Tangled Web

The dynamic nature of capitalism makes it impossible to predict, in any straightforward and simple way, the shape its contradictions will take.  The dynamism continually unsettles the composition of the working class, but it also unsettles the political allegiances of the ruling class.  This unsettling effect helps to explain in part the extraordinarily fractured state of official politics in the United States at the moment.

As technology develops, old industries are threatened while new ones are engendered.  From an abstract systems perspective there is no problem so long as profits overall rise and employment overall remains within politically acceptable limits.  However, from a concrete human perspective a dying industry kills your profits (if you are the owner) and your livelihood (if you are the worker).  Since in real life it takes time and money to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances, a system in rough equilibrium overall can still damage individuals who own or work in uncompetitive industries.

Let us take an example much in the news.  According to the most recent report of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are a total of 53 420 people employed in the coal mining industry in the United States, and the number is shrinking.   By contrast, in 2013 there were 143 000 people working in the solar energy field in the United States, and that figure represented a 20% increase over the previous year.  The (somewhat vaguely defined)  field of “renewable energy” as a whole employed well over 3 million Americans in 2015.  If we judge solely by the numbers the advice to coal miners is clear:  your industry is dying.  You need to leave Kentucky or West Virginia and move to California and work in a clean energy industry.

The human reality is much more complex.  People are tied to places for a complex set of reasons:  economic, cultural, familial.  It costs money to move.  Moving can be tremendously alienating.  Home has a psychological and aesthetic value to some people that cannot just be dismissed.  Family ties and responsibilities (caring for elderly relatives or children) keep people tied to a place.   Add to these challenges the fact that jobs in clean energy projects tend to demand higher levels of education than jobs in the extraction industries and we can start to see why overall equilibrium in a system can mask profound regional and local variation.  If those who are dying cannot reach those who are thriving (because they are too poor to move, or are too wed, culturally, to a place, or lack the education and are too old or sick to retrain) then their plight remains a political problem, even if, in the abstract, in a system that is growing overall, it is not an economic problem.

There was much derision directed towards Trump’s executive order that rolled back the Obama era’s legacy of environmental protection and incentives for clean energy.  No doubt, the derision is richly deserved.  But effective political criticism has to try to comprehend why a seemingly irrational policy choice was made.  Trump was not elected by Californians who make fuel cells, he was elected by (amongst others) Kentucky coal miners and unemployed steelworkers in Pennsylvania.  They voted for him because he promised to restore their industries.  The executive order was a tangible sign to them that he intends to keep his promise.

If we think of the executive order in the context of the numbers cited above, we can see that historical trends almost guarantee that it will be unsuccessful.   Capitalism depends upon technological developments opening up dynamic new sources of profitability.  Clean energy is attracting more and more capital, not because the health of the environment is recognized as an intrinsic and instrumental life-value, but because technological change is making them more viable and profitable.  Trying to revive the coal industry in this environment is like trying to protect the manual typesetting industry in the age of desk top publishing.  There are some boutique mechanical presses in the world, but as an industry manual typesetting is dead.

That does not mean that those who lost their jobs did not suffer or that their elimination is justifiable by the increase in employment opportunities in the new industry.  The problem with the abstract economic analysis of labour market dynamics is that workers are reduced to numbers:  if there are 3 jobs lost here and 10 created over there, then the system is judged good.  And, in one sense, it is, for the 10 people working, but not for the 3 people not working.  But their pain is not recognized by econometric equations, which is why we need politics.  Democratic politics is the opportunity for numbers to become people again and tell their stories, express their interests, and mobilize around their demands.

Whatever legitimate criticisms there are to make about Trump (and they are legion) he gave the appearance of responding to these stories and these concerns.   He has thus successfully exploited a division that runs through the American working class and the American ruling class, between those that are working in the remnants of nineteenth century industries like coal and those that pushing the scientific and cultural boundaries of American life.  The older industries tend to be more rooted to specific places (you cannot relocate a mine) and they thus tend to foster strong local identities and attachments.  For peculiarly American reason they also foster the most virulent strains of nationalism,  which Trump has also been able to exploit.

Capitalism is technologically dynamic, but not every capitalist is.  If they can  keep the old industry they own alive with government support they will do so, even if they decry government interference as ‘socialist’ in all other cases not affecting them.   While “progressive” capitalists (i.e., those who rely on high skilled foreign labour or hope to get subsidies for green energy research) have come out against Trump’s travel ban and executive orders around environmental protection, those still wed to older industries are happy to support both.

This political split is sowing unprecedented conflict in the American ruling class.  It seems bent right now on tearing itself in two (and not just along Republican-Democrat lines).  If this conflict is to be effectively exploited then the American left needs to coalesce around understanding what the political strategy is behind Trump’s agenda, grasping it in the context of the overall state of social and economic forces, and articulating an agenda that addresses the real concerns of workers still dependent on uncompetitive industries:  re-training, a geographically more equitable distribution of subsidies for investment in new clean industries, and worker involvement in local economic transformation for those who are in a position to leave or change careers; pensions, retirement incentives, adequate health care, and other social supports for those who cannot leave or retrain.

These concrete policies need to be underwritten by respect for people and their work histories.  Coal miners did not make coal environmentally destructive.  The dignity of their work as human labour needs to be acknowledged and their interests– including their attachments to their communities– need to be taken into account.  Abstract social forces are incapable of doing either, so we need politics to recognize and respond.  From on high it is clear that Trump and his coterie of millionaires will not ultimately serve the interests of the historically displaced, but democratic politics has to be at work on the ground.  If the people who are most damaged by dying industries believe that Trump will help them, and no one else is there to contest it, then he will be able to maintain his hegemony, even in the face of chaos, scandal, and failure.

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