And these new babies who ate and slept regularly, on a schedule, like little clocks, as Miss Swenson said, were going to grow up into a new kind of man, who perhaps (it did not do to be too optimistic) would no longer want to make wars and grab property.
—Priss daydreaming in Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group (1963)
The dissertation I finished this past summer was about comic alternatives to “liberal satire,” a form of comedy celebrated and derided as a virtual synecdoche for the 1960s. While my focus was on the alternatives, I was obliged to specify the hegemonic cultural form (liberal satire) against which these had been defined. In the sources I consulted, “liberal” described not people devoted to any particular political or ethical philosophy but rather people who imagined they shared the material interests of affluent white professionals as a class. “Satire” described the scoffing superiority of a Mort Sahl. Criticisms of liberal satire have been widely circulated ever since Sahl was supplanted by a purportedly jazzy Lenny Bruce in the late 1950s. Such criticisms have found a renewed vigor in the weeks since the most recent disgrace of the party of the professional class—in one of the more mild examples, we hear from inside the halls of The Daily Show that Jon Stewart believed the more “eviscerating” viral videos his show often produced were “unhealthy.” This ground has been covered many times before, and so I continue to believe that our focus should be on alternatives.
What might be useful, however, is an examination of the historical grounds of professional-class ideology as a fantasy world. Criticisms of liberal satire tend to be satirical themselves. Liberalism seems most ridiculous when it appears as a set of blinders. If you read criticism to be entertained or to be assured that you’re one of the smart ones, that’s the depiction you want. People stumbling around in their own self-imposed darkness look funny, and so today even poor Ann Coulter, God bless her, can land some pretty diverting punchlines. If on the other hand you read criticism for the sake of understanding, you need to ask how postwar liberalism as a variegated, contradictory way of perceiving the world has become involved in the lived experiences of affluent professionals or “whiter people”—people whitened by their affluence and professionalism, the “white people” of “stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.” (I first encountered the comparative term in Amiri Baraka's Blues People of 1963, where the author, then LeRoi Jones, discussed black men whitened by their involvement in the world of professionals.) More than a flimsy set of blinders, postwar liberalism functions as a mode of perception characterized by its own hopes, fears, and satisfactions. Instead of merely pointing out how unmoored from reality liberalism comes to be the more it subordinates itself to capitalism’s concentration and centralization of wealth, I would like to examine the sustenance it finds in the social relations it interprets and farcically reproduces.
Postwar liberalism, or something like it, is still woven through the lives of whiter professionals. Children born into white working-class families in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan still go to college and never move back—this year, some of them reportedly claimed they would skip Thanksgiving knowing their parents voted for Trump. This isn’t because their professors indoctrinated them into progressivism and sent them off to San Francisco. It’s because the jobs they train for are in different parts of the country, and it’s because people who have graduate degrees or hopes of attaining graduate degrees can imagine that they share material interests with whiter professionals as a class. As always, imagined social relations come first. Without reference to an ostensibly existing set of social relations, an ideology’s more fantastic flights must eke out a meagre existence.
Yet even a relatively meagre liberal fantasy world could offer wounded Clinton supporters plenty of juicy rewards and prickly defense mechanisms with which to stride onward into irrelevance, if that is the direction they take. With or without any empirical knowledge of our society, many of the stories professionals tell themselves would sound ridiculous to any enlightened space alien: we've always done the best anyone could have done given the circumstances; those other, bad white people are naturally prone to backlashes against racial progress; “they” hate our freedom; or to put it in more sacerdotal terms, somehow racism magically got into “our” DNA and “our” American heritage, and now it’s mysteriously transmitted like an invisible illness, rather than continuously reproduced by the very social relations which benefit affluent professionals.
When pressed, even the most devoted liberal will acknowledge that these stories are preposterous, or that at best they beg the question—what is the problem? people are racist. why? because they are. How then do these narratives come to be circulated? Setting aside the total degradation of the public sphere as a relevant factor, I believe that liberal credulity has only as much to do with a lack of criticism as with the satisfactions such fantasies have to offer, even in lieu of the last semblance of credibility. What liberals see when they survey the repeatable narratives glutting their newsfeed is a litany of wishes being fulfilled: the whiter professional is the child of the future; young people vote blue and will continue to do so even long after they are so mired in debt that they can no longer benefit from subsidies for college education or Obamacare; people of color will never cease to believe that affluent liberals will finally grant them a place in the most affluent 20% of the population; the enemy is the 1%, the 0.1%, or the 0.01% (the exact percentage depends on how truly progressive you are, but I can’t remember which order it goes in), not the yuppies who can reasonably picture themselves as the beneficiaries of subsidies to and limitless intellectual property rights for affluent professionals and their employers.
