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10/13/2004

Flexploitation

The LA Times published an incredibly important article on the modern American economy last weekend, to little fanfare or acclaim.

Starting in the late 1970s, the nation's leaders sought to break a corrosive cycle of rising inflation and stagnating output by remaking the U.S. economy in the image of its frontier predecessor - deregulating industries, shrinking social programs and promoting a free-market ideal in which everyone must forge his or her own path, free to rise or fall on merit or luck. On the whole, their effort to transform the economy has succeeded.

But the economy's makeover has come at a large and largely unnoticed price: a measurable increase in the risks that Americans must bear as they provide for their families, pay for their houses, save for their retirements and grab for the good life.

A broad array of protections that families once depended on to shield them from economic turmoil — stable jobs, widely available health coverage, guaranteed pensions, short unemployment spells, long-lasting unemployment benefits and well-funded job training programs — have been scaled back or have vanished altogether.
This devolution of economic risk is the defining characteristic of our age - and the article gets it exactly right in noting that it is the intentional result of a series of political decisions.

This phenomenon has a number of pernicious effects. Perhaps the most important is what I think of as the law of conservation of risk: economic risk toleration has an inverse relationship with social risk toleration. As people's economic situations becomes more tenuous, their psychological willingness to accept diversity declines. Anti-immigration sentiment rises. Economic nationalism and international isolationism increases. Racism rises. General resentment rises. People seek recourse in reactionary political ideologies.

Conservatives want increased economic risk, they exploit it. Their corporate benefactors profit from increased bargaining power vis a vis labor, their campaign coffers fill, the appeal of their reactionary social ideology increases.

Liberals want the opposite. Good jobs, a solid safety net, and a secure retirement increase a country's acceptance of diverse people and ideas, producing a reinforcing upward spiral of creativity, productivity, and growth. People with good jobs are more willing to try out new ideas, to listen to new voices, to act on their entrepreneurial impulses.

(Libertarians, btw, live in a dream world, usually induced by a trust fund).

Pierre Bourdieu says it best:
It has emerged clearly that job insecurity is now everywhere: in the private sector, but also in the public sector, which has greatly increased the number of temporary, part-time or casual positions; in industry, but also in the institutions of cultural production and diffusion - education, journalism, the media, etc. In all of these areas it produces more or less identical effects, which become particularly visible in the extreme case of the unemployed: the destructuring of existence, which is deprived among other things of its temporal structures, and the ensuing deterioration of the whole relationship to the world, time and space. Casualization profoundly affects the person who suffers it: by making the whole future uncertain, it prevents all rational anticipation and, in particular, the basic belief and hope in the future that one needs in order to rebel, especially collectively, against present conditions, even the most intolerable.

Added to these effects of precariousness on those directly touched by it there are the effects on all the others, who are apparently spared...The existence of a large reserve army, which, because of the overproduction of graduates, is no longer restricted to the lowest levels of competence and technical qualification, helps to give all those in work the sense that they are in no way irreplaceable and that their work, their jobs, are in some way a privilege, as fragile, threatened privilege (as they are reminded by their employers as soon as they step out of line and by journalists and commentators at the first sign of a strike). Objective insecurity gives rise to a generalized subjective insecurity which is now affecting all workers in our highly developed economy...

So insecurity acts directly on those it touches (and whom it renders incapable of mobilizing themselves) and indirectly on all the others, through the fear it arouses, which is methodically exploited by all the security-inducing strategies, such as the introduction of the notorious "flexibility," - which, it will have become clear, is inspired as much by political as economic reasons. One thus begins to suspect that insecurity is the product not of an economic inevitability, identified with the much heralded "globalization," but of a political will. A "flexible" company in a sense deliberately exploits a situation of insecurity which it helps to reinforce: it seeks to reduce costs, but also to make this lowering possible by putting the workers in permanent danger of losing their jobs. The whole world of production, material and cultural, public and private, is thus carried along by a process of intensification of insecurity, with, for example, the deterritorialization of the company... [Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, 82-84]
"Deterritorialization" is a fancy word for outsourcing, which though a "bogeyman" in terms of actual job losses, is a real monster in terms of the devolution of risk. If we are to reap the gains of international trade, the collateral risk increase needs to be treated seriously. CEOs and major investors can't be allowed to monopolize the benefits of increased worker insecurity.

Bourdieu calls the corporate instrumentalization of risk "flexploitation." It is an evocative word, and seems radical at first perusal. But the concept builds on a long tradition in American liberalism, from Roosevelt to RFK.

 

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