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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.

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4C Conclusion

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.
Part 4B.

It’s fairly easy to criticize neoliberalism from the inside, just based on its incoherence and its failure to deliver good outcomes to most of us. The Barkai Paper discussed in parts 3A and 3A, and the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers make it obvious that the benefits of neoliberalism flow to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, whose wages are largely stagnant and have been for decades, and whose share of overall wealth has fallen.

Neoliberalism can also be criticized from the outside as a form of capitalism, and that seems to me to be more revealing. The constricted logic of capitalism leads directly to domination by the few in business and society generally. The logic that pushes towards dominance is the result of the nature of reason as it has evolved since the Enlightenment. I’ve discussed similar descriptions of the drive to domination in Polanyi, Arendt and to a lesser extent Veblen; click name above to visit my author page. My recent discussions of these points based on my first readings in Critical Theory can be found here, here, and here.

The members of the Frankfurt School were trained in classical German thought, including Hegel, Kant, and Marx. Initially they accepted Marx’ theory of an inherent contradiction in capitalism: that the rich would accumulate all the money and impoverish the workers, who would rise up and lead the revolution. That didn’t happen. Instead, the drive to domination was restrained by legislation. The majority’s insistence on restraints was so strong that the Supreme Court, that playground of the elites, was forced to allow the legislation to stand. But the scholars of the Frankfurt School knew that the drive to domination didn’t disappear. Today it’s just as strong as it was in the late 19th Century.

The natural logic of capitalism is gigantism. Marx said that in unrestrained capital, smaller businesses will be swallowed up by larger businesses, and he was right, as we see today. Organizations with massive capital wield enormous power, and can easily take over control of a society. We see the beginnings of all this today. There is a long tradition in the US of distrust of large piles of money and the people who control them, a sentiment that drove the progressive movement of the late 19th Century. That doesn’t disappear accidentally. It requires an external force to change it. I wouldn’t say it has disappeared today, but far too many of us have lost that natural distrust.

Somehow many people think billionaires as just like the rest of us. They aren’t, and the vulgar braggart in the White House is a perfect exemplar. But far too many of us are willing to accept rule by the rich. One of the central influences that led to this sorry situation is the Law and Economics movement, with its single-minded focus on economic efficiency. Economic efficiency: who could object that? Of course we should be efficient.

Once courts decided that the most important part of justice is insuring economic efficiency, they began to eat away at the laws and theories that enabled the majority to control the rich and powerful. Ideals like the importance of fairness, or social equality, or recognizing and correcting power imbalances through legislation, withered and vanished. Gradually we lost the ability to govern by majority rule. Our Supreme Court feels no compunction in overruling the will of the majority on health care, on voting rights, even on actual elections.

That is the result of the same kind of logic that drives capitalism, the logic of economic efficiency applied to every area of life. A somewhat simple idea that might be useful in limited settings becomes the overall mindset, the formula for decision-making that jumps from the tiny number of cases in which it might be a useful to the absurd idea that it works in every area of law.

It would be interesting to see a history of the erosion of the Securities Laws beginning under Reagan and his hit-man SEC Chair John Shad, followed by mildly limiting legislation, which the courts expanded to cut way back on the ability of the regulator to regulate, and the investor to sue. The Supreme Court bought into Posner’s principle, and then expanded it beyond recognition.

Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, said that the profit motive has always been a form of the power motive. It just gets dressed up in fancy reductive logic by the likes of Posner and Bork for public consumption. Regardless of their motives, they are no different from Frank Luntz, who uses the tools of rhetoric to hide the ugly transformations sought by the rich.

All these changes start small, and require something that seems like a justification, but eventually, it’s just the whim of the elites. That’s how Trump acts, and that’s how the more effective members of his cabinet and his other appointees act. Rex Tillerson is destroying our capacity to engage in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt is destroying our ability to protect ourselves from climate change and pollution. Jeff Sessions is wrecking the Justice Department. All this was foreshadowed by the destruction of the SEC under Shad.

When government is dismantled, how does a society work? The rich take over and run things according to their fancies.

That’s the logic of capitalism. Control the capitalists or they controls you.

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4B

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.

In Part 4A, I laid out the neoliberal theory of the person, and the beginning of an appraisal of the effect of that theory on elites. In this post I add to that appraisal, and take up the impact of this theory on the rest of us. In the next post I will offer a possible explanatory context, but not a solution.

The neoliberal theory of the person is the basis of the economics most of the elites learn as undergrads, and in business schools. Lawyers are taught neoliberal principles in anti-trust classes and in the jurisprudential aspects of other courses, through the impact of the law and economics movement. When elites get jobs in business or law or government, they are surrounded by others who are deeply enmeshed in neoliberalism, even if they can’t name it. They believe that the market, whatever that is, is a wonderful, if occasionally erratic, judge of worth. They earn what they make because the market rewards the productive, and everyone finds their level in that system of rewards, based on their personal merit and their productivity. As they rise in pay and prestige, that opinion is cemented. It’s like Calvinism, with the market substituted for the Almighty. And if the market rewards the productive and dumps on the “non-productive”, then that is right and just.

