Sunday, April 1, 2012

Quotes of the Day - April 1, 2012

I was cleaning my room this weekend and I stumbled upon a huge pile of articles I must have printed out in some strange journal article frenzy. So I decided to read them all. Since I'm still slogging through A Bed for the Night, I thought I would pick out some noteworthy passages from the articles and discuss them here. Most of the articles below describe aspects of Postfordist life.

The first article entitled "The State of Families, Class and Culture" is by Arlie Hochschild, a professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley. In it she describes "a profound shift in the American family, one that bears the deep footprints of a disappearing economic sector and a transformed culture," and argues that "these days, the best gauge of social class is years in school." Hochschild repeats the liberal shibboleth of education as an anti-poverty measure.
"In 1970, a female high school dropout had a 17 percent chance of becoming a single mother (versus 2 percent for a woman with a bachelor's degree). By 2007, her chances had jumped to a whopping 49 percent (versus 7 percent for the B.A. holder). Nearly all new mothers with graduate training, but only half of high school dropout mothers, are married." 
Clearly the socioeconomic divide is also an educational divide. In the new "knowledge economy", the college degree is a signifier of knowledge possession, whether or not the skills learned at college are needed for the job. Those lacking complete educational credentials therefore lose out in the job market. Naturally, the Right applauds this kind of shift in class composition. For them, this represents a shift towards meritocracy. Yet, the meritocratic ideal of a workforce dominated by the best and brightest doesn't actually exist. Access to education is uneven; there is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. And, naturally, inequality of access leads to inequality of outcomes.

Hochschild turns to economist Richard Wolff to explain the change in class composition and ends up discussing the feminization of labor that has taken place since the 1970s.
"For a century before 1970 most American companies paid wages that slowly rose decade by decade, so that a male worker could feel better off than his dada and trust that his son would be better off than he was. But by the 1970s, the deal was off; corporate profits continued to rise while worker's real wages stagnated...the blue-collar family became the shock absorber of the broken deal."
To make matters worse, she argues, "over the last 30 years, companies and government have offloaded risk onto the shoulders of individuals." The best example of this is the bailout of the banks during the financial crisis. The above passage also reveals the predatory impulses of neoliberal economists. Socialized benefits are considered unsustainable and an unacceptable expansion of government, but the socialization of risk and the burden for the financial crisis is considered laudatory.

Hochschild also offers a spot-on critique of the common conservative trope that "liberals and feminists knocked family values from the safety of their intact middle-class mariages, Douthat and Salam believe, while precarious blue-collar families spiraled downward into divorce, poverty, and school failure. Family values help prevent that spiral, they argue. Culture counts." One of the great political ironies, and something that isn't pointed out enough, is that the most consistently conservative states have some of the highest poverty, divorce, and teenage pregnancy rates. These are the same "value voters" courted by social conservatives who hide an ideology of rapacious capitalism under a veneer of old-time family values. Liberal academics are responsible for the collapse of middle America: free market fundamentalism is. The steady decline of blue-collar America isn't due to the papers written by tweed-wearing academics; it's due to the consistent efforts by the Right to commercialize and commodify every aspect of life.

As a follow up to Hochschild's article, I read "Global Feminization Through Flexible Labor: A Theme Revisited" by Guy Standing. The whole paper is really awesome and filled with quotable lines, so I'm only going to choose a few to expand upon.

The process of the feminization of labor is as follows:
"After generations of efforts to integrate women into regular wage labor as equals, the convergence that was the essence of the original hypothesis has been toward the type of employment and labor force participation patterns associated with women. Thera era of flexibility is also an era of more generalized insecurity and precariousness, in which many more men as well as women have been pushed into precarious forms of labor."
For an in-depth and very relevant discussion of precarious labor, watch this video of the Left Forum panel sponsored by Verso and Dissent, The New Dangerous Class: Perspectives on Organizing Precarious Labor.

Factors shaping the feminization of labor include:
"labor rights in industrialized countries increasingly perceived as costs of production to be avoided in the interest of enhancing or maintaining 'national competitiveness.' 
"cost considerations of alternatives have become more significant determinants of allocations and divisions of labor.
"There has been a crystallization of a global economic strategy, under the banner of 'structural adjustment,' 'shock therapy' and other supply-side economic policies. This strategy has been associated with radical changes in labor market relations, involving erosion of protective and pro-collective labor regulations, decentralization of wage determination, erosion of employment security and a trend to market regulation rather than statutory regulation of the labor market."
"There has been growing privatization of social security, whereby more workers have to depend on their own contributions and entitlements."
 In the interest of greater "flexibility," firms have eliminated programs and benefits that once provided steady employment to American workers. This feminization of labor is essentially the "precariat-ization" of the entire workforce.
"Growing market flexibility and diverse forms of insecurity have encouraged greater female labor force participation and employment."
However, instead of women taking salaried positions with full benefits and pensions - the kind of positions once exclusive to men - more women are employed in general and more men are employed in the kind of precarious and flexible (read: temporary and lacking in benefits) labor that was once reserved for women.

