Category: Boltanski and Chiapello

False Consciousness

I hope to make this short.  I ended the last post with the expression of Boltanski’s commitment to an “immanent critique,” one that took its terms from the understandings and value commitments displayed by social actors in actual disputes at (within) actual social sites.

“The critical and systematic character of theories of domination, and their frequent claim to know more than actors themselves about the sources of their discontent, has in numerous cases even led their opponents to assimilate them to a kind of madness.  In particular, the analogy has been suggested in connection with a pathology whose description is virtually contemporaneous with the development of critical theories and, more generally, the social sciences: nothing other than paranoia” (Boltanski, 162, fn. 6).

To avoid the charge of madness, the theorist must assemble (call into being if not joining an existing group) a collective that makes similar judgments and indulges in all the practices by which a community constitutes a world-view (or a “reality” to stick to Boltanksi’s idiosyncratic [ha!] usage of that term).

More germane to my purposes: I am completely on board with the effort to never accuse any group of false consciousness, but the left often seems to founder on this particular rock: how to convince those it wants to enlist to its cause of “systematic” or “structural” interpretations of the injustices and exploitation that it regularly (and feelingly) experiences.  The grievances are all there, as is the sense of outrage, of moral indignation.  But the analysis is lacking—or so it would seem.

Boltanksi’s comments on this disconnect are suggestive, even though they don’t offer any good pathway forward.

“One of the characteristics of complex domination effects [such as those established by neoliberalism] is therefore that they offer less purchase to critique than a regime of repression.  Moreover, it is precisely this feature that was stressed in the critical theory and critical sociology of the 1960 and 1970s.  One of the main issues raised by critical sociology of the time was the seemingly more or less passive acceptance of asymmetries by the very people who bore the brunt of them.  It was to answer this question that critical thinking focused on a theory of ideologies and put the theme of belief and illusion at the heart of sociology.  By contrast, one of the contributions of pragmatic sociology has been to show that actors are not abused  . . . and that, as regards everything which concerns real life and the injustices they suffer in everyday life, they harbor no illusions.  But it has also shown that this lucidity does not thereby give actors a sense of having the least purchase on reality” (128-29).

As the New Yorker cartoon portrayed the situation in 2008: the Mafioso thugs sit around lamenting that “the trouble with credit default swaps is you don’t know whose legs to break.” Still, if the claim is that the sources of asymmetries are hidden, the left is still going to need the services of the critical theorist, whose analysis will have to be communicated to (and convince) those passive sufferers (the unemployed, the underemployed, the exploited).  The evidence is pretty compelling that most people do not even know the basic facts about asymmetry.  Survey after survey demonstrates that people wildly underestimate the gap between the very rich and the rest of us.  Call this a knowledge deficit as opposed to “false consciousness,” but it still amounts to lots of people failing to grasp the basic lineaments of the society in which they dwell.

Once in possession of the facts, the next issue is where to attack the structures that produce such inequalities.  Again, lots of evidence exists to show that people fall back on individualistic explanations for inequality.  In particular, they blame themselves (a self-directed instance of blaming the victim) for being unemployed, thus buying into the meritocratic premises of neoliberal apologists, as if 12% unemployment were the product of there being so many more unfit workers in 2009 than there were in 2007.

In addition, where these passive sufferers are moved to action, they tend to focus on remedies rather than on structural changes.  On the right, the remedies include deregulation and anti-immigration measures based on the premise that government interference and immigrant competitors for jobs can be blamed for lack of adequate economic opportunities.  On the left, remedies tend toward government supported jobs programs/trainings and a more progressive tax code.  I hardly mean to say that remedies should be ignored—and the left must fight vigorously for its preferred remedies.

But sticking to remedies means, once again, neglecting a structural analysis and any structural reform.  We are back, in a somewhat different register, to Boltanski’s distinction between pragmatic critique and critical theory.  We seem able to do the pragmatic thing—i.e. propose better ways of working within the current structure, ways that would lessen its inequalities and offer better protections to capitalism’s victims—but unable to get much “purchase” on the structural stuff.  That lack of purchase is not just the difficulty of figuring out how the structure works and where it should be attacked; it is also the difficulty of bringing along the numbers (the sufferers, the potential leftist collective that will save we theorists form the charge of paranoia) to make this structural approach a real presence.  The battle between left and right remedies is currently so heated, and so vital, that moving to the structural level looks like a pipe dream.  And my point is that it involves a lot of work of education, of changing people’s beliefs (or, at least, their habits of thought about the sources of inequality) before we even get to the hard political work of effecting significant structural changes.

To circle back as I conclude:  effecting real structural changes means inventing—or very substantially transforming—institutions.  That’s what Boltanski makes abundantly clear.  Lasting change–the kind that truly alters the conditions within which people live and work, and transforms the outcomes of social interactions—requires institutions that establish “reality” (in Boltanski’s sense of that word), establish the enabling social stabilities that underwrite specific interactions.

And there is not much evidence that “the people” think in these terms or actively desire the transformation of institutions, of basic structures, of “reality.”  Since this revolutionary vision and passion are missing, and because large numbers are misinformed about the basic facts of current economic practices/outcomes/institutions, it is very difficult not to attribute a) false beliefs (“fake news”) to many social agents and b) an overly timid sense of what kinds of political and economic transformations are needed/possible.  Yes, a strong sense of injustice does exist—and is a great starting point.  But getting “purchase” requires more; it requires a strategy that derives from an analysis of how power is currently organized.  And that strategy should entail the creation of new institutions—or, at the very least, substantial transformation of existing institutions.

