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January 21, 2012 8:42 PM   Subscribe

Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, most of which are held by a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their surplus wage. These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians.
The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie in the London Review of Books.
posted by klue (91 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is ‘a space in which everyone has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system.’
posted by Avenger at 8:54 PM on January 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yep, revolutions start when you start hurting the intellectual class. Robespierre was a lawyer, and so was Lenin.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:07 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


the last line...

we should read them as signs that the capitalist system is no longer capable of self-regulated stability – it threatens, in other words, to run out of control.

...as if it ever was capable of 'self-regulated stability'. NOT very insightful, unless you're Lawrence Summers.

As for the 'consequence of the rise in productivity', the Utopian Sci-Fi prediction was always for less hours for all workers, which if you divided up the work more fairly, you would have. But fewer people are doing more work, beyond any outside-caused productivity increase, for the same or less money. Labour hasn't "priced itself out of the system", it's just lost the ability to compete for resources.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:09 PM on January 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Initial thought is that, while the analysis of the structural significance of his so-called "salaried bourgeoisie" is useful, characterising them in those terms doesn't seem particularly helpful as a tool for understanding what the effect of their protests might be. It (on first glance) seems to me that they are better characterised as privileged proletarians protesting against a loss of privilege, rather than a change in the nature of their relationship to capital. They protest being exposed as proletarians, not being turned into proletarians. This seems to present a clearer picture of the largely reactionary nature of these protests.

Quite interesting though, and worth a closer read, I think.
posted by howfar at 9:19 PM on January 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


Sorry, I stopped reading right here...

How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors

Actually, that's exactly what happened. Was it the best software? No. Was it the lowest price? Not exactly. But it was good enough and cheap enough, and it came at the right time, and that was all that mattered. So, hinging your thesis on the notion that it's somehow possible to impose one's will on a market absent a viable product is akin to believing in magic, and I can't read anything else from this author.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:52 PM on January 21, 2012 [23 favorites]


the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

Yep, everything checks out here.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:55 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't get what 'privatisation of the general intellect' means. I always thought it was due to good software at lower prices, plus being the os on pc clones.
posted by parki at 10:03 PM on January 21, 2012


the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

Doesn't this basically imply the students are either lying or confused about themselves? As I understand it they (and their supporters) do want decent wages in general, irrelevant of whether they attend higher education.
posted by polymodus at 10:12 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yep, revolutions start when you start hurting the intellectual class. Robespierre was a lawyer, and so was Lenin.

Tea Party, Occupy. Commonality? Fighting for white privilege.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:12 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Greece is a special case: in the last decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was created thanks to EU financial help, and the protests were motivated in large part by the threat of an end to this.

Huh. And all this time, I thought that the problem with Greece was tax dodging as a national sport keeping the collective social contract created by the people via their government from being fulfilled without borrowing money, and the protests were a result of Greece's collusion with Goldman Sachs to deceive the EU about the country's actual debt load to trick them into allowing Greece membership, and the subsequent exposure of the lies of the citizenry about their taxes and the lies of the government about the debt causing the true state of national ability to fulfill the social contract to be revealed and said contract to be rescinded.
posted by hippybear at 10:14 PM on January 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


I don't get what 'privatisation of the general intellect' means. I always thought it was due to good software at lower prices, plus being the os on pc clones.

He is saying that Bill Gates personally got rich by taking ownership (or more euphemistically, leadership), of many smart brains that would have otherwise been free/independent agents in the economy.
posted by polymodus at 10:14 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


hinging your thesis on the notion that it's somehow possible to impose one's will on a market absent a viable product

That's not really what he's saying, but if you stopped reading right there (as you say) you would probably have figured that out.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:19 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't get what 'privatisation of the general intellect' means.

It also shifts an important change in the fundamental way our economy works. With intellectual labor surpassing physical labor as the major producer of wealth, the control of intellectual labor and its creative potential becomes the key to control of the economy. Essentially, everyone is becoming work-for-hire.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:25 PM on January 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


As I understand it they (and their supporters) do want decent wages in general, irrelevant of whether they attend higher education.

Sure they do. The point is that what put their butts out on the street is the implicit threat to their own position, what's so hard to understand? There are a lot of things I would like to see changed, but life tends to get in way until someone starts threatening me and mine.

the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege
What the occupy kids are protesting is the evaporation of even that chance of exploitation.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:45 PM on January 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


And if we could suddenly reboot the economy back into 1995, all these protests? Gone. You can even let the 1% keep their current relative share of the pie and all (Not that I think they should). No one would be out in the streets. Look at Egypt: the serious protesting happened when the price of bread skyrocketed.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:50 PM on January 21, 2012


Ironmouth: Tea Party, Occupy. Commonality? Fighting for white privilege.

GROAN
posted by JHarris at 11:21 PM on January 21, 2012 [23 favorites]


Actually, that's exactly what happened. Was it the best software? No. Was it the lowest price? Not exactly. But it was good enough and cheap enough, and it came at the right time, and that was all that mattered. So, hinging your thesis on the notion that it's somehow possible to impose one's will on a market absent a viable product is akin to believing in magic, and I can't read anything else from this author. -- Cool Papa Bell
That's only true if you buy the tautological randian premise that 'the best' is whatever 'makes the most money'. It's also at odds with what everyone knows is the history of software.

The legal fact that Microsoft had a monopoly and extract a monopoly rent was decided by the U.S court system, FFS.

If you want to dismiss people for being correct because they don't share your misconceptions, feel free to do so but I don't know why you should expect anyone else to care.
Ironmouth: "Tea Party, Occupy. Commonality? Fighting for white privilege."

