I've been wondering about our situation, trying to make sense of how we got to where we are. I do not think that our problems are unique or worse than those of other eras – after all, whatever is wrong in Europe and the US that leads people to support right-wing demagogues, people from Africa and the Middle East are drowning in their thousands trying to get here. I am just asking why we have these problems now.
So I've been trying to write an essay, as I do. It's how I sort out my thoughts. But I have been wrestling with this for about three weeks and it refuses to come together. So I am just going to post it as is and hope that discussion will sort some of this out.
The Spiritual Economy
I am going to start from this passage about our meritocracy by Victor Tan Chen, from a piece titled The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy:
The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth. . . .We are witnessing in our time both increasing economic inequality and a narrowing of the kind of people who can join the elite. To join the charmed circle, you need either the kind of precise intelligence useful for computer and financial work, or the sort of self-promotional genius that creates celebrity. If you don't have either, you are in competition with similar people all around the world for your drink from a stagnant economic pool, and all of you are in competition with machines. You are increasingly unnecessary, and the world will make you feel it.
The work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem. When I was talking to laid-off autoworkers in Michigan for my book about long-term unemployment, I met a black man in Detroit who told me his job at the plant had helped heal a wound—one going back to his parents’ choice, when he was a baby, to abandon him. (As is standard in sociological research, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) “My job was like my mother and father to me,” he said. “It’s all I had, you know?” Then the plant shut down. Now in his 50s, he was back on the job market, scrambling for one of the few good jobs left for someone without a college degree. In his moments of weakness, he berated himself. He should have prepared more. He should have gotten an education. “It’s all my fault,” he said—the company was just doing what made business sense.
For less educated workers (of all races) who have struggled for months or years to get another job, failure is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame. Without the right markers of merit—a diploma, marketable skills, a good job—they are “scrubs” who don’t deserve romantic partners, “takers” living parasitically off the government, “losers” who won’t amount to anything. Even those who consider themselves lucky to have jobs can feel a sense of despair, seeing how poorly they stand relative to others, or how much their communities have unraveled, or how dim their children’s future seems to be: Research shows that people judge how well they’re doing through constant comparisons, and by these personal metrics they are hurting, whatever the national unemployment rate may be.
By one way of looking at our economy, we ought to all feel insanely rich. I mean, nobody who lived before 1950 had anything like the array of stuff we have. But obviously that isn't the whole story. As Chen says, we rely on our jobs for more than just survival. They provide, or used to provide, our identities. In America, "success" pretty much means career success. Without that we are not just poorer but psychologically battered.
These are generalizations, of course. There are people in America who don't care a fig for money or careers, and lots of people who are satisfied with an ordinary amount of both. But my impression is that Americans put a very high value on "getting ahead;" that our society is dominated by the values of a competitive marketplace, so much that it is hard to point to anything else nearly as important to us. This puts much about our fates in the hands of the market; whether we are happy with our lives depends very much on the economy, which is why we talk about it so much.
There is nothing new about social competition or inequality. Both are ancient, and it would be silly to pretend that we have some sort of unique economic crisis. But I do think that while are safe from famine, we are vulnerable to economic change in other ways.
Here's an interesting economic finding for you: for the median American male, real wages have not gone up at all since 1962. That may not be quite right, since it is hard to compare the things people bought in 1962 to the things we buy today to get a real inflation rate, and that median man may be something of a phantom creature. Other studies show wages rising until 1975 or so. But anyway the wages of ordinary men are not going much of anywhere and this has been true for most of my lifetime.
Much of the presidential campaign was about "jobs." Which is interesting because in America we have lots and lots of jobs, far more than ever before, thousands created every day. But these new jobs are not the same as the old jobs. Jobs in macho fields like lumbering, fishing, agriculture, and manufacturing are declining; most of the growing fields are in health care and other services. Which brings me to Claire Miller's NY Times piece about men who won't take jobs in traditionally female fields:
Take Tracy Dawson, 53, a welder in St. Clair, Mo. He lost several jobs, some because his employers took the work to China and Mexico and others because the workers were replaced by robots. He has heard the promises of fast-growing jobs in the health care field: His daughter trained to be a medical technician. But he never considered it.And that takes us back to Tyler Cowen's piece from last spring, What the hell is going on?
“I ain’t gonna be a nurse; I don’t have the tolerance for people,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound bad, but I’ve always seen a woman in the position of a nurse or some kind of health care worker. I see it as more of a woman’s touch.”
