Monday, November 21, 2016

Ruminations 65A: Flora Sapio Responds to "Thoughts on the 2016 United States Presidential Election--Consequences and Tragedies"

 (Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)
It is by now well known that contrary to the expectations of some, Mr. Trump was elected presumptive President Elect of the United States on November 8, 2016. In Ruminations 65: Thoughts on the 2016 United States Presidential Election--Consequences and Tragedies I considered what might be some of the more interesting and less considered ramifications that this election illustrates. I suggested that the contours of tragedy (not for a particular candidate or political party, but for a leadership class and its disciplinary structures) as the potential for power slipping out of the hands of a once magnificent leadership community (with its own intellectual factions to be sure but bound together by  some rudimentary consensus) increases as it seeks blame for its predicament everywhere but within its own structures and behaviors.

In this Post, Flora Sapio responds. This marvelous response provides a lot of food for thought, providing added depth to an analytic line rich with possibilities. 

Flora Sapio Responds to Larry Catá Backer, "Thoughts on the 2016 United States Presidential Election--Consequences and Tragedies"

I have very little to add to your analysis of the causes behind the crisis of the leadership role of the elites. I may have a different opinion on one or two points but, focusing on difference in opinion would add little to the discussion. Also I believe what you define as a threat to the leadership of the elites to be a global phenomenon. But, again, focusing on the element of threat and its global nature would not move this discussion in any direction.

Reading the essay provoked an entirely different question: the question of whether one can identify with the ‘elite’ or ’the working class’.

In my understanding of your essay, these labels do not refer to those who supported either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Also, I do not feel I should comment on the U.S. Presidential election, as I do have a limited understanding of American politics, culture, and society.

Yet the point of identification with one category or another is fundamental, because your essay is framed along the two opposing categories of ‘elite’ and ‘masses’ or ‘working class’.

One could identify with one category or another. One could believe one is a member of the ‘elite’, or one could believe oneself to be a member of ‘the masses’. More than an identification, this would only be a belief. And a belief which would not necessarily correspond to reality. To effectively qualify as a member of either the ‘elite’ or as a member of ‘the masses’ one would have to meet all of the criteria the group has chosen for its members.

According to your essay, you qualify as a member of the ‘elite’ if you enjoy the privilege to “provide clue to the public about what is expected from them and what they should not engage with” through the speech acts you perform. Many have performed countless speech acts in their lives, but without producing the effect you mention, even as they appear to occupy those positions of influence that might produce the result. One need not be in a position to provide clues to those sectors of the public whose views differ from theirs If such a person asked a hypothetical elector whether she voted, and whom she voted for I do not think she would lie to them out of fear they may report her words to a member of the ‘elite’, judge her, or retaliate against her.

Such a person would have little direct understanding of the concerns of the ‘elite’, and this is not because they do not share those concerns. Aside from the more general point of a belief that their leadership role is under threat, I have no information about the specific, concrete concerns of individual members of the elite. Influential public speakers are ordinary persons, and as such they have their individual concerns. But, in addressing the public, these specific and concrete concerns may be set aside. Therefore, those who read opinion pieces written by ‘elites’ have no information about these concerns.

The fact they might have no privilege to instruct the public about what is expected from them does not automatically qualify them as a member of ‘the working class’ either. One may believe one is a member of the working class. But, one would qualify as a member of the working class only if as to that person members of the working class found out he or she meet all the criteria of a true member of the masses.

This is even more so if that person him- or herself also came from a working class family. Consider the offspring of a working class family that might have stopped performing manual labor at the age of 19 or 20, because he was fortunate enough to be able to go to college. He might even have liked manual labor – working street markets, for example – but something might have caused a change in circumstance. That could have been that suddenly, street markets became filled with cheap products originating from elsewhere. Unable to figure out how to get access to their distribution channels – those channels were ‘monopolized’ in a sense –bankruptcy might have forced a change. Even if he did not go bankrupt because has was ignorant, or because he needed guidance on what was going on in international trade. He, like others, might have known well enough what was going on, and so did others – those who were in manufacturing jobs, in the service industry, in the textile industry, etc.

Many experienced those dynamics first-hand, and many of them were willing to adapt to change in their respective markets. But, when they tried to understand how they could adapt to ongoing trends, they found out how all available information was of no practical relevance to them. One thing He might well have noticed how elderly men in the community, its leaders, from whom he sought advice could do little more than repeat what he had just read in the local press.

Now transformed by circumstance, he no longer performs manual labour, He no longer qualifies as a member of the working class, and he no longer encounters local officials in his community.

He can understand the difficulties of the working class, because he experienced them in the first person. He might recall vividly the moment when he was left with the equivalent of $2.50, and could buy very little food. Years later, he might come to understand the difficulties those elderly men went through. What they read on local newspapers was of no use to them either. But, local newspapers were their only source of information, and in their role as local officials they had to somehow provide reassurance to the population.

He would remember that one word seemed to be very popular among these persons. This word was ‘globalization’. He would remember overhearing a conversation where one man asked to another: “Hey, what’s this globalization everyone is talking about?”. “I’ve got no idea” - was the answer. No one could say what globalization was. At the same time, he might remember that they were all reassured, they were told that these processes were still very far from them, and they need not fear it because it would be “good for us.” Who “us” were was difficult to understand. Sometimes, “us” seemed to refer to elderly men, teachers, street vendors, manufacturing workers, construction workers and to all those who worked for a living. Other times, “us” were those elderly men only. Sometimes “them” were local officials, other times “them” were those who were born outside the town where they lived. Seeing how “us” and “them” provided no concrete solution to problems as bankruptcy, one could lose one’s faith in these categories.

There are broader processes that involve people moving across social classes, across states, or across both state and class. These processes produce real effects on people – when you are caught in them you can easily become an outsider to both the elite and the working class. For some time, I wished I could avoid being part of these processes but then I realized how they are unavoidable.

So the ‘elite’ may wink at you from afar or try and persuade you that you are one of their members. But, you know you do not meet all the criteria that would make you a member of the elite. In fact, you cannot perform speech acts that “provide clue to the public about what is expected from them and what they should not engage with”. At the same time, the ‘working class’ sees you as one who is similar to them, but not exactly like them, and tries to convince you that you are a member of the working class. But, you know you do not qualify as a member of the working class either.

There are those who would argue this is the best position to be in, as it allows you an ability to understand at least some of the difficulties members of both groups experience. I agree on this point. Some have been extremely lucky to be in such a position. But, I find that the moment when debate – any debate – strays away from the real issues at stake for all members of both groups, then the ability to see things from more than one point of view loses some of its significance. The issues you raise in your essay are causing fear and uncertainty among individual members of the ‘elites’ and suffering among individual members of the ‘masses’, because these issues transverse the categories of class, and extend across the borders of national states.

I believe these issues need to be discussed from several different perspectives, and these perspectives must entirely belong to each one of the individuals that express them.

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