Democracy Against Capitalism: Competing Stories About Wages

Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book Democracy against Capitalism, tells a story of capitalism at odds with the story economists tell. At the root of this is her view that we make a big mistake when we separate politics from economics. Here’s an example, summarized from three prior posts, one at Emptywheel, and this one and this one at Naked Capitalism. The original posts give more detailed discussions.

Chapter 12 of Samuelson and Nordhaus’ intro textbook Economics (2005 ed.) is titled How Markets Determine Incomes. They rely on marginal utility theory, invented by William Stanley Jevons, an English mathematician and economist and described in his 1871 book The Theory of Political Economy discussed here. Their explanation uses this chart. P. 238.

The y-axis is the marginal product of labor, with all other inputs held constant. The x-axis is the amount of labor, here the number of employees. We treat the labor as continuous so we can have a nice smooth curve, but in the real world it would look like a flight of stairs. The authors tell us that the employer will add workers until the marginal increase in revenue from the last worker is zero. They tell us that the bottom rectangle is wages, and the top triangle-ish shape DEN is rent. That’s because they are basing their explanation on John Bates Clark’s model from about 1900, and the idea is that this chart describes a farm. But they mean that this works for the economy as a whole, so it includes all workers on one hand, and all capitalists, that is, those who own the factories, smelters, coal mines, etc. on the other. This is their discussion:

Clark reasoned as follows: A first worker has a large marginal product because there is so much land to work with. Worker 2 has a slightly smaller marginal product. But the two workers are alike, so they must get exactly the same wage. The puzzle is, which wage? The MP (marginal production) of worker 1, or that of worker 2, or the average of the two?

Under perfect competition, the answer is clear: Landlords will not hire a worker if the market wage exceeds that worker’s marginal product. So competition will ensure that all the workers receive a wage rate equal to the marginal product of the last worker.

But now there is a surplus of total output over the wage bill because earlier workers have higher MPs than the last worker. What happens to the excess MPs…? The rest stays with the landlords as their residual earnings, which we will later call rent. Why…? The reason is that each landlord is a participant in the competitive market for land and rents the land for its best price. 237-8, emphasis in original.

Clark saw this as the result of the Natural Law, and pronounced it just. This is the model taught to generations in introductory economics. The logic seems questionable, but it doesn’t matter because it isn’t how things actually happen, as I demonstrate in the linked posts.

How would a Marxist like Wood describe this model? She divides society into two groups, the producers, in this case, the farmers, and the appropriators, in this case the landlords (ignoring detail), or the workers and the capitalists. At an earlier part of the history of this society, the land was handed to the landlords, or they took it violently when government was fragmented and power represented government. Wood is talking about England, but something similar happened in the US. As a result, the producers, here the farmers, were separated from the means of production, meaning the land and perhaps some of the tools and animals needed to grow crops, and the landowners were able to expropriate the surplus created by the producers. This is a rough description of what Marx called primitive accumulation (again ignoring details and not precisely following Wood).

Primitive accumulation didn’t happen by accident. It was done by some form of coercion by some sort of ruling class. Gradually the ruling class consolidated into states, and the process continued through the arms of the state. As an example, consider Polanyi’s description in The Great Transformation of the process of “enclosure” as it was called in England.

Turning to the chart, we ignore the marginal productivity stuff and treat the line NE as the level appropriators currently pay the producers. It is as low as the appropriators can make it, using both their control of the state, and their control of the process of production. If you have any doubts about that, read the discussion of the Phillips Curve and especially a paper by Simcha Barkai here. The capitalists appropriate the triangle DEN, which represents the surplus labor, for themselves.

As always, the disposition of surplus labour remains the central issue of class conflict; but now, that issue is no longer distinguishable from the organization of production. The struggle over appropriation appears not as a political struggle but as a battle over the terms and conditions of work. Kindle Loc. 804-806

The organization of production is controlled by the appropriators with the coercive assistance of the State as needed. If the producers were smart, they would struggle with the appropriators over that surplus. They’d elect governments that would take their side in the struggle over the allocation, they’d resist and force change. There is nothing but political power that requires payment of all of the surplus labor to capital.

So now we have two stories. To me, the Samuelson/Nordhaus/Clark story is dumb. It takes the economy as a given, as if things had always been this way. In other versions of their story, we get a few shards of carefully selected history that pretend to find seeds of capitalism in earlier times. Mostly, though, it’s a vision of capitalism as an inevitable and fixed system as available for study as a cadaver.

In addition, this story makes the outcomes seem pre-ordained, and leads people to think that interference with the process is both useless and somehow dangerous, certain to produce even worse results. And, it’s a just-so story: all the numbers appear to come out in perfect equilibrium as if by magic.

