professional Middle Class

I'm going to tote up a few things that are sometimes too obvious to say, but that should be in circulation.  The end point is that Donald J. Trump's post-fact ethos is the visible piece of a submerged crusade to make the United States a post-middle class society.

The first visible thing is the national knowledge crisis.  People now talk about a post-fact era, and  even the summit of the Washington establishment is feeling distress about Trump's power to dismiss any analysis that "conflicts with his a priori assumptions."    A more banal but pervasive problem is that it is impossible to understand any public issue through television, our dominant news medium.  This is also true of most print outlets, where coverage is superficial and fragmented. That is slightly better than superficial and chaotic, or simply propagandistic, which is the range on TV.  (Social media varies from deep, authoritative expertise to fake news propaganda to dark marketing psy-ops, but I leave that aside here.)  The U.S. has no public framework of political understanding today.  Crisis is too weak a word for the state of national knowledge.

The second clear thing is that Trump's success rested on a classic plutocratic appeal to white racial resentment.  There are two parts to this. Part one, the resentment, takes the form, "my white stuff has been given to minorities by the government."  We often talk as though this just another way of saying "white racism," but that begs the question, what is white racism today? My own sense is that it is tied to a white feeling of superiority and to a white feeling of failure--to the economic and cultural failure to be successful, central to the society, recognized as such. The complicated result is racial resentment, which is fused with resentment of government. Our knowledge crisis then helps many whites trace their sense of failure to the great government giveaway to racial minorities.*

Part two: Plutocracy is Trump running as the American businessman-king, who has a sovereign power to make everything work.  This figure is embodied in the corporate CEO, who has two core features. He [sic] maximizes private/corporate self-interest. He [sic] has a proven capacity to dominate others in pursuing this private self-interest. A plutocracy admits no public interest that is separate from the private interests of the dominant figures. It has no need for democratic processes that are separate from the executive's power to dominate ("to get things done").  Hence Trump's failure to admit the need to separate his business interests from the state or to grant the importance of the emoluments clause that opposes this use of the state to advance private interests.  He of course understands that there are frequent conflicts of interests (Carrier management and Carrier employees, perhaps Putin the oil baron vs. Putin the Middle East strategist). He does not grant that conflicts must be adjudicated by a non-dominating public-interest procedure that differs from the behavior of the strong private executive, and is ruined by the executive.

So far we have a knowledge crisis sustaining a plutocracy crisis that hinges on racial scapegoating. This gets us to a third thing: Trump's voters supported plutocratic racial capitalism because they hate the supposed alternative, the professional-managerial class's knowledge economy, championed by the Democratic party.  The professional-managerial class** seems to oppress them more directly--as managers and know-it-alls--than moguls do. Moguls like Trump act like Machiavelli's Prince, existing above all laws and rules, possessed of a magical ability to get things done.  A quarter-century of Clintonian know it alls--including Robert "symbolic analyst" Reich and Richard "creative class" Florida--have abandoned the American working class and let their towns and cities go to hell.

On top of that, Clintonist professional-managerial types demanded that workers convert themselves into people like them if they wanted jobs.  This meant not just demanding university degrees of 45 year olds but a change in their culture and values and relationships.  On the other hand, Republicans offered the preservation of some manufacuturing and extractive industry jobs for which blue-collar folk were already trained--as well as the continuity of conservative cultural values.  Republicans have been the political champions of blue-collar work, even as their tax giveaways to the wealthy undermine it.  Blue-collar workers can legitimately wonder how much worse Trump could be for them than Clinton and Obama.

Fourth, the professional-managerial class displays a conceptual failure that rests on this practical failure to keep the working class (only 1/3rd white male in the mid-1990s, and less so today) fully inside the U.S. economy  The conceptual failure is to have abandoned a sharp distinction between the public and the private good.  As Clintonist centrist Democrats practically abandoned the industrial working class and racial equality of outcome, they also gutted public good conceptions of social cohesion and majority prosperity.

