Reverse Corporate Personhood
April 3, 2012

Anyone remember The Corporation, either the book or the documentary? If not, here’s a refresher on some of its basic ideas:

Granted, much of the movie tends toward the breathlessly hyperbolic, and its mission is more polemical than analytical. But ever since I first saw it in high school, I’ve been fascinated by one of its key premises (one only hinted at by the Noam Chomsky line in the trailer): that if were to treat corporations as persons in more than just a legal sense, we’d have to regard them as dangerous sociopaths.

Now, few people (except maybe Eric Schwitzgebel) would argue that corporations actually are people in any meaningful, extra-legal sense. But we can easily imagine what a person would look like if he possessed some of the traits of a corporation. The primary responsibility, perhaps the sole responsibility, of a corporation is to accrue profit for its shareholders. Seeing like a corporation, everything else — ever single object, person, physical space, and idea — assumes an instrumental value relative to its ability to help the corporation achieve that end. The notion of a “good corporate citizen” is pretty much a myth, except insofar as presenting a public image of good citizenship will help make the corporation more profitable.

This all strikes me as relatively uncontroversial, even banal. The crucial debate is not over the characteristics of a corporation, but over whether those characteristics are being harnessed to good ends. That is to say: Is corporate enlightened self-interest fueling economic growth, raising the overall standard of living, and contributing to human flourishing? Or not?

Let’s bracket that question, for the purposes of that blog post. Instead, I’d like us to consider what happens when we graft the basic elements of corporate self-interest onto a human person. Unless you’re an orthodox Randian, we should be able to agree that someone who lives his entire life on the basis rapacious self-interest and instrumentalism is probably pretty horrible. If not a textbook sociopath (I’ll leave that up to the professional psychologists), he’d at least fit the term as it’s used idiomatically. He’d also be what we commonly understand as a narcissist.

That could give us a pretty decent frame for understanding the phenomenon I tried to pin down in my last post, regarding what’s now being commonly (and rather obnoxiously) referred to as “Generation Me.” If 20-30 year olds are more brutishly self-interested than their parents, and if, as I argue, this is a byproduct of growing up under neoliberalism and into an age of scarcity, then we might understand what’s happening to young people as a sort of process of reverse corporate personhood. That is to say: in an increasingly competitive market defined by the ethics and conventions of the corporate world, young people rightly intuit that the most successful actors will be those who behave most like one-person corporate entities.

I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t quite have the empirical grounding to back that analysis up. But I do have some formal background in philosophy, which might be able to provide some insight from a different angle. When I write about this next, I’ll probably try and dive into the phenomenology of corporate personhood.

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Debt and the Market Society
March 16, 2012

Forgive the promiscuous blockquoting,* but it’s necessary to link two very important ideas about the modern market state. The first comes from small-r republican philosopher Michael Sandel of Harvard (and of this excellent web series designed to serve as an intro to political philosophy), who writes:

The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship.

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings as persons, worthy of dignity and respect; it sees them as instruments of gain and objects of use.

And here’s Aaron Bady, channeling David Graeber and taking it a step further:

After all, it is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.

That’s where Sandel doesn’t go far enough (at least in his Atlantic essay — I understand he’ll have a book on the topic out soon): markets don’t just distort and obscure the non-monetary value of things, but can also justify various forms of structural violence. The example Bady uses is debtors’ prison — and if you think that’s a quaint relic of a simpler time, like the guillotine and VHS tapes, then think again.

*And be forewarned, your tax dollars are subsidizing my promiscuity.

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Nope, No Alliance Here
March 8, 2012

In a post titled The Left-Right Anti-Yglesias Alliance, Matthew Schmitz suggests that Ross Douthat’s recent quarrel with Matthew Yglesias echoes lefty critiques of so-called pity-charity liberalism.* Both Douthat and the non-neoliberal left, Schmitz writes, argue “that a certain brand of economic thinking is blinkered to the types of things that allow humans to flourish and realize goods that won’t always be easily captured on surveys, things like dignified work and, yes, a stable family.”

That’s a fair gloss of Douthat’s critique — as well as the critique made on folks on the left, such as Freddie DeBoer, Mike Konczal and myself — but it’s hardly grounds for an alliance. And in this particular instance, I don’t think any of the lefties Schmitz cites would accuse of Yglesias of being blind to the unquantifiables that contributes to human flourishing. To understand why not, let’s take a look at the offending Ygz passage that kicked this whole thing off:

The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

“Economic empowerment” as a concept is not so far removed from agency, autonomy, and the other virtues you’ll see extolled in my writing on labor. And when Konczal writes about “human dignity” in the workplace, he seems to be getting at much the same thing. Our criticisms of neoliberal economic policy tend to be grounded in a conviction that it is, at worst, overly coercive, and, at best, insufficiently emancipatory. Here, Yglesias is whole-heartedly endorsing gender parity in economic autonomy, which seems like sort of a no-brainer from my corner of the ideological spectrum.