Wood’s story is easy to understand. It’s based in history, none of that man-made natural law mumbo-jumbo. It doesn’t call for absurd assumptions to make everything work out beautifully. It’s easy to see how this story can motivate action, and, of course, reaction. And here’s the key point: it’s easy enough to tell the this story without direct reference to Marx.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Introduction to New Series

My original plan was to do a series on Wolfgang Streeck’s book, How Will Capitalism End?, but it’s really distressing, so I took a break and read a couple of novels, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers about the 70s art scene in New York and the Red Brigades in Italy, and then Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives, both of which were engaging and the second was funny, at least to me. It ran out suddenly, as books will do when read on an e-reader, and I didn’t want to go back to Streeck so I took a look at some books I had acquired but not read. That’s how I stumbled into Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Usually I seek out books because they seem to fall into place in my neoliberalism project. Not this one. A couple of years ago my sister told me that Verso was having a sale on ebooks, all you want for a pound each. So I browsed the catalog and picked out several, including a volume of works by Rosa Luxemburg, and based solely on the title, picked up Wood’s book. When I started it, I had no idea what it was about, or who Wood was. It turns out she’s a major Marxist scholar with wide interests in history and economics. Here’s an appreciation by Vivek Chibber published in Jacobin at Wood’s death in 2016 at the age of 74. This article discusses her main ideas, many of which are addressed in this book.

I’ve read several pieces lately on the question of the compatibility of capitalism and democracy. This one by Eric Levitz is a level-headed view of the main lines of lefty worries, and will help inform the discussion I hope to generate. This one from the Economist is conservative but also worried. As I have said several times during this project, the left has no real theory for criticizing capitalism. That means left-liberal focus has been on criticizing the forms of our democracy. That’s certainly a reasonable program, but it’s limited. A better idea is to allow a formal criticism of capitalism, especially neoliberal capitalism. Critique of capitalism has been the main contribution of Marxism from the beginning.

The 200th anniversary of Marx’ death was May 5, and it brought out the crazy. I won’t cite any more of that than appears in this post, but for fun just search for Karl Marx Birthday, and take your pick. People talk about believing in Marx like it was a religion. We don’t talk about believing in Kant, though, or Camus. We don’t believe or disbelieve in philosophers, we read them and argue with them, and use them to form ideas about our lives and our society. We can and should do the same with Marx. As we go through this book, I’ll point out some of his ideas we can find in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Veblen’s The Theory of Business Enterprise, Foucault, and the books I’ve discussed on Bourdieu and Critical Theory, as well as economic texts and papers.

Wood starts from the proposition that criticizing capitalism went out of intellectual fashion in the second half of the 20th Century. This alone should make it obvious why I like this book. Regular readers will recall my recurring use of the term Capitalist Celebration which I got from C. Wright Mills to describe the same idea.

‘Post-Marxism’ has given way to the cult of postmodernism, with its principles of contingency, fragmentation and heterogeneity, its hostility to any notion of totality, system, structure, process and ‘grand narratives’. [From the Introduction. I’m reading on a Kindle and don’t have page cites; Kindle location 89.]

Here’s how Wood describes her project for this book:

… I propose to start from the premise that the critique of capitalism is urgently needed, that historical materialism still provides the best foundation on which to construct it, and that the critical element in Marxism lies above all in its insistence on the historical specificity of capitalism – with the emphasis on both the specificity of its systemic logic and on its historicity. In other words, historical materialism approaches capitalism in a way exactly antithetical to the current fashions: the systemic unity of capitalism instead of just post-modern fragments, but also historicity – and hence the possibility of supersession – instead of capitalist inevitability and the end of History [Kindle location 111.]

We saw this historical approach in both Arendt and in Polanyi. Foucault takes a historical approach as well, visible in several books including Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, and apparently in Security, Territory and Population, though I didn’t get to finish that book. I can’t say what Wood thinks, but I’d guess she isn’t a fan of Foucault or Derrida. I’ll try to figure that out as we go along.

I’m certainly glad I stumbled into this book at this time. It fits my project of trying to understand the origins of neoliberalism and it’s current domination of economic discourse, and I hope it will serve as an entry point for understanding current Marxist thought as well.

Marxian Tools and Conservative Caterpillars

May 5 was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’ birth, and Jonathan Chait decided to take a slap at him in a piece titled Trump Handed the Agenda to Conservatives and They Blew It. The title concept was addressed several weeks ago by Mike Konczal in a smart essay. Konczal asks why the Republicans who control all branches of government haven’t accomplished more, gives several examples of legislation that never moved, and asks why there is no discussion of these failures by conservative theorists.

Chait begins with an attack on an op-ed in the New York Times by Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, titled Happy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!. What was the point of attacking the birthday boy? Chait writes:

It is philosophically irrelevant that every nation-state founded on Marxist philosophy almost immediately metastasized into a repressive tyranny, [Barker] breezily insists. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the parties that ruled them all shared a common philosophy, and that this philosophy identified within their society an oppressor class whose political rights could and should be eliminated? No, no, reply the Marxists. All these real-world examples of governments attempting to actualize Marxist principles tell us nothing about Marxism.

Is Chait saying that Leninism is the same as Stalinism is the same as Marxist philosophy? Does he think the capitalists of Marx’ day didn’t oppress the workers? Does he think that early capitalists were tender shepherds to their employee sheep, or that the current billionaire class is the apex of Christian love and respect for their independent contractors? Who knows? This is just trite rhetoric, so he can ignore the thrust of Barker’s discussion of the obvious fact that efforts to put dialectical materialism into practice have failed. Barker says there’s a good reason for this. Marx was first and foremost a philosopher. He was a follower of Hegel, developing Hegel’s ideas of dialectical materialism into a broader theory of society. Barker explains:

… let’s be clear: Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.

