Friday, February 28, 2014

Neoliberalism as strategy

"The strategic dimension of neoliberal policies has paradoxically been neglected in the standard 'anti-liberal' critique, in as much as from the outset this dimension formed part of a global rationality that has gone unspotted.

"What, precisely, is to be understood by 'strategy'?  In its most common meaning, the term refers to 'the means employed to attain a certain end'.  The turn of the 1970s and 80s undeniably employed a whole range of means to achieve as rapidly as possible certain well-defined objectives (dismantlement of the social state, privatisation of public enterprises, etc.).  In this sense, it is therefore perfectly legitimate to refer to a 'neoliberal strategy'.  By it is to be understood the set of discourses, practices and power apparatuses aiming to establish new political conditions, to alter the rules of economic functioning, to transform social relations in such a way as to attain these objectives.  However, although legitimate, this use of the term 'strategy' could be taken to imply that the objective of generalised competition between enterprises, economies and states was itself developed on the basis of a well-thought-out project, as if it was the subject of a choice just as rational and controlled as the means put at the disposal of the initial objectives.  It is only a short step from this to thinking in terms of a 'conspiracy', which some have quickly taken, especially on the Left.  Instead, it seems to us that the objective of a new regulation through competition did not pre-exist the struggle against the welfare state in which, by turns or simultaneously, intellectual circles, professional groups, and social and political forces engaged, often for different reasons.  The turn began under the pressure of certain conditions, without anyone yet dreaming of a new, world-wide mode of regulation.  Our thesis is that this objective was formed in the course of the confrontation itself; that it imposed itself on very different forces by dint of the logic of the confrontation; and that it thereafter played the role of  a catalyst, offering a rallying point for hitherto relatively scattered forces.  To seek to account for the emergence of the objective on the basis of the conditions of a confrontation that was already underway, we must resort to a different sense of the word 'strategy' - on that does not derive it from the will of a strategist or the intentionality of a subject.  It was precisely this idea of a 'strategy without a subject' or 'without a strategist' that was developed by Foucault.  Taking the example of the strategic objective of moralising the working class in the 1830s, he argued that it produced the bourgeoisie as the agent of its implementation, it being far from the case that the bourgeois class, as a pre-constituted subject, conceived this objective on the basis of an already developed ideology.  What is involved here is thinking a certain 'logic of practices'.  In the first instance, there are practices, often disparate, which employ techniques of power (in the first rank of which are disciplinary techniques); and it is the multiplication and generalisation of such techniques that gradually imparts an overall direction, without anyone being the instigator of this 'push towards a strategic objective'.  There can be no better formulation of the way that competition was constituted as a new global norm on the basis of certain relations between social forces and economic conditions, without having been 'chosen' in premeditated fashion by some 'general staff'.  To bring out the strategic dimension of neoliberal policies is therefore to reveal not only how they result from the selection of certain means (in the first sense of the term 'strategy'), but also the strategic character (in the second sense of the word) of the generalised competition that made it possible to confer overall coherence on those means."

 - Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On a Neoliberal Society, Verso, London & New York, 2013, pp. 148-150.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hegemony begins in the workplace

There's an essay of Gramsci's, on 'Americanism and Fordism', which attempts to draw out what is modern and rational in the cocoon of batshit pseudo-science and moralism that went by the name of Fordism.  

We may think of Fordism as being to do with mass production, high productivity and thus relatively high wages, with Taylorist assembly line methods being used to break down tasks and speed up completion.  This is the image that is most current.  But in fact, it is much more than that.  Fordism is about the political and ideological domination of workers by their employers.  It is about moral regulation and demographic rationalisation.  When the boss doesn't just want to know what you are doing on the shop floor; when the boss wants to know about your family life, your sumptuary propensities, your sexuality, what sort of music you listen to - that is Fordism proper.  That is the Fordism of northern US industries, but also of southern textile towns. 

In this era, the political and ideological domination of bosses in the workplace is a lot more subtle than this, and a lot less to do with hands on regulation of workers' lives.  There are, of course, insidious forms of surveillance and control.  A worker can be fired for tweeting the wrong thing, Facebooking a diss of an annoying manager, blogging a view that brings alleged disrepute to the firm.  But generally speaking, the employer can rest assured that other processes guided by the state will ensure that labour power is reproduced in a satisfactory way.  One way to look at this is to say that the most irrational, paternalistic elements of managerial culture have been expunged, although anyone who pays close attention to managerial doctrine would be hard-pressed to say that pseudo-science has decreased its grip.

