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.

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 of assumptions that are unquestionably infallible, static, and undeniably true.

This misses the mark. Very few trained economists think that the dominant economic models are universal or incontrovertible. Rather, the danger of current economic teaching lies in the presentation of single models as the baseline for the analysis of economic problems, within a broader framework that relies on a single mode of economic analysis (the neoclassical synthesis). The result is that those whose exposure to economic concepts is limited to undergrad teaching come away with an attitude to the heterodoxy equivalent to the grade-schooler belief that there’s no such thing as negative numbers. Until you teach them how to manipulate unfamiliar ideas, questions that depend on those concepts will seem nonsensical.

So what’s the alternative? The failure of neoclassical models to predict or prevent the financial crisis, and its complicity in unavoidable perpetuation of inequalities under thirty years of neoliberalism could be used as an argument for simply replacing the dominant paradigm with another. The push for a more historical approach to economics provides a different, and likely more fruitful, answer: teach the controversy. It’s not clear why undergrads shouldn’t be exposed to the incompatible models of the Keynesians and the monetarists, marginalists and institutionalists, Marx and Hayek, Friedman and Coase.  For that matter, why shouldn’t they spend more time engaging with hard questions about the relationship between economic variables and real-world social practice, à la David Graeber or Thomas Piketty?

Of course, undergrads exposed to a variety of models, with often conflicting opinions about how policy will effect outcomes, and to theoretical texts that raise questions about the true nature of economic practice may end up somewhat confused about how the real world works. But this is exactly as it should be: if the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that the world needs fewer, not more people convinced that they know how to organize an economy.

“Project, Opposition, and most Embarrassingly, Truth”

cross-posted from EUI Global and Transnational Perspectives Working Group

credit: McHugh-Russell

Over at n+1, an editor’s essay on the fragmented pasts and fraught promise of World Literature has spawned a small collection of thoughtful responses. In trying to capture a sense of what weltliteratur might be for, and why the contestants always seem to have fallen short of the mark (“Alas, Rushdie; alas, Naipaul.”), the editors string together an impressive array of traditions and examples, showing how each contributes to a synthesis that fails as much as a whole as in its individual parts.

Steeped as it is in the altogether modern desire to express the universal in the particular—i.e. to not only craft a particular voice, but to somehow choose voices that can stand in for the whole— the editors conclude that perhaps the disappointments of the genre arise not from the particular attempts that have been made of it, but in the shape of the ambition itself.

One of the responses, from Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith, dismisses the essay as a lament for a “right kind of universalism” that is not only unrealized, but unrealizable. They end by suggesting to those unsatisfied with the output of the spirit of capitalism as embodied in the publishing houses of northern capitals that they might simply “read more to their taste.”

Is the complaint fair? The essay is an attempt to investigate not what literature should be consumed, but how those engaged in its curation, can support human connection across difference (what Rorty would call the “education of the sentimental imagination”) and stay founded in a commitment to the political value of aesthetic freedom, without becoming Global Literature, i.e. “an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite.”

Joshua Cohen’s letter responds clearly to this ambition. In his view, the problem isn’t with the ends, but with the means. Literature relevance has passed: “Social consciousness has become the new beauty. The political has usurped the aesthetic.” Be that as it may, it’s not clear how much this differs from the essay’s own conclusions, which lay out, by reference to Trotsky (!), a blueprint for an alternative, “internationalist” literature.  Rather than an aesthetic practice with universalist pretensions, the concept here would be an explicit project that beats the path to freedom and solidarity by countering prevailing politics and tastes, rooted in the effort to articulate truths.

The important thing that Rajaram and Griffith seem to have forgotten is that the essay’s authors are not anonymous readers of the stuff put out by those northern-capital publishers, but rather a group of 20- and 30-somethings who edit a surprisingly influential literary journal published just down the street from them. When those editors provide the outline of a project for literature, the curious reader might, instead of suggesting sources that fit the bill, inquire into what exactly those editors have been printing for the last ten years. Because when one starts to look at the diversity, anger, curiosity and honesty that one finds between the journal’s pages, one can only conclude that the essay is neither reading guide, nor lamentation.

It’s a manifesto.

“The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”

A weak translation, I am told by the internet, of Boethius. It almost makes one want to learn ancient Greek. Almost.

Seriously, though, 24 Hour Party People is a great movie.

