Thursday, July 01, 2004

One can and should be thankful both that Thomas Friedman is on vacation from op-ed writing for the next three months and that he is being replaced for July by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich has written some great stuff on the state of the American working class, most recently her book Nickled and Dimed and a 2000 Harper's article "Maid to Order". Her first foray into Friedman's spot on the New York Times op-ed page, however, was mostly a misfire.
I just think it's time to retire the "liberal elite" label, which, for the past 25 years, has been deployed to denounce anyone to the left of Colin Powell. Thus, last winter, the ultra-elite right-wing Club for Growth dismissed followers of Howard Dean as a "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show." I've experienced it myself: speak up for the downtrodden, and someone is sure to accuse you of being a member of the class that's doing the trodding. . . .

Yes, there are some genuinely rich folks on the left � Barbra Streisand, Arianna Huffington, George Soros � and for all I know, some of them are secret consumers of French chardonnays and loathers of televised wrestling. But the left I encounter on my treks across the nation is heavy on hotel housekeepers, community college students, laid-off steelworkers and underpaid schoolteachers. Even many liberal celebrities � like Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem � hail from decidedly modest circumstances. David Cobb, the Green Party's presidential candidate, is another proud product of poverty.

It's true that there are plenty of working-class people � though far from a majority � who will vote for Bush and the white-tie crowd that he has affectionately referred to as his "base." But it would be redundant to speak of a "conservative elite" when the ranks of our corporate rulers are packed tight with the kind of Republicans who routinely avoid the humiliating discomforts of first class for travel by private jet.
Ehrenreich plays fast and loose with the term "elite" the same way so-called "conservatives" do. When conservatives use the term they mean a liberal cultural strata. When Ehrenreich does she means wealth.

Now it's fine to use the term "elite" for rich people, but the better word is "capital" for that's where the wealthy right derives its income. Calling them "capital" also highlights their social position much better than does "elite" which can refer to the top of any social organization and order: military elite, religious elite, etc.

Ehrenreich can't seriously hope to retire the term "liberal elite" because it is so painfully obvious that one exists. This is not an elite of wealth or economic power, however, but rather a cultural-intellectual elite, surely an inferior sort of power but a source of considerable influence nonetheless. When the right talks about the "liberal elite" they mean new middle class types in the "knowledge industries"; decidedly cosmopolitan and urban(e); secular; feminist; highly educated. They are an "elite" to the degree that they control important cultural institutions such as education, law, media/entertainment, mainline Protestant churches. The liberal elite doesn't control a lot of capital, but it does control a lot of cultural ideas. Think how much American thought and actions have changed in the last fifty years regarding race, gender roles, marriage, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, education, religion. For better or worse, most of these changes are due to the supposedly non-existent liberal elite.

Even though the liberal elite doesn't control a lot of capital, not a lot would change for the liberal elite likes capitalism. Not as much as the morons in the Club for Growth or the elite of the Republican Party, but they are still big fans, which makes sense because they benefit so much from it. Knowledge workers tend to be paid a bit better than textile workers or retail clerks, after all.

There is a cultural left and there is an economic left, and the two are not the same even though Ehrenreich pretends that they are. One of the reasons the working class is consistently embattled in America today is that the cultural left as largely taken over the Democratic Party while the working class has remained culturally moderate if not conservative. The Republicans get away with screwing the working class at nearly every turn because it makes a cultural appeal which resonates to a large degree. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote a thought-provoking article earlier this year titled "Let Them Eat War" in which she struggles over this contradiction. I wish Ehrenreich would have done the same rather than glibly deny it exists. She could have contributed to a rapprochement (what a liberal elite thing to say) between the Democratic Party and the working class rather than detracting from it.


At 2:26 PM, Blogger billyblazer said...

It seems to me that until the Dems make the "class warfare" argument persuasively and substantially, they will be tarred with the conflation of the terms liberal cultural elite and liberal wealth. Most rank-and-file dems are not elite at all and many hold liberal ideals. How the conservatives have turned these "culture" wars into class wars and gotten away with it is beyond me.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger paperwight said...

Yeah, but the old terms "labor" and "capital" have for once and for all been tarnished by their association with communism and the canard of "class warfare". Further, "capital" doesn't have a dirty sound to an awful lot of people. While I agree that it is more accurate, it is *not* more politically loaded. Further, the coopting of the other side's terms is a great victory, since you take away all of their carefully built associative reasoning and talking points which use those terms.


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