Friday, 16 September 2016

Hillbillies and Russians

That globalisation was stuttering before 2008 is now widely accepted, as is the belief that there are structural factors driving secular stagnation and that rising inequality is eroding public faith in conventional politics. One area where these three tendencies intersect is in the movement of labour. Though globalisation was always predominantly about the free movement of capital, the trope of the "global race" diverted attention towards foreign workers ("they took 'er jerbs!"). Likewise, ageing populations in developed nations (and precautionary saving in developing nations) have produced both a "savings glut" that has driven secular stagnation and a political shift towards xenophobic nostalgia (while true, this can be a overplayed: not all the children of the 50s and 60s grew up to be reactionaries). Modern populism has been characterised as antipathy towards refugees, foreign workers and domestic "moochers", which means that the anti-elite revolt (true populism) is little more than rhetoric that masks pro-elite policies (tax cuts for the rich, more military spending, bring back grammar schools etc).

That globalisation has been redefined from a problem of unfettered capital to a problem of labour is one of the more notable ideological developments since the Seattle protests of 1999, and probably has its roots in the management of immigration as a labour-supply issue (and asylum as a form of welfare claim) in the mid-90s. What neoliberals failed to grasp was that this framing would lead to a popular belief that the damaging volatility of international capital could be ameliorated by tougher immigration controls, which was a strand of thought that ultimately led to Brexit. While the belief that the fundamental problem of political economy is labour might appear to be a characteristic of neoliberalism (like classical liberalism), i.e. laissez-faire for capital and coercion for labour, it is at heart the fundamental conservative premise that underpinned the pre-democratic age of hierarchy and privilege: labour unconstrained by tradition and social obligation is dangerous. Liberalism is simply a rationalisation of this prejudice for the era of representative government.

This focus on labour, and in particular the need for it to follow the dictates of capital, has produced two notable strands in recent conservative thought in the US, one optimistic (labour can be cajoled) and one pessimistic (this will be traumatic), though neither is particularly original. Both have analogues in the UK, from The Economist recommending the abandonment of northern towns to the belief that Brexit was the revenge of the "left behinds". The optimistic case is advanced by Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and Average is Over, who is arguably more of a progressive (i.e. an economically and socially liberal) Republican than a conservative, though he is unquestionably one of the right's more interesting thinkers. His view is that globalisation is not dying but shifting focus: "Globalization typically is defined as the movement of goods, services, ideas, labor and investment across national borders. But many nations lack integrated economic relations within their borders, and thus they could reap high gains from trade by opening up internally. This is happening, and its logic very much resembles that of globalization".

The examples he uses are the subcontinental-scale internal markets of China and India. There is an obvious echo here of the functionalist theories of 19th century development in the USA and Russia, which emphasised the benefits of import-substitution (i.e. tariffs) to protect national producers and grow domestic markets, combined with a laissez-faire attitude to internal capital allocation and state investment in infrastructure (e.g. railways) to exploit economies of scale. The US was a success because it repressed and dispossessed "backward" forms of capital, from Native Americans who refused to fully exploit land to the cottonocracy of the South, as much as it coerced marginal labour, while Russia failed because the aristocracy and other socially conservative forces exerted too great a dead weight on liberal progress. The consequence in the US was the Progressive Era, which attempted to ameliorate the social damage of laissez-faire and prepare US industry for integration during the first wave of globalisation. In Russia, the consequence was first bourgeois and then proletarian revolution.

Cowen naturally ignores such Trumpish policies as tariffs and walls in favour of liberal ones such as the removal of internal barriers and encouraging the Internet to create national markets, but he concedes that national economic integration will probably lead to more political nationalism, which is an echo of the functionalist orthodoxy with respect to those other coming economic powers of the late 19th century, Germany and Japan. To allay any fears, he holds out the prospect of a further internationalist turn: "these stronger and better integrated political units probably will grow in wealth and economic sophistication, and in due time that will give us more globalization yet". The problem with this hope is that the success of the USA was atypical and largely dependent on favourable geopolitics, notably its ability to supplant the UK as the financial hegemon in Central and South America after WW1 and Spain's inability to resist US expansion in Cuba and the Philippines. China and India have more challenging backyards.