Whenever these wish-fulfillments start to seem all too fantastic, defense mechanisms kick in. The professional-class falls back on its capacity to make others look bad. The discussion of racism as absolute evil, rather than as grounded in real social relations, has at least two functions: it allows whiter people to ignore the racism inherent in the social relations they enjoy, and it renders anyone who would discuss those problems permanently suspect. All critics of contemporary liberalism are essentially the same: real or virtual members of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no use listening to the complaints of the working-class white people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then, in 2016, voted for Trump, cast a blank ballot, or didn’t vote at all. Indeed, since no one knows how racism is transmitted, any contact with anyone suspected of racism (i.e., anyone less than 100% on board with the professional class) could lead to infection. The long story short, if you must know, is that sometime around 2015, someone spontaneously noticed that the President had suspiciously dark skin, and it was all downhill from there—“Now hold on a minute, Grannie: what the heck kinda name is ‘Obama’?”
If what we need is a cure for postwar liberalism, we might start with something like an interpretation of the fantasy lives of whiter people. Consider the central narrative of postwar liberalism in its grotesquely protracted adolescence: affluent white professionals are the children of the future. Americans from every walk of life encounter this narrative nearly every day. The economy is transitioning to a “service economy.” Everyone born between about 1984 and the late 1990s works for Apple, or soon will. We live in a “post-industrial society.” “Technology” has changed, and the “new jobs” will require college degrees. What people (“and especially children!” chimes in Clinton) really need is an “opportunity” to go to graduate school—in her final appeal to GOP moderates, Clinton promised to provide others with a “chance to live up to their God-given potential.” Demographics are shifting in our favor. Any second now, Latinos will quit it with their pesky opinions and discover that they were waiting to become moderate Democrats all along. “Young people” vote deep blue, and we all know what that means (?). All of this is cause for unhinged celebration. College graduates have “good jobs.” They’re more “progressive” and “cosmopolitan.” They have better taste in television. Their politicians—this line has been sprouting all across my Facebook feed—are a “class act.” (Trump, Fran Lebowitz explains for Vanity Fair, is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person.”) Deindustrialized cities aren’t just riddled with social problems; they’re “forgotten,” and understandably so. If you’ve heard that the deadliest garment factory accident in history happened during the Obama years, you should be relieved to learn that it happened in one of those backward, industrializing nations, not in any of the modern nations that shop there.
Something like this narrative found at least four grounds in real conditions during the imagined Golden Age of postwar liberalism. First, it allowed people to make sense of social changes undergirded by the transformation of the North American University into a training ground for a growing population destined for graduate and professional schools. Despite what you may have been taught, this change had relatively little to do with the G.I. Bill. The most far-reaching social changes tied to the rise of the modern university were in the lifestyles and employment prospects of Baby Boomers, in the nature of "women’s work," and in the opportunities welcomed by a striving "black bourgeoisie." And these changes were either complete or at least well under way by the mid 1960s: the basic character of the modern graduate-degree-track university could be described in its entirety by the sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman in their 1968 book, The Academic Revolution. If any Federal legislation should be emphasized in this regard, it would be not the G.I. Bill but rather the programs implemented by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, programs transparently designed to increase the number of graduate students in the country. I suppose the reason professional historians and journalists don’t emphasize these programs is that for the professional, programs such as these belong to the future rather than the past. Or so they must hope: the flip-side of the rise of the “service economy” as subsidized by liberal Great Society programs has been the long decline of employment in manufacturing. That decline was relative to employment in the service economy for two decades after 1945; in 1965, it became an absolute decline. This was cause for some alarm—the corresponding decline in Western Europe, where Keynesianism did not suffer the flagrant incompetence of the Johnson administration, did not follow for more than a decade. But affluent professionals have tended to downplay the decline of manufacturing in favor of narratives such as, “someday we’ll all join hands together on the quad of the Apple campus.” Or we won’t, but it will be okay because, after all, nobody wants to hold hands with a bunch of ignorant racists (see the third ground for the child-of-the-future narrative below).