Fifth, in abandoning the blue-collar economy and a strong public-good ethos, Clinonist professional managerial folk mooted the difference between expert authority and executive authority.  The PMC is supposed to earn its (limited) authority on the basis of knowledge, which is then to generate equity and effectiveness.  Expert authority is supposed to be an alternative to domination, while executive authority is domination. A good large chunk of the population, including the nonprofessional middle-class, now seems to think we may as well have domination via Trump, and this Trump strength exists because the supposed non-domination of expert authority has done nothing economically for Trump voters in the past 35 years.

The two great government programs even Tea Partiers like, Social Security and Medicare, were New Deal and Great Society programs that were in place a generation before the Clinton-Obama quarter century of Democracy Lite.  The yuppie army of knowledge economy advocates added nothing to them. They never built an employment base to match that of dirty industry--steel, auto, coal, et al. To top it off, the Clintons personally squandered the PMC claim to equity and effectiveness--to the absence of partiality and corruption--with their steady stream of minor but revealing scandals over these 25 years.  They also got rich through government service--a common right-wing talking point--further eroding the public vs. private good distinction on which professionals' superior virtue depends.

Disliking professional authority helps explain why Trump's vote correlates with medium and low levels of education more than with higher or lower levels of income: the population that respects the moral and political claims of expertise has shrunk to other experts or near experts like holders of B.A. degrees.  Trump's people never penalized him for his contempt for the governing claims of professional people--quite the opposite. He needs functional skill, but this is a commodity that he can buy, and the Trumps of the world can buy any expertise at some price.  As a commodity, knowledge expertise lacks political rights or moral authority.  The Clinton period has witnessed the commodification of increasingly complex skill, with the irony that professional skill is going the way of blue-collar skill--a point I discuss at length in The Great Mistake.

At this point, a card-carrying professional like myself can rush into discourse critique: In contrast to people like doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, accountants, nurses, college professors, city planners, and so on, Trump has spent his life in a world where a sales pitch plus money and influence creates its own reality, which is good at fleecing people but not at building a society.  More fundamentally, his personality structure disables the sort of verbal analysis, debate, and synthesis that is second nature to knowledge workers. His move is to throw the disputant out of the language game, which, in Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard's classic definition, is terrorism.  Lyotard's definition of "postmodernism" in his famous book on the topic was not the end of "master narratives," but the rise of economic determinism, embodied in the U.S. by the businessman-king, who has the power to expel any irritating opponent from the language game before it starts.   Right-wing media plays its major partnering role.  The point is not to debate democratic socialists, for example, but to define them as bad people who want to destroy America, which means you don't need to debate them at all.  In this discursive sense, Trump is the Terror King.

All true enough. But the structural point is that Trump is also the triumphant enemy of the professions and professionals that make up the PMC.  Professionals, living in their traditional world of self-regulated standards and widespread social respect, do not understand this fact: the American right in general, and Trump in particular, have built a post-knowledge economy in which expertise is a commodity they buy for pennies on the global market.

The convenient effect of this hatred for the professions is that Trump can create the kind of cabinet he has:  foxes will guard every henhouse.  He picked an enemy of the minimum wage and the 40 hour week to head the Department of Labor, an enemy of public education to run the Department of Education, an unhinged opponent of everything public to run Housing, an extractor of treasury funds to run the Department of Treasury, a fan of war to run Defense, an enemy of environmental protection to run the Environmental Protection Agency, the head of the World Wrestling Federation to run the Small Business Administration, and now, reportedly, the leading advocate of private petro-interests to run the Department of State. From from Trump's point of view, why not?  Professional expertise and democratic deliberation either don't really exist or are obviously inferior to executive command.  And the public interest isn't different from private self-interest (an American neo-Smithian truism not limited to Trump).  This frame lends logic to Trump's kleptocapitalist cabinet, running energy policy for the petro sector, banking for hedge funds, labor for fast food chains, and education for charter school chains.