GROAN
Yet a couple months ago Ironmouth was talking about what he thought OWS should be doing differently -- claiming he was on their side. I guess that means Ironmouth is a huge fan of white privilege? WHO KNEW!?
posted by delmoi at 11:26 PM on January 21, 2012 [27 favorites]


He is saying that Bill Gates personally got rich by taking ownership (or more euphemistically, leadership), of many smart brains that would have otherwise been free/independent agents in the economy.

I thought what the article was saying was the "general intellect" was the sum of all the intellectual property we've created, not the minds that came up with the intellectual property. Otherwise, the "appropriating the rent" remark doesn't really make sense—it's not like Microsoft rents its programmers or researchers out for anyone's use in general projects. It would also make sense given what follows in the article: an argument that the shift from a material economy to an information economy has changed the nature of work, and thus of unemployment.
posted by chrominance at 11:34 PM on January 21, 2012


Clear, concise article, with many layers. Thank you for posting this, klue. I would have missed it otherwise.
posted by carping demon at 11:35 PM on January 21, 2012


I read the whole article, line by line. I agree with everything he said, but unfortunately modern capitalists would probably disagree with his conclusion and moreover dismiss his structural theory. After all, police are well embedded within the hierarchy; what does a few protests by students matter?

Sure they do. The point is that what put their butts out on the street is the implicit threat to their own position, what's so hard to understand?

Yeah okay. That's not what the author wrote though, he called it their "main motivation". When I see "motivation", I don't usually think in terms of merely proximate cause or impetus. Guess it's just a diction thing.
posted by polymodus at 11:38 PM on January 21, 2012


I question Zizek's assertion that the managers of capitalism are not the same as the owners; many CEOs and high level executives have significant share holdings, and this is how they make most of their money.
posted by wuwei at 11:50 PM on January 21, 2012


Otherwise, the "appropriating the rent" remark doesn't really make sense—it's not like Microsoft rents its programmers or researchers out for anyone's use in general projects.
Yeah he's talking about the concept of economic rent which drives rent seeking behavior. Copyright and trademark are actually intended to be economic rents granted to promote the creation of artistic works.

Also, this is a really interesting, and important point:
Connected to this is the impasse faced by today’s China: the ideal goal of Deng’s reforms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (since it would form the new ruling class); now, however, China’s leaders are making the painful discovery that capitalism without the settled hierarchy enabled by the existence of a bourgeoisie generates permanent instability. So what path will China take? Former Communists generally are emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism because their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class perfectly fits the tendency of today’s capitalism to become a managerial capitalism without a bourgeoisie – in both cases, as Stalin put it long ago, ‘cadres decide everything.’ (An interesting difference between today’s China and Russia: in Russia, university teachers are ridiculously underpaid – they are de facto already part of the proletariat – while in China they are provided with a comfortable surplus wage to guarantee their docility.)
People don't really think about it much, but with "today's" capitalism, you have one guy running Foxconn, a handful of engineers who build the machines and then thousands of line workers. All the work that had been done by middle class people is now done by computers.
I question Zizek's assertion that the managers of capitalism are not the same as the owners; many CEOs and high level executives have significant share holdings, and this is how they make most of their money.
Only because they are paid In stock. You have someone like Bill Gates or Zuckerburg, who found start-ups who get big, and then on the other hand you have someone like Steve Jobs: Although he founded Apple, he hadn't been with the company for something like 15 years. And before that, he wasn't the CEO.

When he died he was worth 6 billion or so, mostly apple stock. But he didn't start out as a major shareholder when he was rehired. Remember, his USD salary the entire time was $1.

Or the guy who Jobs replaced, (who Ironically was the guy who forced him out) He was someone who was brought in from the outside, and presumably paid in stock and options. as well as cash.
posted by delmoi at 11:57 PM on January 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't get what 'privatisation of the general intellect' means.

The general intellect means the productive capacities of the mind, as opposed to physical labor. Since this is regarded as a commons, privatization means using legal means to take what is commonly owned, putting it in private hands and charging rent to use it.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:59 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't buy that what we're seeing is simply increased competition for less jobs. The proponents of "excess labor" would essentially have to prove a negative: that there really is no need for the vast unemployed masses, that there is no productive or valuable work that they could be doing and that "this time" is really different from all previous dislocations in the labor market. This notion that technology has now reached a point that we don't need X people is old hat -- we've heard this tune many times before and it's always been wrong in retrospect.

Besides there's a much more obvious explanation for the current crisis: there's been a misallocation of capital, really on a world-historical scale, the west blew virtually all of its wealth on terrible "investments." Future generations will look back and simply shake their heads in wonder at how incredibly poorly the surplus was spent. You waste trillions dollars on maintaining a global empire that benefits nobody and likely makes the world less safe? You allow financial companies to capture 40% of all corporate profits? You actively disinvest in your own populations by cutting taxes to the bone and encouraging knowledge aggregators (all corporations really are) to offshore entire sectors of your economy?

Seriously, what did you think would happen?

Capitalism isn't "out of control" -- it's dead. It has failed. But the system didn't fail due to any inherent flaws, really, it was killed. And what's so very funny is that the murderers were the very people who claimed to be its greatest defenders. Over the last 40 years the neoliberals, in their efforts to maximize the "magic of the free market," butchered the goose that laid the golden egg. And the parallel to Communism is immediately obvious: in both cases heavily ideological regimes thought they had The Answer (tm) and the result was malinvestment (though the Austrians are wrong about most everything else) on a catastrophic scale and tremendous human suffering.

