A Nice Note from a Former Employer

July 11, 2012

I got a bizarre mailing a little while back from ALTA COLLEGES about my “employee benefits.” It took me a minute to figure out what the hell it was about. When you work for a for-profit, you get your checks from the larger corporation that owns that “brand” among many others, not the actual “school” you work for. I was also confused by the stuff about benefits, since you definitely don’t get those unless you chip in to a 401(k), and you certainly don’t have enough money to do that if you’re adjuncting at one of these places.

Anyway, I figured out it was a place I taught a few classes at in the first six months of 2011. Here’s what they sent me. They had all sorts of confidentiality warnings on it, since it contained “salary [sic] information specific to” me, but I don’t really care if the internet knows I pulled down a few grand at this gig. If you want to know my entire income for 2011, you’ll need a few more W-2’s, friend.

Again, I had to look at this a while, since I was pretty sure I didn’t get any benefits. My contract lasted a 9-week term, after which I could sign another one for the next term, though in reality I often didn’t get my contract until the term was half over. I could cough up for the employee health plan, but at that point I had coverage from the university I’m attending, so I didn’t bother. But I could tell that it was trying to show that I was being “compensated” by the company more than I might have realized — Total Compensation, rather than measures of take-home pay, is a favorite stat of people wanting to try to prove that workers aren’t underpaid.

Then I figured it out: the “company paid benefits” consisted of social security, Medicare, and unemployment. In other words, they are taxes that go into safety net funds that I may or may not draw upon down the road. Taxes, which the company redefined as part of my compensation. Aren’t they generous, paying these taxes as required by law, just for me! Look at that adorable yellow cloud — with these taxes, which are paid to the government, I instantly received a 10% raise! And I hadn’t realized it, simply because I hadn’t a single extra cent in my bank account! So glad these fine folks at Alta Colleges, Incorporated bothered to remind me, a long-gone temporary, with this lavish full-color mailing!

But I had another question — why mail me at all? In part, there’s a bureaucratic lag — since I was always an adjunct, not working doesn’t mean I’ve left the job, it just means I’m in the “pool.” I’m in a state of pure potential. But why mail anyone? Well, I’m no expert on the conditions of my coworkers — teaching means you spend most of your time with students, and very little time (and almost never paid) with other faculty, so I didn’t really know anyone else, and I wasn’t there very long. I did talk to one guy who taught six classes a term, and even then I wondered how he could afford to live in the area. He probably can’t, or can’t afford to live very well in the area.

So here’s his, and my, salve for our gross underpayment and exploitation. We aren’t even thrown a sop of a tiny bonus, or even some bullshit “morale-booster” like an awkward office happy hour. No, we get some propaganda from some newly minted MBAs, cruising on a fresh high of middle-management ideology, who seem thoroughly convinced that if they just present their right-wing talking points on “employee compensation” in a pretty chart, maybe their employees, struggling to house and clothe themselves, will understand how well they’re doing. An additional 10% of My Base Pay — that is fucking benevolence, right here in 21st Century America! Thanks, Alta, for paying your taxes. You’re really doing your part, really going the distance for your workers. I should write a thank-you note to your shareholders. I was such a fucking idiot for quitting because I thought I was underpaid. But that’s the narrow vision of your average employee, right, just concerned about paying rent and buying food. That’s why we’re not management material! If only I had known how well, how fully, you’d been compensating me, I might have stuck around a bit longer, keeping my gripes and my worn-out shoes to myself. As it is, I am secure in the fact that I have a couple hundred bucks coming my way if I can survive another four decades. Why, I can feel the class hatred slipping away now…

Maybe I should call these guys up. I could use the money. Er, the compensation, rather. The money fucking sucks.

Some passages from Neither Right nor Left

June 14, 2012

Neither Right nor Left by Zeev Sternhell excavates the intellectual history of fascism from a counter-intuitive site: late 19th Century France. This is a long book about a very specific topic, and I didn’t go through it very carefully, but I found a lot of interesting passages in my reading. Here are a few I’ve transcribed.

According to Sternhell, the roots of fascist ideology travelled under many names, in dissident right-wing and left-wing circles, in which a variety of positions were expounded upon. This succeeded in incubating certain unifying beliefs that would find their historical opportunity after the first world war.

