Posts

[Photo by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash]

A Neoliberal Argument for Medicare for All

[NB: Note the byline, as always. /~Rayne]

The old white billionaire dudes lipping off about “un-American” expectations of fairness and equity in income distribution jogged something loose in me.

I’m so damned angry about their willingness to complain their ability to buy yet another fucking yacht may be diminished because the average working American has the chutzpah to demand health care for everyone on top of a living wage.

What really cheeses me off is the utter stupidity of these so-called business geniuses.

WHY ARE THEY IN THE HEALTH CARE BUSINESS AT ALL??

Let’s pick on Mr. Luxury Beverage’s business. His core competency is preparing beverages to meet Americans’ tastes in an appealing environment.

Why has he spent any of his corporation’s human resource dollars on health care programs? His corporation’s expertise is NOT health care or insurance; they’re only providing health care because competition for stable, healthy employees is tight and turnover costs a butt-load of money.

I know you’ll love that technical term ‘butt-load’ but seriously, turnover in low-wage jobs in which employers have invested considerable training eats away at profit margins. It can take a year or two for low-level employees to reach maximum productivity — like pouring the optimum level of crema on a double espresso and know the entire menu by heart while operating at full-speed during rush hour.

What does it cost the Luxury Beverage business if workers leave inside that first year because they can get health care elsewhere?

Ditto for Mr. Business News Provider. His core competency is gathering, reporting, distributing timely news preferred by businesses ahead of the rest of the competition; time matters greatly if stock trades on this corporation’s work product. Why is his corporation in the health care business at all?

And yet both disparate businesses — beverage purveyor and news distributor — expect a comparable level of health among their workforce. They aren’t factoring into SWOT analyses the possibility a competitor’s workforce might be more healthy and fit.

If we look at other industries like the automotive industry or construction, healthy workers who can handle physical demands becomes mission critical. Only so much work can be automated or eased with technology and equipment.

And yet the cost of negotiating and providing health care for their employees can be the difference between profitability and business failure.

The challenge is greater when competing with companies overseas as automakers do.  Health care costs for the Big Three here add a significant percentage to the cost of goods sold — far more than $2 billion a year — while their foreign competitors pay less because the costs is absorbed across all of society instead of their businesses’ experience. The costs are based on a population which has had uniform access to health care throughout their lives.

So why are industries which aren’t delivering health care in the business of providing health care at all?

It’s in the best interest of the country and its industries to use economies of scale to acquire good health care at lower cost, provide it to the entire country, so that the country’s businesses can focus solely on their core competencies as well as the features which differentiate them positively from competing overseas products.

This is exactly what the neoliberal “strong but impartial state” is for in concert with “free enterprise, the system of competition,” to provide what the people know is needed to establish economic justice, insure domestic peace, provide for the common defense against health and employment insecurity, promote the general welfare of all citizens and workers, while securing an optimum opportunity for businesses to compete.

The U.S. is going to spend $3.5 trillion on health care this year under this current system. This is nearly two times what comparable countries spend on average. It’s inflating the cost of everything we make and sell. Imagine the profits corporations could make and keep if they didn’t have to spend valuable time and resources on health care benefits management.

But, but socialism! — this is the immediate refrain offered as push back against institutionalizing health care as a federal program to be provided to all.

Do you see either Mr. Luxury Beverages or Mr. Business News Provider complaining about the federal government’s role in assuring baseline education across the country through its K-12 public school system? I would argue this is the most American federal program we have now or have ever had since its inception with the Pilgrims.

But socialized K-12 education!

Imagine having to argue as a presidential candidate that we can’t have education for all though this program has already directly benefited every business and our common defense in some way.

Imagine American corporations, each independently in isolation, spending billions each year on human resources to research and negotiate education programs as an offering for employees and their families. Ridiculous, right? It’d suffocate so many young businesses on the verge of scaling up.

But these old white male billionaires don’t see any problem with publicly-funded education for all which helped make them what they are today.