So now I have written myself into a corner.  Obviously, the task ahead of me is to try to specify what some of those new institutions would be, and how they would function to enable more equitable and just outcomes.  I will try to live up to that challenge in subsequent posts.


Have just finished reading Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Polity, 2011), a terrific book.  Hope to post at least three or four times with comments and thoughts it inspires.

Right now, I want to work through his account of institutions, since I have been complaining for months that the allergy to institutionalization found in contemporary social movements and in Hannah Arendt (as well as in many other places) severely hampers the potential effectiveness of a would-be leftist politics.

Boltanski recognizes that there are many competing definitions of institutions out there.  Boltanski takes a roughly functionalist approach himself (although I am sure he would hate to see it characterized as such).  He accepts the William James (he doesn’t cite James, but he does call himself a pragmatist) notion of our selves embedded in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” the “flux” or the “flow” of time and events that generates the “stream” of consciousness as one perception or thought succeeds another.  Boltanski calls this flux, this onslaught, “the world.”  We can assimilate his notion of “the world” to James’s interest in “the more.”  The world is always more than we can take in; it always exceeds our conceptual and perceptual powers; any picture or representation we might produce of the world will always fall short of fully, completely representing it (we might want to go Heideggerian here and think of the “age of the world picture” but without Heidegger’s insistence that this is a modern pathology).

To survive in the flux, any society must construct some stabilities, some things that can be taken for granted.  Boltanski calls that construction “reality.”  Crucially, reality is necessarily a collective product—and Boltanski’s reasoning for that claim (which he underwrites with an appeal to J. L. Austin’s notion of “felicity”) could be tied back to James’s radical empiricism essays (“How Two Minds Can Know One Thing,” and “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic”) as well as to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a “private language.”  “An institution is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (Boltanski, 75)—i.e. of fixing in place a certain version of “reality” that has a stability and permanence that stands over against the “uncertainty” that characterizes individual existence in the flux.  “That is why the phenomenology of institutions attributes to them as an essential property: their capacity to establish enduring or even, in a sense, eternal entities.  Unlike the individual bodies of those who give them a voice, serve them, or simply live and die in spheres of reality they [institutions] help to cohere and to last, they seem removed from the corruption of time” (75).

The “more” however, the world, insures the ever present possibility of critique.  There is always something (shall we call it the “excluded” as Derrida or Butler would, or the “remainder” in a Bataille sense?) that the current version of reality fails to take into account—and critique will, in the most radical instances, launch itself from the effort to bring that remainder back into the picture.  Reality can be shown to be insufficient to the plenitude of the world.  Reality, a radical critique insists, must be deconstructed because of that insufficiency.

In two senses, then, Boltanksi actually sees critique as dependent on institutions (the two exist in an endless pas de deux that resists any resolution in some Hegelian aufgeheben.)  First, some stability is required for there to be any common language at all, for entities like “nation” and “society” or concepts like “freedom” and “justice” to make enough sense to allow us to argue about them.  If neither social orders nor selves ever cohered enough to be identifiable (to be describable), critique could not get off the ground.  Humans would not be able to speak to one another—or to make any kind of sense of experience. Sociology, in Boltanksi’s view, must always have both a descriptive and a critical mission.  We can generalize this point to any political discourse: it must offer an analysis/account of current political reality and normative judgments about that reality.  It may, also, offer an imaginative (projective) vision of an alternative configuration—but this third leg is not strictly necessary.

Second, critique must always have a target—and that target is the currently prevailing version of reality constructed and preserved by institutions.  Without the work done by institutions, no critique.

How do institutions do that work?  Primarily, in Boltanski’s view, it is semantic work.  Institutions fix the meaning of things, most importantly “the establishment of types” (75).  He adopts the pragmatist emphasis on “situations,” that is, the notion that selves (because of the flow of time) continually find themselves in new settings, faced with different people, different environments, different needs, different demands upon them, different bodily abilities (today I am sick, yesterday I was well; today I am 60, yesterday I was 35).  Novelty and change are constant—and are the source of the “uncertainty” that institutions exist to manage (although without ever achieving complete control; the flow of time and the novelties it introduces cannot be stopped.)

Following Dewey’s account of judgment (although, once more, without any actual nod to Dewey), Boltanski offers a dualistic definition of situation: “The situation is identified, on the one hand, by reference to a certain context in which the action occurs and, on the other, by the meaning given to this context by relating it to a determinate type of action” (69).  Confronted by a novel setting, the individual processes it by judging what kind (or type) of situation this is.  Analogy and similarity—subsuming the singular into a more general set—allows us to escape complete befuddlement.  Judgment moves from the particular to the general: this object is a chair not a sofa; this painting is beautiful; that action is wrong; this context is a lecture not performance art or surgery.  And it does so by constructing (asserting) some kind of similarity between this instance of beauty and other instances of beauty—and so on for the other examples.  Wittgenstein loosened up the requirements for similarity by talking of “family resemblances” as contrasted to shared “essences” (of a Platonic or any other sort).

