A frightening abyss

October 21, 2014 by

Political funerals are naturally light on candour and heavy on encomium, a polite sponge applied to the deceased’s public record.

Such prettification, in an Australian Labor setting, typically does without much elevated language  the latter being beyond whichever dim leading lights of today, and fossilized contemporaries of yesteryear, have been selected from among the assembled personages.

Bureaucratic droning is the standard official tribute.

Honest political testament, and quivering oratory, is best sought elsewhere.

In October 1975, Clyde Cameron, a senior member of the Whitlam Cabinet and back-room powerbroker for the ALP Left, delivered a remarkably frank, unvarnished speech in the House of Representatives.

With explicitness born of desperation, he described the role of the Australian Labor Party and trade unions in preserving the existing institutional order from those who would menace it.

Cameron beseeched the conservative Opposition (and the propertied classes) to see reason, explaining that removal of the Labor government threatened ‘total collapse of the parliamentary system of government’ and victory for the unruly, repugnant ‘mob':

The people are many; the moguls are few. Yet it is the representation of those privileged few who have brought us to this very brink of mob rule. A frightening abyss is certainly before us now…

Without parliamentary democracy what is there? Why should the masses tolerate this mockery of democracy? What will prevent the masses from becoming a mob and what will then stand between the classes of privilege and the mob once the institution of parliament is destroyed? Who will then man the powerhouses, the oil refineries and the transport systems? Who then will man the ships, mine the coal and man the wharves? The Opposition cannot do that with guns and bayonets. It cannot do that with its wealthy racketeer friends. Revolution does not ever happen until some spark ignites the dynamite. The steps which the Opposition has now taken could be the spark that will bring down all the institutions in this country.

[...]

Parliament does not derive its strength, its authority, its respect and power from the shell of masonry that carries the name of Parliament House. Nor does it derive its power and respect from the people who sit in its chambers; it derives its power, respect and authority from the fact that people identify Parliament with a whole wide range of ancient traditions, conventions and principles without which it can no longer act as the barrier between our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it. And yet, it is they, the privileged sections of the community and the Press barons, who have most to lose from the destruction of the present system. They, the Press barons, the mining magnates, the foreign-owned multinational corporations, the ruling classes generally, the barons of business and the privileged classes are now urging the Opposition to embark upon the course of action which will destroy the only bastion which stands between them and the mob.

[...]

Once working people see that their chosen governments are not to be allowed to govern, what is it that will stop them from responding to those memorable lines of Percy Shelley who, in conditions very much like those which will apply when the collapse of the parliamentary system occurs, made this clarion call to the men of England:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many they are few.

This Parliament stands between the rule of the mob, the law of the streets and society as we know it and have enjoyed it throughout our country.

Thereafter, dumped from power despite its importuning, the Australian Labor Party would play its perennial role, as sturdy protector of ‘the institution of parliament’ and ‘society as we know it.’

Very late in life, Cameron joined Socialist Alliance.

His trembling evocation of the mob, given rare expression in Canberra (an urban environment designed to exclude the popular citizenry), was common in nineteenth-century literature. The riot scenes of Dickens and Zola record the physical terror inspired by dense populations of workers and artisans unleashed from authority.

Today, however, the imagery of stormed palaces has become somewhat tattered and remote — and the toppled statue is now a kitsch trademark of US-engineered regime change. Nonetheless, fear and contempt for the ‘masses’ endures, finding an outlet in supercilious journalistic sneering about moral panics and ‘populism.’

Yet isn’t such demophobia pointless, after three decades of relative domestic social peace, if not outright quiescence, in the advanced economies?

oz_strikes

Why has the governing elite of this country recently invested so heavily in the machinery of repression (administrative detention, ‘control orders’, military call-out powers, engorgement of police and intelligence agencies)? Why erect such bastions and barriers between ‘our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it’, when the latter are so disorganized, discredited and demoralized, and in any case no longer possess in any great numbers a coherent vision of an alternative society?

Some clue to this development is found here, where I describe Steven Pinker’s fondness for state violence, the latter approved as a queller of rowdy passions from below:

Mounting a consistent and effective defence of property rights nowadays compels the honest ideologue to adopt such a position [pragmatic authoritarianism].

For if ‘gentle commerce’ transforms ‘zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit’, this same growth of productivity and cooperative non-rivalry (i.e. the necessity for team production by co-workers in factories and offices) also raises the costs of excluding non-owners from access to resources and enforcing private claims to wealth.

In today’s Garrison USA, it takes more than one-quarter of the labour force (up from 6% in 1890 and 7% in 1929) to maintain order and to enforce the existing allocation of ownership claims over economic resources. A colossal number of citizen-soldiers now work as supervisors with the authority to discipline, sanction and fire, or as prison guards, private security personnel, employees of the military, lawyers, etc.

This is what mainstream economics calls the ‘technology of conflict’, in which resources are devoted to enforcing, adjudicating, seizing or redistributing private claims to social wealth.

At the heart of US society beats a massive disciplinary apparatus, public and private.

Hasbara through the ages

August 5, 2014 by

Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, in a July 1914 telegram to the Reich’s ambassador in Vienna, counsels tact in the practice of Weltpolitik.

Trumping up a plausible pretext for war requires both finesse and patience; at the last moment, a headlong rush may be thwarted:

As we have already rejected one British proposal for a conference, it is not possible for us to refuse this suggestion also a limine.

If we rejected every attempt at mediation the whole world would hold us responsible for the conflagration and represent us as the real warmongers. That would also make our position impossible here in Germany, where we have got to appear as though the war had been forced on us.

Our position is the more difficult because Serbia seems to have given way very extensively. We cannot therefore reject the role of mediator; we have to pass on the British proposal to Vienna for consideration, especially since London and Paris are continuously using their influence on Petersburg.

[...]

The Imperial government is thus put into the extraordinarily difficult position of being exposed during the intervening period to the other Powers’ proposals for mediation and conferences, and if it continues to maintain its previous reserve towards such proposals, the odium of having provoked a world war will in the end recoil on it, even in the eyes of the German people.

But a successful war on three fronts (viz., in Serbia, Russia and France) cannot be initiated and carried on on such a basis.

It is imperative that the responsibility for any extension of the conflict to Powers not directly concerned should under all circumstances fall on Russia alone.

Twenty-five years later, Hitler fears similar delays and obstructions:

All these fortunate circumstances will no longer prevail in two to three years. No one knows how long I shall live. Therefore conflict better now…

I am only afraid that at the last minute some Schweinehund will make a proposal for mediation.

The useful art

July 31, 2014 by

Speaking at a 2012 literary festival, Jonathan Franzen expertly flattered his audience, sweeping them, himself and the US president into gratifying communion:

One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US.

‘real writer type’, too: the young Obama, his early promise detected, was offered, and duly inked, a publishing contract to write his memoirs while still at college.

Released just before an electoral campaign for the Illinois Senate, that book presented the candidate in his now accustomed role: embodiment of triumph over racial prejudice, personification of national healing.

Jonathan Franzen June 2012 Artists and Writers for Obama

The breadth of presidential interests is, of course, not exhausted by the written word. Its scope encompasses all varieties of Blue State cultural output, visual as well as verbal.

Thus Obama may loyally have read Franzen at Martha’s Vineyard, but he is also a fan and sponsor of the cinematic blockbuster.

The contours of this aesthetic ecumenicism — a broad-minded taste for Hollywood dross as well as Champaign-Urbana middlebrow — adhere closely to the map of industries granted favourable copyright, patent and intellectual-property protection — now of unprecedented extent and duration — during recent decades.

The Motion Picture Association and the Association of American Publishers both have a friend, attuned to their needs and sensibilities, in the White House.

Its current occupant, following Clinton’s efforts to secure the TRIPS Agreement, is the first to establish a domestic office of Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.

The cultural pretensions of Democratic presidents, along with their financial contributors and electoral base, have accordingly changed since 1946, when Harry Truman could rail against ‘the “Artists” with a capital A, the parlour pinks and the soprano-voiced men.’

Today press, academy and the well-educated flock to the Democrats.

Amid this reconfiguration — postwar rise of the media and entertainment industries, verbal culture displaced by the visual, fortification of IP as a massive source of royalties and licence revenue — the very role of the writer has been transformed.

Professional distinctions between journalist, writer and scholar have been blurred, publicity pursued and cultural authority lost.

Franzen’s attempt to edify a self-conceived intelligentsia might therefore, at least, prompt one question.

How, examined in the longue durée, has production and reproduction of books and the written word altered the social position of authors? How have the writer’s esteem, prerogatives and benefices altered with his or her workaday techniques, tools of the trade, property rights and proximity to power?

The topic is vast, but some remarks can be made.

To organize any society’s division of labour, a ruling class always depends on technologies of information transmission and storage (e.g. written culture, number systems, monetary tokens, aides memoire).

Thus, in the temple economy of ancient Sumer, writing, numerical notation and arithmetic developed to record and tally units of sheep, wheat, fish, etc. on clay tablets.

Herodotus explained how geometry arose from the Egyptian state’s need to survey and measure land boundaries for apportionment to tenants:

Egypt was cut up; and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, giving an equal square portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year: and if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion, he would come to the king and declare that which had happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less, in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also. For as touching the sun-dial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day, they were learnt by the Hellenes from the Babylonians.

Literate societies, which allow information to be more readily stored externally and transmitted horizontally (e.g. by telegraph) as well as vertically across generations (e.g. training manuals), can deploy a more complex labour process than non-literate ones.

Reckoning_Before_Writing

Through the movement of symbols — coins, written messages, titles to deed — separate production units can be coordinated.

Or large-scale collaborative projects, such as architectural or construction works, can be undertaken, with many producers working in parallel under the same roof.

Thanks to writing and other methods of storing information, technological specialties can accrete and be taught to new generations, and society’s labour resources allocated to different concrete tasks.

The ‘disembodied word,’ wrote Ernest Gellner, ‘can be identically present in many, many places.’

The scale of productive labour commanded, and thus the capacity to extract and appropriate a surplus product (e.g. tax-raising or rent), is thereby increased by a system of extendible records such as writing.

The sovereign rulers or elite of such a territory are able to mobilize greater resources (military service, armaments, requisitioned food, etc.) to squander on war or the threat of war, or to administer in peacetime.

Thus the rulers of a literate society will be more likely to succeed in military conflict with external rivals and internal challengers.

Tokens Iran 4th millenium BC

Suppose this rudimentary level of literacy reached, as in agrarian societies.

How then has the manner in which manuscripts were copied and books printed influenced matters?

Charlemagne’s Frankish military machine, the most effective in post-Roman Western Europe, and the most ecclesiastically based, was also the first to effectively promote book copying and literary education as part of an official recovery of the classical past and its cultural treasures.

Stung by the humiliations inflicted upon the Merovingians by the tax-raising Umayyad state, the Carolingian court in Aachen — its own fiscal resources modest — opted to undertake an ambitious administrative and education policy.

Late in the eighth century Charlemagne addressed a famous letter to the abbot Baugaulf of Fulda, instructing him to forward copies to every monastery in Francia:

[The] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favour of Christ to our control, in addition to inculcating the culture of letters, also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observation of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly…

For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.

Therefore, each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish, so that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done, as the tongue hastens in the praises of omnipotent God without the hindrances of errors. For since errors should be shunned by all men, so much the more ought they to be avoided as far as possible by those who are chosen for this very purpose alone, so that they ought to be the especial servants of truth.

For when in the years just passed letters were often written to us from several monasteries in which it was stated that the brethren who dwelt there offered up in our behalf sacred and pious prayers, we have recognized in most of these letters both correct thoughts and uncouth expressions; because what pious devotion dictated faithfully to the mind, the tongue, uneducated on account of the neglect of study, was not able to express in the letter without error…

Therefore, we exhort you not only not to neglect the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures.

Since, moreover, images, tropes and similar figures are found in the sacred pages, no one doubts that each one in reading these will understand the spiritual sense more quickly if previously he shall have been fully instructed in the mastery of letters…

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne describes how the king himself, though barely able to write, joined in the Frankish elite’s recovery of Latin classics and early Christian authorities:

The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was, first of all, to have both boys and girls instructed in the liberal arts, to which he also turned his own attention…

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.

He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them.

He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.

The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny.

He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

Alcuin’s letters describe that scholar’s mission, recruited to Aachen as Charlemagne’s ‘restorer of letters’.

There he would salvage and transcribe lost manuscripts, with copying accuracy improved by development of the standardized script known as Carolingian miniscule.

Alcuin would also establish and amass a library of books (Virgil, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), administer abbeys, and teach ‘liberal studies and the holy word’ to the Frankish aristocracy, court officials and clergy.

A common elite culture was thereby transmitted at the Palace School, instructions issued in a language and Church ideology that all ecclesiastic authorities could understand and apply.

Aachen palace

Van Zanden - West European monasteries

Through the serial copying of texts by scribes and notaries, and the teaching of students, this ‘culture of letters’ gradually diffused outward throughout the cathedral schools of the Frankish realm.

Common institutions (incorporated towns, monastery and cathedral schools, Catholic orders) spread from the Rhine-Meuse heartland of the Carolingian lands across Europe.

Latin Christendom’s conquest to the south, in Acquitane, northern Spain and Italy, and to the east in Saxony and the Slavic lands, created social and legal replicas rather than dependencies.

European book production, initially concentrated in the Italian peninsula, took off continent-wide.

Van Zanden - European manuscript production

A poem by the Archbishop of Mainz conveys some idea of the enthusiasm for scribes, and the written word, among the Carolingian elite:

As God’s kingly law rules in absolute majesty over the wide world
It is an exceedingly holy task to copy the law of God.
This activity is a pious one, unequalled in merit
By any other which men’s hands can perform.
For the fingers rejoice in writing, the eyes in seeing,
And the mind at examining the meaning of God’s mystical words.
No work sees the light which hoary old age
Does not destroy or wicked time overturn:
Only letters are immortal and ward off death
Only letters in books bring the past to life.
Indeed God’s hand carved letters on the rock
That pleased him when he gave his laws to the people,
And these letters reveal everything in the world that is
Has been, or may chance to come in the future.

An ingratiating manner was thus adopted towards the specialist corps of scholars, writers and clerics. Political authority, while chiefly engaged in the sordid business of territorial aggrandizement, relied for its perpetuation and its sense of mission upon scriptural authority, and its codification in writing.

The word was repository of wisdom and legitimating truth. Its custodians should be indulged.

Carolingian manuscript

Europe’s urban and commercial efflorescence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked another development of book production.

The Pecia system, using multiple scribes, reduced the time required to reproduce a manuscript by allowing parallel copying of many fragment of the text, rather than a single serial process.

This technique was developed in medieval universities that had sprung up, the first under Imerius at Bologna, to recover and interpret the Roman civil code.

This medieval revival of Roman jurisprudence, making available classical precepts of ownership and contract, was propitious for the growth of West European commodity production, trade and urbanization.

