Monday, July 30, 2012

Initial thoughts on patriarchy and the status of the workplace

     I've been thinking about feminist critiques of the concepts of the private and the public for the past few months, coming out of some of the framework offered by the last class that I worked as a teaching assistant for.  The main text of that class framed the house within the context of the private and places such as work as the public.  However, the more I think about this, the more problematic it becomes, particularly in regards to the notion of categorizing the workplace squarely within the public sphere.  Corey Robin has done a pretty good job spelling out the fact that one abandons one's rights when one goes into the workplace, rights that are only partially reinstated by the collective bargaining process.  When one goes farther into the origins of the industrial revolution, it becomes abundantly clear that the forms of paternalism and patriarchal control that Robin identifies in the present have ample precedence in the long history of capitalist accumulation.  Within this context, I want to pose an alternative argument.  Instead of posing the workplace as a public space, the categorization of the workplace as either public or private is matter of contestation, or to put it more polemically, a matter of class struggle.  Secondly, with the exception of a brief period between 1948 and 1975, the brief period of the labor peace, the workplace has largely stayed out of the public sphere, with the gains of that period quickly being lost in the present.

     To spell this out, we need to think about the concept of patriarchy.  Classical patriarchy was never limited to the control of women, by men, although it certainly an aspect of the social structure.  Instead, classical patriarchy was a structure of propertied men controlling women, children, and propertyless men under their control.  Sylvia Federici amongst others have argued that the primitive accumulation of capitalism was achieved in part by offering women as a commons as an alternative to the common property that was destroyed in the process.  In effect, propertyless men were, in part, induced to break out of what Federici calls the 'anti-feudal alliance' through the creation of a cross-class alliance of men on the basis of the common control of women, marking the proletariat as a deeply divided (Federici and most other contemporary radical thinkers would also recognize the importance of the structures of racialization created through that other engine of 'primitive accumulation', colonialism, as a structural determinant.)  While I largely agree with Federici's intervention, the continued patriarchal structures of a variety of workplaces complicates this perspective.  Within this context, workingman's associations simultaneously challenges the patriarchal structures of the capitalist workplace, while accepting or even reinforcing the patriarchal structures of the households that they benefit from.  (There are notable exceptions to this, for instance the Voice of Industry's support of the demands of the Lowell factory girls, but these have largely been exceptions until recently.)

      So what is the significance of this?  To be honest, I'm not sure, but it might allow for another avenue for thinking through structures of social oppression if followed through on.  We might be able to link the limitations of a variety of workingman's organizations to challenge the patriarchal structures of the workplace with their broad acceptance of the public/private division of production and consumption, and production and reproduction.  At the same time, it offers a possibility of rethinking the patriarchal structures of capitalist accumulation, of re-imagining feminist alliances.  Obviously, it would take a lot of theoretical, empirical, and practical work to follow up on this, but it strikes me as an interesting prospect.  (To avoid hubris, obviously this sort of work has been taken up by feminist, marxist, and other radical thinkers, but the question of the public, private, and the workplace seems to remain relatively unthought within a lot of basic work, from both the feminist and the labor studies perspective.  I'm going to be spending most of my time on the dissertation, but I'm hoping to work through this question a bit more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Interlude (6): Koerner, Ray, and Glover Documentary

Continuing with my interludes, here is a Tony Glover directed documentary about the Minneapolis based folk blues trio, Koerner, Ray, and Glover.  Worth the watch.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On the summer joint council meeting

Since the former leadership caucus, who used to be known as USEJ, but now call themselves SWITCh in a desperate attempt to avoid their own history, have quoted this particular blog.  I would like to remind everyone who reads this blog that AWDU helped lead the fight for refunding public education through the Make Banks Pay coalition campaign, a campaign which got no support from the former leadership.  Dozens of AWDU activists were arrested in this campaign, which made Governor Jerry Brown compromise on the Prop. 30 language, which was substantially less progressive in its taxation structure.  (I slightly edited this to acknowledge that the Make Banks Pay campaign was a coalition event, involving a lot of unions, but we substantially pushed it towards the questions of public education that it took up.)