The work of judgement (as Aristotle and Kant both acknowledged in their own way) is notoriously imprecise.  The rules that might govern judgment are severely under-determinative, especially for aesthetic and moral judgments.  But even scientific and empirical judgments are iffy.  Think of a medical diagnosis.  We say two people have Parkinson’s disease, but the trajectory of their condition and their response (or lack of response) to attempted treatments can vary widely.  Aristotle falls back on “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as the guarantor of good judgment, while Kant (at least for aesthetic judgments) relies on “good taste.”  Such groundings don’t look much better than hand-waving.  And then along come the post-structuralists to insist that every assimilation of the singular to a generalizing category represses all that is not similar, all that is unique and (it is implied) should be cherished.

Institutions exist, then, for Boltanksi to create and maintain the “types,” the categories—a necessarily collective enterprise (both the creation and the maintenance). I can’t unilaterally declare this lecture absurdist theater and expect that judgment to stick—but if I trade on the authority vested in me by an institution (I am a New York Time reporter) or convince a significant of number of people that my naming it so is sound, then that judgment might just hold—or, at least, be taken under serious consideration.  Creativity in the arts and in politics, after all, is very often re-naming something.  You call that a labor contract, I call it exploitation—and the battle is engaged.

Most formally, institutions fix categories (types) by establishing laws—and can enforce their categories with sanctions. (Hence the law distinguishes murder from self-defense, and even distinguishes among first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and the like, specifying the appropriate sanction for each gradation.  Case law then concerns itself with determining—making a judgment—about where in the available general schema does this particular instance of inflicted death belong, a point open—quite obviously in the courtroom setting—to contention.)

Institutions, thus, are powerful; they are sites where power is collected, the power to create and the power to enforce.  There are other sub-legal institutions; a university, for example, cannot legally punish a student for failing to come to class (although truancy laws give elementary schools that kind of legal power) but can sanction them with a bad grade or by refusing to grant them credit.  Professional organizations wield similar kinds of power, as does any institution that controls participation (who gets to participate and who does not) and insists on allegiance to certain shared principles, aims, and definitions, while also arbitrating how particular behavior is to be categorized (as ethical or not for instance, or up to professional standards or not).

It is no wonder, then, that the left is so often allergic to institutionalization—because the left remains terrified of power and temperamentally loath to punish.  (Let me say that a deep distaste for punishment of any kind is deeply ingrained in me.  I have never understood negative reinforcement of even the mildest sorts; my response to it has always been to walk away, with an outraged sense that no one has the right to talk to me or treat me in that way.  I am equally averse to using negative reinforcement myself.  I have always, in my teaching, used praise and exhorting a student to push her talents to the utmost as my mode of feedback.)  The ruthlessness of Communism (with its purges, violent in Russia, but painful enough in the non-violent forms used in the West—read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for one vivid picture) from 1930 to 1956 only heightened the suspicion of institutions which policed membership for many on the left, seeming to reinforce the conviction that when politics strays from the path of anti-institutionalism, only disaster can result.

How do institutions function on the ground?  Boltanski imagines them as sites of justification; they not only establish reality, but also must submit that reality to “tests” that reveal its 1) strength and 2) justice.  Strength tests are about the maintenance of a particular regime of reality against competitors.  So, for example, we can say that the nation-state was the preeminent institutional form from 1660 (or so) until 1945.  But now globalized capital and the rise of international organizations/law have challenged the nation-state’s hegemonic ability to create the common sense of those who live within its territory (my use of Gramscian terms here is deliberate.)  Institutions that are not organized primarily in relation to jurisdiction over a territory have arisen to challenge the nation-state form.  The ability of the nation-state to collect corporate taxes poised against the trans-national corporation’s ability to evade those taxes would count as a test of strength.  If the state fails that test, citizens will begin to question its effectiveness and may look for more effective institutions to serve their needs.  Certainly one central test of strength in today’s world is the contest between the state and the market.

But there are also justificatory tests.  An unchallenged (or mostly unchallenged) institution will conduct what Boltanski calls “tests of truth.”  Such tests are close to tautological; they function to reinforce the already hegemonic common sense (or reality) that the institution exists to maintain.  An example of a test of truth would be the staging of elections that are then taken to demonstrate the democratic nature of the political order.  Democracy is defined in terms of elections while having an election serves to prove one lives in a democracy. Perhaps a virtuous circle, but recognizably a circle. Institutions constantly trumpet examples that demonstrate that the institution is what it says it is, that it is functioning in alignment with its stated purpose and/or ideals.

The first level of critique comes with what Boltanski calls “tests of reality.”  Here the critic criticizes how the “tests of truth” are actually being performed.  Thus, someone who says US elections are not truly democratic because of the influence of money is pointing to the flaws in the test—and calling for a reform of the test such that its enactment would actually prove what it is claimed that it proves.  Criticizing tests in this way can take a variety of forms, but the point is always to show that the existing test does not demonstrate the fact it is claimed to reveal—and to show how a different test would do the job better.  For Boltanksi, such conflicts over tests are everywhere—but they are not radical critiques because they do not question the overall goal or telos.  The ideal of democracy is not questioned, only whether our regime is truly democratic and what exact tests would accurately reveal if the regime is democratic or not.  So these tests are “pragmatic” in the sense that they focus on doing the job at hand better; they do not question whether we should even be invested in doing that job.

