C. Wright Mills, Labor and The Power Elite

It is with the third chapter of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, that things get more sociological and critical. This chapter is largely dedicated to Mills’s The New Men of Power – America’s Labor Leaders, published in 1948.

“The New Men of Power is not a book about the millions of industrial and service workers who swelled the ranks of organized labor during the turbulent 1930s. It does not purport to tell the story of the upsurge. Rather, it presupposes mass unionism and is concerned chiefly with the consequences of the integration of the labor movement into the political economy during the New Deal and the Truman administration. The New Men of Power resumes the tale at the moment when unions are in the process of institutionalization and when a more or less permanent labor bureaucracy is in formation, which, while still ultimately accountable to the membership, has given rise to a new type of elite. The labor elite tends to see the union as a military force in which the lower ranks, the rank and file, are subordinate to the union leaders and their staffs.


It is not a movement by, as well as for, its members and for working people as a whole. Most major unions, according to Mills, are run from the top by people who are part of a power elite. Thus, to grasp the present and future prospects of organized labor, the object of investigation is, necessarily, the labor leader, not the rank and file.” (104)

This emphasis on the consequences of institutionalization very much reflects Weber’s influence (combined with Marx) on Mills. Except that, for Mills, bureaucratization and institutionalization are not neutral processes of modernization or consequences of it. They are very much processes of power. And since Mills is very much a sociologist of the state, it is not surprising to see institutionalization as part of co-optation by the other branches of the power elite.

“Mills’s characterization of the labor leader as a member of the elite of power and far removed from the everyday lives of the workers he represents is a reflection not only of institutionalization but also of the labor leader’s penchant to hobnob with other members of the elites. The national labor leader tends to spend more time with members of Congress, officials in the executive branch of government, other top union leaders, and corporate counterparts than with the rank-and-file leaders of his own union.” (106)

This seems strikingly accurate still today, and, for Mills, this predicts the downfall of the labor movement (no longer a movement then, once institutionalized and bureaucratized).

“Mills concludes:

“If the CIO ideologists are not careful, the managers of corporate property will select only the reasonable concessions that are offered—that labor will not strike, that labor will help with the wars, that labor will be responsible, but they will reject labor’s pretensions to a voice in production, within the plants and in the planning of the U.S. political economy. (120–121)

The prescience of these remarks is all too apparent to students of current industrial relations: having cleared the “extremists and crackpots” from its ranks, labor rarely strikes, generally supports the wars, and has steadily lost power at the workplace. And demanding a voice in the larger political economy is as far from the minds of twenty-first-century American labor leaders as was the idea, in the immediate postwar period, that labor was a movement whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of capital. It took only a few more years after the publication of his study of labor leaders for Mills to consign organized labor to a “dependent variable” in the political economy”.


Mills’s main argument is that union power is doomed unless labor acquires an explicit ideology and has a series of ideas that are fully consistent with an assessment that, far from being benign, business and the political directorate are hostile, only occasionally tolerant of labor, and poised to wage full-scale class warfare on unions and their mass constituents.” (108 – 109)

“While large sections of the liberal center remained pro-union (at least in the general sense but often turning against union militants when they flexed their collective muscle by taking direct action), the tripartite alliance of labor leaders, capital, and the national political directorate forged elements of what the “mass public” perceived to be a new power elite. However, as Mills makes clear, labor leaders were junior partners, accumulating some concessions from the table of the main actors and playing an important part in stabilizing the political and economic systems, largely by controlling the wanton impulses of the rank and file—but never really sharing power.” (111)

Emphases mine.

Throughout the book, I have never being amazed at the prescience of Mills’s perspective on the labor movements, unions and their leadership in the context of late capitalism.

Labor leaders are prone to bemoan the apathy of the rank-and-file membership. Mills points out that their complaint carries little weight when they have committed the unions to supporting the two main political parties, which, in his estimation, offer little to the workers: “Such support only takes away their chance to organize politically and alert men to politics as live issues. The activities of these politics alienate people from politics in the deeper meanings and demoralizes those on the edge of political consciousness” (270). The alienation of many workers from politics and from their own union is not surprising; the picture Mills has painted is of a progressively tighter labor bureaucracy that privileges retention of power over a program of encouraging the rank and file to take over the union, let alone encroach on managerial prerogatives in the workplace.


Without the intellectuals and a new surge of rank-and-file involvement in the union, Mills foresees a grim future. As a slump deepens and mass unemployment eats into the moral fabric of society, large corporate capital and the state are likely to respond by inaugurating a major offensive against workers and their unions. Under present circumstances, workers and unions are poorly equipped to offer effective resistance and are likely to enter into a hopeless tailspin.” (115-117)

For Mills, there should have been a labor party in the US, one that would not depend on established political parties and that would have been truly (although non-communist, Mills had no time for them even though he was virulently anti-McCarthy, he did not disapprove of the purging of ranks of organized labor). To align itself with an established party has been a losing strategy and one can very clearly right now the efforts of the other political party to finish off the labor movements in the US, while the other party stands by and does close to nothing except come election time, expecting the union rank-and-file to fundraise and campaign based on nothing more  than “the other guys are worse.”

