BOKO

With existence comes responsibility.
JUNE 9, 2011 11:48PM

Union Life, part 3: Education

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When I was a kid my father and his friends used to get together to play cards around our kitchen table.  They'd sit up all night talking about politics, the union and its latest confrontation with management, and the general "rotten" state of the world.  There were many different political perspectives at that table: conservatives, liberals (my father prominent among them), and some socialists even.  But as the evening wore on, as they talked more, and played more hands, and the pot was redistributed several times around the circle, a curious event took place.  It became harder and harder to remember who had started out the night as what, politically, or to figure out where they would all end up, except for several central beliefs that they all shared. 

One thing they all had in common was their belief in the freedom to organize, to collectively bargain, and to strike.  In other words, they believed in unionism.  Many of them had been union men since high school, when their fathers had gotten them jobs in the local shop.  Others joined later, but they were no less believers--as a matter of fact, I noticed that they were usually the firmest, and the most radical, in their beliefs. 

They also shared a belief in the work ethic.  They were all hard working, diligent people.  They didn't so much "take pride in their work"--a phrase that seems to draw up an image of someone standing back and admiring their own accomplishments egoistically--as they looked upon work as the single most important engagement with the world that they or anyone else could conceive of.  And they tended to look upon those who made their living outside hard manual labor as somewhat suspicious, akin to management, or at the very least "on the make" in some way.  I can honestly say that in this sense the people I grew up around scared me somewhat.  They were very honest and very straightforward, but they were also very hard, tough people.  They didn't give an inch, and if you pressed them on larger matters, they usually didn't give a damn.

I was more philosophically oriented than most of these people--although I got along well with several of my father's friends who were more radical--and by the time I went off to college, I'd had enough of them and their view of the world.  The limitations had become more apparent: they could be bigots, racially and in other ways, and they had a provincial outlook on life that I found stifling in general.  Their morality centered around family, but when it came to anything beyond that immediate circle, and the community in which it was embedded, they viewed the world with cynicism.  Power was power, they said, and it was going to do what it was going to do.  To them as well as for them. 

One way of looking at their overt, pessimistic determinism was that they had no illusions about the world.  They had been on the barricades (literally) and they knew what power was capable of in a confrontation: blackmail, thuggery, reduction, and even self-destruction if it meant taking the "troublemakers" down with it.  Late in my teen years there was a second strike at my father's plant, and this time it was uglier, longer, and in the end, it involved deeper concessions from the workers.  A two tier wage system was instituted in all the major job classifications, including machining, and this meant that the living wages (enough to afford a house, a car, maybe a college education for some of their kids) were history.  The tradition of getting your children a job at the plant was destroyed, too.  Limitations, always in place, were suddenly enforced.  The real face of power began to show itself, and it was worse even than what my father and his card-playing buddies had thought.

This was the early '70s, and while the protest movement against the Vietnam War was reaching popular proportions, the big confrontations between labor and management were just starting to heat up.  The economy was heading into a tight squeeze, and labor would be the one to pay for it.  Throughout the decade and well into the 80s, strike after massive strike emerged throughout the manufacturing sector, and spread far beyond.  Offshoring and onshoring (hiring cheap immigrant labor to do work "here" rather than displacing it "over there") became major corporate strategies, both as a way to deal with increasing cost and as a sign of the failure of companies to deal with financialization and other symptoms of late capitalist decline.  The resulting wars between labor and management were also facilitated by efforts from above, schemes which were designed by government planners and "corporate governance" reformists supposedly to help workers, with lesser and greater degrees of sincerity, and which ended up trying to contain the contradictions raging in the system as a whole.  This was about as effective as trying to catch a thunderstorm in a cup.

So when I went off to college, I had the distinct impression that the world I was leaving behind, my father's and mother's world, the world occupied by all those tough, difficult, but fair people I had known growing up, was coming to a crashing end.  This may sound awful now, from a distance, but at the time I felt a certain satisfaction in my pursuing a college degree rather than going my father's route.  He'd offered to get me a job as a machinist when I was seventeen, right before the strike hit at his plant, but I'd turned him down.  As I arrived on campus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I felt no regrets about leaving "that world" behind.  I was all about making a fresh start for myself.

Of course, Madison was probably not the best place to be in the fall of 1972 for someone who wanted to leave conflict behind.  Two years prior, in August, 1970, a building on campus, Sterling Hall, had been bombed in protest over its housing a research center that contributed to weapons work for the Pentagon, a program known as the Army Mathematics Research Center.  One person was killed, and several others wounded--none of them were associated with the AMRC.  The way I remember it, only one of the four bombers was actually enrolled as a university student at the time of the bombing, although one other worked at the school paper, and one had dropped out.

Nevertheless, many students identified with the bombers far more than the victims, and nobody was shy about voicing their opinions on campus.  I clearly remember one of my first-year lecturers going into a tirade when a student in the audience accused him of "conspiring with the real enemy, the military-industrial complex."  The comment that had elicited the loud accusation from the student was the lecturer's offhand remark about the "terrible attacks that took place here."  The lecturer responded to the characterization of his own remarks by telling the student that he was "fucking insane."  This was a staid, elderly academic, who taught literature and who had probably never used such language in public before.  Anyway, that was the atmosphere of the time.

But this was not my first introduction to conflict.  My first intimation of it was quite "pure," so to speak, and not based on classroom debates, however serious the subject matter.  Remember I wrote earlier about how my father took me out to a picket line during a bitter strike at a local slaugherhouse in my hometown.  Later, as the strike dragged on, the workers gave in on a series of concessions to management, only to find that this indicated to the company that they could get a lot more.  Not satisfied with instituting a two-tier wage system, they cut benefits, healthcare, pensions, and everything else.  By the end, the workers, still locked out and forced to accept, along with all the other denigrating measures introduced by the company, the permanent employment of dozens of the scabs that had been hired during the strike, were reduced to almost nothing.  Meanwhile, all the government agencies that are supposed to look out for workers and their interests--the NLRB, and local officials--stood by and watched.  These were my first lessons in conflict: First, if you give in, things only get much worse.  Second, don't expect official power to help you because their real job is to protect the rich.

