Friday, February 10, 2017

The New Proletariat

Class consciousness – class warfare – the mainstays of Marxism, but also essential to the teachings and activities of American liberalism, are a foundational element of the Democratic Party. There was a class system in colonial America, which naturally resembled that in Europe, although the boundaries were, partly by necessity, much less rigid and more fluid (for one thing, no hereditary titles). There was never an official American royalty, but there were certainly landowners and grant-holders, merchants, craftsmen, peasants, laborers, and, yes, slaves. This class system, so natural to any human society, did not seem to overly offend anyone at the time, because, after all, it was what they were used to. It was the way the world worked, wasn't it? And anything else was unimaginable. (We tend to forget how radically different our world view is from that of our colonial ancestors.) And what probably helped was that all were united, more or less, against the offenses being committed by the mother country, i.e. Britain, and its king. But then came the founding documents, with “all men are created equal”, and so forth – implying that class was an illusion, or an unfortunate accident, and that it might soon be done away with (or so was the fond hope). But the American Revolution was a political one, not an economic one. Landowners remained landowners, merchants remained merchants, peasants remained peasants, and slaves remained slaves – at least for a time. Before long, Marxism had taken hold in Europe, and real political revolutions had occurred (1848 being a critical year) – plus the Civil War brought out class divisions (in both North and South) in sharp relief. (Basically, the North's upper classes sent the North's lower classes out to defeat the South's lower classes and thus to render the South's upper classes powerless and bankrupt). So class consciousness, while it is always with us, grew from a taken-for-granted state of affairs into a political cause, and we had, later in the 19th Century and into the 20th, a rise in both immigration and anarchy – not a coincidence, since many of the immigrants were from areas where the new consciousness had taken hold, particularly the animus against hereditary rule – kings, czars, and emperors. (The immigrants came here in part because things were moving too slowly back home – and the minute they got off the boat, they started to agitate for the political, social, and economic changes here that they had longed for in their places of origin. And let's admit, their optimism was well-founded, at least up to a point. Where Old Europe had failed, America became the great testing ground; the American Experiment was taken over from the WASPs by the teeming masses from Eastern and Southern Europe. But this effort only succeeded up to a point; we became, for all intents and purposes, socialistic, but balked at becoming a people's republic, a failing which continues to irritate the hard left to this day.) Plus, we had the rise of Progressivism, not the very first manifestation of populism (forget not Andrew Jackson) but one with many more long-term consequences. Then came the Russian revolution, and yesterday's anarchists became, almost overnight, today's totalitarians – and at this late date, we can say, with confidence, “'twas ever thus”. Put populism and Bolshevism into a stew pot, stir for a while, and you have – ta-da! -- the New Deal, which, in most any way that counts, we are still living with.

So the question is not – nor was it ever -- “do we, or do we not, have, or want to have, a society defined by class?” Every society is, to some extent, defined by class – by social status, hierarchy, pecking order, what have you. Any honest anthropologist will admit this. It's such a universal phenomenon that it might almost be described as “natural”, or “all too human”, or even “instinctive”, except that it's the very people who are always longing for a “return to nature” who are the most opposed to the idea. And collectivist/totalitarian propaganda reflects this. Who carries on the most about “a classless society”? The very people whose ideal social structure is a ruling political class, or nomenklatura, supported by the military, and a mass of faceless serfs (peasants and workers) on the bottom, with a conspicuously missing middle class. This is the way it always turns out with communism – no exceptions! The only thing that seems to stand in the way is the existing middle class, unless you're talking about a society that is so primitive that it hasn't yet developed one – and when it is eliminated or suppressed things tend to deteriorate, particularly in the economic sector, and no one can figure out why. After all, the “bourgeoisie” are dull, boring, conventional, rigid, wed to tradition, and, basically, politically hopeless – and the answer is to declare them superficial and unnecessary, and then to either kill them off or impoverish them to the point where they are no longer distinguishable from the proles. And yet, the occasional honest economist will admit that, in a proper economic system that is likely to succeed, the middle class is a needed element; it is, in effect, a go-between, connective tissue between rulers and serfs. Imagine even a small town with a mayor and village council, and everyone else either a subsistence farmer or factory worker. What's wrong with this picture, and why do we never see it borne out in real life?

