Liza Featherstone on Focus Groups

Yesterday, we at the John Jay Economics Department hosted my friend Liza Featherstone, author of Students Against Sweatshops and Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers Rights at Wal Mart, for a talk about her new book, on the history and politics of focus groups. (That’s me introducing her.)

The whole thing is worth watching. As with so many institutions, the history of the focus group has interesting twists and turns that you wouldn’t guess just from its current state. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the focus group originated — like so many technologies — in the US war effort of the 1940s. The first focus groups, apparently, were convened to improve the quality of radio propaganda. Only later was the technique adopted by commercial advertising, before migrating into the electoral arena in the 1980s and 1990s.

The most interesting part, though — for met at least — is the end, where Liza talks about the funny parallels between focus groups and the kind of consensus decision making practiced by mass movements like Occupy. (And by popular movements at least back to the 18th century, for that matter.) In contrast to surveys, polls and elections, focus groups and assemblies do not assume that people enter the process with well-formed views that just have to be registered and tallied. Instead, they assume that people’s true views only emerge in a process of active exchange with others.

The classic example in the marketing context is New Coke. In blind tests, clear majorities preferred the new flavor, but in a setting where the two cokes were discussed, people were somehow convinced that they preferred the old flavor after all. Apparently focus groups sponsors often complain in cases like this that one strong personality bullies everyone else. But isn’t that how people’s choices get shaped in the rest of life too?

Is it better to keep our private views intact? There’s a view that instability in asset markets arises precisely because people allow their views to be shaped by interaction with others — herd behavior, the madness of crowds. To have efficient asset markets, it’s important that people trade on their private information. We use secret ballots in elections and some people even consider it rude to ask who you are voting for. Too much discussion corrupts the process of aggregating up private beliefs. More generally, there’s a sense that the way our ideas change in contact with others can be a problem, and that we may need to protect our authentic selves from social pressures.

To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on — in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort. 

Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

That’s Larkin, who would not have had much time for either focus groups or general assemblies.

Meanwhile, on the other side, along with the focus groups we have 12-step groups, psychoanalysis, the self-criticism practiced in some revolutionary groups. All of these elevate the process of communication itself as the source of beliefs and desires, as opposed to the liberal idea that we first come into possession of these individually and then act on them or communicate them.

What do we make of this similarity? The negative answer is that focus-group politics have displaced more effective forms of political organization on the left as well as in the mainstream. People have come to feel that communication is an end in itself — that the important thing is to have your voice heard, and only incidentally to exercise power. (Liza shared a rather depressing anecdote after the talk, about a union staffer who said that it was impossible to get members to come to meetings by saying there would be an important vote, but they would come if you told them they’d be taking part in a focus group.) Of course even this way of looking at things isn’t entirely negative — people do need to get their voices heard, especially people without the privileges that make it easy to be listened to.

But there’s another way to look at these parallels. Maybe the marketers, in their desperation to “catapult the propaganda” (in the words of one of our most focus-grouped, and focus group-deriding, politicians) have stumbled on a truth about human nature that the left has always known. We are not monads, with a fixed set of preferences. As Liza says in the talk, human beings are profoundly social creatures — our selves don’t exist in isolation from others. (This is why solitary confinement is a form of torture.) Capitalism is intolerable but it has, historically, produced genuine progress in science and technology, and there’s a sense in which focus groups could be an example. It’s grotesque that this insight — that people’s beliefs and desires only emerge in exchange with others — has been mainly used to sell soft drinks and candidates. But it’s a real insight nonetheless.

Bring Back Butlerism

From Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction:

Even more outrageous than Tweed … was Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who flamboyantly supported causes that appalled reformers such as the eight-hour day, inflation, and payment of the national debt in greenbacks. He further horrified respectable opinion by embracing women’s suffrage, Irish nationalism, and the Paris Commune.

Or, as a horrified Nation put it, Butlerism was

the embodiment in political organization of a desire for the transfer of power to the ignorant and poor, and the use of government to carry out the poor and ignorant man’s view of the nature of society.

Labor law, inflation, women’s rights, anti-imperialism, and small-c communism, not to mention government by the poor? We could use a little more of that 1870s spirit today. People on the left who want to central banks to do more, in particular, could talk more about loose money’s radical pedigree.

