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Loïc Wacquant – Crafting the Neoliberal State

Link to an article on the substitution of prisons for social welfare programs in the USA by Loïc Wacquant, author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), which came out around the same time as Michelle Alexander’s similar (but more well-known) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).

“Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity”

On “The Appearance of Impropriety”

Many organizations stress the supposed importance of reducing or eliminating entirely the “appearance of impropriety”.  These policies should be viewed for what they really are:  attempts to reduce transparency, encourage misinformation, and concentrate power.  Shouldn’t the real goal be to reduce or eliminate actual impropriety?  And should an organization that is engaged in actual impropriety not visibly reflect that actual impropriety to the public?  This latter question gets to the heart of the matter.  These “appearance of impropriety” policies are all about manipulating public confidences to maintain power within a small group, to the exclusion of others.  Organizational leaders attempt to control the flow of information.  They only reveal to the outside world selected facts.  Any that tend to portray the organization as corrupt, inept, malicious, etc. are suppressed, as best as possible.  The public is thereby cajoled and misled to form an opinion of the organization, and of individuals within it, that is not based on all available facts, but rather only those that portray the organization in a positive light.  This ideological “filtering” is a form of coercion, albeit one that does not rely directly on the use of physical force.  Robert Lee Hale noted this long ago.  For that matter, so did Leo Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894).  They argued against a very old concept though.  Plato’s endorsement in The Republic (380 BC) of a “noble lie” used by elites to maintain social harmony within a system of their design is one of the earliest recorded examples.  The question of the “appearance of impropriety” comes up extensively when dealing with the lawyers and the judiciary (see the Judge Kopf affair), but also with other governmental branches, businesses, churches, journalistic publications, or any other organization.  These sorts of policies, at worst, protect the social status of the relevant organization–especially the leaders of those organizations–while suppressing actual impropriety involving particular individuals.  Quite hypocritically, many calls for reducing of the appearance of impropriety simultaneously call for increased transparency, without noting that these are contradictory objectives in the end, when viewed from the standpoint of public welfare rather than from a self-interested viewpoint of the organization (and its leaders) involved.  With these ideas in mind, it is actually quite brazen that organizations publish any guidelines seeking to limit the “appearance of impropriety”.  Such rules speak in condescending, anti-democratic tones.  They imply that the public cannot properly assess facts. Nonsense.


A recent advertorial, “Why You Hate Work,” by some consultants published by the New York Times (NYT) makes a number of false distinctions — just the kind NYT loves.  Basically, the idea is that corporate management should implement certain policies to make employees more “engaged”, “productive”, “satisfied”, etc.  Not discussed is whether employers should be forced to do these things, or whether structural changes should be implemented on a national (or international) scale that render the decisions of such managers obsolete.  The authors state, “Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met . . . ”  Curiously, Simon Patten, the former economics chair of the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, advocated something quite similar (yet more practical) in the 19th century.  “Patten recognized that rising productivity, public investment, and wage levels went together. That is what enabled well-fed, well-trained, and well-housed American labor to undersell ‘pauper labor.'” (See “Simon Patten on Public Infrastructure and Economic Rent Capture”).  The NYT authors presume employee productivity as a desired objective.  Undiscussed is the degree to which productivity gains flow to employees vs. employers.  Patten knew better.  He avoided circular normative logic that underlies the NYT op-ed (that is, employers undermine employees, then must find a way to “motivate” said employees to accept the prior undermining).  The NYT piece is advocating that the capital strike that began around 2007, which today requires efforts by corporate management to convince employees that there is no alternative (TINA) and they should support and assist with the erosion of their own rights and powers that the capital strike represents.  Obviously, this does require skill.  How do you convince people to act against their own interests?  Clearly, such a challenge requires consultants.  Most likely, many consultants.

Anyway, a better point has been argued by anthropologist David Graeber.  In a recent interview with Thomas Frank, Graeber expounded further on the themes in his essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”  The NYT op-ed authors fall into the basic pattern of worthless glad-handing of corporate executives (ahem, the client base of these consultants), which the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu dismissed as essentially self-justifying drivel created by business for business in his excellent book The Social Structures of the Economy.  Graeber goes considerably further than the consultants advertising/opinion in the NYT by suggesting that workers, as citizens, have the right to control what kind of social and economic circumstances they live in.  The NYT authors instead focus on how selling ways management can trick employees into accepting a system they have no control over.  None of this should come as much of a surprise.  The authors freely admit (in public!) that they partnered with The Harvard Business Review, which might be labeled a terrorist organization in a more just world (because they promote fear among “noncombatant” workers to advance a marketplace war between business entities).