I can’t believe I’ve had to argue a neoliberal case for publicly-funded health care for all because a guy who grew up in public housing thinks such health care is “un-American.”

 

Treat this as an open thread.

A Primer On Ideology

Ideology and Discourse

Ideology and Discourse Analysis, a paper by Teun A. van Dijk, a professor at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, begins by introducing us to the theory of ideology, and then uses van Dijk’s specialty, discourse analysis, to identify the way ideology informs discourse. He identifies a number of assumptions and principles of the theory of ideology so this will serve as a primer on the subject.

1. Ideologies are belief structures, cognitive structures based on ideas. They are not the same thing as the practices and actions that evidence them.

2. Ideologies are publicly shared by members of a group of social actors. They form a common belief structure and are put into action by the group, verbally, and in social relations with people within the group though not necessarily in interactions with people outside the group. As an example, think about racism as an ideology. Among themselves, racists use certain language, share certain beliefs, and act is specific ways when racial matters are at stake. They do not always do so when interacting with anti-racists or non-racists, and they do not always do so when interacting with members of the despised group, Feminists may behave similarly: among themselves or with sympathizers, they use certain language and share certain beliefs, but among non-feminists, they may choose to act somewhat differently, and to use other language.

3. Ideologies are not just some random group of ideas: “They control and organize other socially shared beliefs.” If you know someone is a racist or a feminist you can predict other beliefs and ideas, and you can predict the kinds of language the person will use and the way they will interpret events and theories.

4. Ideologies are gradually acquired, often unconsciously, and in the same way, they are only gradually changed, even with conscious effort.

According to van Dijk, ideologies serve a number of social and cognitive functions. They are the basis for the discourse and other social practices of the community of believers, and enable the group to act cohesively. And importantly, they act as the “cognitive interface” between members of the group and the social conditions in which the group lives. I understand that to mean that the group sees the facts and causation creating the facts identically.

Thus far, the discussion makes the hypotheses I laid out in this post seem reasonable. Van Dijk goes on to identify a number of gaps in the theory. Most important, he says is the question of exactly what constitutes the content and structure of an ideology. As he puts it, “If socialism, feminism and neoliberalism are ideologies, what exactly do they look like?” He puts forward, somewhat equivocally, several criteria for identifying these, including self-identification, aims, actions, norms, values, affiliations with other groups, and resources.

As to the ideas underlying an ideology, he suggests that the important point is that they are organized, not random lists. That doesn’t mean they are internally consistent quite the contrary. It isn’t obvious exactly which ideas constitute an ideology. One theory is that only the axioms matter, and that the ramifications are not crucial to the ideology. The other is that only the entire complex should be identified as the ideology. Van Dijk favors the former, and I think that’s best. There are all sorts of reasons people might disagree with some of the possible conclusions of an ideology without rejecting its foundation. Related to this point, not all followers of an ideology are fully versed in it. The degree of knowledge, attitudes, and habits of thinking can vary widely.

Then there is the question of what kind of collectivity shares an ideology. For now, it seems to me that the crucial point here is that we can identify a group based solely on a shared ideology without looking at other aspects of their lives. For example, feminists share an ideology, but that ideology is shared across many boundaries, race, class, wealth/income, work, geographic location and so on. I focus on neoliberalism as an ideology, and the group that shares that ideology crosses all those boundaries. Van Dijk describes these boundary crossing ideologies as communities of action and communities of practice.

Van Dijk says that sometimes ideologies become so widely held that “… they become part of generally accepted attitudes of an entire community.” For example, the idea that women should be politically equal to men began as part of the suffragist ideology, but now is so widely accepted that only a tiny number of people disagree. When that happens,ideas lose their status as part of an ideology and become background for everyone, not salient enough to cause disagreements.