The state of organized labor today then, is the direct results, a few decades later, of the institutionalization of labor within the state and the structures of capitalism (a joint venture, despite illusions to the contrary). By joining the power elite, albeit in subordinate status, the leaders of the labor movement (the new men of power) basically signed the death warrant of a significant and radical component of the American society that had the potential to challenge the power elite.

C. Wright Mills in Context – The Roots of The Cranky

The first two chapters of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, are devoted to early intellectual career, his philosophical roots and his place in the New York intellectual scene. I have to confess that these were, to me, the least interesting chapters because I couldn’t wait to get into the real kick-a$$ material. These first two chapters reflect the fact that, being a young academic, Mills had to pretty much fit within the system but never really felt comfortable doing so (hence, the hiding from Lazarsfeld).

The first chapter, then, retraces Mills’s pragmatic roots, especially Mead (with some reservations):

“Mead’s psychology is social, because humans are defined as a communicating species in which the capacity for speech takes pride of place. Since language is the chief way in which humans communicate with one another, both expressively, that is, in terms of emotions, and intellectually, in the transmission of ideas, speech is the key interpersonal mediation and the mediation between mind and society. The individual communicates with “society” by internalizing not only a particular other but also by internalizing the “generalized other.” Society therefore enters individual consciousness via an inner dialogue between the subject “I” and the “me” that connotes a subject who is able to take herself as a social object.

Mills argues, in partial disagreement with Mead, that the individual as a social being internalizes not society as a whole but only a segment of it, namely the social networks and institutions that constitute the salient references for social life.” (35)

There also seems to be some (not mentioned) reference to Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke:

“By acquiring the categories of a language, we acquire the structured “ways” of a group, and along with the language, the value-implicates of those “ways.” Our behavior and perception, our logic and thought, come within the control ambit of a system of language…. A vocabulary is not merely a string of words; immanent within it are societal textures—institutional and political coordinates. Back of a vocabulary lie sets of collective action.” (From Mills dissertation)

Or here:

“Vocabularies of motive are situational but also limit the range of action. Situations, then, are always conditioned by anticipated consequences as they are embodied in certain vocabularies. In turn, vocabularies are not merely descriptions; they are attempts to influence consequences by controlling the response of others; they are “strategies of action.” If these strategies fail to achieve desired consequences, new vocabularies of motive may be adopted, but under ordinary circumstances they are quite stable, because the unanticipated is an exception.


Our actions are conditioned by the vocabularies that inform perception, the strategies we employ to achieve desired outcomes, as well as by what we think is likely to result from a series of actions. These are all elements of social life, not individual consciousness, and the operative concept is the interaction of language that is largely derived from prior situations, the situation itself, and anticipated consequences.” (36)

But even though Mills seems to have admired Dewey and other pragmatists, he was critical of their reformism and projects such as Hull House (Addams) and Dewey’s education projects as not radical enough.

Aronowitz summarizes Mills’s thesis as such:

“Taken in its entirety, Mills’s Sociology and Pragmatism may be understood as a Marxist-Weberian inspired analysis and critique of America’s dominant philosophical paradigm of the first half of the twentieth century and of its leading protagonists. At the same time, it is a demonstration of the view that ideas have no internal history of their own and can only be understood within the historically specific frameworks in which they are conceived and elaborated. These frameworks have economic, social, and political specifications and, in the case of the professionalization of philosophy, are entwined with the rise of higher learning in America in the wake of industrialization and the attempt of traditional liberal ideology to come to terms with the industrializing era.” (51)

As mentioned above, the following chapter is devoted to a mapping of the New York intellectual scene in which Mills navigated. I have to admit that I am almost completely unfamiliar with this context (not my generation, not my culture). I recognized a couple of names here and there, but that was it.

It is in this context that Mills honed some of the ideas that he will fully develop in his subsequent books and started integrated Marxist concepts into his writings. In a Veblenian (if there is such a word) vein, Mills (and Gerth) argues that the salaried middle-class cannot be the carriers of radical social transformation but are more or less completely beholden to the corporate system and subservient to the capitalist class (a position held by some in the New York scene). The experts, scientists and technicians are political dupes, and the more so that their training is rigorous and rigid. They are the functionaries of the political system, consciously or not, especially as their role in the exercise of power is disguised through objective expertise. Mills had also limited sympathy for intellectuals of retreated to the universities in the face of the McCarthy witch hunts.