The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes?Put these two things together: in America, we rely on our jobs to define who we are, to make us feel valuable, to tell us where we fit in our increasingly unequal world. Are we makers or takers? But for many men, the economy is not working. They are declining in status, losing their relevance, pushed to the margins. And they don't like it.
Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.
As machines take over ever more physical work, what happens to the men who used to do it? And will the same thing happen to all of us when AI starts doing more and more intellectual work as well?
In trying to explain why we find our economic situation so painful, Chen adds a further factor, the collapse of belief in collective effort:
When faced with these circumstances, members of the working class often turn inward. I witnessed this coping mechanism among the workers I got to know in Michigan. One of them, a white former autoworker, lost her home and had to move to a crime-infested neighborhood, where she had a front-row view of the nightly drug deals and fistfights. “I just am not used to that anymore,” said the woman, who grew up in poverty. “I want out of here so bad.” Interestingly, she dismissed any sort of collective solution to the economic misery that she and others like her now confront. For instance, she had no kind words to say about the union at her old plant, which she blamed for protecting lousy workers. She was also outraged by what she called the “black favoritism” at her Detroit plant, whose union leadership included many African Americans.On the left, people think racial antagonisms and animosity to government are stoked by billionaire class to keep workers from doing anything about their status. There may be something to that, but I think a more important factor is simply the intense individualism of our society. The most powerful social forces in our age remain those that fight against any limitations on our right to be whoever we want to be. A perfect example of what I mean surfaced this week at the Times, in their list of 11 Ways to be a Better Person in 2017:
This go-it-alone mentality works against the ways that, historically, workers have improved their lot. It encourages workers to see unions and government as flawed institutions that coddle the undeserving, rather than as useful, if imperfect, means of raising the relative prospects of all workers.
- Live Like Bill. No one treasured his independence more than the late, great photographer Bill Cunningham. Live by his immortal words. “Once people own you,” he said, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”
Is a society in which the first and last piece of advice is to "treasure your independence" ever going to mount a successful collective movement for anything? I think this is the main reason unions are failing; because however useful they may be, they only succeed when people take on the identity of union men and women and follow the union leadership through thick and thin, and Americans just aren't like that any more.
It may be that I am projecting my own feelings here, because I am an individualist to my core. The whole idea of belonging to a movement makes me queasy. I have been to a couple of demonstrations, but I didn't like it. I felt like a lost dogie in a cattle drive, listening to people make mediocre speeches, saying things I don't entirely agree with. Ugh. People talk about the power of feeling like you to belong to something bigger than yourself, and knowing that tens of thousands of others are on your side, and I am only puzzled. You like that? One of the irrational, emotional beliefs of my own that I have been working to shed is one best summed up in an old line from Mark Twain, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."
A few days ago I set aside speaking no evil of the dead to launch a salvo at British art critic John Berger. This was not a random act, but part of my wrestling with our contemporary condition. Berger and critics of his ilk judge art in political terms. He looks at a painting like Holbein's The Ambassadors and feels compelled to say that the globe "refers to incipient empire and so to racist violence." Of course much art is political, and when I teach history I show lots of slides, partly because I like pictures but partly because art can be a great way to get at social and political relations. So I don't see anything wrong with political analysis of art.
But is that all there is? This is a long-running debate about our academic world, in which it sometimes seems that all we have to offer is politics. You know, Shakespeare's plays taught as texts about power and gender and race and all that. Is there, maybe, something else to art?
Take another look at The Ambassadors. The two men are a secular lord and a churchman, and they are surrounded by symbols of science, scholarship, and art. The are perfect, thoroughly up-to-date avatars of worldly success. But all is not well in their world. The lute has a broken string, and across the foreground of the painting is a highly distorted image of a skull. The exact meanings here have been argued over for centuries, but at any rate Holbein has infused this portrait of two great men with an uneasy undercurrent. It was an unease felt by many people of that era, who worried that religious conflict, Turkish invasions and repeated bouts of plague and bad weather were signs of God's wrath, and possibly of the end of the world. Holbein knew both that his was an age of wonders, especially the discoveries symbolized by the globe, but also of spiritual difficulty.
It irks me to see art reduced to politics. And I think that is the right word: reduced. Politics is very important, and I care a great deal about it. But I do not believe it is the most important thing. The economy is also very important; but even taken together I do not think that the whole apparatus of our political and economic system is the most important thing. Holbein, I believe, was speaking about politics, and science, and religion, and humanity all at once, and a narrow political reading excludes most of that.
Another way I am typical of people of my sort – secular, educated, bourgeois, careful – is that I lack a vocabulary for expressing what I do think is most important. I can make lists: friendship, love, family, beauty, understanding, a calm state of mind, the panorama of the universe. But those are all bits and pieces of the spiritual wholeness I would write about if I knew how.
