What Happened To The Cultural Elites: I Just Work Here

Posts in this series

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration
https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/04/06/what-happened-to-the-cultural-elites-the-capitalist-celebration/cultural-elites-the-capitalist-celebration/

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

Related Post

Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers which I call symbolic workers.

The description of the cultural elites in this series is ugly: in a nutshell, they are so tangled up in the capitalist/market system that their intellectual autonomy and critical distance from authority is miniscule. In the related post linked above, I argued that it isn’t necessary to assume that symbolic workers are acting in bad faith. After all, they merely reproduce the structures they inherited from their teachers.

Recently I had an extended discussion with my friend Gaius Publius who writes at Down with Tyranny and at Naked Capitalism, and I have changed my mind. My post started from an idea I found in David Swartz’ book, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, that some of the structures that organize our understanding are denied structures, meaning that the people affected by them do not admit that they exist or that there is any other way to comprehend society. I argued that neoliberalism is a denied structure. But just because people deny a structure doesn’t mean that they do not see the results of their actions. In the case of symbolic workers, it’s more likely that they see the negative effects they are creating and keep working anyway. The higher up in a field or organization people rise, the less likely it is that they don’t the results of their actions and theories. At the top of fields and organization, denial is not possible.

The capitalist system creates all sorts of justifications for the projects it approves. The most obvious is that the market knows what people really want. The sixth sequel to the Fast and Furious series is just giving people what they want. The daily local news survey of fires, car crashes and shootings is what people want. The cable news patriotic theme music and fiery chyrons blaring out the latest bombing of other countries and the loving shots of dead people being carried to ambulances after the latest shooting are just what people want. People need to know about the latest fire, and there’s no need to explain why they need to know, or what could be done about it or which politicians and interest groups are stopping action because people don’t want that. If they did the market would provide it.

Another justification is advertiser pressure that needs to be dealt with so that more important work can be done. Or they say it’s a job, someone has to do it. It pays the rent and educates my kids which is at least true. Most fields of cultural production have some form of justification that relates to the field, as I show in the post about the economics field.

These justifications are out there waiting for symbolic workers who suddenly wonder if their work is contributing to the decay of communal society, if perhaps it’s creating distrust and fear, or reinforcing ugly and stupid stereotypes, or is causing direct harm. If the symbolic worker doesn’t look too closely, these justifications seem plausible. They are examples of some of the ways the existing system enables people to pretend not to see the results of their actions.

Swartz says that Bourdieu refers to this as misrecognition.

Misrecognition is a key concept for Bourdieu; akin to the idea of “false consciousness” in the Marxist tradition, misrecognition denotes “denial” of the economic and political interests present in a set of practices. Symbolic practices, Bourdieu thus argues, deflect attention from the interested character of practices and thereby contribute to their enactment as disinterested pursuits.
P. 54.

I like the term “false consciousness” better. Misrecognition connotes a mistake which ignores the agency of the symbolic worker. False consciousness has an implication of intention, or at least of willful refusal to engage with the problem, as in contemporary use of the term denial.

Neoliberal economists can see the results of their theories. They advocated relentlessly for the abolition of most regulation on the grounds that the marker would do a better job than the government. How could anyone make that argument in good faith after the Great Crash? But they don’t stop. They wrecked the antitrust laws, which has led to ridiculous levels of concentration in almost every industry. Now some of them argue that monopoly is not a bad thing, or that there is no such thing because a new competitor will arise. They are currently arguing against wage hikes whether through minimum wage hikes or a job guarantee. They don’t care about income or wealth inequality, which, they say, is the result of the markets in action.

In fact, it’s not clear what impacts their views have had that has any benefit for anyone but the rich few. With that record, which of them can plausibly claim not to be aware of their contribution to the sorry state of the personal finances of the 99%?

Another feature/bug is that day-to-day work keeps employees really busy, surrounds them with people who agree with them, and insulates them from critics. This is the defense Amy Chozick offers. Not once during the 1,226 days she covered Hillary Clinton did Chozick or her employers or editors ever stop to think about what heir coverage looked like to an outsider. Even after the disgusting coverage of Whitewater and the other phony Clinton scandals that followed, they got played by the Republicans and in Chozick’s telling, by the Russians.

Neither the neoliberal economists nor Chozick and her editors are innocents who misrecognize the results of their actions. They’re guilty of false consciousness, deliberately refusing to look at the consequences of their actions in real time, when it matters. Accountability is a way to force symbolic workers to confront the results of their actions. Firing and shaming people who cause damage is a good thing. But there is no accountabilty. They feel no responsibility to society and are held to no standards. None of it affects them; they do not suffer the consequences of their actions.

They just work here.

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14 replies
  1. joejoejoe says:

    You have to have a skin in the game to get played. Elites are the house and risk nothing in the game.