In the more coherently developed Byzantine Empire, centuries earlier, revival of the Justinian Code by Basil I had been accompanied by renewed appreciation for Virgil, Homer and Augustine. The Macedonian Renaissance, with Photius and his famous library, presented a pinnacle then unreachable in backwards Francia. Byzantine state officials were trained in Graeco-Roman classics: Leo the Mathematician taught Aristotelian logic at the Magnaura school.

In the West, however, until the Renaissance the Church served as a ‘special vessel’ that preserved the cultural heritage of classical antiquity, ‘escaping the general wreckage to transmit the mysterious messages of the past to the less advanced future… the indispensable bridge between two epochs.’

scriptorium

Van Zanden - Book production and monasteries

In our own day, the practice of copying information has become more important to social production.

First lauded by Daniel Bell in the 1970s, the ‘information economy’ was the subject of more sustained and thoroughgoing ideological celebration in the 1990s, with industrial capitalism receiving bouquets for having overcome its material constraints and resource limits.

Of course, as with much else, the economic contribution made by copying information was identified long ago by Charles Babbage.

Replacement of the scribe (a serial process of copying) by the printing press and moveable type brought rapid increase in the productivity of information copying:

Printing from moveable types… is the most important in its influence of all the arts of copying.

It possesses a singular peculiarity, in the immense subdivision of the parts that form the pattern. After that pattern has furnished thousands of copies, the same individual elements may be arranged again and again in other forms, and thus supply multitudes of originals, from each of which thousands of their copied impressions may flow.

This set the scene for generalized literacy among the educated workforce required by industrial capitalism. And it ensured, for a time, the supremacy of verbal culture.

Outside the printing industry itself, mass production using interchangeable parts has, since the mid-19th century, depended on replication of standardized products made to precise tolerances. (This, in turn, makes possible the development of numerical-control machine tools, replacing jigs and fixtures.)

Copying technology in manufacturing has more recently been refined by optical and UV lithography.

Today’s books, images, recorded music and software are transmitted rapidly and in parallel using Unicode and ASCII.

Information (e.g. a sequence of words) is liberated from its dependence on any particular medium or embodiment in a specific material artifact (e.g. typeset document). Written text may be duplicated at will.

Any such item of text, able to be reproduced at low cost, must therefore become copyright if it is to be remain property and yield monetary reward.

This raises the question of the author as independent producer.

When does the writer retain property rights to his or her product?

Especially since the 1970s, copyright law has decreed that employees, or those contractors working for hire, waive ownership rights over their creative work to the commissioning or employing entity (publisher, studio, ad agency).

Staff journalists or advertising writers, for example, have no property claims in their published works, which belong instead to the periodical or agency that employs or contracts them (some exceptions apply).

Freelance writers, too, while nominally independent contractors and thus entitled to copyright, are in bargaining terms at the mercy of publishers: ‘if [writers] do not capitulate and assign rights to such conglomerates they risk being blacklisted.’

This divestment of authorship has accomplished a sharp change in the social position of writers, who had hitherto, in some measure, been independent producers: owning their own tools of the trade, working under their own direction rather than that of supervisors, preserving rights to their output and whatever fruits it might yield.

‘The author isn’t dead’, wrote Catherine Fisk, reaching for a clever epigram and duly finding it: ‘he just got a job.’

Unfortunately, as if in a company-man dystopia, he has been subsumed into the identity of his corporate employer. His disappearance is by now almost complete. Although he has gone on writing, the corporation has become the author of his oeuvre…

[Modern] creativity is exercised in an employment setting where salaried creators sign away their rights in their work as a condition of hire — sign away, in effect, their very status as authors.

In this ‘corporatization of creativity’, there is an echo of the fate of the salaried engineer, brought into a collective work team by growth of the patent system.

David Noble describes emergence of the ‘corporation as inventor’ at the in-house research laboratories (General Electric, AT&T, Bayer, BASF) of the late nineteenth century:

The frustration of independent invention led the majority of inventors into the research laboratories of the large corporations; in the process, invention itself was transformed…

Inventors became employees in corporations to spare themselves the hardship of going in alone. Their patents were thereby handled by corporation-paid patent lawyers and their inventions were made commercially viable at corporate expense. Corporate employment thus eliminated the problem of lawsuits, and in addition provided well-equipped laboratories, libraries and technical assistance for research. The nature of their actual work, however, had changed…

By employing the technical experts capable of producing inventions, the corporations were also obtaining the legally necessary vehicles for the accumulation of corporate patents…

In time… employees became required to assign all patent rights to their employer, as part of their employment contracts, in return for their salaries.

The writer’s reduced circumstances in the world have been accompanied by a marked decline in the quality of authorial output.

Little published in the decades following the Second World War stands comparison with the tightly bunched sequence of totems released after the First: works by Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Valéry, Mayakovsky all appearing within a few years of each other.

Fredric Jameson notes the social mutations behind this post-1945 fall-off in novelistic standards — a decline everywhere grudgingly conceded but rarely dwelt upon.

The great modernist seers, not least in their own self-mythology, were independent producers, retaining an artisanal autonomy of routine, if not hieratic ritual. Pen and paper offered a self-sufficient cloister from the industrial economy of plastics, electronics and chemical factories.

These droits de l’auteur were usurped as their literary successors, obliged to do paid journalism or media work in whatever measure, have been drawn into capitalist social relations:

[There] is a deeper reason for the disappearance of the Great Writer under postmodernism, and it is simply this, sometimes called “uneven development”: in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of increasing institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself.

Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.

Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally; and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it exercised a fascination by way of the image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.

Joyce in his rooms in Paris singlehandedly produces a whole world, all by himself and beholden to no one; but the human beings in the streets outside those rooms have no comparable sense of power and control, of human productivity; none of the feeling of freedom and autonomy that comes when, like Joyce, you can make or at least share in making your own decisions.

As a form of production, then, modernism (including the Great Artists and producers) gives off a message that has little to do with the content of the individual works: it is the aesthetic as sheer autonomy, as the satisfactions of handicraft transfigured.

Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen): the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history  handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance.

The history of early twentieth-century avant-gardes in the visual arts easel painting stretching the limits of handicraft creativity in response to the new commercial technologies of photography, cinema and television seems to confirm this diagnosis.

But the written word has been cheaply reproducible for centuries. The printing press was invented long before sound recording or disc pressing.

Why then should authors have suddenly submitted to the depredations and indignity of the employment relationship? Why relinquish a purely commercial transaction for a relationship of command and subordination?

The background to this loss of social esteem can be plotted briefly.

The writer of ‘independent means’ — beneficiary of family fortunes and legacies, of a gebildet European bourgeoisie happy to subsidize the artistic careers of its wayward sons — had dwindled in number by the mid-twentieth century, cancelled along with the aristocracy whose ‘high culture’ the business classes were trying to ape.

In a 1946 radio broadcast, E.M. Forster described the workings of this vanished world of Mann, Gide, Proust, Zweig and himself: ‘In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts.’

He surmised, correctly, its obsolescence.

Suddenly needing to earn a salary, many writers were drawn into journalism, academia and marketing by the postwar expansion of higher education, entertainment media and advertising industries.

Creative-writing programmes, residencies, fellowships and institutional grants provided new homes in the academy, and birthed the postwar genre of campus novel. (Prescribed syllabuses meanwhile supplied a market for books that, lacking sufficient buyers, might otherwise have gone unpublished.)

State bureaucracies, massively swelled by warfare and welfare state, absorbed others into officialdom and public administration. (Proust had recommended a comfortable, undemanding sinecure as the ideal occupation for an author.)

The result today is that all writers, even the most exalted, must resort to journalism or occasional teaching. Journalists are therefore tempted to suppose themselves writers — indeed the more successful, receiving grants from university, foundation or think tank, as interim scholars.

For writers, this coming down in the world reaches its culmination with the insistence, courtesy of a copyright lawyer at Google, that the notion of sole creative authorship has always been a myth. The ‘romantic’ notion of the author disguises the reality of artistic collaboration, bricolage and cheerful plagiarism.

Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic.

(Of course, Patry rather misses the point: in commercial terms, appellation of authorship is akin to indication of geographical origin, e.g. of wine or cheese, an identifying badge which is recognized under the TRIPS Agreement as similar to trademark or certification.)

Today the ‘creative industries’ — so named by their publicists — are presented as a smart new engine of economic growth, the swelling revenue of Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast and Time Warner an example of twenty-first century conditions favouring the intelligent over the dim.

The ‘creative economy’ and ‘cultural industries’ are now topics of urgent reports by UNCTAD and UNESCO, not to mention a cottage industry of scholarship, popular publications and municipal boosterism.

In reality, the high incomes of media, software and pharmaceutical firms are a form of rent based on access denial and control. This is a business model familiar from the land enclosures of the British agricultural revolution.

Patent royalties, copyright fees, licence revenue, etc. — not to mention the income earned by lawyers and agents securing such arrangements — derive not from any new productive powers or technological innovations, but from asserting exclusive property rights, and thereby securing claim over a revenue stream.

The grotesquely concentrated market of book publishing — Pearson, Bertelsmann, Lagardère and a handful of other giant houses commanding the global scene — is exemplary.

Proletarianization of the author, as with the academic scholar, therefore signals not an explosion of knowledge, but its seizure and sequestration.

Along with prolonged copyright and trademark protection, the other half of the ‘creative industry’ business model is contributed by network externalities. Low costs of reproduction, and uniformity of customer tastes, allow multiplication of copies to any number of users.

The presence of more buyers raises the value of the original copy. With greater scale comes increasing returns.

A handful of market-cornering ‘superstars’ prosper; the eager but unloved proliferate.

‘Content’ production and transmission are therefore encouraged only to the extent they can be subdued and corralled by publishing platforms and distributors. The volume of writing solicited is unprecedented (e.g. content farms), but the channel clogged with noise (recycled articles, duplicated material).

Amid this scene, the pose struck by Franzen — himself as Voltaire or Maupertuis at Frederick the Great’s Prussian court — provides buffoonish relief.

Franzen and Safran Foer - Artists and Writers for Obama

What, finally, of Franzen’s panegyric of Obama as literary patron and cultural custodian?

One of the cherished fantasy-images of postmodern politics is that of an intelligentsia, hitherto a marginalized and downtrodden caste, restored to social prominence and installing one of its own in the chancellery.

Havel in Prague provides a euphoric example, as does the short-lived spectacle of ‘civil society’, journalists and economists in Poland and post-Soviet Russia, celebrating their own professional guild-values as foundations for a new society.

The ur-reference of these contemporary fantasies is 1848, when the poets and novelists of European romanticism — Manzoni, Petöfi, Mickiewicz — played starring roles for national movements in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy. For mid-nineteenth century romantic nationalism, language was the bearer of heritage, providing a cultural basis for political unity.

Such rhetoric, now hopelessly archaic but guaranteeing a prominent role for the national bard (e..g Milan Kundera), was revived with the breakup of the Soviet Union and other multi-ethnic states, the return of private ownership dressed up as a Springtime of Peoples.

In the 1990s such visions spread outwards from the newly capitalist countries, an elixir to replenish the threadbare ideological cupboards of the old. Their compensatory function is obvious for European and North American intellectuals suffering the aesthetic degradation and social indignities of globalized advanced capitalism, as described above.

Reality is, of course, unkind to this daydream of a renewed social alliance between belles-lettres and state authority.

As with his peers abroad — the parvenu crassness of Sarkozy springs to mind — today’s US president, educated at a private prep school worth over $300 million, is instead anxious to flaunt his social kinship with ‘savvy businessmen.’

Literature has, of course, rarely drawn the attention of wealthy patrons. It lacks the monumentality and civic resplendence of architecture; cannot offer the networking opportunities and social prestige of the opera house or gallery board of directors; easily duplicated, it does not yield the returns on investment of the one-of-a-kind painting.

Yet if sponsors have always been scarce, membership of the propertied classes has, in previous epochs, meant an obligatory amount of taste, learning, connoisseurship, and reverence towards literary matters.

Books were favoured as a luxury appurtenance, patronized and consumed for ornamentation and exhibitions of status, to be sure — but also were a matter of elite self-conception, recruitment and social functioning.

In 1808 Napoleon — his Grande Armée having brought emancipation of the Prussian peasantry, state certification of teachers and foundation of Berlin University — took time out from the Congress of Erfurt to grant a breakfast-time audience with Goethe.

Goethe recounted this episode in a conversation with Eckermann:

“But,” continued he, gaily, “pay your respects. What book do you think Napoleon carried in his field library? — My Werther!”

“We may see by his levee at Erfurt,” said I, “that he had studied it well.”

“He had studied it as a criminal judge does his documents,” said Goethe, “and in this spirit talked with me about it. In Bourrienne’s work there is a list of the books which Napoleon took to Egypt, among which is Werther. But what is worth noticing in this list, is the manner in which the books are classed under different rubrics. Under the head Politique, for instance, we find the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran; by which we see from what point of view Napoleon regarded religious matters.”

The three versions of this meeting (recorded by Talleyrand, Friedrich von Müller and Goethe himself) were recorded by Luise Mühlbach in her historical novel Napoleon and the Queen of Prussia:

Napoleon, continuing to eat, beckoned Goethe, with a careless wave of his hand, to approach.

He complied, and stood in front of the table, opposite the emperor, who looked up, and, turning with an expression of surprise to Talleyrand, pointed to Goethe, and exclaimed, “Ah, that is a man!” An imperceptible smile overspread the poet’s countenance, and he bowed in silence.

“How old are you, M. von Goethe?” asked Napoleon.

“Sire, I am in my sixtieth year.”

“In your sixtieth year, and yet you have the appearance of a youth! Ah, it is evident that perpetual intercourse with the muses has imparted external youth to you.”

“Sire,” said Daru, “M. von Goethe has also translated Voltaire’s Mahomet.”

“That is not a good tragedy,” said Napoleon. “Voltaire has sinned against history and the human heart. He has prostituted the character of Mohammed by petty intrigues. He makes a man, who revolutionized the world, act like an infamous criminal deserving the gallows. Let us rather speak of Goethe’s own work—of the Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read it many times, and it has always afforded me the highest enjoyment; it accompanied me to Egypt, and during my campaigns in Italy, and it is therefore but just that I should return thanks to the poet for the many pleasant hours he has afforded me.”

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

During the late Roman empire, Symmachus had declared in a letter that his senatorial elite were the ‘better part of the human race.’ Though idle and landed, Roman aristocrats had to be familiar with Virgil and Juvenal.

Such, indeed, was the cultural pedigree later drawn upon by bourgeois revolutionaries, for whom such distant treasures of the past remained legible, banners and elevated slogans to be salvaged from history, then used to embellish contemporary campaigns.

Dutch republicans sought to vindicate their revolt against Philip II’s Spanish yoke with arguments from Aristotle, Roman thinkers and the Bible. The English Revolution drew its language from the Bible.

