Who are they?

9 Sep

After Obama’s speech last night, Corey Robin pointed us to this article by Katha Pollit, which argues that, for the most part, liberals have given up talking about the poor. Pollit has a point. Relative to almost no discussion of poverty and unemployment, Obama’s speech said something. But it took the minimal approach of addressing the fate of the unemployed, rather than the overall structure of options available in the economy. And it is indeed noticeable that the old, diseased welfare-state liberalism has been feeble, especially relative to the politically ascendant progessive-neoliberalism of the Democratic leadership.

However, we’re not so sure ‘the poor’ is a better way talking about the relevant constituency. For one, ‘the poor’ are still a minority – a somewhat different one from the unemployed, it is true – but they are 14%. (Well, according to the official measure, which considerably undermeasures poverty). As such, it is not clear to us that talking about ‘the poor’ escapes any of the political problems we discussed in our post Tuesday. It creates a separate minority, with distinct interests from the many who might not be poor, but who ultimately would also benefit from a different economic order than this one. Why carve up an already fragmented electorate that ought to be organized on the basis of shared, majority interests? Why isolate the interests of the poor from those of the middle?

The other problem is that ‘the poor’ is a fairly passive category. To be sure, there are ‘poor people’s movements’ – though they seem pretty weak in the US. And there are those who use the category poor not because they seem as the objects of charity, but as groups that should or could act to help themselves. But for the most part, it is still a category connected to liberal charity and philanthropy. ‘They need our help.’

Why not say working class instead? It covers the unemployed, the poor, and many of those in the ‘middle’ who have a decent, if fragile and often debt-financed, standard of living. The working class is potentially a majority, not one amongst a number of minorities struggling for recognition of its interests. It is, moreover, an active political and social agent, at least in theory.

Of course, the background problem is that, no matter the category pundits use, the relevant group is more talked about – ‘the unemployed’ ‘the poor’ ‘the working class’ – than making its own claims. ‘They’ have only sporadically (i.e. Wisconsin) made their own claims – and for the most part seem to lose when they do. That real political problem is reflected in the way ‘they’ get talked about – fluid categories, specious identification of interests, and political half-measures as bribes for votes.

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2 Responses to “Who are they?”

  1. Gordon Lafer September 11, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    Aren’t you guys supposed to be some variety of Marxists? This post is just too pomo. Debating about labels is not the point, no matter what some people say. And as to voice and voicelessness, the problem isn’t in the words bloggers use to describe the problem — poor people and everyone else say plenty of things about their own situation, but obviously a policy blog is the provence of a different class of people and that’s whose language is gonna be used here. Focus on language or guilty introspection isn’t the point, the point is the real way in which people with largely shared interests are divided up — not just conceptually, but really. Obviously, in the most concrete way, in the jobs people have and the neighborhoods they live in. From the government’s point of view, there’s also the very concrete divisions of how different groups of people are addressed by government programs. TANF for poor people without jobs (and without political clout); UI for voters who are better off but laid off; TAA is the attempted buyoff for an even higher class of workers, union members displaced by trade who have the political ability to make a stink about it. Medicaid for poor people, Social Security for people who worked. Obviously the corporate right wants to turn everyone in the bottom 80% or so of the country against each other, but even the Dems have people divided up by program, by budget, etc. — so that auto workers put out of work by NAFTA will never be in the same program, or sit in the same classroom, or stand in the same line, or struggle with the same bureaucrat, as waiters and waitresses who were simply laid off, or as people without a job trying to get home heating assistance. There are very concrete ways in which people are divided, and obviously very well-funded strategies to keep us not focused on where the real money is, but going after each other. This is the stuff that matters much more than the words people use to describe the problem. If liberasl don’t talk or think or do much about poor people, this is a much bigger thing that just not using the right words, no?

    • thecurrentmoment September 12, 2011 at 12:25 am #

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. We agree that the division between the deserving and the undeserving poor is one of the more pernicious features of the American ‘welfare state’ such as its bits and pieces are. And this division is a real feature of welfare, unemployment, and health care policies, not just the mental conceptions of its defenders. At least, that appears to be one aspect you were pointing out. With regard to all that, all we would say is that we are seeing more policy-in-the-making. The direction it goes will carve up the bottom 80% even more. And the reason for that is, in part, because of certain ways in which certain background ideas translate into new policies.

      And on that point, we don’t know why you think Marxists or any non-pomos for that matter aren’t allowed to talk about labels and ideas, just ‘policies’ (are policies idea free?). As it appears from your own statement, the ideas that the most influential people have – say the President and the leading members of the Democratic party – translate rather quickly into real policies. That’s one reason why those ideas and labels are worthy of critique.

      Perhaps this is all besides the point because you consider us a ‘policy blog.’ We don’t know what that means. What we infer from your comment is that the audience involved is an educated group – Marx’s ‘critical critics’ – that is different from most working people. But so what? If anything, that is a further reason to challenge *both* the policies and the background ideas and labels that are in use. Why leave the ideas to our opponents or, as the case may be, to fellow travelers who we think are wrong? After all, the article we were commenting on was an article by one of our fellow critical critics who was proposing an alternative way of addressing the jobs crisis. The wrong alternative can be just as bad as a bad policy, and it can be bad all the way down – down to the way it conceives of the people who need saving/to save themselves. Our view was that substituting in policies aimed at ‘the poor’ was a bad alternative – for being about minorities rather than majorities, and a passive way of making contact with those groups to boot. So it’s not just actually existing policies that are worthy criticism, but also bad criticism of those policies.

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