Finally, there are existential tests, which do raise those kinds of radical questions about both ideals (goals) and about fundamental structures.  Such critiques, as I have already indicated, rely on a claim about “the world” (existential conditions) in order to question the more limited “reality” that institutions create and maintain.

Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology calls on the sociologist to focus on “disputes,” on actual instances at existing social sites where members of a society disagree about the “tests’ being conducted or about the very ends being pursued.  This move is particularly important because it also entails identifying the norms (as well as the interests) that underlie such disputes.  Boltanski wants to avoid a) importing the norms of critique from outside the existing social sphere; he wants an immanent critique that grows out of the things that current social members evidently care about, as demonstrated by where they take their stand in current disputes and by the kinds of reasons and arguments they proffer in waging those disputes; and b) he wants to avoid any sense that social actors are deluded, are dupes, or exist in some kind of false consciousness.  In taking their stands at various sites and in various contestations, actors demonstrate where their commitments are as well as their understanding (judgments) of the situations in which they are embedded.  Any work of emancipation should begin from—and honor—those commitments and judgments.

And yet . . .

More to say on this topic—but I will leave that for the next post.


Responses to Neoliberalism

To summarize: Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C), like most analysts of neoliberalism, offer a fairly convincing portrait of the changes it has wrought.  Specifically, neoliberalism has 1) reorganized the “firm” and its productive processes, focusing in on the “core” mission or product, while relying on “supply chains” for the delivery of ancillary services (cleaning, payroll etc.) and of needed parts.  The  result is high salaries and (paradoxically) job security (with benefits) for the most mobile and skilled workers—and “contract” positions for the less skilled, whose lack of mobility is exploited.  In short, more and more work is “outsourced” to companies that must compete to get that work by driving down wages. Such “outsourcing” is both domestic and global. Jobs that can be moved to overseas locations where wages are lower are. Jobs like cleaning, health care, social services that must be done on site in the “developed” country are outsourced to service firms.

2) Even as the “firm” gets smaller in terms of its “core” workers, it goes global (or transnational) in order to gain the mobility required to successfully compete.  Globalization means a) hiring labor or contracting with service firms anywhere in the world where costs can be driven down, b) sheltering profits and assets in locales that allow for the evasion of taxes, c) creating credible threats of capital flight and enabling blackmail of governments for “concessions” and “incentives” in return for locating the firm there, and d) continues the relentless search for new markets that has been characteristic of capitalism from the start.

3) B&C note, without giving much emphasis to, the ways in which neoliberalism “commodifies” activities, services, and (can we say) “affects” that were previously deemed private.  Examples would be care of elderly family members or of children (old age homes and day care centers) and love relations (Match, Tinder, Grinder and the rest).  Anything and everything can be monetized.  This feature of neoliberalism can be seen as simply an intensification of capitalism’s in-built need to “grow”—with the invention of new markets along with the more complete exploitation of existing markets a signal “imperative” of capitalism.

4) B&C also note, but say very little about (and this is a fault), the growth of “finance capitalism” within the neoliberal framework.  For Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century, the resort to finance capital (i.e. the move from a reliance on selling actual goods to a reliance on “financial products” as the major source of profit) is a recurrent feature of “mature” capitalist economies.  The finance phase, in his view, marks the “end” of hegemony as capitalism moves its prime site from one locale to another.  In his schema, Italy, then Holland, then Britain, and then the US served as capitalism’s center.  Our current financial era would, thus, mark the end of US dominance and be setting the stage for Chinese hegemony.  Such transitions, in Arrighi’s way of telling the tale, are inevitable because capitalism is never the fully mobile and dispersed entity that B&C appear to think it has become.  Rather, capitalism’s competitive mode means that it combines with nationalism to breed conflict oriented to fighting over which country will be the world’s dominant economic power.  The transition period from one hegemon to the next is particularly violent, so we should expect a very turbulent next 50 years if Arrighi is right.  B&C, on the other hand, appear to expect/accept a transnational financial system, with multinational banks and firms (like Goldman Sachs) presiding over it—banks and firms with no particular location and no significant national loyalties. Thus, B&C are among those who see neoliberalism as marking the decline in power and relevance of the national state.  Capital is more powerful than the state.

5) Finally, B&C argue that the “new spirit” of capitalism, the motivating story that neoliberalism tells in order to win consent and to get people moving, is the by-now familiar one about “human capital.”  It is a story that, if spun right, is about “freedom.”  You, the worker, are no longer tied to a firm or to a job.  You are free to develop your talents and interests, to move from one firm to the next, or even to strike out on your own as an entrepreneur.  You are in control of your own destiny, in a world in which creativity, innovation, daring, and energy are rewarded.  Self-fashioning is the challenge and the thrill.  Lean in.  And just so that won’t seem entirely isolating and asocial, a premium skill to be developed is the ability to work in teams since it is the “network” and “networking” that are the keys to productivity.

B&C are clear that neoliberalism augments suffering.  It creates many more losers than winners, it increases inequality while it shreds the safety net.  It is haunted by the fact that it celebrates the creation of the relationships that are the core of “networks”—and hence the interpersonal skills that leads one to have multiple relationships—while retaining an awareness that “cashing in” on relationships renders the whole notion of such friendships suspect.  Trade mars everything it touches, wrote Thoreau—and neoliberalism is energetically striving to mar everything, to turn everything to account.  Dissidents will lose out, but there do remain refuseniks, those who insist on holding some things aloof from the market.