Zizek doesn't really appreciate this and so fundamentally he's wrong that capitalism has "turned" on the bourgeoisie. But, more importantly, he's wrong that late capitalism is actually creating any real wealth at all. There is no "surplus wage" because there is no surplus. The West blew its load on bombs and banker bonuses and its doubtful that emerging economies can bootstrap themselves. The vast majority of wealth creation today -- and Microsoft is an excellent example -- are rent seekers that, though various non-productive mechanisms, extract wealth from the population and then, to top it off, spend their ill-gotten gains on nonsense (see the Microsoft Kin) or give it all to a totally undeserving managerial class. (Spend just a few minutes comparing executive compensation to stock returns and this should be very obvious to even the dumbest libertarians.)

So, yes, the system has failed. The people in charge fucked up royally. But they will never admit this and they certainly won't surrender their power. And there is no "fix." You don't fix world paradigms. There's nothing to be done but to throw them all out and give somebody else a shot. The Arabs grasp this: the system cannot "reform" itself, change will never occur from within and so long as the same people have the same jobs you can expect more of the same. Violent revolution is likely the only alternative and I think this is finally starting to sink in, even in America.
posted by nixerman at 12:10 AM on January 22, 2012 [60 favorites]


Tea Party, Occupy. Commonality? Fighting for white privilege.
i didn't see this coming but i sure should have. all the pieces are right there, it's really elegant work. man, i must be getting rusty.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:23 AM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


a new ideal type [of capitalism] is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors.
Nice going, Slavoj. Be sure to mail those royalty checks to Thorstein Veblen and William Whyte.

Capitalism isn't "out of control" -- it's dead. It has failed.

Quick field test - will the majority of food you eat this week come from the store where you bought it with money which you earned from a job, some slight variation on the that, or through some completely different arrangement?
posted by kithrater at 12:49 AM on January 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


An interesting counterpoint in mainstream media's attempts to grasp the complexity of what is currently under transition is this special report on state capitalism by The Economist.
posted by infini at 12:56 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Btw, there is much I still like about Atlas Shrugged, it all boils down to interpretation, which is true for any philosophy. Everyone interprets from their frame of reference and the free market capitalists ended up pushing it to the max. Its not always fun to not be able to discuss concepts with nuance and meaning when everyone's chanting the equivalent of "better dead than red la la la" with their fingers in their ears.
posted by infini at 12:59 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet a couple months ago Ironmouth was talking about what he thought OWS should be doing differently -- claiming he was on their side. I guess that means Ironmouth is a huge fan of white privilege? WHO KNEW!?

Yeah, he was complaining because they talked too much about police abuse, which is clearly a white person topic.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:09 AM on January 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


Hating on Bill Gates and "Micro$oft?" We really did "reboot to 1995" apparently.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:09 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This relates only tangentially to the article, but the mention of Bill Gates along with Atlas Shrugged reminded me of a recent conversation I had about the relationship the capitalism makes between renumeration and "worth."

It was pretty well summarized by (sigh) Thomas Friedman as the "Michael Jordan" principle, although it could also be called the "I don't need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you" principle, if, you know, you're not into the whole brevity thing. Basically, everyone flocks to whoever is at the very top of the heap, so beating out the second-best by even a slim margin yields exponentially greater rewards.

Suppose (for argument's sake) that Microsoft actually did produce the best software, and Bill Gates decided to "go Galt" and abandon the world that sought to parasitize his genius. What kind of world would that leave?

Well, one almost exactly like the one we have. Because the second-best option wasn't really substantially worse, so being left with that wouldn't really make that much difference.

And that, I propose, is why strikes by the "elites" will never work -- because the "sub-elites" are really almost as competent, and the only reason you wouldn't have them doing the job in the first place is that you have the elites who can perform fractionally better. If the elites won't do the job, they're actually pretty easily replaceable.

I feel silly for writing this out, because it seems pretty obvious, but having found that there are people who still take Atlas Shrugged seriously, I had to get it off my chest.
posted by bjrubble at 1:34 AM on January 22, 2012 [31 favorites]


Yep, revolutions start when you start hurting the intellectual class.

Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals
posted by philip-random at 1:45 AM on January 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


strikes by the "elites" will never work -- because the "sub-elites" are really almost as competent,

I'd go one further and say the ” sub elites” are every bit as good and often quite a lot better - the winners are determined far more by things like luck and nepotism than merit, and for every person at the top, a thousand stand ready to fill those boots with just as much competency. (which in many cases, isn't all that much). there are people at the top who are actively toxic bit well embedded. Merit is one factor in who is at the top, but it's not a big one. For every Steve Jobs there are also a George W. Bush.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:06 AM on January 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


bjrubble, I've often wondered what the scope of your 'worth-illusion' situation is and find it particularly interesting. The difference between the sub-elites and elites who may only be marginally better, I believe, is that the 'elites' must devote additional effort and time convincing the sub-sub-elites that they (elites) are better than the sub-elites - and that they are better by the same proportion of which their earnings/respect/wealth are greater, if that makes sense.
posted by hellslinger at 2:08 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


the winners are determined far more by things like luck and nepotism than merit

Yes, and then they use their power to destroy their rivals to maintain their wealth.
posted by mek at 2:10 AM on January 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Which in turn makes them behave more like second handers than true elites (in hte knowledge sense) because the real world comes with more chaotic messy fuzz than her perfect idealized world.
posted by infini at 2:13 AM on January 22, 2012


I question Zizek's assertion that the managers of capitalism are not the same as the owners; many CEOs and high level executives have significant share holdings, and this is how they make most of their money.

Actually this (ownership and management of big companies being in different hands) is one very important feature of today's economy, as opposed to how enterprises were run not too long ago (100, 200 years back). Back then, even big companies were usually run by families. This meant that the company often thrived for a few generations until it was taken over by a generation that grew up in wealth and did not have the drive of the founders, causing the company to go in decline. Francis Fukuyama argues in "Trust" that this is essentially what happened to Wang Computers, when the firm's founder decided to make his (incompetent) son the CEO, instead of relying on non-family management.

