A Selection of Ehrenreich Posts
from the EhrenWrite Forum

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Welcome Message

Hi! This is Barbara Ehrenreich, and welcome to my forum.

I'm interested in your comments and questions on whatever's going on in the news - from fresh White House scandals to reports on the missing matter in the universe. I'd also really like to hear from you about my new book, just released from Holt, entitled "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War," which touches on human evolution, gender, violence, and religion as well as war. You get the idea: Just about any thoughts on any subject are welcome here, including wacked-out speculations, bold new insights and screams of political-existential pain. The underlying issue, though, is always: How do we make this world a little safer for our species and have fun while we're doing it? I eagerly await your questions and contributions.

 

Blood Rites Review...

You're making me nervous about what Susan Faludi said about "Blood Rites" -- I still haven't seen the review -- but no, there is no "genetic memory", either in my book or in reality (if you will forgive that unfashionable word.) But this doesn't mean we contain no behavioral residues of the 90%+ of our existence as Homo sapiens sapiens spent living al fresco as nomadic foragers. The debate is over which kinds of prehistoric experiences shaped our peculiar human attitudes toward violence: The conventional wisdom focuses entirely on hunting as the formative experience and has emphasized the killer/predator aspect of our biological legacy. I focus on being hunted as the formative experience. For example, one well-known legacy of predation in all mammals is the "fight or flight" response -- a capacity for rapid, involuntary arousal in the face of danger -- obviously not 'remembered" but selected for over a very long time.

But you'll have to put Pynchon aside to get the full argument...

 

Replies about feminism

So the argument is that any "minority" -- women, gays, and presumably ethnic minority members -- can get co-opted into the "mainstream" and lose its critical edge? Which makes you wonder whether the movements of such minorities are a "waste of time"?

To which I would want to know: For whom? And relative to what? Are you assuming there is some "pure" progressive stance relative to which feminism etc are distractions? (Which was pretty much the Marxist-Leninist position in the 1970s.)

Need to be a bit more dialectical here. Success for any movement -- including an entirely class-based movement -- always carries the danger of co-optation, but it's a danger I wish we faced more often. Yes, we want female CEOS

 

Albert post re Blood Rights

I just finished reading Blood Rites (Barbara's new book). I went too fast, to be sure but can still report that it is quite a read.

For those into history, the recounting of various scenes and relationships is scholarly, with huge research obviously embodied, yet it is also very friendly and readable. The book is simply loaded with graphic facts and revealing juxtapositions. It is about "the origins and history of the passions of war" and quite a bit more, I think. And of course, predictably, it is beautifully written.

Three of its themes are:

1) That humanity was once and for a long time prey to other animals and that that experience has affected most likely our genetic endowment and certainly our cultural patterns and habits in very dramatic ways, which we can perhaps say something useful about, and perhaps more so than the usually touted idea that we were predators.

2) That certain types of behavior/organization/etc. undertaken even by a very few tend to impose related choices on almost everyone they interact with, like it or not. In the most civil circles, a brute elicits brutishness or bullies everyone to distraction. In the most peaceful places, the warlike elicit war readiness or annihilate everyone to death.

3) That war is kind of "living structure" with many facets, that it owes much to our time as prey and much to the fact that once brutishness gets going it spreads like crazy, and that it takes different forms in different contexts, persevering over time and distance, however, with tremendous tenacity.

Thus, rather than the continual and continuing presence of war being a product of some kind of aggressive or hostile human nature, in Blood Rites it is a kind of frankenstein creation, almost like an immense self perpetuating disease, that reproduces itself even against the interests of its hosts, us.

I don't want to go on too long with this recounting of the book's messages... for one thing, I don't want to misrepresent Blood Rites and for another I would like to hopefully discuss some facets of it here in the forum, with you, Barbara, and others.

Let me try to start a discussion with a couple of questions....

I agree with you that there can emerge in history structures which tend to reproduce themselves by their very dynamics, using us easily as much as we use them (even elites, ultimately). They tend to set up situations in which their sway is hard to escape, and if people try to make do within the roles they offer, the systems persist, with their characteristics reproducing and spreading. These can exist alongside one another, and if they do, and if they have powerful effects on human potentials and prospects, they will often come into accord and not only reproduce themselves, but also one another. I had never thought of War in this light -- though I have thought about economics, kinship, culture, and governance this way -- and I am not sure about it yet, but I can certainly see the argument. I was particularly taken with the parts of the book that argue that the effect of war on state has been at least as important as vice versa.

Still, whether highly accurate or just instructive, I wonder if your view leads you to many different views than more traditional understandings of war, at least modern war. For example, if asked, I wonder how you would explain the immense outlay of tax monies on defense related expenditure, compared to the modest to absent outlays on health, education, welfare, etc.?

Also, even if we say that short of major transformations of human culture, etc., war throughout history is a self-reproducing structure with a life of its own that impacts us as much as we impact it, still, in our time and place, won't the critical understanding of actual wars and actual war spending and organization, etc., depend much more on understanding the role it has come to play in our society now -- how it serves various interests, etc.?

And finally, suppose you are sitting down to think about what we want. What types of social structure and institutions and whatever else are we in fact trying to attain, ultimately. Does your understanding of war impact that? Does wanting no more war have some meaning for social vision other than wanting different kinds of economics, kinship relations, cultural community forms, government?

 

Ehrenreich Reply re Blood Rights

You hit on an issue that continues to fascinate me: the extent to which certain social institutions can be regarded (or usefully regarded) as self-reproducing. As I argue in Blood Rites, war seems to fit this description: It propagates itself through time - one war engendering the next - and through space - as warlike cultures cause their neighbors to become warlike in turn. I had no way of thinking about such an entity until I came across Richard Dawkins idea of "memes" - roughly speaking, self-reproducing units of culture. I don't think he defines the idea very clearly (unless he has done so in something I haven't yet read), but it suggested to me a new way of thinking about all kinds of things - from male and white supremacy to market relations. White supremacy, for example, propagates itself through time by guaranteeing that non-white children will grow up and be educated under the most discouraging circumstances -- and hence will indeed appear "inferior" at the kinds of tasks the dominant society values. Market relations tend to sweep away other forms of subsistence and exchange, and so forth.

Maybe there will eventually a new kind of social science capable of studying institutions as memes, or (in a strictly formal sense) living things. Call it, perhaps, bio-sociology, as distinct from sociobiology.

But for the time being, does it mean anything at all to say that an institution like war is, in some abstract sense, a "living" entity? I think it does, because it shifts the emphasis from what-is-wrong-with-us - "original sin," "killer instinct," etc. - to what-do-we-do-about- this-thing-that-has- fastened-itself-to-our-cultures? Instead of thinking of how evil we are - and I'm afraid a lot of pacifism implicitly dwells on this -- we need to think of how we can use whatever fighting abilities we may have against the institution of war itself.

What do I have to say about the draining of resources away from everything else (health, welfare, etc.) to war and militarism? For me, this fits perfectly with the image of war as a predatory or parasitic entity "feeding" off of human cultures and life. It's a pretty dumb entity - in the way for example viruses are, with no "program" other than self-reproduction - and could easily kill us all off, and I don't mean just with nuclear weapons. The speculation is that this is what happened to the civilization that once occupied Easter Island: In the course of their internecine conflicts, they destroyed themselves and their entire ecology. Possibly also what happened to the Mayans. Americans, who have money for F20s but not for school lunches, may well be next.

 

Albert, again

Barbara, as you get into this forum writing, you might like to use quoting. It makes it much easier for people to follow exchanges and has some other useful effects as well, I think....

>You hit on an issue that continues to fascinate me: the extent to which >certain social institutions can be regarded (or usefully regarded) as >self-reproducing.

Yes, but we shouldn't mistake something that persists largely due being reproduced from without with something which persists due to its own internal effects and dynamics. For example, poverty, it seems to me, is better understood as a product of other structures, such as economies, which persist due to their own features, rather than being thought of as an entity unto itself even though one could certainly construct a big and imposing argument that poverty breeds itself.

So the question about war is, is it like poverty -- with the institutions at fault being states, economies, etc., or is it itself more like the economy -- a structure with its own dynamics that recreates itself over and over, and spreads itself, and has to be understood more as a source of effects on people than as the product of other causes.

At heart the issue is this, I think, and I hope it doesn't sound too abstract. When we look at the world to understand it, how do we carve it up into concepts most useful to our agendas/ Once carved, so to speak, what kinds of questions should we ask about the concepts to have the greatest likelihood of finding out things and relations, even laws, relevant to our agendas?

>As I argue in Blood Rites, war seems to fit this >description: It propagates itself through time - one war engendering the >next - and through space - as warlike cultures cause their neighbors to >become warlike in turn.

But there is a distinction, which may not matter for some purposes, I admit, between things that we might say the above about.... If we think about economies or kinship structures, say, not only do they self-reproduce, they are inevitable. They will exist in any society. We know it apriori. Is war an oppressive form of something more fundamental that will also be in any society? Like class division is but one form for the economy or patriarchy is but one form for kinship? If so, what is this larger inevitable social structure, of which war is just a negative form?