Art, as I understand it, is a way of communicating about such things, and about other things that can't be explained in simple prose. Or just a different way of speaking, a way that has nothing to do with politics. Turn a work of art into a position statement and you have destroyed something valuable. In our society we have a deep habit of doing exactly that. We are constantly taking beautiful, meaningful4 things and dragging them down into our partisan wrangling, or offering interpretations that are correct but still miss the point. To me this is a symptom of a deep problem: we politicize everything because we don't know what else to do with it. We have no better way of speaking about deep things. And since politics is a partial, flawed way of thinking about life, we lack the words for speaking our lives.
I do know that this can be seen as a conservative position, and that people who really want to change society think it is important to attack old art along with everything else about the sick world they reject. I disagree. It seems to me that many of the most effective revolutionaries, from Benjamin Franklin to FDR to Nelson Mandela, have been very respectful of what came before, and felt no need to go around ruining people's love for beautiful things.
Democratic politics is a hybrid beast, like a chimera or a griffon, that mixes up the practical business of governing with a way of speaking about our lives. Voter behavior is often baffling to rationalists like me, because I think politics is about choosing managers for the state. Other people think it is a way to say something. What many people want from politics is to be heard, and what they want in a leader is someone who understands them. They long for this because, for reasons particular to our society, or particular to some parts of it, or general to all of humanity, they feel hurt and lonely and unheard.
Which is not a way of defending how people vote. Some people want to be heard saying awful things. But you cannot understand politics until you reflect that many people feel wounded and slighted by the world and want more than anything else for someone to hear their cries of pain. Don't bother trying to tell me that (for example) Trump voters don't really have anything to complain about, because everybody suffers. It's easy to laugh at the sufferings of rich people, or even at the sufferings of middle class white people, but it is still a mistake. Plenty of middle class white people commit suicide, or drug themselves into oblivion with alcohol and opiates.
There is in America an ongoing discourse about attention. You see it everywhere: "Why aren't we talking about X?" Actually somebody probably is talking about X, even several thousand somebodies, but that isn't enough for some people. They want to know why certain things make the news but not others; why television shows focus on certain kinds of people and not their kind. They want to feel that other people care about what they care about, or even that the nation as a whole cares about what they care about. Some of these people are frankly crazy, as in, "Why aren't we talking about chemtrails?" But others are not so crazy. The culture really is focused on the doings of extraordinary people in New York and LA, rather than ordinary folks in suburban Milwaukee. Other than during national elections, when does the nightly news ever focus on asking ordinary people in boring places what they want? So when some people hear a politician who talks about what they care about in words that resonate with them, the response is overwhelming gratitude and loyalty. They will forgive such a leader almost anything, because they crave that sense of being known and understood and cared about.
They have those holes because of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of our society.
As to why our lives are so unsatisfactory, well, maybe that's just our lot. Maybe nobody is really that happy. I have spent very much of my life studying Medieval Europe, and I absolutely do not have the sense that they were spiritually better off than we are. Besides, for most people these voids I am speaking of are small or at least manageable; most of us do fine. But we have certain, particular problems that are to some extent new: our isolation and loneliness, our dependence on economic success to prove our worth, our lack of firm group identities. Compared to people in the past we are much more free, but much more alone, without the firm moral support a traditional society gives to people living by its rules. We no longer have tribes, but we still have strong tribal feelings; one way to think about the rancor of national elections is to see them as our version of the tribal wars that used to help people define themselves and their enemies.
There are pitfalls here for a nation. First, when we define ourselves primarily against each other rather than against outsiders, we step onto a long slope with Civil War at the bottom. How slippery is that slope? Second is that who becomes president actually matters, and choosing the candidate who seems most your kind of person is not necessarily the best way to guide the country. Millions vote in our elections without any idea what their candidate actually plans to do in office; in this regard Trump voters are little different from others. Is it a good idea by a nation to be led by those who best fill our psychological holes?
So that is my analysis. We have screwed up politics because we use politics in a clumsy way to fill the voids left in our hearts by our social, economic, and spiritual situation. We pour raw feeling into politics because we don't know what else to do with those feelings. We look to political leaders to understand us because we feel wounded and ignored; to speak for us because we feel that we have no voice; to validate us, because we have no system of community values to enfold us and tell us that we are doing right. We are free, but nervous about our freedom and unsure where we fit in the world. We rely on politics to give us a sense of being in the right, because otherwise we don't know what right is.