The Republican Base’s Malevolent Algorithm

An entirely unsurprising poll shows that sixty-seven percent of the registered Republicans in the US support the current administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant (or asylum seeking) parents at the border. (Those children are then imprisoned in cages in concentration camps with no plans for their release or reunification with their parents.) This poll supplements an essay on Stephen Miller whose headline reads ‘The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”

It will ‘fire up the base,’ you see, and bring them out in numbers for 2018.

The ‘base’ is, of course, why Trump will never be impeached by the Republican Party; it brought Trump to power; it will keep him in it. This is democracy in action; at its ‘best.’ The ‘people’ have spoken–through an electoral system of sorts–and we know what they want. The ‘base’–the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd–reliably dislikes its Other: the libtards, the bleeding hearts, the snowflakes, the gays, the blacks, the Spanish-speaking, the feminists, the social justice warriors, the Marxists, the postmodernists, the coastal elites, the teachers, the unions, the gun control freaks, the atheists, the campus radicals, the brown, the immigrants (undocumented or otherwise.) The list goes on.

The reason for cashing out the content of the vox populi as a long list of dislikes and resentments is quite simple: this animosity toward its Other animates the ‘base’; apparently, it is the only policy justification it requires. A simple mechanical test for policy evaluation emerges: Does policy X cause fear, anger, dismay among members of the list above? Does it cause them to issue denunciations and condemnations of the Great Leader? Then it must be Good; if not, it must be Bad. Legal academics and concerned philosophers of technology spend a great deal of time pondering the problem of how to regulate automated decision-making; this is one algorithm for political decision-making that seems to have slipped under their radar. The perversity of this politics might make some parents recall the days of using the infamous ‘reverse psychology’ on a recalcitrant toddler; if you want them to do X, you must suggest that they do Y; the immature toddler, unable to realize he or she is being played, does instead. But comparisons and analogies with toddlers are ultimately unsatisfying; toddlers are also quite cute and entertaining and cuddly at times, and the Republican ‘base’ is anything but. Toddlers grow and mature; the ‘base’ appears to prefer curdling.

The presence of the ‘base’ and its frightening acquiescence to any moral atrocity as long as it meets the requirements noted above render wholly ineffective any political strategy that aims to change the Republican Party’s course by shaming it or pointing out its hypocrisies or inconsistencies. (On Twitter, a whole phalanx of tweeters is dedicated to racking up high RT counts by indulging in precisely such activity.)

Fortunately for the US, not all of its citizens are members of the base. Unfortunately for the US, all too many are. Trump will serve at most till 2024; the ‘base’ will be around much longer.

The ‘Hire-And-Fire’ Fantasy Of The Libertarian

A central plank of libertarian (and neoliberal and conservative) opposition to organized labor, to collective bargaining, to workers acting collectively is something I term the ‘hire-and-fire fantasy’: that employers should be able to initiate and terminate their employees’ employment at will. (This power would presumably be written into the contracts they sign with their workers.) Let bosses hire and fire as they please; they know best how to run the company. At this stage, a few anecdotes about the onerous bureaucratic delays involved in getting rid of a spectacularly incompetent worker are introduced: terrible tales of how disgruntled employers were made to run from pillar to post, all in effort to take the most obvious of decisions, the taking out of the trash. Unionized workers it seems, are complacent and lazy; they know they cannot be fired; they do not work as hard as those who know the boss can, you guessed it, hire and fire them at will. The union, the workers’ collective, then stands exposed as sand in the wheel; it appears as a burden, a terrible economic and performative inefficiency getting in the way of the smooth deployment of ‘human resources.’

The problem with this argument–and it is a familiar one–is that it compares the worst of the unionized workplace with the best of the non-unionized workplace. In the former, the incompetent worker is protected by a venal union, even as an exasperated boss, who only wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible, tears out his hair; in the latter, the same virtuous boss is able to summon the incompetent worker to his office, summarily dismiss him or her, and then get back to work. All virtue resides in the employer; the union and the worker are only imbued with sloth and insufficient motivation. This argument does not, of course, bother to examine the situation created by an incompetent boss who decides to peremptorily dismiss a blameless worker, perhaps one with a long and distinguished service record, on arbitrary and trivial grounds (perhaps a secretary did not smile broadly enough, perhaps a junior pointed out an embarrassing blunder in the boss’ presentation, pricking a thin patina of pride; the list goes on.) There is no court of appeal; there is no redressal possible; here is a paycheck for two weeks; clean your desk, and then the security guard will escort you to the elevators. Here is arbitrary and opaque power indeed; the boss can act, but the worker may not. (On the many occasions that I’ve discussed this argument with my students, there are those who will enthusiastically back the ‘hire-and-fire’ claim till I point out to them just how arbitrarily that power may be exercised by employers; then, expressions of dismay set in; I suspect the situation they had in mind was the one I described first above.)

