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Archive for the ‘work and unemployment’ Category

full employment

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picture-1

Recently promised myself (again) that I’d do only serious posts, no more self-reflection,  no more twittering. But just this last time:

Aforesaid friend mentioned in my last post arrived and spent the day today hanging around my office and the environs of my uni while I did what I had to do at work. When we were done, he said to me (I paraphrase a bit, but only a bit) man you do work fucking hard here huh?

I made him repeat this to my wife when we finally got to my place.

It’s true. I do. This system is way way more work-intensive than the US model. Academic work is always intensive, but this thing is pretty close to forty-hours-a-week of actual scheduled or semi-scheduled activities. I.e. reading and preparation, let alone research, don’t’t count in the total.

Hmmm. Still a good trade to live where I do. And very happy to be employed at all, god.

In the Observer yesterday there was a feature that detailed what people do at their jobs all day. Annoyingly, it only features relatively interesting upper or upper-middle-class jobs (no 9.00 am I stand at the till and ring up groceries, 1.00 pm I take lunch 2.00 pm I stand at the till and ring up groceries, 6.00 pm I go home in other words). And at least one of them is hideously annoying. But they do have the rundown on a day in the life of a university teacher of English whose days sound like they are almost exactly like mine, adjusted for having kids and such.

7am Wake up to the Today programme. Go to the gym, followed by breakfast with my girlfriend, a theatre director and translator.

8.45am Walk to college, which takes about 45 minutes.

10am Give a 50-minute lecture. I do about two a week, at the moment it’s literature and the Second World War.

11am Have an hour-long “supervision”, a one-to-one (or two) tutorial with students about their essays. I do about 12 a week.

1.15pm Eat with the 60 other fellows of the college at high table. It’s a really good way to bond as a unit.

2.30pm Give a weekly seminar, on modernism and the short story.

4pm More supervisions and endless emailing, mostly with the 30 English students I’m responsible for, but also arranging library visits, organising symposiums and contacting the editor of a book I am writing on London’s bomb sites and the literature of wartime London. I also set entrance exams and interview prospective students in December and January.

5pm Work on my book – it’s my first. I try to clear one full day a week, but the reality is that the three eight-week terms pass in an intense, exciting blur, and holidays are for research and writing, preparing reading lists, lectures and seminars.

7pm Sometimes I eat in college, work late in my office and then catch last orders in the pub and debate with friends. If not, I walk home listening to my Welsh-language podcasts practising my vocab. My mother is Welsh but I grew up in Brighton, so I only speak a little.

8pm Prepare for tomorrow’s supervisions, reading all the essays I will be discussing. Practise lectures on my cat Tolly.

8.30pm Cook dinner. I enjoy cooking as a way of relaxing.

9.30pm More preparation. Then I’ll read in bed until I fall asleep at about midnight. I have countless books on the go at once. I like to read articles and journals around my subject, but also completely off-topic as well. As a child, I just wanted to read books and I’ve fallen into a career where I get paid to do that. Some days, I can’t quite believe it.

Not too far off, nope. Except tonight I’m still very much marking papers and it’s currently 12:24 AM.

Just saying. I do have a minor point to make about all of this – something about work and sanity, something about work and sanity and the near absense of consciousness due to overwork , and perhaps all of that in relation to strange utopias of hard work… What? There aren’t any? What about the new bloomusalem? – but there’s no time to make that point now.

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March 17, 2009 at 12:36 am

all work all play makes blank a blank boy

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Light blogging, relatively speaking, lately, and for that dear readers am very very sorry. You don’t want to hear me go into the details, and you don’t really have to unlike those I know in the pinkflesh earthside, but, ahem, just to make this whole thing more real for you, here’s what I’ve been up to:

– Cleaning up the topmost bedroom because my bestest pal from grad school is coming to stay for a bit. When we were young and not yet employed, I used to meet him every single Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday, right?) at places like this. Whichever of us could get there a bit early would go and occupy a table outside in advance and sit reading the Times until the other showed up. Golden days. In the picture below, it looks like it’s a cloudy NYC day but it still never gets that light in London.

dylan thomas had a bad night here

– Shaking Alain Badiou’s hand. Yep, yep. I know. You’re impressed. Thing is he’s bigger than I am, I think, which weirds me out. I am bigger than almost everyone, but not Badiou. Physically I mean. No! Not that sort of physically! You know what I mean, god, you guys! I later asked IT, apropos of I don’t know what, maybe it was this post,  if she thought I could take him. She took the fifth. Hmmmm…..

