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Steve Shiffrin

You've outdone yourself with this one. Terrific post. I will be rereading this one more than once.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


You're once more very generous in your assessment, and I'm grateful. It was funny how I got the idea for this post in my head the other day and had to sit down at the computer and not get up until I finished: I missed meals, my exercise time (I did get around to them in the evening however), and my nap...and Diane said I didn't hear a thing she said to me for several hours.

Michael Duff

A number of things go through my mind as I read your extremely interesting post. I will mention two. I will be meeting the entering class in my law school in just a few short weeks. They will already be infused with the notion of a dual morality for lawyers. Lawyers should do "good" but if their clients insist on "the bad," oh well. The rules allow it (they really don't) and one can't let a fee walk away in these hard times. I rail against all of this, of course, but it is always amazing how much damage has been done ab initio. The second thing I wanted to comment on is the idea of a collective responsibility for getting to where we are. My labor law scholarship has carried me to an uncomfortable place of late. Since I was a much younger person I blamed the judges for making a mockery of labor law. I am only now emerging from that often unilluminating bias and accepting the role that workers in a democratic state play in achieving labor rights (or not). I now think - and my labor colleagues are not happy with the thought - that in many ways the judges have simply reacted to the somnolence of workers. The labor law regime was a balance of powers but one leg of the stool decided to go home. Obviously things are more complicated than that but I have this sense of Alberoni's "Nascent State" receding. Collective responsibility is the touchstone, I agree. But I confess to a sense of mystic resignation on the question of how and why that responsibility is exercised in the form of courage.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Ah, Michael, “the somnolence of workers,” a perfect but painfully true turn of phrase that cries out for explanation. It reminds me of the one part of Dick Flacks’ wonderful book, Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988) that I found troubling. Flacks is not fond of the many “cultural critiques” of American society along the lines made by Erich Fromm, Christopher Lasch, Herbert Marcuse, David Reisman, and others that lamented the manner in which workers accepted the conditions of their labor, however alienating, for the consumptive goods and leisure time they received, and continue to receive, in exchange. To be sure, Flacks notes some of the ways workers have informally blunted or resisted the alienation of their working lives at the workplace through “forms of everyday self-assertion, resistance, and escape,” yet he acknowledges that this does not really transcend or eliminate alienation, only episodically and symbolically soften its effects. Flacks ends up countenancing what Fromm and others could not: “But a more fundamental way of adapting to alienating work is to view it as part of a necessary tradeoff: workers have been willing to exchange lack of meaning and control on the job for the wherewithal to expand their freedom in the nonworking side of life.” While this is no doubt more or less descriptively accurate, Flacks renders it normatively acceptable, as if we should not inquire into the terms and conditions of the Faustian bargain that has been made here. He concedes a measure of truth in the diagnosis of the cultural critics but believes them “dangerously one-sided:”

“Dangerous because they leave us with no way to explain why working and middle-class Americans remain committed to their everyday lives. How can so many commit themselves to an existence so pervaded by boredom, anxiety, absurdity, stultification? Cultural criticism…leads us to think that Americans can only be understood as suffering from some form of mass pathology—e.g., authoritarianism, ‘other-directedness,’ ‘one-dimensionality,’ ‘narcissism.’ Yet if the ‘American character’ is defined by such themes than the prospects for democracy are dim indeed.”

The “pathology of normalcy,” while Fromm’s specific locution, has ancient pedigree as an idea going back to Plato and the Stoics, and is found in one way or another in Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist philosophies, as well as in rabbinic traditions. The hoi polloi, in other words, are not fit to rule themselves collectively unless or until they can rule themselves (at least to some degree) individually, overcome their illusions and delusions through a rigorous apprenticeship in the arts of self-cultivation and individuation, what Confucians would term “heart-mind” training While some ancient thinkers thought the masses were by nature not fit to learn such arts, the Stoics and rabbinic traditions tended to see human nature as open ended, and thus it always remains possible that individuals can develop in ways that prepare them for the rigors of democratic life, that render them capable of collectively governing themselves. Flacks would have us accept the fact that “the consumer package serves as the material basis for a pervasive sense of personal liberty” without questioning the nature or quality of that liberty, exactly what kind of liberty is that? Is it the freedom of temperance or self-fulfillment? of non-attachment or virtuous living? of contentment or eudaimonia? Flacks in effect would have us celebrate the fact that the “suburban home and its built-in technology, the car and the recreation vehicle, the TV and stereo all share a common attribute—they are instruments of individual independence and choice.” One of the founders of the SDS, a sociologist, a lifelong activist and thinker on the Left here sounds like the rational-choice theorist of neo-classical economics! Flacks can live with the fact that “home consumption” is a “primary mode of self-expression,” for it “also provides some deep pleasure, relaxation, and relief.” I won’t belabor the point, but I think Flacks is wrong to make peace with conspicuous consumption, the dream of which tantalizes and hypnotizes the poor and working-class alike, so much so that unemployment and underemployment do not become opportunities to question the nature of the economic system as such, but rather the search for ways to return to the status quo ante. Most workers and middle class folks continue in their heart-of-hearts to defer to the aristocracy of capital, to succumb to the economization of social relations, to be content with indemnification by consumption, even in the throes of economic uncertainty and insecurity: the hope is for a better day…just like if not even better than the one of yesteryear, a day in which one or even two cars does not suffice: one needs the RV, the boat, the motorcycle, and so forth and so on. Ideological explanations for this state of affairs grounded in social-psychological phenomena and mechanisms are necessary at this point, hence the reason why I’ve quoted the following from Jon Elster on several occasions here and elsewhere:

“Marx’s most original contribution to the theory of belief formation was...his idea that economic agents tend to generalize locally valid views into invalid global statements, because of a failure to perceive that causal relations that obtain ceteris paribus may not hold unrestrictedly. For instance, although any worker may be seen as the marginal worker, not all workers can be at the margin. This is a local-global fallacy that leads to cognitive failures, different from yet related to the local-global confusions that lead to failures of action. This is perhaps the most powerful part of the Marxist methodology: the demonstration that in a decentralized economy there spontaneously arises a fallacy of composition with consequences for theory as well as for practice. [….] Outside the factory gate, no one can tell the worker what to do. He can purchase the goods he wants to, within the limits of his wage. He can change employer, within the limits of alternative employment. He may even try to become self-employed or an employer himself, and sometimes succeed. That freedom, while ultimately a danger to capitalism, has useful short-term ideological consequences, since it creates an appearance of independence not only from any particular capitalist, but from capital itself. [….]

Both the freedom to change employer and the freedom to become an employer oneself give rise to ideological illusions that embody the fallacy of composition. The first is the inference from the fact that a given worker is independent of any specific employer to the conclusion that he is free from all employers, that is independent of capital as such, to the conclusion that all workers can achieve such independence. It might look as if the conclusion of the first inference follows validly from the premise of the second, but this is due merely to the word ‘can’ being employed in two different senses. The freedom of the worker to change employer depends, for its realization, mainly on his decision to do so. He ‘can’ do it, having the real ability to do so should he want to. The freedom to move into the capitalist class, by contrast, only can be realized by the worker who is [to quote Marx] an ‘exceedingly clever and shrewd fellow.’ Any worker ‘can’ do it, in the sense of having the formal freedom to do so, but only a few are really able to. Hence the worker possesses the least important of the two freedoms—namely the freedom to change employer—in the strongest sense of these two senses of freedom. He can actually use it should he decide to. Conversely, the more important freedom to move into the capitalist class obtains only in the weaker, more conditional sense: ‘every workman, if he is an exceedingly clever fellow…can possibly be converted into an exploiteur du travail d’autrui.’ Correlatively, the ideological implications of the two freedoms differ. With respect to the first, the ideologically attractive aspect is that the worker is free in the strong sense, while the second has the attraction of making him free with respect to an important freedom. If the two are confused, as they might easily be, the idea could emerge that the worker remains in the working class by choice rather than necessity.” From Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 208 and 211 respectively)

I’ve also called upon the work of Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers in this regard, in particular, the implications that follow from the proposition that the “nature of ‘capitalist democracy’ places structural constraints on both the articulation and satisfaction of interests within the system.” For example, “In a capitalist democracy the exercise of political rights is constrained in two important ways. In the first place, the political rights granted to all citizens, workers among others, are formal or procedural, and not substantive. That is, they do not take into account in their own form and application the inequalities in the distribution of resources, characteristic of capitalism, which decisively affect the exercise of political rights and importantly limit their power of expression. [….] Capitalist democracy also tends to direct the exercise of political rights toward the satisfaction of certain interests. The structuring of political demand, or what we call the ‘demand constraint,’ is crucial to the process of consent. [….] [C]apitalist democracy is in some measure capable of satisfying the interests encouraged by capitalist democracy itself, namely, interests in short-term material gain.”

This “demand constraint” canalizes the articulation of the interests of working people into the exclusive pursuit of economic advantage, in part owing to the ubiquitous conditions of “material uncertainty” for all but the wealthy classes: “There is a characteristic economic rationality to the actions of workers encouraged by capitalism. In the face of material uncertainties arising from continual dependence on the labor market under conditions of the private control of investment, it makes sense for workers to struggle to increase their wages.” See their book, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society (New York: Penguin Books, 1983).

This illustrates several of the more obvious reasons we might conclude that, at present at any rate, it seems highly unlikely that workers will spontaneously awaken to realize the nature of the chains that bind them, chains they unwittingly help to forge: by all appearances they cannot summon the requisite energy or craft the collective tools necessary for critiquing and transcending the system as such.

Michael Duff

Well - except that I am intrigued that the powers that be have decided to "blow up" the conditions that facilitated all that sleeping. The self-satisfied consumption whatever else we may think of it (and I think "pathology of normalcy" works well) must at least be possible to work its magic. I did not say actual- people seem to be willing to hold out for quite a while for the price of mere possibility (and that's what's wrong with Kansas). But I'm telling you I can remember talking about Alan Watts "Wisdom of Insecurity" to cats in South Philly in the early 80s and those guys were like, "I'm going inside where it is air conditioned." They just didn't think they could be touched - and that's good sleeping weather. Those guys don't sound the same now. And I think it is a very dangerous thing -- it is nothing I secretly pine for, certainly -- to take away all avenues of hope. I came from those streets and can attest that something is different. I don't paint it with my technicolor brush for I fear Shiva (though I'm told I shouldn't).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

It certainly is easier to reject affluence AFTER you've had your fill of it, the trouble being that one wonders if we can environmentally afford for everyone (I'm thinking now of all the Chinese entering the middle class) to go through this experience for themselves before rejecting it: perhaps there is no other way.

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