Until your book I would have answered that all societies also inevitably have cultures in the specific sense of ways of communities of people identifying. Then I think I might have said that war is one type of relations among such communities, which all always have relations, but whose relations need not always be war, or war-ready, etc.

>I had no way of thinking about such an entity until >I came across Richard Dawkins idea of "memes" - roughly speaking, >self-reproducing units of culture. I don't think he defines the idea very >clearly (unless he has done so in something I haven't yet read), but it >suggested to me a new way of thinking about all kinds of things - from male >and white supremacy to market relations.

There are other science-based notions you might be interested in that can also be fit into this type mold...mainly about what are called dissipative systems. These had some influence on me back when I was trying to develop a way to think about history, for example in the jointly authored book Liberating Theory.

>But for the time being, does it mean anything at all to say that an >institution like war is, in some abstract sense, a "living" entity? I think >it does, because it shifts the emphasis from what-is-wrong-with-us - >"original sin," "killer instinct," etc. - to what-do-we-do-about- >this-thing-that-has- fastened-itself-to-our-cultures? Instead of thinking >of how evil we are - and I'm afraid a lot of pacifism implicitly dwells on >this -- we need to think of how we can use whatever fighting abilities we >may have against the institution of war itself.

Who is "we"? (see below)

Well, making that shift is desirable, I agree with you. But I am not sure it is best accomplished by using the label "living"...I can imagine all sorts of debates and confusion resulting from using that term, obscuring the real point, etc. On the other hand, it does have instant impact.

There is a long tradition of using words like alienated...but it doesn't seem to accomplish the desired shift in focus.

>What do I have to say about the draining of resources away from everything >else (health, welfare, etc.) to war and militarism? For me, this fits >perfectly with the image of war as a predatory or parasitic entity >"feeding" off of human cultures and life. It's a pretty dumb entity - in >the way for example viruses are, with no "program" other than >self-reproduction - and could easily kill us all off, and I don't mean just >with nuclear weapons. The speculation is that this is what happened to the >civilization that once occupied Easter Island: In the course of their >internecine conflicts, they destroyed themselves and their entire ecology. >Possibly also what happened to the Mayans. Americans, who have money for >F20s but not for school lunches, may well be next.

This is where I begin to wonder about the usefulness of this way of viewing war, in particular. The question is how come society spends tons on war crap and little on schools, housing, etc.

View one (which I hope I don't over simplify too too much): War, a self perpetuating product buried in our cultures, etc., imposes upon us the need and the disposition to arm, to be war ready, etc. etc. We become enmeshed in its logic and practice. Focused on it. Wedded to it. We commit our resources to it.....and we suffer. Note: The only actors in the picture are War and Us, I think, with this approach. Capitalists are victims or war, twisting their options and focus, etc., as we all are.

View two: Our economy compels government intervention in spending and investment. To protect class relations it is necessary that such spending does not alter the balance of power between capital and labor and management adversely for the capitalists. Thus it cannot empower or insure workers against corporate threat, etc. (Building schools and hospitals and housing is bad for the same reason that welfare and full employment are bad -- not because they improve people's lives per se, capitalists are not sadist, but because such expenditures threaten the relations of bargaining power that elevates and maintains capital at the top.) On the other hand government expenditure needs to be large and to be funded broadly and also in a non-redistributive manner. So, if it can't be for things that will benefit society's worst off, what to do. well, you can't just spend on the rich at this scale, that wouldn't fly. So, scare the country, and use the fear to pay for munitions which is the perfect product from this point of view.

Seymour Melman might like your approach, I think. He feels, I think, that there is a War Economy and that it is crazy and irrational and self-defeating. Indeed, he thinks in its Soviet varient it destroyed their society and economy. That approach leads, I think, to arguing how damaging and harmful war spending is, how silly and irrational, and trying to convince people in position to effect choices, like in Congress, etc., that they should do something else. It misses, it seems to me, that war spending is in fact not irrational but very very beneficial for the powers that be given the constrained class divided context in which they try to preserve their status and power. (Telling Congress they are being stupid in allocation funds to defense is quite like tell the Times, jeez, you guys haven't got the story straight.)

I am not saying the war-as-a-system view is wrong, or has nothing to contribute to our understanding or perhaps even to the strategies we choose in fighting for change, but I do think it could easily lend itself to misleading thinking...maybe too easily.

Again, however, one thing I was quite struck by in the book was the notion that instead of the state having an army the army has a state....

I hope others will soon get a chance to look at your book, as I think it would be good if this exchange broadened out a bit, so you can get feedback from others as well. I hope folks will chime in.

 

Ehrenreich Replies, again

This is really too long! I think people get intimidated by very long postings and drift off (at least I tend to.) Better to divide points up into separate shorter postings, I think. Anyway, herewith some very quick responses, with more thoughts coming as I have time to think:

1. "Our agendas": Yes, the point is to change the world, not just understand it. But I think too often people on the left go overboard in using their agendas as a guide to understanding the world. There is, as you and I have often argued in the pages of Z, a "real world" independent of our ideas, and our agendas are a lot more likely to be fulfilled if they are in touch with it.

2. Self-reproducing institutions: Obviously, this is all totally wildly speculative, but I would say (and do say in the book) that a meme like war (if it is one) can interact in a mutually reinforcing way with a meme (again, if it qualifies) like male supremacy -- as those two in particular have for millennia. But this doesn't mean that war is a totally dependent variable, "caused" by male supremacy. Peaceable people like Inuits can be male supremacist; and warlike people like Americans can be, at least officially, sexually egalitarian. [By the way: "kinship" and "the economy" can hardly be memes. They are just categories. Ditto poverty -- the place to look for self-reproducing "behavior" would be in something like "class divisions" not "poverty."]

3. Seems to me that your last big point is to try to put capitalism, class relations, etc back into the picture. I never meant to take them out, but I am critical of the left tendency to see them as the sole (or almost sole) independent variables in human affairs. One of point of Blood Rites is that war is an independent force in history, and has been pursued ably and enthusiastically by almost every kind of society -- including small-scale, egalitarian; feudal; capitalist; etc.

 

On Social Struggle

Hi Brad,

Thanks for your question. I'm not for giving up, but for trying to look beyond govt for ways to make change. The alternative "sector" I mentioned in the talk isn't just charities, but "civil society" generally, which includes, for example, unions and other non-profit org's.

Yes, it would be nice to have a govt that would do things like redress the inequalities of wealth, but I don't see any way this govt is going to do anything but keep the upward redistribution of wealth going full steam ahead. So, yes, we should change the govt -- via campaign finance reform and other things I mentioned in the talk. But in the meantime we should not just be waiting around for the nice new clean and democratic govt to emerge: We should be creating our own institutions for change. Where, for ex, are all the community-run storefront multi-service centers that will be needed as welfare reform kicks in in poor neighborhoods? Workers' rights centers to help the unorganized? Etc. .. Unless we create them.

 

On Pathfinder

Caught some of the CNN coverage of Pathfinder's landing on Mars last night (July 4) and was at first made merely queasy by the relentless banalization. Someone high up must have said, "Make sure you don't make Mars seem, like, extra-terrestrial or anything," because there was the hideously smug John Tollander oozing about watching the night sky with his little girl and asking all the techy guys over and over "how does this feel?" Nothing strange out there, in other words, just a bunch of real estate looking pretty much like Nevada. But all too soon, there was the inevitable leap from kitsch to the nationalist orgy that just about anything can turn into these days, given more than 20 minutes on CNN. Out come the NASA heavies reminding us that this is the 4th and warning the world to look out, because "here comes America!"

Quick cut to Roswell for the 50th anniversary of the big UFO sighting, where mobs of tourists are buying up key chains and throw pillows decorated with those almond-eyed fetuses that travel by UFO. The theme here is not love of country but hatred of the evil government that covered up their arrival and may in fact now be run by these cunning immigrants (see "Men in Black" for more on the immigrant-as-ET theme.) But at least in Roswell there is still some tiny sense of wonder, some tender willingness to be surprised.

Back at Pathfinder Watch, the rocket scientists have finally figured out where to tell us to look for Mars in the night sky (this takes an inordinate amount of time, since, as we learn, aerospace engineers never do anything as mundane and sensual as look at the sky.) So Tollander exhorts us all to go out and catch a glimpse of our planetary sibling -- to study it proudly and think, presumably: OURS.

 

On Batman

Just saw Batman last nite and was struck by the overtly right wing message(s.) In this version of Gotham, there are only 2 classes: the idle but noble rich and the busy but evil professional-managerial class. The former contains our hero(s), who live in a gigantic mansion and are waited on day and night. The latter contains a bevy of cracked scientists bent on either weird personal agendas (Schwarzenegger) or destroying humankind in order to improve the outlook for plants (the delightful Uma Thurman.) For one second, when our environmentalist Uma discovers the corporate logo on another mad scientist's Erlenmeyer flask, do you imagine that there might be an anticorporate trope on the way. But no, the corporation turns out to be Batman's, and he sweetly explains why we have to destroy the planet's other lifeforms to preserve our own. Some complaints about the class system are made by Alicia Silverstone (on the way to becoming B-girl) who is the neice of B's manservant. But when B saves the servant's life (and the servant testifies to how great it is to serve a Hero), we know Alicia's atavistic Marxoid sensibilities are already on the dust heap. This new Gotham resembles, say, 10th century Europe -- with the constant menace of marauding maniacs and only the knightly class, based in the landed aristocracy (B and his manse) to save us. There are feminist moments and also anti-feminist put-downs, as when B tweaks B-girl for taking on such an un-PC name: "Why not Batperson?" As for race, there is only one -- made vividly clear in the final image of the Bs' (B, Bgirl and Robin) hands, one on top of the other in a comradely clasp: white on white on white.

