Posts Tagged ‘class’

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There are plenty of reasons to be interested in—and, even more, concerned about—Facebook. Many of them are raised in the recent review of Facebook-related books by John Lanchester [ht: db]: the fragmentation of the polity (via the targeting of posts), the dissemination of “fake news” (which played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election), the undermining of other livelihoods (such as journalism and music), the level of surveillance of users (much more than any national government), the violation of anti-monopoly rules (via individualized pricing), and so on.

All of them are important—and they get at what the Facebook business model is all about:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

That’s right. That’s how the owners of Facebook make their money: they track users, collect information, and then sell that to advertisers.*

But it still doesn’t get at the issue of who works for Facebook, who creates that value, what the class structure of Facebook (and Google and other such companies) is.

Lanchester’s answer is that we, the two billion or so of us who use Facebook, actually work for the social-media giant.

Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company.

In one sense, Lanchester is right: if Facebook users don’t create or repost content and click on and respond to one another’s postings, then Facebook’s business model falls apart. In fact, as Lanchester explains,

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. Two billion monthly active users is a lot of people, and the ‘network effects’ – the scale of the connectivity – are, obviously, extraordinary. But there are other internet companies which connect people on the same scale – Snapchat has 166 million daily users, Twitter 328 million monthly users – and as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

But what I find interesting is the fact that Lanchester can write a longish essay on Facebook and never once mention the word labor—and the only people who seem to be working are Facebook users.

What about Facebook’s employees? As it turns out, Facebook reported a headcount of 18,770 in its first-quarter earnings release (and likely employs more workers, as independent contractors for specific projects). Why don’t we consider them to be the ones who create the value realized by selling space to advertisers and information to others who purchase the data gathered by Facebook? And Facebook employees the ones who are working for and being exploited by Facebook’s board of directors?

When General Motors sells cars, the people who purchase and drive the cars aren’t being exploited; GM workers are. The same is true for other corporations, from Abbott Laboratories to Zoetis (which, along with Facebook, make up the Standard & Poor’s 500, covering about eighty percent of the American equity market by capitalization). They’re employees, not their customers, are the ones who create value and surplus-value.

So, why is Facebook (and, by the same token, other social-media and internet companies) different?

The answer, I think, is our relationship to the commodity being produced and sold is different. We purchase cars—and, if we’re aware of it, we know they’re produced by exploited auto-workers. But in the case of Facebook, we’re not purchasing anything at all, at least directly. We post content to our friends or advertise a business or try to form a community. And then it’s Facebook that collects data about us and sells it—not to us but to others, other corporations. Without our participation, of course, Facebook would not have anything to sell, and therefore no way of making a profit.

And, more generally, we seem to be spending more and more time involved in activities for which we are not remunerated but are essential for the profit-making activities of corporations we don’t work for. We post on social-media sites. We use search engines to navigate the internet. We search for flights. We check-out and bag the commodities we purchase at retail stores. And so on.

But I’m not convinced we’re creating value and subjecting ourselves to class exploitation. We may be performing labor but we’re not working for those corporations. And we are being commodified, and participating in our commodification.

But we’re not working for those corporations. Their employees are—and they’re the ones who are being exploited.

 

*Although, according to a recent report, Facebook may exaggerate the reach of its advertising platform: it claims to reach millions more users among specific age groups in the U.S. than the official census data show reside in the country.

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We’ve long known there is a strong correlation between growing up in poverty and low academic achievement. Thus, for example, children living in poverty tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, lower grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to college.

Now we’re learning that that there is a correlation between poverty and children’s actual brain development.

According to Mike Mariani, the results of studying the “neurocognitive profile” of socioeconomic status and the developing brain are startling. For example, according to one study, kids from poorer, less-educated families tended to have thinner subregions of the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain strongly associated with executive functioning—than better-off kids. Moreover, according to the data from another study:

small increases in family income had a much larger impact on the brains of the poorest children than similar increases among wealthier children. And [Kimberly] Noble’s data also suggested that when a family falls below a certain basic level of income, brain growth drops off precipitously. Children from families making less than $25,000 suffered the most, with 6 percent less brain surface area than peers in families making $150,000 or more.