Considering my background, it would be reasonable for one to assume that my radicalization, begun in my youth, continued at university, where I would feel at home in the middle of another type of struggle against power.  That was not the case.  Partly because I imagined college as a separate sphere from where I grew up, and partly because I felt no particular investment in the struggle being waged by students against the administration, my first two years at Madison found me withdrawing into myself.  I kept my head down and got my work done.  I didn't join any organizations or participate in any rallies, which were still going on--in fact, they multiplied to include protests for womens rights, free speech, gay rights (the state would later be the first to pass a non-discrimination law in employment on the basis of sexual orientation, in 1982), and a proliferation of other causes.  And I decided to study English literature (after trying out anthropology and classical studies, and making a brief stop in the psychology department).  Literature was as yet, I thought, a relatively calm island in a churning intellectual sea.

At the same time that this was all happening, however, something interesting was beginning to occur in the humanities.  Not only were certain of these movements, these causes, that had exploded on campuses all over, beginning to make inroads on more traditional areas of study--sociology, history, the arts, and yes, literature--while at the same time establishing new ones--film studies, interdisciplinary studies of all species and kinds engaged in new critical perspectives, post-structuralism, post-modernism, meta-archaeology etc.--but there was also beginning to be a movement, more generally, and across these disciplines, causes, and critical orientations, toward a new kind of learning institution.  Or at least toward new structures being embedded within the old ones (ultimately intended to inform, if not displace, them).  What this movement entailed was not just a challenging of certain structures--governmental, administrative, pedagogical--or the confronting of these same agencies of power on the basis of particular issues: anti-war, pro-civil rights, pro-free speech etc.  It was a more fundamental critique that this new movement, or bricolage of interests, was aiming at.  Their target was the academy itself.

By this I mean that people were becoming concerned, at a very basic level, with what kind of subjectivity the university produced.  After all it's the function of institutions of higher education to produce the professionals and specialists for a certain form of society: a modern, mediatized, technocratic, capitalist society.  But the understanding of this process usually stops with the functionalist point of view.  Engineers are produced by departments of engineering, and their various adjacent professional and accrediting organizations, so that they can build bridges, and design cities, improve other infrastructure, and create new cars and electronics.  Mathematicians, while seeming to work in a more "abstract" field, are produced by their academic and professional organs so they can assist in all types of procedures: timing traffic, writing computer code, experimenting in "pure" mathematics, and even assisting engineers in their work (thankfully, since most engineers I've met were surprisingly poor mathematicians when you came right down to it).  The problem with the functionalist point of view of this process, of this "disciplining of subjectivity," is that it doesn't describe the full process.  Also, as my fellow students and I saw it--from the point of view of the contentious, raucous, and often violent early 1970s--functionalism could not explain the culpability of the educational process in power and its most deadly activities.

This last claim may seem like a straightforward statement of agreement with those students I met who were so convinced of the rightness of their various causes, including those who supported the bombers, that they wouldn't stand for any deviation.  But it actually goes much further.  Rather than thinking of the project of confronting the academy only on the basis of the types of people, and the types of knowledge, produced, the focus should also be on confronting the split created between the world of the academy and the "regular" world, that is, the world of labor.  Along with the activities aimed at criticising the involvement of the university in certain forms of research, and the expansion and challenging of the traditional disciplines, their subject matter and methods, even their organization into separate, specialized spheres of knowledge, there was also a growing emphasis on academic employees as workers--engaged in all the struggles of workers everywhere, for better wages and benefits, better working conditions, and more autonomy.  Even students started regarding themselves as workers engaged in a very particular form of labor: self-construction.

At the time, these efforts were just gaining steam.  The students were doing most of the work.  The myth of radicalized professors in the '60s which has grown up since really is just that, a myth.  Most faculty stayed safely ensconced  in the establishment without issuing so much as a peep of protest throughout the turmoil.  Graduate students--always more radical than their Ph.D colleagues, who have already taken up a position in the institution--were the most outspoken on issues of curriculum and administration.  Despite the violence that preceded my arrival, and the continuing protests, the campus, when I got there in '72, was beginning to look and feel like a university again, not a war zone.  On my first day, I saw kids jogging to class in the rain holding runny newspapers over their heads, professors chatting in the entryway, and  there were flies buzzing around in the hall at my first lecture...

As for the two strong impulses present on campus when I arrived, the activist and the theoretical, they weren't entirely separate entities.  What the experience of dealing with an administration that initially had promised to be "impartial," and said that they, too, only wanted "peace," had taught a number of the protestors, was that what they were confronting was power itself.  Right there on campus.  And not just in the person of the police, or other local officials.   As all the familiar rhetoric about academic freedom evaporated, and impartiality turned out to be careerist self-interest, and peace revealed itself as a code word for obedience, the legitimacy of the institution came more and more into open question. 

The same process of necessary disillusionment developed in the theoretical set, too, who saw their numbers added to by the survivors of the previous few years of chaos on the mall.  As these people started together to interrogate the basis of what they were being taught, in the face of directly contradictory realities, and were met with resistance from faculty who had built careers on certain unexamined assumptions, it was the most theoretically oriented critics who found themselves with little or no support.  Howard Zinn used to point out that he was the only Ph.D historian in the entire U.S. that came out publicly against the policy in Vietnam.  This wasn't an egoistic statement.  It was meant to remind people of how few institutional intellectuals joined in the resistance to a brutal, imperialistic, racist war, and a sociopathic administration led by a megalomaniacal drunk.  Huh.  Sounds familiar...

Unfortunately, the partnership between theory and practice forged back then was incomplete.  The split between the theoretical and the activist set remains sharp in certain ways to this day, especially on the radical left.  When Naomi Klein, an effective activist intellectual, says that we should be suspicious of systems, she gets a round of applause from the "pure" activist set, the anti-globalists, autonomists, localists etc.  But if what we want is to dismantle global capital, what are we proposing to put in its place?  One of the best, and quite frankly one of the only things the system has going for it today is the lack of any proposal for a hegemonic alternative on the activist left.

