In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

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The rise of the robots is a recurrent theme of popular culture. Robots are often seen as a threat, heralding the prospect of human beings being replaced by their creations, perhaps to the extent of being deemed useless by them and attacked. Underlying this fear is the reality of automation: technology being more adept at particular tasks and so replacing human beings for this purpose. But automation isn’t new. All manner of what we now consider mundane automated tasks were once undertaken by hand, representing whole categories of employment which have now wholly or largely vanished. For instance our phone system no longer relies on switchboard operators and withdrawal of money no longer necessitates interaction with a bank clerk. But technological change has often produced new jobs to replace those that have been lost. Human beings are adaptable. As a 1965 NASA report put it, “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour”. More often than not, technology has been used alongside human beings to improve their productivity, sometimes as a skilled tool and sometimes as a tool for deskilling, taking a skilled task and breaking it into component elements. In fact, some might argue that the history of scientific management, analysing and dictating workflows to improve economic efficiency, somewhat resembles an attempt to turn human beings into machines: replacing their skilled and situational responses with a pattern imposed by outside experts.

But many are arguing that we are on the cusp of a turning point in automation. This is not a matter of hyper-intelligent robots replicating human capacities but rather of quite specific technological advances facilitating entirely new kinds of automation: what Jerry Kaplan describes as synthetic intellects and forged labourers. The first relies on advances in machine learning and cloud computing to process unprecedented quantities of data at speed, facilitating the rapid development of accumulated expertise in a particular sphere without strictly speaking ‘understanding’ it: the machine can learn from a much greater amount of data than was previously the case and the computational challenge involved in doing so can be distributed through the cloud. The second relies on developments in sensor technology to facilitate much more sophisticated engagements with the environment than has ever previously been possible, moving beyond highly specified tasks under strictly defined circumstances, allowing for entirely new work place designs built around the needs of the robot rather than the humans working alongside it. Rather than organising warehouses in a manner comprehensible to human packers, Amazon warehouses can now order their stock in a manner that seems chaotic to workers because items are located on the basis of imperceptible connections between them (e.g. sales data for this region shows that A and B are frequently shipped together) but allow the robot packers to work ever more efficiently:

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One of the most radical developments in the near future is likely to be self-driving cars, such as those currently under development at Google. As Kaplan notes, vehicle accidents cause 4 million injuries and cost over $870 billion annually in the United States alone. Seen in this light, the total switch to self-driving cars looks like common sense. But it will also destroy whole categories of existing jobs upon which millions of people depend, including those such as taxi driver which have traditionally been a reliable open route into the work force for new immigrants in many countries. However this has still up till recently be seen as a matter of automating routine jobs. What has seemingly provoked much of the controversy in recent years is the newfound recognition that what are seen to be skilled jobs will themselves be under threat. The most interesting example of this is Narrative Science’s innovative tools to automatically generate stories from structured datasets. Starting with formulaic business stories, they have since moved into sports stories and make a disturbingly convincing case that with enough sophistication about underlying narrative structures, this process can work for any appropriately structured dataset.

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This might not lead to all journalists losing their jobs but it certainly does suggest the possibility that much of the routine work of journalism might be automated. On the one hand, this could be seen as unproblematic given the financial challenges newspapers and magazines face at present: if it can be done cheaper, couldn’t this help secure journalism’s future? On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the journalistic environment won’t suffer if routine entry level jobs are eliminated. Where will the stars of the future, those with sufficient individual expertise to resist automation, get their start? How will they become known? These are questions which have been raised across range of fields even prior to automation, as competitive pressures advantage those with sufficient financial resources and willingness to work for free. But the prospect of automation is likely to intensify this, ratcheting up the already endemic sense of uncertainty under which much of the workforce already labours.

How are people responding to the uncertainty facing occupational futures? Though the basis for his claims is somewhat unclear, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of this intuitively plausible. He suggests that the spectre of exclusion, the possibility that we won’t make the cut and we will be cast out without hope or prospects, animates a profound need for recognition. We ‘recast ourselves as commodities’ in order to cope under these circumstances, desperately seeking visibility in order to better sell ourselves against a backdrop in which, as the economist Tyler Cowen puts it, average is over. Economic polarisation is becoming the defining feature of the contemporary economy. As Cowen puts it, writing about the United States, “Demand is rising for low-pay, low-skill jobs, and it is rising for high-pay, high-skill jobs, including tech and managerial jobs, but pay is not rising for the jobs in between” (pg 40).

