THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
James Heartfield looks at how the slump is squeezing
the American middle class and eroding the Republican majority
An American nightmare
Books discussed in this article include:
America's election has sorely tested the old Republican majority, with the
Grand Old Party's natural constituency protesting at the squeeze on the
middle class. Although the populist mood has been pronounced in this election,
it would be wrong to conclude that the slump is the only factor that has
reshaped the American political scene. In fact, the economy has come to
the fore precisely because of the eclipse of America's world hegemony. It
is the end of American pre-eminence that has broken the common outlook of
the ruling class and middle America. As the arguments reviewed here show,
working class fears of recession are still expressed in the middle class
outlook popularised by the Republican Party.
- Marching in Place: The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush,
Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, Simon & Schuster, $23 hbk
- America: What Went Wrong? Donald L Barlett and James
Steele, Andrews & McMeel, $6.95 pbk
- United We Stand: How We Can Take Back Our Country, a Plan
for the Twenty-First Century, Ross Perot, Hyperion, $4.95 pbk
In Marching in Place, Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, White House
correspondents for Time, tell an extraordinary story of the sheer
eccentricity of the Bush presidency. Sticking with the president since his
crushing defeat of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election through to going
to print just as Ross Perot threw his hat into the ring in the summer of
this year, Duffy and Goodgame give a good account of the character of the
president of the world's most powerful country. Despite their desire to
see the best in Bush, the portrait that emerges is of a president cautious
to the point of inactivity.
Marching in Place reveals how Bush's attempts to maintain the international
status quo - from appeasing Yuri Yanayev's joke coup in the Soviet Union,
to leaving the southern Shiites to face Iraq's republican guard - leave patriots
little to be proud of. In America: What Went Wrong?, Donald Barlett
and James B Steele voice the fears of recession that predominate as pride
in America's standing abroad dwindles. The book is a series of articles
published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1991 recording the massive
gap between the rich and the 'middle class'.
What went wrong?, packed as it is with an impressive array of comparative
statistics, offers a particular view of the American recession. It is the
recession as experienced by the working class - or at least the white majority
of the working class - but understood in middle class terms. So the book
is preoccupied with middle class concerns like taxation, 'unfair' foreign
competition and lawyers' fees.
Seeing the recession as a 'squeeze on the middle class' is no anachronism.
Democratic challenger Bill Clinton has made use of the arguments in What
Went Wrong? to great effect. The sentiment that middle America is hurting
has transformed Clinton from a sleaze merchant into the figurehead of a
populist protest against the paralysis of the Bush administration.
The extent to which the political response has been dominated by middle
class concerns is best summed up by the rogue candidacy of Ross Perot. His
programme United We Stand is a cranky mix of homespun wisdom - like:
'instead of swatting flies in the kitchen...focus on the gorilla charging
up the front steps' (p9)--and a middle class desire to leap over the fiscal
and political deadlock.
The overwhelmingly middle class character of the response to the recession
should not be taken at face value. In all of these books 'middle class'
is used to mean people in the middle, working people who are not deprived
and not rich. Barlett and Steele define the core of the middle class as
those on between $20 000 and $50 000 (between about £11 750 and £29
500). Given that this is about 35 per cent of the population, the people
they are talking about are wage earners, skilled maybe, but not really the
small businessmen the term implies in Britain.
The difference is not semantic. It is a legacy of the way that the American
ruling class has related to the core of the working class that the latter
are imbued with a middle class outlook. It is the tension between that middle
class outlook and the experience of the slump that has shaken the Republican
majority. At the same time, and because the core values of that middle class
outlook have never been challenged, there is tremendous scope for reaction
within the squeezed 'middle classes'.
To understand the grip of middle class values upon the American working
class you have to go back to the creation of the Republican majority in
the late sixties. In his book, The Emerging Republican Majority, Nixon
adviser Kevin Phillips explained how the Republicans had won the 1968 election,
reversing the presumed ascendancy of the Democratic Party. Nixon had worked
out that there was a mismatch between the liberal spending programmes of
the Democrats and their white working class voters - and he exploited it
to the full.