Second, the narrative of the affluent professional as child of the future allied the professional class with the final decision makers in all capitalist societies: capitalists, or in the case of contemporary or “monopoly” capitalism, the managerial class staffed by the most affluent among the affluent professionals. Improvements in global transportation such as the standardization of modern “container shipping” (“containerization”) and the liberalization of world trade meant that U.S. manufacturers could profitably move their activities outside the United States long before the "neoliberalism" of the 1980s. Manufacturing shrank in the United States only as it mushroomed all around the globe. Domestic investment could then be focused on the education and employment of people with graduate degrees. And this was a doubly profitable arena because the public could be cajoled into subsidizing investment in it. Capital found highly trained workers without even needing to pay for them. And why not? These subsidies to capital could be interpreted as investments in a future you can believe in.
Third, the child of the future narrative helped affluent white professionals build strategic alliances with “minorities.” Whatever their actual importance, the imagined importance of these alliances cannot be overstated. It was widely believed that Kennedy owed his narrow victory over Nixon to a black voting bloc. A similar narrative appeared in 2008, albeit as only one part of a dubious second-coming-of-Kennedy tale. And the affluent white professional’s affection for black voters has not always gone unrequited. Jencks and Riesman reported that black men expressed higher hopes for professional careers than for careers in what they perceived as a more segregated world of business. Since whiter professionals dominated every corner of U.S. culture and government, any ambitious parent of sufficient means could look to graduate school as their child’s land of opportunity.
On the rare occasions when a professional-class periodical has bothered to interview non-professional-class black people, the dreamscape has been badly unsettled. One of the current objections to the “end of identity politics” thesis demonstrates why this is necessarily so: “Identity politics is over? What do you call white rural voters voting as a bloc?!” Setting aside the fact that white rural voters did not vote as a bloc—on average, the poorer they were, the less likely they were to vote at all—here’s the rub: until recently, whatever you called it, you certainly didn’t call it identity politics. The entire point of the administrative class’s identity politics was to make people whiter, strip them of the vestiges of an imagined antiquated era before the administrative class swooped in to save the day, and send them off, more or less on their own, up a narrow career ladder. White people are supposed to be born almost finished. From there, it’s up to them to climb the ladder. Professional-class identity politics allows you to identify with any group as long as the interests of that group can ultimately be identified with the interests of the professional class. A black barber recently quoted in the New York Times was speaking outside the terms of the professional class when he suggested that, as long as students are receiving federally subsidized loans for tuition, maybe there should be similar loans for barbers paying the mortgage on their barbershop. Whether or not this would make for wise policy is a moot point. Come November, the barber would be counted in one of only two ways: either he would ally himself with the professional class, or he wouldn’t. One of his companions at the barbershop voted for Trump, but only because he saw it as a way of getting revenge on a family he held responsible for his lengthy incarceration. Both men knew that their vote counted only as far as it pertained to the success or failure of the program of the professional class. If they supported Clinton and she won, their own policy ideas would be ignored; if they didn’t and she lost, their policy ideas would be ignored, and they’d hear a lot about “the Obama effect.” Either way, they evidently did not expect Clinton's potential loss to affect their own lives any more than the lives of whiter professionals far more directly dependent upon liberal largess.
But just as important as any actual sympathies between whiter professionals and their imagined “black voters” is the way that a free-floating feeling of connection helps professionals avoid forging ties with what they recognize as the single largest demographic in the U.S. electorate, white people without college degrees. You can jettison forty percent of the electorate by piecing together fragile coalitions across the remaining sixty percent. This raises a fourth ground for the child-of-the-future narrative: belief in this fantasy has allowed government administrators to jettison the more expensive duties of any legitimate state. If you’re trying to purge the electorate of people without college degrees, it’s best to focus your attention on people who can be promised an opportunity rather than on people who explicitly disdain the opportunities you’re willing to offer. The Federal government appears today as a Frankenstein monster: part publicly endowed charity glorified by the coercive powers of a failed state, part benevolent uncle to the capitalists and their faithful professionals. A world of employment is opened to the professionals tasked with determining who does and who doesn’t qualify for government programs. And money is saved by determining that only children, students, the deserving poor, and corporations qualify for any kind of public support. Children can’t be blamed for their parents’ failures. Students are candidates for the professional class, and so deserving of our respect and encouragement, especially since they can be talked into receiving support in the form of meagre subsidies for deviously inflexible forms of debt. The deserving poor may or may not be citizens entitled to social securely, but they can still be treated as humanitarian cases. And corporations? Well, everyone knows why we have to subsidize them. Where else are the children of the future going to work? Beyond that, everyone else has to take personal responsibility for their own fate.