What Bauman is offering constitutes a speculative social psychology of how people respond to this condition of profound polarisation. If we’re aware that opportunities are contracting and that our future security is uncertain then these fears find FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccessexpression in a competitive scramble to ensure we are recognised and valued: as commodities, if not necessarily as persons. He suggests that much social media behaviour can be seen as an expression of this impulse (though many, including myself, would object to generalisations about how people in general behave across social media in general). But I nonetheless think it identifies something interesting about the fame-seeking cultures that can be found across many platforms, even if there’s a tendency to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion” in a way that serves the self-interest of platforms. The growing tendency toFT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork be fascinated with wealthy Vloggers, in virtue of the fact they are wealthy through vlogging, embodies something of this. Does the fact some people have seemingly secured their own future through social media visibility help propagate the sense that this is a viable strategy for many others? By definition there can only be a handful of celebrities on any platform. What we do know is how many young people see their future as determined by forces outside of their control, insusceptible to change through the avenues of work and education that older generations claim is a pathway to success.

Could fame culture thrive alongside this fatalism? People pray that they will ‘be discovered’ while also despairing about a future that seems beyond their control? What Furlong and Cartmel call the ‘epistemological fallacy of late modernity’ is a recipe for anxiety: the precise way in which opportunities constrain individuals has become more obscure than ever in a culture of competitive individualism which increasingly lacks the cultural resources to make sense of classed experience, while individuals are made to feel responsible for their biographical outcomes as pure expressions of their own talent and exertion.

Talent becomes fetishised under these circumstances. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. We can see it in the way that Donald Trump repeatedly proclaims that “I’m, like, a really smart person”, while condemning his rivals as not smart, without explaining what this really means or how it qualifies him for office. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Or to put it more mundanely: “there are plenty of good jobs out there for those who want them, it’s just that people don’t try”. The idea that differential outcomes can be explained away in terms of the moral failings of individuals means we take the existing state of society and the economy for granted: there aren’t questions to be asked about social structures, just more failings to be condemned in individuals. This is something

These are trends we can already see in contemporary society. My depressing question: how might they intensify under circumstances of widespread structural redundancy? What if the low-wage, low-skill jobs into economic polarisation is forcing much of the workforce rapidly begin to vanish? What will happen if 47% of jobs are eventually automated? It’s possible many new categories of job might open up but, as suggested earlier, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the scale and speed of this replacement. Will those who can’t find work be seen as unfortunate victims of unavoidable change or as moral failures placing a burden on the ‘wealth creators’? Will they mobilise themselves to collectively struggle for the transformation of a social order incapable of providing them access to the good life or will they be mobilised by others through potentially surreptitious means to serve the ends of those who are already wealthy and powerful? Popular culture provides us with many dystopian representations of what this might look like. The graphic novel Lazarus paints a bleak picture of a world in which nation states have been superseded by corporations and a small number of families dominate the planet. There are those who serve the families and those who are surplus to their needs, with the former group being composed of those who have been ‘elevated’ from the latter category. The possibility of freedom from insecurity and struggle represents a powerful tool to keep the population in line, coupled with private militaries to enforce this order through violence:

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There are many other dystopian representations of a possible future in which there is little work or security for the majority of the population. However there are also popular representations of worlds in which scarcity has been conquered and everyone’s needs are met: ones in which some people still strive for work and adventure because of the intrinsic rewards that these provide. These are only representations but they are the resources we inevitably draw upon, deliberately or otherwise, when imagining the PRluddites1possibilities ahead of us for how these trends will unfold. Both of these categories however tie utopian or dystopian outcomes to the technology itself: seeing it as either liberating us or rendering us redundant. How does this suppress the role of politics – i.e. the tension and conflict between groups with different interests – in determining the outcome of these processes? Does it also preclude the possibility that our future might see a turn against technology, as something deemed to be responsible for systematic disenfranchisement? Would a neo-luddite movement be possible? Or are people too wedded to their devices? Would powerful interests allow such a movement, given the centrality of technology firms to the contemporary economy and the new possibilities for surveillance and control which the internet opens up? These are all open questions but they’re ones which sociology can help us think through in a systematic way, even if not necessarily answer.