In these terms, neoliberalism is an ideology. There are a large number of people who look at political and economic issues solely through the lens of neoliberalism, and most participants in the political and economic sphere either accept it, or use its premises as the starting point for analysis. Thus, even Democrats who deny that they are neoliberals justify a policy by saying that it’s great for the environment and it creates jobs and economic growth. Even for people with only a limited grasp of the entire ideology, the premises leak into economic discussion. I am paid what I’m worth, a worker might say, because that’s just how markets work. Or, they might vote for politicians who promise to cut taxes on the rich because taxes drain money that would otherwise be used for investments and job creation. Evidence plays no role in such decisions.

The most difficult problem is deciphering the specific ideas that define neoliberalism. Philip Mirowski says that this is by design: “… it was self-consciously constituted as an entity dedicated to the development, promulgation, and popularization of doctrines intended to mutate over time. It was a moveable feast, and not a catechism fixed at the Council of Trent.” He describes Thirteen Commandments he has deduced. We must struggle through a fog of simple-minded aphorisms like government bad, markets good. Or, anyone can succeed in capitalism if they work hard and play by the rules. Or maybe that last one is clap louder or win the lucky sperm lottery. The best we can do is judge by actions and rhetoric, in other words, by using discourse analysis, which van Dijk takes up next in this paper, and which I’ll look at next.

Attacking The Neoliberal Ideology

The organizing question of the first phase of my neoliberalism project was how neoliberalism became the dominant discourse in the US. We looked into the dogma of neoliberalism and some of its pillars, particularly neoclassical economics, especially William Stanley Jevons. We looked at history, with Veblen, Arendt, Polanyi and others. I looked at Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu, and then read a bit of current Marxism through Wood, and a more or less orthodox defender of capitalism, Scott. These readings led to my current view.

I began the project with the view that the post-WWII economic system had morphed into neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s. I now think of our current economic system as capitalism operating with few constraints and having coopted government to act on its behalf and against the interests of most Americans. The removal of restraints and the coopting of government were driven by an ideology, neoliberalism. The ideology was created by a small group, mostly economists. It explains and justifies domination by wealthy capitalists and inspires acceptance of that domination by most Americans.

Neoliberalism began to take over in the early 1970s when the post-WWII economy faltered. The rich began to pour money into pushing the theory that free markets are crucial form of freedom. One important reading on this subject is Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Driven by huge sums of money, neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than another effort by the dominant class, meaning the rich and powerful, to justify its dominant status both for itself and for the subjected class, meaning the rest of us.

As an aside, I note that economists see themselves as uniquely positioned to explain the workings of society to us drudges, barely able to lift our heads from the machinery of production and shake the noise from our brains so we can hear the fruits of their genius. In support, I offer Friedman’s take on racism from Capitalism and Freedom,3 p. 94.

… [T]here are real problems in defining and interpreting discrimination. The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, ”buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” or at least not in the same invidious sense if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other case we do not. Is there any difference in principle between the taste that leads a householder to prefer an attractive servant to an ugly one and the taste that leads another to prefer a Negro to a white or a white to a Negro, except that we sympathize and agree with the one taste and may not with the other? I do not mean to say that all tastes are equally good.

In the second part of this series, I intend to look at two issues. First, what do academic studies say about ideologies, especially their creation, and their effect on those who adopt them. Second, what can be done to attack an ideology and dislodge it.

As to the first part, I have several hypotheses.

1. Ideologies are cognitive structures shared by a large number of people. People use them to to to orient their choices, to justify their actions, to explain the outcomes of their behaviors, and to explain themselves to others. They become tools to understand society as a whole. Ideologies do not spring magically into the collective mind. They are constructed by humans, and reflect the personal interests of the constructors to a greater or lesser extent.

2. Ideologies have meaning only when articulated. People may share a set of structures, but it’s when they begin to use the structures to talk about, and thus to share, their a) guides to behavior, b) public justifications for their actions and c) explanations for outcomes, that the ideology can be seen to dominate the discourse.

3. The people who articulate the structure can make it work for their benefit by careful construction of the tenets of the ideology.

