The Discreet Charm of a Lefty Who’s Serious About Wages

The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life , by Thomas Geoghegan. Pantheon Books, 240 pages, $25.

A bunch of us were sitting around drinking and playing Celebrity after a dinner party. Celebrity is what they used to call a parlor game. You write down the names of a lot of famous and sort of famous people on little slips of paper and throw them into a salad bowl. Then you take turns trying to get your teammates to guess as many as they can in a minute, based on your rattled-off little descriptions.

Some people thought it was funny to throw in some real low-wattage fame, but we did all right. It was a pretty sharp group. We got an early member of Pink Floyd. We got the publisher of Cigar Aficionado . Then one name, which I didn’t recognize then and can’t remember now, brought us up short. We gave up. Who he? “You know, he writes for The Voice .” Hoots. Laughter. Disqualification. He writes for The Village Voice . Doesn’t that capture the perfect antithesis of celebrity?

It wasn’t all that long ago that serious lefty writers mattered, when they had worthwhile and frightening things to say. It wasn’t even all that long ago when they influenced policy, when they ran things.

The charming thing about Thomas Geoghegan is that he still believes in the collapsed old world of big labor and central planning and yet knows how odd this seems to us. His first book, Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back , was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award (it owed this honor to exceptionally fine writing and not to the subject matter-I can’t imagine all those critics transfixed by the decline of the labor movement). Mr. Geoghegan is a working labor lawyer and occasional writer, and his awareness of his own anachronism is, I think, unique in American letters.

He reminds me of Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, who appears at the beginning of the second half of Angels in America , wailing about being lost without the old comprehensive and beautiful Theory.

“What have you to offer in its place?” Prelapsarianov asks. “Market incentives? American cheeseburgers?” He’s prepared to change, but first: “Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.” Mr. Geoghegan also cannot comprehend how our New Deal understanding of the role of the working class in American democracy has collapsed, replaced by nothing except Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. He wails, too, about kids falling asleep in high school because they’ve been working late at the Wal-Mart, about the resurgence of tuberculosis, about what passes for criminal justice, and about the University of Chicago and “Ayn Rand types” whose theories have overcome his. Unlike the old Bolshevik, though, Mr. Geoghegan is aware of what a sad and comic figure he cuts.

In his odd, splendid new book he is a bit sheepish about making his political points; he hides them in a swirl of bitter anecdote and digression. I’d love to see the legal briefs this guy files, because his style-clipped, ironic, elliptical, self-aware-is the very opposite of your average lawyer’s writing and yet might be effective in small doses. It owes something to Renata Adler and maybe to Mike Royko, whose short paragraphs Mr. Geoghegan admits to liking. Mr. Geoghegan’s paragraphs are little runts, too.

Mr. Geoghegan’s main point is that wages are too low. He makes the usual yet still shocking observations about the dramatic rise in income inequality. He insists that it is or ought to be intolerable that wages for all sorts of jobs that people must try to live on have been steadily dropping in real terms.

And who could argue with this? Barbara Ehrenreich, in a recent Harper’s Magazine piece, gave a firsthand report on what it was like to work at and live on a $7-an-hour, no-benefits service job. It was hell, of course, and for so many reasons, and it made you think we have not come all that far from the miserable working poverty George Orwell wrote about, also at ground level, in The Road to Wigan Pier . (Ms. Ehrenreich is another good hard-left writer. Katha Pollitt, too. Who else?)

There is plenty of firsthand observation in The Secret Lives of Citizens , but it is not reporting. Mr. Geoghegan taps out a sort of fevered memoir, perhaps not entirely reliable, of his jobs and public life-at The New Republic , in the Carter Administration’s Energy Department, as a campaign aide when Harold Washington was running for mayor of Chicago, as a lawyer for lost causes, as a failed playwright. The book is punctuated with little vignettes of rallies and visits to night court and prison. The setting, for the most part, is Chicago, for which Mr. Geoghegan maintains a love as doomed as his love for the labor movement and the working man.

He moved to Chicago, “such a serious city,” to “concentrate on being an American, not like being on the coasts with people peering in from abroad.” But Chicago failed him. It became the same as every other American city. “One half: Girls, in tennis whites, dawdling over cat calendars. The other half: Babies, in crack houses, sitting in feces.”

So what, as the Bolsheviks used to ask, is to be done? Mr. Geoghegan has the answer: Raise wages. He knows this seems both simplistic and unrealistic, but he means it. He would raise wages by revitalizing collective bargaining and freeing the unions from some legal restrictions. He would raise wages through big government central planning. He seems to recognize that this would inevitably result in more unemployment, and he is undaunted by double-digit joblessness in the European social democracies he admires.

If this were what people really wanted-stronger unions, government-mandated higher wages-who’s stopping them from voting for legislators to pass the needed laws? We do live in a democracy, no?

No, Mr. Geoghegan counters provocatively-wonkishly-and not entirely unconvincingly. He recycles an essay he wrote for The New Republic on why two senators per state, large or small, coupled with the fact that it takes 60 senators to stop a filibuster, means that a mere 10 percent of the population can block any legislation.

He likes local government (Harold Washington’s Chicago) and the Federal Government, which is where you get the real central planning done. And he hates state government, which has gotten much more powerful in recent years, fueled by block grants of Federal tax money.

Mr. Geoghegan believes that in a properly operating democracy working people and their sympathizers would vote for better wages. This seems wrong as theory and wrong as a description of what people, even working people, want. They apparently want freedom, even at terrible social cost, even at their own expense.

Mr. Geoghegan is not in fact fully committed to democracy. He’s not shy about asking the courts to set social policy. His book contains several rueful accounts of big lawsuits filed by Mr. Geoghegan that were not only doomed to failure but were also opposed by the very people he sought to help. He sued Chicago, for instance, because overcrowding in homeless shelters was spreading TB. The people who ran the shelters deplored the suit, because the upshot would be fewer beds. Mr. Geoghegan felt guilty about that one; he knew he was using a legal action as “a form of theater.”

The stage play Mr. Geoghegan wrote failed, too. It was political (about Chicago) and informed, he tells us, by the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen-and, one fears, Wallace Shawn. He was inspired by the plays he’d seen about South Africa and about England under Margaret Thatcher. Lacking subpoena power in this forum, he was unable to summon investors or an audience.

Thomas Geoghegan must suspect that this little flop is a metaphor for the state of the left today: It’s unwatchable theater, celebrity antimatter.

The Discreet Charm of a Lefty Who’s Serious About Wages