A really interesting article about the current political turmoil taking place in Portugal and its implications for democracy within Europe:

If this “soft coup” stands, taxes, interest rates, public ownership, investments, and economic strategies to control inflation and unemployment—long the battleground for conflicting ideologies—will no longer be issues to be decided democratically. Unelected bodies, like the Troika, will make those decisions, in spite of the fact that many of the Troika’s policies—like austerity—are highly controversial and have an almost unbroken track record of failure.

Democracy is what is at stake in Portugal, and it is a crisis that cuts to the heart of the European Union experiment. Do people still have the right to make decisions about policies that have a profound impact on their lives? Or do they only get to quarrel about the color of park benches?

https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/portugals-democracy-crisis/

The rhetoric seen here is particularly telling, with a responsibility to the markets and a commitment to the European project invoked in order to justify a refusal to accept democratic defeat:

He said: “In 40 years of democracy, no government in Portugal has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces, that is to say forces that campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as to dismantle monetary union and take Portugal out of the euro, in addition to wanting the dissolution of NATO.

“This is the worst moment to radically change the foundations of our democratic regime … Outside the European Union and the euro the future of Portugal would be catastrophic.

“After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets.”

https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/60522

At what point might a soft coup turn into a hard one?

It’s perhaps slightly unfair to use the term ‘eugenecist’ in relation to these remarks. But I’m interested in how the the notion of being ‘smart’ is constructed amongst digital elites, as well as how this might develop into  something much nastier as the broader political climate changes. From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 357:

Musk has talked about having more kids, and it’s on this subject that he delivers some controversial philosophizing vis- à- vis the creator of Beavis and Butt- head. “There’s this point that Mike Judge makes in Idiocracy , which is like smart people, you know, should at least sustain their numbers,” Musk said. “Like, if it’s a negative Darwinian vector, then obviously that’s not a good thing. It should be at least neutral. But if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad, too. I mean, Europe, Japan, Russia, China are all headed for demographic implosion. And the fact of the matter is that basically the wealthier— basically wealth, education, and being secular are all indicative of low birth rate. They all correlate with low birth rate. I’m not saying like only smart people should have kids. I’m just saying that smart people should have kids as well. They should at least maintain— at least be a replacement rate. And the fact of the matter is that I notice that a lot of really smart women have zero or one kid. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s probably not good.’”

This builds upon what I’ve argued is a fetishisation of intelligence within the broader culture. See here for the original clips.

An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.

See below for comments by the Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in this article that are by now rather familiar. This notion can be formulated in many different ways but at root it seeks to redeem ‘free-market capitalism’ by agreeing with leftist critics and disowning the excesses of the last few decades, denouncing them as the result of a perverse corporatism which we now need to overcome:

Instead of blaming capitalism for inequality and environmental degradation, Mackey suggests that we should look at the actions of governments. Departing from the dominant idea that states have retreated from the market over the past three decades, Mackey argues states have become more interventionist than ever, and that in the process they have “fostered a mutant form of capitalism called crony capitalism” that is to blame for many of the problems societies face today. Mackey does not see crony capitalism as “real” capitalism. Instead it is a product of big government in which politicians trying to preserve their cushy jobs develop symbiotic, parasitic relationships with businesspeople too lazy or unimaginative to compete successfully in the marketplace. In Mackey’s story, crony capitalism has been exacerbated by the rising power of the financial sector and shareholder value ideology — the idea that firms are nothing more than a stream of assets designed to maximize profits for shareholders. Mackey argues that this obsession with greed and profits has “robbed most businesses of their ability to engage and connect with people” and has created “long-term systemic problems” that destroy profitability and that can be deeply damaging to people and to the planet. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/free-market-conscious-capitalism-government/

It might be confirmation bias on my part but I feel like I’m seeing this sentiment expressed with ever greater frequency. It becomes sinister when you consider it alongside the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the politics of austerity and the disturbingly post-democratic direction of European politics. Are we seeing the emergence of the cultural formation which will accompany the final and formal subordination of the social democratic state to the market economy?