In France, said Marx, ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire':

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases…

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.

Postmodern culture, of course, famously knows its own share of dress-up, pastiche and nostalgic revival.

Franzen’s grotesque embrace of Karl Kraus shows this: an example of nostalgia for the aesthetic, and of commercial culture’s wish to salvage from unprofitable ‘obscurity’ a peculiarly stringent and unassimilable modernism.

But — appropriately for a Restoration era that denies any future prospect of change — this decorative relationship to the past is enfeebling rather than stimulating. If it is to be drawn upon, any historical item must first be converted into a fashion plate, suitable for collection and ornamentation, the merest patina and embellishment.

Thus in literary necromancy, too, yesterday’s priests are replaced by today’s cheap hucksters.

The ‘past brought to life’ can involve little genuine connection to a shared cultural heritage, the latter now hopelessly remote and irrelevant. It follows instead the relentless, rhythmic turnover of the fashion cycle.

Display of rectitude as a war of attrition

July 25, 2014 by

It is as foil to his brutal, sport-mad, loutish classmates that Stephen Dedalus is thrown into relief as a quiet, sensitive young artist-to-be.

In the schoolyard, delicate and wheezing, Stephen is not like other boys:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries.

The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery…

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing legs and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on…

It would be better to be in the study hall than out there in the cold.

To such extravagant lack of athletic ability, add a record of conversational misfires and a tendency to lapses in classroom etiquette.

This experience of youthful difference is disagreeable. Stephen the aesthete must find a more suitable habitat in which to fit himself — if not a different, less provincial country entirely.

Theophile Gautier

Yet revealing one’s type in this fashion  sticking out from the plodding, lowing herd of peers and contemporaries  is not all bad.

It is through such outward and visible signs of inward distinction that the sheep are separated from the goats, the philosopher from the street-porter, and those with a special destiny from the ordinary run of people.

And how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd when, having progressed to a better school, all your peers are of similarly thoughtful and bookish temperament?

The pale gleaming purity of the ‘model youth’ is readily perceived against a background of ‘undistinguished dullards.’ But what to do on those nights when all the cows, like you, are black?

In David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, readers are introduced to the grad student Molly Notkin, ‘as of yesterday enjoying ABD pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge Theory at MIT’.

Molly’s pious, high-minded ex-boyfriend is described:

[An] erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic compulsion that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur.

Here is a kind of arms race of sanctimony, the pursuit of holding the most exacting and conspicuously austere standards of conduct within one’s reference group (i.e. of grad students in the liberal arts).

The Pabst scholar is engaged with his peers in a bidding tournament to exhibit the most delicacy and unremitting sensitivity, the most guilt for his lapses into the profane:

Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

In The World of Odysseus, Moses Finley portrayed Homeric contests for esteem as a kind of zero-sum tournament of social climbing:

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others…

In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy.

The prestige gained by the ‘winner’ was a kind of positional good. The value of honour depended on its being unequally distributed: having it entailed that some other people didn’t have it.

This encouraged a competitive rat race of escalating heroism, a tournament or bidding war in which ever more resources — time, effort, spilt blood — were expended.

It resembled what Veblen would later describe, in Gilded Age Chicago, as a treadmill of ‘pecuniary emulation… a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.’

For abiding by an obligatory norm wasn’t enough to distinguish the Homeric warrior (or the ‘tortured PhD type’) as a hero or elicit the approbation of others. One had to go beyond the call of duty.

Admiration was reserved for supererogatory acts: those that surpassed the norm.

Veblen on keeping up with the Joneses:

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours.

One-upmanship is typical when this kind of (indivisible, positional) prize is at stake.

We’re all familiar with social contests (e.g. pursuit of prestige through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, arms races in education leading to ‘credential inflation’, litigation battles with massive legal expenses incurred by both parties, R&D races, competitive giving in potlatch, etc.) that generate escalating and wasteful consumption of resources.

Each participant knows that the prize in these tournaments will be awarded to whoever is willing to match others’ bids and commit that extra epsilon of costly resources, refusing to drop out.

The rents accrued, in the end, by the winner are often matched or surpassed by the resources squandered during the contest.

When new standards are successively established and function henceforth as a baseline or default, we have a kind of ascending-bid auction.

The latter is an auction where everyone submits bids, with successively higher iterations, and the prize winner is the one who can afford the most costly investment.

Sensitivity, insofar as it confers prestige while bringing expense of time and effort, may be one such contest.

How does the tournament proceed: in what manner are competitors pruned and a prize allotted?

The needs of some individuals are easier to satisfy than the needs of others: society must, for example, expend more of its limited resources to supply electricity to a resident of a remote farming region than it does to provide the same good to an urban dweller.

A person (e.g. someone with restricted mobility who must amend the design of their house or workplace to be capable of getting around) may have ‘expensive tastes’ even without voluntarily cultivating the latter.

Some societies (and some agents i.e. governments, firms, individuals) can afford to spend resources satisfying such costly needs. Others cannot.

A large corporation may be able to afford diversity and inclusion programmes or sensitivity training for its employees, and can modify office facilities to allow access by disabled workers and visitors, etc.

A small proprietor may be unable to afford either investment, or may have to choose between them.

Regularly maintaining and upgrading manuals of approved usage or conduct is a costly task, as is employing compliance officers, or monitoring the speech and behaviour of oneself and others.

It will only be undertaken by those with resources to spare.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the inclination to undertake such costly benevolence. Willingness rather than capacity may be the decisive factor.

Yet such enlightened attitudes must themselves be cultivated or acquired through training, reflection or experience. Thus their possession  like table manners, personal decorum or the ability to play a musical instrument  itself requires expense that not all can sustain.

BAE Systems diversity and inclusion matrix

Displays of sensitivity therefore function as a discriminating signal. They are, in certain contexts, a screening device that sorts insiders (the initiated) from outsiders.

A display of rectitude is only valuable as a screening service if it reliably distinguishes the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ If some display is easy to emulate (i.e. relatively cheap) then it is not credible as a status symbol.

Self-punishment, as exhibited by the sexually tortured film student, satisfies the handicap principle. It is not for everyone, being costly to maintain. Only the earnest need apply. The elaborate tartufferie of the big corporation, for different reasons, is also expensive to fake.

How much sensitivity, or guilt in the case of the film student, can one sustain?

This challenge triggering an arms race and squandering of resources — is the currency or subtext of many social interactions where, for lack of anything else to do, jockeying for prestige is the object: online discussion, for example, in which participants compete to parade the most costly investment (in knowing the currently approved or most esoteric terms, etc.).

But similar contests of one-upmanship pervade the bien-pensant circles of the professional and managerial classes, and their social satellites, as described in a recent post.

Genteelisms, as is well known, aim to provide a signal of distinguished taste and courtesy, as reliable as any good food and stylish furnishings. (Kojève, observing the survival of now-meaningless archaisms like tea ceremonies in postwar Japan, called this ‘snobbism’). They are a chief method for regulating in-group membership.

Yet, rapidly outdated, or too widely dispersed to work as shibboleths, they provoke a ceaseless euphemism treadmill.

The standard of circumlocution now set higher, an escalating level of resources must be devoted to mutual monitoring to detect infringements, and to lexical ingenuity to repel attacks, in order to come out ahead of the pack.

In general, the class of behaviour involves acquiring redundant goods or credentials, or undertaking some costly investment of time or effort, in order to maintain one’s position relative to competitors for some prize.

Such contests, as Finley and Veblen described, are a high-wire act of ‘restless straining.’

Hypocrisy, said Maugham, was ‘the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that men can pursue’, demanding constant vigilance. It could not be practised in spare moments, but was a ‘whole-time job.’

So, too, the exhausting battles for prestige, and enforcement of correct conduct and usage, among those with a deep regard for social status and the esteem of peers and colleagues.

The dinner party as rat race.

The body shop

July 11, 2014 by

From a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times:

In an era of globalization, the market for children crosses national borders; witness the longtime flow of Americans who have gone overseas to adopt babies from South Korea, China, Russia and Guatemala.

Other than the United States, only a few countries — among them India, Thailand, Ukraine and Mexico — allow paid surrogacy. As a result, there is an increasing flow in the opposite direction, with the United States drawing affluent couples from Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, many large surrogacy agencies in the United States say international clients — gay, straight, married or single — provide the bulk of their business…

Together, domestic and international couples will have more than 2,000 babies through gestational surrogacy in the United States this year, almost three times as many as a decade ago.

What, if anything, is to be made of such developments?

A little more than a decade back, a succession of startling innovations in biotech, the turn of a new millennium and Clinton’s ‘New Economy’ boom together spawned a potboiling genre of fanciful prognoses, fretful futurology and journalistic speculation on the fate of the ‘body’, marriage and parenthood, and human reproduction.

This was a publishing bubble of airport literature and Kulturkritik, which various eminences did not eschew.

Habermas Future of Human Nature

Around the same time, Foucault’s ‘biopolitics’ was rediscovered by the Anglophone academy, a narrow seam contributing another rich source of mischief and vapidity for cultural studies.

In the midst of this scene, in 2001 Duncan Foley delivered a clear-eyed scholarly lecture on economic growth and demography, in which he anticipated the new century bringing ‘opportunities and pressures’ for what he termed ‘reproductive arbitrage’.

The latter, he suggested, would ensue in a world where sub-replacement fertility prevailed in the ageing metropolitan economies, alongside a demographic floodtide of human misery elsewhere, as much of the globe experienced industrial growth insufficient to absorb its massive, stagnant ranks of young and prime-age people into employment.

karachi

Planet of Slums - Mike Davis

This reproductive arbitrage — a ‘global market for children’, buying where cheap and selling where coveted, at a premium — would, he pointed out, be something novel.

It was to be distinguished from the traditional migration of underutilized reserves of labour from remote hinterlands to the industrial centre.

The twentieth-first century, at its dawn, heralded a ‘sharp polarization between countries with rich ageing populations which cannot reproduce themselves and countries with poor, younger populations which are growing':

Productive arbitrage opportunities will arise because the rich countries will have chronic shortages of labour and surpluses of capital, while poor countries will have chronic shortages of capital and surpluses of labour. Arbitrage suggests either the movement of capital to the poor countries through foreign investment, or the movement of labour to the rich countries through migration…

Reproductive arbitrage opportunities will arise because of the tendency for poor countries to specialize in producing children, as the rich countries specialize in producing wealth. Thus, we can expect an explosive growth in the trade in reproduction and its associated services like surrogate parenthood, adoption, and the provision of child-care services between older, richer countries and younger, poorer countries. We have also begun to see the early stages of this phenomenon already.

As its clients have multiplied, treatment of the gestational-surrogacy market by the popular media has been equivocal.

Amid warm applause for the realization of parental dreams long held, misgivings are voiced, shortcomings admitted. Queasiness rarely rises, however, to the level of outright reproach, rejection or, least of all, investigation of underlying causes.

Prurience of the ‘Octomom’ variety carries its share of denunciation and spite, of course. But few right-thinking people would see fit to deny that the technology and ‘bioethics’ of assisted reproductive procedures are the chief matters at stake: philosophy, of a sort, rather than politics.

‘Regulation’, by vigilant international NGOs if not local authorities, is the prescribed salve.

(Not yet accustomed to the ways of the world, earlier journalistic treatment of ‘traditional’ surrogacy [insemination with sperm rather than embryo] was, in the 1980s and 1990s, rather more stringent in its scrutiny of market participants and their claims.)

Typically less given to delicate euphemism, the gurus and think tanks of the libertarian right have maintained a cautious silence on surrogacy’s cosmopolitan turn. Perhaps wary of upsetting a precarious apple cart, they are more likely to have found intervention unnecessary.

Inferences can, however, be drawn from past forthright statements.

In 1977, Judge Richard Posner notoriously proposed ‘legalizing a market for babies’. Affecting bemusement at the outraged response that greeted this calculated provocation, Posner observed in his own defence, and with some justification, ‘we have legal baby selling today… I simply think it should be regulated less stringently than today.’

The University of Chicago’s Richard Epstein, in a 1995 paper on surrogacy and contract law, complained that ‘condemnation of any transaction as “baby-selling” is all too often treated as a conversation stopper’.

A more phlegmatic outlook was called for.

Surrogacy’s ‘commercial aspects’ were ‘a regrettable but necessary part of transactions that yield enormous nonquantifiable benefits to the biological father and his wife, and to their friends and family who have comforted them during their years of anxiety and distress':

The ability of individuals to handle these transactions with sensitivity and discretion is not precluded because money changes hands. Indeed the success of the venture may be aided if the money allows skilled professionals to ease the transition of both sides.

Meanwhile the industry of international adoption receives promotional services from the likes of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet.

Foley’s remarks were little more than an aside, to which, as the phenomenon he identified has since grown, detail can be added.

What circumstances underpin the global specialization of reproductive tasks, linked increasingly by commercial transactions undertaken for profit?

Relative prices and jurisdictional peculiarities play their part (an Indian surrogate at the most internationally renowned clinic in Gujarat is fortunate to receive a fee of $6500, some others as little as $800, while their North American counterparts fetch around $30 000. Merely donating ova, if their source is an Ivy League graduate, itself attracts $20 000).

Fertility rates are inversely related to female labour-force participation (and per capita output), lifetime births per woman being highest where female paid employment is least, and the costs of child rearing (education, medical care, foregone wages) smallest.

Malnutrition causes half of all Indian women to be anaemic. Nearly half of all Indian children under three are underweight and undersized, and maternal mortality (around 200 per 100 000 live births) is estimated to kill 80 000 Indian women each year, contributing with Nigeria around a third of the world’s annual maternal deaths (most from anaemia, haemorrhage or uterine rupture, eclampsia and septic abortion).

A bare half of all Indian childbirths are attended by skilled health personnel (the figure is around 80% for Indonesia, and 99% for China).

Why is it that ‘poor countries’, seemingly so ill-suited for the task, should today have come to ‘specialize in producing children’ for the industrially developed zones of the planet?

‘Reproduction’ arises as a topic in classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) because of the peculiar character of that productive input known as human labour.

The latter is not (as are capital goods) produced as a direct commodity via the capitalist system of production; nor (like land, minerals and similar resources) garnered freely from nature; but must instead be born, reared, trained and socialized, in the domestic household or elsewhere, before it can be hired on the market as employable labour-power.

Thus, in the view of classical political economy, labour supply is induced by demand, growing or shrinking according to demand for employees at a given real wage, caused by variation in productive investment.

Over a few decades, labour supply is flexible or elastic, because employers seeking workers may tap in to external sources (idle pools abroad drawn in as immigrants) or underutilized domestic sources (the unemployed, housebound women, etc.).

Conditions in the slums and shanty towns of today’s Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, Sao Paolo, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Istanbul and Cairo may thus be compared to those of Henry Mayhew’s London.