 

Reply re Institutions

1. "Our agendas": Yes, the point is to change the world, not just understand it. But I think too often people on the left go overboard in using their agendas as a guide to understanding the world. There is, as you and I have often argued in the pages of Z, a "real world" independent of our ideas, and our agendas are a lot more likely to be fulfilled if they are in touch with it.

2. Self-reproducing institutions: Obviously, this is all totally wildly speculative, but I would say (and do say in the book) that a meme like war (if it is one) can interact in a mutually reinforcing way with a meme (again, if it qualifies) like male supremacy -- as those two in particular have for millennia. But this doesn't mean that war is a totally dependent variable, "caused" by male supremacy. Peaceable people like Inuits can be male supremacist; and warlike people like Americans can be, at least officially, sexually egalitarian. [By the way: "kinship" and "the economy" can hardly be memes. They are just categories. Ditto poverty -- the place to look for self-reproducing "behavior" would be in something like "class divisions" not "poverty."]

3. Seems to me that your last big point is to try to put capitalism, class relations, etc back into the picture. I never meant to take them out, but I am critical of the left tendency to see them as the sole (or almost sole) independent variables in human affairs. One of point of Blood Rites is that war is an independent force in history, and has been pursued ably and enthusiastically by almost every kind of society -- including small-scale, egalitarian; feudal; capitalist; etc.

 

Comments re Blood Rites

Dear Gar,

The spear is much earlier than the bow and arrow. I don't know when the first spear head dates from (tho a find reported last spring claimed some from 500,000 years BP), but the dates I have read for the bow and arrow are more like 15,000 years BP, which is practically yesterday. Don't forget fire, too, as an aid in these confrontations.

What I was trying to emphasize was the importance of collective defense, as opposed to weaponry. This is a capability we share with many other species (some birds , for example, "mob" intruding predators) but it is in some ways uniquely developed in humans. Only humans are capable of rhythmically coordinating their motions and voices, or so says Wm McNeill in "Keeping Together in Time." I suspect this ability had some kind of defensive importance, and wonder if rhythmic synchronization enabled to a motley group of humans to appear (to a predator) like a single, giant, animal. Maybe I should do the appropriate experiments in one of our grizzly-rich national parks...

 

Response to Katha

The question of whether there can be a socially responsible biz is a very fundamental one. Because if there can be a socially responsible biz, that means much of our current business class is personally evil and malicious.

Whereas if there can't be a SRB --due to the very nature of capitalism, market relations or whatever -- that means the biz folks are not evil, just caught up in an evil system. But I would like to know what sysop Mike Albert -- who is constantly inventing new left wing businesses -- thinks on this matter.

Now you say Steve's ice cream is actually better than Ben and Jerry's, which completely wrecks my theory that, at least in the ice cream biz, quality of product varies directly with the amount of social responsibility that went into its manufacture. Rather than argue about this, what we need is an empirical test -- in the form of several quarts of each brand, which you and I will consume blindfolded. Your place or mine?

 

Albert reaction on post about Business

>The question of whether there can be a socially responsible biz is a very fundamental one. Because if there can be a socially responsible biz, that means much of our current business class is personally evil and malicious.

>Whereas if there can't be a SRB --due to the very nature of capitalism, market relations or whatever -- that means the biz folks are not evil, just caught up in an evil system. But I would like to know what sysop Mike Albert -- who is constantly inventing new left wing businesses -- thinks on this matter.

As with most things, I think there are complications in the details, but broad patterns that are pretty clear.

Institutional pressures, including those that determine who will rise to positions from which one can even address whether or not to be responsible, are overwhelmingly determinant in ensuring that there won't be serious dissidence--without which, there is no significant social responsibility. Ben and Jerry are marginal and quite minimal in any event, and now a thing of the past, as well...

These pressures operate almost proportionately to the volume of capital involved and also vary depending on the area of "business."

If you create a small publishing project motivated to make life better by publishing truth, etc., there is very likely little capital involved, not too many competitive forces threatening people, etc. Even then, however, the effect of doing budgets, dealing with the irs, dealing with the market and other institutions is very very powerful and very conducive to losing one's hold on reality.

At the other extreme, if one has a fortune and one actually wants to set up institutions that would benefit the public, it is not so difficult. There will be a degree of social responsibility attained, however. Does the business have wage slaves? Does it produce valuable information or goods? Does it redistirbute wealth via donations, etc.? With enough capital, or isolated enough from competitive pressure and assured enough of one's identity and purpose, a "business" can do good things on all these fronts. So my answer is that the folks in positions to make decisions about what businesses do and don't do are generally evil and malicious in the same way that slave owners once were, that is that they are evil and malicious because of the role slots they fill and have filled and what those, including the relative advantages bestowed, have done to their values, perceptions, beliefs, etc. In some places, put a good fellow or gal in a powerful position, and other good gals and fellows in associated positions in the same institution, and they can accomplish something positive. In other places, they could do very little before being ousted, going broke, etc.

Are capitalists worse humans then the rest of us? Were slave owners? Vile positions in society do tend to attract folks with certain predispositions. To succeed in our society, barring a special talent or luck, the quality that is perhaps most needed is a willingness to be blind to others' pain, or even to get some pleasure out of it. But if those who rise succeed in convincing themselves that those left suffering below are subhuman, then within their own circle of friends the rich might have wondefully just and sharing personalities, I suppose. I just wouldn't expect to find that too often...

I think the most interesting practical question, however, is to try to determine the extent to which mimicking corporate social relations and decision making structures in our own institutions -- such as our media institutions -- subverts them not only in some moral sense regarding justice within them, and not only as models to emulate, but also in their capacity to tell the truth or even see the truth about society broadly.

 

More on Business, Albert replying

>>Having operated in the world of small business for 20+ years I've noticed that the very condition of being an 'owner' has a corrupting influence. Even those owners who are by temperament predisposed to being rather nice people get easily twisted in their loftly positions as heads of entities with broad social power and privilege. They often give in to their emotions and impulses, and indulge personal excesses, quirks, and eccentricities that those without economic and social power would never try to get away with.

You know the saying power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely... I have this theory as to why this holds true in so many instances..

If a person is in a position of relative advantage in terms of power, income, status, etc., why is it the case? That is, how does the person explain it to him or herself?

There aren't that many options....the person can say to him or herself

(1) I stole it. (2) I got it by chance/luck. (3) I have it because I worked hard for it--thus harder than others who have less. (4) I have it because I am in some sense better and for that reason deserve it or because I am different (presumably better) and for some reason need it or can make more use of it.

Now as soon as you pick 4 as the explanation, implicitly or explicitly, you come to believe that you are a being above others, and that you can and you SHOULD take charge, for everyone's sake.

Who is likely to pick 1 or 2? Even a lot of thieves and lottery winners don't. Who picks 3 -- well, what if your situation is, in fact, quite obviously pretty cushy? Not so easy to do. And 4, how easy to succomb.

This works individually and collectively rather similarly -- how do whites in a racist society like ours explain their relative advantage vis-a-vis blacks, say, or men vis-a-vis women, or along class lines, and so on.

We're better off compared to work horses due to 4, why not compared to other humans, particularly those who work harder than us?

 

More Reply on Blood Rites

Ah, so the child-eating wolves in India were "nursing mothers"! There's always an excuse for man-eaters, usually that they're "rogues," but the weight of paleo-anthropological thinking is going well against you, as you'll find if you check out some of my references (yes, you may have to go back to B&N.) I repeat: No one is claiming that any of the predators made their living solely on humans -- only that there was enough predation to be a problem for humans.

As for the baboons and other animals that move in packs. According to my primatology texts, this is not "competition," this is predation: As established, for example, by the bits and pieces of baboons, chimps etc found in leopard and lion scat. (I can't claim to have done that research myself!) As for separation anxiety: thanks for your observations based on "several minutes" with an infant. Guess you are the scientist here.

As for the time when big game hunting begins: This is a matter of much dispute in the literature, as Blood Rites mentions. But the persistence of worries about (and mentions of) the problem of predation right into historical times (also in Chap 3, but probably before Barnes and Noble threw you out for loitering) suggests that the existence of metal weapons and cities did not end the problem.

As for agriculture: Your argument about symbolic manipulation does not persuade . As I speculate (in Chap 7), the reason agriculture comes only about 10K years ago is precisely because the supplies of game were running low then. Agriculture was probably a very grudging accommodation to the diminishing game supply, not the brilliant innovation it is usually portrayed as.