This powerful essay by Maria Warner in the LRB echoes what I was trying to say yesterday about the perils of passion:

A university is a place where ideas are meant to be freely explored, where independence of thought and the Western ideals of democratic liberty are enshrined. Yet at the same time as we congratulate ourselves on our freedom of expression, we have a situation in which a lecturer cannot speak her mind, universities bring in the police to deal with campus protests, and graduate students cannot write publicly about what is happening (one of my students was told by management to take down the questions she raised on Facebook). Gagging orders may not even be necessary. Silence issues from different causes: from fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame. It is the shame of the battered wife that allows her husband to count on her silence. I recognise, for example, the compunction in the words of Rosalind Gill in her fine article ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neo-Liberal University’.​5 She nearly didn’t write the piece, she says, because she felt that ‘pointing to some of the “injuries” of British academic life had a somewhat obscene quality to it given our enormous privileges relative to most people in most of the world’. She felt ashamed to be complaining about conditions at work because she was in it ‘for the satisfaction, not the money’. The managers count on that feeling – in others, not themselves. Gill recognises that the very sense of specialness that still attaches to the idea of being a teacher or a professor – especially for women, after our late acceptance into the profession and our erratic and precarious progress within it – has stood in our way; or rather, it predisposes us to be agreeable. ‘We therefore need,’ she writes, ‘urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the “myth” of what we thought being an intellectual would be like …) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime.’

Gill is describing an instance of what the American scholar Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. People open themselves to exploitation when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless. Cruel optimism afflicts the colleague who agrees to yet another change of policy in the hope that it will be the last one. The cruel optimism that motivates the colleagues who undertake examining for the REF has grown out of a long, deeply held belief in the value of knowledge and the wish to pass it on – from one person to another, from one generation to the next. Yet university life has depended on this willingness of colleagues to undertake all manner of tasks above and beyond the ordinary job, reading one another’s work, writing recommendations, making nominations, translating, assessing and examining and sitting on councils and external bodies, developing analyses and plans, arranging for this and that conference or lecture or seminar series, without every moment and every act being quantified and calculated. Not everything that is valuable can be measured. But I am talking as if the chief sufferers from cruel optimism are teachers. This is of course not the case; students are above all the victims. The new managers want to pack ’em in and pile ’em high – and then neglect their interests by maltreating their teachers.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n06/marina-warner/learning-my-lesson

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the bookshop in Kings Cross while waiting for the Eurostar and came across this disturbing book:

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Given I was on my way to a much needed holiday, I didn’t buy the book at the time, intrigued though I was by it. I just went on Amazon to finally purchase it and was genuinely surprised to discover that this isn’t the only one:

Product DetailsProduct Details

The author is a psychologist at Oxford who seems to be carving out a media career as Dr. Psychopath. However there are also many other texts with ‘psychopath’ in the title which intrigue me. Many seem to be self-published texts offering advice on avoiding manipulation by ‘psychopaths’. Others are confessional texts of various sorts. Whereas others seem to be popular science books which, I imagine, likely come close to the territory of Kevin Dutton’s books at points.

I just heard these prophetic words from David Cameron on the radio:

if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you

He was talking about schools. But have you ever encountered a purer statement of neoliberal ideology? In practice this demand for excellence amounts to, as Will Davies puts it, “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest“.

An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the  superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.

