I’ve got some pushback on my idea that the European Commission might be a place where it’s ever possible to exercise ethics or transcend dehumanized institutional logics. The point I was trying to take from Duncan Kennedy is that we cannot know, until we have spent some times engaging with an organization, whether it is so internally inflexible and on balance harmful that it should be resigned to the scrap heap of history.

Now, I have some sympathy for a kind of utopia where people get to keep remaking the institutions in which they work (this is, in particular, Roberto Unger’s utopia). If this is your utopia, you could say that any amount of bureaucracy, stability and institutional authority is a shortcoming that needs to be fought against. That’s fine so far as utopias go, but in the meantime we don’t live in that world and a person’s got to eat. On the other hand, we do live in a world where moments of individual judgment can not only make a difference for some individual or group of individuals, but actually shift the waters of history one way or another, even if in only a tiny way. I agree that people who are soothed into waking sleep may miss those moments, letting the spirit of the machine win out, but working inside an organization doesn’t necessarily end up that way.

The pushback came in the form of the claim that, when it comes to the Commission, we have left the a priori behind and obviously entered a black hole of ethical action and judgment. But this is too easy. Even a preliminary attempt at thinking about the possible scenarios reveals a complex of possibilities.

1. So, for example, maybe the EU is a broken, unquestionably harmful, and irredeemable political project, and the best thing that can happen for Europe, democracy, social justice, all those things we care about, is that the whole edifice crumble into dust: no matter what comes after, it will be better than what we have now.

2. Or maybe the EU is a broken, harmful political project that should have been stopped before it got to where it is, but it is hard to know whether it should be reformed or scrapped, because it’s quite possible that what comes after it will be much worse.

3. Or maybe: the EU is a politically conflicted, conceptually contradictory political project. Its institutional logics improve the lives of some and worsen the lives of others; they empower some democratic wills while suppressing others.

A. The ethical and political valence of the EU project are determined only by the players at the top: the Council, and maybe sometimes/to some degree the ECJ. EC bureaucrats only ever have one choice: to quit their jobs, or to put into practice the logics of the machine determined at the top.

B. Same as A, except EC bureaucrats have a third choice, which is to be obstructionist and slow-moving in the implementation of logics they find distasteful.

4. Or, same as 3 (politically conflicted, conceptually contradictory) but the institutional logics aren’t fully determined at the top. Instead, the contents of those logics or normative structures are so open, so indeterminate, that there are opportunities to choose or at least exercise some judgment all the way down.

5. Same situation as 4 (politically conflicted logics, real opportunities for judgment), but the institutional culture is so bland, the daily practices so thoughtless, that no one who both cares about how the world is organized and who is capable of discerning the existence of ethical and/or political choices in the implementation of the Commission’s multiple logics, actually sticks around long enough to have moments to exercise that judgment.

6. Or, say, the EU’s multiple institutional logics are actually associated with different parts of the EC as an institution. To the degree that you are politically committed to one of those logics–say, gender equality at work–being part of the EC bureaucracy can provide an opportunity to work in a setting driven by a political logic that you care about, but nonetheless provides few opportunities for judgment or ethical action. Of course, by supporting this work, one also lends legitimacy and institutional power to the Commission and to the EU project as a whole.

A. And furthermore, it might be that this is true, but that working in that setting nonetheless provides few opportunities for judgment or ethical action. At best, one is, paradoxically, a cog in a machine that one feels contributes to justice; at worst, a cog in a machine that contributes to someone else’s idea of justice, but not yours.

B. Or, in a slightly different scenario, there are opportunities for judgement and ethical action, but they only come to people with patience, political savvy, the intellectual chops for academia and the charm for sales.

Part of my point when it comes to choosing a job is that I don’t know which one of these situations corresponds to the real world of the Commission. This is just a off-the-top of my head typology of the unknowns one faces when thinking about what it means to work inside one organization. Even in the best-case scenario that the real world is scenario 6A, a person who goes to work there may not find themselves in the particular part of the organization for which their particular skill set and commitments actually empower them to do anything that they care about or which feels like making a difference. The whole “a priori” thing is that I am not sure it’s possible to answer them without spending some real time in the belly of the beast.

There is a whole lot more to be said about both the ‘inside the job’ and ‘outside the job’ practices that can make living in the world compatible with a sense of an ethical self. My key advice for people trying to balance security with their political ideals is to have patience and hedge heavily against the lifestyle that seems to come pre-packaged with a career choice: don’t get used to a level of comfort (a mortgage, private school for the kids, a second property, the annual Caribbean vacation) that you may have to abandon if (when) you discover the job is killing you.



Make Work

A friend, who has the intellectual chops for academia, charm enough for sales, and the ethical heart of a British-style social drama, writes to ask if I would “kill him” if he told me he was entertaining thoughts of working for the European Commission.

The background here being not only that he’s young enough to still be choosing a career, but that he had previously expressed particular distaste for certain of those among his peers who he saw as headed to Brussels to participate in the make-work at the centre of the EU’s log-rolling, authoritarian market-making machine in return for the promise of reasonable work-life balance, job security and 5 weeks a year of paid vacation. This being a sentiment which, I can’t lie, I had some sympathy for.