In early Victorian times, Britain’s industrial revolution had breached Malthusian limits, detonating population growth and urbanization that, for the moment, outstripped the pace of fixed-capital accumulation and demand for employees.

The London streets of 1840 therefore teemed with petty vendors and sole proprietors (fruit sellers, flower stalls, artisans, prostitutes) whose meagre inventories and simple tools of the trade were of a scale measly enough to be owned by a single precariously placed individual or family, hawked and peddled by day and carried home at night.

With the available workforce more plentiful than the needs of capital owners required, human life came cheaply and the necessities of subsistence were procured in haphazard, opportunistic fashion, as described vividly by Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, and captured in the crowded tenements of Dickens’s fiction.

Despite rapid growth in productivity, British real wages remained stagnant throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, its urban hordes preserving slack in the labour market.

The Rookery St. Giles's 1851

Nearly two centuries later, in today’s Britain and other advanced economies, shrinking working-age cohorts (15-64 years) support relatively large economically inactive cohorts of the elderly and infirm.

In this metropolitan core, most strikingly in Europe and Japan, mechanization of production has caused output-capital ratios eventually to fall, as the stock of factories and equipment accumulates more rapidly than the number of available employees.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratios in the OECD

Labour productivity over time (US) and space (world)

Beyond the frontiers of the OECD, however, in the less industrially developed countries whose populations comprise the overwhelming majority of the world, Mayhew’s vista of scrounged livings now predominates.

In today’s official lexicon, it is designated as the ‘informal economy’.

Ninety-three percent of the Indian workforce, and 85 percent of the non-farm workforce, is deployed outside the organized corporate or state-owned sector in tiny household enterprises.

These marginal hundreds of millions of South Asian ‘self-employed’ and sub-contractors, whose low business revenue and few tangible assets makes them uncreditworthy to formal lending sources, provide the social infrastructure for those microfinance initiatives that so capture the hopes of well-meaning left-liberals abroad.

More importantly, such vast pools of urban misery — propelled out of the countryside by the Green Revolution, into cities where insufficient investment exists to draw them into paid employment — form a latent reserve of potential employees, thus keeping a ceiling on wage growth.

In Africa, South Asia, Latin America, West and Southeast Asia, low labour productivity corresponds to lesser capital intensity (fewer tangible assets used per worker), high output-capital ratios and a younger population.

Indian agricultural, construction, pottery and textile workers thus perform manual labour whilst their more productive counterparts abroad are assisted by machinery and equipment.

The capital-labour ratio in India is less than one-tenth its level in the United States. The resulting difference in labour productivity yields a stark income divergence: India’s average real wage is one-twentieth that of the USA.

In these circumstances, with the postcolonial prospect of secular ‘development’ and improved living standards having long since receded, those offering otherworldly salvation and similar religious consolations have naturally thrived.

In India, appeals to the devout, and invocations of Hindutva, have multiplied under the impeccably business-minded administrations of Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi. BJP and Congress alike truckle to local piety while catering to foreign creditors.

Typically backed as an anti-left bulwark by the local security apparatus, favoured as a counterweight to unruly secular nationalism by imperialist intelligence services, and firmly planted in the soil of matrimonial and sexual conservatism, such confessional movements, of whatever stripe, have not looked favourably upon the entry of women to paid employment, female enrolment in public schooling and other novel social roles.

Along with these superstitious revivals, the persistence of archaic social relations  debt bondage, small farms and petty proprietorships, landlordism and sharecropping, patriarchal tyranny, hereditary caste occupation, and various other forms of labour tying  tends to encourage precocious marriage sealed by dowry, relatively early age of first pregnancy, reduced spacing of births and high birth rates.

Nearly half the female Indian population is illiterate; fewer than half receive secondary education.

The wealthier Indian states  Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab — have the most imbalanced sex ratios, with sex-selective foetal reduction facilitated by imaging technology. The practice of female-specific abortion therefore increased from the 1990s.

Yet the origin of commercial surrogacy in India, Thailand and the former Soviet republics is not simply the penury and devastation internal to these countries, enormous though these are.

The ‘market for children’ depends upon economic and jurisprudential developments pioneered in the advanced regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and the Antipodes.

Trails of commodification are blazed in California.

There, the presence of an advanced biomedical-university complex, a favourable judicial environment, and cultural deregulation to make the rest of the United States blush, have placed the state at the forefront of proprietary and contractual developments governing human somatic material, as well as probate and family law (disputes over inheritance and parental rights).

Efforts by universities and research hospitals to secure intellectual-property claims to their research findings, and to patent the research tools (including biological material) used in obtaining them, have spurred the process.

Moore v Regents of the University of California (1990)  establishing that a patient or donor had no claim to profits derived from use by recipients of his or her own harvested or extracted tissues, cells or gametes  encouraged resort to sperm and ovum donations, and sped development of the ‘oocyte economy.’

The ruling in this case explicitly referred, as a foremost consideration, to its implications for biomedical research, the judges dutifully genuflecting before the needs of industry.

Similarly, to facilitate the practice of IVF, sperm donors are legally held to have relinquished parental rights over biological offspring born as a result of artificial insemination. Californian judges have found that gestational hosts do likewise, in order that surrogacy arrangements should proceed without a hitch.

It is in Sacramento, rather than Ahmedabad, that authorities have been asked to rule on the ownership and disposition of frozen embryos.

And it is in the beating heart of world capitalism that a 1996 article in a legal journal could announce that gestational surrogacy had brought about the ‘demise of the unitary biological mother’. (Its author is now a ‘philanthropy consultant’ who ‘helps charities and brands secure celebrity support for cause-marketing campaigns and fundraising events.’)

Ivy League egg donors

moorepatent

This image of divided maternity (‘demise of the unitary mother’) furnishes an almost parodic example of the fragmentation that follows from commodification or rationalization, as described in the Marxist and Weberian traditions.

Once an activity (such as human sexual reproduction) is drawn into the sphere of production for the market, or a need is supplied as a commodity, the division of labour splits it apart into its specialized aspects or components.

‘Reproductive arbitrage’ and the ‘market for children’, therefore, are symptoms of what Arlie Hochschild calls the ever-advancing commodity frontier, the encroachment of commodity production and the capitalist sector upon ever more elements of human life.

Activities once performed by individuals or households for their own use, for satisfaction of their own needs with both the labour and its output free of monetary cost — become services available for purchase on the market, in return for payment.

The ‘relinquishing of family functions to the market realm’ is hardly novel. The role of the domestic household as a production unit that self-provisions has ebbed for several centuries, its scope annexed and chiselled away since at least Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.

Few households now cultivate their own crops, educate their own children, spin and weave their own textiles, or construct their own houses. Responsibility for all these activities has been transferred to the capitalist sector or the state.

A few residual tasks remain for unpaid housework: the final stages of food preparation, childcare for infants and preschoolers, some custodial care of school-age children, cleaning of residential premises, etc.

The waning role of the domestic sector  and the transfer of production to a capitalist sector that can introduce efficient new techniques, raise productivity and realize economies of scale  has meant a degree of liberation from isolation and household drudgery, freeing up women for paid employment and other social roles.

Yet Hochschild, since The Managed Heart (1993), has drawn attention to recent new incursions by the market into the domestic household, in the fields of emotional intimacy, affective display and attachment.

With supply of these to customers now yielding a profitable return, employees, especially in ‘hospitality’ or service occupations, are obliged to convincingly demonstrate emotion: the solicitousness of the waiter, the empathy of the care worker, the conviviality of the flight attendant, the cheerful verve of the tour guide.

Emotional labour ‘requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’

Such transactions may be extended, Hochschild has noted, to ‘outsourcing’ (from independent contractors or employees) family functions traditionally performed by women, as mothers and wives, within the domestic household: cook, teacher, nurse, nanny, but also provider of emotional support, companionship and sexual partnership.

Intimacy may be purchased either in spot markets or by entering into long-term bilateral arrangements, with previous methods of attracting mates and forming pair-bonds having now dissolved or become too time-consuming,

A ‘familial role’ is ‘shown to be divisible into slivers, a whole separated into parts.’

Here, too, efficiency gains are made from turning tasks over to dedicated specialists:

Especially in its more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the “real” thing. Just as the French bakery may make bread better than mother ever did, and the cleaning service may clean the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately. Even child care workers, while no ultimate substitute, may prove more warm and even–tempered than parents sometimes are.

Thus, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another. Capitalism is competing with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and mother.

Recoil, if it occurs here, is surely inspired not just by dread of the ersatz, but from threatened fulfilment of the bleakest Frankfurt School visions of the ‘exchange principle’ making human beings fungible and interchangeable.

In the banalization sought by use of the term ‘sex worker’, there is a caricature that mimics and nullifies the earlier hopes of women’s liberation, in the guise of realizing those aspirations.

To be sure, demands to revise the family, and disrupt standard reproductive arrangements, have long featured as a staple in visions of social transformation.

But surrogacy in a dingy Gujarati basement dormitory, or a gleaming Californian clinic, is far indeed from the sexual and matrimonial innovations proposed for Fourier’s phalanstère, Bacon’s New Atlantis or Campanella’s City of the Sun, let alone Firestone’s utopia of ‘artificial reproduction’ and parthenogenesis.

The relationship of gestational host to client is less novel than supposed, as made clear in an anecdote from Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self:

I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot.

Through the interpreter I told her, “I am very glad and grateful you are doing this.” I explained that we’d tried to have a baby but couldn’t. I told her not to worry for herself; she would be taken care of. I asked her about her own child.

She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.

Of course, the precise relationship is rather presumptuously misspecified: the surrogate is a commercial subcontractor, not an employee. The contracting parties, holding all cards, are the surrogacy clinic and its commissioning clients.

World capitalism is capable of accommodating, and indeed of promoting, those survivals of domestic servitude and patriarchal terror that assist the growth of its latest production lines. The hereditary dynasty of Nehru, not to speak of the lineages of Bush and Clinton, attest to an official capacity for preserving the atavistic: inherited charisma, or family branding, at the head of the bureaucratic state.

Maintenance of a servile pool of Indian women (contractually denied any right to abortion, etc.) thus serves roughly the same social function as does existence of the idle, squandered two billion or so human beings wasting away, on standby, in the slum workshops of Asia’s informal sector, and in the continent-sized skid row of Africa: exiled from capitalist employment yet useful to employers.

Liberal capitalist societies, in ideal form, prohibit certain market transactions (e.g. the sale and purchase of human beings, contracts of indentured servitude).

They offer thereby a more limited scope for commodity exchange than do slave-owning societies. When the Roman civil code was rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, and used as the foundation for European commercial law, a good deal of antiquated material relating to trade in slaves had perforce to be discarded by the glossators.

However, it is a commonplace of Marxist thought that capitalist property relations tend, by their nature, to expand into every available territory, occupy each vacant line of production, and invade any vulnerable social nook. Commercial transactions, and property rights, thus tend to encompass more domains of existence than ever before.

This may be most apparent in the industries of health, physical embellishment and body transformation: repair, modification, procreation and enhancement.

What types of entities and powers may legitimately be alienated, surrendered under the profit motive, or acquired by payment? What parts of the body, or human capabilities, have recently lapsed into chattel status, and may validly be transacted in the market; which of them are murky?

While the United States’ National Organ Transplant Act (1984) forbids the sale or purchase of vital organs for ‘valuable consideration’, some philosophers have recently advocated legalization of payment for kidney sales; another salutes ‘commodification of human body parts’ and, indeed, ‘universal commodification.’

The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests.

Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.

It brings to mind the young Marx’s description of the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour.

As the productivity of human labour increases, the fruits of the entire world are brought within the grasp of the wealthy, who can through spending remedy all deficiencies:

That which is for me through the medium of money  that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)  that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my  the possessor’s  properties and essential powers.

Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.

am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness its deterrent power  is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent.

The right man for the job

June 28, 2014 by

As Britain’s first postwar batch of Widmerpools rolled off the production line at King’s College, C.S. Lewis delivered the enterprising students a memorial lecture, known now as “The Inner Ring“:

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel.

On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists.

The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

Lewis went on to describe a scenario that each young catechumen in his audience should expect to face ‘in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down':

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear.

Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”— and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected.

And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.

It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Lewis characteristically declared that the lure of the Inner Ring was a perennial one that dwelt within the heart of all men.

But it’s no accident that his examples of vaulting scoundrelism came from the managerial and liberal professions (academic, ecclesiastic, legal, medical).

After all, the latter’s exalted social position and wage premiums could be explained, according to one subsequent economic theory, by an insider-outsider model.

And, of course, in the service professions  accounting, law, financial services, medical practice  the prevalence back then of business partnership arrangements, now dwindling, nurtured a natural esprit de corps among partners and aspiring salaried associates.

No mundane sociological explanation would have appealed to Lewis, keen as ever to dispense solemnities.

Déformations professionnelles could not crudely be overplayed, as though only some occupations were open to beckoning solicitations from the market.

In 1944, moreover, yuppies were not yet a recognizable social type.

But there is little denying that social position provides some groups with more occasion than others for displaying his vice, i.e. places them more commonly in situations where they might have incentive to follow or indulge the lure of the Inner Ring.

Lewis thus refrained from observing, while nonetheless implying, that an inclination for ‘buying-in’, and related preferences, are fostered and cultivated by the university system. Its ceremonial rites, emblems and incantations form youthful preliminaries in an exclusive order’s sequence of social initiation, one with its own ‘slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation.’

In what manner is this done, and for what purpose?

Managerial and professional workers occupy that portion of the labour market known as the independent primary segment, where there are flexible work rules (autonomy from routines), little direct supervision, higher earnings, motivational alignment with employer goals through internalization and independent initiative, well-defined career ladders (internal labour markets with clear promotional paths), secure tenure, agreeable job amenities and low turnover.

These prebends and perquisites announce, for the upper salaried layers that enjoy them, a rather different method of enforcing the employment contract than is applied to the less tractable bas-fonds.

Suppose the administrative hierarchy of a business enterprise is organized according to the familiar pyramidal structure.

The firm’s shareholders (through the board of directors) appoint senior executives. The latter in turn delegate much of their managerial authority to a lower level of division heads, etc. The job of these managers involves overseeing and supervising those subordinates at the bottom level (productive workers) to whom they must apply extrinsic motivators (sanctions and rewards).

Managers thus directly oversee the behaviour of employees, issuing directives or commands that the latter are compelled to obey. Or they may alter the technical conditions of production (e.g. by introducing machines, networked computers or an assembly line).

In this way employees’ routines are prescribed, their range of possible actions is constrained and performance of certain tasks is ‘automatically’ elicited, they cannot shirk, are constantly spurred to work at pace, and so on. The most powerful of all straitening mechanisms is the threat of unemployment.

Consider Herbert Simon’s model of the ‘employment relationship.’ By hiring out his capacity to work, the employee agrees to surrender, for a specified period, disposition over his labour.