Do you remember compassionate conservatism? It seemed vacuous when promulgated by George Bush pre-9/11 and even more so when David Cameron was going through his ‘hug a husky’ phase pre-crisis. It still seems vacuous now, at the point of its purported resurgence, though much more interestingly so given the broader ideological context within which an increasing number of influential figures within the Republican party are advocating its embrace as a solution to their growing electoral woes. In essence, it still seems to amount to a matter of ‘how do we get people to like us?’ but I think this question takes on an epochal significance in our current situation. Rather than solely being a matter of professional politics, with conservative modernisers seeking to catch up to their third-way predecessors on the centre-left, it comes to encompass an ideological project to rebuild a constituency for neoliberalism as the old one is coming to shatter (particularly demographically in the US), the spectre of populism looms and the prevailing ethical motif of the Thatcher-Reagan settlement (“a rising tide lifts all boats”) comes to seem like a hollow joke.

In this interesting podcast Bill Moyers debates compassionate conservatism with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Leaving aside the noxious absurdity of hearing the president of a hugely influential think tank backed by the richest people and most powerful corporations in America complain about corporate power in Washington, it’s actually quite interesting to hear what he has to say and to use this as a basis to consider the future contours of ideological debate in the US. The think tank system in effect takes responsibility for road testing ideological constructs and providing the intellectual infrastructure for class politics in the country. So I think it’s important to take seriously what this man has to say, without slipping into a lazy conspiratorial mindset which assumes that just because he says it, it’ll be taken up as an organising motif by the Republican party for the next election. But he’s putting forward an ideational construct and seeking material sponsorship for it.

It’s partly a critique of the left, accusing it of monopolising the debate surrounding poverty while offering non-solutions that only serve to harm the people they purport to help. It’s partly a critique of the right, repudiating the quasi-technocratic discourse of the free market right that his own organisation did more than most to promote in American politics. It’s partly a reiteration of tired and familiar themes that serve to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of contemporary conservatism. However I was struck by how coherently it combined the tropes of compassionate conservatism (we need to take hard working families out of the tax system, enthusiastically supporting the safety net for the ‘truly poor’, invocation of a renewed philanthropy and public spiritedness) with the influential notion of Austrian origin that the problem is that contemporary capitalism is not capitalist enough. It’s not convincing because the coherency is only superficial, necessitating the suppression of the obvious structural link between how capitalist contemporary capitalism actually is and the communitarian values that are being sought, as Moyers astutely observes in the case of the Walton. family. But I find it hard to see another strategy that can sustain a constituency for the Republican party in the medium to long term and voter suppression can only go so far in the face of a changing country in which angry white men are an increasingly particular demographic group. The worrying thing is that the Democratic political machine is sufficiently spineless that, in the absence of someone like Elizabeth Warren running, it’s easy to see how the disciplined advocacy of this neo-neoliberalism could actually rob the opposition of any critical standpoint from which to make a case for even minute social change.

There’s a lot of nice responses to this which have been posted on the Bill Moyers website but this is my favourite. You can read the rest of them here. It probably goes without saying that I disagree with everything Arthur Brooks says, not least of all his appropriation of the Dalai Lama as a free market capitalist. But I’m sufficiently interested to read further. I guess my fear is that the glaring holes in his argument are ones which can only be pointed out on the basis of causal inference e.g. clientism and rent seeking are consequences of the principles he embraces rather than exceptions to them, unemployment is generated in part by the accumulated power he gets paid $700k per year to defend etc. The contemporary media environment makes it hard to make arguments of this sort in a sustained way.

Joel Berg
Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger

“Pure Chutzpah”

People, like Arthur Brooks, who proclaim that money can’t buy happiness usually have both. In 2012, Brooks earned $716,908 in total compensation from his American Enterprise Institute position alone. It’s nice that Brooks says that US poverty and inequality are too high, but, in this interview, he again indicates that he opposes every policy that actually reduces them. His claim that minimum wage increases kill jobs has been factually disproven repeatedly. It would be bad enough if he admitted that he opposes wage hikes because they harm his corporate funders, but it’s pure chutzpah to claim that they harm the people who get higher wages.

I also wonder about the potential alliance between a mainstream compassionate conservatism of this form and a populist radical right. Could the ‘moral reformation’ that Brooks calls for be invoked rhetorically against the radical right at opportune moments while nonetheless serving to solidify a ‘small government’ alliance? Would the Tea Party accept this way of talking? I suspect so if the distinction between welfare dependents and the ‘truly poor’ is drawn carefully enough and the proposed solutions to the plight of the latter are presented as a matter of working towards the remission of state intervention rather than entrenching it. The problem is how you sustain this given the inevitable need for some intervention. Compassionate conservatism would come to look a little implausible if support is withdrawn entirely, with all the social consequences that would ensue from this.

