Recently in Radicalism Category

Tech-Driven Deprofessionalization

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What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren't really about money. There's a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can't be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools.

What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies.

The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.

Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers? | Easily Distracted

I took a super-interesting Information History class with Dan Schiller my last semester at GSLIS, and one of the main themes of the course was how IT allows capital and management to deprofessionalize and regiment work. This starts at least from the invention of the modern clock, and goes up through the early management techniques of the industrial revolution, to office technology like the typewriter and the adding machine which replaced a whole middling professional class of clerks with pooled labor. Then you get the full monty with Taylorism and all the dehumanizing results that followed from that, which was thankfully somewhat offset by the rise of organized labor by midcentury.

So, then modern computer IT comes along, which of course was initially clearly centralized and controlling (think mainframes and men in gray flannel suits.) But, since I didn't know my history or recognize my privilege I'd always thought of the emergence of the networked personal computer as different somehow, liberatory instead of controlling. And, of course, it can be, for those with the power to control it rather than be controlled. 

What we're seeing now is the rapid shrinking of the proportion of people and professions who have that power. It's happening to teachers, lawyers, writers (think of the methods of HuffPo and Nick Denton and the rise of pageviews as the measure of cultural worth if you don't think that cultural work can be regimented and automated) and lots of other previously autonomous professional occupations.

That call center worker whose every second and every move is monitored and timed and dictated? Well, that may be your future too, unless we fight tooth and nail for power over our working conditions. That's what teachers in Chicago are doing now. It's time for professional classes to realize that they have a lot more in common with those below them on the economic ladder than with the people running things. We're in a place now where solidarity isn't just sentiment, it's survival.

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals... But it feels like a real fight--as if there was something really wild in the universe which we are needed to redeem - Wm. James

Writing up that last post reminded me of another useful consequence of a Pragmatic worldview. The admission that are all of our ideals and institutions are of human origin, and thus mutable, also implies that we can take nothing for granted. I think taking the accomplishments of the New Deal and the 60's for granted is a big part of what allowed our civil society to deteriorate to the level of the current political situation.

After 1968, or 1972 at the latest, the American Left in many ways declared victory and went home, ceding the field to the forces of the radical Right, who were willing and increasingly able to move heaven and Earth in attempt to roll back those gains. They needed to be fought tooth and nail the whole way, but really we only began to see some real fight and commitment return to the Left with the Clinton impeachment, and we didn't have anything like what was called for until very recently.

A lot was accomplished in the era from FDR to LBJ, and American liberals could be justifiably proud of that legacy, but to make good on it they needed to stay in the trenches and fight for it. No social or political ideal or arrangement can endure unless there are many people who continue to actively value and embody it, and who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to defend it. Positive social change, though plenty difficult in its own right, may well be the easy part of the equation in comparison to the long slog of consolidating the change and vigilantly defending it from reactionary forces.

I hope we've learned that lesson in the wake of what happened from Nixon through Dubya, but I wish that our country and our world didn't have to be put through all of this hell in the first place. If a large portion of the people who made up the mass social and political movements of the 60's had committed themselves to the long and messy political process of defending what they just had worked so hard to accomplish, instead of moving to the suburbs to have kids, or taking up disco and cocaine, or becoming high-rolling investment bankers, or whatever the hell they did after they disappeared from the public stage and let the Silent Majority wreck everything they had just built, we wouldn't be in this mess.

And yes, I'm a little bitter. I've got another post brewing about how the 60's and many of the Boomers went wrong. I think a lot of the problems that led to the dissolution of those movements were inherent to their structure, ideology, and culture from the beginning. If things are indeed turning again, I hope we will do better and be wiser and more committed and practical this time around.

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

On Selling Out

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[This is in response to a debate started here, and continued here, here, here, and likely lots of other places.]

As a child of the punk rock and "alternative" era, I do have some mixed feelings about this. I don't think authenticity is the sine qua non for good art, but it does matter sometimes. Perhaps in many cases it is necessary, but not sufficient? You can be as authentic as you like and make terrible art (just go to an open mic night anywhere for ample and excruciating evidence), but even very good art that either springs from an openly crass desire to cash in, or even from an authentic political or social worldview that I abhor, leaves me a bit squicked out. I can never quite get past the fact that Ezra Pound was a fascist. And then of course there is Leni Riefenstahl, but that's a more blatant and understandable case, but both are cases of factors beyond the just aesthetic and entertainment aspects.