But of course, economic “success” is a matter of definition, and in our time it's clear that it takes a remote back seat to things like “equality”, “fairness”, and “diversity” -- that it's better to fail as an economic system than to commit the sin of “unfairness”. (This has been an explicit meme throughout the Obama administration, for example.) And yet, paradoxically, the more government tries to remedy the many offenses of the traditional class system, the more it's forced to create a new class system whose job it is to enforce sanctions against the old class system. This does not eliminate class, or hierarchy, or anything of the kind; it only substitutes new types of people at the various levels. So under the old American system, you might have had bankers and industrialists at the top, then politicians at the next level to serve their interests, then merchants, craftsmen, farmers, laborers, and so on. Under the more recent American system, you have politicians at the top, then the bankers and industrialists who must defer to the “people's representatives” and conform to a heavy burden of regulations, then merchants, craftsmen, farmers, laborers – with the bottom layer populated not by people suffering the abject poverty of the Third World because they are supported by the state. But this is only in theory, understand, because in reality the bankers and industrialists are still in charge, but cannot show their colors in as blatant a way as they did back in the “robber baron” era. Politicians can still be bought and sold (and amazingly cheaply at that), but the money spends more time under the table than on top of it. And the ones who suffer the most are the ones caught in the middle – the storied bourgeoisie, or middle class, whose resources and political power are eroding day by day. And much of their suffering is not in terms of their financial straits per se, but in the total lack of respect they receive from the other sectors of society. They are, by and large, sufficiently fed, clothed, and sheltered, but at the same time treated as lepers by the dominant culture.

Any economic distortions caused by big government will result in winners and losers, and the losers of our time are the middle class. Call them the people who earn enough to be taxed, but don't earn enough to avoid taxes, and who earn enough to miss out on entitlements. They are, in a sense, the only self-supporting class we have, and are thus ripe for the picking. Is it any wonder that they have come around to the notion that no one is on their side – and they they flocked to Donald Trump, who at least said that he was, although it remains to be seen how this plays out.

But – you might say – if the middle class is an essential element of an economically successful society, why would those in charge want to eliminate it – or at least bleed it dry? Call it short-sightedness, ignorance of economics and history, or just plain greed, but it's clear they just don't care, any more than the guy who cut down the last tree on Easter Island cared. (This is from “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.) Rare is the man, even at the very pinnacle of world power, who looks beyond his own life span. “Apres moi, le deluge.” (This is one of the many reasons why concentration of wealth and power is bad. The people who wind up with it are still just as human as any of the rest of us.) And this is just on the material side; you also have the theorists, who still subscribe to the Marxian orthodoxy that the middle class is an artifact of an intrinsically unfair and unjust system, and that only by eliminating it can we make any progress toward universal liberation.

I've been saying for quite a while that the American middle class has a very large target painted on its back. The liberal/Democratic agenda is to hobble, humble, and ultimately eliminate the middle class from the American scene, and they are quite open about it. The Republicans are not in quite such a hurry, but they aren't doing anything to reverse the trend either (although one wonders where their support is going to come from if the largest part of their base vanishes – there just aren't enough country-club types to so the job). It seems like every time a Republican is elected president, the middle class breathes a sigh of relief – they have a new lease on life, and have been spared from the ministrations of the executioner for a while longer. But then along comes a Democrat, and the ax is raised higher. The rise and victory of Donald Trump has been called many things – and in a way it resembles the peasants' revolts of ages past, or the relatively more recent revolutions throughout Europe... or the “softer” revolts of populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. Except for one thing – those were all revolts of the lower classes against their rulers and oppressors, and, occasionally, against the middle class as well, as in the cases of France, Russia, and China. (Revolts against oppressors are typically fueled by brutality, starvation, and hardship, whereas revolts against the bourgeoisie are typically fueled by Marxist theory, which is the reason they are a relatively new phenomenon, although it must be admitted that the French Revolution was pre-Marx.)

The Trump phenomenon is something truly new under the sun for America – a revolt of the middle class (as foreshadowed by the Tea Party). And as such, it's a revolt against both the ruling elite and against the dependent class, AKA tax receivers. But it's shocking, and this is the main reason why the establishment and the media (and Hollywood, and academics, etc.) are so thunderstruck. “Never before has a boy asked for more” said a character in “Oliver”. Likewise, never before has the middle class done anything even remotely resembling a rebellion – and yet here it is. It happened, and they won. Or, at least their chosen leader won.

