In his remarkably prescient Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank describes the rapid capture of the Democratic Party by the professional class which took place during those decades when economic transition left them ascendent within the country as a whole. This was originally a predominance of financiers within the party but, with a transition marked by the defection of finance to Romney in the 2012 election, it’s more recently been a matter of Silicon Valley.
As a striking example of this, on loc 2742 he describes the innovation mania sweeping a city like Boston,
Back in Boston, meanwhile, there is meaning and exciting purpose wherever you look. When I visited, in the spring of 2015, I found a city in the grip of a collective mania, an enthusiasm for innovation that I can only compare to a religious revival, to the kind of crowd-passion that would periodically sweep through New England back in the days when the purpose of Harvard was to produce clergymen, not startups. The frenzy manifests itself in countless ways. The last mayor of Boston was mourned on his passing as a man who “believed in innovation”; who “brought innovation to Boston.” The state’s Innovation Institute issues annual reports on the “Massachusetts Innovation Economy”; as innovation economies go, they brag, this one is “the largest in the U.S. when measured as a percent of employment.” And of course there are publications that cover this thrumming beehive of novelty: “BostInno,” a startup website dedicated to boosting startups, and “Beta Boston,” which is a project of the more established but still super-enthusiastic Boston Globe.
Meanwhile those outside these ‘innovation hubs’ struggle across the state. The self-confident creative class march ever onwards, supported by municipal and state governments for whom subsiding innovation is axiomatic, while inequality soars in a state ranked amongst the most unequal in the United States on common measures. It’s in this schism that we can see what Harris Gruman describes as a “liberalism of the rich” (loc 2928).
If we see this ‘innovation liberalism’ in terms of its class politics, the growing revolving door between Silicon Valley and government becomes much more than a matter of curiosity. As he describes on loc 2918-2934:
By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”
The whole tenth chapter of Listen Liberal explores this issue and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the failings of the contemporary Democratic party without an adequate account of the rise of digital elites within them, as the latest turn in a much long-standing process of capture by professionals. On loc 3184 he describes how talk of ‘innovation’ serves to prop up this accelerating inequality:
Technological innovation is not the reason all this is happening, just as the atomic bomb was not the cause of World War II: it is the latest weapon in an age-old war. Technological innovation is not what is hammering down working peoples’ share of what the country earns; technological innovation is the excuse for this development. Inno is a fable that persuades us to accept economic arrangements we would otherwise regard as unpleasant or intolerable—that convinces us that the very particular configuration of economic power we inhabit is in fact a neutral matter of science, of nature, of the way God wants things to be. Every time we describe the economy as an “ecosystem” we accept this point of view. Every time we write off the situation of workers as a matter of unalterable “reality” we resign ourselves to it.
Categories: Digital Sociology