Instead we're treated to endless suggestions for "progressive" regulatory reforms.  The absurdity of the idea that a system such as the one we live under today is capable of reforming, let alone policing, itself, in any way, is further compounded by an imagined history of such activity.  The system was never controlled--it has always been an unconscious social-organic based on exploitation, and it has always sought to control labor, not itself, for the interests of capital.  The mistake is in thinking of government as anything other than an arm of capital, or in proposing that it can be wrenched free or "repurposed" for anything other than serving profit.  I have always been at odds with those on the left who believe in this fantasy past--and who peddle it as a model for a fantasy future.  I know better, and I have, since I was about nine years old and visited a picket line at a slaughterhouse.  There never was any "truce" between labor and capital, and there never will be, just as government always will be on the side of profit.

As for the blindnesses of the theoretical side, they're too much discussed in our time.  We live in an age, and a country, consumed by anti-intellectualism.  It's become depressingly commonplace, even among intellectuals.  What is needed, if anything, is a full-scale revival in real intellectual work, both to counter the seemingly endless production of state intellectual crap that spews from the media, and to save the academy which has gone a long way toward being fully capitalized in the last 30 years.  Despite the resistance that was building up when I was there, and that resulted in a lot of excellent and important work and a number of important institutional changes, the window that was opened up by the interrogation of the academy was brief.  At the same time that many of us were trying to alter the institution's functions and structures, administrators scared by the protests, and big corporations set on making a buck, were learning how to use the university to produce more extreme versions of what I call "educated stupidity."  Chief and most extreme among these is the adherence to free market fundamentalism that now marks most areas in economics, business, and general research.  The humanities, too, are steadily being annexed.

Even some of the best work produced in the most resistant areas of interdisciplinary study, which have as their roots either struggles for free speech and minority rights or revolutions in methodology (or both), have been absorbed wholesale, and redeployed for profit.  The specular theories about objectification and commodification of women are the best known examples.  If Zinn were still around, he might remind us how movements against any system of power tend to produce their own counter-movements within the system.  And this doesn't signal that change for the better is on the way.  As one very astute theorist, Diana Fuss, has pointed out, the process of being absorbed is not pleasant, and it definitely is not productive of progressive change.  Absorption, she says, is not a matter of the system taking something foreign or challenging into itself and then being altered in its own structures.  Rather, Fuss suggests, think of it as being like a large snake swallowing a rabbit whole.  You can still see the outlines of the rabbit inside the snake for a time.  But eventually, and pretty rapidly, the rabbit will be digested.  And the snake will no more be a rabbit than it was before its meal.

Perhaps the most gruesome and large-scale absorption in our own time has been that of the NGOs.  Theories about how non-governmental organizations were going to change global capital--tame it, make it more civilized and more responsive to social needs--proliferated in the '80s and '90s.  They all had as a common theme the idea that there was supposed to be a mutational effect, whereby the "good work" of the NGOs, structured and positioned as a mirror or parallel system to the for-profit system, would cause the latter to begin to head in a better direction.  I used many of these ideas in my work on conflict in corporations to try and produce a similar transformation.  Instead NGOs were co-opted by capital, and now often assist in its most ruthless operations: disaster capitalism, debt restructuring, and the most sinister term created to date, "repopulation."  Haiti is a current example of their duplicity, but similar situations could be found recently in Nigeria, much of central Africa, the Sudan, New Orleans after Katrina, and even in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But now we've gone far beyond the matter of education proper.  What we're talking about is politics... 

  

 

 

Next: Union Life, part 4: Politics

 

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I enjoyed this. I think a restoration of unions must come and I hope I live to see it. Click on my name and read my post today on unions.
This brought back so many memory's of my father and his family when you were talking about yours. I was a child of the unions and although my father taught me never to cross a picket line he turned his back on his roots around about the days of Nixon and Carter. I remember when we used to go visit my aunt Millie & uncle Pete who were some of the founding members of the Fur laborers local he would always tell me in a hushed tone in the driveway that they were card carrying members of the communist party as if they were going to indoctrinate a 6 year old right in front of his father and as a matter of fact they did. One day in a discussion about religion that I was allowed to listen in on they started spouting the Marxist line on God and I being as devout a little Catholic as you were ever going to meet cried for a week.

You really don’t need Howard Zinn to figure out that Anti establishment movements often backlash and bring about their own antithesis that’s how we got where we are today Boko. People don’t like radical change especially when their comfortable. There's a lot to be said for tradition. Although this move back to center has been a product of social engineers cloistered in the velvet backrooms of establishment think tanks it got its start as a grassroots movement. Remember the hard hats Boko that was spontaneous a lot of people really liked Nixon & Agnew and deeply resented their ceremonial sacrifice to the left and after 4 years of a human capon like Carter they were only to ready to turn their back on everything democratic.


This is good work Boko I really enjoyed reading it and will be looking forward to your next installment. Take your time producing it and please PM me when you post it.
I'll need to come back and read this (along with Parts 1 and 2) when I have a bit more time. What little I've skimmed looks outstanding.
People don't have any idea anymore what it was like then, so I enjoyed this. I found myself nodding in agreement.

There's one point I don't quite get. I understand about the archaeologie of the person, or the subject, and language, but how do institutions like universities produce subjectivity exactly? I've never gotten that, beyond Althusser's apparatuses and interpellation, and I always thought that was a simplified, mechanistic explantation.

Good work.
R
Jack Heart - I've heard this tale many times, how working people gave their blessing to this system, so to speak. I know you don't mean it this way, but you have to realize that that argument goes a long way toward legitimating the system, and covering over the fact that working people are miserable everywhere today under capital. It may be hard to face, but your father surrendered. The fact is that working people in the '70s and early '80s were reduced, severely, and the attitudes and shift toward "tradition" you talk about came out of the resulting denigration of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Under that kind of pressure, people do all sorts of things that aren't representative of their own interests. This is what makes the representative political system into such a joke under repeated crises and reductions of labor.