“Whether the intellectual is a salaried employee of a university or of a large media or other industrial corporation, being “told what to do”—and, one might add, how to do it—undercuts the conventional wisdom, underlined by Foucault and, in a somewhat different mode, by the Frankfurt School, that knowledge is power and that artistic and intellectual work is still an autonomous activity in contemporary capitalist society. Instead, the system has made nearly all intellectuals and artists dependent on salaries, contracts, and concepts that are delivered as commands from powerful institutions. Whether applying for grants from the government or from private foundations, the intellectual is on “assignment.” Thus, much academic and commercial research is conducted only based on the willingness of those in power. The artist is no less constrained by the dictates of the art market. To paint or sculpt in ways that violate current fashions is likely to condemn the creator, regardless of her talent, to the margins of the art world or to oblivion. Clearly, we can see that Mills is nostalgic for a time when the independent intellectual and artist was still possible; when the question of how to support oneself was not an overriding consideration; or, to be more precise, when the cost of living, especially rents, made the existence of a coterie, if not a class, of independent intellectual craftsperson possible. Tacitly, he mourns the passing of the traditional intellectual, if not the conditions that made his existence possible.” (60)

Mills was undoubtedly anti-communist but completely opposed to anything related to the Cold War. He did not mince his words against liberal intellectuals who seemed to go along with the rising consumer society and as they vocally (and cowardly, for Mills) threw the baby out with the bathwater by denouncing socialist ideas they had erstwhile held. This was the reason why Mills called for a New Left that would generate a typically American brand of radicalism, untainted by communism but unafraid of the climate of the time.

It is in this context that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gets a special beating in Aronowitz’s book as representative of this intellectual cowardly trend:

“In fact, as early as the publication of Mills’s first major work, The New Men of Power (1948), the wave of accommodation and collaboration with liberalism by these erstwhile intellectual radicals was already in full force. In 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review that the United States was on the brink of socialism, a logical outcome of the incremental progress that had been initiated by the New Deal. In Schlesinger’s conception, socialism was little more than an expanded welfare state within the parameters of liberal democratic institutions, a characterization that was later to fit most of Western Europe’s social-democratic parties. The optimism expressed in this article could not have been more divergent from Mills’s view, expressed forcefully in his book on labor leaders, that corporate America was gearing up to steamroll over labor’s hard-won gains of the 1930s, an insight fueled by the Republican-dominated eightieth Congress’s enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. Two years later, Schlesinger went on to publish a full-length liberal manifesto, The Vital Center, in which radical traditions are decisively rejected—not only those associated with communism but also those of independent Marxism. Schlesinger’s book was also a signature statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism, according to which the United States, an open, democratic society, has circumvented the conditions that produced powerful European socialist and communist movements.” (71-72)

These, I think, are the roots of Mills’s crankiness: the quick betrayal of radical idea under the not-so-courageous, and very fashionable rejection of Stalinism and the uncritical to the submission to the ideology (disguised as end of ideology) of the triumph of democratic pluralism in the exceptional American society.

This is why Mills’s subsequent work take on the structures of power in their different dimensions as they co-opt more and more categories of people that should have opposed the system, from intellectuals to labor union leaders.

More to come.

C. Wright Mills – Ranting Sociologist

I have finished reading Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, which is an intellectual biography of Mills, in the context of the post-War New York intellectual / radical scene. It is a very dense book. I don’t think it is meant for larger, non-academic audiences. It is not the easiest read but, if one is used to academic reading, it is quite readable.

However, if you expect to learn a lot about Mill’s personal life, you will be disappointed because there is practically nothing in that regard. And the reason seems to be that there wasn’t much to explore in the first place. The only thing one can discern is that Mills was a rather cranky, ill-tempered man with whom it was not easy to get along and that he spent a bit a of time, early in his academic career, hiding from his boss, Paul Lazarsfeld (but then, who wouldn’t! 🙂 ).

So, the focus of the book is the intellectual works of Mills as well as his relationship with the academic and intellectual scene of his time. Accordingly, the book is structured by chapters analyzing each of his major publications, with a concluding chapter, reflecting on Mills’s influence over contemporary American sociology.

Because it is such a dense book and because I took a ton of notes, I intend to dedicate a series of posts to the book so that it will not be a one-post book review but rather, probably, one post per chapter, with a focus on one publication in some depth. In the present post, I will just confine myself to the opening of the book and some general comments.

First of all, I think Mills would have made a great blogger and twitterer, for the following reasons (Kindle location):

“C. Wright Mills defies classification in the neat compartments of scholarly disciplines and ideology. His was a restless mind in the classical traditions of Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and Max Weber, all of whom broke through methodological rituals and drew widely from philosophy, social science, and the arts. Mills culled such sources as newspapers, census data, and ethnographic studies. He sometimes invoked popular novels to illustrate his points. Yet even as he performed some sociological procedures early in his career, he sharply criticized what he later termed “abstracted empiricism”—the practice of confining social science to small studies or specific domains without drawing them together in broad generalizations about society as a whole. From the beginning, he employed social and cultural analysis to make sense of what he termed the “main drift” of politics and social relations.” (Loc. 70)

I think he would have written excellent blog posts based on a multiplicity of sources. He would have used all sorts of social media to get his message across and would have had no problem ditching the regular academic publications. And mostly, he was cranky:

“Unlike many contemporary, or current, public intellectuals, he was neither a servant nor a supplicant of power but, in the sense of the seventeenth-century English radical, was a “ranter”: his job was to sound the alarm. Indeed, some of his writings recall the pamphlets of the American Revolution, wherein numerous and often anonymous writers addressed the “publick” of small farmers and artisans as much as they did those holding political and economic power. Much of Mills’s later writing can also be compared to that of turn-of-the-twentieth-century American populist and socialist pamphleteers, whose aim was simultaneously to educate and arouse workers and farmers to the evils of corporate power.” (Loc. 204)

And I was wondering whom Aronowitz had in mind in the quote above. Who does he think the servants and supplicants of power are. Power, of course, is at the heart of Mills’s work, in all its dimensions, and as it is exercised by the elites. His work sought to expose these mechanisms of power. In that sense, his work touches upon dominant ideologies (spread through mass culture… the inspiration from the Frankfurt School is clear), domination through institutions (the iron law of oligarchy), and the working of the men of power (the power elite).