See, here's the real problem. The middle class is not supposed to revolt. They're not supposed to complain. They're supposed to be polite, passive, submissive, and take whatever comes their way like bobo dolls, and come back asking for more. They're supposed to be complacent, satisfied, and if not politically apathetic then at least non-activist. These qualities have defined the middle class for generations, or even centuries. The idea of them actually standing up and defending themselves is... well, it goes against theory, for one thing (Marxist theory and all of its derivatives). And it's disruptive to the political economy, which demands some sort of balance between doers-to and the done-to. One might even say that as the lower classes have gained political power and social and cultural influence, society in general started looking around for a new out-group, and it found one.

It seems that the middle class has been unleashed, and this is what has everyone upset. That, and the growing realization that Trump is not a politician, and not an ideologue, and neither a conservative nor a liberal. This has turned the political world upside down, and violated rules we didn't even know were in place until someone violated them. Who knew that political etiquette was such a fine-tuned thing, and that so many people would be so sensitive to its breach? One might even say that Trump has united the country after all – or at least the “chattering class”. They are unanimous in their hostility and resistance to who and what he is, and everything he stands for – which is why this is, if only for a season, a time for those who have been voiceless for so long to find a voice. In fact, it may be the last chance for the middle class to have a voice. Judging by the reaction against Trump, if he runs again in 2020 and is defeated, it will be the signal for the long knives to come out, and the life expectancy of the middle class will suddenly be shortened, possibly to a drastic extent.

Another way of looking at this is that even with all the (largely non-violent) egalitarian uprisings of the past in this country, the middle class remained more or less intact, and it was not targeted per se. (This, again, in contrast to France, Russia, and China.) The lower classes wanted a piece of the pie, and the perception was that the ruling elite owned that pie and had to be forced to divvy it up a bit; the middle class was more or less ignored and left to its own devices. This time around, we have a relatively pacified lower class (yes, despite the war between them and the police – the new opiates of the people being sex, drugs, and rock and roll), and an unheard-of, up until the Tea Party phenomenon, rise in consciousness among the middle class. Another way of putting it is that the middle class is now less satisfied than the lower classes, despite any statistical advantages they may have in terms of income, quality of life, and so on. Satisfaction is, as we ought to know by now, not an absolute. No one compares their lot to some Platonic ideal. It is simply as follows: Satisfaction = Results minus Expectations. The middle class expected this society to be a certain way, and they are grossly disappointed and disillusioned. The lower classes, on the other hand, being more resigned and fatalistic, had expectations, but they were not as high (despite “Hope and Change”), and the contrast between those expectations and the reality are not as stark.

As I said, the election of 2016 and the Trump administration may be the last hope of the middle class. And by that I mean not all of the self-consciously middle class, but those who don't feel guilty about it, despite decades of shaming on the part of the media, the entertainment industry, and liberal politicians. There is another group which I will call the self-hating middle class, and that includes not only the so-called “snowflakes” -- the most obvious subgroup – but also what have been referred to as “guilt-ridden liberals”. They are the products of public schooling, for starters – but also of both public and private collages and universities, and, above all, of political correctness (which was amplified and fine-tuned by the likes of Hillary Clinton). And in a way, it's easy to understand. If we are really brought up to believe that “all men (or whoever) are created equal”, but at the same time shown, on a daily basis, overwhelming evidence of inequality of outcomes, that's going to cause some cognitive dissonance. And the reactions can vary widely. One might be simply that “those people” (the “underprivileged”) are lazy, apathetic, and uncooperative, and therefore deserve what they get (or don't get). Another reaction is that even if this is partly true, it's not their fault, because they are victims of “the system”, of institutional racism, prejudice, etc., and therefore deserve at least a helping hand; this is the affirmative action level of liberal social policy. But there are plenty more possibilities, including the radical notion that all differences in outcome, for whatever reason, are intrinsically unfair and have to be done away with – and this is the point at which the middle class finds itself on thin ice. What “right” do they have to have more – to have a higher standard of living – than anyone else? This is obviously a serious problem, and only liberals/progressives have the solution. So over time, the middle class is subjected to the death of a thousand cuts, and while the masochistic among them might welcome this (“snowflakes” again) the rest are puzzled, dismayed, and eventually become angry. And when it gets to the point where they have little enough left to lose that they might take a chance on revolt, if not outright revolution, we have phenomena like the election of 2016.