Chait suggests that conservatives will blame their leaders, especially Trump, when the actual problem lies with Conservatism. The parallel is supposed to be that this is just the same as Marxists blaming the failure of all Marxist regimes on evil leaders and not the “philosophy” itself. But that’s just not Barker’s position, or anyone’s, for that matter. Scholars, mostly European but a few Americans too, argue about Marxian philosophy, and about his criticisms of capitalism, but never in favor of the dictatorial regimes that attempted to put it into practice.

On the other hand conservatism and its triumphant successor neoliberalism were constructed by their founders and other cultural workers to be a theory of government. They have a theory of the person, an economic theory, and a rough program for transformation of democracy into a form suited to their flourishing. Their failures, including not least the failure to deliver a decent life to the vast bulk of society, are part of their program.

Chait doesn’t take up the issue of the destruction of conservatism and its replacement by full-blown neoliberalism. He thinks neoliberalism is nothing but a slur directed at real liberals by disgruntled leftists. He takes full advantage of the fact that neoliberalism is a denied structure, or at least a deniable structure.

The Conservative Movement, from its formation by William Buckley to its disappearance in 2016, was always a project funded by the rich. It was marketed with whispers of racism, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, misogyny, patriarchy, anti-intellectualism and boundless militarism abroad and at home. The Conservative Movement was just a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism, when those whispers turned into roars. Think of conservatism as caterpillars spontaneously generated by the John Birch Society, the White Citizens Council and any number of grifting self-titled Religious Ministers until one day new Leaders burst forth in all their neoliberal putrescence and all the Republicans fall in behind them dancing, playing timbrels and chanting MAGA.

And that’s why the few remaining movement Conservative writers are bewildered into silence. They are stunned that their patrons no longer applaud their finely spun theories and their sharply honed plans. They thought they were relevant, when they were, as Konczal puts it, just the entertainment.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Conclusion

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

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: I Just Work Here

Related Post

Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers, sometimes called symbolic workers.

—————-

In this series I tried to figure out why the cultural elites didn’t react more strongly to the rise of neoliberalism. When I asked that question in this post I assumed that the cultural elites would see neoliberalism as a threat to their power, especially their ability to reproduce their class without interference because that is the source of their dominance. I got this idea from David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Writing this series has made me question the assumption, and now I think something else happened.

Early in the book, Swartz shows a graph combining economic and cultural capital. The graph indicates that some people hove lots of both, some have lots of one and little of the other, and others have varying amounts of both. The cultural elites might be taken to be the people with the most cultural capital and among them the people with the most economic capital. The justification for this is that as Bourdieu sees it, cultural capital can be exchanged for economic capital, and the people at the top of many cultural fields have done so and become wealthy. The entertainment industry is a good example. University top executives are another good example. It’s less true in some academic fields, but certainly there are many economists who have done so, and people from other fields have too.

In this description, cultural producers are the rest of the people who make a living by employing their cultural capital to create the symbolic structures that people internalize as part of their understanding of society. They are the lower-status academics, lower-ranking employees of the companies that make movies and TV shows, the content producers for newspapers and websites, copy editors and junior ad agency employees, comedy writers for late-night TV shows and sit-coms, most scientists, K-12 teachers and most musicians.

The cultural elites include the top TV and film company executives, top advertising executives, university executives and top editors and publishers of newspapers, and those of similar status in the businesses that produce cultural products. They also include the top individuals who work outside corporations, like top writers, directors, cinematographers, some artists, novelists, scientists and others at the top of their fields. Among this group are the top economists, people like Larry Summers and Gregory Mankiw.

From this perspective, we get to a good explanation for the failure of the cultural elites to oppose neoliberalism. They wound up being winners under the new discourse. They identified their interests with those of the economic elites, not those of the fields that provided them with cultural capital. They used their cultural power to select from the young people in their fields those who supported their views most slavishly, which had the extra benefit of securing and even increasing their wealth. Bluntly, they don’t oppose neoliberalism because they benefit from it.

If cultural producers know what’s good for them, they’ll do the same thing: support the neoliberal project in an attempt to convert their cultural capital into economic capital. That’s particularly true of the younger cultural producers, for the reasons laid out earlier in this series.

There are some groups of cultural producers who can and do safely resist neoliberalism. One group is the people in fields with little potential to convert cultural capital into economic capital, philosophers, musicians and writers, sociologists, anthropologists, and so on. Oh, and content producers who aren’t trying to get rich writing on these subjects.

Another group is those actively trying to replace the current group of cultural elites from the outside, by generating new ideas and theories. One example of this group is the MMT theorists; another is the Open Markets Institute. There are a few film makers, a few TV shows, and even an occasional cable news person who does a bit of resistance.

Finally, there are the young. They are in a good position to see the results of neoliberalism, and may provide the energy needed to move away from the dominant neoliberal discourse. There are new voices in the movies, such as Ava Duvernay, Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), among others, who work with good screenwriters and other film artists. There are others in areas of culture I don’t follow. There are even some new aspiring politicians, many inspired by Bernie Sanders. I guess we can hope.

