I’ve just finished reading the section in “The View From Flyover Country” that discusses the Post-Employment Economy and Federal Government Shutdowns.
I see some messages that are as relevant today as they were when the articles were written in 2013. I see strong parallels with the UK and I see a need for all of us, especially socialist and people of faith in America to rethink how we wealth should be managed in our society. and how people are valued.
The Post-employment Economy
In discussing the Post-employment Economy, “The View From Flyover Country” argues that there has been a fundamental shift in the US that represents a war on the poor. Social mobility has ceased. Poverty has increased and is becoming inescapable. Companies are boosting profits by asking people to work for free (for experience or exposure or future opportunities) or for less than a living wage.
The rich now live in a world where they rarely meet anyone who isn’t rich and where they blame the poor for lacking the get up and go to stop being poor while putting barriers to entry to professional jobs and lowering wages for service jobs to below poverty levels.
It is argued that this started with Compassionate Conservatism which:
“assumed that we could take care of ourselves so we did not need to take care of each other. It was an attractive concept, simultaneously exalting the successes of America while relieving the individual of responsibility for those whom it failed.
Today the attack on the poor is no longer cloaked in ideology—it is ideology itself.”
This is not put forward as the view of the majority of Americans. It is argued that poverty is now so widespread amongst the working poor that everyone knows people affected by it and doesn’t see those people as shiftless scroungers. It goes on to say:
“…our opinion does not matter. We are passive subjects, held hostage to a vindictive minority divorced from public will.”
In this context, a government shutdown (the one referred to here was in 2013 but the current one seems also to fit this description in my opinion) has to be characterised in a different way.
“The government shutdown only formalizes the dysfunction that has been hurting ordinary Americans for decades. It is not a political shutdown but a social breakdown. Fixing it requires a reassessment of value—and values.
When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatize those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.”
Changing attitudes towards the poor
If compassionate conservatism ever worked in America, I think it do so mostly through the agency of local churches and local charities led by middle-class people of faith.
But the climate has changed.
“The View From Flyover Country” quotes journalist Mark Oppenheimer as describing America’s elite as “the new Puritans”, attributing to them a Calvinist take on those less fortunate – seeing it as a character flaw or a judgement by God, thereby enabling the criminalisation of poverty. Oppenheimer accuses them of replacing an involvement in social change with a narrow focus on their lifestyle choices which places the plight of the poor outside their purview. This effectively neutralises compassionate conservatism and replaces it with a war on the poor.
The book argues that in Flyover Country (specifically St. Louis) there is still an appetite for people to help each other but that the 1% who own most of the weath are running the game exclusively for their own benefit and that the upper middle class “coastal elites” have distanced themselves from problems they see as not as their making.
UK Parallels with Flyover Country
I see a lot of parallels with the UK.
Our history is different. In the wake of soldiers returning after a war to defeat fascism, and with the knowledge that, after the previous war, the government had failed in its self-declared task”To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”, we established the Welfare State: giving to the government responsibility for: the provision of free health care with equal treatment to those in equal need; for the provision of a social safety net that didn’t allow people to fall irretrievably into poverty due to sickness, old age or lack of work and for the provision of access to free education to all.
This was a bold ambition that was never fully realised and was always supplemented by local charities, some faith-based, some not. It is an ambition that has had only lip-service in the past two decades and which has been actively but silently under attack for the past ten years.
Where the two countries are similar is that, over the past twenty years, but accelerating rapidly since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a massive and fundamental shift in wealth that restores the kinds of gaps between rich and poor that we had in the 1920s.
This shift in wealth has been facilitated by changes in taxation and a reduction in government spending on social services. It has resulted in stagnant or falling wages, whole geographical areas being abandoned economical and a concentration of political power at the centre, which is held by people with an ideological commitment to “freeing” the economy from any constraints on capital in the firm belief that the worthy will become wealthy.
In other words, the UK Government is now designing in massive levels of poverty as a permanent feature of our society.
The UN recently sent an envoy to look at the astonishing level of poverty in the UK. His 24-page report characterizes the high level of poverty as a political choice rather than an economic side-effect. You can find his report: “Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights* here.
The scale of poverty means people of goodwill need to rethink our response.
I don’t think that socialists and people of faith have walked away from their commitment to help other people.
What I see locally is a response by charities, churches and local businesses to try and reduce the damage caused by the political choices being made at the centre.
We have a record number of people using food banks. Every supermarket continuously has a basket for food donations and lists of what’s needed. We have a growth in shelters for the homeless and programs to help the socially excluded to find some dignity in work and independence. We have the local hospitals and schools being supplemented by volunteers.
The problem is that the scale of the poverty is too great for this response to be adequate.
I think the governments have used their power to remove any infrastructure that protected or benefitted not just the poor but anyone not born to wealth.
I worry that the impact of AI and automation will be that the wealthy see workers as increasingly unneccesary in traditonal jobs and most people will be left at or below a subsistence level where survival is their boldest ambition.
In those circumstances, I believe the focus of people of goodwill needs to change. We need to concern ourselves with human dignity and the right to work.
“The View From Flyover Country” points out that, in his famous, “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King said:
“If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists,”
I believe that loving your neighbour means giving him or her a reasonable expectation of being able to work with dignity and get paid enough to be independent of the charity of others.