The employee must carry out the commands of the employer or managerial agent:

We will say that [the boss] exercises authority over W [the worker] if W permits B to select x [a 'behaviour,' i.e., any element of a set of ‘specific actions that W performs on the job (typing and filing certain letters, laying bricks, or what not)’].

That is, W accepts B‘s authority when his behaviour is determined by B’s decision.

In general, W will accept authority only if x0, the x chosen by B, is restricted to some given subset (W’s “area of acceptance”) of all the possible values.

This is the definition of authority that is most generally employed in modem administrative theory.

At higher levels of the enterprise or organization, these formal relations of hierarchy and vertical subordination, and the threat of unemployment, are less important.

Instead, independent decision-making and personal initiative are relied upon.

Yet this poses agency problems.

How is it, asked Simon, that executives and managers are trusted to do something for which they could be expected to have no intrinsic motivation, expending energy in pursuit of some goal that isn’t, initially or by inclination, their own, but that is functional and thus desirable for some group or organization?

Counted by the head, most of the actors in a modern economy are employees, who… are assumed to trade as agents of the firm rather than in their own interest, which might be quite different…

This raises several questions, among them ‘how the employees of a firm are motivated to work for the maximization of the firm’s profit':

What’s in it for them? How are their utility functions reconciled with those of the firm?… Why do employees often work hard?… In particular, how are employees induced to work more than minimally, and perhaps even with initiative and enthusiasm? Why should employees attempt to maximize the profits of the firm when making the decisions that are delegated to them?…

[Most] producers are employees of firms, not owners. Viewed from the vantage point of classical theory, they have no reason to maximize the profits of firms, except to the extent that they can be controlled by owners…

Employees, especially but not exclusively at managerial and executive levels, are responsible not only for evaluating alternatives and choosing among them but also for recognizing the need for decisions, putting them on the agenda…

To be docile is to be tractable, manageable, and above all, teachable. Docile people tend to adapt their behaviour to norms and pressure of the society… In some contexts, this responsiveness implies motivation to learn or imitate; in other contexts, willingness to obey or conform.

[...]

Docility is used to inculcate individuals with organizational pride and loyalty. These motives are based upon a discrimination between a “we” and a “they.” Identification with the “we,” which may be a family, a company, a city, a nation, or the local baseball team, allows individuals to experience satisfaction (to gain utility) from successes of the unit thus selected. Thus, organizational identification becomes a motivation for employees to work actively for organizational goals.

Of course, identification is not an exclusive source of motivation; it exists side by side with material rewards and enforcement mechanisms that are part of the employment contract. But a realistic picture of how organizations operate must include the importance of identification in the motivations of employees.

Simon’s ‘docility’ here invested with all the dignity of management theory  is a set of attitudinal traits or behavioural dispositions closely resembling those decried by Lewis as ‘the passion for the Inner Ring… most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’

In Simon’s terms, it involves adding an increasing number of arguments (or independent variables) to the employee’s utility function.

The ideal manager, and the well-socialized scoundrel too, take ever more matters into account as relevant to their personal happiness: responding with sensitivity to external motivators (rewards, sanctions), plus augmenting their own intrinsic wishes with the firm’s objectives (‘organizational identification’).

Put otherwise, and no less neutrally, there is multiplication of what an Epicurean would consider false wants: a proliferation, to the benefit of the employer, of non-necessary, non-basic, if not vain and empty desires.

Simon extols this propensity as being ‘teachable’, not to say impressionable: being susceptible of instruction and prone to aping others. What role does formal instruction play in its development?

Cultivation of these traits through formal education is less a matter of ‘explicit curriculum [than of] the socialization implied by the structure of schooling’. Students rewarded with success are those who display approbativeness, obedience to authority, willingness to join existing research programmes, etc.

Evidence shows that individuals with higher levels of educational attainment (measured by university credentials or years of study) fetch better rewards in the labour market (greater earnings plus occupational status, promotional advancements, etc.).

Investing in additional years of schooling or higher education does accrue a return.

Jacobsen and Skillman - Labour Market and Employment Relationship

Heckman education

But are productive skills (specialized or technical knowledge, or cognitive aptitude measured by IQ or test scores) the main attributes that employers look for and which help to determine labour-market success, and for which a diploma is proxy?

Not according to James Heckman, University of Chicago econometrician, who points out the importance of what he calls non-cognitive, socio-emotional or ‘soft skills’.

The latter include personality traits, attitudes or behavioural dispositions such as prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, patience, perseverance, attention, obedience, motivation, punctuality, agreeableness, self-confidence, sense of personal efficacy, identification with the objectives of others, etc.

Possession of such traits may involve a reduction in the disutility of effort (‘strong work ethic’), greater degree of subservience to managerial authority (‘willingness to follow direction’), increase in the desirability of retaining a job (non-myopic time preference, ‘orientation towards the future’), or high marginal utility of income (‘ambition’).

Beneath the benevolent sheen of doux-commerce, the lesson learnt is how to mind other people’s business for them. Unyielding garde-fou against unruly elements below; pliant custodian to those above.

In the world’s advanced economies, as I’ve mentioned before, a substantial slice of the population (lawyers, public administrators, providers of business and financial ‘services’, real estate, advertising, insurance, managers and supervisors, security guards, etc.) are engaged in activities that, while unproductive themselves, sustain and preserve the existing social structure: enforcing contracts (e.g. the employment relationship) and upholding claims to wealth (i.e. property rights).

US Standard Industrial Classification - productive and unproductive industries

US Standard Industrial Classification - unproductive and productive services

For the private appropriation of social resources isn’t secured merely by the efforts of the propertied classes themselves.

It demands, as described in this New York Times article, a vast technology of extraction (locks, alarms, cameras, weapons, deeds registry) and an army of functionaries (foremen, supervisors, judicial apparatus, asset brokers, commercial lawyers, conveyancers, bankers).

The latter’s size as a proportion of the workforce has grown spectacularly over the past century (in the United States, lawyers per head of population more than doubled between 1950 and 2013; supervisors now make up around 18% of the labour force).

The duty of this contingent, taken as one, is to enforce titles to wealth, transfer holdings between agents, and uphold the various social relationships (employment, independent contracting, credit relationships, etc.) deriving from this distribution of resources.

Jayadev and Bowles - Guard Labor JDE

This social layer, spanning the middle and working classes, thus receives its income and privileges neither as payment in exchange for productive employment, nor as reward for private ownership of assets.

Instead these upper-salaried workers, whose occupations involve preserving the existing distribution of property, capture part of the surplus extracted from other employees (those who perform productive work).

This sharing of the spoils occurs in a variety of ways: artificial shortages of certain skills, sustained through high training costs or guild-created barriers to entry, which raise the rewards fetched by their holders; the granting of sinecures; patronage and clientelism; rent-seeking at the public trough, etc.

In recent decades, the wages paid to supervisory workers have absorbed an increasing proportion of society’s surplus product (net output minus compensation paid to productive employees).

The increase in the rate of surplus value from 1982 to 2001 financed… a change in the weight of supervisory workers (share of employment down by 3.8%, share of hours down by 5.2%, share of wages up by 19.6%).

Thus, almost all of the increase in the rate of exploitation found its way into the labour income of supervisory workers…

Production workers in productive sectors (productive labour) saw a collapse in their relative wage share of some 14.6 percentage points. Just over a third of this shift in share accrued to supervisory workers in productive sectors, and just under two-thirds to supervisory workers in unproductive sectors.

Supervisory workers in productive sectors (a stable proportion of 11–12% of total employment) saw their share of total wages rise by almost a quarter, to 28% of all wages.

Supervisory workers in unproductive sectors increased their share of FTEs [full-time employees] by more than half, albeit from a low base, so that they were still less than 7% of total employment by 2000. However, they more than doubled their wage share to nearly a fifth of all wages.

Most of these increases occurred after 1979…

[For] supervisory workers, annual hourly real wage growth after 1979 is more than half as much again as in the earlier period, and more than 27 times higher than the concurrent annual hourly real wage growth of productive workers…

The growing extraction of surplus value out of productive labour, which is so marked a feature of the US economy after 1979, was appropriated not as corporate profits, but primarily as the labour incomes of supervisory workers.

Full-time employees and wages - productive, unproductive and supervisory workers

What does this imply for our starting point, now seeming more than ever like antediluvian piety?

Lewis’s portrait of middle-class status-seeking, collusion and misfeasance was never exactly politically trenchant. Nor, to be fair, was it intended to be so.

Now smelling mustily of an antiquated commercial society of dense professional networks and family firms, long since past, it needs updating for a postwar capitalism in which, among other changes, most professionals no longer earn partnership income in jointly-owned enterprises, but are salaried employees of corporate bureaucracies. (Meanwhile, deepening the opacity of class positions, capital owners, for tax purposes, increasingly rebadge their dividends and interest revenue as partnership income).

Are not weak interpersonal ties, rather than gentleman’s clubs, more crucial for professional success and recruitment to the social elite?

To postmodern eyes, Lewis’s vision of the Inner Ring may thus appear hackneyed and lurid.

To induce individuals to corruption, professional misconduct or a drop in personal standards of probity, there need not be any conspiracy devised in a smoky boardroom, basement auditorium, wood-panelled Cabinet or party room. There need not be any direct application of pressure, explicit coercion, controlling intelligence or indeed any awareness at the managerial heights.

For example, institutions may simply be designed to reward conformity, the dynamics of which are well known. The psychological mechanisms generating group loyalty via hazing rituals are also understood. Competition for some scarce prize, such as a promotion or bonus, may provoke an escalating arms race, war of attrition or ascending-bid auction of boundary-pushing and rule-bending.

Meanwhile the enormous post-1945 expansion of access to university education, and growth of the new media industries and advertising with their plebianization of culture as entertainment, flattening of the fine-arts hierarchy, and recruitment of a vast new literate and educated public for intellectual products — seem most sharply to divide Lewis’s age from our own.

In fact, however, such developments merely furnish a mass market for that commercially available ‘lifestyle’ (on the bookshelf, prize-winning middlebrow novels left over from college; in the lounge room, relics from the arthouse festival circuit of ‘world cinema’) by which the middle classes hope to distinguish themselves.

Photography and architecture conveniently replace easel painting and belles-lettres in the aesthetic hierarchy, as more outwardly visible, and readily brandished, displays of discernment.

Today’s consumers are increasingly encouraged  through ‘versioning’product differentiation and ‘group pricing’ to sort themselves into differentiated market segments and fine-grained niches based on personal attributes, spurious distinctions in taste, and willingness to pay.

Firms selling information goods attempt to build ‘networks’ or subcultures from which they can extract monopoly rents (e.g. locked-in dedicated Apple users).

Thus, for all that, today’s professionals and managers understand and revel in their wage premiums, and build exclusive claustral enclaves, in much the same fashion as Lewis described in the ‘Inner Ring’.

Boundaries of in-group membership are patrolled, and entrants self-congratulated, by display of positional goods: informal shibboleths, esoteric knowledge and badges of (putative) cultural sophistication.

Fredric Jameson describes, in rather frenzied, overwrought period fashion, how ‘yuppies can find some satisfaction in sheer know-how':

[It] is no longer exactly profit as such that forms the ideal image of the process (money is merely the external sign of inward election, but fortune and “great wealth” are harder to represent, let alone libidinally to conceptualize, in an epoch in which numbers like billions and trillions are more frequently encountered).

Rather, what is at stake is know-how and knowledge of the system itself: and this is no doubt the “moment of truth” in postindustrial theories of the new primacy of scientific knowledge over profit and production; only the knowledge is not particularly scientific, and “merely” involves initiation into the way the system functions.

But now those in the know are too proud of their lesson and their know-how to tolerate any questions about why it should be like that, or even worth knowing in the first place. This is the insider cultural capital of the nouveaux riches which includes the etiquette and table manners of the system; along with cautionary anecdotes, your enthusiasm — fanned into a veritable frenzy in cultural spinoffs like the cyberpunk corporate fiction already mentioned  has more to do with having the knowledge of the system than it does with the system itself.

The social climbing of the new yuppie in-group knowledge now spreads slowly downward, via the media, to the very zoning boundaries of the underclasses themselves; legitimacy, the legitimation of this particular social order, being secured in advance by a belief in the secrets of the corporate life-style that includes the profit motive as its unspoken “absolute presupposition,” but which you can’t learn and question all at once, any more than you can mentally redesign a sailboat you are doing your first sailing in.

Gratified by journalistic talk about ‘skill-biased technical change,’ members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent.

According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education: foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes,  furnishings, décor, cultural products, tourist destinations, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

product differentiation

Long ago, Adam Smith gave expression to this middle-class self-regard, describing the mental atrophy induced by ‘the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people’:

[The] understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…

In our fallen present, amid the market populism and aesthetic dreck of late capitalism, such reproaches to the demotic have lost their sting.

They bear little meaning for middle classes whose members are themselves, for the most part, now collected into paid employment, barracked inside grotesque office towers, and culturally as far as anyone from the Bildungsbürgertum of old.

Of course, similar consolations are available to those of more modest means, such as office clerks and other predominantly young employees, for whom educational qualifications are necessary, but whose material position and social standing is tenuous, and for which symbolic esteem serves as a surrogate.

Those lacking the purchasing power for true luxury consumption (yachts, antiques, jewellery, fine art) may yet, as compensation, use private consumption choices and leisure activities to flaunt credentials, intelligence and adherence to in-group norms (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

Outside the true citadels of social power, however, today snobbery and hauteur accompany, as a marketing device, the horizontal distinction of consumer niches, rather than pointing to any vertical differential of standards, now much diluted.

The chubby pimpernel

May 31, 2014 by

Charles Ryder, both eager to preserve order and hankering for a street skirmish, skips back across the Channel in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

I returned to London in the spring of 1926 for the General Strike.

It was the topic of Paris. The French, exultant as always at the discomfiture of their former friends, and transposing into their own precise terms our mistier notions from across the Channel, foretold revolution and civil war.

Every evening the kiosks displayed texts of doom, and, in the cafés, acquaintances greeted one half derisively with: ‘Ha, my friend, you are better off here than at home, are you not?’ until I and several friends in circumstances like my own came seriously to believe that our country was in danger and that our duty lay there.

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.

We crossed together, in a high-spirited, male party, expecting to find unfolding before us at Dover the history so often repeated of late, with so few variations, from all parts of Europe, that I, at any rate, had formed in my mind a clear, composite picture of ‘Revolution’  the red flag on the post office, the overturned tram, the drunken N.C.O.s, the gaol open and gangs of released criminals prowling the streets, the train from the capital that did not arrive.

One had read it in the papers, seen it in the films, heard it at café tables again and again for six or seven years now, till it had become part of one’s experience, at second hand, like the mud of Flanders and the flies of Mesopotamia.

Then we landed and met the old routine of the customs-shed, the punctual boat-train, the porters lining the platform at Victoria and converging on the first-class carriages; the long line of waiting taxis.

