The Defenses Of United Airlines’ Behavior Reveal Some Uncomfortable Truths

There are, roughly, two kinds of defenses offered of United Airlines’ behavior–in DraggingGate–that have been offered thus far. First, the ‘abide by the terms of the contract’ defense. Second, the ‘just shut up and obey orders, and everything will be allright’ defense. On closer inspection, of course, these two turn out to be instantiations of the same abstract concept: bow down to authority, legal or penal, and all will be fine. But for the time being, let us take a closer look at them separately.

The first defense, which bids us to ‘quit complaining because you know what you signed up for’ is especially fascinating. This defense demands that we surrender all notions, all norms, of social good-will to the obtuse, deliberately disguised, terms of a contract. With probability one, it can be surmised that the person offering this defense has never read the fine print of the many, many, contracts that regulate his or her life. The libertarian paradise of a world in which the government only exists to enforce contracts entered ‘freely into’ by various contractors seems a rather bizarre one when we realize that most contracts are unreadable by almost anyone lacking a legal education; moreover, many of those contracts contain terms that are ‘unconscionable,’ buried deep in some sub-clause somewhere. As I’ve noted elsewhere, misery needs company: I’m bound by contracts I find incomprehensible, whose terms are ‘forced’ upon me; so everyone else should be; there is no ‘fellowship’ of citizens or consumers here.

The second defense is exceedingly familiar. It is the one trotted out by defenders of the police whenever there is an instance of police misbehavior. Most offensively, it makes an appearance when the police have just performed an execution of a recalcitrant citizen, one who did not raise his hands in time, or perhaps spoke back insolently. If any injury ensues to a citizen–fatal or otherwise–well, too bad. Once a citizen has refused to comply with orders, all force, including its deadly variants can now be exerted to make the citizen bow down. Disobedience is a sin; one worthy of capital punishment if need be.

The recurring appearance of these sophistical arguments in the American polity is revealing. Why are ‘shut up and obey orders’ and ‘you should know enough legalese so that you can negotiate every single transaction you enter into your life’ held up as exemplars in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’? This regulated life–by contractual terms, by penal authority–seems a particularly grim realization of the American dream. DraggingGate reminds us too that the so-called ‘free market’ in aviation works because all airlines offer equally appalling service in a world where airline travel has become indispensable for business and personal affairs. Soon, we will have to fly; and we will find our restricted choices leading us back to United Airlines. (Why not open up the US market to Asian airlines?) Remarkably, not one passenger on the flight stood up to intervene; they all knew the consequences. They would either be thrown off the flight themselves–thus suffering ‘inconvenience’–or they would be arrested. They too, complied. As all those who defend United Airlines would have us do.

Perhaps we are, as Nietzsche worried, desperate to find other forms of authority–now that the religious  has been partially displaced–to rule over us; perhaps those exerting their wills in resistance to the strictures of contract law and the police remind us that we are living lives of subservience ourselves. We are authority’s minions; we do as we are told; so should everyone else.

A Modest Proposal To Cull The Human Herd

Feeding the elderly and the young i.e., the economically unproductive, is a terribly wasteful, irrational enterprise–programs like Meals on Wheels and after-school lunches are but the most glaring instances of this catastrophically misdirected act of charity; acts like these will never produce any tangible, meaningful results like an increase in the Gross Domestic Product or the Gross National Product, indeed, the Gross Product of anything whatsoever. The elderly and the young merely consume resources, among which is the most valuable of all, the time and attention of those who could be otherwise engaged in more useful and productive endeavors–all of which may be located in those zones of virtue and redemption, the workspace and the office of the corporation (not the public sector enterprise.) Parents all too often have to turn their eyes away from useful work to attend to the plaintive cries of their useless children, while on the other end of the age spectrum, those same workers have to minister to their useless parents, who continue to occupy space, drink drinking water, eat edible food, and contribute to this planet’s terrible climate change situation by increasing our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content. Children can at least be mildly amusing, while the elderly are anything but. Enough is enough; our civilization is at a genuine point of crisis.