Jeaneatte- Thanks. Stop back.
skinnydave - I think the '60s have been covered over by the "60s." What we get is a term meant to indicate a whole lot of contradictory things.

That's a good place to start with your question as well. Take a term like the '60s. Why does it exist? Or rather, how did it come to congeal in our culture around a whole mass of events, containing and to some extent blocking them from view? One answer is to say that people require some shorthand, and the rest is cleared up in further discussion. But the fact is that the discussion about the term never takes place--we know that it's talked around, and never addressed. Another, more revealing way to see it, then, is that as capital reaches a new plateau--for instance the reduction of labor in the '70s and '80s and establising of the lower paying services industry economy--a whole series of ojectifications take place. This includes all the new or altered relations that belong to this new plateau, and that need to be made to appear as "natural," or "necessary," or even "eternal" in some way. Although the core labor relation of the system never alters and remains the exploitation of surplus labor, much around it, its forms and justifications, do change.

This is what Althusser is referring to when he talks about the process of constant interpellation; it's an ongoing reinvention of a static, contradictory system, which requires new (or at least slightly altered) subjects to fill it in. This also means that the past has to be elided, or at least the former arrangement of objectified relations and the conflict that erupted when it failed have to be obscured.
I understand how schools and churches and companies produce subjects (like consumers, believers, good little students and future professionals), and I more or less believe in the definition of ideology as an exclusion of reality, or certain realities, that ideology can't face...

But it's still not clear to me how pop culture plays a role in all this.
=R=
manhattankid - Agreed. Another way of looking at the same thing is from the point of view of an analysis of pop culture. Why do people believe in the simplified construction of the '60s? This includes those who were alive at the time. I would say, especially those people who were alive then but who persist in this belief. The answer lies partly in how we all conceive of ourselves.

We think that we're all referring back to, gesturing to, a consistent, common body of knowledge when we use such a pop term. But in fact no such thing exists. When we examine it, that is, when we confront and question such a term, we find that it means this for some people, and that for others: some participated in protests and radical organizing, some were more focused on the war than issues of civil right, or vice versa. And some--many in fact--had no involvement except as spectators to the "big events" of the time (another construction). But what makes this self-deception of a shared experience possible, this burying of contradictions that are more than just personal (notice how what gets elided is also group participation, yippie v. hippie, college student v. draftee, even white v. black), is the belief in a universal person, or the sine qua non of the person, the subject, that ties it all together. Somehow we believe that in some way we're the same person, and that we're all the same person in that sense now as we were back then. And, more outrageously, that everyone else is too!
manhattan (cont'd) - ...But there is no person, no sine qua non of subjectivity that can be distilled and made static. There is no subject that can stand in for all the individual subjects and groups, and their tensions, even in a provisional sense--and furthermore, there is no subject that can stand in for what it has meant to be who we were at different points in our lives. The transcendant unity is just as much a unity, and not a static entity, in the past as it is right now this instant. That's how it's being constructed, or we're constructing it if you will, all the time. Strictly speaking, what that is does not exist. It's constructed by various forces, and made up of all the states and actions we pass through and do, but in such a way that it excludes or obscures precisely what must be, if capital is to proceed on its contradictory, miserable way. What is suppressed more than anything is struggle. It's the subject of struggle, or rather all those struggles that could be used to build a different kind of subject, a revolutionary one, that get left behind. Conflict, tension, contradictions that belong to the system get represented, but only in certain ways, and never in revealing, useful ways that go right to the core of the system and confront its structural problems that emerge as each new plateau of capital fails.
An adding back of some missing pieces from the past...

The blithe dismissal of critical intellectualism, and covering up of its historical basis in "necessary disillusionment," are very much with us today. We're asked to believe that it's some sort of plot by deconstructionists to steal our souls.
-r-
boko - so...from what you're saying, what we need to do is to unfold these pop terms. and focus on those that deal with politics and history, but especially recent history where the living memory still exists. but at the same time you're saying that what was lived is just as suspect, that it, too, needs interrogation, since it's those closest to events or conflicts that have been elided who are most likely to accept the overt, simplified construction...yeah.
I was also in Madison between 1969 and 1971, an experience that converted me from conservative Republican to socialist. I was primarily influenced by some of the illegal police tactics against protestors - and police reaction towards me (a strong civil libertarian) when I complained about it.
daveymarx - And take our pictures, too. Not to be primitivist...

dr. bramhall - By the time I got there, the campus was largely demilitarized. The protests had mostly turned into candlelight vigils. There was popular support, and the anti-war gatherings were being held all over the city. But things were still very tense at times, not a lot of problems with the regular cops--it was the plainclothes goons who showed up every time something was happening that were the most disconcerting. If you asked them whether they were cops, which they obviously were, they'd just smile at you. Creepy.

Mary Gravitt - The IT companies are a mixed bag. The worst aspect of the sector comes overseas, in their resources suppliers, which are often involved in wars over rare elements. I like the idea of the American Enterprise Institute being a union for the rich, although I always thought of them as more of an overrated masonic lodge.
As an ardent labor supporter,there are so many points in this excellent post that I could choose to focus on; many have arrived before me and addressed them, so I'll only point to one, only.

Your comment about anti-intellectualism is so graphically evident in the writings on climate change by the ALWAYS superbly-researched writings by Kent Pitman on climate change,where the only rebuttals come from those who think reality TV is a viable substitute for reality and paid corporate shills for the anti-environment community.

Excellent blog, here, BOKO, and so well-researched.

-R-
stu - I think that one has to be careful here. Those who went through these events, who are witnesses to them, can be powerful sources of information. Still the most critical among them--Ali in his memoir "Street Fighting Man", a very searching, critical, multifaceted book--mix these insights with the intervening objectifications that have taken place, and were already taking shape back then.