Nixon realised that the core of the Democratic vote was no longer made up
of outsiders, but white Americans with a measure of job stability, homes
of their own and a love of country. By and large these were the grandchildren
of immigrants, but now they considered themselves to be white Americans.
The Democratic Party had been a vehicle for their parents to make the transition
from outsiders to Americans, so their traditional allegiances were Democrat.
But those allegiances were weakened by relative prosperity. In particular,
Democratic voters who moved out to the suburbs, or to the more prosperous
west coast and, later, resurgent southern states, often left their political
allegiances behind them in the cities of the industrial north-east.
Intuitively the Republicans realised that they could open up the gap between
the aspirations of Democratic voters and the Democratic Party by talking,
albeit in a coded way, about race. While the party was concerned with integrating
blacks to calm the inner-city disorder, the majority of Democratic voters
felt themselves to be quite integrated enough already and unwilling to share
their place in the sun. Nixon appealed to the 'silent majority' who did
not protest, riot and demand social security. Nixon won back the presidency
for the Republicans, who have held it subsequently on similar terms in all
but one election.
The consolidation of the Republican majority was the consolidation of middle
class values among a significant section of the white working class. The
Democratic Party was portrayed as an alliance of the black poor and the
liberal east coast elite, the former dependent upon welfare, the latter
determined to make working Americans pay for their liberal consciences.
It was a potent mix that appealed to the white working class's sense of
having made it as home-owners and tax-payers.
Patriotism was the glue that held the alliance of middle America and the
ruling classes together. As long as America walked tall, white Americans
could identify their relative prosperity with success abroad. Indeed, it
was precisely the hegemony of American capitalism in the postwar period
that allowed the US elite to relate to its population without going through
the embarrassing experience suffered by European ruling classes of having
labour represented in the cabinet. The right also used patriotism in the
negative sense, identifying America's war against insurgents abroad with
the war against the black inner cities at home.
Taxation has always played a special role in the consolidation of a property-owners'
outlook among suburban Americans. In the late seventies Californian suburbanites
launched a tax revolt to protest at the taxes they paid for the upkeep of
the inner cities. Underneath the tax revolt was a racial identification
of welfare spending in the cities with blacks. White suburbanites acted
to defend their property against the drain of urban spending. The anti-tax
Proposition 13 laid the basis for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 on an
Reagan's running-mate, George Bush, was, as Duffy and Goodgame point out,
not a natural Reaganite, but an east coast liberal Republican who chose
to ally himself with the populist right wing. It is characteristic of George
Bush that when first challenged to explain how he could justify running
with Ronald Reagan after having attacked his supply-side economics as 'voodoo',
he denied saying it - until the video-tape of the comment was repeated on
television (Marching in Time, p68).
By the spring of this year the Republican majority had begun to fall apart
under the impact of the recession and the end of the Cold War. The tremors
were being felt in the contest for the Republican nomination. Right-wing
challenger and former Reagan speech-writer Pat Buchanan gave Bush a scare
in the New Hampshire primary, winning 37 per cent of the vote. Buchanan's
campaign made two issues central: taxation and patriotism. 'Read my lips',
Bush had promised in 1988, 'no new taxes'. That was an appeal to the middle
class politics of the Republican majority. In practice, Bush had to deal
with the budget deficit and cobbled together a deal with congress - a disadvantageous
one in Duffy and Goodgame's reading - that allowed further taxation in exchange
for cuts. Now 'No new taxes' was a demand that was being used against Bush,
where in 1988 it had helped him win the election.
Patriotism, too, seemed like an issue that could only favour a Republican
president, especially one who had just 'won the Cold War' and defeated Saddam
Hussein. In the event those victories were pyrrhic. The Cold War held the
Republican majority together. It mobilised Americans around a foreign policy
strategy. With the less clear-cut moral universe of the post-Cold War era
patriotism came to mean looking after your own instead of gallivanting across
the globe. Buchanan dusted off an old Democratic slogan - 'Come home America' - and
threw Bush on the defensive.
The Republican majority was disintegrating. Opposition to big government
and love of country were now sentiments that counted against George Bush.