The paper was written in 1999. More than ten years later, the shift he describes has fully occurred.
 "The concept of regular, full-time wage labor as the growing type of employment has been giving way to a more diverse patter, characterized by 'informalization' of employment through more outworking, contract labor, casual labor, part-time labor, homework and other forms of labor unprotected by labor regulations." 
"The types of employment and labor force involvement traditionally associated with women - insecure, low-paid, irregular, etc. - have been spreading relative to the type of employment traditionally associated with men - regular, unionized, stable, manual or craft-based etc."
The financial crisis completed the transition from stable employment to precarious employment as the dominant type of labor. Austerity measures, mass layoffs, and a concerted effort to limit the political power of organized labor have facilitated the transition.

The challenge for the Left is to address this new normal of precariousness and informalization in the face of the hegemonic "knowledge economy," which is fueled not by the physical labor but by cognitive labor. The perceived ephemeral nature of cognitive labor necessitates flexibility. In-demand skills change by the minute. Firms must be able to adjust to these changes by altering the cognitive composition of their workforces or risk facing a loss of market share and potential revenue.

Paola Virno, in "General Intellect," explains we can understand the nature of production in the "knowledge economy" or Postfordism. "Marx's 'Fragment on Machines', a section of the Grundrisse, is a crucial text for the analysis and definition of the Postfordist mode of production." Virno uses this section of the Grundrisse to describe the economic paradigm we live in now:
"Here Marx defends what can hardly be called a 'Marxian' thesis. He claims that, due to its autonomy from it, abstract knowledge - primarily not yet of a scientific nature - is in the process of becoming no less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious labor of the assembly line to the fringes."
"Marx uses an attractive metaphor to refer to the knowledge that make up the epicentre of social production and preordain all areas of life: general intellect."
Virno, like Hochschild, describes what is essentially the commodification of human beings through the commodification of their cognitive power.
"Given the tendency for knowledge to become predominant, labour-time becomes a 'miserable foundation': the worker 'steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. 
This process of commodification gives rise to the "flexible" model of employment.
"Disposable time, a potential wealth, is manifested as poverty: forced redundancy, early retirement, structural unemployment and the proliferation of hierarchies."  
If the value of a commodity is determined by the labour time embodied in it, then disposable time must constitute a loss of potential value. Yet, as Virno describes, "the so-called law of value is regarded by Marx as the architrave of modern social relations, yet it crumbles in the face of the development of capitalism."