Any strategy to ameliorate this state of affairs must begin with a recognition of our fundamental human nature: we are individuals, first and foremost. We are born free, radically independent of family and home and state; we die free, hopefully alone, all by ourselves. We take care of ourselves from the moment of our birth, tending to our needs with rugged solitary enterprise; we disdain the helping hand at every step. We feed ourselves, we clean ourselves, we clothe ourselves; we are pioneers of the spirit, heart, and mind. The company of other human beings is always an irritation, one only tolerated in our recognition of them as potential future consumers for the goods we will try to sell them at some point in the future.  The care of others is a burden; we need little care as we grow up, and indeed receive none, so why should we extend our care outwards? We were left by the wayside at birth; so must we do to others.

Faced with these incontrovertible facts about ourselves, a simple plan of action suggests itself for dealing with the problem of the too-young and the too-old: a gentle but firm shove over the edge. No more bleating for attention from the children; no more calls for assistance from the elderly. A population made up entirely of working-age adults is an economist’s delight; it should be our aspirational ideal, guiding our social and economic policies at every step; it should inform the moral instruction we provide to our, each other. The qualms we might feel as we prepare to enact this policy are merely the vestiges of an archaic sensibility, one that must bow its head before the relentless logic of the economic enterprise, and the moral demands it places upon us.

Nietzsche’s ‘Supreme Principle of Education’

Nietzsche claims that the “supreme principle of education” is that “one should only offer food  to him who hungers for it.” That is, roughly, teaching should be guided not by the requirements of an abstract, generalized curriculum, but by the expressed needs of the learner. In keeping with Nietzsche’s generalized aristocratic and hierarchical sensibilities, education is not for all; it is only for those who express a desire to learn. Moreover, what they wish to learn will be guided by this desire, this hunger; they will not accept a substitute deemed necessary or desirable for them by some planner or designer of an educational system. Find out who wants to learn, and what they desire to learn (and why); education is thereby facilitated, and indeed, only becomes possible under these circumstances.

Nietzsche suggests that rather than having mathematics and physics forced upon us in the form of “thousands of…annoying, mortifying, irritating problems” our education should show us, in response to our lived experience of the world, that we “needed a knowledge of science and mathematics.” We should turn, perplexed by our interactions with a mysterious world that seems to embody regularities, to those whom we think know better and ask for guidance. Then, perhaps, we might find “delight in science.”

Needless to say, very little in our educational systems resembles the implementation of the prescription that Nietzsche offers here. They resemble instead, giant factories, which prepare and condition students for the world; rather than responding to the students’ hunger–of which they have plenty, even if inarticulately expressed–they seek to inculcate in them a hunger for a particular set of socially chosen aims and goals and ends. They are factories of ideology; they impress upon the student a value system that prepares them for efficient functioning in the world to which they are preparing to enter. A student might ‘choose’ a major but little about this choice is free; the student has been instructed and channeled for so long that his or her choices are all too plausibly viewed as the resultant effect of the various ‘educational’ (ideological) constraints  placed upon his or her learning.

A straightforward, ‘practical’ assessment of Nietzsche’s philosophy of education is that it is ‘impractical’ and implausible: students need to instructed, by those who know better, what they need to learn, so that they may make their way through this world as best as possible. But it is our desires, our ends, that predominate this discussion; there is little consultation with the students. Such an attitude is forced upon us, for we are in a terrible hurry to train our students, our children, and to send them out into the world to be productive and useful. There is a timetable of educational markers waiting after all; can we afford to let children play and explore and attempt to figure out this world and their educational needs for themselves when everyone knows that a child of four years must begin formal schooling in preschool and be out of high-school by the age of eighteen? Moreover, who has the time? Parents cannot spend such time with their children; they have to go to work, and must leave their children with other caretakers. Our society cannot afford so many little parasites running around, contributing little to the national GDP.  This is our train and it is headed for distant stations; there is no room for stragglers here, no time to seek out the hungry and ask what will nourish them.