As long as they were being voiced principally by right-wing Republicans
like Pat Buchanan and Jack Kemp the problem was containable, but with Ross
Perot's maverick candidacy the tensions in the Republican camp were given
an external focus. Furthermore, Bill Clinton's advisors were working overtime
to make a pitch to the middle class vote.
America: What Went Wrong?, the book that Clinton's campaign team
has been poring over in the pursuit of the middle class vote, gives a real
insight into the impact of the recession on the people who once would have
been the backbone of the Republican majority. The book records the impact
of the recession on the American working class while filtering that experience
through the outlook of the middle class. Opposition to taxation becomes
directed not primarily at the 'welfare dependent' but at big business and
Barlett and Steel point out that the tax reforms of the Reagan era favour
the very wealthy while hardly affecting the middle class. So the 1986 reform
saved people on between $20 000 and $40 000 just 11 per cent, or between
$300 and $467, while those earning between half a million and a million
dollars saved 31 per cent, or $86 084. Further they write that the top four
per cent make as much as the bottom half of US workers. These sorts of statistics
used to be cited in favour of welfare redistributionist policies. But What
Went Wrong? has a different argument: 'The wage and salary structure
of American business, encouraged by federal tax policies, is pushing the
nation towards a two-class society.' (pix)
Blaming tax policy for social division stands reality on its head. The system
of taxation only reflects the class divide. That the United States has moved
towards a regressive taxation system might indicate how far the argument
of tax-breaks for business has gone, but the real exploitation occurs in
the difference between take-home pay and profits. Concentration upon taxes
illustrates just how much the debate about policy is conducted in the terms
However, what Barlett and Steele record is primarily the difficulties of
the American working class, or at least that section of the working class
that has until now kept hold of the American dream. Those difficulties strain
the middle class self-identity of working Americans as the recession forcefully
reminds them of the limitations of their position. What Went Wrong? devotes
chapters to the raids on pensions and collapse of medical insurance that
have compounded the perception of a suffering middle class. The fact that
medical and pension insurance were characteristically private enterprises
in America is indicative of the way that American workers came to identify
with the free market. As companies are raided for their pension funds, leaving
retiring employees defenceless, or engineered bankruptcies relieve employers
of medical insurance commitments and saddle workers with huge health bills,
the illusion of middle class prosperity is strained.
The tensions within the middle class outlook that secured the Republican
majority have cost Bush a lot of heartache. It would be wrong to conclude,
however, that American workers are about to respond according to their class
interests. The perception of the recession is still overwhelmingly shaped
by a middle class outlook. What has changed is that that outlook no longer
reconciles American workers to the Republican Party automatically.
The ideas expressed in America: What Went Wrong? and even Ross Perot's
United We Stand appear to be progressive in so far as they are pointing
the finger at the failures of the American establishment. However, the reactionary
potential of this kind of response is marked - especially in connection with
nationalism. In both books, government is derided for selling out American
industry to foreign competitors. Perot's concern is with the legislature
and the political lobbying system which he sees as corrupt and prey to Japanese
lobbying. Barlett and Steel condemn the free trade agreement with Mexico
for shifting jobs south of the border, and tax breaks for promoting a foreign
buy-out of American industry.
The picture painted of big government as an occupation force for foreign
interests presents the slump in middle class terms. It is also a picture
that favours reaction - especially attacks upon working class living standards
in the form of welfare cuts and attacks on public sector workers. In a recent
election debate, Democrats Richard Gephardt and Jerry Brown blamed competition
from Japan and Mexico for the loss of American jobs. Right-wing republican
Jack Kemp - hot tip for 1996--turned on his opponents and won the audience
round by telling Gephardt and Brown that they had identified the wrong global
enemy: it was not Mexico or Japan, but Washington DC.
Frank Füredi reviews some recent writings on history
and explains why the past is contested so fiercely
Contesting the past
Books discussed in this article include:
Contemporary society is very much oriented towards the past. We live in
a world where historic anniversaries are treated as news. The meaning of
anniversaries - such as the voyage of Columbus to America - are fiercely debated.
Even current events, like the war in Yugoslavia, are discussed in the language
of the Second World War.