  2. greengiant says:

    Elites of a certain type pander to royalty, power, money, perceived class, basically mammon. The very use of the word is valid only in the deragotory sense of illogic and non data driven mania that sustains those “powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society”. Bourdieu fails this test. In today’s world wealth, privilege and political power are synonymous with criminality.

  3. yogarhythms says:

    Bowling for Columbine, by Michael Moore, for me was an expose of your theme “false consciousness”. Many Columbine students/families were/are supported by employment at large nuclear weapons manufacturer. Going to work every day to earn a living making weapons of mass destruction requires all of the false consciousness you can muster. On the weekends your social peers do the same and ignore or joke about the weapons you make. Employees self rationale is “well if I don’t take this job someone else will”. Factually correct. In the 60’s marchers said “What if we gave a war and nobody came”. Ethics and Logic students discover principles that don’t change. Individuals may climb above Maslow’s four foundations: food, shelter, sex, altered consciousness or not. We are all in and the vast majority don’t like what they do to earn money. Sciences deniers in Washington suggest we work harder. For the sake of humanity and the earth we had better learn to slow down first and perhaps more will engage in this conversation.

    • greengiant says:

      Consider the free market spawning off SSRIs to one of the two shooters at Columbine and point of view shoot em up video games to dehumanize them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpinCRaAQOk  One thing not talked about is how much bigger the gaming industry is than the rest of the “entertainment” industry.

  4. Alan says:

    They advocated relentlessly for the abolition of most regulation on the grounds that the marker would do a better job than the government….They wrecked the antitrust laws, which has led to ridiculous levels of concentration in almost every industry.

    One of the justifications for neoliberalism as envisionsed by Hayek and his followers is this statement in Moral Sentiments (VI.II.42):

    The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

    Smith was suspicious of government but he was equally suspicious of merchants, and catalogs numerous instances where they act against the public interest or in collusion with government against the public intererest. He was a strong advocate of anti-trust. It is amusing that it is lost (misrecognized?) on Hayek and the neoliberals that their grand plan for the perfected society through the *state imposition* of “market principles” everywhere because “the market knows what people really want” makes them the preeminent men (and women) of system.

    For a short, intelligent take on Smith see Sagar’s The Real Adam Smith

    On the wrecking of the anti-trust laws see: Davies’ Economics and the ‘Nonsense’ of Law: The Case of the Chicago Antitrust Revolution (PDF). Latter also appears as a chapter in his book on neoliberalism.

  5. Peterr says:

    Neoliberal economists can see the results of their theories. They advocated relentlessly for the abolition of most regulation on the grounds that the marker would do a better job than the government. How could anyone make that argument in good faith after the Great Crash? But they don’t stop. They wrecked the antitrust laws, which has led to ridiculous levels of concentration in almost every industry. Now some of them argue that monopoly is not a bad thing, or that there is no such thing because a new competitor will arise. They are currently arguing against wage hikes whether through minimum wage hikes or a job guarantee. They don’t care about income or wealth inequality, which, they say, is the result of the markets in action.

    From the news out of Topeka, courtesy of the KC Star:

    TOPEKA – Nearly a year after the Legislature raised taxes, largely ending former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cut experiment, Kansas lawmakers will soon decide whether to give people a tax cut.

    At a time when the state budget has stabilized and officials project a surplus of hundreds of millions next year, supporters say a tax cut would put money back in taxpayers’ pocket.

    Opponents say a tax cut could lead to budget problems as the state pays for a large school funding increase.

    [snip]

    The Legislature returns on Thursday, with just eight days to work before adjourning. Republican leaders have told lawmakers they could work through the weekend.

    All eyes will turn to the House, which will decide whether to take action on HB 2228, which contains the tax cut. The Senate passed the legislation 24-16 after hours of debate earlier this month.

    [snip]

    Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, Kan., predicted the bill won’t go anywhere in the House. “I think it would be rather foolish to do this at this time,” she said.

    Wolfe Moore said Kansas will be recovering for several years from the Brownback tax cuts that were “absolutely disastrous” for the state. It’s too soon to look at a tax cut of that size when state services have been starved for funding, she said.

    Now before someone calls me out on it, I realize I’m calling the GOP members of the Kansas Legislature “cultural elites,” which could get me in serous trouble with said GOP legislators. Still, given this post and their attitude that wants desperately to disbelieve the state budget crisis is linked to tax cuts, the shoe described by Ed certainly appears to fit.

  6. Soldalinsky says:

    Thanks for tackling neoliberalism Ed Walker.  I think you’re doing a great job and enjoy participating.  I get the feeling David Harvey’s Brief History of  Neoliberalism has been a big influence on you.  