—————————–

That concludes my reading of David Swartz’ book. I’m still reading Bourdieu’s Distinctions, but it’s tough going and maybe not of general interest. I’m also reading How Will Capitalism End? By Wolfgang Streeck, a German Economic Sociologist. I’m thinking about making that the next book, but it’s so depressing I could barely find a bit of hope for the last paragraph of this series. We’ll see.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

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.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

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

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

The entertainment we enjoy helps us to understand our society, how we fit into it and what we might expect from our interactions with it. Some of what we learn can become part of our habitus, our predispositions in dealing with the world. I don’t have much of a framework for this, but I’m just going to plunge ahead. I know that this is too broad, so caveat: not all violence, not all romances, not all symbolic workers, etc; also hooray for escapism.

My general view is that the idea of markets has totally taken over the entertainment field, with bad consequences for individuals and our society. Every creative idea has to get access to a channel controlled by big capital. That requires getting past gatekeepers who are only interested in ideas with the potential for profit. That means sticking to the conventional wisdom, or at least not straying far from it. If you can’t get access, your idea is limited to small channels, and it only gets into public notice if it goes viral. Few things go viral, meaning that many clever ideas go nowhere.

In this post I’ll take two examples of the results: the culture of fear and violence, and reinforcement of the stereotypes of the relations between men and women.

I never thought much about the violence in the movies and on TV until I saw the 1991 movie, The Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and directed by Jonathan Demme. Here’s Roger Ebert’s review. He describes it as a horror movie, and true enough, the movie is terrifying and horrible. But it’s also a work of art, specifically murder and torture depicted artfully.

Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655, Louvre, Paris

Now I see the violence in movies and TV shows, and as ugly as it is, it doesn’t compare with cable news channels. They love shock and awe of bombing and missile attacks, and talk somberly about the regrettable loss of human life alongside tributes to our brave troops, all with the accompaniment of patriotic music. Local news competes on the basis of fires, car crashes and murders.

Michael Moore looked at the issue of gun violence in the US in his documentary Bowling For Columbine. He doesn’t draw firm conclusions, but points to several possible explanations, one of which is the culture of fear in the US. In the movie Moore interviews sociologist Barry Glassner, whose book The Culture of Fear was one of the influences behind the movie. I haven’t read the book, but here’s a review featuring an interview with Glassner.

“The public has become skeptical and critical of the news media in recent years – and part of the reason has to do with ignoring truly important concerns and compounding others beyond all reason,” said Glassner.

The sociologist ended up spending five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern.

“Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares, including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects and political parties,” Glassner said.

What Glassner and Moore portray is the contrast between the US self-description as the glorious Home of the Brave and the reality, a large population of bed-wetters. The bed-wetters aren’t brave, but they are full of bravado, much of it centered around their guns. They see themselves the brave men standing on the wall protecting us from immigrants and criminals. I’m pretty sure these images came from movies and TV shows.

Another major part of the entertainment business is books. Here’s a nice review of statistics on the industry, showing that one of the big genres is romance novels. Not coincidentally, romance is a big part of TV and movies. There are several cable channels devoted to this genre, including Lifetime and Hallmark. Romance books, movies and sitcoms reinforce the stereotypes of women. Ebert noticed a version of this in his review of Silence of The Lambs:

The movie has an undercurrent of unwelcome male attention toward [Jodie Foster’s] character; rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes.

In the horror/thriller genre, the primary role played by women is helplessness, and the male provides that help, rescuing her, or avenging her. That works in the romance genre as well. Here’s a blurb for a book currently on the Amazon Best Seller list for romance:

“Let’s get married.”

That was the last thing I had in mind.
Then I saw Holly, a curvy redhead in a tight green dress.
I knew she was mine. And I had to claim her.

Reading on we find out Holly been taken by a drug cartel, and he’s going to have to rescue her. Also, he’s a hot billionaire. There’s a whole subset of these books where the hero is a hot billionaire. It’s great that hot billionaires are just like regular guys only more so, built like linebackers and just dying to marry a random pretty grade school teacher or college dropout trying to make enough money to go back to college and learn to work with autistic children.

Hallmark movies are asexual versions of these books, only cheaper. The goal of the woman is to get married; the goal of her friends and family is to get her married; and it all works out and is sealed with a chaste kiss.

There is no sense of the real world in these movies. The couple never sleep together. They don’t talk about politics or housework or work or children or any of the other things dating couples get to eventually. No one lives in fear of job loss, or any kind of insecurity not related to getting married. The writers never get the details right; they seem indifferent to the way things work in the real world. There is always someone with a wise word about love that sounds like something from a self-help book. Of course these movies and books are escapism, but they reinforce stereotypes of the relations between men and women and a positive view of capitalism.

As Glassner says in the quote above, fear-mongering isn’t spontaneously generated. It’s stirred up by people seeking an advantage of some kind. They don’t do this directly. Instead, they hire symbolic workers and set them to work creating the symbolic structures that benefit them. In the first two posts in this series, I describe some of the overall influences affecting all cultural producers, the consolidation of employment and consequent reduction of entrepreneurial opportunities, and the general acceptance of capitalism as a given, rather than as a contested theory.

Our entertainment is created by large organizations funded by large pools of capital. That’s true of movies, television, professional sports and music. Workers in the entertainment field are subject to the pressures of commercialism, which cuts against their individual creativity and intellectual autonomy. And, they all accept the capitalist system as the overall structure of society and social relations.