Is my title unfair? Part of me thinks it is but I can’t shake the feeling that this is what HandUp effectively amounts to, even though it probably does have a positive impact on the lives of the adoptees “homeless neighbors in need”. The profiles are crying out for a content analysis – how does one present oneself as a worthy neighbour? I was immediately struck by the visibility of pets and children in the member profiles.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 21.19.17

This documentary by Alex Gibney, director of the Corporation amongst others, takes as its starting point the disjuncture between Park Avenue Manhattan and the other Park Avenue over the river in the Bronx. The former is home to some of the wealthiest people in the country whereas the latter is a site of endemic deprivation:

40 Park Ave, New York City, is home to some of the wealthiest Americans. Across the Harlem River, 10 minutes to the north, is the other Park Avenue in South Bronx, where more than half the population needs food stamps and children are 20 times more likely to be killed. In the last 30 years, inequality has rocketed in the US — the American Dream only applies to those with money to lobby politicians for friendly bills on Capitol Hill. 

It’s a startling and provocative documentary. However I would have enjoyed more reflection both upon how such affluence and poverty can co-exist within the context of the city and the everyday lives of the super-rich. This co-existence has always fascinated me about London, as the only world city I’ve ever lived in or really know to any meaningful extent. It’s also something which is increasingly under threat, as ‘reforms’ of housing benefit look likely to create a situation which even prominent conservatives have described as a ‘social cleansing’ within the city. Given the absence of rent controls (and their continual failure to even enter into debate as a possibility) and soaring house prices, as the global elite desperately seek relatively safe investments, housing benefit paid to those on low incomes has led to far higher payments in London then elsewhere in the country. These effective subsidies to private landlords are now being capped, with the likely implication being a large demographic restructuring of the population of London. But obviously the wealthy denizens who remain still need people to serve them… this perhaps is where the lives of the rich and the poor intersect most in an otherwise divided city. But what are these everyday lives really like? We don’t actually know. But a fascinating project being undertaken by a team from Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE and York is investigating precisely this, as described by Roger Burrows in a post for the LSE Politics Blog:

With few exceptions, the very wealthy have not been examined in any detail; this despite the signal increase in their numbers globally, including in Britain, and widespread popular interest in their (mis)fortunes. There is also the suggestion that the super wealthy are ‘moving away’ from the larger ranks of the professional middle classes, and our project is designed to take forward these concerns in a developed, systematic and substantial way.

The number of individuals who might be considered as ‘super-rich’ can be operationalized in any number of different ways and as part of this project we will examine a range of these. One sensitizing conceptualisation is that offered in a 15-year series of reports by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch. These analyses distinguish between High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and Ultra-HNWIs (UHNWIs). HNWIs are defined as people who hold financial assets in excess of $1million – so this excludes residences, collectables, consumer durables and consumables. In 2010 there were estimated to be some 10.8 million HNWIs globally with wealth totalling $42.7 trillion. UHNWIs – a subset of this group – are defined as those who have financial assets of $30 million or more. In 2009 it was estimated that there were just 78,000 such people across the globe (but holding over one-third of total HNWI wealth). The geographical spread of HNWIs is much as might be expected: 31 per cent in North America; 31 per cent in the Asia-Pacific; 29 per cent in Europe; with the residue located in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

The few empirical social scientific studies of the super-rich that do exist tend to be nested within the long tradition of studies of elites. This is an important literature, which informs our work, but the existing conceptual tool kit that this tradition provides, focused on corporate interlocks and social network closure, needs to be radically re-worked to allow an analysis of the dynamism and complexity of the materially rich metropolitan and globally-oriented class now inhabiting significant sections of global cities like London – home to a disproportionate number of the world’s billionaires.