“Throughout his intellectual life, he soundly rejected the dominant ideology of American pluralism, the view that American society and politics were constituted by a plurality of competing but ultimately compatible and conciliatory forces, none of which dominated the state and the economy. He drew instead on Veblen’s idea that political and economic power was constituted through those who control “institutional orders” and call the shots of public and economic policy. ” (Loc. 83)

And, when analyzing power, Mills did not believe in the Weberian scientific neutrality thing, especially when said neutrality is in reality a subservience to power, a cop out.

“In these days, when most members of the professoriate have retreated from public engagement except when they act as consultants for large corporations, media experts, and recipients of the grant largesse of corporate foundations and government agencies who want their research to assist policy formulation—or confine their interventions to professional journals and meetings—Mills remains a potent reminder of one possible answer to the privatization of legitimate intellectual knowledge.


Mills rejects as spurious the doctrine according to which the social investigator is obliged to purge his work of social and political commitment. His values infuse his sociological research and theorizing, and he never hid behind methodological protestations of neutrality. Mills was a partisan of movements of social freedom and emancipation while, at the same time, preserving his dedication to dry-eyed critical theory and dispassionate, empirical inquiry. He was an advocate of a democratic, radical labor movement but, nevertheless, was moved to indict its leadership not by fulmination but by a careful investigation of how unions actually worked in the immediate postwar period.” (Loc. 467)

This indictment of labor leaders is part of the larger analysis of the power elite. And one only needs to watch Inside Job to know how accurate that first paragraph is on the selling out of the academic elite:

More generally, Mills had a rather hegemonic view of the system:

“The institutions of the liberal state still need, and must solicit, the consent of the governed. But Congress and the executive are increasingly tied, both ideologically and financially, to the holders of institutional power, not to their electors, except insofar as the public refuses to confer consent to policies that they perceive to be contrary to their interests and succeeds in staying the hand of legislators beholden to corporate power, at least for a time. Having entered into an alliance with the military and corporate orders, the political directorate becomes a self-contained body, undemocratic in both the process of its selection and its maintenance.” (Loc. 400)

It is amazing how still relevant this is.

And I’ll end with this:

“In his analysis of the commanding heights, Mills is not content only to describe the three institutional orders that constitute the power elite. He shows that the scope of its power embraces wide sections upon which the legitimacy of American society depends. Chief among them are the celebrities who, as the premier ornaments of mass society, are routinely recruited to lend prestige to the high officials of the three principal institutions of power. Political parties and their candidates eagerly showcase celebrities who support them; corporate executives regularly mingle with famous people in Hollywood and New York at exclusive clubs and parties; and “the warlords”—high military officers, corporate officials, their scientists and technologists engaged in perfecting more lethal weapons of mass destruction, and the politicians responsible for executive and congressional approval of military budgets—congregate in many of the same social and cultural spaces as well as in the business suites of warfare.” (Loc. 344)

And he wrote this before Davos.

One question emerges right away and does not leave the reader all the way to the end of the book: where are the ranting sociologists today? Because Maude knows we need them.

And While We’re On The Subject of Race…

Fabio Rojas has this visual to share comparing voting intents for Obama between 2008 and 2012:

Rojas argues that Obama could well lose the popular vote but it would be mostly because of the South, concluding:

“You’ll hear all kinds of post-hoc explanations of the election outcome in November. But they’re probably wrong unless they start with the fact that the South really, really, really hates Obama more than the rest of the country for some inexplicable reason.”

That is a bit snide, though, no? Yes, this would fit the rise in prejudiced thinking that I was blogging about this morning but I still have questions though that this visual does not answer.

1. Yes, obviously, the change between 2008 and 2012 is clear. However, was 2008 unusual and could 2012 not be a return to “normal” for the South? After all, Democratic presidential candidates have had issues with southern votes ever since the late 60s. In that case, it would not be so much that the South really, really, really, dislikes Obama in 2012 but that they disliked the Democratic candidate less than usual in 2008.

2. Is it fair to jump to the conclusion that Rojas jumps to right away? Might any other factor be involved beyond race?

3. How to explain the not-as-dramatic but still significant drop in the East? (Which goes back to my possible “the South was unusual in 2008” above)

4. From what voter demographic comes the drop? Is it all white? If the 2008 turnout for African Americans was higher than usual, is there some African Americans drop in voting intention? In which case, it might be less a case of hate than disillusion.