The fact that some managers are compensated in stock does not change the general idea of this. Note also that once those stock-holding managers retire, they do not pass on their management positions to their children, as was the case when ownership and management truly coincided.
posted by sour cream at 2:16 AM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let's spend the morning agonizing about our privilege, break for lunch, then violently revolt.
posted by planet at 2:34 AM on January 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


I can't stop reading this as "salad bourgeoisie.'
posted by LMGM at 2:39 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


While I don't entirely disagree, I think ol' Slavoj may be confusing the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed to those of other intellectual workers.
posted by mobunited at 3:17 AM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Besides there's a much more obvious explanation for the current crisis: there's been a misallocation of capital, really on a world-historical scale, the west blew virtually all of its wealth on terrible "investments." Future generations will look back and simply shake their heads in wonder at how incredibly poorly the surplus was spent. You waste trillions dollars on maintaining a global empire that benefits nobody and likely makes the world less safe?
I don't think future generations will really care that much about the financial aspects. They'll probably spend about as much time thinking about this time period as the long depression that preceded the great depression, which we only talk about now because we're in another depression.

The misallocation won't be the problem. They'll look more at the response, why we didn't do stimulus, whatever.

The other thing, if GDP continues to rise, the money won't seem like that much. It's going to be as difficult to calculate the relative value of stuff then as it is to compare today and the 1700s. How much would a car be worth in 1750? What about a cellphone? So how much would a personal humanoid robot servant be worth today? What about your own nuclear powered inter solar-system space ship?

So who knows. I think in the future what people won't understand is all the war and chaos, which will seem insane. At least I hope that will be the case. Beyond that it's impossible to know what the future will find insane. Slave holders probably didn't expect that history would look back on them as monsters.
Capitalism isn't "out of control" -- it's dead. It has failed. But the system didn't fail due to any inherent flaws, really, it was killed. And what's so very funny is that the murderers were the very people who claimed to be its greatest defenders. Over the last 40 years the neoliberals, in their efforts to maximize the "magic of the free market," butchered the goose that laid the golden egg. And the parallel to Communism is immediately obvious: in both cases heavily ideological regimes thought they had The Answer (tm) and the result was malinvestment (though the Austrians are wrong about most everything else) on a catastrophic scale and tremendous human suffering.
That seems really unlikely to me. Obviously capitalism has gotten a self-inflicted wound here, but the system will probably go on for a while. Eventually the economy will recover, or if not it will become the 'new normal'

But what you could be seeing is something like a productivity singularity, where 'productivity' rises more quickly then the benefits from that increased productivity are distributed to the economy. So you have runaway productivity. Kind of like the 'singularity' except instead of becoming immortal cyborgs we just end up unemployed.


Now, If mass unemployment lingers too long in a democracy, people are going to start voting for relief, either jobs or some kind of welfare. Even if people would like a job, if they cant see that happening, they're going to need something else. So I see euro-style socialism as something that could happen in the US.

But what happens in a non-democratic system like China? Obviously they can just suppress anyone who complains. So another option is increased repression and control. Historically capitalism has been tied to democracy, but that was just a 20th century anomaly - and a lot of the 'capitalist' states in the 20th century weren't really that democratic anyway. But china shows how capitalism can survive without democracy, and how it can exist in a repressive regime. In fact, it works even better! so much so that people who want to manufacture electronics elsewhere find they can't.

So anyway, I think with the current corruption in DC it's iffy how things will go. I know it's a mistake to see everything that happens as historic, but I think the SOPA protests are actually going to be somewhat pivotal here. Government censorship of the internet, in order to protect corporate interests was held off. OWS is another important piece of resistance.

But I'm not going to make predictions. I don't think it's actually possible to predict the future, and I think there are many possible futures. But I think that capitalism, as it exists today, and democracy are in conflict, so you're likely to see one 'win', with the other become vestigial or seriously weakened.

(bleh, I'm kind of annoyed by what I wrote. I don't like it when people pretend to know more about the future then they possibly could, and here I am doing the same thing. Let me reiterate I really am not trying to make a prediction, just discuss the conflicts in the current system :P)
Tea Party, Occupy. Commonality? Fighting for white privilege.
i didn't see this coming but i sure should have. all the pieces are right there, it's really elegant work. man, i must be getting rusty.
It's really all about "middle class" privilege, sure. One of the biggest gripes was (is) student loans. But the problem with saying it's about "white privilege" is the implication that only white people are middle class. It's also completely ridiculous to see rich/middle class "liberal" white dudes pull the "race card" and claim that people who diagree with them don't care about minorities while they argue for the status quo.
Yeah, he was complaining because they talked too much about police abuse, which is clearly a white person topic.
Lol.
And that, I propose, is why strikes by the "elites" will never work -- because the "sub-elites" are really almost as competent, and the only reason you wouldn't have them doing the job in the first place is that you have the elites who can perform fractionally better. If the elites won't do the job, they're actually pretty easily replaceable.
In the minds of Rand and her followers, intellect and creative energy are distributed on a massively bimodal curve, as opposed to bell curve. But that's because Rand and her followers are actually on the rump of the curve, not the leading edge.
posted by delmoi at 3:45 AM on January 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


it will become the 'new normal'

I'm placing my bets on the informal economy or systeme D
posted by infini at 3:53 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


But the problem with saying it's about "white privilege" is the implication that only white people are middle class.

