Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2004

A Thomas Frank book review

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 28, 2004

In today’s NY Times, Thomas Frank reviews a number of books that attempt to come to terms with the USA’s recent political evolution, especially around the question of “blue states” versus “red states.”


Frank has become a rather ubiquitous figure on the cable network news shows, holding forth on these themes. With the stunning success of his “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” he has become an expert on why people vote against their own class interests, to put it in Marxist terms.

Although Frank was once far more explicitly Marxist in his language and reasoning as editor and contributor to Baffler Magazine, he seems to have evolved in a more mainstream direction. In his exchange with Bill O’Reilly the other day, Frank referred to “we Democrats” or something like that. I guess that will get you more invites to Fox TV or CNN than referring to “we socialists.”

Frank’s review exhibits both his strengths and weaknesses. He is particularly strong as he takes apart the idiotic “The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America,” by John Sperling, Suzanne Helburn, Samuel George, John Morris and Carl Hunt. This book was promoted heavily in the newspapers with rather eye-catching graphics showing, for example, Michael Moore side-by-side with Mel Gibson. The former supposedly stood for Metro America, while the latter stood for Retro America. Frank sums up the book’s main argument as follows:

Here the goal is to blend together two of the worst big ideas of recent years — the new economy fantasy of the 1990’s and the red/blue thesis of the last few years — into a universal narrative that can simultaneously direct the electoral strategy of the Democratic Party and inform future scholarship. The essential cleavage in American life, the authors argue, is not between left and right or business class and working class; instead, it is a regional matter, a cultural divide between the states, polarized and unbridgeable. One America, to judge from the book’s illustrations, works with lovable robots and lives in ”vibrant” cities with ballet troupes, super-creative Frank Gehry buildings and quiet, tasteful religious ritual; the other relies on contemptible extraction industries (oil, gas and coal) and inhabits a world of white supremacy and monster truck shows and religious ceremonies in which beefy men in cheap clothes scream incomprehensibly at one another.

In other words, despite being written before the election, the book reinforces the stereotypes about the typical Bush voter. Liberals everywhere consoled themselves on November 3rd with the idea that the country was simply too stupid to vote for the obviously superior candidate. “The Great Divide” agrees with this self-flattering appraisal, but conjoins it with the equally stupid idea that red state voters are economically behind the curve as miners or farmers rather than web designers or financial analysts.

This week’s Village Voice has a cartoon that encapsulates this kind of elitism. You can see it at: http://www.villagevoice.com/sutton/ under the caption “Gap-Toothed, Missing Link Troglodytes Delighted by Presidential Election Outcome.” The cartoon depicts two obviously working-class men standing on an unemployment line saying things like, “Shee-yit, America shore is number one, ain’t we.”

Unfortunately, Frank seems to be operating under the mistaken impression that “class conflict…defined the [Democratic] party in the old days.”

This becomes more obvious in his look at Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown’s “Myths Of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.” He writes:

Someone who understands the implication of this is Representative Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from the steel-producing 13th District of Ohio, and a liberal of the old school. In ”Myths of Free Trade” he describes the role that the false religion of unregulated free trade has had in reopening the class divide, and also what we might do about it. For him the word ”elite” refers not to someone who likes books, but to the industry lobbyists whose planes clogged National Airport and whose gifts inundated Capitol Hill during the debate over Nafta. Brown could easily have taken the anti-intellectual route to populism since, as he points out, virtually the entire pundit class, regardless of party, routinely supports free-trade agreements (and just as routinely depicts opponents as ”selling out the poor” or Luddites). The real battle he lays out is not between salt-of-the-earth folks and effete know-it-alls, or between tolerant Metro and screeching Retro: it is between all of us and the corporate power that today bombards labor and environment from the ideological heights of free trade.

If the real battle is between “all of us” and “corporate power,” then the question of Brown’s participation in the Democratic Party must be addressed. Like Dennis Kucinich and many other well-meaning Democrats, Brown serves merely as window-dressing. Their role in the Democratic Party is to provide a glimmer of hope that the party can once again be returned to the “focus on class conflict” that defined it in the past.

Considering the underlying structural economic changes that have caused the rightward shift of the Democratic Party, you have to consider this type of hope as utterly vain. The one thing that left-liberals like Thomas Frank fail to understand is that DLC type policies are driven by the exigencies of world capitalism rather than ideology. The ruling class in the USA opened up an attack on working people not because it had been seduced by Thomas Friedman columns but because German and Japanese big business had made inroads into its profits. Once this process began to unfold, ideologists stepped forward to rationalize it. Being determines consciousness, after all.

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