Apr/May 2009

Business Casual

Andrew Ross explains why we are all sweatshop workers now

David Mulcahey


The financial and economic crisis now unfolding worldwide continues to generate much distressing sound and fury, but surely its most bizarre feature is a comparatively silent one: the lackluster reaction it has met at its epicenter in the United States. Neoliberalism—the essentially American ideological export that has governed global economic integration for three decades—has taken a serious, and perhaps fatal, blow. Alongside that failure have been calamities in America’s own business civilization and public life that are too numerous to count. But the broader implications of the passing of the neoliberal ideal don’t seem to have registered very widely.

This is not to say Americans aren’t filled with gloom and foreboding. But we also know that, though expediency may lead us to abandon any or all of the tenets of neoliberal orthodoxy (fiscal discipline, free trade, deregulation, etc.), there’s nobody in a position of global economic authority who’s big enough to take our financial leaders to the woodshed. However, we’re not able to administer our own effective remedies, either. The full range of Keynesian—or, as the minority party in Congress likes to put it, “socialist”—policy alternatives is out-of-bounds politically, or permissible only in watered-down form. The best-case scenario seems to be that the American economy will somehow muddle through—a dim likelihood in the absence of sizable Keynesian solutions. Anybody paying attention should be panicking now, but many of us aren’t. What gives?

In part, this uneasy quiet persists because our plight doesn’t look dramatically different from the status quo preceding it. Americans are by now quite well versed in intense wage competition and economic risk—two hallmarks of neoliberal economies. As the journalist George Monbiot has put it, “We are all neoliberals now.” As such, we don’t have the luxury of acting as if another world is possible, as the antiglobalist slogan has it.

How has neoliberalism gained this stubborn grip on our political imagination—and, more urgently, how might we move beyond it to a more humane and sustainable alternative? NYU professor Andrew Ross finds an illuminating, if analytically limited, point of entry into these questions in his rambling essay collection Nice Work if You Can Get It. Ross organizes his reflections on the globalizing workplace around the notion that the deindustrialized economies of the United States and Britain increasingly rely on the so-called creative and knowledge industries—the “high-skill, value-adding sectors of brain work”—not only for growth but also for political legitimization.

Under neoliberal economic rule, Ross maintains, a perverse trickle-up dynamic has taken hold: Contingency and upheaval have spread upward from low-skill, low-wage labor sectors in the global economy. The condition he describes as “precarity” now cuts widely across class, occupational, and geographic divides. What differs is how it is experienced: as freedom and autonomy in a subcontracting biotechnology lab or as “flexploitation” in a sneaker factory. In this new set of labor arrangements, Ross argues, the artists, designers, writers, and performers of the “creative class” occupy a “key evolutionary niche on the business landscape.” Casual labor is now commonplace in glamorous or highly paid creative fields, from filmmaking to software design. Such well-rewarded occupational niches have doubled as virtual infomercials for the cool, humane, and service-driven appeal of neoliberal economies as industrial capital has continued to take flight. “Cultural work was nominated as the new face of neoliberal entrepreneurship,” Ross notes, “and its practitioners were cited as the hit-making models for the intellectual property jackpot economy.”

Oddly enough, Ross points out, “the demand for flexibility originated not on the managerial side but from the laboring ranks themselves,” most notably as part of the “revolt against work” that plagued managers in the early ’70s. To alleviate workforce anomie, managers drew employees into the decision-making process, made work schedules more flexible, and sought to liven up alienating workplaces with a range of feel-good activities. But these came at a price, Ross notes, as managers introduced greater job risk while casualizing the basic terms of work.

As industrial employment continued to hightail it to points south of the developed Western world, this “two-handed tendency” remained in place, Ross writes, reaching its “apotheosis in the New Economy profile of the free agent, when the youthful . . . were urged to break out of the cage of organizational work and go it alone as self-fashioning operatives, outside the HR umbrella of benefits, pensions and steady merit increases.” Risk aversion had been the old economy’s fatal flaw. Risk appetite was the new economy’s badge of virtue.