What is implicit in Cowen's assessment is that labour mobility will increase within national borders even as - indeed because - it decreases internationally. We have probably passed the peak of labour mobility in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, though perhaps not in sub-Saharan Africa or South East Asia. What is clear is that future military (or covert political) interventions in developing nations by Western powers will be more cautious because of the potential blowback in terms of refugees (this may turn out to be the chief legacy of Cameron's ill-advised Libyan adventure). The point is not the actual impact of the refugees themselves (European governments remain discreetly keen on importing youth to offset demographic ageing), but the negative impact of media coverage on domestic politics, which has steadily grown since the Balkan Wars and has now become systemically destabilising (see Brexit).

The idea that native labour needs to "get on its bike" is hardly new, but the prospective turning-off of the tap of immigrant labour has made it more politically salient for those conservatives who see the fundamental issue of political economy as the provision and control of the workforce. While the classical liberal view is that labour is innately indolent due to a lack of moral development, the pessimistic conservative view is that labour is fallen. In other words, it is naturally virtuous but has lost its way due to bad influences and its own weakness. Even though many US conservatives who adopt the latter view are evangelicals, this is an essentially Catholic interpretation in contrast to the liberal's Protestant (even if secularised) perspective. While the liberal interpretation emphasises economics and personal agency (Mill), the conservative interpretation emphasises culture and the organic nature of society (Burke). A good example of the latter, and the tensions it gives rise to, is J D Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.

The author (in a piece for The Guardian) outlines this shift in perspective: "No one doubts that globalisation and automation have disproportionately had an impact on the white working class and no responsible politics should fail to appreciate and address that fact. Yet our neighbourhoods and our communities create certain pressures and instil certain values that make it harder for our children to lead happy lives". One reason for Vance's popularity among the commentariat is the desire to locate a cultural explanation for the rise of Donald Trump. Though there is ample evidence his support is largely mainstream Republicans (older and more affluent than the average voter), there remains an appetite for tales of how the white working class, battered and bruised by globalisation and the advance of minorities, has been seduced by the Pied Piper of Queens.

Vance obliges: "Many in the US and abroad marvel that a showy billionaire could inspire such allegiance among relatively poor voters. Yet in style and tone, Trump reminds blue-collar workers of themselves". The emphasis on style and tone is necessary because there is no substantial identification between moderately affluent evangelicals, let alone financially stressed blue-collar workers, and the famously profane New York real estate mogul and brand-for-hire. Vance considers Trump beyond the pale, but for conservative reasons: "On the right, the party of robust American global leadership now finds itself apologising for a man who apologises for Vladimir Putin even as he scares our staunchest European allies. The Republican speaker of the house, a brilliant, respected leader, regularly repudiates some noxious statement of Trump’s even as he cannot politically repudiate the man himself". (It's worth noting that the house speaker is Paul Ryan, who Paul Krugman famously labelled a "Flimflam man", and part of the Republican establishment that encouraged the policy incoherence and anti-government anger that opened the door for Trump).

For Vance, the attraction of Trump is a mixture of both the promise of rectification (i.e. government interference, though few conservatives will admit it in these terms) and the licence given to resentment. While liberals couch the latter as the bigotry of whites losing their privileges in a multiracial society, conservatives like Vance see it as the result of the erosion of communities and their patronisation by coastal elites. The promise of rectification addresses not just unemployment and poverty but the pathologies (traditionally characterised as "black") that this gives rise to: drugs, welfare dependency and family breakdown. But, for a conservative, the solution must come from within as much as without. The contradiction is obvious, leading to Vance's own confusion: "These are tough, tough problems, but they’re not totally immune to policy interventions.  Neither are they entirely addressable by government.  It’s just complicated". His message to the right is that "we need to judge less and understand more", while his message to the left is to "stop pretending that every problem is a structural problem, something imposed on the poor from the outside".

While it doesn't come out in his Guardian piece (he crafts his work to suit the audience's prejudices), Vance is a man who believes in the transformative power of conservative institutions, particularly in cultivating self-discipline and solidarity. This mainly means the army (he was in the Marine Corps) and the church. His analysis of the role of the latter in developing working class political norms is acute: "They may watch megachurch broadcasts or join prayer circles on Facebook, but they largely avoid the pews on Sunday. Consequently, many absorb the vernacular and teachings of modern Christianity, but miss out on the advantages of church itself. This deinstitutionalization of the faith has occurred alongside its politicization ...  A Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror ... Mr. Trump, like too much of the church, offers little more than an excuse to project complex problems onto simple villains".