So who was this guy? The internet is mainly interested in his Civil War career. Made a general on the basis of his pro-union, anti-slavery politics, he was, not surprisingly, pretty crap at it; but it does appear that he was the first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and the first to successfully enlist black troops in the South. That was enough for Jefferson Davis to order that if he were captured, he should be executed on the spot. So he didn’t know how to lead a cavalry charge; sounds like a war hero to me.

In the current Jacobin (which everyone should be reading), Seth Ackerman offers emancipation and Reconstruction as a usable past for the Occupy left, unfavorably contrasting “the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison” with the pragmatic abolitionists who

saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals. At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites.

Today’s left, he suggests, could learn from this marriage of radical commitments and practical politics. Absolutely right.

There is, though, a problem: Reconstruction wasn’t just defeated in the South, it was abandoned by the North, largely by these same practical politicians, whose liberalism was transposed in just a few years from the key of anti-slavery to the key of “free trade, the law of supply and demand, the gold standard and limited government” (that’s Foner again), and who turned out to be less frightened by the restoration of white supremacy in the South than by “schemes for interference with property.”

If we must, as we must, “conjure up the spirits of the past …, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language,” then certainly, we could do worse than the Civil-War era Republicans who successfully yoked liberalism to the cause of emancipation (though I’m not sure why Seth name-checks Salmon P. Chase, an early opponent of Reconstruction). But personally, I’d prefer to dress up as a populist who continued to support the rights of working people even after liberalism had decisively gone its own way, and who ended up representing “all that the liberals considered unwholesome in American politics.” Anybody for a revival of Butlerism?

Welcome Wonkupy

When I first started reading blogs a decade ago (I’m pretty sure the first blogpost I ever read was one of these Eschaton posts on Trent Lott) there was a distinctly truncated Left in the blog world, especially on economics. Just mainstream liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as far as the eye could see. Which, what else is new, right? Except that it really wasn’t true of mailing lists, the predecessor medium, where you had super active lists like PEN-L and LBO Talk. I used to wonder if there was something specific about the formats that made mailing lists more hospitable to radical politics. Like, flatteringly, maybe we prefer collective discussions rather than one-man shows? Anyway, the question is moot now, because there’s certainly no shortage of left/radical blogs now, economics-oriented and otherwise.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to introducing a new progressive economics blog, Wonkupy. It’s by “Rotwang,” a very sharp comrade who needs to remain pseudonymous for professional reasons. It bills itself as “Occupy for wonks,” but my sense is it’s going to be more the other way round; well worth reading either way.

That said, I have some disagreements with his current post, arguing that criticism of private equity is a distraction. I put them in comments there, but since it touches on some regular themes at the Slack Wire, I thought I’d post an abridged version here.

Rotwang’s argument is that it’s wrong to suggest that buyouts and takeovers of firms by private equity funds and the like have any systematic effect on the way those firms are managed: profit maximization at the expense of workers and the pubic is the order of the day whether the bosses are vulture capitalists or just the regular kind. (It’s sort of a political-economic version of the Modigliani-Miller theorem.) Rotwang:

In [private equity] discussions, it is easy to focus on outright theft, abuse of borrowing, and inefficient government subsidies. We suggest this is not unique to PE, but is generic to Capitalism. One could imagine regulatory responses to such problems, but we insist the problems are part of the system, not tumorous growths on something otherwise fundamentally healthy. A narrow focus on PE glosses over the features it shares in common with Capitalism in general, now and throughout history. The narrow view plays to limited and ineffective remedies that fail to engage the long-standing, systematic problems of capital markets.

I disagree — tentatively on the substance, but emphatically on this way of framing it.

Suppose for the moment it’s true that the problems with private equity are no different from the problems with capitalism in general. I still don’t think that’s a valid reason to not talk about private equity in particular. After all, “X in general” is just all the specific instances of X. To the extent that the way productive enterprises are treated by PE firms like Bain is a representative example of why an economy oriented around the private pursuit of profit is incompatible with a humane and decent society, I don’t see what’s wrong with starting with it as a particularly vivid and timely example. Of course you have to then move on to a more general critique — there’s nothing that stops management at companies that aren’t subject to buyouts from acting like Bain, and many do — but a ban on discussion of particular cases doesn’t smooth the way to that general critique.