The wider political spectacle will be executive power crushing self-proclaimed independent professional expertise.  Every member of the cabinet of predators represents the use of autocratic authority against collective forces--cultural change, social movements, labor unions--whose political claims have been embodied in the disinterested languages of ethics, the law, and bureaucratic rationality.   Most professionals still think they are sheltered from direct executive power, and the high end perhaps believes their high salaries will protect them.  Protect them from poverty perhaps, but not from humiliation or political marginalization--or from being made historically obsolete as they had made the nonprofessional working and middle classes.

In short, the key achievement of Trump's business wing of the Republican party is have contained the knowledge economy.  It has done this by overcoming the class opposition between the working class and the bourgoisie that Eric Olin Wright could still identify twenty years ago. He has forged a working-class/bourgoisie alliance by rendering the professional middle classes their common enemy.

One big effect is to turn high-end professionals into servants, as I already mentioned.  Another is to have flattened the democratic potential of the tech economy that advocates like John Seely Brown had long predicted. Brown's co-authored Shift Happens is a good window into the promise of 2009 (and 1999). The shifts this book describes are:
  1. Value is moving from stocks to flows
  2. Power is shifting from organizations to individuals
  3. Performance is falling for organizations.
(3) is entirely true: corporations are failing, measured as Return on Assets and other ways.  Large, top-down organizations in general are a mess, and are burdening society in many ways I can't go into here.  In addition, (1) and (2) are true in principle. But the point of resurgent, extractive, financialized Trumpian organizations ruled by businessman-kings is to make (1) and (2) false. Trump's capitalism locks up value in stocks that companies control and meter, and traps individual insight and energy within organizations, where they commodify that insight.  In our era after the knowledge economy, management is more powerful than ever, audit culture rules professional organizations more than during the Bush years, and executives are more entitled autocrats than in any other period.

This is the work of Trump's circle of allies, waging war on dissent, focusing Prince-like entirely on their own rule, and making knowledge creators into subordinates.   It is also the work of Silicon Valley culture, which has been stupid about and contemptuous of human processes and so can't protect them.  It is also the work of Clintonism, which has blamed people and their (non)skills rather than management/moguls for every economic thing. The Valley and Clintonism broke whatever alternative to Trumpism was in the minds of the Google bus dissidents as they were shipped in their rolling crates to work.

The current default is that Trump autocracy will rule American capitalism, keeping it extractive and oppressive to white- and blue-collar labor alike, opposing even minimal reforms, accelerating the aging of the U.S. economic apparatus and its productive decline.  The result is to be a U.S. that is no longer middle class in economic entitlement, political rights, or multi-racial equality.

Such is what the executive-plutocracy-working class alliance foretells.  When the musician Beck, in the top photo, released "Loser" a few weeks after Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, he called it "forces of evil in a bozo nightmare."  We were warned, and now we have to do something about it.

Addendum: I started this blog as a kind of diary ten years ago this month. In the first post I pointed out that "when the gloves come off, the Creative Class goes down like a bag of cement." Still so true!  Happy anniversary to "Middle Class Death Trips."

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*I realize someone like George Lakoff would say facts won't change the framing, and that analysts going back to Du Bois would say facts won't change the social structure.  I agree: a national knowledge system rests on frames or paradigms and not just facts, and the frames are rebuilt every day, week after week.  Thus a functional national knowledge system would fail to support, and therefore erode, this white sense that, to paraphrase Zizek, "the government has stolen my enjoyment.  And given it to racial minorities." We don't have one.

**I generally use Erik Olin Wright's 12-class model from Class Counts (1997), in which the middle-class is a set of "contradictory positions within class relations" that reflect variations of authority and expertise.  This class ranges from expert to skilled to unskilled, and has a range of authority positions as well.  I'll use professional managerial class for the expert/skilled white-collar people, and gloss over a bunch of details, particularly the current civil war between professional and managers in medicine, academia, and elsewhere.