Old-fashioned

Speaking of white-male-leftist concerns, it’s been a rough last few months for Jacobin, a magazine that started out interestingly but has evolved into a publisher of a series of hand-wringing articles about inequality, cooptation, and the lack of effective political leadership. Which is to say, the talking points of socialists. (One article was properly skewered here, and this article was a fortunate exception to the recent trend.)

A recent article on China was not quite as bad as some of the rest, but, in addition to having a dubious thesis about the separation of production and reproduction, it contains this:

If the ideal of public goods is to serve as a bulwark against the market’s inherent tendency to reproduce class inequality, in China such institutions serve just the opposite purpose. This is not the informal class- and race-based segregation of today’s America, but old-fashioned, formal exclusion based on inherited characteristics. The implications for the rigidification of class structure are legion.

Putting aside another dubious (which is to say stupid) idea about the function of public goods, the reliance on “old-fashioned” processes of stratification and the implication that the “new” kind are not operative in China is not only more than a little Orientalist, but it doesn’t at all begin to grasp the changes afoot in the country (as I’ve written about here). Of course “old-fashioned” ways are still at work, but reducing the processes in China to those is comically insufficient.

Turns out, though, this is a Jacobin thing. Here’s Corey Robin, an editor of and contributor to the magazine:

Against critics—inspired by Michel Foucault—who focus on disciplinary institutions like prisons, hospitals, and schools, these books remind us that the workplace remains the central institution in most people’s lives. Foucault and his followers would have us believe that liberalism and the Enlightenment have vanquished the medieval world, and that discourses of freedom, reason, and individuality are the instruments of contemporary domination. But in the workplace, men and women are disciplined not by an impersonal panopticon but by the all-too personal figure of their boss. Liberalism is nowhere to be found, and Enlightenment might as well be the name of the utility company.[…] Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.

Now of course Foucault’s schemata deserves criticism and refinement—and there’s certainly a lot to be said about those who treat it as absolute and serial, including Foucault himself—but I can’t think of many things more reactionary that retreating to a predemocratic, almost precapitalist, past to explain how labor today is controlled, managed, and captured. There are thousands of studies about contemporary work, and I bet none of them, and certainly not Ehrenreich’s, indicate that we’ve returned to an (imagined) brute past in which bosses have complete control over workers. Such theses are not only ridiculous, but are dismissive of how workers’ struggles have changed workplace politics (they also forget the immense effort required of states in those days just to get people into workplaces).

They are just-so stories for socialists who lament their lack of control over the politics of renegade workers, feminists, queers, and many others.

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