Thus different schools of thought all shared the same rejection of the liberal order, constituting a kind of outer circle around the hard core of fascist thought. This was the real importance of fascist ideology. Its widespread dissemination and influence were possible only because of the channels of transmission provided by the nonconformist milieu. In these groups, one may have hated the totalitarian state, but one could not avoid identifying oneself with the fascist criticism of bourgeois society, liberalism, and democracy and it was because it was not onlythe bourgeois world that was attacked but a number of universal principles readily associated with the bourgeoisie that the harsh criticisms of the regime brought their full weight to bear. These criticisms, in fact, were directed less against a system of government that, in a divided society, considerably weakened the executive authority than against democracy itself. The obsession with decadence and the sense of participating in the collapse of an individualistic and basely materialistic civilization were the common elements in this way of thinking.

One of the most important groups combined syndicalists and monarchists — the Cercle Proudhon, named after the famous anarchist and foil of Marx. You may remember Proudhon’s famous couplet deriving from the title of one of his books: “What is property? Property is theft!” A few months ago I tried (and failed) to read that book, but I did get through the translator’s introduction, which lamented the fact that Marx’s critique was so comprehensive that people didn’t think Proudhon worth reading any more, even though the translator also admitted Marx was right about everything. The appeal of Proudhon to the French proto-fascists were his anti-Marxism, his syndicalism, his dislike of democracy, his anti-Semitism, and his nationality (one critique of Marxism from these quarters was that it was too German for France). The Cercle

wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on a sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.

What is sometimes forgotten is that fascism envisioned itself as a kind of socialism, explicitly anti-Marxist. This socialism was “conceived of in ethical terms” (Marx famously avoided ethical prescriptions), promoting “universal values, independent of concrete historical circumstances, a conception of socialism in vitalist, intuitive, Nietzschean, and Bergsonian terms.” It was about the feelings and the energy of the moment, against a historical materialist understanding of context. Georges Sorel, one of the most important proto-fascist thinkers engaged in “a leftist, voluntarist, and vitalist form of revision” of Marxism. According to Sternhell, “In many respects, the history of fascism can be described as a continuous attempt to revise Marxism and create a national form of socialism,” nationalism having apparently proven itself “up to the task” of mobilizing the masses to fight and die in WWI more effectively than the Marxism of the Second International. These people desperately wanted a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and were searching for the means to carry it out.

The apparent failures of Marxism meant that the proletariat was to blame as well — for the proto-fascists,  it was no longer the revolutionary class. “The socialism of these people required the proletariat only to a limited degree.” In its place came elitist strands of thought that opposed any democratic control over more adventurist segments:

Pouget declared that the methods of action of action of a confederal organization could not be based on the “vulgar democratic ideas; they do not express the consent of the majority arrived at through universal suffrage.” Pouget believed that if democratic procedures were adopted in labor circles, “the lack of will of the unconscious and nonsyndicalist majority would paralyze all action. But the minority is not willing to abandon its demands and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that the spirit of revolt has not yet animated and enlightened. Consequently, the conscious minority has an obligation to act, without reckoning with the refractory mass.” No one, he claimed, has the right “to recriminate against the disinterested initiative of the minority,” least of all “the unconscious” who, compared to militants, are no more than “human zeros.”

Sternhell extensively describes the idiosyncratic thought of a number of these figures, but he keeps coming back to what united them — and by implication, which beliefs are completely hostile to fascist appropriation: Marxism, democracy, and materialism.

The value of this book is, I hope, obvious. Here we have an extensive description of beliefs that, while not always explicitly fascist, or even right-wing, enabled fascist takeovers. Often enough this stuff came from authors who conceived of themselves as leftists. There’s probably more than enough accusations of “FASCIST” being hurled in lefty quarters, but as we reckon with all manner of idiosyncratic “left” philosophy and theory emerging today (non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist “communism” is one weird one), and we need to know precisely which avenues of thought led to terrible consequences so we can isolate them quickly and critique them fully.

things to never forget

February 25, 2011

…the displacement of political and historical analysis by ethical judgments and considerations is generally the sign of an ideological maneuver and of the intent to mystify.

–Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”