I do agree with you about one thing: Rhythmic vocalization (and movements) may have originated as a way of rebuffing predators. If you know of any studies of the effects of music on predators, I would like to know, for some further research I am doing. Non-rhythmic vocalizations may be another matter: While some (forest rangers, for ex) advise loud talking while hiking, I have also been warned NOT to, as some bears will stalk a noisy hiker. I don't know which is right, and I'm not volunteering for the controlled studies that would have to be done.

 

On Chalice and Blade

Yes, I read the Chalice and Blade about 10 yrs ago and found it totally fascinating. Now I am more critical, as mentioned in Blood Rites. As to the general theme of war-like groups sweeping away the more peaceable cultures, this is no doubt true: witness the later Indo-European invasion of India and Europe. What I question is Eisler's romanticization (from my point of view) of the earlier, less war-like cultures. Yes, the probably worshipped goddesses, but these goddesses were not exactly the sweet earth-moms portrayed by Eisler and Gimbutas. They were fierce and bloodthirsty ladies, probably fed by a steady diet of sacrificial victims (animal and/or human.)

(See Ch 6 in Blood Rites for more on this lurid theme.)

 

On feminism as science

"Feminism an exact science"? What on earth can this mean? I have never, in all my years, as a feminist, heard such a bizarre claim before. Does the questioner think that we feminists arrived at our conviction that women are fully human through a series of controlled laboratory experiments? Look, a science is a way of understanding some part of the world, and an "exact" science is one that deals largely in quantitative measurements. Feminism, on the other hand, is a perspective, an ideology, a political stance.

 

On The Edge

Following up on my Batman report several months ago, I thought you should know that the trend continues in "The Edge." My friend the gay dermatologist said I would like it, while warning me that "the billionaire wins in the end." Well, it's worse than that. The billionaire (Anthony Hopkins) is plopped down in the Alaskan wilderness with 2 other guys, one of whom is black and just gets to whine a lot and roll his eyes until a grizzly eats him (almost in full view, another first in predator porn.) The white guy (Alec Baldwin) is the "bad" one: he smokes cigarettes, has been screwing the billionaire's airhead wife, and seethes with resentment at the billionaire's money. Also, he is given the only "political" line of the movie, in which he denounces the B and all his ilk for "hating taxes and Jews" -- thus identifying Alec as a sort of leftist (or at least the only one in this neck of the wilderness.) In the end, only the B comes out alive, dressed in swaggering bear skins and bear tooth necklace. Message: Social Darwinism lives! The capitalists are in fact the fittest to survive grizzlies, snow, starvation, and betrayal by their own species. Then, to show that our B is not just an animalistic survival machine, ala the grizzly, he comes back to civ and announces that the other 2 died heroically, trying to save B himself -- which is of course untrue. But this noble lie establishes that B is not only the better animal -- he's also Jesus Christ! The writer of this dreck is the playwright Mamet who, I recall, also cashed in with a play on the abuses of sexual harassment by scheming women. My point here is that Hollywood, which I can recall as being briefly populist, is now doing shameless PR for the plutes.

 

Re Landy Review

No way you can bait me into a fight with the estimable Joanne Landy! But I think questions about reviews of my or any book should be directed to the reviewer and not to the reviewee. Actually, I never read this review -- because I was warned it was going to be bad and because there's really nothing you can do about a bad review. If the reviewer is wrong-headed, you can't complain without looking whiney. And if the reviewer is right, you can't recall the book and revise it. Fortunately, in this case, most of the reviews have been enthusiastic.

 

Re cloning

Not to worry about the headless clones: Their hearts may briefly beat, but without a brain, they can't breathe. Of course, without mouths and noses they can't breathe either. So unless someone figures out a way to oxygenate the blood of these poor headless body-part farms, they are not a biological possibility. Now you could always take a normal (headed) person and, with a little neurosurgery, excise the cortex, leaving just enough gray matter to keep the lungs going. But even a bioengineering firm CEO might see the ethical problems with that.

 

Re divorce, etc.

On the subject of kids and divorce, here's an essay I wrote for Time in the spring of 96.
Essay on divorce
Barbara Ehrenreich

No more sashaying off to family court every time a spouse begins to pall: At least a half-dozen states are contemplating a repeal of their no-fault divorce laws and a return to the old system of hiring a private eye to catch one's unloved one in flagrante delicto. The rationale for the upcoming restrictions -- surprisingly given the ongoing assault on all manner of child-oriented services, from Head Start to AFDC -- is that divorce is said to be irreversibly damaging to children. According to some of the current anti-divorce rhetoric, divorce is responsible for juvenile crime, teen suicide, an inability to "form lasting attachments," and possibly also the piercing of nipples and noses.

But if divorce itself hasn't reduced America's youth to emotional cripples, then the efforts to restrict it undoubtedly will. First, there's the effect all this anti-divorce rhetoric is bound to have on the children of people already divorced -- and we're not talking about some offbeat minority. Approximately 30% of American children have divorced parents, and these children face enough tricky interpersonal situations without having to cope with the public perception that they're damaged goods.

Fortunately for the future of the republic, the alleged psyche-scarring effects of divorce are either unfounded or grossly exaggerated. The most frequently cited study, by California therapist Judith Wallerstein, found 41% of the children of divorced couples "doing poorly, worried, underachieving, deprecating and often angry" years after their parents' divorce. But this study has been widely faulted for including only 60 couples, two-thirds of whom were deemed to lack "adequate psychological functioning" even before they split, and all of whom were self-selected seekers of family therapy. Furthermore, there was no control group of, say, miserable couples that stayed together. Give me similarly sloppy evidentiary standards, and I can prove that intact families are destroying our youth.

As for claims that "teen suicide has tripled as divorces have tripled"1: Well, roller-blading has probably tripled in the same time period too, and that's hardly a reason to ban in-line skates. In fact, the current anti-divorce rhetoric slanders millions of perfectly wonderful, high-functioning, young people, my own children and most of their friends included. Studies that attempt to distinguish between the effects of divorce and those of other disruptions which often go along with divorce -- such as parental fighting, household relocation, and income decline -- have found no lasting psychological damage attributable to divorce per se. Check out a typical college dorm and you'll find people enthusiastically achieving and forming attachments until late into the night. Ask about family and you'll hear about mom and dad ... and step-mom and step-dad.

The real problems for kids will begin when the divorce re-reformers start getting their way. For one thing, the more militant among them want to "re-stigmatize" divorce with the cultural equivalent of a scarlet "D." Sadly though, divorce is already stigmatized in ways that are harmful to children. According to family analyst Stephanie Koontz, teachers consistently interpret children's behavior more negatively when they are told that the children are from "broken" homes -- and, as we know, teachers' expectations have a powerful effect on children's performance. If the goal is to help the children of divorce, then goal should be to de-stigmatize divorce among all who interact with them -- teachers, neighbors, playmates.

Then there's the likely effects on children of a return to fault-based divorce, in which one parent has to prove the other guilty of adultery, addiction or abuse. True, the divorce rate rose after the introduction of no-fault divorce in the late 60s and 70s. But the divorce rate was already rising at a healthy clip before that, so there's no guarantee that the repeal of no-fault laws will reduce the divorce rate now. In fact, one certain effect will be to generate more divorces of the rancorous, potentially child-harming variety. If you think "mommy and daddy aren't getting along" sounds a little too blithe, would you rather "daddy (or mommy) has been sleeping around"?

Not that divorce is a fun experience for anyone involved. But just as there are bad marriages, there are, as author Constance Ahrons argues, "good divorces," in which the parents maintain their financial and emotional responsibility for the kids and ideally also a modicum of mutual respect. In addition to trying to reduce the quantity of divorces, reformers should be working to upgrade the quality of divorces -- by, for example, mandating counselling for divorcing parents or requiring prenuptial agreements as to how the children will be cared for in the event of a split.

Now of course the anti-divorce movement's sudden concern for the tender psyches of children would be a lot more convincing if it were linked to any concern for the children's physical survival. The most destructive feature of divorce, many experts would argue, is the poverty that typically ensues when the children are left with a low-earning mother, and the way out of this would be to strengthen the safety net of supportive services for low-income families -- including childcare, Medicaid and welfare.

Too difficult? Too costly? Too ideologically distasteful compared to denouncing divorce and, by implication, the divorced and their children? Perhaps. But if there's one thing anti-divorce campaigners should agree with me on, it's that sometimes grown-ups have to do difficult and costly things, whether they feel like doing them or not. For the sake of the children, that is.

 

RE her Times sports article

I guess that's a pretty fair interpretation of what I was saying, Mike. There are some real needs at work in sports mania -- not unconnected to the needs many of us felt were met at one time by social movements, especially in their marching, chanting and running-in-the-streets aspects.

But I would make a big distinction between the kinds of feelings evoked by "pageantry" and spectacle and those evoked in genuinely participatory rites and activities. Pageantry and spectacle are what the elites of hierarchical societies have offered to their masses since the ancient civilizations. These spectacles can be profoundly compelling and even thrilling (perhaps esp when huge amounts of violence are involved, as in the Roman circuses or the Aztec sacrificial rites.) But my hunch is that a spectacle is never quite as thrilling as a participatory rite or event. It's one thing to watch the army march by (at, say, a Soviet May Day parade); quite another to be a marcher yourself. One thing to watch football; another to be one of the several 100 players on your side (as in the medieval version of the game.) So we see constant efforts on the part of ordinary people to make spectacles feel more participatory: Doing the wave or the chop at sports events is a prime example, and this kind of grassrootsy participation in sports has swelled just since the 80s. Or another ex, just pointed out to me by a Brit: the way US movie audiences ooh, aah, clap and cheer throughout the film -- very annoying, but an attempt to transform passive viewership into something more active and collective. Similarly, staid forms of religious worship always face displacement by more emotionally (and physically) expressive forms of worship -- where, instead of just sitting there listening, you get to speak in tongues, roll on the floor, etc.

