Thomas Piketty, in Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, confirmed the inevitability of inequality and coined the term “meritocratic extremism” as a “hymn to just inequality based on merit, education and the social utility of the elites”. In his first book, Victor Tan Chen reiterates a similar theme that globalisation, innovation and deregulation speed the pace of progress while weakening the pace of the job market. The progress of capitalism increases joblessness.
Chen contrasts the post-Great Recession lives of 70 auto workers in the US-Canadian rust belt towns of Detroit and Windsor. Their stories provide rich content and Chen constructs a skilled analysis of overlapping issues rising from differences of race, gender and family status. Unsurprisingly, men who found their identity as husband, father and financial provider in manual jobs with excellent pay are not able to cope with long-term unemployment. And, says Chen, “the bar keeps rising”. Middle-aged manual labourers try to compete with younger, better educated, tech-savvy rivals, but (re)education is inaccessible and they are left with antiquated skills, mounting debt and no hope.
Comparing policy outcomes, only single-parent households in Canada have access to sufficient support. Otherwise, the US’ infamous residual welfare is replicated in Canada, where unemployed workers find a threadbare safety net. Chen observes that within the US auto industry, race amplifies the struggle to move from manual to management jobs, and for the unemployed, racism undermines attempts to find new jobs. As their white counterparts rely on family and social connections for help, the historical dearth of resources among African American social networks leads to further relative disadvantage.
Chen maps what he terms the culture of “meritocratic morality” in which unemployed workers make sense of their lives. Following the logic of the market, whereby success comes to those “who do what they are supposed to do”, not having “proof of merit” is a source of “self-blame”. Similarly, interviewees applied this logic to “banks”, “executives” and “managers” who succeed without working hard or by cheating the system. Frustration arising from the Great Recession is directed to those who “didn’t play fair”, not on the game itself. Meritocratic morality ignores that capitalism needs some folks to fail and that success is relative. For those unable, for whatever reason, to succeed, meritocratic morality offers no absolution.
In the final chapter, “There Go I”, Chen petitions the privileged to “temper popular appeals to meritocratic morality with a measure of grace”. This echoes Charles Murray’s “civic Great Awakening” in which elites don robes of “ecumenical niceness” for the “common good”. Chen admits that he disagrees with Murray’s “political objectives”, but if so, why reach for the co-author of The Bell Curve as the touchstone for a final argument? Experience might have suggested more comparable work: Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, or David Campbell and Robert Putnam’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Chen argues that deploying religious rhetoric in the US context is strategic. Not so. For decades the Christian Right has educated constituencies according to “Biblical economics”, justifying the morality of capitalism.
The political implications of the Great Recession, Piketty reasons, are that “we will all be poorer in the future in every way”. Despite Chen’s parables of the hopeless, saying grace isn’t going to save us.
Angelia Wilson is professor of politics, University of Manchester.
Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy
By Victor Tan Chen
University of California Press, 344pp, £44.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780520283008, 0283015 and 0958852 (e-book)
Published 28 July 2015