Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Cubed" by Nikil Saval: A Novel History of the Place of Work

This is one of those books that ended up getting a good bit of press because it was a novel way of looking at something that is an everyday thing.

The way that white collar workers do their work didn’t just happen that way, but it was a result of deliberate choices – from the architecture of the buildings that the work is done in to the furniture that the workers sit on. I hadn’t thought too deeply about it, thinking that the way things are was just a bit like the way things were, only with computers. I was wrong, and Saval tracks the changes, focused on the United States from the industrial revolution on. The white-collar worker has not been devoid of the standardization and alienation that the blue-collar worker had and rebelled against. The white-collar worker just never saw their white-collar chains; instead, they looked up, hoping to move up the ladder (no matter how false that metaphor is or was). 

The potential for striving has, writ large, been the barrier to class to recognition of the white-collar worker for generations. The lack of upward mobility except for into the white-collar ranks is what led to unionism and workers improving their lots. The myth of upward mobility in white-collar terms is a form of social control that is not readily seen.

Saval tracks this, and it makes me think if this has been a deliberate move. As production has been mechanized, there are fewer production workers and more support staff in ancillary roles to production. As more workers move out of production and the workforce is more and more professionalized, white-collar membership is the mass of workers. It is the cube that keeps them apart and alienated. Maybe it is a prison of sorts.


I’m not part of this at all.

My office has a door.

"Chavs" by Owen Jones: Deserved More Attention in the States

I wrote a couple of friends from the Isles to explain what a Chav was to me. It’s a term we don’t have here in the states, and I was looking for an equivalent. The best I got was that it represents rednecks and white trash. The coding in the states is a little deeper. Most of our hate is race based. There is some class based hatred and demonization, but for us the race has been the easiest component of othering a population. We do have class-based hatred, with politicians speaking out against welfare queens and food stamp recipients, but I can’t hear those appeals without hearing the dog-whistle that goes along with it.

That I had to ask people about what the title of the book really means could be why it didn’t get the best play on this side of the Atlantic. The class-based othering that goes on, as depicted by Jones, is alien to me in terms of class. I think it is part of the unique histories of our countries. The English ended slavery earlier than we did and we imported our race-based exploitation to our shores where they kept theirs off shore in the various colonies. It was only with decolonization after the Second World War that I am aware of huge race based hatreds. Unless you count the Irish. They have always been dehumanized.
So it was with a pretty blank slate that I read this book.

There is a lot of explanation of how England turned during the Thatcher era, and it coincides with what I know about this country with Reagan, but only more so. But it is not just Thatcher-bashing. Jones looks at the whole of contemporary British society in terms of the demonization of the working class. It is familiar, and it makes me think a couple of things. First, is it right as a leftist to point fingers at Thatcher and Reagan if they seem to just have been agents of larger structural change that was happening in the western world? Would the devastation of the unions and the bifurcation of society between “Makers and Takers” have happened even if there were different characters in those roles? Is neoliberalism just how capitalism adjusts to productivity gains, siphoning the gains to the upper class and eliminating the middle class?

Secondly, what is the role of racial hatred in the states with regard to the class based hatred that Jones chronicles? Is it an impediment to class based identity? I’m not sure if Chavs can supply the answers to these in the context of either country, but it does lay the groundwork for the structure of thought needed for analysis. I look forward to reading his more recent release. Maybe it will get some resect on these shores.

On "The incredible shrinking alpha"

I’ve recently read “A Random Walk Down Wall Street,” in the new edition. 

This is basically a pocket version of that.  Active management is out. It always should have been  out.

Of course that is already my prejudice, so this just reinforces that.  

The Money Game is Your Grandfather's "Liar's Poker"

          Every generation, a writer and their books pop up that show the back end of Wall Street and its ilk running back to Bagehot’s “Lombard Street”. There was then Livermore’s Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, and Schwed’s “Where Are the Customers' Yachts?” The generation before me had Michael Lewis and his “Liar’s Poker.” You may say that he is contemporary, since he is still writing, but that book made his name, and he hasn’t worked on the street since. He’s more of an outsider now – in fact, “Liar’s Poker” just got a rerelease for its 25th anniversary. Our generation lacks our defining book. The writers who might have written those books are still grappling with the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. 

                But I digress. Then if Lewis was for our fathers, the Adam Smith was for our grandfathers. It is an interesting read in the more things change, the more they stay the same sort of way. Some of the references are dated, but others are remarkably contemporary. One example is traders talking about the income potential of shale gas out west to produce once technology comes on line. There is a joke that they have always been waiting for technology to extract the oil, at least since the thirties. You know what the new technology was that was so promising 50 years ago? Drillers were going to plant small nuclear devices down wells to make them produce. It makes the current fracking debate seem quaint – oh, what’s a little flammable hydrocarbon in your water matter? It could have been much worse. That’s just a tiny part of the book. There’s also some good advice built in. For example, I flagged “If you know the stock doesn’t know you own it, then your ahead of the game” (72), which is evergreen advice against getting stuck in the sunk cost fallacy. There’s also worries that computers will take over and the value of the dollar will go down – which also seems familiar. Overall, this book is well worth a read for someone who is interested in the history of the market or even someone looking for advice in today’s market.

"The New Prophets of Capital" by Nicole Aschoff: Red Rosa for the New Age

This is a book in the Jacobin / Verso partnership, which puts together one of my favorite magazines with my favorite radical publisher. The books in the series have all been short looks at capitalism in the modern society, from teaching to writing to prostitution.

This book comes after several people who have tried to make changes in the relations of capitalism without changing the intrinsic nature of those relations. So it covers Oprah, Bill Gates, John Mackey, and Sheryl Sandberg. Each of these people has ideals that some might see as admirable, but are instead just capitulations to capitalism and not a direct challenge to it. She digs medium depth on all four of these people, and show that the greater goal is not met. I am more familiar with Gates and Oprah, as most people will be. Gates changed from uber-nerd to someone who wanted to save the world through elimination of disease and improved education. Oprah likes to hold herself up as an exemplar of pull yourself up by your bootstrap ideology. Both approaches are limited in their reality by the nature of economic and social relations that we call capitalism. Their very uniqueness shows the limits to capital, in that the mythos they perpetuate is limited by a confluence of happenstance that was beyond their control. Even if, like Gates, you ultimately want to put back the extraction of the resources you were able to affect through being a good programmer at the right time, there are still frictions in the system, and you will never be able to full give back. Your limits are also in part based on your focus -- Gates uses the market system to try to “Reform” schools; bypasses the state to eliminate diseases.  Mackey want to make a smarter market system, but even with his firm’s growth, even if it were a wonderful alternative to the WalMarts of the world, it doesn’t scale and just reinforces the privilege of the Whole Foods Shopper over any other consumer.

 The first essay in the book is the most troubling to me, since I have written positively of Sandberg’s “Lean In” crusade as trying to do the best within the capitalist system, even acknowledging Sandberg’s privilege of trying to make changes from the top. Aschoff and I have read a lot of the same writers, and she shows me the errors of my ways in being optimistic about the potential for change. Sandberg is focused on professional women and ultimately will only make incremental changes. Real change has to come from the bottom. Sandberg wants women to lean in, but the real goal is to lean against – and that is not just putting the onus for change on women, but it is the necessity of all people who want change to make a more equitable system.

 The book is short, but it is in the vein of Rosa Luxemburg, showing that yet again, reform is accepting the contradictions of the capitalist system, where real change is system change.