This was not merely a fatuous reverie conjured from the management theory of the high information age. As geographer David Harvey and others have shown, the precarity of the global workforce grew out of the mid-1970s’ capital-starved conditions, falling profits, and inability of the rich to hang on to their wealth in a time of inflationary instability. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were able to harness these forces into new political coalitions, thereby giving reactionary labor policies the odor of beneficent creative destruction.

This trans-Atlantic backlash ensured that Reagan and Thatcher would be to this day revered as saviors of capitalism. Their contribution—their genius—was their defiant willingness to institute a cultural revolution and see it through to the end. “Neoliberal Man,” Ross writes “had to be ushered into being in an environment where, for most people, Margaret Thatcher’s axiom that ‘there is no such thing as society’ was a largely alien concept.” The reeducation of the entire workforce along these ideological lines “had to be waged . . . day in, day out, until neoliberal instincts like self-optimization were regarded as common sense.” Meanwhile, newly liberalized capital flows and free-trade policies combined with new technologies to expand the range of work susceptible to off-shoring—making for globalized insecurity across industries and occupational sectors. “The impact of this insecurity,” Ross writes, “has set in motion people and money on an unprecedented scale, defying any effort at inventory, let alone adequate depiction.”

Not that nobody has tried—neoliberal cheerleading is the trademark pastime of, for example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The globalized world, in Friedman’s view, “is a free for all,” Ross writes, where no one “can depend on their address to guarantee anything like a secure livelihood.” All one can do is propitiate the gods of free trade and hope for the best. Meanwhile, Richard Florida, another champion of way-new economic truisms who has been adopted as a forward-looking thinker in Democratic policy circles, has argued that the spoils of global competition are not, as Ross puts it, “divvied up in a zero-sum manner,” but rather could accrue even to the burghers of declining Rust Belt cities like Akron, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, if they’d only adopt the right (i.e., economically deferential) attitude toward the creative class.

Making ready use of the rhetoric of “competitiveness”—one of neoliberalism’s cardinal virtues—Friedman and Florida both traffic in a kind of economic “gamesmanship” that is “usually far from fair,” Ross writes. “In practice, the ground rules are heavily weighted toward delivering corporate welfare and investor benefits.” Speculative investors win disproportionate spoils, and “those fortunate workers who experience upward mobility generally do so at the expense of a downgraded majority.” In other words, the big winners in what Florida dubs urban creative “clusters” are rent-collecting property investors. Edgy!

In fact, rent seeking—the activity that economists define as the extraction of value through monopoly privileges—is, to Ross’s mind, the modus operandi of culture- and knowledge-based conglomerates. Music companies that crack down on rap artists for “sampling” songs from their catalogs, pharmaceutical companies that capture patents on indigenous medicines, universities that stake copyright claims to course syllabi and other products of their beleaguered temp teaching staff: These rent-seeking interlopers really chap Ross’s hide, and rightfully so. At great expense, they capture and hold on to monopoly rights to important cultural goods, from which they wring profit by creating “information scarcity.”

Still, as he sizes up this grim landscape, Ross is hard-pressed to answer the dread question, What is to be done? He wants to find some way for precarity—the suboptimal conditions of employment that so many workers now share—to create common cause between classes of workers who share, well, nothing else. Yes, highly educated, highly individualistic software engineers may bitch about the “sweatshop” where they’ve chosen to toil on a contract job, but that doesn’t mean they feel any but a passing humanitarian interest in the plight of actual sweatshop workers—that is, the sort who haven’t adopted precarity as a convention-defying creative choice.

Ross understands this, but his desire to see resistance, no matter how localized, can be fruitless and even counterproductive. The cadres of dedicated media “antimonopolists” he hopefully invokes—hackers, techno-libertarians, free-software aficionados, and the like—may be fighting to set information free, but to the copy editor and reporter and pressman whose livelihoods depend on the viability of a newspaper whose copyrighted content is being cannibalized online, they are a threat. It seems daft to talk about liquidating, say, copyright law without a broader overhaul of private property.

Who knows what will be on the table when the damage of the global crisis is told? At the very least, one may hope for a return to security, sensible financial regulation, and a renewed interest in economic equity. Other worlds are possible, and with luck thinkers like Ross can point the way to imagining them more fully.

David Mulcahey is a contributing editor of The Baffler and In These Times.

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