In a case that's closer to the current debate, the Ramones have been brought up, but well, I admire them a lot less because they weren't satisfied with making great and very influential music and being able to put food on the table doing it... they had to be big fucking rock stars, and felt like they were failures in some way because they never made it to that level. I find that kind of sad and pathetic. It doesn't make me like Blitzkrieg Bop any less, but there are multiple levels on which you can appreciate art and artists, and on the level beyond pure pop bliss, it does diminish them a bit for me.

Insofar as the "punk ethic" matters, I think it does because it was a leap of imagination that created a space and a community where you could make your art and have an audience for it, without having to contend with a need to be a big fucking rockstar or to otherwise succeed in the larger capitalist system. It opened up a closed system to dedicated amateurism, in much the same way as blogging has opened up journalism and opinion. Abandoning the idea that the measure of good work was fame or money or a corporate imprimatur was important, and it allowed a lot of voices that would have never seen the light of day otherwise to be heard and in some cases to have a broad influence.

There are a lot of people who can make great art who don't have an aptitude for or desire for selling it and themselves, and the system of popular art at that time just didn't have a space for them. I think that context had more to do with Kurt Cobain's demise than anything. He just wasn't prepared to be famous, and really had no desire for fame, but he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a small scene small blew up into a global phenomenon.

Others handled it far better and more pragmatically. Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips have used their status very well to explore opportunities that they might not have been able to without the resources of a major label. Pearl Jam, though at this point their music bores the heck out of me, are really great about remembering where they came from and helping smaller bands to get heard and get paid, and of course their doomed battle against Ticketmaster was one well worth fighting. Bands like Bad Religion, Jawbox, and the Poster Children who went into the major label world with their eyes wide open and with a plan came out very well, ploughing the money from their major deal right back into their own label or studio to assure their future artistic independence and their ability to help other worthy voices to be heard.

Just like with the political tension between radicalism with purity/integrity and messy, pragmatic progressivism that works within the system, the latter is a tough balance to maintain, and the temptations of money and power can easily lead you astray if you start viewing them as ends instead of means, but the upside of the attempt is much greater than the ascetic and lonely way of the radical.

Now, I love a lot of popular art, and indeed a big motivation for a lot of popular art is making money, so there is a tension there. I think much depends on what kind of art you make. If a significant element of it is politically or socially conscious, then selling out is a relevant concept. It's hard for say, the Shins to sell out, because their music doesn't mean anything (aside: This is a big part of why Garden State is so cringeworthy. "The Shins changed my life?" Puhleeze.) aside from the personal meaning and the emotional resonance that individual people find in it.

So, selling out is relevant for Fugazi, but not so much for the Shins. Authenticity and independence is really important for socially and politically relevant or critical art. I'm not saying it's totally impossible to critique the system from inside it, but there is a reason beyond just aesthetics why Fugazi are relevant and Rage Against the Machine are laughable. I don't care if I hear Mogwai or the Shins backing a commercial, because it has no real bearing on the meaning of their music. However, when I hear the first two lines of "Fortunate Son" ripped out of context to sell all-American blue jeans, well, that's a bit more problematic, because that song meant something, and could still mean something in a larger cultural and political sense, and that use of it is a total distortion of said meaning.

However, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the punk/DIY movement and ethic and associated worries about selling out were a product of a specific cultural time and place, defined by a certain corporate media structure. Insofar as those values seem less relevant to this generation of artists, it may be a result of the changing media landscape. Post WWII, a corporate-owned, broadcast-based monoculture dominated American life. As I went into above, punk rock was so revolutionary because it was one of the first revivals of amateurism and folk culture in the face of that, and one of the first significant post-broadcast movements that reminded ordinary people that they could make art on their own terms in a way that was integral to the rest of their lives.

Now that the net has come along and communities for creation and channels for distribution of those things are ascendant and ubiquitous, the oppositional stance of punk as a throughgoing artistic ethic doesn't quite make as much sense anymore. I think some of it does still make sense somewhat as a political and social ethic, and I'm a bit disappointed to see very little in the way of political and social consciousness or questioning of corporate/capitalist values on the part this new generation of indie musicians and artistsand on the part of digital creatives more generally, but that's probably an issue for another post entirely.

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