So what kinds of resistance do B&C imagine?  Here we run up against the paradox that the most radical positions are so often very conservative.  Radicals are all about what has been lost.  (Or, alternatively, we can say that we are facing a crisis of the radical imagination, that the lack of any new ideas is a deep and paralyzing failure.  Radicals are, at least right now and perhaps always, fighting the last war.  B&C do talk about the ways in which the labor movement, in particular, was caught entirely off-guard by the innovations of neoliberalism and, hence, proved powerless to stop them.)  It is certainly true that loss aversion provides a powerful affective tool for radical movements.  It is easier to get people out into the streets to protest something that has been taken away from them than to get them motivated by an image of something they have never had.

So: B&C spend some time talking about “intrinsic value,” basically appealing to a sense that some things—art, love, family, friends, health—should not be commodified.  A rear-guard action if there ever was one. (I don’t mean to sneer here.  Holding some things apart from the market is central to sanity and happiness.  But the issue is how to “politicize” this desire.  Exhortation is not going to do the trick.)

B&C also rely on that old standard: the in-built “contradictions” of capitalism that render it unstable.  They make the usual apocalyptic noises about the coming crisis, that moment when people will just have suffered too much and will do something, they know not what, but something to force some changes.  We know how that story goes.  Capitalism has weathered its contradictions, and the pronouncement of such threats of its inevitable demise, with aplomb for quite some time now.

More convincing is the way in which B&C talk about the need to translate “indignation” into a program.  Here they have something fairly concrete to say.  It goes like this.  Any system has a number of “tests”—which can be best understood as sites of selection where the distribution of goods and rewards is determined.  An obvious example is admission to college or the processes that decide who gets an advertised job.  In order to be deemed just, those subjected to such tests in any given system must believe the tests are “fair.”  That is, the test must actually a) successfully search for the talents/features relevant to the reward in question (i.e. the SAT must be a reasonably accurate indicator of intelligence) and b) only make its judgment on the relevant talent/features (one’s physical appearance or race or religion are not to be considered in deciding admission to college).

Thus, “tests” are crucial sites for conflict within any social system.  They are places where injustices will be identified and where reform (the establishment of tests that are more fair) will concentrate its efforts.  Indignation can be channeled into concrete action when directed toward the critique and reform of “tests.”  Crucially, B&C recognize that tests are formalized into “institutions” and given some bite by being legally installed.  In other words, indignation gains force, an ability to have an impact, when “collectivized” through the establishment/maintenance of institutions and acquiring the power to sanction by being written into law.  “Statutes express what can be established about the position of individuals for a certain length of time and in a certain space, independently of how their interaction with others unfolds at any given moment.  They presuppose reference to something like institutions capable not only of organizing tests that last, in such a way as to stabilize expectations and define their rhythm, but also of exercising an external constraint in the form of obligations and sanctions” (469-70).

The language here is all about restraining mobility, of creating stability and rules that “last.”  Capitalism, in other words, must be held accountable to certain obligations.  It has to deliver certain goods—primarily the satisfaction of the material needs of a whole designated population—in order to be given its legitimacy within the set of laws that enable its existence.  “It remains the case,” B&C write, “that embarking on this road presupposes pretty much abandoning a quest for liberation defined as absolute autonomy, simultaneously free of any interference from others and any form of obligation laid down by an external authority” (470).

We are returned here to the political, to the need for the state.  Capitalism is not going to restrain itself—and it will sing its siren song of liberation, of self-fashioning, of untrammeled freedom, all the while.  For B&C, unions were crucial because they provided a way to focalize indignation—and to use its energy in opposition to the firm.  “The union also has the advantage of providing points of support outside the firm—places for meeting, pooling information and reflecting, for the development of beliefs different from those put forward by employers, work methods, a socialization of means of resistance, training in negotiating—to which an isolated union representative does not have access” (274-5).

Again, we are on familiar ground.  In the absence of unions, the two candidates to take their place are the political party (Lenin continues to stalk the room) and social movements (whether “new” or not).  Neither seems particularly well suited to address workplace tyranny and its many abuses.  Neither is “in” the firm the way a union was.  Still, it would be ahistorical as well as naïve to forget that only the state’s establishment of various labor laws (length of the working day, safety regulations, minimum wage laws, child labor laws etc.) cemented the gains unions fought for.  The union must negotiate with capital—but it also must have the state, with its legal powers, come into the fray at some point.  Law is not utterly fixed, of course, since it is constantly moving in relation to case law.  But law is relatively fixed in relation to capitalism’s endless dynamism—and must be mobilized to constrain capitalism’s restless pursuit of profit.

Finally, all of this resistance to neoliberalism (as to any form of capitalism) must be based, B&C argue, on a theory, an account, of exploitation.  Critique, they insist, does change things.  Capitalism must respond to critique—either by undertaking actual reforms or by “displacement” (which means the establishment of new practices that sidestep the abuses that critique has identified.)  The “social critique” (contrasted to the “artistic critique” in their schema) focuses on issues of justice—and, hence, will tell a story of exploitation.  Basically, that story will indicate those whose efforts, whose contributions, are not adequately rewarded.

