Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Somers

Workplace Coercion and the Public / Private Divide

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If you haven’t been following it I can’t recommend enough catching up with a series of posts that began with Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch (BRG) launching a broadside against the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) concerning coercion in the workplace. I described the larger conversation as “the best thing on the internet”.  The central point is that the workplace is an arena of considerable coercion where employees have vastly fewer rights than they do in relation to the government, or for that matter, then most people probably realize.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

I’m less interested in discussing the critique of the BHL than I am in the issue of workplace coercion and the public  / private distinction that makes it difficult to see this in the first place.

By public / private distinction, I mean a deeply ingrained cultural narrative that opposes the private sphere / the natural world / the market / voluntariness  vs. the public sphere / interference / government / coercion.  Margaret Somers argues this idea has its origins in Locke, who was seeking to create a way of restraining the monarchy by elevating a pre-political, fundamental private sphere that could not be legitimately interfered with, since the primary threat of the time was a newly empowered absolutist monarch.  Somers argues these ideas distinguish what is considered reasonable from what is not, operating not as a premise in logical arguments but rather structuring how people perceive the world in the first place.

Ultimately, this doesn’t mean that people don’t know that the workplace is coercive, it means that this experience is often not politicized–in the sense that it’s experienced as a problem about individual companies or managers.  Or from a third-party stance, it is not something that poses a problem–for example the presumption that such coercion must have some economic rationale (and the implicit notion that profit-making would thereby justify it). Something becomes politicized when we tie our own fate to others, when we see this as about ‘work’, for example. as opposed to ‘this job’.

The difficulty here is that while libertarians tend to be the loudest critics of laws and regulations, it’s by no means limited to them. Neoliberals are also skeptical of labor regulations, and treat markets as presumptively legitimate. And conservatives who are openly hostile to civil libertarianism often take such positions as well.

This is the conversation the left needs to have, and it’s one we haven’t, in part because the right has been dominating the conversation, dictating the questions to be asked, etc.  In the end, the various answers to the question posed at the outset–can bosses demand that their employees to have sex with them or be fired–have been wanting.  Just raising these questions helps makes the underlying assumptions less obscure.  My sense is that they only hold their power because we don’t typically attend to them.

It would also be helpful if we were to raise questions about terms like the private sector, intervention, or market, all of which do more to obscure than to reveal.  But that is a subject for another post.

(Corey Robin has been rounding up the various responses to the original post. The latest one is here).

Written by David Kaib

July 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Arbitrary Authority, Punishment and the Production of Violence

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Discussing the recent incident at McCarren Pool, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a common mistake when it comes to the relationship between violence and authority.

There was some shock and dismay last week when I wrote that I was rather unsurprised by the violence that broke out at McCarren Pool, but was in fact more surprised that the NYPD hadn’t put in place a more forceful police presence on opening day. I argued yesterday that violence tends to follow whenever you have masses of people in tight cities and no authority with teeth.


Nevertheless, I was slightly taken aback by the fact that many of us seem wholly unfamiliar with this sort of violence–directed at an authority figure, and undertaken by a group of teenagers.

I don’t know what was going through those kids minds. But I know that I used to be one of them.  When I was 14 years old my English teacher yelled at me in front of the class. I responded by threatening him. I was subsequently arrested for assault, suspended and almost thrown out school. (You can read the long version here.) Like most of the boys I went to school with, I was obsessed with rather hollow notions of “respect” and saving face. I was not–by any measure–a tough guy. But this made things worse. At any rate, I deserved everything I got. You can’t go around threatening teachers. Or people.

My italics.

But I don’t think TNC’s own story is about what happens when there’s “no authority with teeth.” It’s about how people respond to authority.

The “masses of people in tight cities” in the US are often underserved by existing institutions, socially isolated from the rest of society, denied opportunity, discriminated against, responded to with punishment in ways others are not, and subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. This generates anger, resentment and rage, which then tends to blow when it gets too strong or those individuals find themselves outside the “authority” of those with power.

Prison psychologist James Gilligan puts it this way:

I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply “because he disrespected me” or “he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.].” In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, “He dis’ed me.”


On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere, as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War—to choose just a few among many possible examples).

When I saw this prisoner I asked him, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.

Gilligan’s point is that when authority robs individuals of their dignity, either by putting them in a position where they cannot maintain it, where others will rob them of it, or where those operating under color of law will do the robbing, people have a tendency to lash out aggressively to try to reassert that dignity. (I should really say men, because there is a really important role for gender here, but that’s a subject for another post).

Studies of why people (this time I really mean people) obey the law show consistently that a central issue is whether it is seen as legitimate, specifically, whether procedures are felt as fair. Fair procedures might be extended to those who are considered fully human by those in power (although this group is shrinking) but as Margaret Somers argues, rights are not generally extended or protected to those who are seen as less than fully human.

Neoliberalism is sometimes mistakenly seen as simply about markets, but it also includes a significant emphasis on punishment.  Whether it means punishing through the criminal justice system, the social welfare system, or the national security system assaults people’s sense of dignity, producing the very behaviors it claims to be fighting.  Robert Pape’s work on suicide terrorism, showing it to be caused by occupations by countries associated with a different religion than that of the occupied is but one example.

The problem then, is not the lack of authority, but how authority is wielded.

(None of this is to say TNC doesn’t have a lot to offer on these dynamics.  See for example this earlier post he linked to.)

Written by David Kaib

July 11, 2012 at 12:10 pm

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