Note: Excerpts from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1991, Book III, Section 195, p. 115)

Peter Thiel Should Attempt the Anatomically Impossible

A few years ago, I made note of Peter Thiel’s showboating program to give young folks a cool hundred grand if they dropped out of college to pursue their dreams. This scheme, cooked up by a Stanford graduate, a venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager, was in transparent alignment with various neoliberal schemes cooked up to denigrate and weaken and ultimately destroy higher education by the simplest of strategies: under the guise of reform, simply gut the system in question–all the better to pick at its scraps. (c.f. charter schools, which aim to reform the public school system by getting rid of it.) From that stance, a straight line can be drawn to Thiel’s donation of 1.25 million dollars to the Donald Trump campaign; one of the hallmarks of fascism, after all, is disdain for education. Or rather, for anything that could possibly generate critical inquiry of any sort. As the New York Times’ source said, “the investor feels the country needs fixing, and Mr. Trump can do it.” That’s certainly one way to ‘fix’ a problem; you get rid of the entity afflicted by the problem. In this case, the American republic.

We should keep Thiel in mind whenever we evaluate an anti-public education stance. The undermining of public education is not an innocent bid to ‘restore’ quality; it is a malignant bid to replace public education with a horde of shrieking rent-seekers: the armies of educational consultants and charter operators lurk among them. Folks like Thiel are common in the business world; they attain success in one narrow field, and then they imagine that the tool they have acquired–the corporate vision, with its particular incentive schemes, its understanding of human relations and their monetizations–can then be successfully exported to all domains. In Thiel’s case, first it was public education, then it was the country. Soon he will have a scheme for curing cancer and for bringing peace to our troubled world. Corporate ‘leaders’ and ‘innovators’ imagine they are sneering at the conventional niceties which up prop hidebound domains of human endeavor and infusing them with radically new paradigms–in the form of their own conventionally acquired, cliché ridden, wisdom. Unsurprisingly most of these corporate-to-country-to-world schemes are cooked up by the graduates of private schools, which have provided a comfortable insulating layer from the realities of most folks’ lives.

Thiel embodies the worst kind of educated philistine, the kind Nietzsche worried about and warned against: they possess education in the formal sense–Thiel does have a pair of degrees in engineering and law–but they show little cultural or intellectual sophistication, and their thin patina of education equips them with a dangerous assurance that they could clean up any mess, solve any problem, so long as quaint notions such as the collective interest or social constraints like civil liberties were shoved out of their way. They have grown up imagining they have bent the world to their will; they now seek new territories to conquer. As part of a fascist brigade, if necessary.

Why Faculty Lock-Outs Are Irresponsible And Inappropriate

In response to my post on Sunday making note of the lock-out of faculty at Long Island University (LIU), a Facebook friend wrote on my page:

So, I don’t understand. What makes university professors any different than people who work any other job? If you don’t like the pay, or don’t like the working conditions, simply go somewhere else. An employeer prohibiting someone from coming into their workplace who doesn’t agree to the terms of their employment is immenently fair. I’m sure the employeer (whatever, whoever, and for whatever industry) has made a calculated position to turn away their employees because they weren’t worth the compensation they demanded. The employees may not feel that way, and maybe they can come to an agreement, but maybe not and both sides go their own merry way.

Because students are people, not products; because education is not a commodity. That’s the short answer, and it should be enough. But let’s look a little closer.

The first part of the response above is eminently fair in one regard: faculty are workers who provide labor to employers; indeed, faculty organize themselves into unions precisely to make the point that they should be compensated fairly and that they deserve adequate working conditions in their workplace. Moreover, the possibility they may seek alternative employment or withholding labor (via a strike) is one their employer is aware of; these are tactics and strategies available to workers in labor negotiations.

So why criticize the employer for leveraging their power in their relationship with their workers?