The people who are paying for the capitalist collapse in the west are the poor, the sick and the disabled of all colours - in the UK especially. People's lives are becoming nonviable. People could possibly be made homeless. To represent protest about the neoliberal crisis as whining about 'loss of privilege' is hugely insulting to the people who are really taking the knocks.
posted by Summer at 4:21 AM on January 22, 2012 [16 favorites]


This is an interesting article, but as usual with Zizek it's interesting more because of the ideas he finds and throws together from various, mostly unacknowledged sources than because of the characteristically incoherent way he arranges them. And as far as I can tell, when he says that some process is "new" or "happening today" he means that it wasn't around when Marx was writing The 18th Brumaire.

Even then I'm not sure he's right. That "the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege" has been true for many ever since the demise of feudalism. Haven't urban societies always had an underclass rendered unemployable by the fact that no profit can be gained by applying their labour to any legitimate factor of production? Hasn't a threat to the status of some kind of middle class been at least a part cause of most internal revolutions throughout history?

And what is "what effectively ruined the Communist regimes was their inability to accommodate to the new social logic sustained by the information revolution" supposed to mean? How about "Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency"?

It's a shame, because a deep examination of early-21st-Century protest movements in terms of the arbitrariness of social hierarchy and Dupuy's "four procedures" could be fascinating. But it would also take a lot more effort to write.

Beyond that it's impossible to know what the future will find insane.

My guess: the private motor car.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:25 AM on January 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


so wait if it is just about loss of middle class privilege, does that mean everybody can pick up and go home now or what
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:47 AM on January 22, 2012


"We've evolved to like doing the things that need doing, like teaching the young, nursing the sick, cooking, etc. Capitalism is extremely effective at making people do what they don't want to do. As a result, we've creates a society where teachers ad nurses are paid horribly because people want to do that, but adversarial jobs are highly rewarded." (pub chat)
posted by jeffburdges at 5:26 AM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


And if we could suddenly reboot the economy back into 1995, all these protests? Gone.

GDP per capita in real dollars was $27000 in 1995, it is $47000 now. If we were magically reduced to living a 1995 lifestyle, there would be more protests, not less.

we're in another depression.

We are not in a depression.
posted by gjc at 5:48 AM on January 22, 2012


So, yes, the system has failed. The people in charge fucked up royally. But they will never admit this and they certainly won't surrender their power.

The one investment banker I know personally, retired at 40 just before that job title quit having high social status, and just after having "ripped the face off" a couple of mid-west retirement funds.

He surrendered his power to live in a Connecticut estate, spends every day raising his kids at the beach, or the nature preserve that adjoins his property, or maybe just playing in his huge glass atrium.

He knew he had to get while the getting was good, and he knew that his position of power was not sustainable. He dabbles in complicated futures trades for fun sometimes, but only when he sees situation he can take advantage of.

He doesn't feel bad about it, after all, those above him took astronomically more. Now he spends it to give his kids, and, yes, himself and his wife, a good life.

He would readily admit that the system was failing, long before it became apparent. He clearly stated his plans to surrender power in the near future, and that's what he did.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:17 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


All the protests go away if you increase the demand for labor by reducing the work week and eliminating most FLSA "duties" exemptions. I'd personally rather the politicians acquiesce by putting greater restriction upon the financial world first, but hey.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:18 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


so wait if it is just about loss of middle class privilege, does that mean everybody can pick up and go home now or what

Žižek is fairly clearly talking about particular strike actions by public sector workers in the UK. He even mentions Occupy, the Arab Spring etc as separate cases to be assessed on their own merits.

"it is clear that the huge revival of protest over the past year, from the Arab Spring to Western Europe, from Occupy Wall Street to China, from Spain to Greece, should not be dismissed merely as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie."

However, his account, as A Thousand Baited Hooks suggests above, seems to be impaired by a weird ahistoricity in one who describes himself as a dialectical-materialist. Phenomena of this type are not particularly novel, and merely acknowledging and (mis?)characterising them is really not sufficient treatment.
posted by howfar at 6:26 AM on January 22, 2012


the notion that it's somehow possible to impose one's will on a market absent a viable product is akin to believing in magic

SOPA, I rest my case.
posted by DU at 6:36 AM on January 22, 2012


He doesn't feel bad about it, after all, those above him took astronomically more.

I am consistently amazed that a super predator hasn't come out of this.

You have a group of people who are unemployed and lost what savings they had. What better way to while away the day than trophy hunting investment bankers? I mean, exactly what else have you got to lose?

All of the numbers and projections maintain a certain abstractness until you are face to face with a retiree wanting a clear explanation as to what went wrong.

There's a lot of them now. And they are less than pleased.
posted by quintessencesluglord at 6:42 AM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Quick field test - will the majority of food you eat this week come from the store where you bought it with money which you earned from a job, some slight variation on the that, or through some completely different arrangement?

Different arrangement.

We are not in a depression.

Shit I guess I must have missed that. Thanks for letting me know but you should let the rest of the economy know to start hiring now.
posted by fuq at 6:52 AM on January 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


i wish i could read a zizek article without hearing his voice in my head - it's distracting
posted by facetious at 7:40 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for letting me know but you should let the rest of the economy know to start hiring now.

Not sure which country your in, but in the US, private sector hiring has been pretty robust for quite a while now. If the Republicans hadn't been given control of the House in 2010 and we'd consequently had some version of a second stimulus package providing support for Federal and State hiring we'd be looking at a very strong jobs recovery by now.
posted by yoink at 7:41 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not sure which country your in, but in the US, private sector hiring has been pretty robust for quite a while now. If the Republicans hadn't been given control of the House in 2010 and we'd consequently had some version of a second stimulus package providing support for Federal and State hiring we'd be looking at a very strong jobs recovery by now.