The fundamental issue that Vance is struggling with is the way that capitalism first creates and then destroys communities ("All that is solid melts into air"). His own family - "hillbilly transplants" - migrated from Kentucky to the steelworks of Middletown in Ohio. Once the industry declined, so too did the community. While some individuals escaped to postindustrial modernity further afield, most lapsed into what he describes as the "learned helplessness" of poverty. A corrective to this view was provided by Kevin D Williamson from further out on the political right: "Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs ... The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul".

The liberal capitalist strategy is to reduce labour to a mobile factor of production, which means that repairing communities like Middletown requires breaking and reforming their social relations as much as relocating them physically. Vance recognises the economic logic of this, not least because his own people moved from Kentucky in search of work, but he knows that this time round there is little chance of preserving their hillbilly culture. His elegy is not just for the steel towns of Ohio and the "hollers" of Kentucky, but also a recognition that while much of rural culture could survive transplantation into industrial towns, it faces an existential threat in the transplantation to a service economy. This is independent of the distance travelled: the service centre of Columbus is nearby but a world away, a postmodern environment in which culture is an ever-changing pick-and-mix of global commodities, like the diverse dining that Tyler Cowen favours. Vance knows that this trauma is likely to reduce his family's already degraded hillbilly essence to little more than a lingering perfume.

The conservative fear (which you can trace back to the Middle Ages in England) is that labour mobility will destabilise the natural order, destroying the social relations that produced working class conservative deference and blurring the lines to the point where there is no easily-recognisable domestic "other" to act as a unifying target. This becomes a greater risk when immigration is constrained because smalltown communities lose even more of their young under the pressure of internal migration to the big cities. As a consequence, preserving "left behind" communities, whether by "bringing back the jobs" through Trumpian fiat or subsidising marginal work through a basic income, starts to look attractive. The capitalist debate is thus being subliminally informed by two versions of nineteenth century history: the aggressive internal mobility of the US and the aggressive internal stability of Tsarist Russia. There is a reason why American conservatives are fascinated by Vladimir Putin over and above the mutual respect of authoritarians.


  1. What's 'U-Haul'?

    1. Telling the jobless to "move where the jobs are" makes more sense in the USA than in the UK because the USA has lots of big cities that are still cheap to live in (Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Indianapolis and most Southern cities). The UK doesn't -- to use Krugman's terminology the UK is all Zoned Zone and no Flatland.

  2. Herbie Kills Children26 September 2016 at 18:20

    Globalisation was bound to be a rocky road. There is not a single event that has undermined it in the last 20 years.

    My thoughts now are more along the lines that the 'end of history' thesis was actually a pretty accurate description of the epoch we live in.

    The only way we will come out of this 'end of history' reality is either by a calamitous event (end of oil, asteroid hitting Earth. world war) or some unforeseen technological breakthrough.

    The old belief that it is barbarism or socialism can now be safely changed to it is capitalism or barbarism!

    1. A lot of the debate around the idea of secular stagnation presumes that the middle years of the 20th century were execeptional precisely because they benefited from the twin impetus of the second industrial revolution (electricty, internal combustion engine etc) and the capital formation occasioned by WW2.

      Unfortunately, this tends to encourage the belief that what we need is another "calamitous event" to kick-start growth. In fact, as the 1930s showed, state intervention in the allocation of capital was perfectly capable of stimulating growth without war. Where it was impeded, this was a purely political choice.

      The real impact of the war's capital destruction was felt in the postwar period of reconstruction, which saw the coincidence of both private capital allocation (always dominant, despite nationalisation) and strong growth. This led to the belief (Thatcher et al) that increased private sector control would spur greater growth. In fact, it led to reduced investment.

      The fundamental issue in political economy is control of capital, but conservatives and liberals insist this is beyond debate. Consequently, there is an ideological preference to focus on labour as the problematic "factor of production". This is a strategy with diminishing returns as domestic labour has become increasingly redundant due to globalisation and automation.

      The result is a shift in the critique of labour from a focus on its greed and destructiveness towards its lack of moral fibre and virtue (reviving 18th & 19th century tropes). Ultimately, this is preparing the ground for political disenfranchisement, reversing the suffrage gains brought about by organised labour.

      Capitalism is not antithetical to barbarism (the "end of history" thesis is wrong because capitalism has not entailed democracy in Russia, China etc) and it has no innate preference for growth (the Piketty point). Socialism (i.e. the allocation of capital to serve society) remains our best hope.