One question for the left: Why are our public events so passive and spectatorial? Seems our fave medium is the public forum, with one to 4 people talking at the front of the room while everyone else sits.

As for the left and sports: It's important to keep pointing out what a plutocratic exercise these things are. People are plenty cynical about the billionaire owners and the millionaire players already, and this is accounting for a decline in TV viewership of prof'l sports. There was an interesting article in last Sunday's NYT (1/18 I think) on how the price of sports to the networks just keeps going up while ratings fall -- 'cause the suits really get off on their connection to the big baaad players.

 

 

Article in Harpers

Hi Gabriel, Here's the article "Spinning the Poor into Gold." It was published in the August issue of Harpers, and may be easier to read there because formatting won't survive transmission. Hope it is useful to you and your wife.

 

Epigram: Hndsm CEO sks woman who needs a caring but v. strict influence to help her and teach her to lead an orderly and disciplined life - personal ad, the Village Voice, 4/1/97

The registration fee for private sector participants at the conference on "Welfare Privatization" held in Washington in late March was $1695 -- an amount equal to over 14 months of welfare benefits for a Mississippi family of three.i Not that a Mississippi welfare family was likely to venture into the hotel where the conference was held, which rents a single room for somewhere between $300 and 400 a night, discounted to $185 for conference participants. With its muted modernist decor and cavernous lounge spaces, the Park Hyatt presents itself as a setting in which the affluent can gather discretely, over topics of mutual interest, undisturbed by any low-income people except for those wearing uniforms and available to perform small acts of personal service.

I first learned of the conference from a welfare advocate who faxed me, indignantly, the conference brochure, with its promise that this gathering would be an ideal setting for companies seeking to

"Capitalize on the massive growth potential of the new world of welfare reform

Gain a leading edge in the market while it is in its early stage

Profit from the opportunities available"

Until that time, my only acquaintance with the concept of welfare privatization came from a September New York Times article in which the sharp-eyed Nina Bernstein revealed that Lockheed Martin, EDS, Andersen Consulting, Unisys, and a host of smaller companies were proposing to take over the states' and counties' burden of processing and rehabilitating the poorest of the poor. "We're approaching this marketplace the way we approach all other marketplaces," the article quoted Lockheed senior vice president Holli Ploog.ii And why not? Government at all levels currently spends $28 billion a year administering its welfare programsiii, a tempting prize for a company facing the prospect of longterm declines in defense spending. This could be the "peace dividend" liberals have awaited, with the patience of a cargo cult, since the end of the Cold War in 1989: Not new spending on social programs, but welfare transmogrified into corporate welfare.

According to conference organizer Suzana (pronounced Susan-uh) Bacvanovic, it was this same article in the New York Times that had inspired her colleagues at the World Research Group with the notion that welfare privatization might be an appealing conference theme. A conference inspired by the chance reading of a newspaper article? In my experience, conferences are conceived in political or artistic angst, hatched in endless planning meetings, and designed to advance some significant cause or at least to "re-think" it. But the World Research Group shares Lockheed's lofty indifference to the actual content of the task at hand. It is a New York-based for-profit firm which specializes in the staging of conferences, and, in the odd syntax of its Web Site, "handles all aspects associated with the superior implementation of our events," from "topic research" to "hotel contracting." In addition to welfare privatization, the World Research Group has held, or will soon hold, conferences on airport managementiv, music and technologyv, satellite services in India,vi mining in Mexicovii, and "interactive sports." viiiPrivatization is a favorite theme for the Group's productions - privatization of power in Brazil for exampleix, or prisons in the United States. The brochure for the Group's December 1996 conference on prison privatization exulted "While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made - profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!" x

So this was, in all its superficial markings and accouterments, the generic corporate conference. One morning I accidentally wandered into another business-oriented conference being held on the same floor of the Hyatt, and it took a close reading of the name tags to determine that I was in the wrong place. There was the same spread of coffee and croissants in the corridor, the same windowless ballroom containing the same long tables set primly with notepads, pencils and ice water. For despite the occasional opulence of their venues, the culture of corporate conferences is a deeply ascetic one. At the Hyatt, the proceedings began each morning well before nine and stretched to 5:30 or six, nearly nine hours of continuous lectures and panels enlivened by few pleasantries or anything that could be construed as a joke. The exceptions were Mayor Bruce Todd of Austin TX, who attempted to lead the 70 or so conferees in a chorus of "Good morning's," and Dean Curtis of Curtis & Associates, a firm which runs motivational sessions to prepare welfare recipients for the work world, who had members of the audience stand and hold up signs referring to "Childcare," "Housing Subsidies," and other forms of government help that presumably block the recipient's path to successful employment. Other than that, the only respite from sensory deprivation was the handsome color slides favored especially by the corporate presenters. Most of these merely displayed an outline of whatever the speaker was saying ("Asset Sales and Divestitures/ Long Term Franchise/ Outsourcing...") though a few approached the level of a kind of surreal calendar art, like the one offered by Robert D. Tyre of Andersen Consulting, which showed the sun rising or setting over a vast landscape of undulating hills, above which the words "New Realities" were stamped.

But the very blandness of the conference may have been a mercy. Better to feel you were in a group that could have been discussing anything - Indian satellite service or new opportunities on the Internet - than to let your imagination wander for one moment to the human actualities portended by one suited speaker after another. As it happened, in the weeks leading up to the conference there had been a series of news reports on the likely effects of Clinton's welfare reform bill which, among other dire measures, ends the Federal government's 61-year-old obligation to the poor, sets a five-year lifetime limit on welfare for any individual, requires adult recipients to find work, and otherwise turns what remains of welfare over to the states in the form of unspecified block grants. Peter Edelman, the former Health and Human Services official who resigned last September to protest the bill, was traveling around the country, xiarguing that the results of shoving millions of the welfare poor into sub-subsistence wage jobs - often without childcare or health insurance - will include rising homelessness, malnutrition, infant mortality, family violence and crime: "new realities" which are perhaps best contemplated against a remote and mythical landscape.

Monday morning began with a "Welcoming Address" delivered by William Eggers of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank which exists to promote the privatization of government services and which, according to its report "Privatization 96" is happy to stock conferences with keynote speakers. xii A youthful fellow, with hair stylishly long on top, he seemed both eager to please and confident that what he had to say was of such an intrinsically pleasing nature as to require no oratorical effort on his part. Exulting that welfare privatization is now "probably the hottest area [of privatization] in the country," he promised three days of solid information on matters like "performance contracts" and "capitated services." Plus there was good news for the public sector representatives in the audience: Texas state officials, he told us, expect to cut their welfare costs 30-40 percent by contracting them out to private vendors like Lockheed and EDS.

But the atmosphere of bureaucratic rationality was soon punctured by the perorations of the third speaker, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. A thin, slightly hunched-over fellow with the gray buzz-cut and thick glasses of a wonkish monk, Rector has built his career on the argument that poverty is not so bad after all, and what there is of it is the result of misguided government generosity. In 1990 for example, when the Census Bureau issued a report stating that 13 percent of the population, or 32 million Americans, fell below the poverty line, Rector had responded with an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal arguing that 22,000 of the supposed poor actually owned heated swimming pools or jacuzzis - an extrapolation appreciated chiefly by connoisseurs of statistical impropriety.xiii

Described in the conference program as the author of the welfare reform provisions in the Contract With America, he was there to remind us that the purpose of welfare reform was not simply to redirect government aid from the poor to the corporate elite, but to save the nation from sin - the sins, in particular, of sloth, lust and the resulting epidemic of "illegitimacy." Drawing on the kind of analysis made famous by right-wing intellectuals like George Gilder and Charles Murray in the 80s, Rector explained that welfare does not help the poor; it is in fact, what makes them poor, or at least what makes them demoralized and dependent, criminal and addicted, and, worst of all, pregnant. This view permeated the conference unquestioned, as if no one, including the representative of the Clinton administration who spoke briefly on Monday afternoon, had ever heard of the numerous studies - some by former Clinton welfare official Mary Jo Bane (who resigned in protest along with Edelman) - showing that there is no correlation at all between a state's welfare expenditures and its rate of out-of-wedlock births. But no irritating counter-evidence intruded on Rector's presentation, from which it would have been easy to conclude that welfare functions, semen-like, to impregnate the poor singlehandedly. Welfare, he told us, "rewards dysfunctional behavior" like out-of-wedlock childbearing, while welfare reform will somehow "encourage marriage" by withdrawing the fertilizing flow of benefits. Later, the conference's other ideological heavy-hitter, the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner, would ratchet up the sexual imagery, telling us that black men have been "cuckolded" by the welfare state.