The farther elites get from the productive work of businesses, the more they come to regard employees as cogs in a machine, not fully human, merely factors of production. The ease with which they fire people is the result of their belief that elites are productive and the rest tools. Lawyers and politicians may see their employees as humans, if weak versions, but the rest of the working world vanishes, except when needed. In brief, the elites operationalize Karl Polanyi’s concept of labor as a fictitious commodity.

And how does this work out for the lesser people? They are forced to live and work in the neoliberal world. They learn to repeat its tropes. For a beautiful piece of research on this, see Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, 2015, by Jennifer M. Silva, The people Silva interviewed describe themselves in the terms in the Mirowski quote in Part 4A, as bundles of skill sets, who must take risks and invest in themselves to get ahead; when it doesn’t work, they think it’s their fault, they blame themselves, and they struggle to find some other way forward.

I saw this many times in my 25 years of bankruptcy practice. People who file Chapter 7 always blamed themselves, and never could understand how their failures resulted from the cruel form of capitalism we enjoy in the US. Here’s a composite case. A young couple with two low-level jobs in a county near Nashville decide that the husband will go back to school so he can get a better job. The wife gets pregnant, suffers a bad miscarriage and can’t go on working. They don’t have insurance, and the bills pile up. He drops out to get a job to support them and tries to pay down the debt. She gets well enough to work, and then he loses his job. They can’t pay the medical and student debt. They get money from family, but it doesn’t work. They file Chapter 7, but they can’t discharge the student debt and they feel obligated to pay back their families. And when we talk to them, they blame themselves in words and phrases exactly like those Silva reports in her book.

In Part 4A, I describe two of the prevalent ideas that neoliberalism has given us, Bork’s antitrust revisionism and Posner’s Law and Economics. For the elites, the first was a boon. It was easy to explain how the markets would protect consumers after a merger. Corporations became larger and larger. Regulators allowed almost every merger, and the elites became more and more powerful, with more and more assets under their control. Combine the new wealth and power with their belief that they are superior, as shown by the rewards heaped on them by the all-knowing market, and suddenly elites are exerting even greater control over the government and using it to enrich themselves as managers and shareholders. According to Mirowski, this is a desired outcome of neoliberalism. See, e.g. point 10.

The Law and Economics movement supports this view. Courts following Posner look at economic efficiency above any other interest, and interpret the laws narrowly so as not to interfere with the sacred market. The consistent rulings in their favor support elites in thinking they are wonderful.

After the Great Crash, brought on by elites at gigantic banks, hedge funds, big law firms and other cheats and liars, not a single member of the elites went to jail, and they all got paid, and they all got to keep their ill-gotten gains. Many of the political elites defended their Wall Street friends. Pundits and academics and think-tankers sprang to the defense of Wall Street. Both of these groups pretended that it was everybody’s fault, or the fault of those evil subprime borrowers or nobody’s fault because it was all perfectly legal and the deals were between equally sophisticated and brilliant people, but it surely wasn’t the fault of the well-known people who organized and sold RMBSs and other deals. The prosecutors said they couldn’t indict any individual because responsibility was spread out among lots of people, or it was too hard to get a conviction, or because something something. When elites are not held accountable, it reinforces their sense of how wonderful they are.

But the effect of these two two neoliberal theories on the rest of us is bad. As I note in Part 4A, based on this paper by Simcha Barkai, increasing concentration is perhaps the most important cause of the wage-productivity gap. Wage stagnation as profits increased has left workers struggling to get ahead, to the point that less than half of US households can pay an unexpected $500 bill without borrowing or selling something.

In the same way, the law and economics movement has hurt workers. For example, Banks and other large corporations put arbitration clauses in all their contracts, and clauses that bar class actions, and courts routinely uphold these clauses, because it’s so efficient. That means that when you get cheated in one of Wells Fargo’s schemes, you have to arbitrate, and class actions are barred.

So far, the legacy political parties and the elites have been able to deflect the anger that is slowly building up in our society as frustration turns into pain. It’s dawning on all of us that the way we treat our people is disgusting, whether it’s cops killing unarmed Black people, sexual predators attacking women, unfair pay for people of color, massive corruption, lawsuits with utterly unjust results; the list is endless.

My prediction of the slow death of neoliberalism is based on my profound hope that people are realizing that neoliberalism is a nightmarish theory, the spell will be broken, and people will demand to be treated like human beings with natural rights that must be the central focus of social organization.