Douthat’s critique, it’s true, accuses Yglesias of being concerned only with “some form of continued growth and a relative social stability.” But once you recognize the centrality of empowerment to Yglesias’ argument, that accusation looks pretty plainly false. Douthat seems to have misconstrued the nature of the argument by equating empowerment with an increased ability to pursue one’s “short-term rational interests” (presumably in the economic sense). That ability may be a consequence of empowerment, but they’re not identical notions — and by trying to make them appear identical, Douthat makes the classic neoliberal mistake of reducing complicated philosophical/psychological categories to their measurable economic effects.

Presumably this is so he can sap gender equality in the workplace of its moral appeal so that any state of affairs that encourages heterosexual marriage — even at the expense of gender equality — looks preferable. But for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter why Douthat makes the negative argument he does; the main takeaway is that the argument only works if you take “empowerment” to be some sort of code for “a more efficient specimen of homo economicus.” To be sure, if you’re willing to take that leap, then Douthat’s argument starts looking structurally similar to the left critique of neoliberalism in a very shallow sort of way. But once you decontextualize an argument so much that it really only amounts to, “X framework fails to account for Y,” then a lot of critiques look very similar. It doesn’t mean that the similarities are particularly meaningful.

*For a recent example of the latter type of critique, see my piece in The New Inquiry.

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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.
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No True Neoliberal
December 15, 2011

At the beginning of his famous 2005 graduation speech to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a joke that goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In DFW’s speech, “water” is a metaphor for the ineffable mystery and wonder of being alive. My intention in telling the same joke — with apologies to fellow DFW fans — is not quite so lovely. Instead, I would ask you to think of the two young fish as members of America’s political elite, and the water as neoliberalism.

Thinking in those terms might help clarify the reasoning between the perennial progressive assertion that there’s not really any such thing as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, the argument goes, is just a label that unreconstructed lefties stick to any policy with which they disagree. And when you ask those lefties to define it, they articulate a philosophical position that nobody anywhere on the political spectrum actually believes.

I was thinking about that argument when I read Elias Isquith’s pithy explanation of the logic undergirding Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s bipartisan Medicare plan:

It’s rare that you hear a politician or a respectable wonk or a think tank spokesperson discuss these kinds of plans in terms that aren’t loaded-up with jargon, for one; but even if the conversation is being carried out with plain language, there’s rarely if ever a focus on how the actual plan would work for real human beings, rather than abstract Consumers.

The disconnect Digby’s pointing out here is born from a larger ideological blind-spot of this era’s political class: they cannot see the world without the language and logic of the market. The wide swathes of the population who may not be able — or may not want— to adopt the mindset of the holy Rational Consumer might as well not exist; they’re square circles. To say that people can be quite real and quite valuable while, at the same time, not really being Consumers? Imagine telling a Medieval monk that the world can’t be divided between saints and sinners. It just doesn’t register.

See, nobody actually believes that all levels of society should be ordered around consumer-producer market relationships. It’s just that whenever we get to debating matters of public policy, the implicit framing of the debate assumes that we’re trying to determine the optimal form of a particular consumer-producer arrangement. But hey, how else would you engineer state and society? That’s not neoliberalism — it’s just the way the world is. What the hell is water?

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Small-R Republicanism and the NeoL-word
July 20, 2011

social welfare maximization

Image via Wikipedia

Many, many blog-years ago Dylan Matthews and I had a back-and-forth over abstract philosophy’s role in concrete political debates. I argued that philosophy could play a bigger, more active role in public discourse, whereas Dylan insisted that first principles are “largely irrelevant” in real-world politics and only “emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant.”

But if there’s one thing we should learn from the progressive blogosphere’s ongoing debate over neoliberalism, it’s that these intramural differences over fundamental values can have significant implications. I was reminded of this when I grabbed a drink with Dylan just the other night, and we got to talking about his “neoliberalism”* versus my more traditionalist leftism. The more we explored the subject, the more we came to realize that our political differences reflected a deeper philosophical disagreement: I’m a small-r republican who equates justice with the maximization of non-domination, and Dylan is a utilitarian who treats non-domination as an ancillary concern to general well-being or flourishing.

My problem with utilitarianism in a public policy context is this: when it comes to accurately measuring and maximizing a phenomenon as fuzzy and nebulous as “well-being,” we’ve got a serious knowledge problem on our hands. On the other hand, Philip Pettit’s book on Republicanism includes a lengthy and fairly rigorous account of freedom as non-domination. And while the book — being, first and foremost, a work of analytic philosophy — does little to unravel the full policy implications, you can draw a direct line from my republican leanings and to emphasis on redistribution of power through workplace democracy, just as you can draw a line from Dylan’s utilitarianism to his preference for centrally-directed technocracy.

*I’m using scare quotes here because Dylan has a reasonable case that the term “neoliberal” is not really all that useful when explaining left/center-left divisions in American politics.

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