– Working like a maniac. Christ alive, it’s too much! All I do is mark papers and attend departmental meetings. One of my Ph.D. advisors, a guy who wrote a book on Benjamin et al that I know many of you have read, once told me as we walked somewhere after seminar that one of the worst things about academic work is that you never get to read. I responded that I was sure he was being a little hyperbolic. But as it turns out, my god, I don’t have time to read – or let’s see, wash myself, wash my clothes, eat properly, process complex personal epiphanies, read newspapers other than the londonpaper, call my mother, clean the litterboxes, or be civil to ex-students who knock unannounced on my office door.

It’s true what you hear, Americans, about academic life over here. It’s busier, and harder. The upside, of course, is that they don’t seem to fire people all that often. And if you’re lucky, you get to live in London.

– Going to a hauntology event. Which was nice, as it was underneath London Bridge. So under London bridge that you had to have your ID scanned at the door, I guess to make the BBC’s job easier afterwards if you were make the damn thing, erk, fall down. It reminded me, a bit, of nights that I used to have when I was childless (ooops, initially typed childish, ha!) in Brooklyn. That is to say, it made me feel middle-aged before my time. I told my therapist today about that feeling, and he said Yeah, I don’t picture you so much as a raver. I think you’re more a type for talking somewhere with a bottle of wine open. I love my therapist. He’s from Boston, btw. No raver am I! He’s right. I like me some good conversation.

Problem is, I was five years younger in Brooklyn, that is to say safely within the core demographic for such affairs. Now I am, suddenly and shockingly, older than most of the people who attend such events. Hmmmm…. And strangely I’m not depressed by this.

– Feeling even more middle-aged, but in a comfortable way, because everyone I know well, basically, is starting to get requests to appear on TV or radio. Including me, even. One of the Major American Networks is apparently trying to cast my wife as a talking-head in a Major Piece they’re doing on socialized medicine, the NHS and the like. My wife is a brilliant Overton Window player, which is probably the best thing, in terms of politcised hackery, that you can be.

I am happy to hear that the Major American Networks are working on Major Pieces on socialized medicine. I am thinking that they should film the birth of our second child via the costless services of the NHS at University College Hospital, especially the part where my wife pushes and I faint.

– Getting work. Mmmmm. Work. By which I mean writing work, of the non or only para-academic variety. I am covering the enormous Communism Conference for a fine American magazine / journal that you almost definitely read if you look at my site. And this summer I get to write a personal essay cum litcrit piece on sitting around in coffee places doing crosswords and the like that will be published by one of the Finer Left-Oriented Presses. (The table of contents of this collection reads like a who’s who of Interesting London, plus one guy from the Bronx, and, um, me…) And I have various stuff (on Lefebvre and other things) that I need to get to right away. This sort of work makes me very happy indeed…. Not that I don’t want to revise my monograph or anything….

– Watching Mad Men. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s more than good enough to keep me entertained. Was thinking today that with this one – who is always the one to be pictured in newspaper items about the show – they are effectively bringing the big ass back after several decades in the desert of televised desire. All well and good, bring it back then…. All to the good, all very just and right.

Ah man, I have to go and read some student papers now… Exhausted, awful, but glad that I got in touch….

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March 13, 2009 at 12:34 am

bad news all around

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More bleak news on the academic job front, via the NY Times.

Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year.

“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

The anticipated wave of retirements by faculty members who are 60-something is likely to slow as retirement savings accounts and pensions wither, administrators and professors say. That means that some students who have finished postdoctoral fellowships and who expected to leave for faculty positions are staying put for another year, which in turn closes off an option for other graduate students coming up the ladder.

Glad to see that the Times has gotten one of the secret and small issues at play here – secret and small but bound to make this problem worse moving forward. In the USA, where there’s no manditory retirement (as there is here in the UK, and probably as there should be everywhere, but only if there are proper state pensions in place of course, which is not at all a given….) lots of the long tenured types who were headed toward retirement have had their stupid TIAA-CREF accounts shredded by the stock market dive. Their answer, of course, will be to defer retirement even longer than academics usually defer retirement, which is a long, long time.