Wolves in Women's Clothing

Not a word here about using trans imagery as the symbolic palette humiliationIn a (damning, though fair) review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book painting conservative ideology as united only by the revanchist urge to maintain rule (and a slightly less controversial text from a grinning TV posterboy of the American left, Chris Hayes), Andrew Seal argues that placing affect/feeling of individuals at the centre of their analysis—as he claims both authors do—means consistently mistaking hegemony for hierarchy, missing the forest for the trees, and forgetting that, if there is a ruling class, that it then needs to be addressed as a class.

It’s a mesmerizing, superb piece of writing, more than enough to scare me away me from either of his sources. Invoking Tony Soprano and Jay Gatsby, he writes that “Robin’s vocabulary of feudalism…rhymes with preconceptions not yet articulated except as myths.”

Yet, in focusing away from affect and shining the spotlight instead on an amorphous “class interest,” Seal might be cutting off too much. It may well be that the maintenance of power structures results from instincts more complex than the monarchical pretensions of individual autocrats (an idea I give some credit), but to ignore instinct, affect and feeling entirely in favour Seal’s call to conceptualize “how the group acts” risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Every time another layer of the Koch brothers’ global empire of misdirection, astro-turfing and white-washing is unpeeled, each new insight into the revolutionary plot hatched at Mont Pellerin to enthrone market-friendly ideas, each time money flows from powerful hands into the palms of key US decision-makers, it becomes easier to imagine power in the form of a cabal or a clan, as a clandestine conspiracy united not only in interest but in strategy to maintain their lordship over the suffering plebes.

Of course tracing and tracking these strategies matters, and responding to them needs to be a part of everyday politics. Yet, it’s also important to pay attention to the way in which feelings, and especially in-group feeling, play a part in perpetuating power structures. A recent piece by Sam Polk, a lapsed Wall Street insider, does something similar, and it’s gotten a fair bit of attention. Polk treats the industry’s pathology in terms of addiction. Most interesting about the piece, however, is not the soulless drive for ever more money and power (it’s always odd to me that people are surprised by capitalists acting, as Marx predicted, “as capital personified”), but with the picture he paints of industry politics. It’s true that the industry hates both financial regulation, and taxes on the rich, but when Polk put the systemic advisability of certain measures in question, the response from his boss was that he didn’t “have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

It’s not that the US financial class is uninterested in politics, but many of them nonetheless have an unsophisticated view of politics, backed up by fear and selfishness, not a desire to rule per se.

All this provides proper context for a recent exposé in New York Magazine detailing the hazing rituals of Kappa Beta Phi, an exclusive club for powerful Wall Street types.  What is most striking about this soirée for billionaires (and those making due with only hundreds of millions) is not simply the fact of their gathering, but how much closer their hijinx come to the crude embarrassments of a freshman fraternity rush than a secret meeting of the Illuminati. It’s a wonder, reading the KBP piece next to a recent investigation into real college fraternities, that more Wall Street types aren’t falling off things to their death.

It’s easy to look at the incredible power that has been accumulated by Wall Street over the last 30 years and assume that its ascendance was by design, that it could only have resulted from a clandestine, concerted scheme. It’s doubly so, given that much of the still-powerful neoliberal orthodoxy is not only the brainchild of an intellectual revolution, but the result of a concerted political project. Fine. But strategy to respond has to take into account as well, how much “the smartest guys in the room” are far from it, and how much the structures of power are self-reinforcing, with or without concerted efforts by anyone. If there’s one thing Wolf of Wall Street can help make clear, it’s that.


cross-posted from EUI Global and Transnational Perspectives Working Group

It's not like you can stop themWhen you spend every day up to your chin in the quagmire of post-national social structures, its easy to lose sight of how much power – and violence – is still exercised by states. This may in some sense be true in no area more than it is in questions of immigration and residency.

For example, it turns out that, if you’re in a coma in the United States because you got hit by a car and that means, say, that you’re no longer attending classes in the program for which you got your visa, that means your visa is no longer valid. So now you are in the country without authorization, right? So the state is within its rights to deport you, right? Sigh…yes. It’s not like you can stop them!

Sleep-walking through the ethical dimensions of these questions might allow this response to be cast as “reasonable.” Yet people working on the question, like the EUI’s Rutger Birnie, for example, might ask whether getting into a country legally, and then spending time in that country, and then getting hit by a car in that country might – might! – be the kind of thing that entangles you in the state’s ethical universe, questions of international law aside.

For some, situations like this are best resolved by thinking about the proper content state power. Yet they inevitably lead others to welcome post-national social structures with open arms, and to wish for state power that wasn’t sleepwalking, but already in a coma.