‘We’ll separate,’ we said, and see what’s happening. We’ll meet and compare notes at dinner,’ but we knew already in our hearts that nothing was happening; nothing, at any rate, which needed our presence…

He collides fortuitously with his old chum Mulcaster, who already has enrolled with the defenders of property, but whose paramilitary urges remain equally unsatisfied:

We dined that night at the Café Royal. There things were a little more warlike, for the Café was full of undergraduates who had come down for ‘National Service’.

One group, from Cambridge, had that afternoon signed on to run messages for Transport House, and their table backed on another group’s, who were enrolled as special constables. Now and then one or other party would shout provocatively over the shoulder, but it is hard to come into serious conflict back to back, and the affair ended with their giving each other tall glasses of lager beer.

‘You should have been in Budapest when Horthy marched in’ said Jean. ‘That was politics.’

[...]

We went to a number of night clubs. In two years Mulcaster seemed to have attained his simple ambition of being known and liked in such places. At the last of them he and I were kindled by a great flame of patriotism.

‘You and I ‘ he said, ‘were too young to fight in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We’ll show them. We’ll show the dead chaps we can fight, too.’

‘That’s why I’m here,’ I said. ‘Come from overseas, rallying to old country in hour of need.’

‘Like Australians.’

‘Like the poor dead Australians.’

Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden)

We were sitting round after luncheon that day when Bill Meadows came back from the telephone in high spirits.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘There’s a perfectly good battle in the Commercial Road.’

We drove at great speed and arrived to find a steel hawser stretched between lamp posts, an overturned truck and a policeman, alone on the pavement, being kicked by half a dozen youths. On either side of this centre of disturbance, and at a little distance from it, two opposing parties had formed.

Near us, as we disembarked, a second policeman was sitting on the pavement, dazed, with his head in his hands and blood running through his fingres; two or three sympathizers were standing over him; on the other side of the hawser was a hostile knot of young dockers.

We charged in cheerfully, relieved the policeman, and were just falling upon the main body of the enemy when we came into collision with a party of local clergy and town councillors who arrived simultaneously by another route to try persuasion. They were our only victims, for just as they went down there was a cry of ‘Look out. The coppers,’ and a lorry-load of police drew up in our rear.

The crowd broke and disappeared. We picked up the peace-makers (only one of whom was seriously hurt), patrolled some of the side streets looking for trouble and finding none, and at length returned to Bratt’s.

Next day the General Strike was called off and the country everywhere, except in the coal fields, returned to normal. It was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair. It had not been worth leaving Paris.

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

Counter-revolutionaries thwarted by the absence of revolution; heroic ambitions frustrated, and reduced to play-acting, by the sedate doddering of British Labourism: it is a droll picture. (This blog has described the historical context of British society in the interwar years, and aspects of the political situation in Europe during the 1920s.)

But the scene is less farcical, and the players politically sharper, than the official anti-austerity ‘opposition’ mustered today against Mulcaster’s boyish lookalike, the Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Such opposition has, for now and in the manner predicted, been successfully ushered, to the advantage of political stability, into unthreatening and expedient channels. In thrall to Labor and the Greens, faithful to the trade unions: la gauche respectueuse backed by tidy street demonstration.

One feature of this landscape is the extraordinary burst of publicity given lately by Australia’s mainstream media to Socialist Alternative, a tiny organization itself well versed in street theatre.

Dispatches from the Grand Hotel Abyss: the Frankfurt School comes to Morningside Heights

April 22, 2014 by

Christina Stead has had the peculiar fortune among twentieth-century Australian novelists to have enjoyed, at last count, three revivals of critical attention, reissued or newly collected works, and renewed fashionability.

The most recent bubble (they have taken place roughly two decades apart) yielded a biography and publication of Stead’s letters to her husband, William Blake.

Despite the biography’s concessions to contemporary ideological fashion, these letters remind us that all the leading figures in the Australian literary efflorescence of the 1930s (Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Jack Lindsay, Dame Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettie Palmer and their daughters, etc.) were Communist Party members or fellow-travellers of Stalinism.

Stead’s close friendship with the economist Henryk Grossmann features heavily.

‘I had better become a bit more intelligent before my Escort turns up next,’ she joked to Blake about Grossmann in April 1942:

I wonder at my temerity (in private) in going out cheerfully with the world’s leading Marxist, etc. but my Australian brass comes to my aid.

Stead had arrived in New York in 1937 to promote House of All Nations.

She stayed there until 1942, writing The Man Who Loved Children, joining the League of American Writers and describing herself as ‘a good Stalinist’.

Her social circle in wartime New York also included Mike Gold, whom she called a ‘perverse, deep, vain and self-interested man’ who ‘gives speeches without shame, when he has prepared nothing, for the sake of the money.’

Letters Christina Stead and William J Blake

Grossmann likewise spent the years 1937-1947 as an émigré scholar in New York.

Working in solitude  having been spurned by his old Frankfurt School milieu  he was desperate for company, intellectual stimulation and a rapprochement with Stalinist circles.

Stead sought his tutelage, hoping he might provide a fictional model for a character of the revolutionary ‘type’ (Lukács’s concept of novelistic types was then in the air).

She found to her disappointment that ‘psychology does not occur to him at all. He does not think psychologically and what he said was utterly useless.’

Grossmann eventually served as a fictional model for her Jan Kalojan (or Callowjan) in her short story ‘The Azhdanov Tailors.’

When after the war Grossmann accepted a teaching position in the DDR, Blake sought his patronage to win himself an academic place at the University of Leipzig.

In 1950 the US citizen travelled to the DDR, and enthused to Stead of the life they might enjoy under bureaucratic rule:

Like Henryk I was a nobody in America relatively, here I am a Marxian writer, which in Leipzig is the highest honour in the world apart from that of the directors of party policy and actual high administration.

[...]

He lives beautifully, really like a prince. So would we. He lives in a rococo palatial apartment house opposite a beautiful house…

Sadly Blake found Grossmann in hospital, dying of prostate cancer.

Christina Stead NLA

Stead’s letters regarding Grossmann provide a useful resource about Grossmann’s banishment from the Institute for Social Research, located then in New York.

Grossmann’s complaints of ‘sabotage’, related by Stead, show how the personnel and research program of the Frankfurt School, where Grossmann had worked in the 1920s and 1930s, were evolving into their familiar postwar configuration, in which he was no longer welcome.

By purging politically suspect figures like Grossmann, Max Horkheimer established a coherent ‘Frankfurt School’ research program based around himself and T.W. Adorno.

‘Critical Theory’ would be made academically respectable and salonfähig in time for the Cold War and German economic miracle.

Henceforth the Frankfurt School, shorn of any perilous links to classical Marxism, would rival Paris as the intellectual capital of Western Marxism.

While Grossmann lay on his deathbed in Leipzig, Adorno was making a triumphant return to Adenauer’s Federal Republic, where Horkheimer had been appointed rector of the University of Frankfurt.

As Perry Anderson described in Consderations on Western Marxism, the postwar Frankfurt School would be ‘officially feted and patronized’ in what remained ‘the most reactionary major capitalist country in Europe’.

Henryk Grossmann

In The Dialectical Imagination, his history of the Frankfurt School to 1950, Martin Jay wrote how Grossmann’s relationship with the Institute became ‘scarcely more than a formal one’ during the 1930s, leading to a ‘complete break’ during the Second World War:

An enormously learned man with a prodigious knowledge of economic history, Grossmann is remembered by many who knew him as the embodiment of the Central European academic: proper, meticulous, and gentlemanly.

He had, however, absorbed his Marxism in the years when Engels’s and Kautsky’s monistic materialistic views prevailed. He remained firmly committed to this interpretation and thus largely unsympathetic to the dialectical, neo-Hegelian materialism of the younger Institut [for Social Research] members. 

[...]

More orthodox Marxists within the Institut, such as the economist Henryk Grossmann, were always criticized for their overemphasis on the material substructure of society…

[...]

Grossmann’s ideological inflexibility prevented him from having much impact on the Institut’s analysis of Nazism, or on much else in its work for that matter.

Grossmann was author of The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System (1929), a former member of the Polish Communist Party and, before then, secretary of the Galician Bundists.

Unwelcome in Pilsudski’s Poland from 1926, he had become a researcher at the Institute for Social Research, an organization whose charter announced its dedication to the ‘history of socialism and the labour movement.’

The Institute was attached to the University of Frankfurt. Independent of the latter, it was directly answerable to the local Ministry of Culture, which appointed the Institute’s director.

The first director, Carl Grünberg, was an economist and Austro-Marxist, and Grossmann’s supervisor. (Jay later derided his ‘rather undialectical, mechanistic Marxism in the Engels-Kautsky tradition’, and his ‘inductive epistemology… a tone very different from that set after Horkheimer replaced him as director.’)

In June 1924 Grünberg had launched the Institute with the following words:

[In] contrast with the pessimists, there are the optimists.

They neither believe in the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general, nor do they alarm themselves or others with any such prospect. Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching. They are confident: magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo, a new order is being born out of the fullness of time.

And for their part they consciously demand that what is outmoded should stand aside in favour of what is emerging, in order to bring it more speedily to maturity.

Many people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope but are firmly, scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.

According to Rolf Wiggershaus’s history of the Frankfurt School, its founder’s ‘heartfelt wish was… to create a foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives and one day to present it to a German Soviet Republic.’

Institut group photo

Just a few short years after the aborted Communist insurrection, the Institute’s academics, most of them KPD or Social-Democrat members, were naturally monitored by the Weimar authorities.

In 1926 the Frankfurt Chief of Police confirmed that Grossmann had ‘not actually drawn any attention to himself politically’. He safely ascended to an economics professorship in 1930.

Meanwhile Grünberg’s successor, Max Horkheimer, was appointed director of the Institute in 1930, despite looser ties and lesser academic standing than Grossmann and other members. The Ministry of Culture, it was felt, would deem him less ‘politically suspect’ than these others, and his appointment would be ‘easier to push through’.

Horkheimer, a mediocre scholar, was ‘more trustworthy to his university colleagues':

With no hope of attaining a professorship in the normal way, Horkheimer was pushing for the post of director, which brought with it the prospect of an accelerated academic career.

In 1931, the Institute ceased to issue the Archives for the History of Socialism and the Workers Movement; its new review was more innocentlv entitled The Journal of Social Research.

To a correspondent, Horkheimer straightforwardly declared himself ‘not interested’ in the traditional topics of socialism, economics or history. Rather, his ambitions lay ‘in a sociological theory appropriate to the society of those years and in the research that would be helpful for this task.’ Those seeking the substance in this vacuous formula were directed to Horkheimer’s inaugural address.

If intended as an accommodating signal of complaisance, this re-badging was of little avail by the early 1930s. Fascist ascendancy soon forced a scattering abroad.

In 1937 Grossmann was invited to New York by Horkheimer, director of an Institute now transplanted to premises on West 117th Street owned by Columbia University.

Like the Institute’s other designated ‘communist’, Karl Wittfogel, Grossmann was also excluded from the ‘Horkheimer circle.’ Without an office, Grossmann worked from home.

Five years into his stay, Horkheimer terminated the Institute’s relationship with Grossmann and trimmed other scholarly personnel from the payroll. In 1941 Grossmann’s work on economic dynamics, Marx and the classical political economists was not published under its auspices.

Grossmann decried all this as ‘sabotage’, and like Erich Fromm threatened to sue the Institute for breach of contract.

Columbia building

Stead’s letters shed some light on these grubby events, which are of broader interest.

Horkheimer’s renovation of the Frankfurt School certainly involved thwarted ambition, baronial intrigue and petty envy. But its consequences were neither trivial nor limited to the direct participants.

The program was one of lustration, with the conditions of exile allowing, ahead of time, the purifying cleanse of postwar liberation.

The churn of staff allowed the director, who boasted of his ‘dictatorship’, to remove those antiquated fogies whose ‘overemphasis on the material substructure of society’ clashed with his favoured research agenda.

As Jay’s history declares openly, what Horkheimer sought to displace from the Institute was a particularly musty, hidebound central European ‘tradition’, traceable to Engels and Kautsky: the ‘relative orthodoxy of the Institut’s Marxism’,  still dimly alive in figures like the Galician Jew Grossmann, ‘the embodiment of the Central European academic.’

The regional, ethnic and generational nature of this turnover in personnel was no accident.

Initially Stead’s letters present the ‘gallant Cracovian’ Grossmann as a pitiable figure, if ‘highly presentable and entertaining': ‘desperately lonely’, ‘crazy as a bedbug’, a ‘a splendid fellow, though quite a trial as a conversationalist’, ‘a marvellous fellow when he is not in one of his black or silly moods.’

Grossman was covetous of her time (‘I’ve noticed before with the Gallant, that although he may appear to give you a choice or choices, it always veers around in no time to his choice: pertinacious elf.’).

He moaned often to her of his deliberate mistreatment at the hands of Horkheimer and Adorno, and was bewildered by US society (‘All old people, went to bed 9 o’clock, lights out, finally he said, Isn’t there a café here [poor European!] and they said, Yes and showed him. A milk bar. Poor European’).

In 1942 Stead wrote to Blake in San Francisco regarding Grossmann:

He is very lonely. He talked about himself all the time, his past, his successes in Europe, what everyone said about him – what the newspapers said, praise from adversaries, etc. etc. – what is that (in a man of Grossmann’s mind) but utter loneliness!

They do not like him in the Institute – he has a contract with them and if they did not pay him he “would make them a law” [Stead's rendition of Grossmann's clumsy English] – but they say he is “genial but they sabotage, they compliment him, we all know Dr. Grossmann and at first he was too stupid, but now he sees it was only to sabotage.” (sabatayge) They want to cut down his work, take out all the parts that are really Grossmann and would make him stand out above them.

Then he sets out to explain Akkumulations-Theorie to muh! Let me tell you one thing – in his atrocious English he makes himself clear and interesting. He is a born expositor and teacher. He regrets most his “workshop”; all the brilliant young men he taught now scattered – where are they – he had letters from Yapan – now at war – a world scattered – what a world for a scholar says he.

And I see it as he speaks – he is tired, I think. It breaks his heart that after all his work in Europe, known and admired by enemies even, that no one even knows he exists here…

Poor lonely scholar. Isn’t it pathetic? I am quite sure that if you would work with him in S.F. he would go there at once – and that is positively all he has in mind.

He is getting rather bowed; very much so, in fact. He reads books about seven hours a day, and works in the evening too.

He is studying – well, he told me all about his work and he made it interesting, which I consider very smart, for it was all about Descartes, his mechanical view of the universe, quite new and revolutionary for the time; and now he is studying all the algebra that every was and mathematical economics – and the question of why the machines didn’t develop before, for it was invented long before – the Greeks had machines but only for toys, and in the fourteenth century they invented the bobbin, etc. but never used it. Why didn’t they need the machine in Greek times? Slave labour, unemployment, due to robbery abroad, etc. etc.