Look at the construction of the '60's mythologem: it's centered around the protests on college campuses, the war, the draft, Nixon, and to a lesser extent, the continuing civil rights movement, its radicalization, the rise of black power etc. Really it's about bravery--a way of saying, "I was there and I stood up."

But what struggle is often excluded? Labor. Like I point out in the post, I can remember how, in the '60s, well before the big labor conflicts of the following decade, there were strikes and labor disputes, and how the definition of labor was being expanded by people engaged in various struggles to include things not previously thought of in that way: household labor ("womens work"), common day labor and "temp" work, and intellectual work, student and artistic labor. The first detailed critiques of cultural production came out.

Since then, not only have many of those new categorizations been lost--reduced, flattened out under terms that normalize them while the struggles continue in each of those areas--but how even what was previously defined as labor has been forgotten. The whole new series of objectifications, of new forms, that have replaced the old--the lower paying, more vulnerable services industry jobs that were created out of the collapse of the '70s and '80s--have never been defined as labor, from the beginning. Instead it's postindustrialization, or the new economy, or the informatization of society we're supposed to believe in. The rise of global capital implies the elision of labor itself.
markinjapan - Thanks. The anti-intellectual furor of the climate change denialists is disturbing. The emails controversy was one of a number of hard turns back to the right, to the corporatist bent, that the media has taken in the last couple years. "Enough of all this anticapitalism," they said, and so when the oil slick looked to be clearing in the Gulf, they were fine with going along with the administration's ridiculous claim that it had vanished, and not simply sunk, as oil, which is heavy when it globs together, tends to do--that is, until the currents churn it up again. Oil still comes ashore in Prince William Sound, the site of the '89 Exxon-Valdez spill...

The emails scandal, such as it was, represented an even worse instance, since it was obviously timed to undermine several major attempts to forge an international climate change agreement. We can expect this sort of thing every time a serious effort gets underway, now that the fossil fuels guys know they can rely on the media to go along with just about anything to derail the process.
I have lived through all those times but I am not as well equipped with either memory to retain it all or the well thought out formal approach girded with auxiliary backgrounds in literature to supplement it and make it firm. I find the post beautifully written and well conceived to lay out with personal experience the depressing transitions from the well muscled response of organized labor to what exists today which is so weak and defeated. The long hard history of organized labor has been seriously undermined by what seems to have become the insuperable power of capital which has penetrated almost totally into every aspect of modern life, education, the arts, communication and of course the Orwellian reinterpretation of history. In my early days there was some hope in the possibilities of what was thought to be communism but the realities of the brutal and fatally inefficient realities revealed finally as mere cosmeticized police state totalitarianism seems to have killed something vital in the early movements and their idealized hopes. The FDR era blunted somewhat the power hungry viciousness of earlier years but subsequent regimes but the reassertion of the raw and open brutality of capitalism into the present and the total corruption of the political system seems (at least to me) to be driving the world over a cliff.
Thanks very much for your series and especially the latest installment.
boko - the system claims that labor no longer really exists. this is obscene. and it's going to remain this way as long as we stick with capital, and it continues to try to get people to believe in it right in the face of its worst contradictions. you're a worker, the system keeps reminding people, AND THAT'S ALL YOU ARE. but workers no longer exist, officially. that's where we are today alright...

but this situation leaves people with no way to respond. we're thrown back, as zizek says, on the passage a l'acte, lashing out against a system that is everywhere and nowhere because we have no sense of a world where we exist and where we can struggle in solidarity. so...how do we re-establish the worker as subject under the situationlessness of global capital?

-__-
The Fascists of my clan
were all Masons--
But I do not belong

When those were
just waiting
Wept,
I danced and sang a song

If you think that I was
Right
Then you would do me
wrong

I do not long to be a
Mason--
and I did not
all along

rate
stu - Ah, my friend, you got to THE event of the whole critique I've been doing here since last October before I did: How to construct the revolutionary subject? You leninist you.

One of the things we can do is this work of recovering the past--past struggles, past periods of objectification, past definitions and expansions of labor, etc. Ultimately I think that the job of philosophy is to redefine the question, and not to find the answer. I still maintain that people have to be allowed to determine their own answers. They should do...whatever they think is right.
The fantasy past is a big part of what I don't like about the Obama supporters. They're always talking about the good old days when there was regulation. But that never existed. It's just another way to get people to believe in a political culture that is rotten and always has been. They want to repair something that is made broken, and add a few spare parts. We need a new Whole!


Great. Rated.
Proliferating protest, parallel deconstructions...Diana Fuss! Haven't heard that name in a while. The rabbit, it appears, is just about liquified. Will we miss the middle classes...? I wonder.
Jan - I am not quite ready to give in just yet. Not by a long shot actually. Why now, when the system is so obviously in trouble?

Dr Lee - Never thought you wanted to be a lodge member. Me, either.

Sam - That would be nice.

Tracy - We may, in other ways. The middle classes had an unerring way of recognizing the bottom floor of politics. Their nose for dirt might be useful in the near future.
Sam - I should add that I don't think most of the Obama folks left on board want to do anything--and probably never did. His support has narrowed and gotten far more conservative. Any progressives dense enough to be supporters of the system, in any way, at this point, are very confused. And yes, the fantasy past, present, and future are very much with those folks. Thanks for reading and commenting.
boko - but you didn't really answer the question...how to re-establish the revolutionary subject in a situationless present?
stu - First we would have to make sure what we mean by situation. Certainly it is not the event--and the event and the situation is much more than just a matter of foregrounding and backgrounding. The human being, we can say, using Wittgenstein, via Heidegger, is that being which can only know what it knows right now. This is what Wittgenstein means when he says we are a boundary or a membrane, a thin knife's blade cutting through time. Culture is that which makes us believe we are capable of knowing something else, something ultimately unrecoverable: the past. This object, past, is thought of as a kind of hoard of knowledge on which we can draw. But if we were to go there--if we could--we would it empty. The box in which this vast store of things is supposed to be kept, this store of knowledge on which we think we're drawing all the time, would vanish. And this doesn't make culture any less important to us. On the contrary, this means that culture is our purchase on the beyond, the beyond of our being--or rather its continual surpassing, which is continually falling back upon itself. Culture, therefore, situates being in relation to our (necessarily) fantasized ability to surpass, to get beyond, the situation. Agreed so far...?
It should be "...but if we were to go there...we would find it empty".
I am apparently almost exactly your contemporary, having entered Oberlin in 1972, though I grew up in a household that occupationally was neither labor nor management and not closely related to either (nor to academics). During my stay at Oberlin, two major things happened (aside from the Nixon and Agnew resignations): the War ended (which was obvious) and Middle Class incomes stopped growing in real terms (which was anything but obvious, especially that such growth would end for close to forty years and counting). That's when the awful corner really turned. People look at all the women entering the workforce in the 1970's and say "feminism", but the truth is that expenses were rising when incomes weren't, so dual income families were how people coped. It's not that no one stayed home with the kids, it's that no one could afford to any more.