The people who write romances books, make horrifyingly violent movies and operate cable news and local news are only able to reach the public through gatekeepers, all of which are large conglomerates. All of these symbolic workers are subject to the bureaucratic pressures affecting all salaried employees, and the hierarchy of these businesses ensure that the gatekeepers don’t screw up and let something subversive into the public arena.

As the entertainment industry has coalesced into a few giant players in each area from movies to television to publishing, the intellectual freedom and creativity of symbolic workers has been narrowed to a tiny range. Conglomeration is great for reproducing the class structure, and for reinforcing the conventional wisdom. The symbolic workers in this business aren’t intellectually autonomous in any real sense. No matter what they think of their jobs, they are merely doing the work of reinforcing the symbolic structures desired by their employers.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration

Posts in this series
What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

David Swartz says that Pierre Bourdieu thought that the economic elites know the importance of cultural power. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, p. 127, 220. Cultural capital provides a justification for their exercise of economic power; it legitimizes the economic elites. Economic elites also found it valuable for their children to acquire cultural power through educational credentials and acquisition of the skills needed to manage businesses and fortunes. Bourdieu thinks that the cultural elites and the economic elites compete for power in society. In the US in the 1950s, the economic elites and the cultural elites reached a Truce. See this post for more detail and a discussion of the breakdown of the Truce.

The form of the Truce was that the cultural elites would dominate the discussion of what we now call social issues and the economic elites would dominate management of the economy. Before the Truce, the cultural elites included Marxists, Communists, socialists, and others who seriously questioned or even denied the legitimacy of the exercise of power by the economic elites. These groups were purged from the cultural elites, partly because of McCarthyism and partly by individual changes of mind. The Democratic party also dumped those groups. Republicans accepted many of the premises of liberalism, making a contested liberalism the dominant ideology. C. Wright Mills saw this Truce.

He challenged what he called the “Great Celebration” among liberal intellectuals who praised the return of prosperity and the rise of the nation to global superpower status.

The Great Celebration is a nice way to describe the Truce. The terms of the Truce required the cultural elites to accept capitalism as the one true economic faith. That had a number of bad results.

1. Conventional wisdom says that the Democratic Party is the party of the working class and the middle class. This connection is based on a political policy of shared prosperity. As neoliberalism rose to dominance, this policy was shed in favor of a market-based allocation of prosperity, with the economic elites controlling the way the market handled that allocation. When the Democrats capitulated to this policy, they broke the link between the working and middle classes and the cultural elites, a point commenter Lefty665 raised.

As I read Swartz, Bourdieu questioned why the cultural elites felt connected to the working class at all. Their habitus is completely different from that of the working class, and much more like that of the bourgeoisie especially in tastes and education. Bourideu suggests several reasons, including the fact that the working class and the cultural elites are in dominated positions in their segments of society, but that seems like resentment, and it seems weak.

I think the more likely explanation as to why cultural elites feel an affinity to the working and middle classes is a sense of fairness, of equity, and even a deep faith in the idea that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal dignity. Marxism may offer a framework for understanding the role of the proletariat in society, but there are others that don’t rely on historical materialism, for example the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. In any event, it may be a better question to ask why so many of the cultural elites at least claim a connection to the working class.

Regardless of why, once the economic link is broken, the cultural elites have no base of support in society. Their incomes depend on their continued employment in the systems described in the first post in this series. That dependence undercuts their independence, even their intellectual autonomy. The claim to represent the interests of the working and middle classes became hollow.

2. Joining the Great Celebration required cultural elites to stop the study and advocacy of alternatives to capitalism, especially Marxism, but also socialism. Then the cultural elites slowly lost interest in the entire area of economics, and did not generate new alternatives or better ways to operate a capitalist system. As a result, neoliberal economists became the dominant force in the field of economics. When financial crises arose, the solutions considered mostly tracked the views of neoliberal economists. Later crashes were dealt with on neoliberal terms: government help for the financial sector, more free markets, less regulation and an abandonment of the reforms of the 1930s.

When the Great Crash came, there was no alternative. A short burst of Keynesian stimulus was followed by the usual neoliberal remedies, this time including austerity, privatization efforts (charter schools, Obamacare), and more emphasis on deregulated markets. Also, none of the economic elites were punished , and neither were neoliberal economists, because, after all, it was merely capitalist greed and some exuberant animal spirits, nothing malicious, let alone criminal. Millions of people were hammered, especially the working and middle classes, who lost an enormous part of their wealth while the economic elites were bailed out. The Democrats did not even recognize any of this as a problem largely because they had no alternatives to neoliberalism. That was the fault of the Cultural Elites.

3. The acceptance of capitalist economics meant that social issues connected to the economy were ignored, especially the effects of wealth inequality and income inequality, and the dangers of concentration of market power through consolidation and the crushing of small businesses. Liberal economists claimed to be interested in the problems of wealth and income inequality, but did nothing about it, either in their work or in their public statements. Paul Krugman wrote at least one paper on rising inequality in the late 1990s, but there was no follow-up in the economics community. Krugman offered this explanation:

The other [issue one might model] involves the personal distribution of income and wealth. Why are investment bankers paid so much? Why did the gap between CEOs and the average worker widen so much after 1980?

And here’s the thing: we really don’t know how to model personal income distribution — at best we have some semi-plausible ad hoc stories.