This guy is so clear in his thinking that though he is an abstruse marxist I keep seeing the clearest pictures and getting good ideas for writing from him…

He is simply overwhelmed that the Marxists don’t known him or criticise him here.

What lay behind the ‘sabotage’ Grossmann complained of?

Wiggershaus’s history tells how, in 1937, the double-dip Depression, and an ‘unlucky touch in investments’ in stocks and real estate, had brought a ‘drastic deterioration’ in the Institute’s balance sheet. (Its endowment had been donated by the grain merchant father of Felix Weil.)

Horkheimer elected to cut salaries and research personnel.

Staff were ‘left confused and insecure by more or less secretive hints about the Institute’s impending financial collapse and by obscure reductions in the salaries':

When the endowment capital began to shrink, from the late 1930s onwards, Horkheimer’s main concern became to reserve a large enough part of the assets early enough to secure his own scholarly work on a long-term basis. Accordingly, Lowenthal – in his capacity as one of the trustees of the ‘foundations’ among which the funds were distributed – was one day asked to transfer $50 000 to a fund with Horkheimer as its sole beneficiary.

First to go was Erich Fromm (whom less successful members apparently resented: T.W. Adorno had once described him as a ‘professional Jew’).

The work of Grossmann, too, was altogether too redolent of Galicia and classical Marxism, with its embarrassing tendency to cite Plekhanov and Rosa Luxemberg, and its talk of capitalist ‘breakdown':

[Grossmann's] long, ponderous manuscripts did not meet the expectations of the Institute’s directors at all, and, with a not particularly happy life, he had become a rather difficult character.

Wiggershaus describes a conflict of interest between Horkheimer, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal and Friedrich Pollock on the one hand, and Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann on the other:

With closer incorporation of the Institute into the university [Columbia], the chances of an academic career for Marcuse and Neumann would increase; in contrast, Horkheimer and those basing their hopes on having their material needs supplied by the Institute did not want to see its independence restricted in any way.

The Institute’s co-founder informed Horkheimer that ‘Teddy’ Adorno had ‘one interest in life, to become a minor gentleman of leisure on the west coast as soon as possible’.

By 1943, the only research supported full-time by Institute funding was that of Horkheimer and Adorno. Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann now worked for the OSS, and every other scholar was likewise employed in the US government’s war effort.

In Pacific Palisades, a starstruck Adorno giddily assisted Thomas Mann’s work on Doktor Faustus.

Meanwhile Adorno’s stark Minima Moralia, together with his and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, provided something of a programmatic manifesto for Critical Theory’s new postwar direction. The latter would reject all the aims set out for the Institute in Grünberg’s inaugural address.

Written simultaneously, these books jointly announced, in morose but full-throated tones, the Frankfurt School’s conversion to what Grünberg had called the camp of the ‘pessimists’, taking as their theme ‘the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general.’

With its strictures against ‘positivism’ and famously grim verdict on Francis Bacon and his epigones, Dialectic of Enlightenment provided a remarkable contrast with Grossmann’s history of the Scientific Revolution, also completed during the waning days of the Second World War.

In California, Grossmann’s work would no doubt have been judged as insufficiently ‘mediated.’

Adorno Brentwood residence

After German surrender, the Institute’s return to Europe was funded by the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany and the City of Frankfurt.

Horkheimer became rector of the University of Frankfurt. With the Institute no longer relying on Weil’s money to fund its operations, Horkheimer appealed to the premier of Hesse.

The solicitation of grants and donations is described by Wiggershaus:

Horkheimer and Adorno sought support, not from the labour movement or from opposition groups, but from the ruling authorities themselves. As Horkheimer put it in a letter of thanks to the Prime Minister of the state of Hesse, Georg August Zinn, they were looking for ‘friends in high places, the sort of friends often hoped for in vain by academics also pursuing the practical goals of genuine education’.

Thus the Cold War Berufsverbot, having been preemptively enacted in exile, would require no more victims, and the Frankfurt School little intellectual defanging.

Henceforth, the long and steady descent to today’s Habermas, an ornament of the establishment — yet a figure, one must remember, of only the second postwar Frankfurt generation, and thus lineal recipient of a virtually pure inheritance from the founders — would proceed smoothly.

Habermas Kosovo

Since the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Habermas had been committed to German Atlanticism, or Westbindung:

The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the great intellectual achievement of the postwar period, of which my generation in particular could be proud…

That opening has been achieved by overcoming precisely the ideology of the center… [the] geopolitical palaver of “the old central position of the Germans in Europe”…

The only patriotism which does not alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism.

If, Habermas maintained, the source of all moral and intellectual authority lay in Western benevolence, and any hope of a future ‘cosmopolitan order’ reposed in Washington, then all trace of a German Sonderweg must be erased. After General Clay and John J. Mccoy had departed, the Bonn republic would have to hunt out and destroy any lingering German pretensions to being a bridge linking western and eastern Europe.

What must go, Habermas explained in the 1980s, if one was to ‘emphatically defend the Federal Republic’s orientation to the West’, was ‘an ideology of “the middle”‘:

Only since the end of World War II have Germans this side of the Elbe and the Werra considered themselves, as a matter of course, to belong to Western Europe…

What is in dispute is not whether the Federal Republic belongs to Western Europe, but whether or not the option for the West has to be broadly anchored in a renewed national self-consciousness…

For it is only in the unclouded consciousness of a break with our more fateful traditions that the Federal Republic’s unreserved opening to the political culture of the West can mean more than an economically attractive opportunity and politically almost unavoidable choice…

The West integration of the German Federal Republic has taken place step by step: Economically through the Currency Reform and the European Community, politically through the splitting up of the nation and the consolidation of independent states, militarily through rearmament and NATO alliance, and culturally through a slow internationalization of science, literature and art that was not finalized until the late 1950s. These processes took place in the power context of the constellations brought about in Yalta and Potsdam, and later on through the interactions of the super-powers. But from the very beginning, they met with “an extensive pro-Western opinion among the West German population, an opinion nourished by the radical failure of the NS-politics and the repulsive appearance of Communism”.

What exactly was the pedigree disposed of by this Westbindung, with its ‘anchoring’ of Germany in NATO?

Today the once-enormous historical influence and international renown of German culture and language across Mitteleuropa, from the Baltic to the Balkans, can scarcely be imagined.

A figure like Grossmann was emblematic. He was born into the rickety Austrian political institutions of Franz Joseph: heir to the failed revolutions of 1848, with a large, recently emancipated and urbanizing Jewish population, and a residual landowning class, sharing a mostly German-language high culture across central and eastern Europe.

Long nurtured among the cultivated middle classes of the Habsburg, German and Russian imperial monarchies, since 1945 — and especially following the nationalist fragmentation and irredentism that has consumed the region since 1989, crafting monocultural territories out of formally multicultural federations this shared lingua franca has ceased to exist.

While it lasted, however, it provided a setting in which classical Marxism, during the last third of the nineteenth century, emerged and flourished.

Both the custodians and the enemies of this heritage the opponents of ‘Judeobolshevism’ with rather more relish than its embattled practitioners acknowledged this geographical and demographic pattern.

The original Institute for Social Research thus established its firmest international connections with Vienna and Moscow.

Its early members generally partook of that ‘economic determinism’ (sic), which Horkheimer’s Frankfurt leadership would later repudiate as a cardinal and egregious error, a worn-out relic of the Second International and Stalinism.

Yet against this early continental reach can be measured the later national introversion of the postwar Frankfurt School, with its provincial retreat to Kant, Hegel and (with Habermas) a smattering of Anglo-Americans (Mead, Dewey, Parsons).

The upshot of Horkheimer’s victory can be judged by the following anodyne prospectus, setting out the Institute’s postwar research agenda:

Social research, in all its aspects, and particularly in the areas of research on the structure of society, on human relationships and modes of behaviour within the labour process, of opinion research and the practical application of sociological and psychological knowledge in the last few decades, has received a great boost.

Owing to political events, Germany has not been able to participate in this to the extent that might have been desired. The part these disciplines can play today both in Germany’s public life and in the rationalization of its economy can hardly be overestimated, if the experience of other industrial nations is anything to go by.

Social analyses will be able to throw light on many crucial political and social problems of the post-war period, such as the refugee problem. They can provide an important cognitive basis for the reconstruction of cities and industrial areas. Training in the methods of social research can help young people better to grasp the tensions within our own population, as well as those between nations, and thus allow them to make an independent contribution to overcoming them . . .

Last but not least, social research can open the way to a variety of new professions. The demand for scientists trained in the new methods is no less than that for engineers, chemists or doctors, and they are valued no less than those professions are. Not only government administration, and all the opinion-forming media such as the press, film and radio, but also businesses maintain numerous sociological research bodies.

Social research can create the optimal social conditions in their factories, ascertain and calculate in advance what the public needs in their branch of business, and monitor and improve the effectiveness of their advertising. A similar course of development can be expected in Germany as well.

 

Taking candy from a baby?

April 13, 2014 by

A front-page article in last weekend’s Australian Financial Review spoke darkly of the federal government’s budget preparations ‘pitting one generation against another.’

A tired locution, no doubt, but has the claim any substance, or is it mere journalistic inflation?

Back in 1959, Abba Lerner compared the standard economic treatment of public pensions to a ‘swindle’ or a ‘chain letter’, criticizing it for neglecting transfers between generations living today, in favour of a spurious infinity of mutual benefit:

[The] “new” welfare economics… cannot consider the distribution of the product between younger and older people living at the same time… They are limited to the consideration of the distribution of an individual’s consumption between his working life and his own retirement.

Through ‘the fairy tale of the time-travel of interest-collecting savings… the authorities can pretend that “social security” is not a “socialistic”  tax and give-away program by the government but a “saving” by each worker out of his current income to provide for his old age.’

But, said Lerner:

[From] the social point of view, the pensions of the old can come only out of current output of consumption goods…

The essence of the matter is that the fable of the time-travel of consumption is accepted with implicit faith by the accountants, as guardians of the private point of view of savers who are putting money aside for their old age. It is the duty of economists, as guardians of the social point of view, to explode this fairy tale…

The only real problem from the social point of view is the allocation of current output of consumption goods between current consumers of different age. This can never be achieved by any kind of trading or lending, but only by a one-way transfer of current consumption from some citizens to others with no genuine quid pro quo. It is only a somewhat more sophisticated fable that today’s transfer from workers to pensioners is a “repayment” of yesterday’s transfer from workers to pensioners…

The tax-and-pension is nothing but a device by which today’s pensioners are maintained out of today’s social product, which is, of course, produced by today’s workers.

Lerner derided ‘the accountants who insist on the “solvency” of the Social Security Administration.’ Pre-funding was a red herring: ‘the “new” welfare economics, by limiting comparisons to the utility of the same individual at different dates, fits in fatally with the accountants’ predilection for considering social security as the translation of savings over time.’

Paul Samuelson, against whom Lerner was arguing, had declared with typically folksy glibness:

Outside of social security and family altruism, the aged have no claims on the young: cold and selfish competitive markets will not teleologically respect the old; the aged will get only what supply and demand impute to them…

Once social coercion or contracting is admitted into the picture, the present problem disappears. The reluctance of the young to give to the old what the old can never themselves directly or indirectly repay is overcome. Yet the young never suffer, since their successors come under the same requirement. Everybody ends better off. It is as simple as that.

This Elysian vision depended upon the premise that ‘each and every today is followed by a tomorrow':

If each man insists on a quid pro quo, we apparently continue until the end of time… Let mankind enter into a Hobbes-Rousseau social contract in which the young are assured of their retirement subsistence if they will today support the aged, such support to be guaranteed by a draft on the yet-unborn.

Yet the future would not last forever, Lerner averred: growth would slow or the day of reckoning arrive. And when it did, Samuelson’s fairy tale of optimal saving, an attempt to legitimize PAYG, would have left Social Security exposed to attack from its enemies: the ‘accountants’ and their backers:

In our society many people feel that social security by redistribution of income by the government is alien to the pure essence of the individualist capitalist system so that, if “social security” has to be provided it should take the form of individual saving for old age. This has led to the belief that a social security system cannot operate honestly unless it has acquired a fund actuarially corresponding to the savings of all those members of society who have paid in their contributions in the past and who will be taking them out as benefits in the future…

[The] fact is that such a fund is completely unnecessary. It is called for only because accountants look on the social security program as old age insurance provided by an enterprise that must accumulate assets to match its contingent liabilities. Such accounting practices are completely justified for a private insurance company, which must be prepared for the eventuality of failing to enrol any new customers and still having to pay the covenanted benefits to its old customers.

Lerner’s objection provided a downbeat and untimely interruption during the postwar golden age of capital accumulation. Samuelson, heedless, could dispatch it with characteristic insouciance: ‘The beauty of social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound… A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever devised.’

But, as public retirement provision has come under attack during the last three decades, it has become more congenial for its opponents to acknowledge, and profitable for them to belabour, Lerner’s point that pensions are simply a tax-based income transfer between generations or birth cohorts.

Abruptly, the principle of intergenerational equity has entered the journalistic lexicon (the Stern Review having sped the acquisition).

To its horror, conventional opinion has discovered that the elderly are cosseted, not abiding by Samuelson’s social contract of give-and-take.

Society’s rules are ‘seriously biased against the young.’ This alleged fact is finally discerned just as a looming demographic shock  increased life expectancy and reduced fertility rates —  lowers the natural rate of workforce growth, promising a higher dependency ratio in the advanced economies.

Australia dependency ratio

Samuelson’s roseate vision of mutual benefit no longer fits the bill. ‘Intergenerational catastrophe’ has now taken its place.

As his own generational cohort has been succeeded by the likes of Martin Feldstein, and collegial academic debate given way to ambitious policy programmes, it has been acknowledged (as Milton Friedman once insisted) that retirement income does involve redistributing today’s output between currently living social groups.

Hysterical claims about trillions of dollars worth of unfunded pension liabilities over an infinite horizon have been just one of several tactics used by advocates of  ‘individual saving for old age’.

As I suggested in an earlier post, policy circles have also luridly announced a ‘war’ between young and old, a zero-sum game for scarce resources, in which benefits for one generation can only come at the expense of another: ‘welfare policies have favoured the elderly at the expense of the young.’

David Thomson Selfish Generations

The crudity of this divide-and-rule campaign  pursued with asinine zeal by politicians as well as academics, journalists, media commentators and policy analysts — can scarcely be exaggerated.

This year the Australian treasurer, Joe Hockey, has spoken repeatedly of public spending on pensions as ‘intergenerational theft’. So has his parliamentary secretary, Steven Ciobo.

Looking ahead with trepidation to fifty years of a ‘greying’ population, and invoking Hayek for comfort, minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews has described ‘intergenerational theft… [an act that] picks the pockets of our children who’ll be left to pay the bill. It’s a raid on the future prosperity of young Australians, both born and yet-to-be-born.’ So has his assistant minister, Mitch Fifield.