At my last job, I had a choice between a state pension and a managed retirement account with TIAA-CREF. I really wanted to choose the former, really did for so many reasons, but with things the way they are in terms of mobility / precarity, it seemed (in the five minutes I was given to make the choice after some infotainment at the HR building) like a very bad bet to start a habit of accruing tiny little pension pots all over the USA… and as it turns out, not just the USA. So I took the non-pension. And wow, has it ever bled cash over the past year.

Well, at least if the academic job-market tanks everyone could just become freelance writers instead of boring academics. Erm… Francis Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week, suggests that writing may well be becoming – or already – exclusively the province of the rich:

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.

There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all. (In contrast with another industry under siege—music—in which rising from the hood or the farm still seems plausible, even stereotypical.)

The Internet has brought the newspaper business to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?

It is a bit hard to understand, and the older I get (and the better circles that I move in) it only gets harder. A little while ago I was out for drinks with a relatively famous writer in multiple genres who had just spent an hour, among other things, baiting his academic audience with their failure to publish relevant work, to publish in the newspapers and the like. Despite the fact that he is, as I said, relatively famous, I doubt we’re talking about boatloads of money from the books and the increasingly rare journalism, and certainly not enough to support a lifestyle that at least resembles, if not betters, those of the academics that he was drinking with afterwards. I wanted to ask the unaskable question – the question about how this all worked, how with the family and the kids, the tennis games on Saturday mornings and the house in a decent part of the city – he kept it all together without tethering himself to a department and lectures and seminars, essays to mark and students to meet and sub-committees to sign on for. But of course, I did not ask. Though there are a few options, one does not really need to ask.

In America, it is hard to think of anyone remotely near my age who writes who is not an academic of one stripe or another. In the UK, it is slightly easier, I suppose because of the low cost of education and the free health care, and the fact that the pay scale seems to be slightly more humane than the one decscribed by Wilkinson above. But only slightly easier. Back home, I do or did know a few who went the intern to editorial assistant to subeditor to managing editor route, while writing on the side – a route fraught with perils of more than one stripe, but every once in awhile it works out. And of course there are a few exceptional cases where it can happen the way it should happen, occasionally even very deserving cases like this one. Or then again, some try other lines of work, but this usually comes to no good, I suppose because too much of your mind is elsewhere for to much of the time. At least when, say, a literary academic isn’t writing because his or her job is too demanding, she or he is still working through the operative questions and issues at least part of the time. Working as a bank teller or a store clerk or a lawyer or, dunno, an intinerant apple picker might well be a good source of material, but I can imagine (and remember) how intellectually depleting such work can be.

One feels a reflexive need to say at this point in this sort of post that it is important to remember that academics are only academics, writers are only writers, and that everyone else in the world has it worse. I am sure that is very true. But on the other hand, and without being a blinders-on technocrat about things, it does seem a bit worrying to thing about a world in which almost all would-be academics have to find something else to do, or else teach themselves crazy until writing is off the table, and where absolutely the only writing that gets done is done by the children of the idle rich. Of course, we’re already there and getting more there everyday.

I’d like to find a way to write about this. It’s interesting – given the choice between blurring the distinction between what we do and what everyone else does via “the modern office is the victorian factory” move and some sort of elderly-sounding defense of art and thought as the eyes and mind of the polity stance, my instincts are on the side of the latter. I am not a factory worker; I’m not really treated like one. It doesn’t take a very deep look into Victorian factory life to realise that this is true. On the other hand, it may be harder to produce and disseminate decent work now than it used to be. There’s some other way at this than the ways people are generally thinking about it, but I’ve been warned not to be so promisory in my posts, so no promises.

(I’ll come back to it later, soon…)

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March 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm

paris review interview with sdb, then awp interview with… me

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Ouch, I find the following, which I’ve liften in-full from the blog Daily Routines (which you really should go look at – it’s a very interesting site), a little bit painful to read. It’s a fragment from a Paris Review interview of 1965 in which Simone de Beauvoir discusses her work habits.

INTERVIEWER
People say that you have great self-discipline and that you never let a day go by without working. At what time do you start?

DE BEAUVOIR
I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

INTERVIEWER
When do you see Sartre?

DE BEAUVOIR
Every evening and often at lunchtime. I generally work at his place in the afternoon.

INTERVIEWER
Doesn’t it bother you to go from one apartment to another?

DE BEAUVOIR
No. Since I don’t write scholarly books, I take all my papers with me and it works out very well.