Nonetheless, forms of political and ideological domination continue to be very important to the production process.  Forms of ideological domination would include, the accumulation of knowledge of the production process and its careful distribution among only select groups of employees, the maintenance of bureaucracies involved in keeping information on employees and any ongoing issues they have (the HR department in any large corporation), the deployment of professional and occupational ideologies (often in the context of training), and so on.  

Political domination in this context is the way in which workplace authority is exercised, the organisation of the resources in the workplace to secure cooperation, obedience and even consent.  This can take the form of junior managers pulling people up for excessive toilet breaks, at the most trivial level, and disciplinary cases at a more serious level; but it can also take the form of more consensual practices such as workers facilities, incentive payment schemes, scented blocks in the toilets, a small amount of extra tartar sauce for the cafeteria fish-sticks, and so on.  Practices which one might assume to be 'economic' in the sense of being geared toward raising productivity, might also have a more 'political' function in helping consolidate the authority of the managers, ensuring orders are treated as legitimate, and thus preventing breakdowns in the flow of production, union militancy, or at its most extreme, forms of politicised rank and file insurgency.

So, this is an observation about Gramsci's observation that 'hegemony begins in the factory'.  I take this to mean not just that the workplace is the cellular basis from which the fabric of a hegemonic bloc can be constituted, but rather also that the hegemonic practices and strategies that shape the wider society tend to be condensed and reflected in the workplace too.  Hegemony 'begins' in the workplace, but only because the workplace is where the most fundamental social antagonisms that structure the entire social formation are concentrated most visibly.  I think this particular relationship of the workplace to hegemonic domination is actually demonstrated in Mark Rupert's excellent book, Producing Hegemony, about the Fordist system in the post-war United States.  And it occurred to me that this might actually be a more pressing matter than we realise when it comes to class struggles, particularly since the fact of class struggle itself means that such domination can never run smoothly, that it is always something that is having to be constructed, that the preferred mode of domination may be resented or contested not just by workers but by middle managers and so on.

The defeat of UAW in the Volkswagen plant in Chatanooga, Tennessee, cannot be attributed in any simple way to employer opposition.  The bosses have a strong hand if they decided to use their rights to engage in union-busting, precisely because of their established forms of political and ideological domination.  That VW agreed to remain 'neutral', declining to use their strong hand, suggests management were as close as management ever gets to being in favour of unionisation.  This is probably because for a large multinational manufacturing firm, having a union act as a mediator between managers and workers is not necessarily a bad political strategy.  It often improves productivity and efficiency.  

In this case, though, the wider hegemonic strategies of the Right (involving anti-union campaigns, local political elites, GOP politicians, and so on) achieved what management chose not to attempt to achieve, precisely by linking in to opposition within the plant among not just a section of junior management, low-ranking supervisors and so on, but also the better paid, skilled workers.  It was the latter who organised anti-union campaigns inside the plant - sections of the workforce itself, vehemently opposed to any union presence, more so than VW management!  

Union mishandling played a role in this, of which more in a moment.  However, to grasp how they fucked up so badly, it is necessary to see how they were fighting on a terrain that was far more structurally loaded against them than they perhaps realised.  The real question is not why unions fuck up in their bureaucratic, back-room way, but why workers were so available for the Right.  This sort of outcome cries out for a neoliberalism-in-their-souls form of analysis.

Part of the explanation is the fact that VW's hegemonic regime was already working comparatively well.  Wages were relatively 'high', conditions were better than anything most workers in that region were likely to see, the company offered good car deals which is not insignificant, and so on.  The material situation offered spaces in which the Right could insert its narrative - you risk losing these comparative advantages if you sign on with UAW, because UAW will cause the plant to go bust, just like in Detroit, and they'll give away all your money to Democrats while doing so.  There was even a basis for a classic reactionary-populist strategy, since the union had a recent history of making big concessions to employers, and its agreement with management demonstrated a commitment to keeping the company's cost advantages intact: UAW's conniving with management shows that they don't care about ordinary workers the same way that Grover Norquist does.  

But, of course, and this is one place where UAW seem to have gone badly wrong, the Right understood that workplace class struggles condense and reproduce the tendencies of established by struggles outside the workplace.  They mobilised; they sought a 'community' response, in a state disproportionately dominated by Republican-voting white evangelicals, who see unions as an auxiliary of the Democratic Party and thus of gun control and abortions.  The Right fought a battle through popular opinion, mobilising entrenched common sense assumptions in a field of struggle much wider than the workplace or a few media outlets.  UAW, by contrast, seem to have fought a narrow campaign, resisting the urge to get involved in community organising, politicise their campaign, raise 'divisive' issues or talk about anything other than how great their relationship was with VW management.  Their approach to organising was not just bureaucratic and top-down, not just tactically conservative, but actually oblivious of a large part of the fight.  

