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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:

  • 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
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.

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 anti-spending ticket.

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 government.

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 of business.

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:

  • Return to Essentials; Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, GR Elton, Cambridge University Press, £16.95 hbk

  • 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, £11.95 pbk
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.

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 historiography.

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 elaboration.

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



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