Well, even if the most recent numbers (for December 2011) are correct, and they may not be because many months get revised downward later, the 325,000 job increase shown during that month is a far cry from the 750,000 jobs our economy was shedding during the collapse. Not even being half the lost number for a single month, we'd have to see over 2 months of continual growth of that sort for every month of job losses we suffered.

Given that December is also the time for seasonal hiring for the holiday retail season, the chances are that a certain percentage of those jobs don't exist anymore.

Anyway, your caveat about a second stimulus package comes from an alternate universe and not the reality we're living in. The facts are, unemployment is still at 8.5%, which puts us at Feb 2009 levels, about a year into the collapse. Even disallowing for new workers coming into the marketplace, we'll have to maintain Dec 2011 job creation levels until something around May of 2014 before we've made up for what we've lost. Add in the new workers, and we're looking at 2015 sometime, for certain.

And that's only going to happen if Europe manages to keep their shit together. If that falls apart, we'll go down with them for sure.
posted by hippybear at 8:15 AM on January 22, 2012


Not sure which country your in, but in the US, private sector hiring has been pretty robust for quite a while now.

Yeah, I'm just living in the past or work in the public sector or law or need a living wage. But yeah, there is more hiring going on now. Not sure where you get your facts, "robust" is a little delusional, but you are overall correct and I am wrong about unemployment going down a few promising fractions of a percent.
posted by fuq at 8:15 AM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


But seriously now that I've got a better grip on Lacan I'm digging Zizek's books. They're like Neal Stevenson if he'd stop trying to tell pulpy stories and drops the psuedo-intellectualism for professional philosophy and has a neckbeard and ADD.

I've even started to appreciate the way that he writes, which is to say, I've abandoned the notion that ideas should be put into a structure or order. The effect is that I suggest reading his books on google books because if pages are removed from his books it doesn't matter.
posted by fuq at 8:23 AM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not sure which country your in, but in the US, private sector hiring has been pretty robust for quite a while now.

not even close...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:25 AM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The information revolution is actually undermining private holdings of knowledge. Sure, Gates and Jobs were able to exploit a window of opportunity; but, in general, knowledge is more and more generally accessible. It is almost impossible to maintain any kind of knowledge advantage. It is this that destabilizes the capitalist system more than anything else.
posted by No Robots at 8:34 AM on January 22, 2012


"All that work that had been done by middle class people is now done by computers"

And in a weird sort of technological stockholm syndrome, many of those middle class people are now trying to digitize as much of their lives as possible. God damn computation devicin' took my job, Ima make a lolcat and let some of this angst out. Ah, good old computer. crap!
posted by notesondismantling at 8:41 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


He is saying that Bill Gates personally got rich by taking ownership (or more euphemistically, leadership), of many smart brains that would have otherwise been free/independent agents in the economy

And here I was thinking that Bill, the product of 2 lawyers breeding understood the law.

Thus was able to "capture" BASIC because he was under the age to agree to a contract when he 'contracted' with a professor to inplement the professor's idea.
Thus was able to "capture" the re-implementation of CP/M called QD-DOS.
(and the list goes on and on)
posted by rough ashlar at 8:43 AM on January 22, 2012


And that, I propose, is why strikes by the "elites" will never work -- because the "sub-elites" are really almost as competent, and the only reason you wouldn't have them doing the job in the first place is that you have the elites who can perform fractionally better. If the elites won't do the job, they're actually pretty easily replaceable.

This is how some grad schools work. They are fueled by F-1 visas. The cost lies in acclimatizing foreign students to the culture, and otherwise they are as hardworking, if not more so, than the native smarts that decided not to pursue advanced degrees in S/T/E/M.
posted by polymodus at 9:27 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've abandoned the notion that ideas should be put into a structure or order.

Wow, yeah that partly explains why I found this article so hard to read.
posted by polymodus at 9:30 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


in metafilter bingo, "Capitalism Has Failed, Cries Slavoj Žižek" is the on the right, second row from the bottom.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 9:41 AM on January 22, 2012


Ah yes, the surplus wage. I've posted this before, but as a kid, I loved this book about the future. It claimed that in the year 2010...
Wherever people work—in a factory or at home, or whatever else their job might be—they will work for only three days a week. The rest of the week they can do what they like. They can play football, learn a language, or train for a new job.
Presumably because, as a society, we would be ok sharing the benefit of automation and efficiency to everyone. Instead, we're just going to have a lot of people with no jobs at all and more wealth collecting hands of fewer people.
posted by the jam at 9:41 AM on January 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


That seems really unlikely to me. Obviously capitalism has gotten a self-inflicted wound here, but the system will probably go on for a while. Eventually the economy will recover, or if not it will become the 'new normal'

Communism failed in the 70s but still managed to limp along for 20 years. And realistically I don't think anybody really believes that the market of the last three years, whose behavior is almost wholly determined by central bank intervention, is in any way free. The era of free markets is already over, it ended with Lehman.

That said the problems are fixable. Growth does trump everything and the developed world could grow again, it's just that the policies now required to produce such growth (debt relief, breaking up the big banks, domestic investment) are anathema to the elite. They do not possess the courage to resolve the current crisis and so they will keep on doing what they do best until the system truly enters a failure mode from which it cannot recover.

But what you could be seeing is something like a productivity singularity, where 'productivity' rises more quickly then the benefits from that increased productivity are distributed to the economy. So you have runaway productivity. Kind of like the 'singularity' except instead of becoming immortal cyborgs we just end up unemployed.