Personally, I like my #1 best. I remember, a few years back, witnessing a lot of discussion from the Democratic side of the spectrum arguing in favor of whistling past Dixie precisely because the South seemed like an impossible nut to crack, but the 2008 election was unusual. Having the graph limited to 2 date points does not clarify that.

Global Sociology Blogroll Update – Venezuelan Edition

I know it has been a while but I am always on the lookout for new socblogs, especially from outside Western countries, so, I am especially happy that a Venezuelan socblogger found me via Twitter (click on the image to go to the blog):

It is not updated very often but it is rather eclectic and has some focus on Venezuelan society. So, update your RSS feeds and follow the socblogger, Lissette González on Twitter.

It’s The Inequalities, Stupid – A Never-Ending Story

This is the one new thing: ever since the economy crashed and burned and the Occupy movements, at least, there has been talk about social inequalities in the past three years or so. Otherwise, look at the media of the past thirty, and inequalities was a non-existent topic: the poor were poor because of their own individual shortcomings or the culture of poverty, or government dependency, etc. So, sociologists were the lonely crowd of Cassandras warning that no, really, inequalities were growing and this is bad for society as a whole. But being a dominated academic profession, they suffered the fate of Cassandra: they were not listened to or not downright ignored and dismissed as a bunch of lefty whiners.

So, at least, that is less the case. At the same time, the evidence on the growth of inequalities and the deleterious impact of that growth on society as a whole is pretty much an open and shut case since the publication of the Spirit Level. Why then is it surprising to see articles that seem to discover this new thing that is widening stratification and its impact?

Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percentof the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third.

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded.”

Well, yeah, but this is an interesting shift for the IMF:

“For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality in the world head on.

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

For developing economies, the channels through which inequality might drag down growth seem clear. Inequality might foster political instability and lead to violence and economic destruction, for instance, a theme that fits for Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria.

For the United States, such channels are now the subject of intense research interest, with economists examining whether and how the gap between the rich and the poor fueled the recession and what it might mean.”

How did this increase inequalities happen? By redistribution… to the top:

The rise in inequalities is not new then but it has finally become an acceptable topic of discussion although not as much as one would hope considering its importance ans we know why: because it questions the system that created these income and wealth gaps that even the IMF says we should pay attention to.

Chrystia Freeland’s quick take on class warfare as ideological construct and rhetorical device to shut down discussion on inequalities.

Freeland from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

And a longer discussion between Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi on Moyers’s program on the same topic (take the time to listen to and watch the whole thing, it is worth it):

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So what is to be done? Mark Thoma suggests empowerment of the working class as a partial path through employment:

“Why doesn’t the unemployment problem get more attention? Why have other worries such as inflation and debt reduction dominated the conversation instead? As I noted at the end of my last column, the increased concentration of political power at the top of the income distribution provides much of the explanation.

Consider the Federal Reserve. Again and again we hear Federal Reserve officials say that an outbreak of inflation could undermine the Fed’s hard-earned credibility and threaten its independence from Congress. But why is the Fed only worried about inflation? Why aren’t officials at the Fed just as worried about Congress reducing the Fed’s independence because of high and persistent unemployment?

Similar questions can be asked about fiscal policy. Why is most of the discussion in Congress focused on the national debt rather than the unemployed? Is it because the wealthy fear that they will be the ones asked to pay for monetary and fiscal policies that mostly benefit others, and since they have the most political power their interests – keeping inflation low, cutting spending, and lowering tax burdens – dominate policy discussions? There was, of course, a stimulus program at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it was much too small and relied far more on tax cuts than most people realize. The need to shape the package in a way that satisfied the politically powerful, especially the interests that have captured the Republican Party, made it far less effective than it might have been. In the end, it had no chance of fully meeting the challenge posed by such a severe recession, and when it became clear that additional help was needed, those same interests stood in the way of doing more.


The imbalance in political power, obstructionism from Republicans designed to improve their election chances, and attempts by Republicans to implement a small government ideology are a large part of the explanation for why the unemployed aren’t getting the help they deserve. But Democrats aren’t completely off the hook either. Centrist Democrats beholden to big money interests are definitely a problem, and Democrats in general have utterly failed to bring enough attention to the unemployment problem. Would these things happen if workers had more political power?”

It boils down to class.

And more recently, Tim Noah makes a related case, arguing for stronger labor unions:

“The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.

Although income inequality is growing in comparable nations around the world, it is more extreme and growing more rapidly here. A big reason is that labor unions, which have faced rough times everywhere with the rise of globalization, have declined much more in the United States.

Private-sector union density peaked in the early 1950s at almost 40 percent. Today it’s down to 7 percent, which is about where it was when Franklin Roosevelt entered office. It’s as if the New Deal, which made possible the rise of America’s labor movement, never happened.

