On Conversational Styles: A Peter Frase Follow-Up

Peter Frase has written a reply to my post on cheap labor. It is an interesting artifact. The following post is a bit self-indulgent, so read it at your peril. For the sake of your sanity, I will put the rest of it below the fold. 

My basic impression of Frase’s post is that he didn’t find my argument very stimulating, which is fair enough, nor did he find my deployment of Judith Shklar worthy of comment. This came as a surprise, as Shklar was one of the more important political theorists of the late twentieth century and she has been claimed with some enthusiasm by the social democratic left. I recommend taking a look at Liberalism without Illusions, and specifically the essays by George Kateb and Amy Gutmann. Jacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill who situates himself in the liberal tradition, has also written a good deal on Shklar’s work, though from a somewhat different perspective. Were I writing a left-wing critique of my post, I would have relied more heavily on my interpretation — my alternate self might say misinterpretation — of Shklar. 

This, incidentally, should give you some sense of how I operate. I’m less interested in persuading my readers, though that might occasionally (rarely?) happen. Rather, I am interested in introducing new narrative frames and stimulating debate and discussion. I see political struggles through a different lens than many of my interlocutors. Consider the word “compelling”: it implies a kind of forcefulness, e.g., I was compelled to agree with her argument. There is a place for compelling arguments. But there is also a place for stimulating arguments, and I suppose I’m more interested in making the latter than the former, in part because I think that our worldviews are embedded in a larger network of assumptions about the kind of people we are and the affiliations that matter to us most.

This is part of why I’m reluctant to make the kind of rhetorical move that Frase makes in his post:

It’s easy to glorify the dignity of wage labor when you have a stimulating job at the National Review, but this line of argument rapidly loses its plausibility when you get to the low-wage jobs I was talking about. A lousy supermarket job that you only have because your time is valued at less than the time of an automatic checkout machine is somehow more authentic because someone “voluntarily” paid for it. Presumably it’s more authentic than being a firefighter, since they have to “convince the taxpayers” that they deserve to be paid. And Salam must not think his own job is all that authentic, since the National Review is sustained by rich donors and could never survive if it had to get by on subscription revenue. I could go on about this, but I already did in my review of “Undercover Boss” and my first essay for Jacobin.

Frase is drawing on limited information to make certain suppositions about the material foundations of the work that I do. It turns out that his suppositions are incorrect, though I certainly am a privileged cultural worker. But really, the more interesting aspect of this paragraph concerns the nature and definition of the idea of authenticity I used in my post — the truth is that I didn’t define it very well, in large part because I wrote the post in great haste. But instead of being left with the important question — “What the hell does Reihan mean by authenticity?” — we’re left with a different impression, i.e., Reihan Salam is a bozo. I can certainly see the appeal of this approach. In attributing views to me that I don’t really have, Frase makes me even less appealing than a youngish right-of-center writer would already be to his intended audience. The intention is, it seems, drawing on limited information, to make a compelling argument rather than a stimulating argument. 

I should note that one could make assumptions about Frase based on the fact that he is a PhD student in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. To understand why that’s not the kind of thing I generally do, I recommend reading Jeffrey Rosen’s excellent The Unwanted Gaze. He offers an excellent take on the role of privacy in democratic discourse, with a clever Amazon.com analogy. 

Frase quotes a comment on my original post by theliberalreader, which really does merit attention. I will focus on a different part of it:

Having worked as a supermarket checker, I can tell you that no one I worked with got anything out of the job other than a paycheck, and the rates of depression and substance abuse among my colleagues were staggering. No one saw what they did as “authentic.” It was a job, and not a rewarding one, in any sense. Two of my colleagues who had worked as checkers for decades threatened to beat me up if I didn’t finish college. They weren’t kidding.

We shouldn’t try and act like people come home from a lousy job, look at their paltry paycheck, and swell with pride simply because they earned it. People don’t think like that, and never have. If they have to work awful jobs, they want to make as much money as possible, which is why private sector unions are still attractive to many service workers. After days filled with having to be nice to customers who think they are entitled to be as condescending as they like, and being terrorized by bosses, many of whom don’t appear to do anything beyond walk around the store, at least unions pretend to have checkers’ best interests at heart. [Emphasis added]

I have limited experience in this domain, having never worked as a supermarket checker. I did grow up in two neighborhoods where low-wage work and non-work were both fairly commonplace, and members of my immediate family have had varied economic experiences which have informed (imperfectly, I’m sure) my perspective.  

I think theliberalreader makes a reasonable point. We should not act like people swell with pride because they earned a lousy paycheck, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Rather, I’m suggesting that making a sweeping characterization regarding how all low-wage workers feel about their work doesn’t make much sense. Having been close to many low-wage workers, and as the child, sibling, nephew, and friend, of people with experience of low-wage work, including a small number of people who actively chose low-wage work despite more lucrative opportunities, I suppose I am more inclined to see a broader range of possibilities regarding how low-wage work might fit in one’s self-conception.