     It struck me that I forgot to produce a substantial account of the previous Joint Council meeting, a meeting which produced a few small reforms in the bylaws, as well as a couple substantial arguments. all in a hot and miserable union office, frankly unfit for the number of folks that were there.  I thought I would try to make up for that error with a short report on the interesting aspects of the meeting, along with a similar report concerning the latest Joint Council meeting.  After all, these informal modes of communication often translate into more rank and file engagement than the official channels of communication, and I've tried to pass on my perspective on things since our election.

      The first and most notable aspect of the Berkeley meeting is that it was fairly pleasant for the most part, if you ignore the oppressive heat in the room.  For the most part, conversations remained productive with a number of minor reforms to the bylaws being passed, guaranteeing local access to the union listserves, elections committee reform, changes in staff membership requirements, and requirement that Northern and Southern Vice Presidents are members in a campus that they're representing.  Each of those points passed with minor debate, and cordial conversation.  The two exceptions were notable.  The first came around a request for a small amount of money to help with a bail fund for UCLA protestors, which was opposed by the Santa Barbara contingent, who continue to insinuate that these events were not sanctioned by the union despite the fact that the protests in defense of public education have been discussed extensively at Joint Council meetings.  The Santa Barbara contingent was asked why they had taken this position, which translated into a fairly spirited back and forth between AWDU folks and the Santa Barbara crew.  Despite claims on the the part of the Santa Barbara folks otherwise, the response on the part of the UCLA folks was pretty minor, given the absolute lack of solidarity shown by Santa Barbara.

      The second debate was probably the more significant of the two, that being over the compromise millionaire's tax, Prop. 30.  The proposition was initially advocated for by Santa Barbara's Steve Attewell, who did a good job of defending the initiative's positive qualities, emphasizing its level of progressive taxation, and the funding that it would bring in.  However, the proposal was quickly amended for opposition by Jason Ball of UCLA, who brought significant counter-arguments, notably the regressive aspects of the bill around taxation, and our exclusion from the compromise process itself, both by the governor and our fellow allies in other social movement organizations and unions.  Eventually, a middle position was taken by the union as a whole, taking no position on the bill, leaving it to individual members to decide how they should vote, a position which might be revisited in a later online vote.  The thing that really struck me in the debate was that Attewell simply couldn't conceive of a reason why a reasonable person might disagree with the logic he presented to the JC.  This sort of myopia is all too represented of the reasoning of the former leadership, who all too frequently refuse to recognize that there might be an alternative to their version of trade union politics, and a view that's going to leave them a small and irrelevant force until they rethink that position.

       Moving from there, the summer meeting was much smaller than the earlier spring meeting, being made up of 16 members of the AWDU caucus, and about 8 members aligned with the former leadership, and the Riverside leadership did a good job finding us a space to meet in that was both air conditioned and spacious, two qualities that I appreciated after the Berkeley experience.  The initial section of the meeting went quite well.  We passed a number of minor proposals, money for organizing kits, more money to send folks to a conference, we took positions on a number of initiatives (more on that in a later post) and postponed a re-visitation of Prop 30 for a later online conversation (this conversation is necessary after the recent budget passed, a budget that will freeze tuition costs, but only if the proposition passes.  I'm also going to write a more substantial post on this later.)  Additionally, my first official proposition (in conjunction with Charlie Eaton) in support of a change in our letterhead to emphasize our position as "UC Student-Workers Union" passed, which I see as a minor part of our attempt to link our upcoming contract fight with the larger worker and student struggles in the university.  We will have to wait to see if we can live up to the claims made in the title.  I certainly hope we do.

     From there, we took a short break.  However, when we returned, a member of the caucus of the former leadership, Guanyang Zhang, called for quorum, effectively ending the official section of the meeting.  At that point, a fairly lengthy and unproductive conversation broke out over the interpretation of the contract and Robert's Rules broke out, and effectively ended any meaningful conversation.  Without getting into the details of that conversation, we came to the conclusion that the meeting could not continue officially.  In effect, this decision translated into our inability to pass any of the bylaws reforms that we had wanted to pass, nor could any of the more substantial bylaws reforms that we were going introduce get their first hearing.  The decision froze out any meaningful decisions about the contract campaign from happening, and kept us from a number of other necessary decisions.  There is a possibility of holding an emergency meeting early in the fall, but that action is going to create a lot of problems.