- Return to Essentials; Some Reflections on the Present State
of Historical Study, GR Elton, Cambridge University Press, £16.95
- The Powers of the Past; Reflections on the Crisis and Promise
of History, HJ Kaye, University of Minnesota Press
- The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on
Old Regimes and Modern States, EM Wood, Verso, £34.95 hbk,
The celebration of the past, particularly the national past, is central
to the ideological project of the conservative right. For conservatives,
the past provides direction for the present. They are particularly concerned
that the interpretation of the past should uphold the values that they advocate
today. GR Elton's lectures on history are an eloquent call for a nationalist
Elton argues that since our identity is determined by the past, history
is crucial for shaping society's self-image: 'If we try to ignore history
or drive it from our minds we lose our communal memory' (p5). Elton's warnings
about ignoring history do not pertain to history in the abstract. His history
is one that rekindles 'respect for a country whose past justifies that respect'(p91).
That country is England (not even Britain).
Elton understands that a usable past is one that is unambiguously positive,
so he makes little effort to hide his apologetic intent. To win respect
for England, Elton is quite ready to rehabilitate the Empire. Pointing a
finger at post-colonial societies, he claims that they have 'killed far
more people in previously imperial territories than 200 years of building
those empires ever destroyed' (p45). The conclusion which Elton invites
is devastatingly simple; the Empire was morally good, the English have nothing
to be ashamed of, long live England!
Harvey Kaye's lucid essays provide an ideal counterpoint to Elton. Kaye
provides a well-balanced, comparative account of the debates around the
theme of history in Britain and America. His American material is particularly
useful for grasping the attempt by conservatives to achieve ideological
coherence. Kaye argues that the so-called crisis of history is actually
'an expression of an even deeper and more extensive historical crisis' (p41).
The social crisis is experienced at the level of ruling class subjectivity
in terms of an absence of vision and direction.
Kaye suggests that the attempt to rehabilitate tradition and nationalist
history has failed to have the desired effect. He argues that in neither
Britain nor America has the 'New Right accomplished the articulation of
a new, confident and optimistic, national grand-governing narrative' (p124).
The right's inability to elaborate a viable intellectual dynamic does not
mean that conservatism has no influence. The very attempt to initiate this
project is symptomatic of the relative confidence of the right and the defensiveness
of progressive currents.
Kaye is acutely aware of the relative decline of critical thought. His book
concludes with a chapter that suggests that the issue is not the counterposition
of one form of history to the conservative variety. The real issue is winning
the argument about the plausibility of change. He concludes that 'it is
a matter of confronting the sense of impotence and the belief that action,
especially political action is futile' (p149).
Confronting the new social fear of change is not an easy undertaking. Kaye's
own preference for reasserting the vision 'which drew so many of us to the
discipline in the 1960s and early 70s' (p150) is unlikely to find much resonance.
Possibly we need less 'reasserting' and 'rethinking' and more starting afresh.
Whatever the best solution for developing critical thought, Kaye's essay
offers a discussion that needs to be addressed.
Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Pristine Culture of Capitalism demonstrates
that good history is still being written. This text provides a critique
of Anderson and Nairn's thesis that the weakness of capitalism in Britain
is due to feudal survival. In the postwar period it has been fashionable
among Western Marxists to argue that the ancien regime survives throughout
Europe. Often this argument has been used to vindicate the reformist perspective
which suggested that since specific problems were generated by feudal residues
then an anti-capitalist perspective was utopian.
Wood argues convincingly that features which appear to be feudal are the
product of the capitalist experience. In a brilliant chapter, 'The Modern
State', the author confronts the argument that Britain lacked a clear capitalist
theory of the state, whereas these ideas thrived in France. Wood argues
that the clarity of the French on this point was due to the absence of an
'indivisible' sovereign power. By contrast, the English 'felt no comparable
conceptual need possessing the reality of sovereignty' (p44). Thus the absence
of a coherent English capitalist political discourse is a consequence of
the dynamism of this system. Since it existed it did not require prior theoretical
Wood also confronts some of the contemporary right-wing English historians.
This is a slightly less successful part of the book since this requires
a more systematic critique; one which links the approach of Jonathan Clark,
Alan Macfarlane and others to the contemporary intellectual climate. Apart
from this one weakness, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism is excellent,
and its first five chapters are a model critical Marxist history.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992