[…]

In addition to exploring the extent of proactive socio-spatial dis/engagement by the affluent we will also set out to explore the extent and forms of attachment (if any) that wealthy individuals and households have to specific neighbourhoods and urban centres. Do they, for example, develop similar forms of ‘elective belonging’ as spatially mobile members of the middle classes? While the degree to which genuinely super-rich households are ‘footloose’ has often been cited in political debates about inequality and the taxation system, there is little in the way of empirical evidence to help adjudicate on the matter. How important is attachment to neighbourhood in ‘holding’ the rich ‘in place’? This is a significant question if we are to better understand the degree to which the super-rich feel that lifestyle and urban services are substitutable at urban and international levels. Linked to this concern we note the somewhat scant knowledge we currently possess about the links that the contemporary urban rich have with the arts; to galleries and other distinctive service infrastructures – the kind of ‘soft’ attributes of place often identified as influential in attracting a creative and innovative milieu.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/29923

Nothing is as emblematic to me of the long term trajectory of London than One Hyde Park. This once-in-a-life-time investment opportunity offered to the world by Christian and Nick Candy quickly smashed records when its incomprehensibly expensive and gaudily decorated apartments went on the market after years of hype.

But the ownership of the apartments is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Plus the owners are not actually there:

Designed by the architect Lord Richard Rogers, who also designed London’s iconic Lloyd’s building, One Hyde Park has divided Britain. Gary Hersham, managing director of the high-end real-estate agency Beauchamp Estates, says it is “the finest building in England, whether you like the style or you don’t,” while investment banker David Charters, who works in Mayfair, says, “One Hyde Park is a symbol of the times, a symbol of the disconnect. There is almost a sense of ‘the Martians have landed.’ Who are they? Where are they from? What are they doing?” Professor Gavin Stamp, of Cambridge University, an architectural historian, called it “a vulgar symbol of the hegemony of excessive wealth, an over-sized gated community for people with more money than sense, arrogantly plonked down in the heart of London.”

The really curious aspect of One Hyde Park can be appreciated only at night. Walk past the complex then and you notice nearly every window is dark. As John Arlidge wrote in The Sunday Times, “It’s dark. Not just a bit dark—darker, say, than the surrounding buildings—but black dark. Only the odd light is on. . . . Seems like nobody’s home.”

That’s not because the apartments haven’t sold. London land-registry records say that 76 had been by January 2013 for a total of $2.7 billion—but, of these, only 12 were registered in the names of warm-blooded humans, including Christian Candy, in a sixth-floor penthouse. The remaining 64 are held in the names of unfamiliar corporations: three based in London; one, called One Unique L.L.C., in California; and one, Smooth E Co., in Thailand. The other 59—with such names as Giant Bloom International Limited, Rose of Sharon 7 Limited, and Stag Holdings Limited—belong to corporations registered in well-known offshore tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein, and the Isle of Man.

From this we can conclude at least two things with certainty about the tenants of One Hyde Park: they are extremely wealthy, and most of them don’t want you to know who they are and how they got their money.

http://www.vanityfair.com/society/2013/04/mysterious-residents-one-hyde-park-london

Is this the future of the city? Luxurious developments owned by absentee landlords who have purchased them as investments, tended to by an army of service staff bussed in from the periphery of the metropolis. There’s something about the vacated nature of One Hyde Park which grips me (and not in a good way) given this vacuity – in more than one sense – goes hand-in-hand with all the staff on call. As a metaphor for the economic structure of neoliberal capitalism, it’s a grim one which, unless something changes, could become ever more accurate.

Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person.Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

Needless to say, the rise of the Internet has proven a boon for neoliberals; and not just for a certain Randroid element in Silicon Valley that may have become besotted with the doctrine. Chat rooms, online gaming, virtual social networks, and electronic financialization of household budgets have encouraged even the most intellectually challenged to experiment with the new neoliberal personhood. A world where you can virtually switch gender, imagine you can upload your essence separate from your somatic self, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site is a neoliberal playground. The saga of dot.com billionaires, so doted over by the mass media, drives home the lesson that you don’t actually have to produce anything tangible to participate in the global marketplace of the mind.