     Not surprisingly, a number of folks in AWDU were unhappy about the turn of events, and expressed this over the Joint Council website, which translated into a fairly predictable debate with the former leadership circling the wagons.  My thoughts are a little different than both sides of the debate.  Not surprisingly, I don't agree with the position of the former leadership.  Zhang's position was clearly political, designed to shut out the ability to introduce a number of proposals that I suspect that he opposes.  Zhang avoids the polemics expressed by the other members of his caucus, but he fairly faithfully represents the sort of conservative politics exemplified by that caucus.  To put it simply, he's not as neutral as he thinks he is.  At the same time, it's difficult to argue that his action was in any sense illegitimate.  His action is allowed by both the bylaws and the arcane rules of Robert's Rules of Order.  I don't agree with the action, but that is a matter of political disagreement, rather than some sort of ethical infringement on the part of him.  That distinction is significant.  We might want to make efforts to reform the way we enforce quorum, or perhaps more significantly, make sure that we make that requirement, but it doesn't make sense to condemn someone who uses a legitimate rule for his own political position.

Hopefully, we'll be able to make up for this problematic ending with an emergency meeting in September.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mark Twain on whiteness

     I came across a curious passage in Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court a couple days ago, while on the road.  The book itself is interesting set of contradictions, between its embrace of the terror of the French Revolution, and a blind acceptance of evolutionary progress.  I suspect that this rich set of symptoms have been written about quite extensively, but, to be honest, it's not really in my field of study.  However, I thought I would present one of the more interesting passages within the text, although without much commentary.  Historically, the notion of 'whiteness' or white privilege has its origins in the work of W.E.B. DuBois, however we can find a fairly crude version of the hypothesis in Twain's 1889 work, or perhaps more specifically, it poses the problem that DuBois offers a solution to, why did 'poor whites' support the 'slave-lords', rather than those in a similar, although worse condition?  Twain captures the structures of privilege and rank within the feudal society of the 7th century, arguing that these hierarchical structures hold the entire structure in place, but the analogy is never made explicit in the text, left to the reader to make the connection.  As a matter of fact, in the passage below, Twain implies that the structure had been abolished with the Civil War, something Twain should have known better about given the results of the compromise of 1877, which ended the Reconstruction, and the terror that came afterwards.  Nonetheless, the passage is certainly evocative, and gestures towards the fact that DuBois' insight was in response to a long history of inquiry, which has its origins, in a certain sense, to the work of Montaigne and others.

  " I was just expecting he would come out with that. For a moment the man and his wife showed an eager interest in this news and an impatience to go out and spread it; then a sudden something else betrayed itself in their faces, and they began to ask questions. I answered the questions myself, and narrowly watched the effects produced. I was soon satisfied that the knowledge of who these three prisoners were had somehow changed the atmosphere; that our hosts' continued eagerness to go and spread the news was now only pretended and not real. The king did not notice the change, and I was glad of that. I worked the conversation around toward other details of the night's proceedings, and noted that these people were relieved to have it take that direction.

     The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor. This man and woman seemed to feel that in a quarrel between a person of their own class and his lord, it was the natural and proper and rightful thing for that poor devil's whole caste to side with the master and fight his battle for him, without ever stopping to inquire into the rights or wrongs of the matter. This man had been out helping to hang his neighbors, and had done his work with zeal, and yet was aware that there was nothing against them but a mere suspicion, with nothing back of it describable as evidence, still neither he nor his wife seemed to see anything horrible about it   

     This was depressing -- to a man with the dream of a republic in his head. It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the "poor whites" of our South who were always despised and frequently insulted by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history; and that was, that secretly the "poor white" did detest the slave-lord, and did feel his own shame. That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out, under favoring circumstances, was something -- in fact, it was enough; for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn't show on the outside."
     --Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Sunday, July 8, 2012

On Dubstep (Or What I Really Don't Understand About It's Recent Success))