Krugman says he agrees with this article by Justin Fox. Fox describes the explanation of a sociologist, Dan Hirschman, who argues that the study of inequality dried up because no one was interested. Hirschman says it wasn’t a “deliberate suppression of knowledge”, it was “normative ignorance.” Fox tries to justify this as normal because there are limited resources and so on.

The plain fact is that although inequality is a central issue in politics and economic life, economists didn’t study it. Neither Krugman nor Fox gets to the root of the problem: why didn’t economists think this was an important problem? After all, making a living and accumulating wealth are the most important economic issues for every single member of society, and they know that politics matters. So why weren’t there dozens of competing models working off tons of data? I can’t think of an explanation that doesn’t make economists as a group complicit in the basic neoliberal program of transferring wealth and power to the economic elites. Ignoring motive, I’d say the most plausible explanation has to do with the Great Celebration, and the shift away from criticizing capitalism.

There were gains from the Truce, but these are ugly consequences.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes in the Conditions of Production

My series on Trumpian Motion concluded with the question “What happened to the cultural elites?”; meaning why did they not do a better job of resisting the conditions that produced Trump and the ugly Republican party. Of course there is no single answer, but there are several contributing explanations. It’s worth examining these partial explanations, if for no other reason than the hope that open discussion might lead to changes.

I use the term cultural elites in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu as explained in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says Bourdieu believed that culture is largely created by cultural producers such as artists, writers, academics, intellectuals; movie and TV writers, actors and producers; and both social scientists and physical scientists. I assume today Bourdieu would include technologists, especially computer tech workers who design and produce web sites, games, and platforms and much else. The products of these workers shape our interactions with the world and society, and provide a structure through which we understand ourselves and our roles in society.

In the US we don’t have a separate category for intellectuals. We have experts, who have mastered a chunk of knowledge and are able to use it to advance that knowledge and to offer specific guidance where their knowledge is relevant. And we have pundits, who aren’t experts but who have great confidence in their ability to explain things to the rest of us. They too are cultural producers and maybe even cultural elites, people like Tom Friedman, and David Brooks and others I won’t mention; they aren’t all old, you know. There are plenty of these people scattered across the political and ideological spectrum.

In a section discussing the relationship between workers and intellectuals, based in large part on a book on French intellectuals Bourdieu wrote in the late 1980s,Swartz offers an idea that seems relevant to the issue of why cultural elites did not forcefully resist the rise of neoliberalism.

Finally, Bourdieu points to changes in the conditions of intellectual production as a source of ambiguity in political attitudes and behaviors among highly educated workers. He notes a significant decline in the numbers of French intellectuals working as self-employed artisans or entrepreneurs and their increasing integration as salaried employees within large bureaucratic organizations where they no longer claim full control over the means of their intellectual production. P. 239, cites omitted.

This change might encourage more aggressive efforts against the dominant culture, because cultural producers might rebel against their dominated status. But this seems more likely:

These new wage earners of research, [Bourdieu] charges, become more attentive to the norms of “bureaucratic reliability” than act as guardians of the “critical detachment from authority” afforded by the relative autonomy of the university. Moreover, their intellectual products bear the imprint of the “standardized norms of mass production” rather than those of the book or scientific article or the charismatic quality traditionally attached to the independent intellectual. P. 239-40, cites omitted.

This seems like a good partial explanation of the failure of cultural elites to respond to neoliberalism. It also partially explains a point Mike Konczal raised in his article Why Are There No Good Conservative Critiques of Trump’s Unified Government? And, it helps explain the rise of Trumpism as discussed here.

The trend Bourdieu describes is obvious in the US; in fact integration of research workers into the ranks of salaried workers seems even stronger than Swartz’ description. The trend is perhaps worse here because colleges and universities have become so infused with neoliberal business practices, primarily the use of adjuncts (the gig economy for teachers) who have little stability, little opportunity for sustained research, little protection from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, and much less “critical distance from authority”. Nevertheless, I think (hope) there is still a large amount of independence in academia, especially among tenured faculty. That independence is centered around expertise in fields of study, where depth of knowledge in small areas is paramount. Many of those areas of study are far too specialized for the general public, and for policy-making.

Much of academic study is intermediated for the public and for policy-making by and through think tanks and similar groups. Of course, those organizations do some interesting research, but most of the worker’s time and energy is spent extracting useful ideas from the bowels of journals and academic books and rewriting it so that the rest of us can understand and maybe act on it.

These organizations are dependent on their rich donors, and don’t tolerate much from workers that conflicts with the interests of their donors. As an example, Barry Lynn was at New America Foundation, a prominent democratic think tank for years. He wrote often on the problems of monopoly and lack of competition in the US economy. Then he wrote an article critical of Google, one of the big sponsors of New America, and was driven out. He and a few of his associates started Open Markets Institute with funding from George Soros, another wealthy donor with his own agenda.

Charles and David Koch tried to take over the Cato Institute, which they funded, and which claims to be a libertarian think tank. This effort which was not completely successful, causing a lot of distress on the conservative side. Not much critical detachment from authority there.

Perhaps we should read this as an example of another phenomenon Bourdieu describes, the attempt to exchange cultural capital for economic capital. There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course. For example, in the university setting, getting tenure should involve both teaching and research. Competition for status and other resources in one’s field should be driven by these skills, and so should be a net gain. Good teachers and researchers should be rewarded with tenure and a steady income to support further study and teaching.