Rector had only one slide: a colorless graph showing the AFDC caseload declining in the United States as a whole, and declining even faster in the state of Wisconsin, where Governor Tommy Thompson effectively ended welfare about three years before the federal reform bill was passed. Commenting that "even a Harvard Ph.D. could see the difference" between the two lines on the graph, he explained that Wisconsin's "success" was due largely to "application dissuasion," or the imposition of work requirements so strict that "people never even walk in the door in the first place." When asked what had happened to the almost 40,000 people shed by the Wisconsin welfare system since tk- whether they had found jobs, for example, or had simply sunk into deeper destitution - he answered that "poverty isn't bad for kids. Most of us had grandparents who were poor." The real problem is illegitimacy, which has "a decisive bad effect on kids," and which will end when we no longer have welfare to discourage the poor from marrying. For a child, perhaps even a legitimate child (though this was not specified), 13 years on AFDC was "13 years of child abuse." The one problem with the welfare-as-semen theory is that, so far, the absence of welfare as-anyone-knew-it has not produced the hoped for decline in Wisconsin's rates of teen pregnancy or out-of-wedlock births - a result which Rector could only term "a paradox."

Sensing another paradox, or at least apparent contradiction, I made my way over to an empty seat next to William Eggers at lunch. How, I wanted to know, did he reconcile his libertarianism with the ambient demands to regulate the reproductive behavior of the poor? While the baked salmon entree was cleared off to make way for a five-inch high structure of ice cream and chocolate, he explained first that he wasn't a hundred percent libertarian, and second that the receipt of government aid seemed to him to justify the consequent loss of freedom. What about mortgage interest deductions for the affluent, I followed up, which can be many times larger than any annual welfare grant: Should these entitle the government to dictate the life-styles of wealthy homeowners? Eggers, whose conference bio describes him as the author of the book which made "the greatest contribution to the understanding of the free economy in the last two years," smiled and nodded at this novel perspective. He had heard an argument like that once before, from a fellow in California, or maybe it was Oregon, he confided vaguely before turning his attention back to the dessert tower, now dribbling promiscuously into a brown and white pool.

But if the primary goal of welfare reform is "caseload reduction," as speaker after speaker suggested, why bother with privatization? Surely the public sector could turn away supplicants every bit as efficiently as any profit-making firm, and has in fact been known to "churn" welfare recipients, or hassle them off the rolls, as state and local budgets require. According to Rector, though, this is "the last thing in the world they [the public sector] know how to do" - a theme repeated by other speakers. Public sector welfare suffers from a "culture of permissiveness" to the point of apologizing to clients, we were told, for the newly imposed work requirements. Furthermore, it was manifestly clear to the conference speakers that the "attributes of personal behavior," in the words of the affable mayor of Austin, that welfare recipients need to acquire are best instilled by the private business-people who will become their employers. Punctuality, appropriate dress, and an agreeable demeanor were all mentioned at one time or another, either by the speakers or in the slides and videos they presented.

In fact, privatization was already underway, in a scatter-shot fashion, well before the advent of Clinton's welfare reform. The defense contractor BDM had won a contract to automate New Mexico's welfare system as early as 1988xiv; Lockheed was in the business of collecting child support and fingerprinting (or "finger-imaging" as the euphemism goes) recipients in various statesxv; Curtis & Associates and the job-brokerage firm America Works had been propelling recipients into the workforce in Buffalo, San Francisco and other sites - to give just a few examples. But with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act signed by Clinton in August 1996, the way was cleared for private takeover of even the most intimate and fateful act of state-sponsored social provision - the determination of eligibility. Under the old welfare law, only government entities could distinguish the poor from the not-quite-so poor, the deserving from the undeserving, but this requirement vanished when the federal government block-granted welfare off to the states. The states will still set eligibility levels, but it will be up to the private contractors to determine which individuals fit them - a process which has always involved a measure of subjective judgment. To highlight the new flexibility, the 1229-page long welfare reform act stipulates that a state may administer its welfare program "through contracts with charitable, religious or private organizations" -- a Mormon temple, for example, or an under-employed weapons' manufacturer.

In the calls I made before the conference, I could uncover no evidence that private companies had actually lobbied to make the welfare reform bill so congenial to themselves. More likely, privatization was always a gleam in at least some of the welfare reformers' eyes; since those who see the poor as objects for moral uplift tend also to see corporate America as the embodiment of efficiency and Protestant virtue. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, the millionaire xviRepublican who sponsored the welfare reform bill in Congress, has stated, for example, that privatization is "exactly what has to happen for welfare reform to work."xvii If the corporations lobbied for anything - and representatives of the welfare arms of EDS and Lockheed were observed hanging around the Hill at critical times in the summer of 96 xviii- they lobbied for the bill to contain more funds for "information technology," a specialty of high-tech, defense-oriented firms. Although the amounts allocated were disappointing, according to EDS's Richard Ferreira,xix more money may yet be freed up for this purpose. One of the key provisions of the bill is its five-year lifetime limit on welfare, the enforcement of which will require a vast investment in technology to track individuals, through name changes and geographical moves, for decades on end - creating a veritable Foucaultian panoptican of surveillance and a growth industry for the finger-imagists and information technologists.

However privatization managed to attach itself to the goal of "reform," the conference aimed at serving a match-making function, promoting "sound partnership decisions," as Bacvanovic explained in her curious sing-song fashion at the opening session. There are thousands of state and county agencies entrusted with providing welfare, plus scores of companies lining up to relieve them of some part or other of this task; and the conference brought together about 60 representatives of the public sector, generally at the "deputy director" level, with a rotating crew of about a dozen of their corporate suitors. In a strict sociological sense, the two parties to the potential "partnership"-public sector "directors" and private sector executives - are occupants of the same professional-managerial social class. Both groups spend their normal working lives at desks or meeting tables -- monitoring, managing, deal-making and coming up with ideas which people paid less than themselves will be assigned to implement. If the abstract connection between the two groups was not clear enough, the list of conference speakers was replete with individuals who had made or were about to make the transition from one to the other: Lockheed's Holli Ploog, for example, was a former welfare administrator for the state of Alaska; Mayor Todd of Austin, Jason Turner of Wisconsin, and New York City's Richard J. Schwartz are all in the process of jumping ship for more lucrative careers either as independent "consultants" or as corporate administrators of welfare.

But at the Hyatt you didn't need an accountant to tell the difference between the public and private sectors. The corporate executives present, who were overwhelmingly male, wore expensive gray suits subtly indented at the waist; their faces were tanned, or at least buffed and peeled to a hearty glow; and they seemed, on average, actually taller than their potential partners in the public sector. The representatives of state and county governments, on the other hand, were in some cases overweight, often bearded, and given to such fashion solecisms as navy suits, heavy gold cufflinks, or even (this from my home state of Montana) a pink checked skirt worn with matching pink embroidered sweater . To underscore their evident superiority, the corporate participants tended not to sit at the tables provided, but along the wall at the very back of the room, in case their beepers should rouse them to more urgent business outside. And while the public sector bent over its legal pads, none of the corporate people took notes, at least none that I could observe - note-taking being, in the modern institutional context, a well-known gesture of submission.

For the public sector people, the conference was in every way a punishing experience. First there was the problem of sheer subsistence on the kind of miserly expense accounts provided by most state and county agencies: A participant from Suffolk County, Long Island, had made the five-hour drive to Washington rather than pay for airfare; several stayed in cheaper hotels from which they walked every day to the conference. John Grexa, from the Westchester County social services department, shared with me his rueful discovery that a single whiskey at the hotel bar goes for six dollars and change. But these were minor indignities compared to the relentless message from the podium: That the public sector had screwed up, in its "permissiveness," turning welfare into something which "destroyed the lives" of the poor and created a shiftless underclass. This message, delivered most forcefully by Rector and Tanner, was further reinforced by the presence of the public sector defectors, whose "tough love" approaches to welfare were now being rewarded with corporate jobs. When I playfully asked Grexa whether any of the corporations had tried to recruit him yet, I got something between a deathly hollow laugh and a snort.

It was a scene that the cognoscenti of the far right would have savored: Public sector "welfare statists" writhing under the assault of their corporate and think-tank betters. If there is any social group that the American right despises more than the welfare poor, it is the "new class" consisting of professionals and managers in the non-profit sector - foundation executives, university professors, journalists, and of course government bureaucrats. In the analysis developed by neoconservatives in the late 70s, this new class is bent on ruling the United States much as their counterparts in the nomenklatura ruled the Soviet Union. Key to this takeover is the new class's exploitation of the poor as a rationale for government expansionism, as explained, for example, in the pungent verbiage of the New Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell:

The welfare state ... turned many heretofore toiling Americans into parasites, and this new class of busybodies live[s] as superparasites, deriving nourishment from the dependence of the welfare clients.xx

 

It is this sinister symbiosis between the new class welfare statists and the hapless poor which welfare privatization promises to end once and for all. Henceforth, in the privatized welfare state, the corporations themselves will manage the poor, while the erstwhile new class cadre will have the choice of scrambling to win corporate jobs for themselves or, if all else fails, joining their former clients at corporate-run "job readiness" programs.

