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.

The Will to Power at Qatar Airways

So, go read this description of the working conditions for airline attendants at Qatar Airways. What’s going on here? Sure, the working realities for south Asian men depicted in the article make it impossible to describe the attendant’s conditions as “horrendous,” but still, this seems not only unpleasant, but also irrational on the part of the employer.

Neoclassical economists have no way to explain the existence of employees at all. In the world of endless spot markets, labour is a commodity, purchased in infinitely divisible portions to perform discrete tasks under controlled conditions. There can be no “bosses,” because individual workers are only contributing exactly what they have contracted to do.

The institutionalists do a bit better. Back in 1937, Ron Coase was first economist to notice that the world of production, work and exchange isn’t just an anonymous field of spot-markets, but also contained, you know, firms and employees and managers. Of course, other economists had studied firm strategies and the decisions made by managers , but he was the first to ask, if the market is so great at allocating goods, why there were firms and employees and managers at all.

His answer was, more or less, that there were costs to buying things on the market. When it comes to the employment relationship, he argued, it was just too expensive, whenever you wanted someone to perform some task required for widget-making, or widget-redesign, or what have you, to go out and find someone who had the requisite skills, dependability, availability and willingness to work on affordable terms. So it made sense to have people who agreed to be around to perform whatever tasks were necessary. Herbert Simon put it slightly differently: if you weren’t sure what kind of tasks you were going to need done, it would be good to contract with someone to take orders, rather than to perform specific tasks.

Now read Williamson’s rejection of an alternate explanation for hierarchy at work:

Of course, if the desire was not to be controlled but to control, to exercise power over others, then people might be willing to give up something in order to direct others ; that is, they would be willing to pay others more than they could get under the price mechanism in order to be able to direct them. But this implies that those who direct pay in order to be able to do this and are not paid to direct, which is clearly not true in the majority of cases.

It is impossible to read the descriptions of Saga and Gina’s work again – “are you on a diet?” – and not conclude that the treatment falls into Williamson’s “minority of cases.” More importantly, it points to how easily rule, command, control and hierarchy seem to become their own reasons – economic efficiency and the “material” goals of the participants be damned.