INTERVIEWER
Do you plunge in immediately?

DE BEAUVOIR
It depends to some extent on what I’m writing. If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.

INTERVIEWER
Do your writer friends have the same habits as you?

DE BEAUVOIR
No, it’s quite a personal matter. Genet, for example, works quite differently. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s working on something and when he has finished he can let six months go by without doing anything. As I said, I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don’t work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I don’t have time to read. But if the trip lasts a month or six weeks, I do feel uncomfortable, particularly if I’m between two books. I get bored if I don’t work.

I quite literally, a week or so ago, made a promise to myself and those directly affected by my demeanor, that I would never again complain about not having enough time to work. A few things had dawned on me at once:

  1. It might well be true, that I “don’t have enough time to work,”  it isn’t likely to change any time soon so I might as well get used to the situation.
  2. I don’t have time to work because the academic term is on and I will be able to work properly during the summer.
  3. I spend, at some points, as much time complaining about work time as I do actually working.
  4. The time when I am working is negatively affected by a general and pervading frustration about worktime, leading me to, say, have an hour to work and not use it appropriately because “I won’t get anything done during a single hour and besides, there’s no real work time anyway so I might as well not start.”

So, I’m definitely not complaining right now, as that would be breaking an important promise. But still, SDB’s routine does sound rather utopian, doesn’t it? How about the four hour break in the middle of the day for friend seeing? And the “two to three months” of vacation when, since she’s gotten so much written during the intervening period, she doesn’t write all all but reads “a big valise” worth of books?

Mmm… Anyway, I know I shouldn’t complain. I’m going to spend tomorrow writing a book review, as Wednesday is “research day,” when it can be (i.e. when I’m not teaching graduate seminars or undergoing grueling administrative endurance tests….) as there’s no undergraduate teaching on those days. But that stuff from SDB is something – I’ve changed my mind, it’d be incredibly nice not to work in a job sort of way.

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February 24, 2009 at 10:35 pm

wishful thinking

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From Readymade and via Boredom is Always Counter-Revolutionary, a poster series:

Given the current economic meltdown, this 75th anniversary of the New Deal has particular resonance. How might the current government stem the tide of economic and psychological depression? Can artists and designers help in similar ways today? It’s curious that the WPA style has been reprised in the recent past as a quaint retro conceit, but today may be an opportune time for a brand-new graphic language—equal in impact to the original initiative, but decidedly different—to help rally the cause of hope and optimism.

Though it’s a fun idea that Readymade has here, the posters are dispiriting for at least three reasons.

  1. Aesthetically, they reach no higher plane than the better JetBlue brand campaigns. If the past was helvetican, the future of public art, apparently, brings the serif back into the fold in a goof-folk way. Ugh… And age of aquarius flowerglobs and bloombursts! Anything but that!
  2. The best we can hope for, it seems, is the meager consolation of the reusable shopping-bag college town shabby affluent ethicalism. We won’t have much, but what we have will be green….  Rather than the contemporary equivalent of rural electrification, we get nothing more than good feelings and above all else unanchored hope for its own sake.
  3. Of course, Readymade’s project is meant to be aspirational, at the best suggestive, rather than predicative. But there is something frustrating about even the halfhearted or semicomical discussion of the possibility WPA-type support for creatives in the current environment. It simply isn’t going to happen – there is zero chance that any of us end up writing or illustrating guidebooks or muraling post offices.

Sorry to break it to us, but there simply won’t be public service design and writing stipends rolling around. Just as Obama’s new roads and bridges will be subcontracted out rather than built by armies of federal employees, if new work there is to be for folks like us think more along the lines of back-to-work facilitator or dry-erase confidence augmenter under the aegis of some private corporation running JobCentre or workfare offices.

Merry Christmas! Sorry…. Here, some comic relief, or preemptive training in the skill of skills-training, or something…

On a related note,  there are ominous signs that the primary existing form of state support for intellectuals, academic work (you know, the sort of support where the salary comes with the added perk of a free – and manditory – mental spay / neuter), seems to be headed towards crisis as or more rapidly than we expected. This cover article in the Guardian about the rapidly shrinking endowments of Russell Group universities led our departmental Christmas lunch to be dominated by conversations about any other transferable skills that we might individually possess. (Typing? Private Tutoring? Copyediting?) And of course the pampered types at Russell Group unis here or Ivies over there have the least to worry about. IT has been, as usual, excellent of late on the way that what the crisis will bring, in a sense, is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo at many places.