A few of the public sector participants rolled their eyes during the fire-breathing lectures from Rector and Tanner; several muttered over lunch about the infomercial-like quality of the corporate presentations. New York's Richard Schwartz, for example, brazenly promoted his fledgling company by beginning his talk with the announcement that "there are only two words you need to know for welfare reform -- `Opportunity America.'" But no one from the public sector rose to defend "welfare statism" or, sadly, even the much-slandered welfare recipients, perhaps because it was so evident in every presentation that the future belongs to the privatizers: men like EDS's Robert G. Stauffer, who had just returned from an international welfare privatization conference held in New Zealand, or Andersen Consulting's Robert D. Tyre, who spoke of "surfing the [privatization] wave" as it sweeps the world. Compared to these torch-bearers of international capitalism, proudly unrooted in any particular issue or locality, a deputy social service director from, say, Allegheny County PA, is a remnant of a dying culture.

I had been looking forward to Lockheed's Holli Ploog's Monday afternoon presentation, if only because she was one of just three women on the program and the only female speaker from the corporate sector. But she turned out not to be the fearsome Sigourney Weaver figure of my expectations - just a mousy presence in black and brown whose theme - "Virginia Child Support Privatization: Applying the Success to Other Human Service Areas"-sent a handful of the audience sneaking out to refresh their blood caffeine levels. It was good moment to catch up on the free literature available to conferees, such as the March issue of "Governing" magazine, featuring corporate ads which seemed to encapsulate the conference itself. "Beginning to feel the effects of welfare reform?" demanded a two-page offering from Unisys: "You're caught in the middle of a welfare revolution ... It's a tough spot to be in. But Unisys EIS (Efficiency, Integrity and Self-Sufficiency) offers a way out." There was a full-page ad for a conference on "Marketing to State Governments," to be held in Las Vegas for a mere $450 a person, which gave me the odd feeling of not being at a distinct event at all, but suspended in some airless continuum of inter-connecting hotel ballrooms, decorated only with spreadsheets. But then Ploog wound to an end, people wriggled in their seats, and we could congratulate ourselves on another orderly succession from speaker to speaker, without dissension or even much applause.

This is, as was clear by the end of the session on Monday, a revolution without soul or solidarity, a matter of smelling money and drifting closer to it, the way an amoeba is driven, chemotactically, toward the molecular emanations of its prey. There is money in welfare, obviously, even in "reformed" welfare, and this attracts the corporations, which have learned from EDS's experience with Medicare in the 60s that whenever government money flows from one point to another, it is generally possible to siphon some off. Then there is money in consulting to such corporations or to public agencies hoping to hire them, and this in turn draws the think-tanks, like Heritage and Cato and Reason, "If you ask me, " a woman representing an independent, for-profit consulting firm whispered to me subversively during a coffee break, "welfare privatization means full employment for consultants." And there is of course money to be made in holding conferences that bring all these parties together. In addition to collecting the registration fees, the World Research Group offers corporations, for undisclosed prices, an "official lead-platinum" level of conference sponsorship, which includes a "guaranteed ... speaking engagement," and an "official co-lead-gold" level of sponsorship, which carries with it "a confidential copy of the delegate list for your own marketing purposes."xxi

But once you have accepted the idea that there is money to be made in anything, even ostensible acts of charity, the only socially responsible question is: Can the corporations, and private "vendors" in general, do a better job than government at finding employment for the welfare population? This question was not raised at the conference, where the speakers unanimously assumed that, as one of themxxiiput it, the business community is "the genius in America... and the Western world." Even so, fragments of dissenting data surfaced disconcertingly here and there. In the course of making the point that government is "deadly efficient" at what it does - although what it does in the realm of welfare is clearly evil - Rector allowed that administrative overhead in government welfare agencies averages an admirably slim 10-15 percent; and it's hard to imagine firms like Lockheed, which have fattened for so long on cost-plus defense contracts, improving on that. Later Andersen Consulting's Tyre mentioned a General Accounting Office study showing, as he put it, that "government agencies that aren't working well now won't succeed at privatization," which would seem to pose another "paradox:" The agencies which arguably most need to privatize won't do a good job at it; and those that have the capacity to do a good job of privatizing might be better off using that capacity to deliver the service themselves.

And clearly privatization involves more, on the part of the public sector, than handing a job over to some public-spirited corporation and walking away. As officials of the unions that currently represent public sector welfare workers were eager to inform me before the conference, the progress of welfare privatization to date has been blemished by a number of near-scandals and disappointments, unmentioned by the speakers at the Hyatt. For example, G-Tech, which operates public sector lotteries and is the parent company of a firm under contract to administer Food Stamps in Texas, has been accused of bid-rigging and influence peddling.xxiii Andersen Consulting's cost over-runs led the Nebraska Department of Social Services to temporarily withhold its payments last January.xxiv America Works, which earns an average of $5000 for every welfare recipient it finds a job for, has been repeatedly accused of "creaming" the caseload for relatively high-skilled recipients who would have readily found jobs on their own.xxv Maximus Inc. allegedly paid a West Virginia welfare administrator to provide the company with inside information that would have helped it win a child welfare services contract. xxviAnd in Orange County, which set up a competition to see whether Maximus or the county welfare department could move the most welfare recipients into jobs, it was the welfare department that won.xxviixxviii

The question of how welfare privatization will work, though, hinges ultimately on that great mathematical mystery: Where will the profits come from? According to the cheerleaders of privatization, corporations will not only extract healthy profits from welfare for themselves, but garner sizeable savings (as much as 40 percent, as Eggers suggested) for government: a potential miracle on the scale of the fish and the loaves. There were three or four representatives of public sector unions on spy duty at the conference, dressed indistinguishably from most of the other participants in public sector grunge, and it was their hands that shot up at Q&A time to query, very politely, the source of the anticipated largesse. No one offered a clear answer; EDS's Robert Stauffer, for example, responded that the source of profits was "undefined at this point of time." One possibility is that the firms will take their profits out of the services and allotments intended for the poor; and this will be especially tempting if - as forcefully recommended by Rector -- the companies are paid solely for "caseload reduction," as opposed to being paid for finding long-term, decent-paying, jobs for recipients. It is no great trick to achieve effective levels of "application dissuasion" - by, for example, locating a welfare office several bus rides out of town and opening it at odd and erratic hours. Since the new federal law allows states to keep welfare money they don't spend on clients, there's an incentive for states to focus entirely on caseload reduction, and pass some of the resulting savings along to the corporate vendors as profits.

The other likely source of profits lies in the wages currently paid to the nation's tens of thousands of public sector welfare employees - caseworkers, administrators and clerical workers, most of them unionized, many of them (thanks to the public sector's history of relatively non-discriminatory hiring practices) female and/or black. Once privatization takes off, unknown numbers of these people will be displaced by lower-paid, non-union corporate employees or even by machines. One of the privatizers' favorite innovations - and the theme of a World Research Group conference held in late April -- is "electronic benefit transfer," through which welfare grants and Food Stamps are distributed via "smart cards" and dispensed at the equivalent of ATMs.

We may never know enough, though, to judge the private sector's performance in helping the poor to post-welfare reform self-sufficiency. Clinton's welfare reform bill has smashed that central moral bond, which linked the destitute to the rest of us, into thousands of fragments, and these in turn will be buried in contracts and, most likely, subcontracts, inaccessible to public view. Private firms are not subject to the same rules of financial disclosure as are the public agencies they will take over from, nor are they, given the threat of competition, particularly forthcoming about their operations. The potential for abuse or at least flagrant non-accountability mounts when the contracts are drawn up and monitored, as they often will be, by public sector managers eager to make the leap to the other side of the table. In Texas, even the requests-for-proposal issued to would-be vendors by the state have not been made available to the public.xxix If occult deals and diffused responsibility are frustrating to journalists, imagine their effect on an erstwhile welfare recipient who has been indentured by the local welfare department into a "work-readiness" program run by, say, Curtis, when she goes to her Lockheed-operated ATM, presents a fingertip for identification, and finds herself rejected. Who is she going to call?