       Up until recently, I was pretty excited by the increased popularity of dubstep.  I had been listening to the subgenre for quite a while, going back to the early releases by Kode 9 and the Space Ape and Burial that I discovered through the British music magazine, Wire. Through that publication I discovered Skream, Shackleton, Pinch, and Horsepower Productions, and others. In a significant manner, the genre helped me develop an interest in electronic music, getting me into everything from Underground Resistance to minimalists like Robert Hood and Ricardo Villalobos, to artists such as Four Tet, Rhythm and Sound, Lone, and Ekoplekz, not to mention a lot of significantly older stuff.  To put it another way, early dubstep allowed me to recognize the value of electronic dance music as an art form.  However, I recently realized that when I talked about dubstep, I meant something substantially different than most folks.   It turns out that the dominant force in dubstep in the United States is some guy called Skrillex, who is kind of terrible.  Although I shouldn't be terribly surprised, dubstep has mutated in the U.S. context from its moody and syncopated origins in its original U.K. context to something boring, macho, and mechanical in the United States.  To give you a sense of the contrast in sound, here are some of the U.K. acts that I am interested in.


       With this small and somewhat random sampling, I think a number of things are pretty clear.  Dubstep is developed out of the British electronic music scene, particularly out of remixes of 2-step garage music, drawing on the rich Caribbean influence on music in the U.K.  (To get a good sense of that hybrid influence, listen to the Ragga Twins and Shut Up and Dance) 1. the music is fairly diverse. The different songs fit comfortably within the genre, but we're offered a number of mutations, oscillating between the digidub influences heard in Skream and the Digital Mystikz to the percussion heavy work of Shackleton.  2.  The dub influence translates into an interest in that genre's interest in exoticism, which turns into an exploration of the the structures of migration found in the UK, particularly in the the work of Dust and Blackdown.  We're offered a diasporic and post-colonial musical formation.  3. The music tends towards the paranoiac and introspective in tone, rather than extroversion and aggression.  Portishead's Geoff Barrows argues that its a form of music best appreciated on headphones, wandering the empty streets at night.  To put another way, it's not all that macho.  Additionally, all of these tracks work well outside of a club setting, creating innovative and interesting music that bears introspective listening as well as dancing. 

    However, the music of Skrillex is considerably different, losing the experimentation and introspection found in the earlier examples in the subgenre.  Instead, we're offered a version of dubstep that is far more rigid, and at times, mechanical approach to rhythm. With it's heavy mixture of vocal sampling, relatively uptempo beat for the genre, and musical aggression, we find ourselves with a far more banal and uninteresting form of the genre.  Apparently, a lot of this stuff is called Brostep, now.  What I find disappointing is that it seems that this banalization seems the only way for the genre to move into the mainstream, destroying the very qualities that made it worth exploring in the first place.  I've long since abandoned the need for purity and exclusivity in the music I listen to.  If Shackleton sold like hotcakes, it would still be worth listening to, but I don't think that this is going to happen.  Instead, the dance floor is being transformed into another homosocial, yet heteronormative space, equivalent to the locker room.  The tedium of the genre's sociality is reflected in the formal qualities of the music.  Aggression when used creatively can produce interesting results within the genre.  The problem with contemporary dubstep is that it's aggressiveness is so tediously predicable, sounds rote and strangely dialed in.  The last record by The Bug offers a useful contrast to the predictable sounds of contemporary dubstep. 

     The question posed by the process of mainstreaming of dubstep is a fairly simple one, where is the genre going, and what impact will this have on electronic music as a whole?  Despite the fact that we can still find a number of creative records coming out, I'm not terribly optimistic about the prospects within the genre.  As the genre moves into the stadiums, I suspect we're going to find more figures such as Skrillex.  In a certain sense, the commercial failure of electronic dance music in the 1990's was ultimately a positive, rather than a negative thing, leading to experimentation, and putting a stop to the proliferation of mainstream acts such as Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and The Crystal Method (who brought the same sort of macho appeal to the genre.)  I'll be curious to see if the current crop of artists stall out like the earlier batch of artists, or if the stadium phenomenon is successful, in either case, most of the interesting music will probably be on the margins.