4. Once the tenets are established, people reason with them instead of considering the actual facts of a situation.

5. Once an ideology is articulated, it becomes possible to see the real organizing principles, the interests served, and the people responsible. The organizing principles may never be articulated by the creators. This leads to the double movement of ideologies, identified in the case of neoliberalism by Philip Mirowski’s. See, e.g., Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

I’ll be looking at literature on ideologies to see whether any of these intuitions are correct.

As to the second part, dislodging the discourse, there seem to be two opposing views. One is that you can’t replace something with nothing, so you have to have a replacement ideology before you can hope to dislodge the dominant ideology. The other pole is that first you change the facts on the ground for the better. This shows people that the old ideology produced bad results. That makes room for a new ideology that explains the good outcomes. The second view seems to be motivating the new breed of Democrats, who want change to meet problems, but aren’t interested in adopting a preplacement ideology. Of course, plenty of Democrats cling to their “We’re neoliberals, but not ugly like those Republicans” mantra. This includes most of the current leaders of the Party, who are hooked on big money from corporate interests.

I don’t like either view. I think you have to have some explanation for changes besides meeting pressing needs in order to have a coherent program. Even in the early stages of change, there should be motivating principles. Fortunately as I struggled to get started on this part of the project, I found this fascinating article in the New Yorker, a profile of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson titled The Philosopher Redefining Equalitysd. It seems to me that she teaches a number of the ideas that I have written about, including the pragmatism of John Dewey who I wrote about at FDL, and what it means to be free in a system where capitalists control much of our lives. I’ll be reading her work and commentary in dealing with the second part.

Finally, a word about current politics. I think the motivating principle of neoliberalism is that the rich should be in charge of everything, not just the economy. In current political discourse, people, including me, say that many Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, are neoliberals. It’s important to understand the reason I think this way. I don’t think Democratic politicians believe that the rich should run everything. They do, however, privilege what they call “market solutions” and tweaks to the current system over the massive change that is obviously needed. They may not be neoliberal in principle, but they are neoliberal in action. To me this is a meaningful distinction. It means that any Democrat is a better choice than any Republican, but that it’s possible to be better. I worry that if there are no articulated principles for evaluating new policies, there is a danger that neoliberal principles will be used. I see PAYGO as an example of this concern.

Now that the Democrats have taken the House and seem to have momentum going into the election cycle, these distinctions are critical. We need to have this discussion openly, and without regard to the defenders of the dominant class. After all, the dominant class is the tiniest of minorities. It has no justifiable claim to its dominance, and we need to make that obvious.

Update: I forgot to thank Eureka for a comment that crystalized my thinking about how to proceed.

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.

[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: 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.

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 press has taken to bemoaning the speed of the news cycle, as in this Washington Post story. Harpers Magazine sends a weekly email listing some of the previous week’s craziness before it falls down the memory hole. The constant uproar in our media environment over every little thing reminds me of Brownian Motion. This is from the Wikipedia entry:

Brownian motion … is the random motion of particles suspended in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) resulting from their collision with the fast-moving molecules in the fluid. Fn. omitted.

Think of a grain of pollen in a drop of water on a microscope slide. When you look through the lenses, you can see it move around randomly as the molecules of water bang into it; at least that’s what Einstein said. If there is an external force, the particle moves gradually in accordance with that force. Imagine that the particle is iron and that there is a magnet near one end of the drop of water.

The analogy I see is that we swim in a pool of media water, being bounced around randomly by whatever we click on or see in our news feed, crashing from one stupid to another outrage. The water particles aren’t organized either. Each one acts under forces it can’t completely understand, and often with no purpose other than to slam into us pollens. Then there are the people aggresssively trying to influence us. Think of them as the magnets. The forces are all unseen and to the pollen undetectable. The clamor is deafening. Thought is inconceivable. Understanding is impossible.