So are we seeing a true sea change in the political history of this country, or only a four-year stay of execution?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Doom at the Top

The Trump people are already feeling the effects. There is an easy assumption that all you have to do is get elected to the presidency, appoint key subordinates (including cabinet-level posts), get your agenda rolling, and extend your span of control far and wide throughout the bureaucracy and to the farthest corners of the earth, and a new day will dawn. But no – the people at the top generally prefer to stay at the top, where there is sunshine and fresh air, and innumerable “perks”, and either cannot or will not dig deep into the heart of the bureaucracy in order to detect and weed out hostile forces.

Compare it, let's say, to buying an old, rambling, broken-down house with countless rooms, wings, basements, attics, stairways, secret passages, closets, and hallways leading to nowhere – a veritable hive of inactivity, or of activity of the wrong kind. This would pretty much match what happens when a political appointee takes over a government department. And you can move into this house, title deed in hand, assuming that because you're there, your mere presence will suffice to turn things around and cure all the inherent ills. But this is not the case. It's the same house that it was the day before you (ill-advisedly, perhaps) bought it – and unless you hire an army of exterminators to get rid of all the rats, mice, cockroaches, parasites, hangers-on, and subversives, you might as well not even be there... and it will become a source of endless frustration and, ultimately, a tarnished reputation and political defeat.

I have first-hand experience with this. I've seen political appointees come and go. Some of them are just passing through – day trippers on the way to bigger and better things – and they seldom make waves or bother anyone down in the trenches. They are political animals, basically – ambitious, but superficial – lacking a theoretical base of any sort. Smiles and handshakes, and the occasional briefing, are their legal tender, and as long as they can be “large and in charge” they're happy. And this, by the way, holds true no matter which department or agency we're talking about; it's a universal syndrome. No part of the government, no matter how exalted, is immune from this problem or from these people.

And then there's the other kind. Two kinds, actually. The first is relatively benign – they show up with ideas, a program, an agenda, which may involve “draining the swamp” but is more likely to be limited to “good words” about efficiency, cost-effectiveness, eliminating waste, leadership, good management, serving the interests of “customers” and “stakeholders”, and contributing to the accomplishment of the stated mission of the department or agency (assuming that it has a stated mission, and that anyone can remember where they put it). These people can, on rare occasions, do a bit of good, but they are more likely to disrupt things by imposing management fads, leadership theories, and endless surveys and get-togethers for the rank and file (which, by the way, are typically viewed as good things because it's time off work). They may show up in person at some of these confabs, attempting to cajole, inspire, and set an example of good grooming and appropriate business attire. And they may feel that they're doing good, but eventually it dawns on them that nothing has changed – the bureaucracy is every bit as entrenched, rigid, ossified, and inefficient as it was the day they arrived. So they move on, with much waving of handkerchiefs -- “Well, he (she) wasn't bad, he (she) tried, but you know how it is.” -- with a faint smile and chuckle. Back to business as usual!

The second other kind is another matter entirely. It's the most dangerous, vicious animal in the jungle. I'm talking about the political appointee who somehow manages to wind up heading up a department or agency, but who, in fact, hates it and all that it stands for, and therefore hates all the people who work there. How these people get appointed has always been a mystery to me. Are they appointed on purpose, by a president or official who shares their outlook? I think more often it's a matter of their expressing an “interest” in whatever it is – the mission – and also having some sort of alleged “expertise” or at least experience in the area in question. (It would be like a wolf expressing an “interest” in the Department of Sheep.) But their true agenda comes into full bloom on Day One, and it's as if they're wreaking vengeance on everyone for some real or imagined slight or offense. (Think of the stereotypical 90-pound weakling suddenly being put in charge of an agency full of all of the bullies who have ever kicked sand in his face.) And of course you can count on them to bring along an army of, basically, goons and hit-men (hit-women) to aid in the pursuit. (These latter are the true mercenaries and sociopaths in the system. They are allowed to run amok for a time, and when they have wreaked a suitable level of destruction they move on to other pursuits, either elsewhere in the system or in the private sector, leaving scorched earth and a battlefield strewn with bodies in their wake.)