“I got rather seduced,” (no doubt) “by a lovely lady telling me how I would have a great life working on things that matter to me.” (A committed feminist, she was, apparently). “All that, and with the possibility of a life outside of my professional life: i.e. 5 weeks of paid holiday a year.” (His addendum, somewhat hyperbolically: “I don’t want to end up 40 and alone. Ahhh… what do I do with my life!?”)

Now, as an aspiring teacher to a profession that is known for taking in young idealists and turning out depressed sociopaths, I’ve actually muddled somewhat over the question of how to prevent professional momentum from taking young people places they don’t want to go. I myself had a number of years where the question of what to do with my life bore down with the strength of a thousand suns. My response to him boils down a lot of my thoughts on the issue:

You will do well wherever you go, so long as you refuse to give up your inquisitive mind and critical perspective. The Commission could benefit from people who haven’t bought in to the European project hook, line and sinker, and who know especially that they have alternatives if they end up feeling like they aren’t contributing to anything that matters. It couldn’t hurt, for the purposes of bringing some value to the democratic accountability of the place, either, that you haven’t yet ‘transposed’ your ‘modalities’ into the arcane vocabularies of Brussels English. In all seriousness, though, so much of what matters in your work isn’t “what’s your job?” but “how do you do your work? how do you relate to your work? how do you, as someone with an identity and personality that is separate from that work, relate to this ‘job’, this ‘thing you do’?” Also, you aren’t choosing a career now. Find something to do for the moment, but never stop thinking of it as an awesome 7-year post-doc that will have something come after.

In other words, the question, when it comes to work that involves judgment, creativity and thought, isn’t “what will your work be?” but “what will you make of your work?” Not, will you win the prize, but what will you do with it when you do?

Postlethwait’s speech here, at the end of Brassed Off, provides a good tie in for three caveats: first, these thoughts are a bit partial, and much of what I have to say was, it turns out, largely foreshadowed in questions raised by Duncan Kennedy in the early 1980s. In Rebels from Principle [pdf], a piece he wrote for the Harvard Law School Bulletin, he wrote:

the locus of conflict between oppression and liberation can’t be conceptualized as always outside us. It is inside us as well, inside any liberal or left organization, and also inside the apparently monolithic opposing organizations, like corporate law firms. I think it follows that there are no strategies for social transformation that are privileged a priori — either in the sense that they designate the right place to struggle because struggling in that place will lead most certainly to the overthrow of illegitimate hierarchy and alienation, or even in the much more limited sense that some struggles have an absolute moral priority over others.

Second, I am troubled by the fact that this advice can be given to lawyers and certain other professionals, but seems a much poorer fit for, say, the heroes of all of those British-style social dramas. I suppose that the capacity to have some power, some say, in what your work means or how it’s organized, is one of the reasons for the success of the labour movement.

Third, none of this means that we should define ourselves by our job. In fact, I mean exactly the opposite. There are gardens to be planted, communities to be built, children to be raised and music to be played. Ultimately, there is a world to be (re)made.

But sometimes — often —these things, too, are work and much of them take judgment, and creativity, and thought. And we are defined in large part by how we do our work. Half the battle is choosing where to apply ourselves, and where not to: when the music matters, and when it matters bollocks.

There is no ethical progress, and no strategy, in silence.

So I love–love–Freddie de Boer. There is, given the defensiveness in his writing, obviously a big slice of the American left-liberal blog-o-sphere who absolutely hates him for his politics, or for the way he expresses his politics, or for the timing of his expression of his politics or…something. But I find his engagement with questions of ethics and strategy, his resistance to the fetishization of American machine politics as the sole locus of social change [...More] ‘ Out of the wilderness ‘

The Rub

Even if you hope that the Scots choose (choose!) to stay with England and Wales and Northern Ireland (and the Cornish :D), this piece by Irvine Welsh is an essential expression of what’s thrilling about the Scottish vote, which is that it represents a vindication of something true and real and powerful about the democratic principle. If the Scots choose to stay, it feels as if ‘politics’ will go back to process, to back and [...More] ‘ The Rub ‘

Teach the Controversy

Over at the Soros-funded Institute for New Economic Thinking, there have recently been a few blog-posts about the potential of, and the need for, economics curriculum reform. In a recent example, Abdul Alassad characterises the problem as follows:

rational debates of ideas has been replaced by dogma, to the detriment of society. A dogma is a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Today, economics is taught as a set [...More] ‘ Teach the Controversy ‘

We're All Capitalists Now

Those concerned about inequality often place emphasis on the “income share of labour,” a.k.a. the ratio between the amount doled out in wages and the amount doled out in profits, treating it as a useful index of “how workers are doing.” This is logical enough insofar as workers are the ones, so the story goes, who have to rely on wages to eat.

In this sharp if somewhat technical review of Piketty’s Capital in the [...More] ‘ We’re All Capitalists Now ‘

Democracy for Everyone!

Good news, everyone: finance is getting more democratic, because technology.

You know how democracy works, right? It means that a service that was previously only sold to some people gets sold to everyone now. It used to be that only finance dudes got to have finance, but now everyone does. Hooray! Let’s watch a video of democracy happening.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah: today’s breathlessness about the democratizing potential of financial institutions [...More] ‘ Inconceivable! ‘