Mobility

Boltanski and Chiapello argue—fairly convincingly—that is the key source of profit—and the privileged site of exploitation—in the new form of capitalism.  Plenty to think about in this formulation.

To explain: the “winner” in post 1975 capitalism, or what they call “network” and “project oriented” capitalism, is the person who can extend her networks, moving successfully from one project to the next, acquiring contacts and skills in each encounter.  Thus, the successful person “accumulates” contacts and work experiences/knowledge—and does do precisely by never staying in one place too long.  Only by being in circulation through a variety of locales can one’s network expand.

The person who is exploited in such a system is anyone who—for whatever reason (family situation, loyalty, lack of requisite ambition or social skills)—is not mobile, is tied to one place and one job.  Such people are needed by the mobile winner—because it is the people who stay in place who secure that he still has a contact in the place that he has left.  And that necessary work is not compensated in proper proportion to its necessity.  Hence the exploitation of the stationary person.  You might say that, luckily for businesses, many people, for various reasons, are stationary, are even loyal, despite the monetary penalty paid for being so.  Businesses (and other work places such as universities) are parasitic on kinds of loyalty and non-mobility that they do everything to discourage.

Certainly, in the growing individuation of incomes (i.e. the decline of unions negotiating the same wage for everyone doing the same work in favor of each worker negotiating his or her own salary for his or her own self), it is the worker who can credibly say “I am leaving” who gets the raise or the bigger bonus.  This is called letting the market set wages.  And certainly being able to leave is, to a large extent, based on having established networks that enable mobility.

But—and this is the first big but—having the networks is necessary, but not sufficient.  I think B&C underestimate productivity.  That is, to move on to another job or project, one must have some evidence of success, some record of having delivered in the past.  In other words, it is not just the accumulation of contacts that matters.  Also required is the accumulation of skills.  B&C don’t pay any attention to the resume, to the CV.  Yet the CV is precisely a document of accumulation, a site of gathering.  And it is precisely its function as a “site” that counterbalances mobility.  What is accumulated is the opposite of what is scattered; what is banked takes a form quite distinct from a network, which is dispersed.  For all the talk of postmodern selves (a talk, I hasten to add, that B&C don’t indulge in), the CV is testimony to the ways in which the bourgeois self is still the dominant form.  The self is the product of its experiences—and its experiences are meant to be educative.  Return of investment during a lifetime is based on turning experience to account.  That’s the essence of all the fancy talk of “human capital.”  I can’t see it as much more than old wine in new bottles.

I needn’t be entirely cynical about this.  There is a difference between people who efficiently and successfully produce things—and those who do not.  No doubt, I am speaking from the winner’s circle in saying so.  I am someone who epitomizes mobility and networking.  I have worked the system extremely well—having been a good boy who does what the system sets out as the things that will be most rewarded.  I have even internalized much of that system, since I did the work with enthusiasm and voluntarily.  My labor was, for the most part, not alienated since I found the game intricate and difficult enough to hold my interest, to call forth my most strenuous efforts.  (Yeats:  “the shoulder that has not pushed against an immovable fence has not experienced its full strength” or William James on the “strenuous mode.”)  Even while (as I have written about before) I maintained a somewhat (and protective) ironic sense that it was a game, with low stakes and laughably low impact, even as I pursued it ardently.  I often thought of Eugene McCarthy’s comment about politics being like coaching basketball.  You have to be smart enough to play the game, but dumb enough to think it important.

The game came fairly easily to me—which is why I could on another level) afford the irony.  I sat easy in my chains.  But—and here is the uncynical part—I did produce the work.  My mobility was based on temperament (I couldn’t stick to a discipline or a topic; I roamed the academic field, even as I roamed my home institution, not sticking to my department, which led to various administrative posts), but also based on the track record, on the books I had written.  There was an objective measure, not just personal contacts.  And, yes, that objective measure could often be laughably disconnected from quality (when it comes to academic publication, as my friend Hans Kellner was fond of saying, quantity doesn’t count, quantity is everything.)  I got offers based on the titles of my publications—books that few on the hiring committees (or those asking me to write for this or that) had actually read. Still and all, the work had to be done.

And, as I say, I enjoyed doing the work.  Just as I now enjoy writing a blog that cannot have any return on investment—and which has never landed on my CV.

All of which, I guess, is to say that a “career” must be built—and as a building is more stationary and table than “mobility” would suggest.  But if one wants the biggest rewards, one must prove that one is willing and able to move, and thus career building is undertaken in relation to mobility.  Which leads to another way of characterizing the stationary: they don’t think in terms of a career, in terms of building toward the “next thing.”  They want to stay where they are.  And in this new world of post-1970s capitalism one pays a fearful price for that, since it is the stationary (the one a firm doesn’t have to worry about their leaving) who are pushed onto contract work and made redundant at the drop of a hat.

Because, at a level below the stationary, the expendable, are “the excluded.”  It is the return of high unemployment since 1975 that, in many ways, drives the whole system.  If you don’t keep up your contacts, don’t keep adding to your skills, don’t exist within an extended network, you risk falling off the map altogether, so isolated and unconnected that you become unemployable.  You bring nothing to the table.  The long-term unemployed are a, if not permanent, at least constant feature of capitalism since 1975.  Publish or perish, becomes “keep moving or perish.”

 

 

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