The other question is, is it really true that there is no difference between what a firm like Bain does and what a “normal” capitalist firm does? Rotwang writes, “From the worker’s standpoint, it makes little difference if her life is ruined by PE or by old management,” which is inarguable. But are we sure ruination is equally likely in either case?

It seems to me that while capitalist firms always pursue profit, and this pursuit is always ultimately inimical to the interests of workers, it’s not always equally single-minded. Managers want their firms (and themselves personally) to make money, but they also want them to survive, to grow, to gain market share, to be perceived as prestigious, cutting-edge, etc., and, in a non-trivial number of cases, to make genuinely good products by whatever objective standard of the business that they’re in. To the extent that finance exercises more active control of the firm, those other motives get subordinated to pure pursuit of profits. And I think that does tend to make life worse for their workers, and communities and customers, and everyone else who depends on the business as an ongoing enterprise.

No question, there is (or was; is Occupy still a thing?) a strong anti-finance vibe around OWS. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing that — especially in its weirder Ron Paulish forms — but it seems to me this is a case where “Yes, and” is distinctly preferable to “no, but”. For some people, a criticism of private equity may be an alternative to a broader critique of capitalism, but for many more, I suspect, it’s a starting point towards it.

“Ten People Acting Together Can Make a Hundred Thousand Tremble Separately”

Suresh’s excellent post on the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. It’s a funny book; I don’t know if it’s much read today. One of its innovations, or eccentricities, is to place the American Revolution not just in the revolutionary tradition, but right at its center. Another is the focus on the idea of “public happiness” — the idea that there’s a distinct kind of wellbeing that comes from participation in collective decisionmaking. And most relevant to the current conversation, is its emphasis on the role of local councils — non-elected but representative — in every revolutionary situation, from 18th century New England town meetings to the soviets of 1918. These have independently developed, she argues, the”federal principle” — the idea that democratic politics consists not in selecting leaders who then exercise power on behalf of the public, but rather of local bodies delegating specific tasks to more centralized bodies.

The connection to the Occupy movement is perhaps obvious, though Arendt isn’t one of the writers people usually associate with this kind of politics. Her insistence that broad participation in public life is an end in itself, even the highest end, is a nice corrective to people who are impatient with the inward-looking nature — meetings about meetings! — of a lot of conversations around OWS. And the General Assembly structure looks different when you imagine them as proto-soviets. Of course the US today isn’t anywhere close to a revolutionary situation, and one can’t imagine General Assemblies exercising dual power. Or more precisely, there’s no way anything like that will happen; people are imagining it, that’s the point. Maybe the best evidence that Arendt is onto something important is that her book, written in the 1960s mostly about the politics of the 1780s, has distinct echoes not just of OWS, but of popular movements around the world, like the idea of “delegation” rather than “representation” coming out of Venezuela and Bolivia. 

I think the connection is interesting enough,it’s worth putting some long quotes from On Revolution here. Which requires us to deploy the new-to-Slackwire technology of the fold. So, after it, Arendt.

While the [French] Revolution taught the men in prominence a lesson of happiness, it apparently taught the people a first lesson in “the notion and taste of public liberty”. An enormous appetite for debate, for instruction, for mutual enlightenment and exchange of opinion, even if all these were to remain without immediate consequence on those in power, developed in the sections and societies… It was this communal council system, and not the electors’ assemblies, which spread in the form of revolutionary societies all over France. Only a few words need to be said about the sad end of these first organs of a republic which never came into being. They were crushed by the central and centralized government, not because they actually menaced it but because they were indeed, by virtue of their existence, competitors for public power. No one in France was likely to forget Mirabeau’s words that “ten men acting together can make a hundred thousand tremble apart.”

“As Cato concluded every speech with the words, Carthago delenda est, so do I every opinion, with the injunction, ‘divide the counties into wards’.” Thus Jefferson once summed up an exposition of his most cherished political idea… Both Jefferson’s plan and the French societes revolutionaires anticipated with an utmost weird precision those councils, soviets and Rate, which were to make their appearance in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders. Like Jefferson’s proposals, they were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists, and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself. Even those historians whose sympathies were clearly on the side of revolution… failed to understand to what an extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom which was constituted and organized during the course of the revolution itself. …

The ward system was not meant to strengthen the power of the many but the power of “every one” within the limits of his competence [shades of Hardt and Negri]; and only by breaking up “the many” into assemblies where every one could count and be counted upon “shall we be as republican as a large society can be”. In terms of the safety of the citizens of the republic, the question was how to make everybody feel “that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day”…

If the ultimate end of revolution was freedom and the constitution of a public space where freedom could appear, the constitutio libertatis, then the elementary republics of the wards, the only tangible place where everyone could be free, actually were the end of the great republic whose chief purpose in domestic affairs should have been to provide the people with such places of freedom and to protect them.”