Noble is one of the pioneers in this area and, in order to go beyond correlation to causality, she’s now proposing a randomized controlled trial of giving some mothers a $333 monthly income supplement or others a $20 monthly income supplement.

I am all in favor of giving cash to members of poor households—as against, for example, taking over poor people’s lives by using brain science to promote more effective “executive function skills” such as “impulse control” and “mental flexibility” of the sort proposed by the Crittenton Women’s Union (pdf).

However, as I see it, there are two problems inherent in the way these new poverty-brain trials are proceeding.

First, the trial that Noble proposes is another instance of the kind of work we’re now seeing in development economics (associated especially with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), which conducts experiments on poor people. One “treatment” group is assigned randomly to receive an intervention, and the other is randomized to receive the “control” experience, enabling the investigators to assess the impact of one intervention or another—in this case, on brain development. In other words, poor people are being used as human guinea pigs to conduct scientific experiments.

What’s the alternative? Set up programs, with the participation of poor people, to analyze the causes and consequences of poverty and identify changes that need to be made in the system in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.

Second, the focus is on the brains of poor children, which in Noble’s language are “at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development to eventually become the three-pound wonder able to perform intellectual feats, whether composing symphonies or solving differential equations.”

What about the brains of rich children—why are they presumed to go through “the paces of normal development”? I’m thinking, for example, of the new psychological research on the “pathologies of the rich,” which involves studies of “social class as culture” and “sharing the marbles.” And, of course, there’s the infamous 2013 manslaughter trial of Ethan Couch, whose defense included a witness saying the teen was a product of “profoundly dysfunctional” parents who gave him too much and never taught him the consequences of his actions.

The issue here is not just the continued existence of obscene poverty, but also grotesque levels of inequality—which affect both poor and rich children, albeit in different ways. In my view, we need to be worried about an economic and social system that generates extreme levels of both poverty and inequality and that alters the brains of all children.

There’s nothing normal not just about the minds of children who are born into such a system, but the system itself.

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As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.

What this means is battles take place not only between political parties, including newly resurgent ones, but also within those parties. Thus, for example, the mainstream of the Democratic Party was and remains wholly committed to a liberal version of neoliberalism, and its inability to respond to the “economic distress”—the class grievances—of large sections of the American working-class led to its loss last November (which means, of course, the battle inside the Democratic Party has become even more intense). Similarly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric—although certainly not his actual economic and social program—galvanized many who were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in Washington. And, of course, the response to those different positions was affected by the framing of the issue of globalization (for example, Trump’s focus on job losses versus Clinton’s call for more education and reskilling), race (Trump’s dog-whistle invoking of the “inner city” and the need to build a wall in contrast to Clinton’s calls for diversity and inclusion), and much else.

But, in contrast to what Edsall sees, the future of the American left does not lie in mimicking Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of France’s National Front. While Macron’s campaign did represent a rejection of the “racialized and xenophobic politics” that served as one of the pillars of Trump’s victory, there is nothing in Macron’s proposed domestic policy reforms that represent anything other than a French version of “left neoliberalism,” and therefore a real threat to the French working-class.

No, we’re going to have to look elsewhere for an alternative common sense.

Espen Hammer suggests we return to the “rocking of the boat” that has been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.

It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.

It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.

Finally, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests that the history of socialism suggests the way forward.

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

As I see it, that conception of socialism—an expansion of democracy that capitalism promises but simply can’t permit—is capable of satisfying both Edsall’s aversion to a “racialized and xenophobic politics” and Hammer’s utopian “rocking of the boat.”

It’s the start of something new precisely because, in Sunkara’s words, it “allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world.”