There is, finally, the question of whether privatization can succeed in the terms set by the moralists who brought us welfare reform. The goal of reform, as set forth by Rector and Tanner at the conference, is to stop welfare - and all forms of government aid to the poor- before they drag another victim into the quicksand of "dependency." By comparison, the corporate speakers often sounded positively liberal - respectful of the public sector with which they would soon be "partnering" and even vaguely aware that larger issues of social stability may be at stake. EDS's Stauffer fretted briefly about whether we are unwittingly "creating classes of society," with one of them "earning $6 an hour who'll never get beyond that." He reported that at the New Zealand conference he had just attended, they're "really worried" about what he called the "social and income gap," though, he said, trailing off, "I'm not sure we should [be]." But the profit motive alone could seduce the private vendors of welfare-related services into becoming a permanent constituency for continued government spending for the poor, much as companies like Lockheed serve as permanent constituencies for the Pentagon and some operators of privatized prisons have become lobbyists for prison construction.xxx In his talk, Tanner had offhandedly denounced even the non-profit Catholic Charities as a "pig at the trough" for its reliance on government funding, so I wondered how he felt about having Lockheed etc. become similarly habituated to public welfare spending - to the point, perhaps, of lobbying for more of it. When I cornered him with this prospect at a phone bank outside the ballroom, he gave me a momentary look of alarm, and acknowledged that this would be a "perverse" outcome indeed

The difference between, say, a moralist like Tanner and a privatizer like Stauffer mirrors a larger ambivalence in American conservative politics. With one hand, the right pounds the pulpit convulsively for balanced budgets and a federal government shrunk to the size of a flyspeck on the Washington monument. The other hand, however, is firmly extended for whatever handouts - in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, or straight-out corporate welfare - can be coaxed or extorted from the public sector. There is of course no rule that a social movement has to be logically coherent: European fascists managed an unlikely blend of technological modernism and agrarian romanticism for much of the 20th century; Gingrich slams "big government" even as he solicits the defense contracts that so richly nourish his CD in Cobb County, GA. Nor for that matter do a movement's activists and aparatchiks even have to know where they're going, or the name of the landscape around them. On the last evening of the conference, I approached Bacvanovic, who was stilling manning the registration table, to ask why there were no liberals on the program. Her fairy-tale princess face lit up in triumph as she retorted, "We have Michael Tanner from the Cato Institute - that's very liberal." It seemed pedantic, and probably irrelevant to her future career, to explain that libertarian is not the same as liberal.

[This paragraph could be cut: In the case of post-reform welfare, things may turn out nicely both for those who want to end welfare and those who want to feed on what's left of it. What the moralists desire above all is for those welfare recipients who are now supposedly laying about in drugged stupors to "learn to wind an alarm clock," as reformer Mickey Kaus once put it in The New Republic, and drag themselves out to low-paid, but redemptive labor. This outcome can only please a business community irritated by the minimum wage, the sanctions against hiring illegal immigrants, and the occasional forays of union organizers. If nothing else, the reform and privatization of welfare will create a huge pool of American workers who will have no choice but to shape up for whatever jobs the employers have to offer: Former welfare recipients who can, under the more creative workfare schemes, be paid far less than the minimum wage, and who will, once they use up their time on the dole, no longer have the option of returning to welfare if the boss is abusive or the children get sick. Add to these recruits that one-third of the workforce which constitutes the working poor, and which is already seeing their jobs lost and wages decline as former welfare recipients tumble into the labor market. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the working poor will see their wages drop by 11.9 percent for every million welfare recipients ejected into the workforcexxxi. Surely, in this emerging dystopia, Lockheed et al. will have a valued role to play- providing what's left of welfare to the temporarily jobless, prepping the inexperienced, disciplining the discouraged, channeling people from one employment site to another, and generally trading in the desperation and helplessness of the post-welfare-reform poor. ]

I checked out of the Hyatt amid a sycophantic swarm of bell hops, door men and clerks eager to open doors, call a cab, or book me for a second visit. It was a ten minute walk to the Dupont Circle Metro stop, where I encountered my first non-uniformed low-income person in more than three days -- a young woman in greasy layers of clothing who challenged me to give her some change. This, it occurred to me, was precisely the evil the conference aimed to save us from: Poor people, outdoors with no definite errand, surly and free. More likely though, in the reformed and privatized future, there will be thousands more like her milling at subway stops, and maybe, eventually, even pressing up against the huge glass doors of the Hyatt itself.

 

i From Miss Dept of Human Services, 601-359-4500. A parent and 2 kids gets $120/month.

ii NY Times, p.1, Sept 15, 1996

iii see for ex, "Texas Move to Privatize..." Christian Sci Monitor, p. 1, 3/26/97

iv World Airport Week, 2/4/87

v "Interactive Briefs," Billboard, 10/19/96.

vi "Satellite Co's See Huge Market Potential in India" Communications Daily, 12/4/95, p. 5.

vii The Mining Journal, 1/10/97, p. 22.

viii Interactive Marketing News, 2/14/97

ix "Wary Developers See Large Brazil Market..." Independent Power Report 11/3/95, p. 11

x quoted in the Counterpunch article cited below

xi "traveling around the country" - Peter Edelman, 202-669-9074

xii Privatization 96, bet 32 & 33.

xiii Jason DeParles, "Homeless in Hot Tubs," Wash Monthly, 7/91, p. 51.

xiv "Information Technology, Please" Wash Post 10/9/95, p. F12

xv See for example, "The Power, Peril at Our Fingertips" LA Times, 4/2/95, p. 1.

xvi "Lawmakers Disclose Fees" Wash Post, 5/26/88, p. A1.

xvii "Welfare reform leader makes corporate move," Wash Post, 9/17/96, A13

xviii Nanine Meiklejohn, AFSCME, 202-429-1199

xix phone interview, EDS in DC.

xx Quoted in Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling, 188.

xxi WRG Website

xxii Ted Abrams sp? Am Inst for Full Employment

xxiii Mammon: All in the Game, The Guardian, 12/17/95.

xxiv "Treasurer withholds pay for consultant," Omaha World Herald, 1/14/97

xxv "Program Places Priority on People," Times-Union (Albany NY), 8/28/94

xxvi "Bribe Rap Haunts Welfare Contractor," Boston Herald, 3/29/96.

xxvii On Orange county: "Country Rejects Workers' Bid" LA Times, 6/19/96.

xxviii Privatization emerges as new welfare option, LA Times, 1/27/97, p. A1

xxix Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union, 512-448-4225. Texas actually calls them "requests for offers" tho RFP is the conventional term.

xxx Counterpunch, 1/1-15/97, p.2

xxxi EPI 202-331-5536

 

Re recent news about gay genes, etc....

I don't know enough about the study to comment on its scientific merits. I do wonder tho, about all the women I know who've been lesbians for some part of their lives and heterosexual for another part or parts. Did their hearing change in the process?

In general, I am a little baffled about gay and lesbian responses to ideas about the innateness of sexual preference. On the one hand, there are lesbians who seem quite insulted by the cochlea business. On the other, there are many gay men who have embraced the idea of innateness wholeheartedly, I guess because it seems to demand societal acceptance (as opposed to, say, weird

Christian attempts to "cure" gays.) Like my friend Bill Wright, whose book "Born That Way" will be published soon.

Any insights on this apparent split?

 

 

It's important to realize that a lot of horrible stuff is still going on, with children and ritalin, millions of patients and extremely dangerous neuroleptics, dubious drugs for anxiety and depression, electroshock, etc.---much of this administered to patients involuntarily. There have recently been dangerous experiments with, the researchers themselves acknowledge, no likely benefits to the subjects carried out on patients unable to give informed consent, some of them children. And the list goes on.

 

 

Vision of the right, etc.

<< It is this latter point that I want to address. I am afraid that the conservatives have developed a consolidated vision of the future (which is the past, the 1900's or so, maybe) that includes, among other things, privatisation of everything, Christian values, minimization of government, and a hatred of everything the sixties stood for (the feminist movement, equal rights for minorities). They also have a very organized means of disseminating these values. They are not looking at things "one issue at a time." >>

First, I'd point out that the rightwing vision is not exactly 'consolidated" and contains some deep contradictions -- such as the one between the free market, on the one hand, and the family values stuff on the other. The market, as Daniel Bell noted in "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism", is always undermining or at least threatening the archaic and patriarchal cultural values of the right.

But don't you think we also have a vision? Its elements include: levelling of hierarchies (race, gender, class etc); greater personal freedom and self-determination (eg, abortion rights, drug decriminalization); democratization of the ruling bureaucracies (both governmental and corporate); an "economy," if it could still be called that, organized, at least to a much greater extent, around meeting human needs; responsibility toward the earth and other species; etc. etc. This vision did not arise suddenly in the 1960s; it goes back, or at least large chunks go back, in European history anyway, to working class rebels like the Levellers, to various peasant movements, to the utopian socialists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "Scientific socialism," as thought up by Marx and practiced by Lenin, was just one brief and tragically unsuccessful interlude in the long history of egalitarian and libertarian movements. The fact that it's over doesn't mean we are left without a vision or a tradition of struggle to build on.

 

 

Biographic question...

Hi Dave,

It was basically the war in Vietnam that blew me out of biology. I was a grad student at the Rockefeller Univ in NY, where the expectation was that you'd spend 14 hours a day "at the bench" for the rest of your life. As I got swept up in the movement, I began to see better ways to use my time.

But I also don't think I had the temperament for experimental research. Some of this I put into the character of Alex in "Kipper's Game," where he complains that exp'tl research is just too slow and, besides, he is too sloppy. While I love and live for the kind of book-centered research I do now, I never quite had the manual skills and anal qualities so essential in the lab.

Re working women....

Yes, in a word, it's awfully hard to both raise and support on one's own, even under the best of circumstances (eg, full-time nannies, etc.) Under the more common circumstance -- a near minimum-wage job with zero benefits -- it's impossible. Just do the math: Suppose you're earning $6/hr and paying $2/hr for childcare (a low estimate) -- well, you can hardly afford to live indoors on that. Conversely, it's very hard to rise in the workplace -- not that opportunities to rise are usually available to low-wage workers at all -- if you're the mother of small children -- because you have to take time off (unpaid) when the kids are sick, and can't do overtime. Hence the sickening fact that 1/4 of American children are growing up in poverty.