Revitalizing labor is not a popular cause nowadays, even among liberals, but there’s little point in even discussing how to solve the inequality problem if you won’t consider ways the government could help rebuild — really, stop suppressing — unions. If you graph a line charting the decline in union membership and then superimpose another line charting the decline in middle-class income share, the lines will be nearly identical. That is not a coincidence.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen and for now, we are stuck in the vicious cycle of weak growth and inequalities deplored by Joseph Stiglitz.

But ultimately, it’s the inequalities, stupid.

The Convulsions of Multi-Institutional Legitimation Crisis

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that the legitimation crisis is a pet peeve of mine. As we know since Weber, that the power of the nation-state relies on the monopoly of force (hard power) but also bureaucratic institutions sustained by ideologies that generate legitimacy for the system and the state. I would argue that of part of this triad is over-developed (the hard power part, extended by extensive surveillance systems) while the rest of the system faces a major legitimation crisis not just in the US but throughout the Western world. This post is about the constrictions and reactions to this crisis.

I think that is what the latest data on US religiosity show (more than just secularization):

“For the first time ever, the US no longer has a majority of Protestants as the number of people with no religious affiliation rises, a study has found.

The Pew report found only 48% of adults identified themselves as Protestants, down from 53% five years ago.

The long-expected decline was pinned to a rise in those claiming no religion – about 20% of Americans, the study said.

There are no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time this year.

Nor are there any Protestant Supreme Court justices.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said the number of people with no religious affiliation was up five percentage points from 15% in the last five years.

The category includes atheists, as well as people who believe in God or who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”.

The study concluded most of the respondents were not seeking new ties within another religious institution.

One third of adults under the age of 30, but just 9% of those older than 65 claimed to have no religious identity.”

And these guys seem pretty set in their non-institutional view:

And they are younger:

The legitimation crisis in the economic and financial sphere is rather obvious. It ties into a crisis of legitimation in the political system not only through the popular cynicism towards political systems throughout Europe and the rise of extremism such as the Greek neo-nazi Golden Dawn. But we can see this as well from political actors themselves, from the systematic lying, an phenomenon understated by the phrase “post-truth politics” (an absurdity if there ever were one as truth remains truth and we are not beyond it. To not tell the truth does not project one into a post- state but into good old-fashioned lying), to efforts to limit voting and democratic accountability over the polity.

The massive corporate funding of politics from financiers combined with extensive and increased surveillance as well as repression of anti-systemic movements tell a story of a system where the power elite thinks it can only maintain its hegemony more bluntly, through hard power (municipal police states at home, never-ending resource wars abroad). The much-denounced 1% probably understand what is happening but, as Atrios repeatedly has told us, either through evil or incompetence, can only imagine policies that maintain their power and wealth but, by making things worse, only precipitate the crisis further.

Take this example:

“The world’s richest woman has equated Australia’s minimum wage to “class warfare,” following her controversial article last week where she called poor workers coddled, lazy drunks. Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, who inherited her $30 billion fortune and mining empire, pointed to workers who make less than $2 as a model for economic competitiveness in mining.”

Which, of course, would totally solve the demand crisis. Le sigh.

That kind of attitude also fosters the repeated waves of austerity throughout Europe, followed by policy-makers shaking their heads at the fact that contractionary policy is indeed contractionary, followed by exhortations of more austerity, followed by calling the anti-riot police when riots predictably follow.

This is more broadly what Chrystia Freeland’s column is about:

“The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.”

Then, of course, Freeland makes the mistake of taking that old racist hack, Charles Murray, seriously, which is an unforgivable mistake.

But this:

“America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.”

Which leads to this where the wealthy have to find other strategies to protect their privileges, by any means necessary, which is rooted in a crisis of legitimation of the educational institution as well as a precipitating factor of it:

“Nayeem had cased the room beforehand. His iPhone had spotty service inside Stuyvesant, and he wanted to be sure he’d have a signal. He tested the device in the second seat of the first row—he’d assumed he would be seated alphabetically—and it worked. He tried out the second seat counting from the other side of the room just to be safe—also good. Then he examined the sight lines to both seats from the teacher’s desk—what could the proctor see and not see?—and checked out the seats where he thought some of his friends would be sitting. One was right in front of the teacher. He made a note of that. That kid was out.

Nayeem had cheated on tests before. By his junior year, he and his friends had become fairly well-known procurers of copies of exams handed down from ­students who had taken a class a year or two earlier. But since that wasn’t possible with a Regents Exam, the phone was his method of choice. He’d cheated that way before, too. In his three years at Stuy­vesant, in fact, he’d become somewhat skilled at surreptitiously texting during a test, ­developing a knack for taking out his phone and glancing down at it for just a millisecond without being noticed.

Regents Exams are typically administered for three hours. After two hours, students who are done are allowed to leave. Nayeem is a good physics student. He worked his way through the test quickly, as he knew he would, finishing in an hour and a half. (He’d later learn he received a 97.) His plan had been to use the next half-hour or so to type the multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school. In return, he expected help from others on future tests. He was the point person on this exam; others would play that role for subjects they excelled in. He and his friends had been helping one another this way for some time.

