The Long Shadow of Karl Marx

class struggle

One of my favorite sources of ideas that trigger my own thinking is David Brooks. Today (7/10/12) he reported on some recent work by the eminent Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, perhaps best known for his book, Bowling Alone. The title suggested his thesis that “human capital,” the social resource that binds a society together was disappearing along with the evidence that people were spending less and less time in communal activities. Brooks picked up a recent announcement by Putnam of some of his findings about differences in the US. Here’s a brief description of his key points.

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam alerted activists to the fact that class division has become the dominant form of social difficulties in America, and that the problem is getting worse. “Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school,” said Putnam. While race and poverty have deep historical roots, they no longer seem to reflect America’s political reality.

Brooks, while focusing on Putnam’s story, noted that the divisions in the US were getting larger on many accounts, although the explanations differ. “Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.”

Brooks’ use of “horrifying” is intriguing. Putnam is arguing, on the basis of his recent research, that the schisms in our society follow class, that is economic, rather than racial lines as has been the story in the past. Is this what makes this information horrifying? Since Brooks fails to make this explicit, I will have to guess at his reasons. Putnam’s thesis is that children from the lower economic classes are not getting the enrichment experience that children from higher class families are getting. The results include more behavioral pathologies, less positive moods about their possibilities, and less “community” involvement in all the institutions important to becoming a whole adult.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

Putnam stresses that the class demarcation of these results is significant because past research has pointed to race as the dominant determinant. The results have very stark implications for public policy and for social mores in the US. The horrifying aspect of all this may be that this situation will almost certainly play out even more in the future as today’s children pass along the causes to their families.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The situation is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s prediction of the separation of economic classes that would be an inevitable result of capitalism. As long as race could be used to explain the difference in social strata that has always been here, capitalism has gotten off the hook. The revolution Marx predicts is exceedingly unlikely to happen as this split continues to widen because the solidarity essential to any revolution is missing. The alienation is there, but the connections to others are missing and will continue to fade as the situation grows over time.

Brooks’ solutions are simplistic and gratuitous. He is right that “people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decision.” The liberals need to “champion norms” about marriage before childbearing. I think he is more than a bit old-fashioned here. Commitment, not the binding of some formal institution, is what is important. The divorce rate in America is about 50%. If, as Brooks indicates, marriage in the lower classes is lower than among the affluent, then, most of the divorces come at the higher levels. So much for wagging fingers at the poor. His lesson for the conservatives is to drop their [mindless] opposition to taxes so that more resources are available for economic programs that “benefit the working class.” He forgets that many of the lower classes are there because there are no jobs for them.

I find one piece missing and that’s what horrifying about Brooks’ article for me: the lack of any mention about public education. John Dewey, who I am reading in depth right now, was very clear about the criticality of public education as a means to avoid exactly the kind of split being written about here. The wealthy are doing everything they can to destroy this institution, primarily by starving the schools. Schools cannot and should not replace families as the building ground for becoming responsible adults and citizens, but they can go along way to fill some of the gaps. Turning public education into a factory for the future technicians of America will not begin to address the issues that Putnam points to.

Dewey was an advocate of democracy, the kind I think the Founding Fathers had in mind. His two keys to this were education and a civil society of informed citizens. He would be appalled by what goes for both schooling and public conversations today. Social mores become established not by tongue wagging but by practice. Remember Dewey was one of America’s great pragmatists. We rich folks have to welcome the less fortunate into our lives beyond sharing more of our wealth with them. The affluent ghettos that are everywhere in America shut off possibilities for the public conversations that would build the idea of civic responsibility. Offering money as the solution is not really any solution without a breaking down of the barriers to conversation. The stridency and absolutism of today’s political talk is directed mostly those already out of the misery of the lower classes. Dewey knew that voting was the primary way of instilling democracy both in the minds and lives of the electorate, but would not prosper without the two factors mentioned just above. Cutting off the poor from the polling place is just another nail in the coffin. Shame. Shame. Brooks, if you are so horrified, what about getting down and dirty?

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