Because, bizarrely enough, as just noted, there is the small matter of students and their education, the impact on which needs to be assessed when evaluating the appropriateness of any action taken by management or faculty. See, for instance, this post expressing concerns about how CUNY faculty should approach the decision to take a strike in case their negotiations with CUNY administration failed; at that stage, CUNY faculty had been without a contract for several years. That is, tactics and strategies which might compromise the education of our students were only to be resorted to as a last, radical measure when all other options had failed. (They included civil disobedience actions by faculty.) Management which took actions to compromise the mission of the corporation they managed would be looked upon very unfavorably by their shareholders; this is the situation we face at LIU. As noted in my post, LI management’s concerns seem to be exclusively financial–improving their ‘credit rating.’ Where are LIU’s students and their education in all of this?

In Long Island University’s case, there is no indication that management has these kinds of concerns front and center, no indication that management seems to understand the almost-fiduciary duty they have to their wards, their students: they have abruptly pulled the plug on contract negotiations, unilaterally declaring an impasse of sorts; they have hired inadequate, underqualified replacement workers, thus compromising the education the university provides. Just because an action is legally permissible does not make it responsible or appropriate. LIU management’s actions were not criticized in my post for being illegal; they were criticized for being grossly inappropriate to the situation at hand. LIU students have lost access to their teachers; this is very dissimilar to manufactured products losing access to their makers. (I hope this difference is clear.) LIU students have lost access to their education; this is the cost that must be reckoned with when assessing the worth of LIU management’s actions. From this teacher’s perspective, management’s actions are irresponsible and reckless, and provide clear evidence they misunderstand the nature of the work they are engaged in.

Long Island University’s Labor Day Gift To The Nation: A Faculty Lock-Out

Some university administrators manage to put up a pretty good front when it comes to maintaining the charade that they care about the education of their students–they dip into their accessible store of mealy mouthed platitudes and dish them out every turn, holding their hands over their hearts as paeans to the virtues of edification are sung by their choirs of lackeys. Some fail miserably at even this act of misrepresentation and are only too glad to make all too clear their bottom line is orthogonal to academics. Consider, for instance, the folks at Long Island University who have kicked off the new academic semester in fine style:

Starting September 7, the first day of the fall semester at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, classes will be taught entirely by non-faculty members—not because the faculty are on strike, but because on the Friday before Labor Day, the administration officially locked out all 400 members of the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF), which represents full-time and adjunct faculty.

Yessir, what a fine Labor Day gift to the nation this makes.  When contract negotiations with your workers fail, well, you don’t continue trying to find an agreement in good faith; you just lock them out¹ and replace them with grossly under-qualified folks instead:

Provost Gale Haynes, LIU’s chief legal counsel, will be teaching Hatha yoga….Rumor has it that Dean David Cohen, a man in his 70s, will be taking over ballet classes scheduled to be taught by Dana Hash-Campbell, a longtime teacher who was previously a principal dancer and company teacher with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

As Deb Schwartz at The Nation notes–quoting Deborah Mutnick, a professor of English and a member of the union executive committee–LIU President Kimbery Cline’s administration has sought to “accrue a surplus budget,” succeeded by “firing people,” and is apparently guided by the principle that “the primary goal of the university is to improve its credit rating.”  That strategy sounds suspiciously familiar, as it should, for it is taken straight out the corporate playbook. Remember how we were told the productivity of American workers had increased in the 1980s? And then we found out it was because fewer workers were employed, and they were all working longer hours.

Such emulation of the corporate world is precisely what university administrators aspire to, of course. The same plush offices, the same air of self-satisfied importance, the same deployment of incomprehensible jargon spoon-fed to them by management consultants, the same glib throwing about of that reprehensible phrase ‘the real world.’

An unsafe worker in one workplace means unsafe workers everywhere; the wrong lessons are learned all too quickly by the bosses. LIU’s tenured and unionized faculty have been treated reprehensibly here in Brooklyn; this is a dangerous precedent and those who ignore the message it sends do so at their own peril.

Note #1:  Kevin Pollitt, a labor relations specialist with New York State United Teachers, notes that this is the first time that higher-ed faculty have ever been locked out, an achievement that LIU administration can brag about to their monetization-happy fans.

Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.