Shorter Hannah Arendt: We are our demands.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I haven’t Occupied Wall Street, have you?

The protests are great — more anger, please! — but I don’t have any particular insight into them. And those of us without first-hand knowledge should probably defer to those who do. Except, I want to think critically about one common criticism of the protests: that they lack a clear statement of what they’re about.

It’s not clear how much this is really true. But still, one can say, isn’t there something circular about the idea of “Occupy Wall Street”? It’s not identified as a movement against bank bailouts or foreclosures, or for jobs or free elections or socialism. It’s a movement to, well, occupy Wall Street — a protest to hold a protest.

I think there’s an important sense in which this is true. And in which it’s always true — in which, indeed, it’s the whole point.

If you’ve ever been to one of these things, you know that the most successful chants are the self-referential ones, like “Whose streets/Our streets!” and “This is what democracy look like.” (Or “We’re here, we’re queer” and “We shall not be moved.”) Whatever the ostensible reason for the protest, the real content is always simply We Are Here.

This is most obvious, and most powerful, when the participants are people who are not supposed to be political agents or be seen in public at all: The early civil rights and gay rights protests, undocumented immigrants today. The message is, We exist. Think of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, with its signs reading, “I AM A MAN.” But it also works if the “here” is a setting that is not supposed to be political. The flipside, as everyone knows, is that a protest of recognized citizens at a place and time designated by the authorities is politically meaningless.

Most of us very seldom experience ourselves as political agents, in the sense of being active participants in the collective decision-making of our community. For better or worse, most of the time we delegate collective decision-making to specialists who represent us more or less faithfully, as the case may be. The only reason for protest — for any kind of mass politics — is that this system has broken down. The message of any protest is: There is a political subject, a We, that is not being represented. This, in the broadest possible way, is what the “99%” rhetoric is saying, and why it resonates. At some point, if a when movements like this are successful, some new more legitimate form of representation will be established, as people form new collective identities and new norms of collective action. But it’s foolish to criticize an assertion of the failure of representation for not itself being an effective representative, with a specific set of demands and a strategy to carry them out.

It’s a long time since I read any Habermas, but he has a passage somewhere about how politics is necessarily an open-ended discussion, a process for deciding a question that could in principle be resolved in many ways. So anything that becomes routine, that becomes part of the regular process of social reproduction, is no longer political. You can find a similar argument in Hannah Arendt, and Luciano Canfora makes it very powerfully. Democracy, he says, isn’t a form of government, like in civics class and Civilization. It’s something that happens, occasionally and intermittently. Any mechanism can be captured; you can’t institutionalize rule by the non-rich, as long as there are rich. To assert ourselves we have to heckle from the sidelines, or once in a while storm the field.

With a legitimate system of political representation, the question is what we should do and how to do it. Without one, we first have to establish that “we” exist.

UPDATE: Once you start looking for this stuff, it’s amazing how consistent it is. Pull up a photo of the protests at random, and there’s at least even odds you’ll see a sign with some self-referential message: “I am a human being, not a commodity,” “We are the 99%“, etc. Here’s a particularly nice example:

“We” are made up of the people here with signs. Exactly.

UPDATE 2: Matt Stoller, who’s actually spent time there, says the same thing: 

What do the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want? What are their demands? For many people, this is THE question. So let me answer it. What they want, is to do exactly what they are doing. They want to occupy Wall Street. They have built a campsite full of life, where power is exercised according to their voices. It’s a small space, it’s a relatively modest group of people at any one time, and the resources they command are few. But they are practicing the politics of place, the politics of building a truly public space. They are explicitly rejecting the politics of narrow media, the politics of the shopping mall. To understand #OccupyWallStreet, you have to get that it is not a media object or a march. It is first and foremost, a church of dissent, a space made sacred by a community. … There’s no way to agree or disagree with a church or a carnival.