What B&C fail to notice is that the justice critique can come in two forms.  The leftist version highlights inequality—and pushes toward the notion that all should be rewarded equally.  In many versions, this becomes the notion that all have a “right” to the basic necessities to lead a flourishing life.  This logic leads current leftists to the idea of a “universal basic income.”  But the rightist version of this critique often takes the form that the “wrong people” are being rewarded.  There is no argument against inequality here.  It is just that I am not being rewarded, while some undeserving other is being rewarded.  Inequality is great; it is just that whites should be the ones on top, not those Jews, immigrants, or blacks who are parasites and squirreling away what is rightfully mine.

Mobility (continued) and Neoliberalism

There is something more than a little fraudulent about the celebration of—and high valuation placed on—mobility, akin to all the nonsense about risk and taking chances that accompany the current vogue of the entrepreneur.  Innovation, like mobility, is almost most fully and effectively activated when underwritten by security.  The dirty secret of the mobile agent’s manipulation of her mobility to command additional income or resources is that she is not paralyzed—or even much threatened by—the threat of becoming redundant in her current place.  Of course, not all mobile actors in the neoliberalism have tenure, but they do have relevant guarantors of income and employment.  Again, this suggests a “real” basis for their mobility, a set of skills, experiences, and achievements on which they can bank.

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C) tell us (pp. 16-17) and elsewhere the demands that a successful “spirit of capitalism” must meet if it is to satisfy people in the way of giving them motivations to participate.  There are four major “demands” for “justification” (and, in their schema, “tests” must be devised to show that the demands are being met.) 1. Demand for justice (a): capitalism must be underwritten by a plausible claim that its processes advance the common good, not just the needs/desires of a particular group (i.e. the capitalists). 2. Demand for justice (b): there must be a plausible account of the inequities capitalism produces, so that those inequities are not seen as the direct (and sole) result of exploitation.  There has to be a story (usually based on merit—which includes talent, effort, educational credentials etc.) about why some people get more than others.  3. Autonomy: there has to be an account of how capitalism is connected to, even productive of, freedom.  That is, how it liberates people from dependencies characteristic of feudalism, paternalism, or traditional societies, and how it opens up pathways to self-fulfillment (choosing one’s own career, developing one’s own talents, pursuing one’s own interests.) 4. Capitalism must explain how it provides basic security, the means toward life for oneself and one’s children.

A good list, even a convincing one, even if (as I have mused before) the ruthless capitalism of 2018 seems hardly bothered to try to justify itself.  Except for the meritocratic arguments for inequality and some half-hearted hand-waving about how the “job creators” enable the common good of a flourishing economy, not much in the way of capitalist apologetics gets much air-time these days.  The threat of unemployment or underemployment does all the heavy lifting these days.  Get with the program—or join the ranks of the “excluded,” whose lives we will make as miserable as possible.

But even someone more sympathetic to the justifications of neoliberalism (justifications that I not only find hard to credit, but which I believe most people take with a full helping of salt), there are very few who would claim that neoliberalism offers security.  Just the opposite.  Our fullest-throated advocates of neoliberalism scorn security as a danger; it produces complacency and nothing is more fatal to economic success than resting on your laurels in an endlessly dynamic process that is only getting faster all the time.  The number of cautionary tales—as Kodak, Blackberry, record companies, and taxis—about businesses that become obsolete are mobilized to dismantle all forms of security, any commitments—to people, places, processes, products—that extend beyond the short term.

One point: it is a lie to say that mobility is won by foregoing security.  Instead, in the tales I win, heads you lose logic of neoliberalism, mobility is rewarded even though it is only the secure who can afford (in every sense of the word) to be mobile.  The ones penalized for not being mobile are also the ones from whom security (in what Hacker and Pierson call “the great risk shift”) has been taken away.

In their emphasis on mobility, B&C stand at a tangent from other accounts of neoliberalism.  The dominant accounts usually emphasize two things:

  1. The increasing colonization of various spheres of activity/life by economic rationales (meant both as the vocabulary used to describe the interactions within those spheres and the rational reorganization of those spheres in the name of efficiency and of “monetizing” them). B&C do devote considerable attention to this feature of neoliberalism.  “Capitalism has thus wrested a freedom of maneuver and commodification it has never previously achieved since, in a world where all differences are admissible, but they are all equivalent precisely as equivalents, nothing is worth protecting from commodification by mere virtue of its existence and everything, accordingly, will be the object of commerce” (466).


  1. The second feature usually identified as crucial to neoliberalism is privatization, its robbery of the common, now put to the service of private profit. Just as the private equity raiders strip the assets of the company’s they purchase, so neoliberalism also plunders public goods, making a profit out of services previously rendered by the state (prisons, sanitation, education, transportation, utilities) while also encroaching on public lands and off-loading to the state the costs of pollution and unemployment.


How are these two features of neoliberalism related, if at all, to the extreme valuation of mobility that B&C place at the center of their analysis?  Surprisingly, they don’t ask this question themselves.  In the first case (of the hegemony of economic logics/discourse over all other modes of organizing activities or articulating values), a tentative connection might be made if the economics stresses the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter famously attributed to capitalism.  In that scenario, to stand still is to court disaster.  You always need to be one step ahead of the pack, dismantling your own operations before a hostile competitor does it for you.  Back to our motto: be mobile or perish.