That day, however, there was a glitch. The proctor was someone Nayeem knew, Hugh Francis, an English teacher, and he was not just sitting at the desk but walking around the room. Francis even caught the girl next to Nayeem using her phone in the first few minutes of the test. While cell phones technically aren’t allowed in city schools, that rule was widely ignored at Stuyvesant.”

So cheating has become a logical response to an elite seeking to protect its privilege in test-based system that makes cheating easier and more tempting because more available.

Another important point here is that cheating is relatively guilt-free for students because they have adopted, following the lead from the media, probably their parents, education “experts” and the overall narrative about education, an instrumental view of education: secondary education gets you into an elite college, which will get you on Wall Street or other elite places. The point of education is the solidification of capital (cultural, economic and social) in the hands of the “1%”, not education per se. This instrumental conception trickles down but in the form of education = job training, or, to use the phrase now in vogue “workforce development” and this is justified by the idea that if education is so costly, then, there must be a visible, tangible return on investment. In that context, one can feel justify to minimize one’s investment (either through minimal investment in individual classes or through cheating).

As for the wealthy, as anyone who has read Richistan knows, there is a cutthroat competition at the very top of the social ladder so that already academically successful students are pushed hard, hence the cheating, because of the fear of falling, even if still within the top 10%.

One could also invoke Robert Merton’s strain theory and see the extensive elite student cheating as a combination of innovation and rebellion, since there is no intent to change the system, just game it and mildly swipe back at it for being treated like a cog in the mighty standardized testing machine. In an individualized society, cheating as collaboration seems like rebellion:

“Some students rationalize cheating as a victimless crime—even an act of ­generosity. Sam ­Eshagoff, one of the students involved in the Long Island SAT scandal, justified taking the test at least twenty times, and charging others up to $2,500 per test to take the exam for them, by casting himself as a sort of savior. “A kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who, no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test,” Eshagoff told 60 Minutes. “By giving him an ­amazing score, I totally give him … a new lease on life.””

What is also obvious is the students’ cynicism towards the test culture, and its enforcers, school officials. So, at one end of the system, policy-makers reduce education and learning to expensive test-taking, deligitimazing the institutions and deprofessionalizing its practitioners (teachers) in the context of administrative bloat. At the other end of the system, students understand the lack of intrinsic value of test scores except as gateway to the maintenance of privilege and therefore gaming the system becomes more legitimate than the system itself.

This cynicism and understanding of what the institution actually does is also present in this piece on the increase in Adderall prescription as academic booster:

“Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.


He added, “We might not know the long-term effects, but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now. I am the doctor for the patient, not for society.””

I would argue that a society where the main institutions face a legitimation crisis is in trouble indeed.

In this context, individualized success (I’m getting mine, screw the rest of you) by any means necessary, combined with cynicism is not unexpected but is problematic. At the same time, the privileged will use their tools, as power elite, to consolidate and preserve their privilege, while, lower on the social ladder, the recipients of increase structural violence struggle to create social movements, or follow the media-led narrowing of the mind by whipping up fears of all sorts, but mostly fears of the other: the dark-skinned, the immigrants, the poor or any convenient scapegoat.

It is, I think, the context for the whole Reddit mess that got exposed with the outing of some vile individual over there. On this, you must go read this piece, by Zeynep Tufekci, especially the idea of norm-shifting:

“Indeed, “norm-shifting” function of the Internet is one of the reasons it has proven to be such a threat to authoritarian regimes.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in interviews and casual conversations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in Middle East and other authoritarian states. It’s not that the Internet allowed people to necessarily decide what they privately thought—many already thought Ben Ali was corrupt and that Mubarak should go—but there were strong norms, backed by repression, which is another assertion of power, against articulating these views. Everyone held these views privately and did not know whether they were a minority or not (a situation political scientists call “preference falsification.”) That said, those unhappy with the status-quo were in fact majority and young people (the “Facebook generation”) helped expose that by shifting norms about publicly acceptable speech about the regime. They openly pointed out lies, exposed torture, criticized cronyism, and called for change. Over time, it became more and more acceptable to make this assertion in public and this fundamentally transformed public sphere laid the ground for social change.  Letting these creep forums exist on powerful Internet hubs also contributes to norm-shifting in a way that I don’t think anyone can argue is desirable or has anything to do with promoting free speech as a value. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to assert that victimization of children and intimidation of women is not strongly, strongly frowned up.”

I would argue that this case and the defenders of the individual in question also reflect a reactive defense of the questioning of privilege and its calling to account. Privilege, by definition, never has to defend itself, is never called to account, is taken for granted, and is often never exposed as such. In the Reddit case, the hubs were used as a corner where privilege would not be questioned. It is, in that context, not entirely surprising that individual in question was, de facto, an unpaid employee of Reddit.

What does this all amount to? A multi-institutional legitimation crisis where a lot of people find themselves brutally and violently assigned to the precariat, but also a situation where the privileged can see how easily, in this anomic context, their privilege could be questioned and react violently to it (whether it is lashing out on Twitter, or putting out political ads and funding elections or any other privilege consolidating strategy).