Some claim flexibility represents emancipatory potential. Virno disagrees.
"[T]he individual who has changed as a result of a large amount of free time, cultural consumption and a sort of 'power to enjoy.' Most of us will recognize that the Postfordist labouring process actually takes advantage in its way of this very transformation albeit depriving it of all emancipatory qualities. What is learned, carried out and consumed in the time outside of labor is then utilised in the production of commodities, becomes a part of the use value of labour power and is computed as profitable resource."
It is important to note the differences between the industrial capitalism that still exists in the developing world and the cognitive capitalism that exists in post-industrial societies.
"Whilst the traditional process of production was based on the technical division of tasks (the person making the pinhead did not produce its body etc.), the labouring action of the general intellect presupposes the common participation to the 'life of the mind', the preliminary sharing of generic communicative and cognitive skills."
"The effect of putting intellect and language, i.e. what is common, to work, renders the impersonal technical division of labor spurious, but also induces a viscid personalisation of subjectification. The inescapable relationship with the presence of an other entailed by the sharing of the intellect manifests itself as the universal establishment of personal dependency." 
 The general intellect is something common, unowned by any individual or particular entity. However, postfordism is characterized by attempts to privatize the general intellect - to use the generic communicative and cognitive skills of some and extract value. Christian Marazzi describes this in "The Privatization of the General Intellect."
"[T]he implementation of the principles of post-fordist flexible production in the field of education, with the privatization of the costs of education (increase in tuition fees, and additional costs for specialization) and the deregulation required by the industries of the private sector (just-in-time education and competition between university centers involved in both education and research). From now on, education can only rhyme with casualization."
The very nature of the knowledge-based economy demands the proletarianization of knowledge-producers.
"The economic colonization of the field of education has set in motion a new cycle of struggles for the right to education - struggles in which the flexibility/precariousness of educational curricula also affects researchers faced with diminished public budgets and the corporatization of knowledge production."
Fights over grant funding, minimal salaries, and expensive healthcare now characterize the precarious lives of many professional academics. Naturally, this should lead to a radicalization of academia and reenergize the student movement. However, student mobilizations will necessary be very different from the mobilizations of '68.
"The point is then to understand the extent to which the education-research-finance nexus may define a confrontational terrain living up to the current transformations of the productive system a the global level."
Marazzi seems to hint that part of why postfordism is exploitive is that many refuse to recognize cognitive labor as labor.
"Innovative knowledge is something that has to be produced and that, as a result, has to be remunerated. In other words one as to consider the technological progress generated by the production of knowledge as a cost. This is what emerges from theoretical developments in the micro-economic analysis of growth factors. Theories of endogenous growth have made it possible to break from the neoclassical idea of a free-floating innovative knowledge situated outside the field of human action, as if it were something whispered to Robinson by his parrot, for free at that."
Marazzi puts forth a policy proposal to address the privatization of the general intellect, but he does not suggest any steps toward communization. The postfordist mode of production isn't destroyed, it is simply made more humane.
"It is this contradiction between the valorization of knowledge and  the devalorization of the workforce that explains the current  cleavage of the labor market between a “working class aristocracy” on  the one hand and a “flexible proletariat” on the other. It is therefore necessary to redefine the nature of the Welfare State by combining flexibility and social safety nets (“flexicurity”) in order to successfully address the processes of financial globalization, but also by developing a Learnfare State, a state, that is, where support for education/professional retraining operates as a guarantee of basic income and redistributes social wealth."
All of the above articles and quotations are terribly negative. Privatization is this huge, inescapable demon that has pauperized us all, turning people into mere commodities. In "The Common in Communism", Michael Hardt presents with a ray of light at the end of the very dark postfordist tunnel. To get there, "we need to explore...neither the private property of capitalism nor the public property of socialism bu the common in communism."

He first presents his own take on today's conditions:
"The triumph of movable over immobile property corresponds to the victory of profit over rent as the dominant mode of expropriation. In the collection of rent, the capitalist is deemed to be relatively external to the process of the production of value, merely extracting value produced by other means. The generation of profit, in contrast, requires the engagement of the capitalist in the production process, imposing forms of cooperation, disciplinary regimes, etc."
In immaterial capitalism, industry must "informalize":
"Knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production, and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process."   
The general intellect, because it originates as something that is common, is both the source of postfordism's strength and postfordism's potential destroyer.
"Ideas, images, knowledges, code, languages, and even affects can be privatized and controlled as property, but it is more difficult to police ownership because they are so easily shared or reproduced. There is a constant pressure for such goods to escape the boundaries of property and become common."
This is because the above-mentioned goods are of the general intellect; they are naturally common.
"If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you, but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared. When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically- and I would add, making the common into public property, that is, subjecting it to state control or management, similarly reduces productivity."
Contrary to the common American liberal impulse, state management is not the answer to postfordism.
"Neoliberalism has been defined by the battle of private property not only against public property but also and perhaps more importantly by the common."
"Here is an emerging contradiction internal to capital: the more the common is corralled as property, the more its productivity is reduced; and yet expansion of the common undermines the relations of property in a fundamental way."
The emergence of the general intellect and attempts to privatize it sets the stage of an explosive situation:
"the biopolitical process is not limited to the reproduction of capital as a social relation but also presents the potential for an autonomous process that could destroy capitalism and create something entirely new...biopolitical production, particularly in the way it exceeds the bounds of capitalist relations and constantly refers to the common, grants labor increasing autonomy and provides the tools or weapons that could be wielded in a project of liberation."
"The increasing centrality of the common in capitalist production - the production of ideas, affects, social relations, and forms of life - are emerging the conditions and weapons for a communist project."
"That capitalist production increasingly relies on the common and that the autonomy of the common is the essence of communism - indicates that the conditions and weapons of a communist project are available today more than ever. Now to us the task of organizing it."
Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles on the road to organizing the future communist project. The chief obstacle is the inability of the Left to offer a complete and cogent Marxian critique of financialization in a way that is comprehensible to a non-academic audience. The tools of finance - securtitization, commoditization - are the chief means by which the general intellect is privatized. Cognitive labor and finance are inextricably linked; both are types of immaterial and mobile labor that make postfordism possible. Cognitive labor is the base of the postfordist cake on which the icing of finance is placed. A complete cake, and therefore a complete understanding of postfordist conditions, requires a complete understanding of financial tools and engineering. As elite universities train students in operations research and financial engineering, the Left must respond with an army of Marxian financial engineers equipped with the tools to preserve the autonomy of the common.

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