I think the connection is harder to make in the second instance (privatization).  In fact, privatization is, it seems to me, directly connected to the stationary, the persistent.  Prisons, sanitation, transportation etc. are constants, needs that are always going to be there and which are never exhausted by being satisfied today.  They are needs that must be met again tomorrow.  It is precisely this repetitive and necessary character that made them seem like appropriate services for the state to provide.  And it is their fixed character—both fixed in place (the garbage needs to be picked up here, not somewhere overseas) and in need (the garbage needs picking up this week and next and the week after that)—that make them a safe and attractive target for capitalism (which always claims to love risk and, in fact, hates to put down its chips in any place where the odds aren’t in its favor).

In short, I think B&C are a bit credulous.  They don’t pay enough heed to capitalism’s hypocrisies.  Don’t just look at what capitalism says (in the management manuals that serve as their archive), but also at what it does.

My next post will look at B&C’s proposed responses to the wholesale suffering that capitalism, in its current form, doles out so nonchalantly.


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.”



On Unions

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C hereafter) devote a whole chapter to the decline of labor unions.  Contrary to what I believed, labor unions are, in fact, very weak in France and have been getting weaker steadily since the 1960s.  Their weakness is measured in the steep decline of the number of strike days imposed on capitalist enterprises each year and in rapidly declining membership.

Of course, strikes have become almost non-existent in the US.  France, at least, has a tradition of “general strikes,” i.e. of people taking to the street to protest various government policies.  The French demonstrations have some bite because, unlike American demonstrations, they do not take place on weekends and thus actually—and sometimes seriously—disrupt business as usual.  At the very least, I’d say, you have to have a significant number of workers not showing up for work for a demonstration to have any leverage on either the economic or political powers that be.

In short, only actions that impact the bottom line will garner a response.  Witness the power of a firm like Marriott when it weighs in against discriminatory legislation against gays.  Making such legislation carry an economic cost—as happened in both Arizona and North Carolina—has been just about the only effective strategy against right-wing legislation over the past ten years.

B&C’s question is why the transition to neoliberalism occurred without very much being mounted in the way of resistance.  “Changes in the world of work during this period continued to prompt complaints or indignation.  But the institutions traditionally responsible for transforming complaint—a way of expressing discontent that remains attached to people in their particularity—into a general condemnation and public protest were widely discredited and/or paralysed at the time” (273).

The particular institution that had been dismantled was the union.  I want to dwell for a moment on the general point—and it is my disagreement with Occupy and Hardt/Negri.  Getting people out onto the street via Twitter cannot substitute for having the institutions that will translate that expressed discontent into power that can be brought to bear against the opposing powers that are exploiting people.

It is, of course, an old story in the US, one that dates back to the 1950s (but not to the 1930s): the quiescence of the workers.  Why do they let themselves be mistreated?  It is certainly not that they don’t see the mistreatment.  It is because they don’t see an alternative, a truly effective way to force a change in the conditions of work.

In the 1950s were pretty bad, the 2000s are much worse.  Now there are no strikes at all, and just about no collective bargaining.  Each worker is on his or her own, negotiating for herself in terms of salary, and subject to workplace rules that are simply imposed from above and against which she waives all rights of appeal upon signing the work contract.  In the state employment system in which I oversaw a staff of seven, it was the worst of both worlds for my staff members.  They were constrained by the salary ranges within a job “band” (hence a collectively designated wage), but got none of the benefits of being part of a collective because all of the details of working conditions, as well as the established salaries for each band, were not a product of or subject to collective bargaining.  It was take it or leave it.

B&C give a meticulous account of the multiple causes of deunionization.  The economic causes—subcontracting, the movement to part-time or short-term contracts, rising unemployment,  smaller, integrated (i.e. mixing levels of workers) work teams that had the effect of isolating workers from one another, individualized performance reviews and bonuses that differentiate among workers doing the same jobs—are many and powerful.  Some of them were deliberately adopted to weaken the strength of unions.  Others were driven more by the new management ideas about how to increase productivity.  Others still (like rising unemployment and the downward pressure on wages) could be linked to macro-economic factors beyond any firm’s or even any state’s (simple or obvious) control.

But they also insist on the affective dimension.  Here’s what I take to be the most plausible case to be made along those lines; I am inspired here by B&C but not following them exactly.  My account is more my way of making sense of the transformation.  And here academia seems pretty much in line with the rest of the economic world.  The key is the fairly rigid distinction between permanent employees and those who are non-permanent.  On the one hand, the insiders (those with tenure in the academy, or the essential workers who are central to a firm’s “core mission”) are given a ladder to climb—one that makes it imperative to manage one’s career, to enhance (at every turn) one’s “human capital.”  In the business world, this becomes in B&C’s terms, the “projective” model.  One attaches oneself to successive projects—and networks out from them to the next project.  The workers who show an ability to bring projects to successful completion become highly prized—and efforts are made to “retain” them.  The winners in this contest are those who develop—and show off—rare and valuable skills.

The losers, on the other hand, are those who do something that lots of other people can also do.  They are easily replaceable (given high rates of unemployment) and, thus, need not be retained on long-term contracts.  The firm gains much needed “flexibility” by having workers it can easily let go when economic conditions demand, while it can also save money by outsourcing non-core functions to subcontractors, who (inevitably) pay workers less and offer little to nothing in the way of benefits.  (Of course, the benefits debacle is fairly unique to the US.  Health benefits are not tied to employment elsewhere.)