So now I get to my real question: Where do we go from here in practical terms? We have to reach a lot of people to change things fundamentally. Starting where? I have some of my own ideas but I'm more interested in yours. I'm also interested in what an ideal end result would look like to you but, oddly enough, less interested in that than in my first question. You knew these guys in labor. Are they who you recruit first, if they even exist any more? Who do you approach? On what basis? What's your pitch?

This isn't a rhetorical question, nor is it a question geared toward starting a debate. I'm interested in what a road map might look like, one that could actually work. Particularly since early in the second Bush's administration, I've become way more cynical than I used to be. Patience was great when we had time but I'm no longer sure we do.
kosher - I don't think that my father and his friends, even the younger people in the union at the time, thought in terms of recruitment. If you look back at these posts about my hometown, you'll find that a lot of it depended on community and family. New members came in when somebody's child, or maybe a friend, wanted a job. It was an all-union shop, so that meant if you referred someone, you were also adding to the union, and to the community--a new employee, a new member, a new family in town, came as one package...

As for today, there have been several very successful, very aggressive recent drives by large unions in the U.S., most notably by the SEIU. The problem is that many of the fastest growing organizations today are in the services sector, and wages and benefits there are miserable. I think that we also have to help reconceive of what is considered worthwhile labor, valuable labor. Look, factory work was considered scum work a hundred years ago. What the big industrial labor organizations pointed out, in part, through all their struggles and tactics, was that it was vital to the system. Capital can't do without labor--while the reverse is not true. Today it's the services industries where you find a lot of jobs--clerks, logistics, shipping--that are vital, and that can't be moved overseas. As a matter of fact, many manufacturing jobs can't be moved either, except at great expense. The illusion that offshoring is some kind of constant, universal threat to labor is one thing that's used to keep workers scared, to corral them into line with management...

And as for how one gets a big social movement started...I think we have to start looking at what issues are important to people. How do they intersect with capital in their lives, not just at work, but in their communities, their families, their neighborhoods. A lot of it is centered around issues of city life, and the predation involved, and again I've already written about that--development, redlining, labor segmentation, investment--but there are a number of approaches.
Also, I think it's long overdue to end this North/South split in activism and in our theories. We should make common cause with the populist-leftists in South America. We both have a lot to gain from an alliance. The option is to continue allowing capital to play workers in one part of the system off against those in another part. Really, we face exactly the same realities.
boko - "...culture is our purchase on the beyond, the beyond of our being, ...[and] therefore, situates being in relation to our (necessarily) fantasized ability to surpass, to get beyond, the situation." agreed. as far as this goes.
stu - So...(if I can use your "so")...part of the answer has to deal with what we consider to be the present, and what's past. There is a tendency to assign certain forms of struggle to the past. People in my own generation do this all the time, when they talk about struggle as something that only exists in the past (again, the unrecoverable past): "WE went through that phase," they say, or, "WE tried that already, and it didn't work." But what is this WE? Who does it include, and who doesn't it? And more importantly, how did it come to be? What exactly went into its construction?

The "boomer" is a very suspicious object. It doesn't include most black people in late middle age. It's a largely white, upper middle class marketing tool used to target those consumers. It works to the extent that people identify with it. We're told, "this is what boomers are into right now," therefore, we're supposed to go out and buy certain things to participate in whatever insipid trend is being described. Men of a certain age watch "Men of a Certain Age" and this means largely gen-Xers, who are now middle aged--although this also crosses over to younger boomers, and even some older ones, which, along with the elision of class and racial differences, gives the lie to the idea that these categories are about actual sociological age cohorts. If others participate, in a kind of petty bourgeois imitation, then that's all the better from the marketing standpoint. The point is that the categories are really being used to sell things, to corral various groups of buyers into following specific behaviors. And it's amazing the extent to which this critique is part of the process itself--we know we're responding in this way, and yet we keep responding. Capital works at this level too...
stu (cont'd) - Here is where Zizek's and Badiou's and even Foucault's explanations of the response side of the call-and-response of interpellation come into play. Notice how these groupings which are used to mobilize consumers also help to define the past, present, and future. This is how capital reduces us on a basic level. The consumer is the subject we're supposed to be, we're constantly being invited to be by the interpellation of ideology and subject, and that structuring entails becoming a radically proleptic being. We're invited to participate in the future-as-now, but it's an amputated future, the long-term development of which is supposed to be left up to the utopian theories of those "important people" working up in the control room of global capital (the markets, establishment politics, the big international financial organizations). What we're invited to participate in is the next five minutes. It's insipid because it's necessarily so. The future isn't allowed the space to develop and expand. And isn't this the nature of anti-intellectualism today, the other side, the attitude of consumerism?

