Posts Tagged ‘class’

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Off to give a talk (on capitalism and climate change) and a guest lecture (on Marxian class analysis). So, no posts until I return. . .

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Ernest0 Laclau was, by all accounts, a decent, gentle man and a path-breaking scholar on the Left.

I first became aware of Laclau in terms of his participation in the famous “modes of production” debate in the 1970s (I was working on my senior thesis at the time, on modes of production in Peruvian history). Later, of course, Laclau shifted his attention to the theory of hegemony, radical democracy, and new social movements (in work with his wife Chantal Mouffe) and then finally to populism.

I met Laclau only a couple of times, most recently at the Rethinking Marxism 2006 conference, where he spoke in a plenary session (along with Ella Shohat and Antonio Callari) on “Imperialism and the Fantasies of Democracy.” He was a member of the international Advisory Board for Rethinking Marxism from its inception.

This is from an interview conducted in 1998:

Ernesto, what were your first political experiences?

Laclau: Well, my first political experiences were in Argentina. In fact, I only went to Europe in 1969. So, my first approach to Marxism, to socialism, took place both in the student movements and in the political struggles of the 1960′s in Argentina. At that moment, these were the years immediately after the Cuban Revolution, when there was a radicalization of the student movement all over Latin America, and I was very active in it. I was a student representative to the Central Council of the University of Buenos Aires, president of the Center of the Student Union of Philosophy. And later on, I joined various left-wing movements in Argentina. Especially, I was part of the leadership of the Socialist Party of the National Left which was very active in Argentina in the 1960′s. In terms of intellectual influences, I must say that I was never a dogmatic Marxist. I always tried to, even in those early days, to mix Marxism with something else. And a major influence at some point became Gramsci and Althusser, who, each of them in a different way, tried to recast Marxism in terms which approached more, the central issues of
contemporary politics.

One of the themes of your early work that’s been quite influential, perhaps, primarily in Latin America, but also more widely, is your analysis of populism. How does that entail a revision of Marxist theory of the time?

Laclau: Well, let me say in the first place, that my interest in populism arose out of the experience of the Peronist movement in Argentina. The 1960′s have been a period in Argentina of rapid radicalization and disintegration of the state apparatuses controlled by an oligarchy which had run the country since 1955. Now, it was perfectly clear, in that context, that when more and more popular demands coalesce around certain political poles, that this process of mass mobilization and mass ideological formation could not be conceived simply in class terms. So, the question of what we call the popular democratic, or national popular interpolation, became central in my preoccupation. Now, in terms of what you were asking me, about in what way this put into question some of the categories of Marxism, I would say that it did so in the sense that popular identities were never conceived as being organized around a class core, but on the contrary, were widely open. They could move in different ideological directions, and they could give a place to movements whose ideological characteristics were not determined from the beginning. So, it put into question in that sense, some of the tenets of classical Marxism.

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Clearly (after reading James Kwak’s review), I’m going to have to include a discussion of Helaine Olen’s book, Pound Foolish, in my ongoing project on the Prosperity Gospel movement.

The underlying problem with financial advice—besides the fact that most of it is wrong, conflicted (in the conflict of interest sense), or covert marketing—is that, even in the best case, it rarely works. The underlying financial problem that most Americans have isn’t that they buy too many lattes or pick the wrong stocks. It’s that they don’t make enough money to begin with, at a time when many necessities like health care and education are getting more expensive. . .

But the big question is why this stuff is so popular. As Olen points out, we haven’t always had a personal finance advice industry, and it’s only recently that financial education has been embraced as the solution to all our problems. One reason, she suggests, is that we live in an age of stagnant real wages and rising inequality. Add that to a culture that fetishizes individualism and rejects government support programs, and you have a market that is ripe for self-proclaimed gurus or self-interested advertising campaigns that claim that you can get ahead by (insert your choice) drinking less coffee, or going into more real estate debt, or buying a variable annuity, or picking the right stocks. The governments (state and federal) that promote financial education are like Marie-Antoinette advising people to eat cake; if they could eat cake in the first place, they wouldn’t need financial education.

Many of the people Olen talked to were too embarrassed by their financial plight to let her use their names in the book. Somehow we ended up blaming ourselves for the fact that we don’t have a decent minimum wage, real national health insurance, subsidized child care that made it easier to hold a job, or long-term unemployment insurance (other than in special circumstances). If we saw individuals’ financial struggles as a political issue—or a class issue—things might be different.