That’s part of the reason I’ve been reading and writing here about old books by French and German writers. They were trained in a different time, under different scholarly imperatives. Unlike so many of us, they weren’t trained to get a job; their training was specifically directed at creating at least a few people to study society as objectively as possible. They were all raised in intellectual traditions, including Marxism, but they proved capable of seeing the problems of their own training as clearly as any other problem, and of advancing human understanding. And since Arendt and the members of the Frankfurt School were directly affected by the rise of totalitarianism, they too faced horrifying societal conditions. Foucault and Bourdieu came later but were raised in a similar tradition, in which the intellectual life was valued, and the effort to understand society and history were valued.

I personally feel battered by the media environment. I don’t watch cable news or tv news at all, but even the Twitter is so confounding that some days it’s hard to concentrate on my reading. So, I’m going to write a short series trying to use the ideas I’ve picked up from my reading to provide a sort of grounding, a context, a historical analogy, a comparison to the times observed by some smart people. I’ve tried to do a bit of this in my posts on these old books, so this isn’t new, it’s just a bit more direct. I will start with Hannah Arendt, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3 on Totalitarianism.

We are told that the Republicans are a movement, and we know they are ideologically driven. The ideology is neoliberalism. The most important principle of neoliberalism is that markets know best, and if let alone that Invisible Hand will drive the human race to perfection. Any interference in the workings of the market will only make things worse. The market is the most marvelous information processor imaginable. No human or group of humans can hope to match its deliberations. Therefore, no human interference with the workings of the markets is permissible, including especially concerted action through government. The market will always work for the best interests of all of us.

Arendt doesn’t think much of ideologies.

Ideologies [are] -isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurence by deducing it from a single premise….

… The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same “law” as the logical exposition of its “idea.” Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process—the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future—because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas. P. 468-9.

Ideologies work by the process of logic, the deductive working out of the idea behind the ideology. The ideologies Arendt is discussing, the Marxist idea of the progress of history, and the Nazi idea of racial purity, both have an inherent motion, from the past to the present and on into the future, all driven by a deductive logic. The same is true of neoliberalism. The state of the market at one point in time and the actions taken at that moment create the next state of the market, and on and on like a clock stepping forward.

In Arendt’s description of the rise of totalitarianism, the primary tool of the leaders is terror, a gradually increasing level of fear of armed force, first under the guise of law, and then without any pretense of legal justification. The analogy in the case of neoliberalism is also fear, not of armed force, but of immigrants, or of losing jobs, or that lack of cash will mean death from the money-centric health care system or outright starvation, or of a loss of status that might lead to those terrifying outcomes.

That kind of fear doesn’t work on everyone, but it works on enough people to set a swarm in motion. Suddenly a large group of people are moving almost in lockstep. The racket, the noise, the movement, all draw the attention of the media, and of everyone else through their ceaseless yammering. and the weak-minded hangers-on join in. The goal of the leaders, the Republicans, is to get that mindless crowd in motion. It is the movement itself that they seek, because once in motion, the masses can be led wherever the leaders want them to go. The constant injection of new and more terrifying fears increases the movement; faster and faster, until the very notion of thought disappears in a whirlwind of brainless and frightening activity.

Even if you don’t want to pay attention, the threatening noise and action are everywhere. They’re driving people nuts. That’s what the Republicans want.

Symbolic Violence In Neoliberalism

This post describes the term symbolic violence as used by Pierre Bourdieu as “… the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms.“ This means that some people have the ability to impose their own preferred ideology on the rest of us. We can think of ideology as a discourse or as a structure like myth or religion. This all seems abstract, so I’ll try to put it in terms of our own society by looking at the rise to dominance of neoliberalism.

By the 1960s working people as a group had achieved a measure of power in the economy. Most white men could find decent jobs with benefits and live a decent middle class life, and some women and people of color could too. And the arc of justice seemed to be bending towards the latter two groups.

But it all ebbed away, as neoliberalism rose to dominance. In Bourdieu’s terms, neoliberalism is a symbolic structure. Like myth or religion, it offers a way to comprehend society, the way the way the economy works, and one’s place in society. It is a denied structure, in that most of the people who are guided by it do not even admit it exists, or that there is any other way to understand society. Because it is a denied structure, both the dominant and the dominated accept its premises and its results without question.