Of course, one such strategy can also consist in the highly expensive exercise of throwing oneself from some record-breaking heights. These kinds of David Blaine-style performances are only available to the nicely-funded, members of the leisure class.

On this, here is Marcus Brigstocke on David Blaine:

In Which I Try To Make Todd Krohn Mad

So the ASA posted this infographic in its Facebook feed:

So, dear ASA, you disappoint me.

Aren’t we, sociologists, supposed to exercise some skepticism and critical thinking regarding the labeling of individuals with mental illness? Aren’t we supposed to examine the social construction of these “objective” categorizations of symptoms into neat clinical diagnoses, with corresponding pharmacological treatments?

I mean, it has only been a month since Thomas Szasz died, but have we forgotten his legacy so quickly?

Could we at least pay lip service to the medicalization of deviance?

Take this post, just today, by Todd Krohn, over at The Power Elite (Todd is all over that medicalization of deviance stuff):

ADD Or Not, Pills Prescribed In Schools:

CANTON, Ga. — When Dr. Michael Anderson hears about his low-income patients struggling in elementary school, he usually gives them a taste of some powerful medicine: Adderall.

The pills boost focus and impulse control in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Dr. Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance.

In other words, since the rich kids are using these drugs to cheat, let’s give the low-income kids a fair shot at cheating too.

Someone should ask this doofus how this differs from performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) in athletics. Because frankly, there is none.

So what’s really going on here?

“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” said Dr. Ramesh Raghavan, a child mental-health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in prescription drug use among low-income children. “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”
Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who works primarily with lower-income children and their schools, added: “We are seeing this more and more. We are using a chemical straitjacket instead of doing things that are just as important to also do, sometimes more.”
Chemical straightjacket, perhaps, but I prefer Chemical Shackles, because this has nothing to do with enhancing performance in school and everything to do with drugging the next generation of kids into complacency.”

Go read the whole thing.

But I “love” that last statistics on the infographic: “70 to 90% of those who receive pharmacological and psychosocial treatment have significant reduction of symptoms and increase quality of life.” I guess that settles it.

So, ASA,

Technology, Norms, And Social Change

A while back, I wrote the following and I still think it is a central premise.

In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really WorksErik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers lay out the three major lines of sociological inquiries:

Description: what kind of society is this? How does it compare to other societies and their institutions? What are the similarities and differences? And that means getting the facts right through high-quality evidence and rational arguments

Explanation: opening the black boxes of different institutions and see how they work, and with what consequences. That is usually where theories come in. It is truly at this stage that it matters to think like a sociologist. And what does thinking like a sociologist mean? I find this definition almost perfect:

“The myriad of actions that we as conscious, choosing persons engage in are governed by rules. Howeever, unlike the rules of nature that govern the motions of the planets, these social rules are changed by the actions they regulate. Our activities are rule governed, but our activities also produce and transform the rules that govern those activities. Sometimes the changes in social rules are the result of deliberate actions by people – as when we change a law; sometimes rules change as the unintended consequence of actions. The central task of sociology is to understand how rules generate their effects, how people respond to the rules under which they live, and how the rules change over time.

This sociological approach to understanding and explaining society may seen trivial and obvious, but it is also quite profound. And it turns out to be a very complex matter indeed to figure out how these rules work and how, out of their interactions, the social facts we observe get produced.” (3)

Out of this, the authors delineate six aspects of social rules:

  • Rules are enforced through sanctions and consequences. To call something a social rule means that there is a system of sanctions sustaining it.
  • Rules take different forms.
  • Rules are not neutral. Social rules benefit some people and impose harm on others. As the authors note, the structural rules of basketball give an advantage to tall people over short ones. This is the same in many other social, political, and economic contexts. Ergo…
  • Rules and power interact. Rules are protected by power and those who benefit from social rules will use their power to keep them in place. “Social rules will tend to be stable when they confer power on the people they benefit.” (4).
  • Rules can be inconsistent.
  • Rules can change.

This is the most controversial aspect of sociology. Our behavior is consistently driven by rules that we may or may not be aware of.  And rules change, for instance, when new technology is made available to the general population.

Take this example, for instance:

This is not so much about learning how to use a new technological device as much as learning the new norms that should regulate one’s behavior when using the device. There is nothing really in the above that relates to the technology. It is all about rules of etiquette.

At the same time, these vignettes reflect the preexisting social norms of the day in terms of class, race and gender:

It is clear that these rules are scripts to restrain behavior in a class, gender and racially acceptable format that is most definitely middle-class, follows gender roles of the time and assumes white speakers: no slang, no non-standard English, etc.. It also assumes feminine telephone operators, as this was then one of acceptable jobs for young women (referred to as “girls” in other such ads).

The new technology is also firmly placed in the context of a business tool, within a set of preexisting norms of modern times based on productivity and efficiency so as not to disrupt other part of business or the business of the telephone company itself:

In this sense, one can see such vignettes as part of the disciplinary regime brought about by modernization and described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish:

It would certainly be an amusing exercise to try to delineate similar vignettes for current technologies such as cell phone usage, as well as social networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.