Hegemony begins in the workplace, alright.  One side won because they understood this; and the other side didn't.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Against Austerity - special offer

You can pre-order a copy of Against Austerity and get it cheaper, and win a signed copy and a bunch of Pluto freebies.


Pluto writes: "Pre-order Richard Seymour's book 'Against Austerity' TODAY! Get it for just £10 (normally £12.99) and the chance to win one of 30 signed copies. See more (#PunAlert) here: http://bit.ly/AgainstAusterity".  To this I'll add the incentive: order TODAY, and I will personally write something lewd and offensive in your copy.  Something so disgusting that only I could have thought of it.  Get cracking.

Disciplining the disabled.

If you can pick up a coin in front of an Atos 'health professional', you're fit for work.  
 
Atos is incentivised and pressured to declare the people it assesses 'fit for work'.  And it does so with striking consistency, regardless of how severely disabled or ill people are.  In the earliest review of statistics back in 2009, it was discovered that of 189,800 assessed, 130,500 were found fit for work.  Four in ten people diagnosed with seriously debilitating illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's have been excluded from disability benefits and forced to seek the meaner employment support allowance.  Cancer patients have been forced to attend 'back-to-work' interviews.

One could go on and on, but by now the injustices of Atos and the disability benefit cuts have been done to death.  The question is, what is all this for?  It is not a medical procedure.  The criteria are not medically informed. 
 
Nor do I believe it is primarily about penny pinching.  Certainly, the sums spent on disability benefits are not insignificant.  The UK budget last year was £694bn.  Of a total welfare budget of £159bn, Disabled Living Allowance amounts to £12.57bn a year, while incapacity benefit amounts to less than £5bn.  Shifting a section of those claimants from incapacity benefits to employment support allowance will save some money, certainly.  But the government could just as easily recoup such sums by other expedients.  
 
Nor is it necessarily about reducing the volume of state activity.  The deployment of Atos, the intensive scrutiny, the constant interviews and reviews, may be outsourced - but ultimately that is just another form of state action, another manifestation of the interpenetration of state and capital particular to neoliberalism.  The same will be true of the entire Department of Work Pensions when they have privatised it.  So, what is really at stake here?  Why is this a priority?

There is a way of answering this question that stresses the moral individualism of neoliberal capitalism, the punitive logic of 'the market', and so on.  Hence, analysts speak of: i) the marketisation of disability provision; ii) moral conditionality of provision, iii) the dichotomy between the needy recipients and those who must be disciplined back to work.  This is okay, but it's quite descriptive.  I think a potentially more productive way into this subject is via the neoliberal concept of ‘human capital’.  The idea that far from being coherent ‘individuals’, we are basically assemblages of different forms of ‘capital’ (physical, cognitive, erotic, etc), which vary between individuals.  These physical or mental assets are seen as forms of capital to the extent that they can be put into circulation to yield an income stream.

'Human capital development', as a supply-side instrument for boosting 'employability', has been a central aspect of UK government employment policy for some time.  This might take the form of, for example, using cognitive behaviour therapy and other techniques to modify and improve the employability of residents in high-unemployment areas.

Now, the government’s policy on disability benefits has always been framed in terms of ‘helping people back into work’, which is seen as more dignified and so on.  Underlying this is the view that disabled people get trapped in a cycle of non-accumulation of human capital because they are locked out of the labour market, and thus can’t get adequate training or education.  The task, therefore, is to find a political technology that can lever them out of this rut and into a working situation, where every incentive compels them to maximise their human capital.  This will, of course, make them find ways to become 'employable' and, so the logic goes, lead to improved income and life chances.

The Atos critera are about doing exactly this.  The use of so-called ‘health professionals’ to drive people off the welfare rolls has caused great consternation.  But it is important to make sense of what these   They are a disciplinary technique designed to disseminate the ‘entrepreneurial’ ethic among the poorest.  
 
And things like this work.  They produce subjectivities that have lasting and politically significant effects.  Consider this piece by John Harris.  Look at the statistics on attitudes to welfare, and how they have changed over the generations.  Note the anecdotes, the interview material.  Not only do people on low incomes blame people on welfare for not having more get-up-and-go, more drive, more will to get out there and make money; people on welfare blame themselves!  
 
If this is effective, it will not be long before you have interviews with disabled or sick employees, who are absurdly working through cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or serious physical pain or impairments.  And they will say of the majority who remain on the increasingly miserly benefits system: “I did it for myself, I don’t see why I have to support a bunch of people who want to lay about on benefits”.