Zombie Neoliberalism


Sarah Jaffe reviews Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank in Dissent:

Yet sometime between the release of the hardcover and the paperback edition of Listen, Liberal, America elected Donald Trump, a man who seems to roll up all of the worst parts of the conservatism that Frank loves to sharpen his claws on into one administration bent on nothing but more graft and more wreckage.

Frank, in some ways, deserves credit for seeing elements of Trumpism coming, but he also misdiagnosed some of its roots. The flaw in many of Frank’s zingers is a tendency to oversimplify, to reduce things to binaries—culture versus economics, business versus government—when the reality is more complex. His oeuvre tells the story of how the politics of class became another kind of identity politics; in telling that story, he inadvertently shows how so many people miss the fact that class is a relation of power bound up in one’s income, yes, but also race and gender, sexuality, education, even geographic location. To “talk about class,” as so many have exhorted since the 2016 election, is not simply to talk about the workers at Carrier, but to understand the material conditions that determine one’s position and power in society. Sometimes Thomas Frank seems to get that; other times he doesn’t.

The culture war that produced Trump wasn’t a battle on elite college campuses or in the pages of white papers read inside the Beltway. Instead it was a war that was fundamentally economic at its core, its cultural anxieties wrapped around the reality of decline. The culture that the workers at Carrier and Rexnord mourn is one of long days but predictable schedules, grueling work but relatively high wages and benefits, the occasional strike that bound them closer together and left them with battle stories for later.

What should have been shocking about Trump, in other words, was less that he used a combination of racism, brutish attacks on his opponents, and braggadocio about his business exploits to vault to the top of a heap of Republican nominees: it was that he combined it with at least some attention to the economic concerns of workers at Carrier.

This was, looking back over the past few decades, both shocking and inevitable.

More here.