The union’s contracts for its members seek to put in place a procedure for investigation of complaints, for workers to be granted the privilege of answering charges laid against them; they seek to shield the worker from the most arbitrary exercises of the boss’ undoubted power. The stakes are high; the worker’s livelihood is at stake. The power of the employer (sometimes a corporation) is always greater than that of the worker; collective bargaining and action and worker-protective contracts aim to address this imbalance. Those who criticize the worker’s collective body, accuse it of wielding too much power, both recognize and fail to recognize power: they notice that the workers united, cannot be defeated, but they fail to acknowledge the power the boss may wield over his employee. This blindness is not accidental; it is ideological, for its true motive is not the protection of the economic efficiency of the workplace–arbitrarily firing competent workers can very often be economically counterproductive–but the power of the boss, the maintenance of a very particular hierarchy, one that allows for certain pleasures only to be found in subjugation and the exercise of one’s will over another.

With Trustees Like These, Who Needs Enemies? Part One

The City University of New York is a public university. Presumably, its Board of Trustees is staffed by those who have the interests of their constituency–students and teachers–first and foremost. Not so. As faculty and students find out, the Trustees includes many members whose qualifications for this job appear radically antithetical to this university’s mission. The staff union for the City University, the Professional Staff Congress, has started to publish a series of articles on their blog, detailing these folks’ backgrounds, careers, and achievements, all of which make for very sobering reading. I intend to link to these posts and post excerpts here.

Some background:

The CUNY Board of Trustees has 17 members, including two ex officio members: the head of the CUNY University Student Senate, and the head of the University Faculty Senate (who cannot vote).  The other members are appointed by either the Mayor or the Governor. Eight members were initially appointed by Pataki, four by Bloomberg, and one each by Giuliani, Patterson, and Cuomo. They serve seven year terms and can be reappointed for additional terms. The Chairman of the Board is Benno Schmidt, the only educator appointed to the Board, though his interests in for-profit education and corporate led “reform” movements will be discussed in a later post. Official bios can be found at http://www.cuny.edu/about/trustees/board.html.

Now for today’s exhibits. First up, a ‘union-busting lawyer’, Peter Pantaleo:

Democratic Governor David Paterson appointed Peter S. Pantaleo, a top professional in the lucrative field of anti-unionism. The Board of Trustees website (http://www.cuny.edu/about/trustees/board.html.)  identifies Pantaleo as a “Partner at DLA PIPER,” adding: “Mr. Pantaleo represents both domestic and international employers in labor, employment, and civil rights matters. While he has substantial experience litigating cases before courts, administrative agencies, and arbitration panels, the principal focus of Mr. Pantaleo’s practice is advising employers in complex, politically sensitive labor and employment matters.”

DLA PIPER is the largest law firm in the U.S. by attorney headcount, reportedly representing half the Fortune 500. Its website includes a “Labor and Employment Alert” giving employers step-by-step instructions on how to use a recent decision of the anti-labor NLRB to “prohibit use of email for union organizing purposes.” This is remarkably similar to what happened at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, which banned faculty from using email to discuss union business until this gag rule was defeated by the union. http://archive.psc-cuny.org/Clarion/LAGCCfreespeech.pdf.

Pantaleo has worked for the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel during its campaign to stop a unionization drive (New York Times, 10 March 1997). His old firm Pantaleo, Lipkin & Moss represented Las Vegas bosses at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who banned three workers from handing out pro-union leaflets at the entrance to a casino/hotel complex.

In May 1998 Pantaleo co-authored an article in Gaming Law Review describing strategies for “lessening the power” of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.  Another Pantaleo piece, from 2004, tells employers in non-union workplaces how to use a NLRB rulings to prevent employees from having a coworker present during “investigatory interviews” (Monday Business Briefing, 5 July 2004).

 So in sum, we have a trustee appointed to the board on the basis of his experience in attacking unionized workers. The staff of the City University are unionized; this trustee’s role is a purely antagonistic one toward them. How reassuring.

In tomorrow’s post, we will consider another stellar member of this elite group. Stay tuned.