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The surplus-value that is created by workers and appropriated by capitalists is mostly realized as profits by U.S. corporations. But some of it is distributed to individuals, many of them members of the 1 percent.

That’s one way of reading the information about the jobs occupied by members of households in the top 1 percent gathered by the New York Times [ht: eh]. No, not all of their incomes represent cuts of the surplus. As it turns out, lots of school teachers live in households whose incomes place them in the top 1 percent but their salaries don’t (for the most part) represent distributed shares of the surplus.

But lots of others in the top 1 percent do “share in the booty”: managers, lawyers, physicians, chief executives, and those who work in sales and finance. They don’t create the surplus but they do provide conditions of existence whereby the surplus continues to be produced and appropriated. And, in return, they get a cut of the surplus—and, often, membership in the 1 percent.

 

Sam Zell, the billionaire chairman of Equity Group Investments, backed up fellow 1-percenter Tom Perkins, in an interview with Bloomberg.

I guess my feeling is that he’s right. The 1 percent are being pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so. The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.

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You have to give credit to mainstream economists: they’ll do anything to avoid talking about class.

Take the current discussion about inequality. Right now, eyes are clearly focused on two major trends: the share of national income going to the top 1 percent (and therefore the gap between them and the other 99 percent) and the share of profits and wages in national income (and therefore the growing gap between capital and labor). The issues are on the agenda, the data are easily accessible, and the charts are dramatic.

Here’s what the share going to the top 1 percent looks like (from the World Top Incomes Database):

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And here are the profit and wage shares (from FRED, the Economic Research unit of the St. Louis Fed, where blue represents the profit share and red the wage share):

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Clear enough?

But, of course, once you look at inequality through the lens of those two data series, you have to talk about class: about how capital is gaining at the expense of labor, and about how top income earners are getting their share of the surplus created by labor. (There is, of course, a lot more work that needs to be done, in terms of both the data and an analysis of the data, but at least it’s a start.)

Mainstream economists, as it turns out, want us to look elsewhere—not at class but at the effects of anything and everything else. That’s how we get such nonsense as “Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality,” an NBER working paper by Jeremy Greenwood et al.

Has there been an increase in positive assortative mating? Does assortative mating contribute to household income inequality? Data from the United States Census Bureau suggests there has been a rise in assortative mating. Additionally, assortative mating affects household income inequality. In particular, if matching in 2005 between husbands and wives had been random, instead of the pattern observed in the data, then the Gini coefficient would have fallen from the observed 0.43 to 0.34, so that income inequality would be smaller. Thus, assortative mating is important for income inequality. The high level of married female labor-force participation in 2005 is important for this result.

Fortunately, Kevin Drum has showed how silly and misleading their analysis is. At best, assortative marriage patterns might tell us something about changes in the distribution of income between, say, the the middle fifth and the next quintile up. But that’s it.

Even progressive economists can get distracted in this discussion—as for example when Larry Mishel discusses the “tight link” between the minimum wage and inequality. While, yes, a declining real minimum wage can increase the 50-10 wage gap (the difference between the median and the 10th percentile earner) but that’s not the real source of income inequality in the United States. It does tell us something about inequality among wage-earners—and that can undermine labor as a whole, by lowering the floor and thus leaving all wage-earners in a more desperate position. But, again, that’s it.

Better it seems to me to focus our attention on the real sources of inequality in the United States. And that means we have to face the class questions straight on. Anything else is merely a distraction.

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Spring-semester classes are back in session and, once again, class is rearing its ugly head.

Both the New York Times and NBC News [ht: ja] have stories about the sorry plight of adjunct—nontenured, non-tenure-track—professors. Poor pay, no benefits, fundamental insecurity about where and how many courses they’re able to teach. All after having spent years studying for a doctorate in their chosen subjects.

But permit me to challenge the interpretation according to which the class divide we’re talking about is between the minority of full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors and the majority of adjunct professors. Yes, it’s a sorry spectacle when fully employed professors ignore the situation of their adjunct colleagues. Even worse when they hold strongly to a belief in a meritocracy, according to which “adjuncts are lesser versions of themselves.”

The problem is, the real people making the decisions to hire so many adjunct professors and to pay them a pittance in per-course wages are not other professors but the administrators and trustees of the new corporate university. They’re the ones setting the budgets and determining how profitable their nonprofit educational businesses will be. Adjuncts are the low-paid workers who produce the educational commodity the new corporate university—both public and private—is selling.

That’s the real class divide we should be concerned about as, once again, classes resume.

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