Listen, Liberal?

I have begun reading Tom Frank’s Listen, Liberal and it is good, very good. In it, Mr Frank clearly identifies the slide of the Democratic Party from the party of working families to the party of managerial professionals; the slide of the Democratic Party from my Grandparents to me. You should read Tom’s book.

Confession. I first encountered Tom Frank at Jimmy’s “Woodland Tap” back in 1991 as an entering graduate student at the University of Chicago. “That’s Tom Frank,” a friend pointed out. My eyes wandered to a young man (attempting to look old?) in a fedora and trench coat. “He edits ‘The Baffler.'”

Even at the time there was something “mysterious” about a resident of Hyde Park who was neither professor nor student. “What kind of creature is this?” I wondered.

I will withhold a review of Tom’s book until I have read and digested it in its entirety. It covers territory with which the readers of this blog will already be familiar.

But, here is my front end take. Tom wants the Dem’s to be defenders of working families; so do I. But he is also critical of the educated elite; I am not. As readers of this blog will know, I believe that the working class is as much a product of capital as trust funds and the rentier. The working class is a signature attribute of the elite. Readers will also know that I firmly believe that emancipation from necessity — from compulsion — holds the key to clear reflection about our condition: a person cannot think clearly about their condition with a gun to their head. Tom does not think highly of the folks I circulated with in Hyde Park.

And, yet, Tom makes an important — critical —  observation. I experienced the shift in 1998 when I worked as a consultant in Silicon Valley. It was not simply that the labor movement was dead. That was obvious. What people told me was that the labor movement was unnecessary, obsolete, anachronistic. This shift paralleled a shift in the Democratic Party leadership, a shift that Tom makes us face, away from working families to the managerial professional — liberal — class.

Is it possible to remember labor without celebrating it? Is it possible to promote the right to education, health, security, and leisure without also promoting the right of capital to pave the path that makes these possible? When we celebrate FDR and the New Deal, do we also have to celebrate the industrial conditions that made the New Deal necessary?

I am only half way through Tom’s book. And, as I have already said, I like Tom Frank. But I anticipate some critical interventions in his approach.

3 thoughts on “Listen, Liberal?”

  1. Many thanks, Joe.

    What are your thoughts on Frank’s critique of meritocracy? Is this where you disagree with him about the role of professional elites?

    1. Hey Robb. Frank directs our attention ad hominem without inviting us to explore the social composition of the person. Does Thomas (a fellow U Chicago grad) really mean to criticize education? Or does he mean to criticize the social role education plays within a market system that values information for its abstract value? Agency is extremely problematic in Frank’s account. The agency of workers is disembedded from its social form, while the agency of the managerial professional elite is treated as constitutive of the whole. Both are in fact social forms within a much broader logical network.

    2. Two things. One is that open heart surgery requires a heart surgeon. It is democratic only to the extent that heart surgeons might disagree over the correct course of treatment. Similarly, republican governance requires citizens who enjoy good health, wealth, leisure, education, and security. Absent these, they are not fit to govern, but only to be governed (says Aristotle) despotically. I agree with Frank to this extent: when in the 1950s and 1960s Democrats failed to fully implement a universal social franchise; when in the 1970s and 1980s they threw in their lot with the well-graduated, who did enjoy good health, wealth, leisure, education and security; and when in the 1990s and 2000s they shed their historical commitments to working families — they in effect also lost their raison d’être. But, I still believe that our goal should be (as GWF Hegel put it) educating the peasants “up to universality”; to extend to them the same privileges we enjoy. But, by and large, I liked Frank’s thoughts.

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