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.