3It isn’t obvious that this will happen in the think tank world. Further it’s hard to imagine how the kind of competition we see in academic fields would work in the private sector, where there are powerful forces at work to limit the scope of intellectual activity and control access to influence.

There are similar patterns in other areas of cultural production: journalism, movies, TV, magazines, book publishing, and large parts of the music industry. Consolidation and business failures have increased the control of the few over cultural production. Where once there were many outlets for culture producers, today there are fewer, and most of them are more rigidly ideological.

It’s easy to see how people can lose their independence in these settings. They see themselves as brain workers, employees responding to the cues of their work environment, trying to do good work and advance themselves in a bureaucratic system. Institutional pressures dominate independent thinking critical of existing authority. It isn’t necessary to attribute bad motives to them to despair at the outcome.

Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

====================

1. I try to keep these posts to a reasonable length, which means leaving out a lot, especially a lot of supporting history. I appreciate the additional history provided by several commenters, including especially EarlOfHuntington in several of these posts.

2. One of the issues in this post is the conflict between cultural capital and religious capital. This is not a struggle over money. Instead, using Bourdieu’s terms, the struggle is for symbolic power, the power to define the way we understand ourselves, our society, and the world we live in. We shouldn’t assume that either the holders of cultural power or the holders of religious capital are trying to get rich from the struggle. It’s perfectly possible that both groups are acting in good faith.

This struggle is similar to the struggle between neoliberal and Keynesian economists, as I describe here. Most of us want to be right and to make a contribution to society. I might even reluctantly agree that Milton Friedman was acting in good faith. Whatever the motives of the teachers, most students are motivated by a desire to succeed in their chosen profession, and not by lust for money. In the same way, the religious right is no doubt convinced it is acting in the name of the Almighty, trying to bring light to the gentiles, no matter what might have motivated Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson or their ilk. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of money-grubbing charlatans in both groups.

Bourdieu says that the various forms of capital can be exchanged for each other. Cultural power can be used to acquire economic power, and to a lesser extent, vice versa. Religious capital can be exchanged for economic capital as well. In the near term, however, they exist for their own sake. In the intermediate term, there is a lot of exploitation of symbolic power for money. That’s why we have Statutes of Mortmain.

3. The important issue addressed in this series is power. For that reason, I avoid discussion of political parties. All nations, not just the US, are governed by the rich directly or indirectly. In the US, the elites have decided to do so explicitly. In state after state we see billionaires and centi-millionaires running for high office with the sanction of whichever party they choose to endow. The billionaire class publicly states its plans to purchase offices.

I say in the first post in this series that underlying Trumpian Motion is an ideology, neoliberalism. Another reason to leave out political parties is that both parties share that ideology, though they express it differently.

Neoliberalism might be understood as a symbolic structure, but if so, it is imposed on us by the economic elites through what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence. There is nothing organic about neoliberalism. It was constructed to be a bulwark against socialism and communism, and to enhance the power of the economic elites. See Philip Mirowski’s book Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste. In contrast, the symbolic structures generated by the cultural elites and by religion both directly connect to human nature. The former arises out of curiosity and reasoning. The latter arises from human spirituality. They differ in many ways, but they both meet real human needs and real human potential.

I think neoliberalism is an ideology and nothing more. It’s a tool used by economic elites to gain and preserve their power and keep the rest of the citizenry in their place.

4. I talk about the truce between economic capital and cultural capital throughout the series, and I say that the economic elites have ended the truce. Bourdieu attributes the power of the cultural elites to their ability to reproduce their class without interference. A big part of the truce was to permit this to continue. But that’s over now to a large extent.

There is plenty of evidence of this every day in the media. The economic elites use their power to defund state governments, forcing them to slice education funding. Among other things, the increased tuition led colleges and universities to direct curricula away from the humanities and even from basic science into technology that can produce immediate returns to capital. Tenured positions are becoming rarer, as is steady employment. Badly paid and treated adjuncts comprise more than half of university teachers. Here’s a story in the New York Times about how rich conservatives in Arizona are funding a program in Arizona:

In Arizona, the Legislature has taken a direct role, fostering academic programs directly from the state budget and sidestepping the usual arrangement in which universities decide how to spend the money. Lawmakers are bankrolling the new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, and the University of Arizona’s Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. Locally, they are better known as the “freedom schools,” and not always admiringly.

Their creation reflects a cultural struggle within academia, one that some conservatives believe requires government intervention to counter a liberal professoriate.

These changes are a direct attack on the ability of the cultural elites to reproduce themselves.

5. When I started reading David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, I had no idea what I was getting into. I planned to read Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, but I needed an introduction to the vocabulary he uses. I have thought for a long time I needed a language for discussing power in all its forms. For now, this is the language I think works.

6. I like this series. I have made some changes to the posts, and will continue to do so.

7. Swartz writes very clearly. I feel comfortable with what I learned from his book, maybe too comfortable. Any errors in these posts are mine alone.

Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

======================

The primary beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion are the economic elites, but there are others. In this post, I use Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of capital as described in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power:
The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu
to examine these winners.

