The Press as the Half-Rotted Guillotine: Jacobin and the Flirtation of Liberal Media


 Das Bedenklichste in unserer bedenklichen Zeit ist, dass wir noch nicht denken. – Heidegger

A few observations really just applies to Marxists and ex-Marxists who follow this trends in liberal and left “criticism”, but I have noticed that Salon and Slate are increasingly running modified Jacobin articles.  Which indicates two things: the liberal technocrats (Slate), the left liberal activist press (the sad remnant of Salon) are turning to an ever more mainstreamed semi-Marxism.   This indicates that in the US both ends are actually running on low-steam in terms of a way to understand the current situation.  Why is this an indication of failure rather than success?  While the young have more sympathetic pew polls towards the word socialism, the actual implications of it are beyond most of what one sees in the pages of Jacobin and are actively feared by people in the sphere of influence around Slate, but they realize that the Bloomberg-loving technocratic liberals are running out of Cass Sunstein-esque ideas.

I predict that indicates of electoral bad news for the liberal press, despite Democratic gloating that the demographic shift will always favor them because the GOP´s role as the party of aging white dudes. Despite this and the unpopularity of the GOP, there seems to be little leadership or new thought emerging within the liberal base itself.  The fact that Occupy began under a Democratic president who have overseen both the expansion of executive power and an inability to do much with the economic structure either.   Still one is noticing less and less Keynes and more weak-tea Marx class analysis.

If you want an example of what I am talking about, you can look at ´s article modified from an article in Jacobin and published on Slate. The thesis is that the “Do What you Love, Love what you do” is simple: “Elites embrace the ´do what you love´ mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers.  Now this is undoubtedly bad advice, such bad advice that in Hamlet, Shakespeare has  Polonius spoke the Elizabethan version of this deepity to the Hamlet as a sign of Polonius´s vapidity.  (Ironically, being quoted as advice in High School commence speeches and politicians who do not have an eye for subtle satire).  Tokumitsu, however, does not say within the realm of bad advice:

there’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.

Ignoring the hyperbole (and thus lessening of importance of) the rhetoric around “dehumanization,” which should be spared for more meaningful symbolic violence than DWYL, the discussion of the value of work is interesting.   DWYL is linked by Tokumitsu to the spreading of internships, low and unpaid, and to the increasingly poor treatment of Universities. This, frankly, has some legitimate points but as “analysis” it has some real problems that will illustrate by larger point here.  It seems to me that if DWYL is a product of the fact that celebrities cannot be honest and liked when they give advice, and that the conditions of the old OECD economies workforce are declining for variety of reasons.   In short, the focus on ideology and not the conditions producing the ideology have the cause and effect almost exactly backwards: these platitudes are a function of people’s relationship to work at various levels, NOT the cause of that relationship.   The implication of an unconscious neo-liberal devaluation is a straight form of idealism in this front.    Which is why it seems to me that this analysis, a miasma of liberal focus on ideas and Marxist focus on class would be appealing to both post-Occupy Marxists and Obama-admin unpopular technocratic liberals but is actually a sign of bad news for both.

But there are a few good ideas in this, such as

“There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”

The romanticism about education and “what it is for” has always bothered me. Education is not for work, true since the University structure predates the expansion of the University as a work treating mechanism. The problem is that the modern University does not exist without the expansion of University for job training, without a church to support it, the University is a very expensive training mechanism.  To go deeper, one can look at Louis Menand´s analysis of how the modern University got funded and expanded in the first place (you can read another Slate article actually on Menand´s thesis), the funding of University in America was a direct subsidy by the government in the cold war, which did two things, making the university larger through an “artificial” injection of money but remaining its pre-modern structure in form, but then also professionalizing the Professoriate that made it accountable to structures beyond itself.  It is an ironic unintended outcome of tenure reform:  paired that with the expansive administration needed to handle this.  At the same time, more students having degrees meant more students needing them for jobs that did not require them prior. As the cold war money dried up and military increasingly looked to private contractors for its research (as well as less interest in the US for research in fundamentals), the need to make this cheaper occurred and thus the expansion of adjuncts and research graduates.  Ironically, the research graduates are paying for their education by eliminating a role for pure teaching professors and thus their education hurts their employment outcome.  The DWYL as a means of getting people to do “rewarding work” without getting rewarded is an a symptom of that fact, not the cause.  The fact that 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors has to do that structure of universities and the life-styles they are set to inquire are not subject to diminishing input costs like technological innovations, and other attempts to fix that such as the adoption of MOOCs don´t seem to have efficacy even from a technocratic capitalist point of view.   (Forbes does go into what MOOCs are actually good for, which is basically cheapening vocational and professional continuing education, but not as a replace for Unis).   When you combine Menand´s thesis with David Blacker´s work on “the falling rate of education,” which asserts that technocratization and increased “efficiency” has led government policy makers and the corporations whose taxes fund turning to an eliminatist mode, thus  the system failure of a pre-modern institution like the University, while not entirely inevitable, is nearly so.

Tokumitsu also asserts DWYL is at root of a lot of intern abuses:

It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love. Excluded from these opportunities, of course, is the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages. This exclusion not only calcifies economic and professional immobility, but it also insulates these industries from the full diversity of voices society has to offer.

Now, this trend in publishing is directly tied to the rise of the internet.  It is not just interns, but sites like HuffPo and Alternet which rely on volunteer work and reprinting, not even intern-work.   Beyond this, liberal media outlets, like Slate, are actually prime offenders in this regard.   Vice has outed this in liberal and let publications like Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, Slate, Salon, etc.  While more leftist publications, including one I used to edit for, like The North Star, Znet, Counterpunch, etc work on passion and volunteer labor.   It is not that when I worked at the North Star do not want to pay the writers–the editors were volunteers too–but with no funding outside of individual donations, there was no fair and consistent way to do so.  It is important to note that academic journals have generally worked on this model because of publication market for that is too tiny and profits can only be maintained by institutional fees.  This has led the great academic paywall, but nevertheless, this is how capitalism works.

The idea that this is mostly about attitudes and ideologies, at least superficial ones like “DWYL,” completely misses the point. This is beyond other critiques like the fact the polemic is set-up as a simple binary, that there are workerist and post-work assumptions at conflict within the rhetoric Jacobin uses in general (workerist in that workers are to be valued somehow has having unique humanity, and post-work as work is seen as inherently alienating. The later one may agree with actually, but then again aristocratic types have agreed with Marxists on that one point since nearly forever).

The larger point is this mirrors both the 1970s in the USA, and the 1970s and 1990s in Europe.  If history rhymes, the GOP may be fading, but some new forms of thinking will probably emerge in direct response to the twin problems of Obama and Occupy seeming still-birth.   Also the decadence in the GOP and the Tea Party is unlikely to last forever… if Americans remembered there history a much longer period of conservative exile actually led to electoral victories after years and years of political stagnation and stagflation.  The fact that such analysis is passing itself off as both Marxist and liberal indicates to this writer that we should have a bit of fatalism on the success of all this left-wing/liberal flirting.   It has been a sign of soft political collapse several times before in the last 120 years more than a sign of the success of ideas.  Indeed, one cannot be an even a soft economic determinist and rest so much on the cliches of Steve Jobs.

(originally published here)


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