- After the Welfare State:The New Marxism and Other Rough Beasts
In 2002, economist Paul Krugman asserted in the New York Times what many have either suspected or known: that we have entered a "new Gilded Age" in the United States defined by the decline of the middle class and a growing gap between rich and poor.1 As a result, says Gavin Jones in American Hungers, we are witnessing "a resurgence of interest in class in recent years" (7). A number of sources indicate that he may be right. The New York Times recently published a "Class Matters" series of articles that was republished in book format in 2005.2 Several major academic journals have offered special issues on class in the past eight years, including PMLA, the Journal of the Early Republic, College Literature, College English, and Western American Literature. There is, too, a reaction against the perceived sense that class was the neglected member of the privileged trio of the 1990s-race, class, and gender-and that it's due for more attention.3 [End Page 173]
If there is increasing attention to economic injustice these days, then four recent books, Vanishing Moments: Class and American Literature, Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945, and New Landscapes of Inequality: Neoliberalism and the Erosion of Democracy in America, suggest that any purported resurgence of interest in class can only be labeled as such in cautious terms. That is, many of the recent studies of "class" have deep reservations about the concept-whether it holds together as an analytical tool, whether it can withstand the anti-essentialism of recent scholarly inquiry, and whether it has any lingering political efficacy in a globalized, postcommunist era.
Such intractable questions have led recent scholarship on economic inequality in new directions. Many scholars are abandoning the concept of class and shifting their goals from radical programs of social change to more moderate ones consistent with the conservative political climate of recent years.4 In most of the four books under review, that means advocating a return to the welfare state. On a global level, of course, the "return" to the welfare state is not, in many cases, a return at all, since a large number of countries have never had a welfare state. Nor would it be sensible to call this a moderate political program in those cases. However, none of the authors of the books reviewed here is thinking in a fully global sense, even though Robbins and the editors of New Landscapes make some attempt to do so.
In any case, advocacy for a return to the welfare state has made for some strange bedfellows. Analyzing the current state of Marxism in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent triumph of global capitalism, Fredric Jameson attempted to set out an agenda for Marxist critics that aligned him with more moderate liberals, whom Marxists have in the past seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Arguing for a more reformist program while at the same time trying to redefine reform as revolution, Jameson wrote that "the left needs aggressively to defend big government and the welfare state."5 It was a plan that was eerily similar to the Popular Front in the 1930s, a political program that has inspired much controversy among Marxists over...