Although it currently looks like a good idea to be a public servant of one kind or another (as the spivs in shiny shoes run off to teacher training college), it won’t be long before the financial crisis hits universities hard (funny how the ‘trickle-down’ is so much more effective when it’s the redistribution of loss). Small departments are in big trouble. Any good will extended towards the future (‘give us five years to prove how good we could be!’) will be retracted in the name of short-term savings. Informed once again the other day that our department was not in the strongest position because we had no ‘stars’, it was hard not to imagine senior management pitting small programmes against one another in a kind of X-factor head-to-head (But she once had a piece in the Guardian! But he appeared on Newsnight! Isn’t he friends with Martin Amis? Doesn’t she have contacts in the city?).

The management solution, of course, is to cut the time allowed for research (while at the same time push for constant publication) and demand cuts in teaching (‘why can’t you run seminars with 20?’) in favour of the churning out of grant applications. Sod the students! Once they’re here we’ve got their money, who cares if they repeatedly tell us they want more teaching and more seminars and more intellectual engagement? And PhD students! Get lots of them! They bring in tons of cash! Too bad you don’t have enough time to write anything on a topic that someone might want to come and work with you on.

And of course, of course – just before many of you cancel out the rss feed on my site – the potential plight of the already employed is absolutely nothing in comparison to the very real and right-now shit situation faced by the not-yet-employed. While it’s always been bleak, this year it’s beyond bleak. And I’m sure next year it will be even worse, as the last few jobs that were already in the pipeline will have already spilled out at the terminus. I write people to see how their searches are going, always a delicate email to compose and to respond to. This year, friends simply don’t write back.

So, look. None of this is going to lead to the fulfillment of that weird fantasy that so many of us seem to share of shuffling out of the office in the department to write banal travel guides of Delaware or join a troupe of travelling avant-garde actors touring the smaller cities and rural high schools of our great nations. Nothing good, I imagine, will come of this, but if it did – if we were asked to suggest something – I wonder what solution we would come up with in order to relieve the reserve armies of immaterial labor when they’re (we’re) finished being put out of work. One solution would be to radically boost primary and secondary school funding, but this strategy comes with its own distinctive perils. (Here’s IT again…)

More to come…

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December 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

infrastructure

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From the NYT, one minute ago:

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama committed Saturday to the largest public works construction program since the creation of the interstate highway system a half-century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy.

[…]

Although he put no price tag on it, he said he would invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which also includes work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, electric grids, dams and other public utilities. He vowed to upgrade computers in schools, expand broadband Internet access, make government buildings more energy efficient and improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices.

The post-election performance has been mixed tending toward depressing-per-expectations, but this I’ll take. Others are very unhappy and for just the right reasons.

Alan D. Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told Congress recently that public works spending should not be authorized out of “the illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.”

“If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard told the House Ways and Means Committee. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”

Yep! We’ll take it!

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December 6, 2008 at 8:39 pm

lenin on workfare

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Lenin has been excellent lately. Always, but especially lately I think:

The reason Johann Hari can talk like this is because he accepts a moral fairy tale: benefits are some sort of charity in which nice middle class people part with a portion of their income to support the poor. That much is patently obvious from his opening shot. But the welfare state is not a charity. It is a modestly redistributive model to which everyone in work contributes. Most of those receiving benefits will have paid taxes at some point, or will at some point in the future. They do not need to be ordered around and demeaned by forced labour when at some point in their life they fall on hard times. Even those who have never paid taxes and, for the sake of argument, are conscientious layabouts who avoid the labour market (and who can blame them, given that most people cannot expect the relative security, dignity, fame and financial rewards that a newspaper columnist will receive?), don’t need to be penalised in this way. First of all, even if it could work, it would require a nightmare scenario to do so. To really get to grips with the supposed recalcitrant spliff-heads and daytime-telly addicts (my stock of cliche is rapidly running out), you would have to construct a state bureaucracy so intrusive, and so arrogant and overbearing, that it would inevitably bring large swathes of even the ‘deserving poor’ under its surveillance and constant harrassment. People who have spent their lives contributing to the society would find themselves battered with ‘work-oriented interviews’, phone calls, demands for information, allocations for miserable ‘community service’ work. Constant testing and grading, and in the case of the incapacitated, inspection by GPs pressured with reward-focused targets, would be the motif if such a pointless exercise. Even if you could single out the tiny minority of putative couch potatoes, which of course you cannot, it would save the taxpayer next to nothing and produce no overall benefit. The politicians who are devising these schemes have every reason to know all this. They are not targeting the ‘Andys’ of this world, even if Andy is unfortunate enough to exist and to have a priggish moralist like Hari as a friend. The intention is to, as fully as possible, role back the welfare state – not to replace it with a version that people like Johann Hari can defend in good conscience, but to reduce it to a shell. That requires, as with the attack on the US social security system (scheduled to resume under Obama, I bet you), the contrivance of ‘crises’. Suddenly, we lack the money for all this luxury, suddenly there is a financial gap, a shortfall, and there are all these millions of people using the system when they should be in paid work…