For me, thinking of a person who does low-wage work more expansively entails the opposite move from Frase. I don’t think of it as condescending to imagine that people have a lot of different and distinctive stories, and that it is possible to derive a sense of pride and meaning from work that can be difficult and boring. It’s true, I am more inclined to think that it is common to think of self-support, in some form, as important and meaningful than many others in my (quite temporary and not hereditary) class position, perhaps because of the circumstances of my upbringing, e.g., close exposure to a thick ethnoreligious enclave that embraced a lot of values that may well be “alternative,” quasi-membership in a post-materialist and in some respects anti-materialist social circle, etc. 

Moving on, Frase writes:

The authenticity stuff aside, we also have the patronizing suggestion that a young parent needs to feel that they are “contributing to the well-being of [their] child by engaging in wage work.” As though they aren’t already contributing to that well-being by taking care of a child, which requires a lot more skill and engagement than bagging groceries. Even without the childcare angle, though, maybe people would be less likely to feel they needed to take a crappy job in order to contribute to society, if people like Reihan Salam weren’t running around telling them exactly that.

The idea of a parental wage is familiar to me, and Ross Douthat and I wrote about the idea at length in Grand New Party. Mary Eberstadt and a number of other social conservatives have made arguments to similar effect, and of course the idea of a parental wage is a familiar trope of northern European social democracy. The sociologists Neil Gilbert and Catherine Hakim have written on this subject at length, and I recommend them both. Hakim in particular has raised possible pitfalls of this approach in the context of her theory of enduring differences in work-lifestyle choices that vary in their susceptibility to “market-friendly” intervention. I see the question of a parental wage through a utilitarian lens, and I suppose I’ve grown less enamored of the idea as I’ve come to think of economic inclusion and an identity built around purposeful work as more important.

Frase’s idea that people like me are the reason people feel as though they need to engage in wage work in order to contribute to society is an interesting one. I guess that’s why I made reference to Shklar, as she offers an account I find both more compelling and more stimulating. 

Frase ends his post with reference to my “servants and nannies” thesis. This is another illustration of what I take to be the difference in our respective approaches to engaging ideas. 

This “back to the 19th Century” vision is a scenario that has occurred to me as well, but I certainly never thought of it as a desirable end point. But hey, if the right thinks that’s the best thing they have to offer, they are welcome to make that their platform.

My question for Reihan Salam, though, is this. If National Review laid you off tomorrow, would you rather collect unemployment or go bag groceries because it would allow you to feel you were doing “authentic work” and had “overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in your path”? Maybe the answer would really be the latter, but I suspect for most people it wouldn’t be.

I made the “back to the 19th Century” point as a provocation, and also as an effort to reframe how we think about work and the contexts in which work is embedded. There was a time when jobs that are now considered privileged professional work were seen as servile, ignoble trades not worthy of respect. But as societies and economies evolved, a process that involved a lot of political and cultural contestation I should add, so did our perception of different kinds of work. The left vision, as I understand it, is that labor solidarity and the intervention of the democratic state are essential to effecting a transition to a more desirable end-state. My own view is, as you might expect, quite different.

Yet rather than use this remark as an opportunity to score a point, I was doing the opposite. I am well aware that people find the idea of “servile” work discomfiting and disturbing. So why would I deploy it in a post of this kind, knowing that it would “undermine” my point? It’s because I want to make my readers think. It is not because I expect to win some kind of struggle for your convictions. 

Indeed, Annalee Newitz, who is among other things a recovering scholar who edited the left-wing online journal Bad Subjects in the 1990s, is far more inclined to see things through Frase’s lens than my own. So why discuss her with my audience? Well, it’s because I like interesting ideas, even when they’re “at odds” with my own political perspective. As much as I disagree with Newitz, she is a model of a stimulating thinker, as evidenced by the post I drew on in the aforementioned column. 

Consider the following:

It’s unlikely that the female dominance of the working class will last very long. As Ann Friedman points out, the aspirations of job-seekers will shift with the market. Men who want a respectable working class income can certainly tackle nursing, child care, and food preparation with as much aplomb as women. What we’re likely to see over the next decade is a shift not only in how many women are part of the working class, but what kinds of jobs all working class people do.

Male nannies and nurses, in the minority now, are likely to become more common. The question is really whether female engineers will become more common too – especially since engineering jobs are among the most highly-valued in the market.

I don’t share the political convictions of Newitz and Friedman, the latter of whom is a friend, but hell, this is damn interesting stuff, and not implausible in the slightest.

Frase’s post attracted two interesting comments which offer additional speculation as to my motivations. They’re probably of interest to no one but myself, but I found them both interestingly wrong. So thanks to Frase for inspiring them. I particularly enjoyed the post by “guest”:

Personally I would much rather be working in retail 45 hours a week than sitting around trying to think of some bullshit to write to keep the checks flowing from Nat’l Review.

I’ll end by saying that I greatly enjoyed Frase’s anti-Star Trek post. It was very stimulating

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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