Symbolic systems do not spring into existence. They are the result of a great deal of work by people Bourdieu calls cultural producers. This group includes artists, writers, teachers, and journalists, according to David Swartz in in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, p. 94. It also includes experts in various fields, such as economists and lawyers. The first neoliberal producers organized the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, led by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose terror of socialism and Keynesianism was the driving force. Over the next years, money flowed to the Society and more importantly to its members to fund research and publicity for “free-market” ideas and to the institutions at which they worked. Members used their fund-raising prowess to expand the groups of scholars working out the implications of their free-market ideas and making them more palatable.

In Bouridieu’s terms, these efforts constitute symbolic work, work done to elaborate a symbolic structure. These specialists accumulate economic capital in the form of wages and salaries, and income from books and speeches and otherwise. In Bourdieu’s terms that constitutes an interest. But it is not the only interest driving them.

Bourdieu says besides economic capital people struggle for social and cultural capital in their fields of work. For the economists, that comes in the form of recognition in the field, maybe the John Bates Clark medal, or a good slot at a meeting of the American Economic Association, or publication in a respected journal, or an interesting short-term position at the Fed. This conflict takes place in the field of economics, which has its own informal rules about how the work is to be done and the definition of acceptable areas of discussion and research.

In order to engage in that struggle, young economists must learn the rules of struggle, and learn the specific practices and skills considered necessary to participate. That includes college-level math and statistics, techniques of data-gathering and analysis, and a good understanding of the personalities in their training environment. Over time, aspiring economists develop a personal habitus that helps them succeed. This habitus interacts with the various obstacles and structures in the economic field, and that produces the actions they take, such as the specific research projects and the papers they write and the donors they suck up to. In this way, young economists accumulate the cultural and social capital they need to thrive in their field. Then they can use that capital to accumulate economic capital.

As economics became math-oriented and more controlled by theories of human nature as pleasure-optmizing and pain-avoiding calculating machines, more young economists became inculcated with its practices, and their evolving habitus enabled them to win struggles for cultural and social capital in the economic field. They took over as the initial generation died out. Neoliberal economists became the dominant group. Most politicians followed their lead. Hard-core neoliberal economists sound like Paul Ryan; while many others followed softer lines like “market-based solutions”. The relatively few economists who totally rejected neoliberalism were ignored in the profession and among politicians. And this is central to symbolic violence: the ability to control the bounds of acceptable discussion. Swartz, p. 89.

Rich people, then, did not create the neoliberal structure, a form of symbolic capital. That was the work done by a group Bourdieu calls cultural producers, which includes the economists, other teachers, journalists and PR people, writers, politicians, and journalists. The rich supported those people and encouraged the institutions in which they work through donations, their institutional positions, and in other ways. The rich benefit from their support because the neoliberal symbolic structure rewards them directly and indirectly.

But the best part is that both the cultural producers and the beneficiaries have deniability. Neither group has to take any responsibility for their actions; neither can be held accountable for the damage done by their theories. For example, the economists say they are just following the logic of their field and pursuing knowledge. Journalists say they are repeating what everybody knows. The rich say they are just following the course laid out by the intellectuals and geniuses at great universities and think tanks.

This article in Jacobin is a field study of neoliberal teaching. The anonymous writer joined a job club in Austin for unemployed middle-aged tech workers.

Each week, guest speakers shower the jobless not just with interview advice, but with a fully formed ideology that radically individualizes and normalizes their experience. Every Friday, speakers help douse what could be a tinderbox of collective resistance with a rhetorical fire extinguisher.

But what good is individual resistance? These people need decent jobs, and they can’t find them. Hostility and resentment aren’t going to help them. They are stuck in the neoliberal structure and have no way out, at least in the short term. The system demands acceptance as the price of a life.

Bourdieu uses the term “symbolic violence”, but this is actual psychic violence. It calls for a radical change in the nature of the person, changes that make one less of an agent in one’s life and more of a tool for others. Only the dominant have true agency in the neoliberal structure.