In the 1950s, the economic elites and the cultural elites reached a truce. The cultural elites bowed to capitalism and accepted its domination. The economic elites left matters of social justice and science to the cultural elites. The dominant culture changed in the direction of greater social equity. Science upended the common sense ideas held by most people. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mainstream churches for the most part accommodated themselves to the scientific revolution and to enlarging the groups entitled to Equal Protection in reality as well as in law, and more or less accepted the view of the dominant culture elites that certain matters were best left to the moral and ethical sense of the individual.

But as physical and social sciences undermined all of the traditional teachings in their ancient texts fundamentalists of all faiths rebelled. They used whatever religious capital they had ranting in the corners and back alleys of society, assuring their faithful that hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, disease, and other natural events were punishments for sin, and that social changes were the teachings of devils. In the broader world, they sounded like Savonarola or a Jesuit of the Inquisition. They were largely ignored, and occasionally mocked, because people knew from science that the actual causes of such events were natural, not divine. And people saw that the fundamentalist hostility towards people who didn’t meet their iron age morality was ugly and hypocritical.

But it wasn’t just the religious fundamentalists who refused to recognize change. There are Tenthers, gun absolutists, sovereign citizens, constitutional sheriffs, groups who refuse to pay taxes on constitutional grounds, John Birchers, truthers, fascists, Nazis, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and other so-called Patriot groups, and many more. There are the individual haters, including anti-Semites, racists, white supremacists, homophobes, anti-immigrants, men’s rights boys and other misogynists. These are not necessarily associated with formal groups, though many are. There are also groups to the right of religious fundamentalists, like Christian Dominionists and polygamous Mormon sects and even stranger groups. Let’s call these groups the Rejectionists.

The Rejectionists were marginalized by the cultural elites during the truce. They survived, and some even grew. But only a few of the religious fundamentalists had any religious or economic capital, a word Bourdieu uses as a synonym for power. Economic and cultural elites for the most part denied Rejectionists access to cultural and social capital, and they lacked the ability to raise economic capital. Therefore Rejectionists are part of the dominated class, those with no power. Bourdieu says most members of the dominated class accept their domination as logical and natural, arising from merit or some other perfectly reasonable cause. Rejectionists know they are in the dominated class and they are angry about it because they hold the truth.

The Rejectionists hate the cultural elites who mock them and their ideas. It’s the one thing that unites them. On the other hand, they almost all accept their domination by the economic elites, either on Calvinist grounds or other ideological grounds.

Over the last 60 years the economic elites eroded and then ended the truce with the cultural elites, and began to treat them as the enemy. The Rejectionists were suddenly reinforced by operatives of the economic elites in attacking the cultural elites. One of the political parties cannot win elections based solely on policies. They need the votes of the Rejectionists. To get those votes, they have to recognize the Rejectionists outright as in the case of the Religious Right, or obliquely, as with the rest of them.

Rejectionists suddenly found themselves with more capital. The first group of Rejectionists to grab political power was the Religious Right. However they are now joined by the rest of the rat’s nest. These groups reinforce each other. And while there must be some of the Religious Right who openly reject these allies, they are rare and feckless.

The economic elites didn’t share Rejectionist views, but they were happy to tolerate them, because their economic power insured that they would not be affected. They didn’t practice those ancient hatreds or preach those weird conspiracies, so they were insulated from attacks. It wasn’t necessary to support these groups. Repressing them is a constant struggle, because as we learn from Horkheimer and Adorno, the Enlightenment did not stamp out superstition and myth. Rejectionists feed on those ancient hatreds. All they need is toleration, and the occasional wink. This process is similar to the way the Nazis used festering anti-semitism as part of their to rise to power, as Hannah Arendt shows in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The economic elites do not manage the dirty work themselves. Others do that. And it wouldn’t happen if the economic elites didn’t tolerate it and support it financially. The alliance with operatives of the economic elites and the lack of push-back from the cultural elites allowed those with Rejectionist capital to demand the rejection of the parts of Enlightenment thinking that offended them, and to impose their fundamentalist ideas on those who offended them.

The schools and universities that house the cultural elites, the media, the movies and other are also under attack for not teaching their theories, debunking their fake histories, and teaching their children to think for themselves. Rejectionists despise the culture that rejects their primal hatreds. They think the cultural elites and their institutions are the cause of everything that has gone wrong with their lives, ignoring the actual causes. They take great delight in Trumpian Motion because anything that distresses their tormentors is brilliant. They happily join in the noise-making, and make stupid threats and wave their fetish guns and chant about walls and jail for their political opponents with the vigor of every mob since forever.

The holders of Religious Capital are thrilled with their new power, and are willing to sacrifice anything to keep it. That includes blessing every Republican regardless of their violation of religious principle. They are the equivalent of the apostate Catholic priests and bishops who happily blessed Henry VIII when he created a new church.

Other rejectionist groups are using their moments of freedom to grow their numbers and their influence as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One final group of beneficiaries is not-crazed Republicans. They are happy to accept the alliance with the Rejectionists and even to enact some of their policies because they get their tax cuts and cuts to social programs. They see that Trumpian motion benefits them by arousing their allies, and they don’t even have to take the blame. In earlier times, some of them, perhaps a large number of them, could have been reached on the grounds that Trump rejects dominant cultural values. But the cultural elites have lost their status, and the great mass of Republicans do not care about their approval any more than the Rejectionists do.

So what happened to the cultural elites?

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