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July 21, 2008 at 10:03 am

paper control

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Edmund White in the NYRB on Marguerite Duras:

Duras never mentioned that she, too, had worked as a minor bureaucrat under the Occupation. When she was a young and aspiring but unpublished author, she accepted a position with the government organization that decided on a book-by-book basis whether a publisher would be given paper with which to produce a given title. Essentially, the service of “paper control” for which she worked from July 1942 to the end of 1944 was acting as a state censor. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was withdrawn, as were titles by Freud, Zola, and Colette. Quantities of paper, however, were allotted to the publication of Goebbels’s memoirs, Paul Claudel’s Ode to Marshall Pétain, and the vilest anti-Semitic garbage of the period, The Ruins by Lucien Rebatet, who, as Jean Vallier writes, had “a sewer mouth that all by itself was able to dishonor an entire epoch.”

It was perhaps because Duras held this sensitive position that her own first novel, Les Impudents (which had been turned down by several publishers), was now accepted and received a glowing review from the brilliant collaborationist critic Ramon Fernandez (who also worked for the paper control service and whose wife Betty was Duras’s best friend). Duras at least was able to admit it years later:

If my first novel finally appeared …it was because I was part of a paper commission (it was during the war). It was bad….

To be sure, everyone not independently wealthy had to have a job, but her position as censor for the Nazi occupiers was certainly one that Duras was eager to forget. Nor did she want to remember that before the war she had worked in the publicity department representing France’s colony in Indochina during the late 1930s, especially at the 1937 International Exposition, the last great manifestation of French colonialism. Most of the French did not object to France having colonies at the time. But Duras, with her considerable powers to mythologize the past, knew how to invent a suitably leftist record for herself.

I’m not citing it to be mean to old MD, but rather because I’ve been thinking more and more about what it would mean to be properly equipped to write in this world, to write correctly, issues of transparency and complicity and making ends meet, and the day-job / night-job issue as well as the eerie conformity of the American liberal intelligensia, perhaps the sort of paper control that they practice upon others and themselves, and what it would mean to work in propitious or unpropitious times, unintended consequences, use as directed sort of issues…

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July 15, 2008 at 8:58 am

loss leaders

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From the Independent today:

A draft law on the “modernisation of the economy” unveiled yesterday threatens, according to its supporters and some of its critics, to revolutionise shopping in France. Other critics suggest the draft law is too timid. Large French shops will mostly remain closed on Sundays. Little effort will be made to diminish the regional domination of French supermarket chains.

The draft presented by the Economy minister Christine Lagarde will make it simpler to build medium-sized supermarkets. That should encourage “hard-discount” chains such as Lidl and Aldi, which have a relatively small share of the French market.

If approved by parliament, the law would also abolish the existing complex rules which, in theory, forbid sale below cost and force manufacturers to provide goods at the same wholesale price to hyper-markets and village shops.

With inflation gathering pace and wages stagnating, the law is intended to help to fulfil the President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to increase the purchasing power of French people.

The federation of large shopowners predicted that the law would reduce prices of food and basic household goods by 2 per cent. Serge Papin, head of the Système U chain of supermarkets, predicted price cuts of up to 3 per cent.

Michel-Edouard Leclerc, head of the Leclerc chain, said the law would “cut inflation in half” by allowing shops to refuse the “excessive price rises” demanded by manufacturers. He predicted a “vast spree” of price-cutting from September, if the law is passed.