Josh Frydenberg and Brett Mason, both parliamentary secretaries, have also deployed the term.

Thus the welfare of future cohorts  the youth, our nation’s shining future  provides the satisfyingly elevated creed served up to the mass electorate, a thin gauze veiling a ruthless distributional claim to today’s social product.

At stake is the price of state debt and valuation of the chief asset on the government balance sheet: the discounted present value of all future primary surpluses (net private-sector tax liabilities imposed by the state). State bonds promise their holder a stream of interest payments financed out of tax revenue.

Behind the putative conflict between baby boomers and subsequent generations is, therefore, an elite constituency seeking to sustain, rather than diminish, the value of interest-bearing government debt.

To accomplish this, the claim on future net output represented by the state’s obligations to the elderly, infirm and other dependants must be reduced.

Treasury intergenerational report 2010 - pension forecast

Why, as this goal of the propertied classes finds popular expression, is it embellished as intergenerational conflict? Why risk such strident and incendiary terms, when more decorous evasions, more pious expressions of national harmony, might conceivably be found?

In the first place, electoral mobilization depends increasingly on appeals to narrow demographic groups (the Australian Greens have sought to convert young adults into a vote-bank), with today’s parties lacking the broad social constituencies, and the programmatic variety, of the past.

The increased salience of non-class forms of social classification or ascribed status (ethnicity, race, gender, generational cohort) is also a pacifying factor during recessionary phases of business cycles or more enduring periods of instability.

In Australia, privatization of public pensions (supplemented by a means-tested system of residual relief for the poor) arrived long ago. In other, more stubborn jurisdictions, it has been the desired end-goal (‘one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times’). In every case the accompanying rhetoric has involved panic over the solvency of a system of unfunded liabilities (‘the current system is heading for an iceberg… That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness’).

Local talk of an ‘ageing tsunami’ simply partakes of this global idiom.

Finally, the demographic shock, apparent by no later than the mid-1970s, does pose a genuinely epochal challenge to Australia’s state elite. The diminished natural rate of labour growth has called forth an assiduous policy response including mass immigration, pro-natalist subsidies, efforts to increase workforce participation rates through ‘social migration’ of housebound women and disabled people, etc.

Treasury Intergenerational report 2007 - Projected contribution of net inward migration to population growth

McDonald and Temple - Demography and labour supplyRBA - Female labour force participation

Yet the impact in Australia of the demographic shock is broader and deeper still.

Even in the absence of full employment, a less elastic supply of employable labour imposes a constraint on profitable investment, especially when technical change is stunted (as it has been since the 1970s). Slow capital accumulation in recent decades  reducing productivity growth and channelling funds into unproductive and speculative pursuits — has therefore maintained the relative bargaining position of Australian firms in conditions where excessive labour demand might conceivably have raised the bargained wages of employees.

This curtailing of productive investment, involving the diversion of the surplus into residential expenditure, asset markets and luxury consumption, has been the decisive feature of Australian society in the last three decades.

The turn from long-term investment to shareholder value has entailed restructuring of the labour market towards sporadic, tenuous and low-paying employment, a change that has disproportionately affected young adults. Youth, lacking the savings and the borrowing capacity of their elders, and contributing much of the necessary slack in the labour market, then provide an aggrieved constituency for those intent on stoking intergenerational rancour.

oz young unemployment

Keating - Working Nation

The headaches and misery of the day

April 6, 2014 by

With plenty of time to himself during the Phoney War, Sartre mused about André Gide’s ethic of disponibilité:

Barnabooth sells all his goods, ‘castles, yachts, cars, huge properties…’ and he calls that ‘dematerializing his fortune.’ The gesture is inspired by that of Ménalque or of Michel in L’Immoraliste. Gidian.

That word ‘dematerialize’ made me dream. For when you come down to it, it’s really a question of detaching yourself from goods, as the concrete aspect of wealth, and of keeping only its abstract aspect: money. Here, moreover, in the guise of bundles of shares and cheques.

In short, that’s the advice given by Gide and followed by Barnabooth: to swap real possession for symbolic possession, to swap property-wealth for sign-wealth.

It’s no accident that Gide preaches disponibilité. Basically, the Gidian homme disponible is the one whose capital isn’t tied up. And what I saw clearly was that Gide’s moral code is one of those myths that marks the transition from big bourgeois property — concrete ownership of the house, fields and the land; private luxury — to the abstract property of capitalism.

The prodigal son is the rich grain-merchant’s child who becomes a banker. His father had bags of grain, he has bundles of shares. Possession of nothing, but this nothing is a mortgage on everything.

Do not, O Nathanael, seek God anywhere but everywhere: reject material possession, which limits the horizon and makes God a withdrawal into oneself; swap it for symbolic possession, which will permit you to take trains and boats and seek God everywhere. And you’ll find him everywhere, so long as you put your signature on this little bit of paper, in your cheque-book.

I’m not exaggerating: that’s exactly what the Gidian Barnabooth, on page 18, calls a ‘burning quest for God.’ And Gide himself, now a traveller and now head of the patriarchal community of Cuverville, is a great transitional figure between the propertied bourgeoisie of the 19th century and the capitalism of the 20th.

Try to ignore Sartre’s idiosyncratic terminology, which confuses the issue somewhat.

Here he mixes up large-scale historical changes in property systems (the movement from what he calls the ‘big bourgeois property’ of the Second Empire to the ‘abstract capitalist’ of the Third Republic) with an individual’s portfolio choice (allocating wealth between liquid financial assets and productive capital goods).

The transition Sartre describes is that from the typical nineteenth-century personification of capital — the individual entrepreneur whom Marx called ‘our friend Mr. Moneybags’ — to the twentieth-century world of corporate enterprises.

In that later period, the capitalist agent is famously personified by several different figures (shareholders, managers, etc.), each of whom takes care of a specialized financial, administrative or supervisory responsibility within a firm or spread out across an economy.

In this team effort, Gide’s homme disponible performs the rentier function.

Gide - Fruits of the Earth

Nathanael is thus exhorted to stray far from ‘the concrete aspect of wealth’ (organizing and superintending the production process). He can reap a flow of dividends, interest payments, capital gains and royalties while he idly enjoys the fruits of the earth, frittering his income away on la volupté just as an Edwardian coupon clipper might have done on servants for his country house.

This historical development (in which the business enterprise also becomes its own legal person and accounting entity) is one with the increasing scale and mechanization of production.

Sartre, himself an avid traveller, plainly regarded Gide’s advice as frivolous (‘it would be absurd to offer Ménalque as an example to an unskilled labourer, a man out of work or an American negro’. But Nathanael is ‘a rich white Aryan, the heir of a great bourgeois family…’).

The ‘princely games’ of Lafcadio were replaced in Sartre’s work by a succession of pitiful, wealthy young runaways and would-be Nietzscheans, from Lucien Fleurier to The Reprieve‘s Philippe.

And in place of disponibilité was the tough-minded doctrine of committed literature:

Since the writer has no way of escaping his time, we want him to embrace his era — tightly. It is his only chance; it was made for him and he for it… We don’t want to miss out on anything of our time. There may be better ones, but this one is ours: we have only this life to live, amid this war, and perhaps this revolution…

Thus, by taking part in the singularity of our era, we ultimately make contact with the eternal…

We are obliged to be satisfied with forging our history blindly, one day at a time, choosing from all the options the one which seems best to us at present… We are inside.

Here can be detected Sartre’s obsession with captivity, a horror and fascination, most notable in his plays, with themes of confinement and sequestration.

As an aggressive statement of art’s debt to politics, Sartre’s editorial introduction to Les Temps modernes is often grouped with the avant-garde manifestos of the mid-twentieth century. But littérature engagée was a label with no hint of a collective movement or school behind it.

As with the later invention of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by art dealers, critics and the CIA, Sartre’s declaration was clearly a new kind of exercise in commercial self-promotion, a rather platitudinous and non-committal branding of journalistic territory in postwar France’s up-ended publishing scene.

les temps modernes ninth edition

But, more importantly, was Sartre’s ‘writing for one’s age’ not also marked by the same mutation in property forms he described above?

For the other side of this historical development (growth of the limited-liability company and a class of idle creditors) was what happened to the ‘concrete aspect of wealth’. Who took responsibility, while Nathanael larked vagrantly about, for the capital goods that were tied up in accumulation, and the production processes that needed overseeing?

Here could be found the emergence of professional managers and bureaucratic functionaries, accountable to owners, with delegated control rights in a firm or organization’s physical assets (i.e. decision-making power over how some item of equipment was to be used or task undertaken). These administrators might or might not receive property income in the form of high salaries and stock options. They might be more like Veblen’s engineers.

More to the point, their prerogatives were tied to specific assets, which they themselves could not transfer or liquidate. The factories and machines over which they exercised power could not be bought, sold, or bequeathed for their private benefit — not by anyone in the case of state property, nor by a non-owning manager in the case of privately owned wealth.

For them, therefore, not Nathanael’s possession of ‘nothing’, but acute dependence on this thing. If God was everywhere for Gide, eternity was right here and now for Sartre.

The functionary was marooned on an island rather than floating in a sea, engaged in an ongoing dyadic transaction with the same corporation, cartel or government agency, rather than a series of one-shot interactions in spot markets. He could not shirk what, in Sartre’s words, was ‘his only chance; it was made for him and he for it.’

Sartre likewise advocated a thoroughgoing embrace of one’s era and all its features. He himself practised this clinch without scruple (‘In vain would we attempt to be our own historians’), comparing it, as did De Gaulle, to a lover, participating in all its skirmishes, and (here he may have been describing his opportunistic relationship with the PCF) ‘choosing from all the options the one’ which seemed ‘best at the present.’

Deleuze, Sartre, Foucault at Vincennes

Marxists, on the other hand, have typically suggested that some critical distance from one’s contemporary circumstances is a good thing.

In January 1917 Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison to Luise Kautsky:

Probably for you the desire for music, as for all other things, has gone by for a while, your mind is full of concern about world history, which has all gone wrong, and your heart is full of sighs over the wretchedness of—Scheidemann and comrades. And everyone who writes to me moans and sighs in the same way.

Don’t you understand that the overall disaster is much too great to be moaned and groaned about?

I can grieve or feel bad if Mimi is sick, or if you are not well. But when the whole world is out of joint, then I merely seek to understand what is going on and why, and then I have done my duty, and I am calm and in good spirits from then on. Ultra posse nemo obligatur.

And then for me there still remains everything else that makes me happy: music and painting and clouds and doing botany in the spring and good books and Mimi and you and much more. —In short, I am “stinking rich” and I’m thinking of staying that way to the end.

This giving oneself up completely to the headaches and the misery of the day is completely incomprehensible and intolerable to me.

See, for example, how Goethe stood above things with cool composure. But think what he must have gone through: the Great French Revolution, which must surely have seemed like a bloody and completely pointless farce from up close, and then from 1793 till 1815 an unbroken series of wars, when once again the world must have seemed like a madhouse turned loose.

Yet at the same time how calmly, with such equanimity, he pursued his studies about the metamorphosis of plants, the theory of colours, and a thousand other things. I don’t ask that you be a poet like Goethe, but everyone can adopt for themselves his outlook on life — the universalism of interests, the inner harmony — or at least strive toward that.

And if you say: but Goethe was not a political fighter, my opinion is this: a fighter is precisely a person who must strive to rise above things, otherwise one’s nose will get stuck in every bit of nonsense. — Obviously I’m thinking of a fighter on the grand scale, not a weathervane of the calibre of the “great men” who sit around your table…

Weimar Goethe as a model held up for political emulation by revolutionary socialists?

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

Perverse, one would think.

Yet in 1950 Isaac Deutscher would also include Goethe among ‘great “intellectuals” who, in a similar situation in the past [the Napoleonic Wars], refused to identify themselves with any established Cause. Their attitude seemed incomprehensible to many of their contemporaries: but history has proved their judgement to have been superior to the phobias and hatreds of their age':

Goethe opportunistically bowed to every invader. But as a thinker and man, he remained noncommittal and aloof… His aloofness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of ‘the Olympian’; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable, tangle of right and wrong…

All three – Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley – were in a sense outsiders to the great conflict of their time, and because of this they interpreted their time with more truthfulness and penetration than did the fearful – the hate-ridden partisans on either side.

Now as then, the organs of conventional opinion present a menu of false choices — Napoleon or the Holy Alliance? — announcing that these options are exhaustive, and one of them must be chosen.

An urge to clamorously participate  in every ‘struggle’ — ‘the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie’, for fear of lost opportunity, accusations of quietism, or organizational market share — turns ambitious ‘political fighters’ into weathervanes, their ‘nose stuck in every bit of nonsense’.

Thus the ‘engaged’ activists of today’s radical protest politics, heedless of principle and refusing to abstain, participate in every trifling and dangerous ‘movement’ that arises: taking up positions in a meaningless Kulturkampf, venturing opinions on this or that media inanity, preferring one monstrous ‘lesser evil’ to another, lending support to one wing of the propertied elite over today’s provisional enemy, greeting wars of aggression as salutary ‘revolutions’.

In the political life of the advanced economies, such squabbles usually involve, at best, tinkering with markets (through subsidies, taxes or other regulation) to shift economic surpluses between groups, transferring rents from one constituency or special interest to another. To immerse oneself in these ‘policy’ debates is to live an arid life (but to do so professionally can attract its rewards).

What is described loftily as a ‘war of position’ (echoing Karl Kautsky’s ‘strategy of attrition’) typically involves the creation of a durable bureaucratic apparatus that can be used for self-dealing or provides a platform for career advancement.

Moreover, if such projects are to be sustained their participants must find solace and consolation where they can. Typically this is done by investing some political agent or figurehead with exaggerated potential, finding illusory messages of hope or imagining that headway is being made. This obliges activists to nourish illusions in what exists: to find silver linings and abandon trenchant thought.

I’ve written before about these varieties of accommodation to what exists.

Motivated mental states include wishful thinking (adapting one’s beliefs to fit one’s desires) and sour grapes (making a virtue of necessity, consenting to the inevitable, or consoling oneself by modifying one’s desires to exclude what is unattainable). Motivation affects not only high-level cognitive processing (i.e. how people think about the world) but basic activities like visual perception.

The futility and corruption of the weathervane can be avoided, as Luxemburg explained to her friend, by coolly taking a little distance. Against Sartre, doing one’s intellectual duty requires treating the present as history: sceptically and mercilessly examining its limitations, including those of its pseudo-oppositional elements, just as one would the past.

Of course, to do this has its bearing on the morale of others. As ‘incomprehensible’ as was the silence of Goethe or Shelley’s rage to their contemporaries, cool appraisals often invite accusations of cynicism (or idealism), purism, maximalism, sterility, pessimism.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers