I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to an important new blog—Ms. Perestroika—that’s keeping track of the gender gap in academic political theory. It just started, but already it’s got informative posts on recent job searches and hires, the publication record of Political Theory, whose books are getting reviewed and by whom, and the composition of panels at the Western Political Science Association. This seems like an important initiative, so I wanted to make sure folks knew about it.
New Book Announcement On (Writing) Families: Autoethnographies of Presence and Absence, Love and Loss
Tony Adams, email@example.com
New Book Announcement
On (Writing) Families: Autoethnographies of Presence and Absence, Love and Loss
As you probably know, several of us at CT are big photography enthusiasts. While we seem to be more interested in taking photos of nature and architecture, next time we want to shoot a family portrait or an item, we’ll have to be careful with our approach. The US Patent Office recently granted Amazon a patent for taking photos against a white background. For real. So is their plan to start trolling portrait studios and Ebay/Etsy sellers to see whom they can sue?
I am no lawyer, but the language seems rather vague. For example, “a top surface of the elevated platform reflects light emanating from the background such that the elevated platform appears white”. So what level of off-white should a photographer strive for to avoid litigation?
Spring 2014, 42.1
RSA Announces New Editor and Executive Director
This call for this years Burke awards has been posted at the KBJ website: http://www.kbjournal.org/awards.
This call for this years Burke awards has been posted at the KBJ website: http://www.kbjournal.org/awards.
I'm also including the text in this email (see below).
Please send your nominations to Ann George by June 13.
Paul and Nathaniel
CFP: Book Manuscripts on Rhetoric in the Modern Era
2014 Gerard A. Hauser Awards
“From Mob Violence to Violence against Women: Lynching Appropriation and the Case of PUMA”
“Disabling Counterpublics: Examining Competing Discourses of Autism Advocacy in the Public Sphere”
2013 Kneupper Award
2014 Gerard A. Hauser Awards
“From Mob Violence to Violence against Women: Lynching Appropriation and the Case of PUMA”
“Disabling Counterpublics: Examining Competing Discourses of Autism Advocacy in the Public Sphere”
2013 Kneupper Award
What follows is a talk I gave at the University of Washington this past weekend on my working paper “Smiling Faces Tell Lies: Pessimism, Originalism, and Capitalism in the Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.” The paper is still incomplete. I only managed to write about Thomas’s theories of racism and how they intersect with his philosophy of constitutional interpretation. In the coming months, I intend to expand the paper to talk about Thomas’s views on capitalism, and how they inform his jurisprudence about the Commerce Clause, the Takings Clause, and more. Ultimately, this paper will be published by the University of Chicago Press in a volume on African-American political thought, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner. Other contributors will include: Cedric Johnson on Huey Newton, Nikhil Singh on Malcolm X, Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison, Michael Dawson on Marcus Garvey, Naomi Murakawa on Ida B. Wells, Jason Frank on Langston Hughes, Tommie Shelby on Richard Wright, Danielle Allen on Ralph Ellison, and many many more. It’s going to be fantastic. But until then, here’s my talk on Clarence Thomas. If you’d like a copy of the paper, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • • • •
Yesterday, Nikhil Singh said that more than any other figure in the African American canon, Malcolm X is someone who everyone thinks they know. Clarence Thomas, I’ve discovered in the past six months, is also a figure who everyone thinks they know. In the interest of dispelling that expectation, which many of you may share, I’d like to present five facts about Clarence Thomas that perhaps you didn’t know.
Now, the truth is that there’s nothing all that surprising about the fact that Clarence Thomas is black and conservative. There’s a long tradition of black conservatism in this country. And from Edmund Burke to Ayn Rand, conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders, men and women who hail from the peripheries or margins of the national experience.
Nor, in the end, is Clarence Thomas’s early engagement with black radicalism all that surprising. After all, one of the great clichés of the twentieth century is the young left-wing radical graduating to middle-aged conservatism. And as Cedric Johnson, Michael Dawson, and other scholars have reminded us, there’s a deep affinity between conservatism and parts of the Black Power/Black Nationalist tradition.
But here, I think, is what is surprising about Clarence Thomas: First, he’s a Supreme Court justice who has managed in his jurisprudence to incorporate rather than repudiate some of his early commitments to Black Nationalism and Black Power; I think it’s fair to say no other Supreme Court justice has done that. And, second, Thomas is a constitutional originalist, and a rather radical one at that. Unlike any other justice—not Scalia, not Roberts, not Alito—Thomas wants to restore the Constitution to the meaning it had in 1789.
How Thomas has been able to marry an incredibly bleak vision of the black past, a vision rooted in black nationalism, to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative black future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead: that is the basic puzzle of Clarence Thomas and what makes him, I think, more interesting than many of us realized.
In my paper, I document both Thomas’s involvement as a younger man in the broad milieu of Black Nationalism and how that involvement carries over into his jurisprudence. I use the phrase “broad milieu” deliberately [this graf’s for you, Bloix!]. I don’t want to overstate the depth or intensity of his involvement. Nor do I want to posit a specificity, a precise location, to that involvement, when none is there. Reading Cedric Johnson’s paper on Huey Newton, which Cedric presented yesterday, one sees this deep texture and particularity to the different arguments within the Black Power movement that you simply don’t see in Thomas. Instead you see someone who breathed in the broader atmosphere of Black Power and Black Nationalism, and never, I argue, stopped entirely breathing it. Or at least never stopped breathing part of it.
Specifically, what I think Thomas took away from that early engagement are two ideas. First, not only is racism a perdurable element of the American experience—and I want to stress that Thomas’s concern, unlike that of more internationally minded figures like Newton, Malcolm X, or Angela Davis, is with racism as an American experience—but it is also a protean and often hidden element of that experience.
Thomas believes that racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you’ll never be able to remove it. You see this belief in quiet, throwaway lines in his opinions that you can easily miss if you’re reading too fast. In 1992, in one of his early cases, Georgia v. McCollum, Thomas stated, “Conscious and unconscious prejudice persists in our society. Common sense and common experience confirms this understanding.” The point was so obvious and self-evident to Thomas it didn’t need elaboration or explanation. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he wrote, “If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination’s effects.” That “if” is a conditional only in the grammatical sense – that is, it governs the clause that comes after – but not in the historical sense. For Thomas thinks that society cannot in fact end discrimination.
Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul, as I’ve said, that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.
In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:
At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [Northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.
If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:
The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.
You’ve got the same animal imagery; the same moral emphasis on deceit and insincerity as the crucial marker of difference between liberal and conservative; the same emphasis on whiteness as the essentialist ground of vice and violence.
And here we come to the second idea that Thomas develops from his early engagements. And that is that the evil of the color line lies less in the hierarchies of white privilege and the humiliations of black subordination than in the deception and deceit that racism imposes upon blacks and whites alike. Unlike many in the Black Power tradition, or even in the black conservative tradition, Thomas seems never to have developed a political or economic analysis of racism. His is primarily a moral account of racism. Racism is shape-shifting, often hidden; that is its poison. The antidote to racism, the moral answer to it, is race sincerity: being truthful with and to oneself, and seeking truth, in however malignant a form, in and from one’s enemies. The goal is not, and never can be, color-blindness. The goal is racial candor or race sincerity, achieving a congruence between inner feeling and outward form.
For black Americans, that means giving up on the idea of racial authenticity, that there’s an official way to be black: i.e., liberal, Democrat, etc. Hence, the black conservative who listens to Carole King. “How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?” Now that nod to segregation can sound pretty cheap. But I think it’s a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism: that it imposes a false, outward self upon the true, inner self.
For white Americans, race sincerity means owning up to the racism that lurks within. Particularly among white northern liberals, who find in programs like affirmative action a more palatable way to express their racist condescension toward blacks. So many of Thomas’s opinions about affirmative action have far less to do with any commitment to state neutrality or color-blindness—or even a formalistic comparison between the use of race under Jim Crow and today—than they do with a belief that affirmative action is really just the sneaky face of contemporary racism. As he wrote most recently in the Fisher v. University of Texas decision, which was in 2013, “The worst forms of racial discrimination in this Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities.”
While Thomas’s two beliefs—in race pessimism, a belief in the perdurability and protean quality of racism; and race sincerity, the need to be on the outside what you are on the inside—come out of the black freedom movements, the role they assume in his political theory and jurisprudence reflect the waning power of those movements. Like many counterrevolutionary arguments, Thomas’s beliefs about race are symptomatic of a movement in recession or retreat. In three ways.
First, coming to consciousness at the end of the Black Freedom struggle, Thomas had and has difficulty seeing the achievements of that struggle as black achievements. In Thomas’s eyes, civil rights, affirmative action, integration: these were not the work of African-Americans, acting on their own behalf, wrangling power from a power structure that refused to give it to them. They are instead the poisoned apples of white liberals who prefer to give handouts rather than to cede power. Like many counterrevolutionaries (Tocqueville comes to mind), Thomas came too late to the revolution, too late to see the self-formation and self-assertion at work in movements of collective struggle. All he can see is a movement in retreat, and to his mind, the class of passive black dependents, waiting on the largesse of their white patrons of state, that the movement has left in its wake. As he said of his sister, in one of his nastier and truly vicious remarks, “She is so dependent [on the state] that she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check.”
Second, Thomas doesn’t believe in political or collective action. The answer to the persistence of racism is to accept it and to figure out a way around it. A way, however, for individuals only: In Georgia v. McCollum, which I mentioned earlier, the answer to the persistence of white racism in society is to give individual black criminal defendants the right to strike down potential white jurors merely because they are white. Trying to organize collectively to defeat or even confront and call out racism is hopeless. As he told Juan Williams in 1987:
Blacks are the least favored group in this society. Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win?…Which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.
Third, the only space for African-American agency is in the market, particularly in the labor that each generation performs on behalf of the next. Where politics is a sphere “you don’t have any control over,” individual action in the market—which Thomas believes, it’s important to stress, can be performed on behalf of the black community—is a space where you can say, “I am in control of what I do today.” This is not an enlarged or particularly hopeful conception of agency; it’s radically circumscribed and contained. The political realities of race cannot be overcome; the best you can do is make your way within those constraints, and whenever or wherever possible, apart from those constraints. That “apart” explains Thomas’s willingness to indulge and support, even at the level of the state, all-black institutions.
This is not the sunny face of Reagan; it’s not morning in Clarence Thomas’s America. It’s twilight: we’re still living in the shadow of Jim Crow. The two most consistent words you’ll find in Thomas’s work are “sustain” and “survive.” The story of black America is a story of black people surviving centuries of horror, from slavery to Jim Crow, by taking care of themselves and each other, and trying to keep away as much as possible from the cruelty around them.
And this, I think, may be why Thomas has such faith in the project of originalism. Where other voices in the Black Freedom struggles either rejected the Constitution or found faith in its evolutionary openness—that is, in the interpretive distance the country has traveled since 1789—Thomas finds a glimmer of hope in the return to its original meaning. The Constitution may be the document of a slave society, but African-Americans survived slavery. By returning to the original meaning of that document, perhaps they’ll find the tools to survive the “afterlife of slavery” as well.
I’ve been reading my way through the New Sun tetralogy again over the last few months. In honour of the day, one of my favourite passages (as the protagonist, Severian descends a cliff, in a world grown so old that the object of ‘mining’ is not to find seams of raw minerals, but instead to discover the relicts of the past and convert them to use).
The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.
Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.
At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.
The efforts of the right to discredit Piketty’s Capital have so far ranged from unconvincing to risible (Chris picked up a particularly amusing one from Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, to which I won’t bother linking). One point raised in this four-para summary by the Economist is that ” today’s super-rich mostly come by their wealth through work, rather than via inheritance.” Piketty does a good job of rebutting this, but for those who haven’t acquired the book or got around to reading it, I thought I’d repost my own response, from 2012.
The coming boom in inherited wealth (repost)
As everyone who has been paying attention knows, the news on inequality is nearly all bad. Not only has inequality increased dramatically in the US, but intergenerational economic mobility is declining. And, where the US leads, the rest of the world looks likely to follow. The top 1 per cent lost more than most during the crisis of 2008-09 but, as Stephen Rattner reports here (drawing on work by Piketty and Saez), that was just a blip. A stunning 93 percent of the additional income created in the US in 2010, compared to 2009, went to the top 1 per cent, and there’s no reason to think things were much better in 2011 – average real earnings have fallen yet again, and employment growth, though positive, was still modest. Wealth inequality is also high, though it has not increased as much as income inequality.
The one bright spot mentioned by Rattner is that ” those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches”. Since I’m already noticing that point popping up in the places you might expect to see it (can’t find a link right now), let me point out that Rattner’s explanation, that “the rapid growth of new American industries — from technology to financial services — has increased the need for highly educated and skilled workers” is wrong, and that there is every reason to expect a boom in inherited wealth.
The fact that currently wealthy Americans have not, in general, inherited their wealth follows logically from the fact that, in their parents’ generation, there weren’t comparable accumulations of wealth to be bequeathed. More generally, starting from the position of relatively (to earlier periods and to the current one) equal income and wealth that prevailed between about 1950 and 1980, growing inequality of income must precede growing inequality of wealth, since wealth is simply the cumulative excess of income over consumption (and US high-income earners have not been notable for restraint as regards consumption).
So, given highly unequal incomes, and social immobility, we can expect inheritance to play a much bigger role in explaining inequality for the generations now entering adulthood than for the current recipients of high incomes. That will include direct transfers of wealth as well as the effects of increasingly unequal access to education, early job opportunities and home ownership.
fn1. More precisely, since intertemporal comparisons are difficult, the chance that a person with parents at the top (or bottom) of the income distribution will end up in the same or a similar position is now higher in the US than in Europe, whereas, until at least the late 20th century there was good reason to think that the oppositewas true.
Call for Nominations: ASHR 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award, Scott Stroud
Scott Stroud, email@example.com
American Society for the History of Rhetoric Dissertation Award, Call for Nominations
Matthew Yglesias, responding to Tyler Cowen and my critique of same.high levels of income inequality lead to high prices for art. A lot of this reflects higher prices for old paintings by dead artists, but the art market exhibits sufficient efficiency that higher prices also benefit new works by living artists. … The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up. When buying power shifts to the middle class they tend to buy more banal things like bigger houses or nicer cars. Whether these price trends are good for the arts is going to depend on a bunch of other questions that the paper doesn’t address. Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality? Do people shift into painting from more mass market artistic pursuits (music, movies) or from careers outside the arts? Do higher prices make art less accessible to non-rich art lovers? One can imagine a whole range of different outcomes here. But the evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts — largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff — seems compelling.
By coincidence, I’ve recently finished reading The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor’s wonderful new book on culture and the Internet (Amazon, Powells), which gives a much more jaundiced account of what is happening to art in the age of inequality (see here for an interview which gives some flavor of her thinking).
To be clear, I don’t agree with all of Taylor’s arguments. She disagrees sharply with free culture people, sometimes in highly personalized ways that strike me as unfair (n.b. that I’m friends with some of these people). She sometimes extrapolates a bit too broadly from the experience of the artists and culture makers whom she is most sympathetic to, to a more general public. But these are asides; unlike e.g. Evgeny Morozov with his self-congratulatory apercus at others’ expense, she’s clearly not interested in self-promotion but in tearing down arguments that she believes are weak. She poses the sharpest book-length intellectual challenge to technology-optimists that I’ve read.
The People’s Platform does two things surpassingly well. First, it provides a rich account of the experience of a grouping of people who have been surprisingly underrepresented in debates on culture and the Internet – the makers of culture themselves. Taylor herself is a maker of documentary films (Scott has written lots about her work in the past). She’s also a member of the music community (she’s a member of the currently touring incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel). Hence, she has extensive experience of an important group of artists and makers of culture; people who are able to piece together some kind of a living centered on making good art, but who do stuff that is unlikely ever to be enormously commercially popular.
These communities are suffering badly in the modern economy. Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting. That’s no longer an option for most of them. The long tail economy is one where the middle drops out. Bands can’t support themselves through selling their music on independent labels. They can tour, but this is both exhausting and not likely to do more than to break even. The economics of independent documentary making are even tougher. Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse. Unlike Hollywood movies, there isn’t any fat to pare off.
This explains Taylor’s impatience with free culture advocates. She’s tired of being told that she ought to work for free. But her impatience isn’t an end – it’s the beginning of analysis. On the one hand, she excoriates free culture advocates for focusing on the problem of distribution at the expense of the problem of production. People like Larry Lessig focus on how to facilitate the dissemination of culture to people without undue restrictions, both so that they can consume it, and (more importantly) put it to new and unexpected uses. Taylor agrees with this up to a point (she’s no fan of the ridiculous excesses of IP and permissions requirements). Her question, though, is straightforward. If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced? Lessig, Benkler and others are big fans of amateurism. Taylor suggests that for some kinds of art, you need semi-pros and pros. More generally, in Taylor’s words:
openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or economic redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.
Since Taylor very obviously isn’t a shill for Disney and friends, but instead is representing the real experiences of exactly the kind of people whom free culture ought to be setting free, her arguments strike their mark.
This leads into an excellent analysis of the actual political economy of the culture industry. If artistic production isn’t self sustaining, it will have to look to external support of one kind or another. And while it might get such support, it’ll come with a price tag attached. On the one hand are the owners of monopoly platforms like Facebook, Google etc. To the extent that they support artistic production, it’s going to be some kind of sharecropping, where they provide the platform and reap the lion’s share of the profits. Here, think services like YouTube, which simultaneously democratize access, making it possible for anyone with a video camera and Internet access to upload content and share it, but rely on an advertising model where the preponderance of the benefits go to the owner. Taylor has harsh words for tech optimists who identify too closely with the erstwhile ‘insurgents’ like Google. My read is more generous than hers – some technology optimists at least laid their bets on Google, not because they thought that the company was somehow altruistic, but because they reasoned that a company with a business model based on search-engine-plus-advertising would be more likely to preserve a space for open information than proprietary platforms which tried to build walled gardens. This wasn’t a ridiculous argument a few years ago – but (and this favors Taylor), it’s one that is increasingly difficult to sustain now, given Google’s rapidly changing business model.
On the other hand, artists can seek support from marketing companies. They are willing to support artists and even to pay them if they are good, in the hope that their material will go viral. However, the price, obviously, is that the art has to support and spread the brand name.
Taylor stresses that this is driven not so much by technology as such but by the radical inequalities of power that are accentuated by new media. A world in which the owners of a few key platforms – Google, Facebook and their ilk – dominate, will be a world in which previously self-supporting communities of artists will be squeezed ever more. And a world in which artists are increasingly reliant on commercial patrons will be a world of bad, dull art.
the exercise of power is rarely … overt. Instead of directly squelching artistic expression when it’s too brazen – a tactic that can backfire to the artist’s advantage – advertisers and sponsors protect themselves by favoring docile voices in the first place. Thus, they alter the cultural ecology, fostering work that is apolitical and unchallenging, making the innocuously entertaining more plentiful than it would be otherwise.
While Taylor is responding to Internet optimists rather than celebrators of the cultural benefits of inequality like Tyler Cowen, it’s not too hard to extract a clear counter-argument from her ideas. The model for artistic patronage in the new age of inequality is not some munificent and disinterested Maecenas, but businesses, which want to support cultural products that will enhance their brand. Such patrons will not be particularly interested in risky or controversial work, and will certainly not want to support truly challenging art, unless that challenge can be absorbed and appropriately redirected to commercial ends.
Nor does Matt Yglesias’s (admittedly very tentative) “rising tide will lift all art” hypothesis seem to me to be a very plausible one. There’s at least some evidence that the distribution of art prices is highly skewed,1 which suggests that the bulk of the proceeds of increased prices are going to go to a relatively small group of owners of dead artists’ art, and living artists. I would furthermore speculate (and this is speculation, but, I think, grounded speculation) that these tendencies towards skew are going to be substantially accentuated by increased wealth inequality, as very rich people compete over a tiny pool of premier artistic prestige goods, dramatically driving up the prices for this pool and this pool alone, while leaving the middle and the tail of the distribution to languish and stagnate.
This means, as Taylor makes clear in her Post interview, that the relationship is plausibly the reverse of the one that Yglesias postulates. Inequality, rather than benefitting artists, is instead universalizing the artist’s precarious work position, and making it into a general ideology.
In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. … The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition—the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock— is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.
Buy it and read it. [Also read this piece by Tom Slee, which came out in the interval between drafting this post and publishing it.]
Gordon R. Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org
2013 NCA double session on scholarly metrics in a digital age
The full transcript of the first segment of the 2013 NCA double session on scholarly metrics in a digital age, featuring commentary from Academic Analytics founder Lawrence Martin and Professor Carolyn Miller, has been published:
Hartelius, E. Johanna and Gordon R. Mitchell. “NCA-Forum Double Session on Scholarly Metrics in a Digital Age.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 1-29.
Teresa Housel, email@example.com
CALL FOR CHAPTERS
Edited Volume on the Impact of Technology on Interpersonal Relationships
In addition to Kieran’s terrific write-up yesterday on Foucault’s engagement with Gary Becker, I want to recommend Kathy Geier’s very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family.
There are many ideas in Becker’s Treatise on the Family (originally published in 1981; republished in a revised version in 1991) that are problematic and/or offensive to feminists. For one thing, there is the assumption that economic actors behave selfishly in markets but altruistically within families — a theory that’s objectionable in both parts. There’s also the matter of how, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, “the family in Becker’s world has one purpose, one utility function — guess whose? — unproblematically unified in the way that the neoclassical firm is supposed to be.”
Power struggles and conflicts of interest between family members are simply theorized away. The head of the family has a utility function that is supposed to include his own preferences as well as give weight to those of others in the family. But there’s no attempt to deal with the fact that since the head of the house earns the most money, he has the power to exert disproportionate control over the family’s resources. This is a type of problem that plagues neoclassical models generally. Power relations are rarely modeled.
Kathy also mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked in or with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?
In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.
No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.
But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. Founded in 1947, the MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees in Chile began discussions about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. As subsequent reports would demonstrate, the purpose in meeting there was avowedly propagandist. According to the MPS’s own newsletter, the pilgrimage to Pinochet provided participants with an opportunity
for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).
Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak in Viña del Mar, on a panel titled “Education: Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or he pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.
Screening the Non/human: Animals Representations in Visual Media
Gary Becker, University Professor of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago, has died at the age of eighty three. I am certainly not going to attempt an obituary or assessment. But something Tim Carmody said on Twitter caught my eye: “People sometimes talk about ‘neoliberalism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman. Gary Becker was the actual guy.” In a somewhat similar way, people sometimes talked about ‘poststructuralism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, and Michel Foucault was the actual guy. It is worth looking at what one avatar had to say about the other. Foucault lectured on Becker and related matters in the late 1970s. One of the things he saw right away was the scope and ambition of Becker’s project, and the conceptual turn—accompanying wider social changes—which would enable economics to become not just a topic of study, like geology or English literature, but rather an “approach to human behavior“. Here is Foucault in March of 1979, for instance:
In practice, economic analysis, from Adam Smith to the beginning of the twentieth century, broadly speaking takes as its object the study of the mechanisms of production, the mechanisms of exchange, and the data of consumption within a given social structure, along with the interconnections between these three mechanisms. Now, for the neo-liberals, economic analysis should not consist in the study of these mechanisms, but in the nature and consequences of what they call substitutible choices … In this they return to, or rather put to work, a defintion [from Lionel Robbins] … ‘Economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’. … Economics is not therefore the analysis of the historical logic of processes [like capital, investment, and production]; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity.
Then comes the identification not just of the shift in emphasis but also point of view:
This means undertaking the economic analysis of labor. What does bringing labor back into economic analysis mean? It does not mean knowing where labor is situated between, let’s say, capital and production. The problem of bringing labor back into the field of economic analysis … is how the person who works uses the means available to him. … What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? … So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.
At first glance it seems strange to see Foucault emphasize the “active economic subject” here. A standard—indeed, clichéd—critique of Becker’s approach is that economic agents are calculating robots that bear little resemblance to real human beings and that, furthermore, their disembedded and completely systematic choice-making takes us far away from any sort of first-person point of view of labor in the economy. If we want a proper account of economic action on the ground surely we will have to look elsewhere. Wasn’t Marx supposed to have been doing something like this, for example? But Marx inherited the classical economics of Smith and Ricardo, where economic actors divide quite naturally into great classes—workers, capitalists, and landowners—and the problems for analysis are the determination of prices and the dynamics of its decomposition into wages, profits, and rents. Individuals bob around on the waves created by these much larger forces. They are reduced in the analysis to the price of their labor power and the surplus value that can be extracted from it. Foucault emphasizes how Becker and those like him succeeded in providing an economic approach to labor that allowed for the use of existing tools more usually applied to firms, while preserving the emphasis on a unitary actor:
This breakdown of labor into capital and income obviously has some fairly important consequences. First, if capital is thus defined as that which makes a future income possible, this income being a wage, then you can see that it is a capital which in practical terms is inseparable from the person who possesses it … This is not a conception of labor power; it is a conception of capital-ability which, according to diverse variables, receives a certain income that is a wage, an income-wage, so that the worker himself appears as a sort of enterprise for himself. … [The idea is] that the basic element to be deciphered by economic analysis is not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises. An economy made up of enterprise-units, a society made up of enterprise-units, is at once the principle of decipherment linked to liberalism and its programming for the rationalization of a society and an economy.
… The stake in all neo-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo economicus as partner of exchange with a homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings. … So, we arrive at this idea that the wage is nothing other than the remuneration, the income allocated to a certain capital, a capital that we will call human capital inasmuch as the ability-machine of which it is the income cannot be separated from the human individual who is its bearer. … In other words, the neo-liberals say that labor was in principle part of economic analysis, but the way in which classical economic analysis was conducted was incapable of dealing with this element. Good, we do deal with it. And when we make this analysis, and do so in the terms I have just described, they are led to study how human capital is formed and accumulated, and this enables them to apply economic analyses to completely new fields and domains.
The shifts in focus Foucault picks out here, and the concepts and methods that accompanied them, are why Becker’s influence has been so enormous, why his work has been the straw man in so many social science articles, why his methods allow for such broad application, why the imagery of choice and responsibility that so often accompanies them has proved so politically attractive, why the world is now full of economists who feel empowered to dispense advice on everything from childrearing to global climate change, and why the audience for this advice is so large.
One of the pleasing things about reading Foucault on Becker is the way he refuses to let his Parisian audience settle in to a dismissive reaction. He scolds them about finding an economic analysis of the family amusing by reminding them of Pierre Rivière’s description of his peasant parents’ marriage. (“I will work on your field, the man says to the woman, but on condition that I can make love with you. And the woman says: You will not make love with me so long as you have not fed my chickens.”) And a little later in connection with Becker’s analysis of crime we find this:
In his article “Crime and Punishment” Becker gives this definition of crime: I call crime any action that makes the individual run the risk of being condemned to a penalty. [Some laughter.] I am surprised you laugh, because it is after all very roughly the definition of crime given by the French penal code, and so of the codes inspired by it, since you are well aware how the code defines a criminal offence: a criminal offence is that which is punished by correctional penalties. … The crime is that which is punished by the law, and that’s all there is to it. So, you can see the neo-liberals’ definition is very close.
Here we see Michel Foucault using the work of Gary Becker to remind an audience at the Collège de France about a central insight of Èmile Durkheim. It’s a funny image. But again, he emphasizes the vital shift:
It is very close with, however, as you can see, a difference, which is a difference in point of view, since while avoiding giving a substantive definition of the crime, the code adopts the point of view of the act and asks what this act is, in short, how to characterize an act which we can call criminal, that is to say, which is punished precisely as a crime. It is the point of view of the act, a kind of operational characterization, as it were, which can be employed by the judge … You can see it is the same definition when the neo-liberals say that a crime is any action which makes an individual run the risk of being sentenced to a penalty, but the point of view has changed. We now adopt the point of view of the person who commits the crime … We ask: What is the crime for him, for the subject of an action, for the subject of a form of conduct or behavior? Well, it is whatever puts him at risk of punishment.
You can see this is basically the same kind of shift of point of view as that carried out with regard to human capital and work. Last week I tried to show you how the neo-liberals tried to address the problem of work from the point of view of the person who decides to work rather than from the point of view of capital or of economic mechanisms. Here again we move over to the side of the individual subject, but doing this does not involve throwing psychological knowledge or an anthropological content into the analysis … We only move over to the side of the subject himself inasmuch as … we can approach it through the angle, through the aspect, the kind of network of intelligibility, of his behavior as economic behavior.
More than any other single person, Gary Becker was associated with and responsible for propelling that shift in perspective, and all that has flowed from it for the social sciences and their engagement with the world.