Yes, it will slightly cut inflation doubly. On the one hand, grocery prices will go down slightly. On the other hand, massive numbers of workers and owners of small groceries will likely be put out of work and either stay out of work or accept the low wages offered by the hypermarkets that walmartized their shops out of existence. We’ve seen this before – back during the boom in the US the greenspanites couldn’t stop talking about the fact that Walmart singlehandedly kept inflation at safe levels. What they didn’t discuss much is the fact that this is in part accomplished by the proletarianization of the workforce.

The French ban on loss-leaders always seemed to me an incredibly sensible piece of law, one that at once supported employment and consumer convenience and urban vitality. Prices at hypermarkets may go down some, but it seems to me the net effect has to be that prices at small shops will simply go up.

As if we needed to be reminded that each crisis – whether deflation or inflation, whether demand failure or food crisis, poor farmers or expensive food, too-expensive houses or too-cheap ones – will always be met with the same set of responses: deregulation, lower taxes, and the dismantling of the social state.

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April 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm

excellent, click thru

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February 21, 2008 at 10:30 am

not sure we talk enough about this guy

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…who seems to be the real deal, no? This ain’t Celebrutantes for the Vaguely Understood that he gets himself tangled up in.

art.glover.afp.gi.jpg

Danny Glover has been convicted in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for trespassing in a hotel during a union rally in 2006.

Glover, who wasn’t in court, was convicted Thursday along with UNITE
HERE union representative Alex Dagg and Ontario Federation of Labour
President Wayne Samuelson.

The 60-year-old Glover took part in the protest as part of a larger campaign that aims to
increase salaries and improve working conditions for hotel workers in
the U.S. and Canada.

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January 25, 2008 at 7:44 am

back to front, reaction to action

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Have you ever seen this BBC report of the Battle of Orgreave? I believe it is the one discussed here; apparently it reverses the order of events at the beginning of the sequence: in reality, the cops charged, then the strikers threw. (The voiceover, if you listen carefully, seems to strain to negotiate this temporal gaming. The strikers throw, the police charge, then the police are hit, then strikers are injured…)

(Note: this post is meant to relate pseudo-dialectically to the post before. Assume this is also the case for all future posts… Or perhaps this is just more guilt, more ass-covering, sublimated as avantgarde blogstyle).

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September 11, 2007 at 10:30 am

think they meant “ouroboros capital management”

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Cerberus Capital Management, whose largest institutional investors include the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and TIAA-CREF (the latter handles my meager retirement accounts), purchases Chrysler, and immediately installs an anti-labor goon as CEO… Robert Nardelli, referred to in this USA Today article as "the poster child of poor workforce relations," is the goon in question. In other words, money managed on behalf of (mostly) union members has, via the wonderful ethical laundry program of capital management lp type stuff, come around to set other union members up for a royal ass-kicking and general despoilation, mostly of, yes, their retirement benefits. Following so far?

We’re not very far away from a scenario in which, say, a car company’s employee-managed retirement fund, via a capital management company, purchases the very car company in question, and in a frantic grasp for capital, robs the very workers who hold the fund of retirement benefits before breaking the company into parts and putting everyone out of work. So everyone ends up with no job, no health benefits, and slightly higher retirement account balances. Except, of course, for the new CEO and the managers in the CM firm, who walk away with tons of cash.

Ha! That would be hilarious! Almost as funny as California school teachers ("inadvertently") fucking the guys who make the Chryslers. (which is not as funny, because it is not as uncanny… plus there’s a rather obvious white-collar, blue-collar thing going on, though I’ll bet the blues on average earned more than the whites do now…)

At any rate, there is of course a message in all of this, a blindingly clear one about complicity and the impossibility of clean hands (like I said, TIAA-CREF manages my money too!), and what the "end of the proletariat" means when it results in the birth of a class of fractional capitalists who unconsciously read their quarterly-statements unaffected by the scenes of cannibalistic creative destruction playing out between the lines of figures.

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August 8, 2007 at 12:32 am

laissez half-emptyism? the cycle never sets on structural reform? capitalism vs. GDP etc…

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There really should be a word for neoliberal eitherorism of this sort. Just as, in the US, tax cuts for the wealthy were first proposed as the only fair thing to do with the federal surplus in the first years of the 2000s, and then, after the economy began to stutter and tank, the only form of economic stimulus sure to bring the feds back into the black, the Economist here greets Europe’s strong economic performance vis a vis the US with a call to Americanizing workplace reform.