The good little consumer is supposed to avoid anything that takes up more space, anything that takes considerable time to develop and digest. When we do encounter something more substantial, it's compressed, never expanded or unfolded. We obey the temporal-spatial allotment of capital, but we try to develop things to whatever extent we can within it. As a result, everything we encounter is either insipid, pre-empted and flattened out, or it's so messy and complex, so compressed, we can't make heads or tails of it.
boko - so...(wondered how long it'd take you to get onto that)...what's the solution? knowing you're not into that sort of thing...
stu - The solution of course is to refuse the call of interpellation. To go ahead and develop things in a way, and to an extent, we're not supposed to. And to be interested in critiques--like anticapitalism, but also alternatives, the hegemonic alternative--that we're not supposed to be interested in. The solution then, in part, is struggle and disobedience. We need a revival in disobedience, but at a more fundamental level than our buying habits, or just the structure of consumerism--or for that matter, something even more fundamental than a revival in unionism. Anticapitalism won't do it, either. We need to go beyond it.

If the anti-intellectual is the attitude of consumerism, what is on the other side of our attitude of anticapitalism? What lies beyond it? And I think--my own personal take is--that it's a new materialism. Maybe what this comes down to is a renewal of interest in naturalistic philosophy, the backround of the sciences, a kind of everyday, but nevertheless more extreme, observational technics. After all, the specular theories that have been put to use by the system were very helpful once. But they didn't go far enough. We need to revisit this. That's a good place to start.
Excellent essay. Where are the great debates and discussions and ideas about a better future to be had, then, if academia is being co-opted? We once had coffee-houses,but these, too, have been co-opted by materialist yuppies and pseudo-intellectuals.
All i know is that my grandpa was a foreman for the local brewers' local and only had a high school education (if that). He made enough money to own his own 2 story rowhouse in Brooklyn, a car--enough to support his wife and 2 sons, and be socially active in his local German-American social club/Schuplattlers association, take summer trips to the Catskills (massive, 2.5 week vacations) once a year in the summer, as well as lots of holidays.

I see photos of their house in the old album and they seemed to have a better standard of living than I have, today, despite the "superior" educations attained by me and my wife.

Things are getting worse. Its easy to see...
And Koshersalaami is right about the whole 1970s feminism thing. Its interesting how capitalism attaches a morality based explanation on a social change that really came about for economic reasons. Women entered the workforce because they needed to.

By the way, this wasn't new. Throughout the 19th century, working class women worked in the fields and on factory floors alongside men. So its really not a new concept. It was only temporarily done-away with, because wages were relatively high after WW2, due to the stronger role of unions.
boko - it's unclear what role the intellectual plays in this...

& nice avatar. Pollock?
Marvelous. The seventies were indeed more than the sixties afterbirth. A hard, contradictory decade.


Day-glo!
Rw005g - There definitely has been an overall decline along with the sudden crash. With each new crisis, new conditions come into being, but they're generally from bad to worse for working people. And as each crisis is declared "over" without most of the problem being solved, the situation gets worse overall, too. What you're seeing now is exactly what I and a lot of others saw 35 years ago. The upper classes move on before any type of recovery has really taken shape. After a while, a new set of objectifications are pasted over the "old economy," and a "new economy" is declared open for business--with declining prospects for those at the bottom...

And I agree that women were persuaded to join the workforce in the 70s by exactly the situation just described. But that wasn't the whole story. There were a number of periods when large numbers of women went to work in America in the past--at the turn of the centurty during the big industrial surge, during World War II--but after the immediate conditions changed, or were eliminated, they left the workforce. So one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the impact of intellectual and cultural advancements in the 60s and 70s. Feminism back then was very different, far more militant, far more focused on maintaining what slight position women had won in the labor force. The later push for the ERA developed out of threats and attempts to reverse that trend as a "new economy" was being objectified. It's no coincidence that along with the changes and progressive ideas came a large-scale reaction. The rise of fundamentalist Christian churches (always present in America, but reshaped, mediatized, and turned into a powerful movement during the Nixon/Ford/Carter years) was spurred on by reaction, especially against the entry of women into the workplace. Now it's different, more diverse, more subtle, and more willing to accept the new status of women as "good for capitalism"--but back then, the sexism and misogyny of the movement was obvious and overwhelming.
stu - I'm partial of course to moral definitions of the role of the intellectual. Edward Said's is one of the best: "The intellectual is perhaps a kind of countermemory, with its own counterdiscourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep" (in "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals," collected in Humanism and Democratic Criticism). He discusses this in the context of how much intellectual work it takes to "dissolve words like 'war' and 'peace' into their elements, recovering what has been left out of peace processes that have been determined by the powerful, and then placing that missing actuality back in the center of things...."

This is important. It's also another counter-discursive definition of process, and a plea that produces a particular type of anticapitalism. For example, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", and a lot of his work, fits into this category. He "adds back" as much as he can of what gets snipped out of the official record: the connections between Bush and the Saudis, the inauguration day hijinks in 2000, etc. Before that film, how many Americans realized that tens of thousands showed up to pelt Bush's motorcade with eggs and stones? These are powerful images because they reduce power's stature, and that shouldn't be underestimated.
stu (cont'd) - One of the effects of having a dogmatic, speak-as-one, "cyclic" media is that a few images that contradict the official line can be very effective. The result, though, is the overproduction of "counter-propaganda." Again, this is important. American media in particular is almost at the same point of control and insipidity as the media was under the Eastern European "real socialist" regimes: "Pravda for Coke," as one blogger friend of mine recently described U.S. news media to me in our comments on wordpress.

But all of this counterproduction (in both senses) is not the same as presenting positive concepts. One is reminded again of Rousseau's distinction between amour-de-soi and amour-propre. And the system's ability to create obstacles for people to concentrate on instead of the real goal of establishing a hegemonic alternative. Remember the other side of Said is his dogmatic insistence on humanism. But the intellectual needs to "go beyond" the obstacle. Today that means surpassing humanism to make a positive materialistic statement.
Mrvoulezvous - Thank you. I loved day-glo colors. Still do.