But does the bureaucracy take whatever these people dish out lying down? Not a bit of it. They may shrink from open defiance, but they do have ways of coping – many of which resemble the behavior of the slaves of old, who would bow, scrape, and flash smiles at their master while at the same time plotting ways to thwart his every wish and, in extreme cases, exterminate him. And believe me, the meek and lowly are tuned in to the foibles and weaknesses of their oppressors, and do not hesitate to blow whistles or drop dimes when the time is ripe. The slightest sign of vulnerability is a signal for the peasant revolt to begin.

So what this adds up to is that a political appointee who is magically placed at the top of a very large pyramid may have good intentions, evil intentions, or see it as a mere stepping stone, but in all cases the lowly serfs down in the trenches will go about their business as if he (she) doesn't exist – which, on any given day and for all intents and purposes, they don't. And yet it's these people – the army of faceless serfs – that has a lot more to do with the operations of the organization, and its success or failure, than the member of the privileged elite at the top of the totem pole. They are masters in the art of passive-aggressiveness, for one thing – throwing the occasional monkey wrench into the works so that things go somewhat wrong, but no one can be singled out for blame. They are studied practitioners of the great slowdown, or of working to the letter – doing the minimum (or even less, but appearing to do the minimum) – not enough to earn a bad rating or reprimand, but enough to make the operation at least temporarily grind to a halt.

And the motives for all of this are many and varied. There may be genuine resentment toward “that political type who doesn't know anything about what we do here”, or it may be a more global, baseline resentment toward a stifling system – one that offers job security in exchange for, basically, giving up all self-respect and ambition. (“Hope and change” would be the least appropriate motto possible for the government bureaucracy. I question whether it's even that realistic for political appointees. There are way too many people hanging around Washington looking for a plum job, and way too few plum jobs to go around, even though the bureaucracy expands each and every day.)

And so far I'm just talking about systemic issues. If you add political considerations to the mix, things get even worse. For starters, the bureaucracy is staffed with, guess what, human beings. And those human beings, as dull and listless as many of them appear to be, nonetheless have political leanings, loyalties, and points of view. And this tends to be correlated with the department or agency in question. Nor surprisingly, people who work for the Department of Labor, EPA, and HUD tend to be on the liberal/progressive/activist side, and people who work for defense and the intel agencies tend to be more conservative, although this is by no means guaranteed. (I'm sure you can come up with many other examples.) Now, when the political appointee who takes over at the top is from, let's say, Party A, and he (she) takes over a department or agency whose employees are more or less in synch with Party A's platform, things go along fairly well (with all of the caveats described above, of course). But let a Party A appointee take over a department or agency staffed with Party B types, and you can expect passive-aggressive behavior nigh unto gridlock. And it may not even be the case that the appointee is one of the “slash and burn” types – they may merely be trying to redirect the mission and efforts of the department more in the direction that their political convictions dictate. (In the case of defense, the Republicans will tend to favor weapons system acquisition, combat training, and readiness, while Democrats will tend to favor social experimentation and providing jobs.) (I note that actually winning wars has become passe as a motive for pretty much everyone.)

With all of the above in mind, the miracle is not that the bureaucracy is as wasteful and ineffective as it is, but that things aren't worse. Like the few righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah, there is a modicum of competence and conscientiousness in the bureaucracy, particularly among those who are able to largely ignore politics, power struggles, infighting, and game-playing. (They must also be self-motivated and have self-esteem independent of their circumstances.) Any government agency has a few people in it who just want to get things done, and they are typically swimming against the current. Others may be more or less neutral -- “paper pushers” -- neither adding nor deleting value (other than encumbering a position and collecting a salary). And others may be “part of the problem” -- creatures of the system who have been conditioned (through a distorted array of rewards and punishments) to seek their own interests and undermine the interests of others -- to play a zero-sum game at best, and more often a negative-sum game.  I used to wonder if these “types” could have ever worked anywhere except in the government, where there is no profit motive, where it's nearly impossible to fire anyone, and where “process” typically takes precedence over “product”. One might as well ask if drug addicts are born that way; I think they are created, and that the system creates bureaucrats. They could have been some other way, but that fork in the road has receded into the mists of time, so here they are... and anyone who comes in at the top had better take them into account, because on any given day they are the ones who are really in charge.