Update

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Sunkara’s view of the contemporary relevance of socialism, appearing as it did in the New York Times, should invite a backlash reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting and ahistorical analysis that socialists and Marxists were often subjected to during the Cold War. In this case, Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] uses Venezuela as his whipping-boy, decrying the authoritarian elements of the left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, without any mention of the upper-class roots of the contemporary opposition or of the crisis in Venezuelan society (exemplified in El Caracazo, in 1989) and the subsequent election of Chávez a decade later. No, Chait can’t let actual political and historical analysis get in the way of his broad-brush indictment of what he, echoing generations of liberal anticommunists, considers to be “the inherent authoritarianism that is embedded in an illiberal thought system.”

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Chris Dillow writes that an under-appreciated feature of last week’s election in the United Kingdom is that “social class has become less important as an influence upon voting behaviour.” His argument is that, based on Lord Ashcroft’s polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Tony Blair’s Labour got in 1997, and Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working-class.

But there’s another way of looking at the class dimensions of the most recent election—not in terms of who voted but how they voted.

One of the interesting questions in Ashcroft’s exit polls concerns capitalism:

Q.12 Do you think of each of the following as being a force for good, a force for ill, or a mixed-blessing? Please give each one a score between 0 and 10, where 0 means they a very much a force for ill, 10 means it is very much a force for good and 5 means it is a mixed blessing. Capitalism

As it turns out, 61 percent of those who voted Labour consider capitalism at best a mixed-blessing, in contrast to 36 percent of Tory voters. (Green and Scottish National Party voters are even more opposed to capitalism—with 68 and 67 percent, respectively.)

A similar but somewhat less dramatic difference exists between socioeconomic groups (the closest the UK Office for National Statistics gets to classes). Only 44 percent of AB voters (in higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations) consider capitalism a mixed-blessing or worse, as against the 58 of DE voters (in semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations) who hold a negative view of capitalism.*

One possible interpretation of the snap election called by the Theresa May and the governing Conservative Party, then, is it was less a referendum on Brexit and more on capitalism. And on that score, with rising inequality and the threatened cutback in social services for those at the bottom, class still does matter for voters in the United Kingdom.

 

*The one surprising result in Ashcroft’s poll is how little difference there is in terms of age: while 53 percent of voters age 18 to 24 hold a negative view of capitalism, that falls to only 45 percent among voters 65 and over.

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Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

 

*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.

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Finally, after years of near-orgiastic celebrations of the internet of things—including, of course, Jeremy Rifkin’s extravagant claim that it would move us beyond capitalism and usher in the “democratization of economic life”—commentators are beginning to question some of its key assumptions and effects. What they have discovered is that the internet of things is, “in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Nathan Heller, for example, finds that, while the gig economy can make life easier and more financially rewarding for many “creative, affluent professionals,” it often has negative effects on those who do the actual work:

A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.

On top of that, the fact that the so-called sharing economy has become a liberal beacon (including, as Heller makes clear, among many Democratic activists and strategists) has meant the displacing of “commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism” by acts of individual internet-based exchange.

Perhaps even more important (or at least more unexpected and therefore more interesting), Adam Greenfield focuses on the problematic philosophical assumptions embedded in the ideology of the internet of things.

The strongest and most explicit articulation of this ideology in the definition of a smart city has been offered by the house journal of the engineering company Siemens: “Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service … The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

As Greenfield explains, “Every aspect of this argument is questionable,” starting with the idea that everything—from users’ habits to energy consumption— is perfectly knowable.

Because that’s the promise of the internet of things (including the gig economy): that what individuals want and do and how the system itself operates can be correctly monitored and measured—and the resulting information utilized to “provide optimum service.” The presumption is there are no inherent biases in the monitoring and measuring, and no need for collective deliberation about how to solve individual and social problems.

The ideology of the internet of things is shorn of everything we’ve learned about both epistemology (that knowledges are constructed, and different standpoints participate in constructing those knowledges differently) and economic and social life (that the different ways the surplus is produced and distributed affect not only the economy but also the larger social order).

It seems the conventional ways of thinking about the internet of things are merely an extension of mainstream economists’ ways of theorizing the world of commodity exchange, allowing a definite social relation to assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.

That’s where metaphysics and theology leave off and the critique of political economy begins.