Again, the notion of "peak productivity" doesn't make much sense to me. In the abstract it's not clear what such an event would mean and it's certainly not clear how it applies to today's economy. There's still plenty of productive work to be done and the mass unemployment we see on a global scale, just like the mass hunger, is almost certainly a political phenomenon. (I might even go further and say it's a problem specifically of monetary policy. Though in Europe at least it's clear that the core has effectively colonized the periphery and produced deeply broken full-dependence economies like those of Greece and Ireland that require loan after loan in return for surrendering more of their natural capital.)

Dislocations in the labor market are inevitable because humans simply can't be reconfigured and redeployed quickly. It is labor's inherent inflexibility that produces the need for capital which is always supremely flexible and able to swoop in or flee at a moment's notice. But this dynamic only works so long as capital is put to productive ends that ultimately make labor more efficient. This is exactly what has not happened (at least in the West) and so we find ourselves at today's market: clogged with debt, deeply distorted and deceptive (the reason BoA and most other banks are trading under book is because nobody believes their balance sheets), and opportunities for real growth few and far between. There's no need to blame it on computers when it can be explained by good ol' fashioned human arrogance and stupidity.
posted by nixerman at 9:48 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was wondering about that concept of a "surplus wage" myself.

Does it mean that anything you earn above the basic living wage is extra? Does it mean that anything you earn above the basic living wage plus health care is extra? Does it mean that anything you earn above the basic living wage plus health care plus retirement savings is extra? At what point does a wage which allows a worker to spend beyond survival and thus contribute to the economy in various ways (supporting restaurants, barbers, and other service industries; supporting the performing arts and cinema; etc) become surplus and not just part of the economic engine necessary to keep all the boats afloat?

It's such a strange phraseology that I'm wondering if it's actually my worldview being out of synch with whatever this author has for his worldview, and thus his terminology makes complete sense except for the fact that I'm not sharing his mindset.

I'd love to know more about this "surplus wage" concept, beyond what is outlined in the article,
This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘minimum wage’ (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status
which seems to say that third world country sweatshop wages should be considered standard and anything above that is surplus.
posted by hippybear at 9:49 AM on January 22, 2012


It is labor's inherent inflexibility that produces the need for capital which is always supremely flexible and able to swoop in or flee at a moment's notice.

Although it's interesting that so much money and so many guns are dedicated to exacerbating labour's inflexibility. I hear in some countries they're even putting up fences on the borders.
posted by howfar at 9:54 AM on January 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


I like Žižek's point about the privatization of the "general intellect"--it's an interesting way of looking at modern capitalism and how the meaning of capital itself is changing.

The main problem of economics systems (modern capitalism, communism, etc...) is how to value things. States and social conditions form and facilitate markets through regulation and by shaping human behavior and preferences, or may create non-market means of distribution (which I suppose is a way of valuing something implicitly).

In order for capitalism to work, supply, demand, and social and legal pressures have to create some kind of balance--balance in the sense that money is able to flow through the system sustainably without pooling/being diverted somewhere or ticking off too many parts of the system.

If we privatize too much of the general intellect, or rather, we allow too much economic rent to be extracted from society by private individuals, we end up screwing over society in the name of some abstract idea of trickle-down benefits.

Let's assume for a second that Windows was the best operating system and that the market for operating systems was perfectly competitive with no network externalities. In other words, that Bill Gates created something of immense value to society. We as a society have to decide how much of that value he gets to keep (and we get to do this because our society believes that private property and monopolies on intellectual property is a state-guaranteed legal/social construct).

This is also implicitly valuing something--we are valuing private risk-taking and innovation, which we believe is facilitated by guaranteeing monopoly rents on intellectual property like software, over the immediate distribution of a certain product.

But this isn't really working. We have made huge advances in technology and productivity but too much of the benefits are allowed to be captured by private individuals.

Things get more complicated when you look outside the IP area. As Žižek and others here mention, technology in general is playing a huge role determining the relative importance of labor and capital. Other supply and demand factors play in as well, like the huge increase in available labor over the past few decades.

I'm doubtful that we'll be able to solve this issue of valuation on a worldwide scale; things are just too out of whack and there are too many forces pulling things in different directions, too much technological upheaval, and too many powerful actors trying to appropriate value for themselves.
posted by ropeladder at 10:09 AM on January 22, 2012


Not sure which country your in, but in the US, private sector hiring has been pretty robust for quite a while now.

not even close...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:25 AM on January 22


Which shows that hiring is on the upswing, at pretty much the same rate as post-other-recessions. It sucks for those who still are unemployed, but that's not what makes an economic depression.
posted by gjc at 10:17 AM on January 22, 2012


Man, It was really silly of me to say that we had completely recovered from the recession and that nothing bad would ever happen again, wasn't it? Oh wait, I didn't say anything of the sort.

Yes, Europe could drag us back into a recession, and no, we haven't yet returned to where we were before the recession. But that doesn't alter the fact that we are in the midst of a fairly strong private sector hiring recovery right now and that trying to pretend we're in the midst of a depression (no less) is silly.

Had liberals not chosen to sit out the 2010 elections and given the House to Republicans, we'd be in an even better position now (though still not completely recovered). Let us hope that they've learned some kind of lesson from the last two years--although Metafilter doesn't give one much hope that that's the case.
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on January 22, 2012


Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police).

Guaranteed jobs? I can't speak to the experiences of transport works and police, but many teachers today have very little in the way of job stability (example) - and what little they do have, has to be fought for tooth & nail.

Maybe he's referring to Europe (though I thought things over there were just as, if not more, precarious)?
posted by jammy at 10:50 AM on January 22, 2012


Here, by the way, is a good link to show the startling disparity between private sector and public sector hiring over the last few years.
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on January 22, 2012


though I thought things over there were just as, if not more, precarious

Yep.
posted by Summer at 11:06 AM on January 22, 2012


Maybe he's referring to Europe (though I thought things over there were just as, if not more, precarious)?