Stu - Just to let you know, the new avatar is actually an image taken from a website on basic physics (I was looking for some curriculum materials for my son; he's teaching 7th grade summer school). It's a microscopic image of a rough surface used to describe the differences between specular and diffuse reflection.
boko - is it a plain sheet of paper?
Add a trailer for a new film, "Marx Reloaded," by writer/director Jason Barker. This is his first feature, but it's very accomplished, focusing on the present global economic crisis and how to move forward. It includes interviews with Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Nina Power, Jacque Ranciere, Peter Sloterdijk, Alberto Toscano, Slavoj Zizek, and others.
And yes, Stu, the avatar image is of a blank sheet of paper.
You talk about working with NGO's, and I wonder if you'd be willing to share more of that. I had some experience with big NGO's in Latin America more than ten years ago, and a lot of what they were doing then was already corporatized and looking more and more like leg work for big money. They were opposed to getting involved in the new political movements, which were of course already well developed and starting to have a real impact. I have no doubt that they're viewed with a lot of skepticism and suspicion there today.
skinnydave - Most of my work was overseas, too, but most of it involved regular private capital, not the non-profit sector. Still, I have some more recent experience there that I'm willing to share...

A while ago I worked as a consultant for a big suburban church, very liberal, universalist, and very nice people. Like a lot of churches, they made large contributions from the money they collected from their congregants to other non-profit groups. One of their biggest yearly donations was to an AIDS service organization, a statewide group that got most of the Ryan White funding in their "region" on a regular basis. This comes in the form of a block grant to states which then distribute it through various processes, but most states including this one do it through a board set up at the state department of health.

Anyway, I found out from some volunteers at the ASO who I knew indepently from my work with the church that the earmarked donation from my client had gone elsewhere in the organization. Specifically they told me that the director and his colleagues had taken the money away from the earmarked area (it was the food pantry) and put it into the general fund. The first thing that gets paid out of the general fund are the salaries of the non-volunteer administrators, including the director and the others who had done this...
skinnydave (cont'd) - ...This is not so unusual at big not-for-profits. Many of them experience sudden budget shortfalls, drops in fundraising, the loss of certain government funds, and have to make up the difference by redirecting earmarked donated money to other, more basic areas. But notice, this is precisely the same argument used to justify big CEO salaries and bonuses--we have to pay them top dollar, or hand out bonuses, because it's a competitive market and otherwise we'll lose them. Likewise, what these not-for-profits are saying is: we have to pay the administrators because they run things, and besides the organization couldn't move forward without them. Now, quite openly, the above, regular corporate version of the argument is also tacked on--the not-for-profit sector has become competitive and we don't want to lose these people. In other words, these are parallel structures, even though most people who donate money are led to believe that the not-for-profit is somehow "outside" the system. It's not.

Back to the story...

I felt that it was my obligation to tell the fundraising director of the church I was working for about the redirection of funds at the ASO. (After all, it was the church I was working for and it was pertinent.) He was responsible for both the money collected at the church and the monies that went out the door to other org's. He was furious, especially since the church board to which he was responsible had specifically made the decision to donate to the food pantry. It fit the mission of the church--which was to help the poorest, the neediest--and also, as he informed me, there were already questions in the local fundraising community about how money was used at this ASO. As I found out from the ASO volunteers and others later on, there's a movement around the country to get rid of statewide ASO's because there have been many scandals and revelations of corruption at them...
skinnydave (cont'd) - As I thought about this, with my background in organizational work, it made perfect sense to me. The ASO's came out of the early years of the epidemic when even other medical professionals didn't want anything to do with AIDS patients, hospitals discriminated against them, it was horrible. These structures were originally set up by people in the AIDS activist community, but then as the epidemic grew, they grew, and funding became more available. More professionals were hired--not always with the right executive training, often directly out of health administration, which is not the same thing--and the ASO's became the recipient of the lion's share of funding, both from private donors and Ryan White government funds. This is a recipe for corruption--the same organization getting most of the funding year and year, in a closed group of people specialized to the field, and with no one to oversee them but state bureaucrats who are trying very hard to make sure the funds get distributed fairly but also quickly and efficiently. Also, since the subject is AIDS, criticism is easily deflected: these are good people, how dare you question them, and so forth. I even ran into a little bit of this myself for raising the issue.

When you look at it critically, though, here you have a very similar situation to the one that exists with every corporation that starts out small, grows, gets bureaucratized and professionalized, and even comes to enjoy a monopoly position in their market. This ASO employed marketing people, and lawyers, and a host of other professionals--mostly on contract, just like a for-profit corporation--and kept to the industry standard of making sure that something between 40% and 60% of the funds coming in went to services. I'm not kidding, that's what all the not-for-profit associations use as a marker, just as vague and disappointing as what corporations consider to be an acceptable level of reinvestment for the obscene amounts of money they make in the financial markets--and which go straight into the pockets of a handful of investors.

To make a long story short, the ASO, like a lot of the statewide org's, was investigated (the volunteers got the state to look into them), and more of the Ryan White money is now distributed to smaller, community-based groups (with fewer of these "administrative problems"). But, from my point of view, the investigation was the very least the state could have done. The same bureaucrats responsible for doling out the money to this org to begin with could hardly be expected to do more. And here we have it again: the dream of "regulated capital" is just that, a dream, even when it's applied to a charity.
Boko - This is similar to what I know about NGO's. I've heard about corruption at ASO's. Terrible. I understand that a number of them have been broken up.

One of the things to keep in mind is how all these people sit on each other's boards. They watch each other's backs. If you sign off on my internal reports, I'll sign off on yours.... Creepy. Thanks for this.
Life has become like 54 card pickup only now you can count on many of the big cards to be missing from your haul.
Algis - It's what players call a "short hand." Although I don't really feel that it's a game anymore...

skinnydave - Like I said, most of my experience has been with private, for-profit companies. We'll have to revisit this in the comments to the next piece on politics. There's more I want to say about NGO's and postcolonialism.
boko - on the film 'marx reloaded'...is that jason barker, the director, the same who translated badiou?
stu - Yes, I think it's the same person who translated Badiou's "Metapolitics" into English, and did an introduction to Badiou's work for the Modern European Thinkers series.