The Incredible Disappearing Agent has had all sorts of implications for neoliberal political theory. First off, the timeworn conventional complaint that economics is too pigheadedly methodologically individualist does not begin to scratch the neoliberal program. “Individuals” are merely evanescent projects from a neoliberal perspective. Neoliberalism has consequently become a scale-free Theory of Everything: something as small as a gene or as large as a nation-state is equally engaged in entrepreneurial strategic pursuit of advantage, since the “individual” is no longer a privileged ontological platform. Second, there are no more “classes” in the sense of an older political economy, since every individual is both employer and worker simultaneously; in the limit, every man should be his own business firm or corporation; this has proven a powerful tool for disarming whole swathes of older left discourse. It also appropriates an obscure historical development in American legal history—that the corporation is tantamount to personhood—and blows it up to an ontological principle. Third, since property is no longer rooted in labor, as in the Lockean tradition, consequently property rights can be readily reengineered and changed to achieve specific political objectives; one observes this in the area of “intellectual property,” or in a development germane to the crisis, ownership of the algorithms that define and trade obscure complex derivatives, and better, to reduce the formal infrastructure of the marketplace itself to a commodity. Indeed, the recent transformation of stock exchanges into profit-seeking IPOs was a critical neoliberal innovation leading up to the crisis. Classical liberals treated “property” as a sacrosanct bulwark against the state; neoliberals do not. Fourth, it destroys the whole tradition of theories of “interests” as possessing empirical grounding in political thought.

– The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism By Philip Mirowski

Michael Burawoy is president of the International Sociological Association and John Holmwood was recently elected president of the British Sociological Association from June 2012 onwards. In this dialogue recorded at the BSA conference in April 2012, they explore the challenges faced by public sociology in an age of austerity.

Part 1: Neoliberalism

Part 2: Higher Education

Part 3: Future of Sociology


Image courtesy of Kalina Yordanova

Being slightly poorer might actually enrich our lives – Telegraph

How weird is this? I find Janet Daley’s columns morbidly fascinating given that, in a manner not dissimilar to Simon Heffer, she often seems like an unusually clear spokesperson for the neoliberal world view in the broadest sense of the term. So when she begins to write peans to declining living standards, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that a crisis of moral confidence is beginning to set in amongst the ruling class:

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe profoundly in the value of mass prosperity and the ability of free markets to deliver it: the personal freedom, self-determination and dignity that come with financial independence are transforming for individuals and for the societies in which they are generally available. And yet, and yet… through this very independence that comes with relative wealth, something has been lost.

She then goes on a bizarre trip down memory lane, recounting how a lack of affluence in her upbringing went hand-in-hand with solidarity and mutual aid (presumably now absent from her life in exchange for the ‘personal freedom, self-determination and dignity’ that she enjoys as a wealthy columnist and leader writer). Apparently the 1970s were a moral golden age for an ‘impoverished’ British middle class before renewed affluence inflicted a plethora of pathologies on a blighted people. Furthermore traditional working values were mysteriously ‘junked in favour of celebrity culture and materialism’ (as if cultural shifts occur in a vacuum). All in all it sounds like Janet Daley thinks neoliberalism has been a bit shit really, in spite of all the virtues she has spent a career imputing to it. So now, thankfully, we can recognise that ‘there might be a chance to recover something valuable that has been almost forgotten’.

Wow. The article is so weird that it’s almost difficult to know what to make of it (particularly when one reads it in terms of Charles Moore’s admission that he is starting to think the left might actually be right). I’ll have a stab at understanding it though: the rambling weirdness of the article is not a function of Daley’s intellectual vacuity (she is an extremely bright woman) nor ideological incoherence (on the contrary the ex-philosopher is a resolutely consistent advocate of neoliberal doctrine). It’s a sign that the empirical claim on which her entire political framework is founded is finding itself more trenchantly falsified with each passing day. With this comes disorientation, inconsistency and a vague nostalgia for the past – a reassertion of ‘traditional values’, imbued with a moral charge that she herself (possessed of ‘dignity’ and ‘self-determination’) escapes in daily life.

Anyone else get the feeling that the neoliberals are going to get really nasty and moralistic rather than let go of their dogmas?