Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

The initial right-wing and corporate-media reaction to the Congressional Budget Office's forecast that the Affordable Care Act would enable many workers to work fewer hours without forfeiting health insurance coverage was, of course, that Obamacare was a job-killer.  This had to be corrected, but now the Right is trying to show its wisdom by jeering at people who don't want to work sixty- or eighty-hour weeks just to have health coverage, and who might want to spend more time with their families or even engage in other activities, such as the arts or entrepreneurship.

Roy Edroso put up a post today, appropriately mocking right-bloggers who are obsessed with the mental image of lazy proles writing poetry instead of standing behind a counter at McDonalds or "hold[ing] an entry-level office job [thus] foregoing not only the drab cubicle but also the corner office that might have been hers 25 years of diligence later."  Oh, my goodness!  A corner office, who could ask for anything more?

As usual, Edroso and his commenters are shooting fish in a barrel, though some of the poetry parodies in the comments are amusing.  A few people had something of their own to say, like this commenter:
This is evidence of how conservatives have not only changed American politics, but also change American sensibilities. We used to look at our neighbor with the union job, high wages, and guaranteed pension and say, "Gee, why can't I have that?" And then work to attain those. Now, we look at that same neighbor and say, "Goddamnit! I don't have those things, and neither should he!" And how we work to impoverish everyone.
Well, true enough, though as so often when people are playing Ain't It Awful, a historical perspective is lacking.  Back in the Sixties we saw the same thing: people who'd worked hard for decades in jobs they hated, were furious that a few people were Turning On, Tuning In, Dropping Out, and choosing lives they enjoyed, or hoped to enjoy. Sometimes the critics came near to saying it explicitly: why should they be happy when I'm miserable? So I suspect that the "sensibility" this commenter observed is not so new after all, nor a unique product of the age of Reagan.

There was also handwringing in those days about the perils of leisure: people would get into all kinds of trouble if they were kept busy constantly on the job. Noam Chomsky discussed that issue in "Psychology and Ideology," his great takedown of B. F. Skinner and Richard Herrnstein, which can be read in For Reasons of State.  The business strategy of the Seventies was a very conscious reaction to the relative affluence of the Fifties and Sixties.  It wasn't so much dropped-out hippies whom the elites feared as college graduates who, instead of devoting themselves to the creation of profit for their betters, were living cheaply, becoming radical journalists and writers, even public defenders, doctors in free clinics and the like.  Ellen Willis wrote in Don't Think, Smile! about how cheap rents and the proliferation of independent print media in the Sixties and Seventies made it possible for people to live in urban environments, thinking and questioning and organizing, without devoting all their energies to making a living.

The fear of the lower orders having leisure and Getting Ideas is, of course, much older than that.  David F. Noble has written (in Progress without People and Forces of Production) about the elites' (and wannabes') desire simply to eliminate the mass of humanity and replace them with machines.  That working people might be living soft lives, as opposed to their rulers and betters, was always offensive; it would lead to unruliness and chaos, and must be nipped in the bud -- as it always was.  But there have always been people lower in the hierarchy who were happy to stamp on the fingers of the people below them.  As Katha Pollitt suggested a couple of years ago in a comparison of the German nanny state with the American one, "a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too."  She was probably right, too: most important social programs, including Social Security at first, were limited to whites because whites didn't want blacks to get such benefits.  I've quoted her line to some white racists I know, and they confirmed it.  If whites are more selfish than they used to be in that regard, it may be because blacks and other nonwhites can't be excluded (at least openly) from any new social programs.  Which puts that "critical mass of white Americans" right into Pollitt's dilemma: they really would rather do without than share government benefits with The Colored.