Welcome to Contexting, a blog that comments upon contemporary life with an anthropological bent. Why? As an anthropologist, that’s what I’ll do even if I don’t plan to, so I might as well just tell you. Discussion is welcome.
Why bother with contexts? Isn’t this the age of “Big Data,” with algorithms that permit us to dig deep to ferret out individuals to buy products, elect candidates, and otherwise become products themselves in this electronic age? Yes, and yet people still have bodies that hug, punch, shield, shout, whisper, march, make things, break things, and wave them around. I am thinking about the 2016 presidential election and the surprise of its context.
How was it possible that Democrats and pollsters were surprised that huge sections of the United States felt dispossessed by globalization processes? Or maybe that it mattered enough to act on it?
Once chronic unemployment in manufacturing was known as the British disease, when mills in Great Britain were supplanted by others abroad, with cheaper labor and access to raw materials. The American revolution meant that we no longer had to buy finished goods from Great Britain and send them our raw materials. Globalization is in our national DNA. In Britain’s Edwardian age (think Downton Abbey), American farm products sold cheaply in England hastened the end of the landed gentry. Wealthy American debutantes married and supported British aristocrats. Winston Churchill loved his American mother! About that time my ancestors from all over Europe arrived in New England to work textile mills that were beginning their own death spiral–labor was cheaper in the south after the Civil War. Immigrant labor, including women and children, kept things going in New England awhile longer. My great-grandfather died of TB contracted in the mills, despite efforts on the part of immigration officials to keep the disease out of the country.
Today, it’s a far more complicated picture. But those mills keep on moving in pursuit of low-cost inputs. Today’s workers can’t eat free apps or shelter from the blizzard inside of them. Paychecks are necessary. We also need purpose and meaning. We desire families and places to gather for community. We need others around us.
Tomorrow, not only truck drivers but doctors and lawyers will face competition from software. Online, sports articles are already written by software. Our factory workers and miners are the canary in our economic coal mine.
So, why are so many so-called “elite liberals” surprised that ordinary Americans in rust belt states, with no affirmed racist or anti-immigrant sentiments, turned away from “their” democratic party? This is the crisis of not just today, but of tomorrow.
Let’s talk about assumptions. There’s a nasty little bias that underlies many liberal and conservative assumptions. It found its place during the mid-nineteenth century wave of European immigration, when the impoverished, uneducated, malnourished and diseased came to work in mills and build our modern infrastructure. They brought Catholicism, an alien and degraded religion to Americans of the time. These workers were a blight on our American utopia in the making.
At the same time, a nasty little idea was generated in jolly old England. A man by the name of Herbert Spencer was not of the nobility but wanted in on its elitism. He argued that it was ability and success that should make one elite–not birthright. He, not Darwin, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” This idea was perfect for the US society, where it festers still. It’s past time to put a stake in Social Darwinism.
According to Spencer’s way of thinking, if one is elite, one is a better quality human being. Liberal elites are still elites. And class based societies segregate so that we don’t interact in meaningful ways. We don’t share each other’s lives. “Lesser” folk become invisible. Hence liberal elites can forget that massive social transformations can displace workers permanently; elites don’t have to notice that retraining is often a waste of time; they have the luxury to forget that with structural economic change comes the need for not just new policies, but new ways of understanding society itself. Policies shaped for 20th century inequalities may not be relevant to the seismic technological shifts in current globalization processes.
Elites only pay attention to working class folks when elite interests are at stake. Thank God for elections.
What I have learned through my professional and personal experience is that class difference is also language difference. Regardless of class, people have strong insights into the dynamic contexts of their social lives. If the elites who shape policies regarding the displaced working class know how to listen across language and social boundaries; if these elites know how to collaborate effectively with not only displaced workers but other stakeholders; if we first learn how to notice people who are invisible to those of higher status; then we can truly shape a democratic, fair society that works for us all.
Democracy is a discussion; it is also action.
Yup, a long polemic. Sorry, it was the election. Later postings will be shorter and hopefully sweeter.