Just to make things clear, the strikes being referred to are plainly these ones of British public sector workers. One would have though that it being an article by an academic from a British university published in the London Review of Books might have given the clue that it possibly wasn't about American politics, but apparently some people in this thread find that hard to grasp.

/bitterness

Anyway. I hope that helps the discussion a little. Bless you all.
posted by howfar at 11:20 AM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Btw, there is much I still like about Atlas Shrugged, it all boils down to interpretation

infini, you may be interested in Zizek's unique and positive interpretation of Rand's work. He's probably the only Marxist to have an article published in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:43 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


One would have though that it being an article by an academic from a British university published in the London Review of Books might have given the clue that it possibly wasn't about American politics, but apparently some people in this thread find that hard to grasp.

My apologies. You're completely right. I'm afraid I was mostly thinking of the Occupy protests here in the US...
posted by jammy at 12:50 PM on January 22, 2012


I've abandoned the notion that ideas should be put into a structure or order.

Congratulations, you're now a post-structuralist. Welcome to the party, here is your hat, noisemaker, and some drink tickets.
posted by mek at 1:28 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Welcome to the party, here is your hat, noisemaker, and some drink tickets.

Ha! Bastards. I was taught by the world's only hard-headed realist post-structuralist. It's like turning up at a party at someone's house only to find that their dad's taken the key to the drinks cabinet away with him, and Auntie Ethel is staying upstairs to make sure you don't make too much noise.

We still got to wear the hats.

Lovely man though.
posted by howfar at 3:05 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


GDP per capita in real dollars was $27000 in 1995, it is $47000 now. If we were magically reduced to living a 1995 lifestyle, there would be more protests, not less.

No. You are labouring under the (understandable) misconception that greater GDP naturally means a corresponding increase in wealth, when what has actually happened in the USA is that a tiny tiny minority managed to capture 95.7% of that additional GDP, leaving the vast majority so much poorer today than they were then that if you adjust for inflation etc, you find that people are earning almost exactly the same today as they did in '95, despite GDP nearly doubling in that time!

If we magically reduce to living a 1995 lifestyle, the shocking thing is that no-one would notice the difference despite a loss of nearly half the GDP!.

The big eye-opener instead would be "Wait... I've forgotten how I used to find things out before google and wikipedia!"

It's no wonder there are protests.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Er, you guys are forgetting the effects of inflation. In constant 2000 dollars, GDP per capita at the end of 1995 was about $30000 and is about $38,0000 now.
posted by yoink at 9:20 PM on January 22, 2012


what -harlequin- said OR rather, the US's gini coefficient is now comparable to many Sub Saharan countries. (I'd linked to the charts in one of the OWS threads)
posted by infini at 9:39 PM on January 22, 2012


jammy, I think Zizek is referring to those public service jobs as they were in the past -- a lot more secure than they are now. The state these professions are currently in is an example of the shift/change/failure that is the point of the piece.

The sad reality in the part of the US that I'm in is that the police force is offering huge signing bonuses to get more officers while teachers were dealt a 30% percent paycut in the last 5 years.

The prospects of a society that trades teachers for policemen are not promising.
posted by hellslinger at 12:22 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Three years ago, when the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s gripped the global economy, the Financial Times published a series on “the future of capitalism”. Now, after a feeble recovery in the high-income countries, it has run a series on “capitalism in crisis”. Things seem to be worse. How is this to be explained?

In 2009, the world was in a state of shock. Now, despite successful efforts at stabilising economies, people are closer to despair. Something seems to be wrong with the system. But what, and what needs to be done?
FT's Martin Wolf on 7 ways to fix the flaws


are there any silver bullet quick fixes left anyway?
posted by infini at 2:24 AM on January 23, 2012


The state these professions are currently in is an example of the shift/change/failure that is the point of the piece.

Sort of, but that's pretty bland as a reading. I'd say the point of the piece is that these are not protests against capitalism, but rather against a particular inability in capitalism to provide the status that these workers have enjoyed, as a substitute bourgeoisie. These are reactionary protests, asking that a particular set of unfair relations be maintained, rather than asking for a genuine structural change toward fairness. The strikes Žižek is referring to are of a group of people who have, per se, benefited from modern capitalism. Hence he wants to identify them (confusingly, I think) as a salaried-bourgeoisie, to indicate that this is not to do with a revolt against capitalism, and rather to do with the inability of modern capitalism to continue to manage previously integral parts of its ideological structure.
posted by howfar at 9:20 AM on January 23, 2012


Speaking of "privatizing the general intellect", that's precisely what overrated intellectuals like Zizek do when they hawk the terminology they invent in works like this one.

There is a lot about the rise of Microsoft and Bill Gates that tells us a lot about the interplay between markets and technology and what it means for today's politics. But none of it calls for Zizekisms.
posted by ocschwar at 9:43 AM on January 23, 2012


I'm fine with new terminology so long as it's useful, clear, and honest. Žižek sounds clear and honest at least.

Fox news is known for dishonest definitions. Postmodernists known for unclear definitions and uselessly overloading meaning, as well as simply using words incorrectly.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:54 AM on January 23, 2012


as well as simply using words incorrectly.

OK you better be hoping no-one just said "languagehat" three times in a mirror. How I miss his rage.
posted by howfar at 11:26 AM on January 23, 2012


I can't read anything else from this author.

21 favorites. :(


Beyond that it's impossible to know what the future will find insane.

My guess: the private motor car.


Raising and slaughtering animals to eat them.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:27 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


A critique of Žižek's article, from Lenin's Tomb (the blog, not the monument).
posted by twirlip at 10:45 AM on January 30, 2012


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