Over the long term, everyone eligible to vote is expected to become a whiter professional or an aspiring whiter professional; either that or they are expected to face a forewarned and well deserved extinction. The problem today is that the dinosaurs are sticking up for themselves, either by refusing to vote for the candidate of the professional class or, worse, by voting for Trump. That they are sometimes sticking up for themselves in repugnant ways is beside the point as far as professional-class fantasies are concerned. From the standpoint of the professional, if the unprofessional cannot be construed as quaint, charming, or exotic, they must seem somewhat repugnant to begin with.
The Clinton camp’s 2016 strategy—jettison white voters without college degrees and woo disaffected suburban GOP moderates—may seem ridiculous to you today, knowing as we now do that by any definition of “moderates,” Trump won the group by gaping margins. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the DNC to give up on this game plan. I see no evidence that a hard left turn is in the works—a Keith Ellison facelift in the front office, maybe, but a substantive revision of the platform, unlikely, especially since there will always be someone else to blame if things don’t pan out. Get organized, or expect to find yourself deciding once again between an entrenched conservative and a reform-minded clown.
As you organize, keep in mind that the DNC apparatchiks are going to hold their line by manipulating whiter, professional-class fantasies. This past election has to be recognized as a farcical battle between two segments of a relatively affluent, woefully antiquated, white “middle class”: the white “working class” which remembers a heyday in the fifties, and the whiter “professional class” which remembers a heyday in the sixties. For a supposed progressive, Clinton spent a lot of time repeating the phrase, “We’ve gotta get back.” To the extent that these two entities exist as classes, they are mired in outdated ideologies: both desire a return to a Golden Age which never was. Trump promised protections for jobs that would not be needed if we used technology to produce social wealth instead of capitalist profit (pronounced “growth”). Clinton promised ever increasing subsidies for people who see themselves as the more “competitive” horses in an accelerating race, who prevent most people in the world from applying for their jobs in the first place, and who use union busting and the benign neglect of un-enfranchised (pronounced “undocumented”) workers to stretch their hard-earned dollar with the unpaid labor of others.
In saying all of this, I should add that I would not in any way advocate for “a bit more populism,” as the columnist Paul Krugman puts it. Krugman’s warning against mere populism is timely, if the rest of his column these days reads as a lot of professional-class self-pity. In the coming months and years, the DNC will be talking a lot about “message,” the idea being that they’ve been right all along (“We have an understanding of what works,” Clinton told Stephen Colbert), they just haven’t communicated how brilliant they are to those ignorant hicks they thought they were finally rid of.
We don’t need more vacant pandering. We need substantial policy alternatives. I for one would like to see a platform geared toward the creation of an economy where people are obliged to do less and less labor for capitalists and free to do more work for themselves and their society as a whole. I don’t believe that work only has value if it can make a capitalist a buck. I certainly don’t believe that anyone should be forced, under the threat of ruin, into doing a particular sort of work merely because the powerful will pay to have it done. The policies I want to see considered are not subsidies targeted toward the encouragement of capitalist growth and the development of affluent professionals, but programs productive of a guaranteed universal income, a shortened work week, and a public sphere designed with personal and social rather than merely professional development in mind.
The professionals as members of the conspicuous-consumption class may be unlikely champions of these sorts of programs. But I count only three general pathways for them from here. One is that they will retreat into the satisfactions of their fantasy world and become irrelevant, at least as far as electoral politics in the medium term is concerned. In some sense this first alternative has already been realized: what gets diagnosed as congressional Republican stonewalling should instead be seen as merely one symptom of just such an electoral irrelevance (unfortunately, the DNC does not seem to distinguish between its opponents and its excuses). The second is that professionals will take Trump’s moment as an opportunity to be swept away by their own more authoritarian impulses—if the unprofessional are too ignorant to do what we tell them to do, we’ll praise ultra-right-wing faithless electors before we will accept the consequences of our own incompetence. The third possibility is that the manifest bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism will inspire people to build new coalitions around substantive left alternatives. Put more simply, whatever empty slogans they repeat, the professionals have a choice to make between a reactionary and a progressive politics. They can act as a “middle class” allied with Capital, in which case they will be reduced to authoritarianism or some other form of relative impotence. Or they can act as the proletariat. They cannot have it both ways. Will they work to shore up their class privilege or to abolish class society?
(Thanks to Jeremy Orosz for commenting on an earlier version of this post.)