How does this connect to the decline of unions?  Pretty straightforwardly.  The winners have nothing that the want or could get from a union.  Their leverage against an employer is entirely individual.  They can threaten to take their skills elsewhere—the infamous “outside offer” of academia.  They are their own best advocates—and they are negotiating with the employer for something for themselves, not for any collective, not for colleagues and fellow workers.

Once shorn of these highly prized workers, the winners that the enterprise sees as vital to its success, the union loses much power.  And when the firm outsources to subcontractors (who are, invariably, nonunion shops), the union even loses the workers who would find a union crucial to their interests.  For the lower level workers still left in the firm, their loyalty to the union is undermined by the union’s impotence.  The union has done—and seems incapable of doing—anything for them; it cannot prevent outsourcing and it hasn’t the strength to either win significant wage increases or improved working conditions in negotiations in which management seems to hold all the trump cards.  Instead, the union (where it still exists) negotiates a set of “concessions” that make working conditions and wages worse in order to protect the existence of what jobs still remain.  And going on strike is off the table because the union isn’t strong enough to make a strike actually effective.

No wonder, then, that any affective connection to the union is lost.  All the union has ever done is to agree to “concessions” and it is taking my money while proving spectacularly ineffective in promoting or protecting my interests.

Thus, the decline of unions is easy to understand.  But that decline has had disastrous consequences.  It has left workers utterly naked in the face of neoliberalism.  The obvious question, then, is what institution can provide that crucial transition (that B&C identify) from randomized complaints/discontent to effective transformation of the causes of those complaints?

Frankly, I don’t see any alternative to the state as that institution.  So that’s where I will go in subsequent posts.


The world no longer makes sense to me.  Boltanski and Chiapello (in their superb book, The New Spirit of Capitalism [Verso, 2005]) talk about the need for intelligibility and, crucially, insist that intelligibility, which underwrites motivation, must include some standard of justice.  Only such a standard makes judgment possible, thus creating ways to select between possible courses of action and different assessments of people.  Justice is not the only standard.  Efficiency and profit (cost/benefits analysis) are also standards employed in making decisions.  But pure cynicism is very, very rare.  Some notion of justice always acts as a “constraint” upon efficiency and profit.  Pure greed is not a motive many are willing to embrace—and fewer are willing to publicly announce as their sole purpose.  Crucially, Boltanski and Chiapello insist that the standards of justice provide real and effective brakes on capitalism’s search for profit.  It is not true that anything goes.  Some kind of working compromise—one that is intelligible and deemed legitimate—between justice and capitalist exigencies has to be in place.

Just what compromise exists at any given moment varies.  That is the burden of their book.  The think that we have, since 1990 (or so), entered a new “spirit of capitalism,” a new way of understanding (and internalizing) its justificatory bases.  The justification of capitalism is both the  way it publicly explains itself and the source of personal motivation for individual actors.

And here is where I run into my current trouble.  In terms of the academy, the demand of “publish or perish,” and the assignment of status (among other rewards) on those who publish the most, now seems to me insane.  Society is paying for us (the academics) to fill up libraries with books and journals that are mostly not read and which are incredibly redundant.  The only possible justifications that I can see are: 1. You need to seed the field prodigally in order to get the 2-3% of work that represents real advancements of knowledge.  Research is just inherently a very wasteful process, and we should just accept that fact—although it is one that is almost never acknowledged.  And certainly this justification of the whole academic edifice is never offered in public as the primary one.  2. You need to have all that mediocre research in order that educators remain up to date with the advancement of knowledge in their fields.  Since it is important for the educated (i.e. our students) to know what is the current best knowledge, their teachers have to be au currant.

I really don’t see any other convincing account of the whole research apparatus of the universities.  In my field especially, picking over the carcass of Moby Dick seems particularly pointless—even while having students read Moby Dick still seems to me a very good idea.  Which means we have our priorities exactly backwards, emphasizing the “research” over the teaching.

At the societal level, it seems to me that we have entered an age of cynicism that calls Boltanski and Chiapello’s view of justice as a real constraint overly optimistic.  What has been so discouraging about the past year (from the election through to the efforts to repeal Obama-care and alter the tax code to favor the rich and corporations) is that appeals to justice are simply off the table.  “Winning” is enough justification.  We need to make America “more competitive” and we need to insure that we are economically better off and militarily stronger than every other nation.  This looks like fascism because the average citizen is expected to identify with the nation’s “win” even when no benefits of that winning accrue to him.  It’s sacrifice for the average Joe in order to secure the national victory.

Sure, there is some claptrap about freedom and some gestures toward meritocracy.  But they are so obviously claptrap (how is getting cancer a matter of merit, of failed individual effort?; for that matter, what did the laid-off worker do to deserve her fate?) that no one, in this age of cynicism, is taken in.  Rather, it is sauve qui peut and the devil take the hindmost.  And that’s why the world no longer makes sense to me.  Such naked disregard for others, such straight-forward hostility to any notions of justice or of the common good are, quite simply, incredible.  Especially since people, in their face-to-face interactions, don’t act this way.  Yet they vote for politicians whose cynicism and venery, whose lack of commitment to the people they are supposed to serve, are on vivid display every day.

All the polls show that people want government guaranteed health care, want the rich taxed more heavily, want the “dreamers” granted legal status, want sensible gun control.  But then they vote for representatives who refuse to deliver any of those things.  That makes no sense to me.  I don’t understand this world anymore.