Eitherorism, yes, and also pickumandchoozumism. If you are in favor of labor market reform, then the strong performance serves as apt evidence that more reform is needed:

The transformation has been most remarkable in Germany, the biggest European economy, once tarred as “the sick man of Europe”. From 1995 to 2005 German GDP grew at an average of only 1.4% a year. But in the first quarter of 2007 it expanded more than twice as fast, despite a large rise in value-added tax. The 2004 reforms in labour markets and welfare made by the previous government under Gerhard Schröder are bearing fruit. On international definitions, unemployment is down to 6.4%, not much above the level in Britain. German business is doing spectacularly well: the country is again the world’s biggest exporter, profits are at a record, competitiveness has improved sharply.

But if, on the other hand, you take this strong performance as evidence that things are more or less OK the way they are, that there has been enough reform, or even godforbid that European competitiveness is evidence that the relatively “unreformed” European model actually does work, then you are misreading a cyclical effect as an indicator of the effectiveness of policy.

Some Europeans may be tempted to conclude that their economic problems are behind them, their structural faults have been put right—and there is no need for more painful reforms. […] But much of the recovery is really cyclical. When the global economy is registering a fourth successive year of near-5% growth, it would be surprising if the world’s biggest exporter did not benefit; indeed, growth of 3% seems rather modest.

And I think it’s safe to say that the logic deployed in the following paragraph won’t likely be deployed by the Economisers during the next European downturn:

European countries that have introduced radical reforms have usually done so in times of serious economic crisis: Britain in 1979, the Netherlands in 1982, Ireland in 1987, Denmark, Finland and Sweden in the early 1990s. Yet as all these countries found, it is easier to change when times are good, not when they are bad. That is a lesson that Germans, French, Italians and other Europeans should ponder as they bask in today’s sunshine.

So, during the next European recession, we should expect to hear strong advocacy of postponing reform for sunnier times in favor of dosing the economy with some nice state spending, right?

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July 18, 2007 at 12:24 pm

i too dream of a Marxist therapy

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 Go read the whole thing at k-punk:

The opposite of social confidence and its attendant sense of entitlement, its urbane at- homeness-in-the-world, is a sense of inferiority, a constant worry about whether one should occupy certain spaces, the quietly panicky conviction that ‘surely they can see that I don’t belong here’. A sense of inferiority is so much a part of the background noise of my existence that until really quite recently I had tended to assume that it is a universal feature of human experience. That sense of – inherent, ontological – inferiority wasn’t something that I railed against; rather, it was so naturalized that it was barely noticed, but constantly felt, distorting all my encounters with people and the world. (But of course, under capitalism, there is no social interaction that isn’t distorted by class position, no neutral social field that exists beyond social antagonism). I suppose I had my first conscious tastes of inferiority when, in the school holidays, I went with my mother, who worked as a cleaner, to the houses of the well-to-do. Feeling lesser simply wasn’t an issue; it was experienced as a non-contestable fact. At least now – and this is partly thanks to CBT – I am aware both of the way in which that the sense of ontological inferiority colours my experience – sometimes I can practically sense it as an entity, a grey vampire squatting on my shoulders, heavy and draining; and I have learned to reduce its power, if not to eliminate it. One of the other tensions that constantly came up with my therapist was over the cause of this feeling of inferiority: for me, it was clearly a class issue, and I dream of a Marxist therapy that could address the pyschic wounds of class society.

I’ve not, for a long time, been very sympathetic to the notion or practice of therapy (whether k-punk’s imagined Marxist variety or just plain on talking cure type stuff), nor have I had much time for therapy’s instantiation in the business of literary study. Lately, though, due to the fact that I’ve had some first hand experience of the thing for the first time in my life, I think I’m headed back in the other direction on the issue. Maybe one day I’ll post more about it. We’ll see.

But I will say that class-issues do seem very hard to get at in these situations. One goes in because one is frustrated with one’s work – perhaps because one is in fact the American technocratic version of the Brit “ruling class” that k-punk describes – and the therapist only wants to talk about sex. Sex is really important, don’t get me wrong. But it is possible, or even probable, that it’s my job, the expectations that I was endowed with as a young kid, the fact that I do extremely well by almost any standard but it just seems like worthless shit constantly, forever and ever, and will continue to do so, or so it looks, until the day that I die…

Blogging is a strange symptom of this problem as well, in case that wasn’t readily clear already.

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July 9, 2007 at 11:25 am