    I’ve had lots of luck shutting down neoliberalism debates by concentrating on the role of credit in western economies and how it facilitates rent extraction.  Very few understand credit theory and this is primarily the reason it is such a potent weapon in consolidating power and oppressing social advancement.  Technology and the spying apparatus is also a very dangerous tool of the elites and could, in theory, surpass the nefarious role of credit in the near future!  

    “The description of the cultural elites in this series is ugly: in a nutshell, they are so tangled up in the capitalist/market system that their intellectual autonomy and critical distance from authority is miniscule.”

    I’d like to present a slightly different perspective.  In today’s complex society everything is specialized / compartmentalized and nobody has a clue how industries function outside their respective professions, especially complex finance and computer science.  Neoliberalism works by exploiting the collective public ignorance resulting from labor specialization.  Falling into classic roles of bourgeois and proletariat or the more modern version of oppressor and oppressed is sometimes a mistake: people need to understand the roots of social problems or they cannot organize effectively. 

    To me, neoliberalism is somewhat of a contemporary re-brand of the same old credit exploitation trick.  Extracting resources via credit expansion and consolidating is almost always the end goal of neoliberalism.  Labor and industrial production create value and credit absorbs value produced outside of the rentier FIRE sector as rent.  Fire is an acronym for Finance Insurance and Real Estate.  Healthcare is a rising star for rent extraction too.  For a detailed analysis of the evolution from Marxist theory to Goldman Sachs’s brand of neoliberalism, I strongly suggest you read Michael Hudson’s excellent essay on the topic if you haven’t already:

    http://michael-hudson.com/2010/07/from-marx-to-goldman-sachs-the-fictions-of-fictitious-capital1/

     

     

  7. yogarhythms says:

    Peter, “Neoliberal economists can see the results of their theories….Topeka- nearly a year… Legislature has eight days to work. NOTE have you ever wondered how neoliberals created the co-equal branches of gov’t to be: Executive branch, work week 40 hrs a week all year long; Judicial branch, work week 40 hrs a week all year long; Legislative branch, ( Wyoming 3 months every other year ) work week Kansas 40 hrs a week JAN-APR. Move along nothing to see here. Gov’t is just fine. Now where was I? Oh right the system is broken. Neoliberalism says Gov’t works fine only the markets working 24/7 are infinitely better.

  8. Randall Reviere says:

    Do yourself a favor and read Nassim Taleb’s “Skin in the Game”.  Ignore the attitude and look at the arguments.  History seems to side with the view that elites – whatever ideological claims they make to gain power – always end up acting like elites.  And just try to organize society without elites… good luck with that.  So the answer is probably found in something Taleb quotes: “At the national and international levels, I’m a libertarian.  At the state level, I’m a Republican.  At the local level, I’m a Democrat.  And at the family & close friends level, I’m a Socialist.”  This, combined with the ‘intolerance for intolerance’ (minus the infinite regress) that Taleb also provides strong arguments in favor of (overriding international libertarianism if the military need is sufficient) are nice updated starting points to untangle your issues.

  9. Alan says:

    From Michael Bess’s 1980 interview with Foucault:

    Question: Is it intrinsic to the existence of human beings that their organization will result in a repressive form of power?

    Foucault: Oh yes. Of course. As soon as there are people who find themselves in a position (within the system of power relations) where they can act upon other people, and determine the life, the behavior, of other people—well, the life of those other people will not be very free. As a result, depending on the threshold of tolerance, depending on a whole lot of variables, the situation will be more or less accepted, but it will never be totally accepted. There will always be those who rebel, who resist.

    In the same interview he refuses the elite role of the intellectual:

    Foucault: …I think that at the heart of all this, there’s a misunderstanding about the function of philosophy, of the intellectual, of knowledge in general: and that is, that it’s up to them to tell us what is good. Well, no! No, no, no! That’s not their role. They already have far too much of a tendency to play that role, as it is. For two thousand years they’ve been telling us what is good, with the catastrophic consequences that this has implied. There’s a terrible game here, a game which conceals a trap, in which the intellectuals tend to say what is good, and people ask nothing better than to be told what is good—and it would be better if they started yelling, “How bad it is!….What is good, is something that comes through innovation. The good does not exist, like that, in an atemporal sky, with people who would be like the Astrologers of the Good, whose job is to determine what is the favorable nature of the stars. The good is defined by us, it is practiced, it is invented. And this is a collective work.

  10. Thomasa says:

    I’m so glad to have come across this discussion. My wife and I are now retired from cultural elite jobs, which changes one’ perspective on life more than we anticipated. We debate over whether to stay in our largish west coast city or move to a smaller town. The debate centers on whether to be consumers of culture or seek an environment where we have at least an opportunity to be creators. A town we found offers the opportunity to help right some of the wrongs caused by the system in which we previously worked; to do things the market won’t. We’re moving in that direction. Having some philosophical basis for what we do is so important. This discussion offers that. It has real-world application.

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