America's New Working Class
Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Biopolitical Age
Kathleen R. Arnold
America's New Working Class
Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in a Biopolitical Age
Kathleen R. Arnold
“Kathleen Arnold boldly and convincingly takes on social analysts who contend that the state plays a diminished role in the ‘flattened world’ of global capitalism. Rather, she demonstrates that the United States has deployed state power to deregulate, privatize, and weaken public provision while utilizing new forms of bureaucratic ‘prerogative power’ to ‘ascetically discipline’ a new working class of vulnerable, low-wage workers.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Winner of the 2009 Polity Prize awarded for the best article to appear in the pages of Polity, the journal of the Northeastern Political Science Association, in 2007. This article was the basis for her book, America's New Working Class.
In this book, Kathleen Arnold analyzes the role of the state’s “prerogative power” in creating and sustaining this condition of severe inequality for the most marginalized sectors of our population in the United States. Drawing on a wide range of theoretical literature from Locke to Marx and Agamben (whose notion of “bare life” features prominently in her construal of this as a “biopolitical” era), she focuses attention especially on the values of asceticism derived from the Protestant work ethic to explain how they function as ideological justification for the exercise of prerogative power by the state.
As a counter to this repressive set of values, she develops the notion of “authentic love” borrowed from Simone de Beauvoir as a possible approach for dealing with the complex issues of exploitation in liberal democracy today.
“Kathleen Arnold boldly and convincingly takes on social analysts who contend that the state plays a diminished role in the ‘flattened world’ of global capitalism. Rather, she demonstrates that the United States has deployed state power to deregulate, privatize, and weaken public provision while utilizing new forms of bureaucratic ‘prerogative power’ to ‘ascetically discipline’ a new working class of vulnerable, low-wage workers.”
“Arnold is a political theorist who understands the relevance and necessity of normative theory in addressing social and political inequalities. Fortunately for the reader, she is well equipped to undertake this task.”
“Arnold gives a compelling account of the contradictions and strange paradoxes of contemporary politics and unmasks the brutal forms of power concealed by the modern state that have intensified poverty, exploitation, dehumanization, racism, and sexism.”
“This ambitious book successfully weaves together labor studies, political philosophy, and the literature on globalization. It is therefore accessible to Americanists as much as to those in political theory and international relations.”
Kathleen Arnold is Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Introduction: Globalization, Prerogative Power, and the New Working Class
1. Asceticism, Biopower, and the Poor
2. Domestic War: Locke’s Concept of Prerogative
3. Exploitation and the New Working Class
4. Antagonism and Exploitation: The Importance of Biopower
5. War and “Love”
Introduction: Globalization, Prerogative Power, and the New Working Class
In this book, I am interested in exploring the relationship of the state to global capital by looking at the new working class. In the early twenty-first century, the question of the survival of the nation-state has been central. In the literature on the globalization of the economy, it is often argued that the nation-state’s authority is inevitably (and rightly) being challenged and undermined by multinational corporations and some transnational bodies. The increased presence of foreign workers in many Western countries is viewed as challenging nation-states to create alternatives to citizenship—alternatives that end up looking very similar to traditional forms of citizenship but without the boundaries of the past, thus opening up a new era of “post-national citizenship.” As the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany (among others) have all discovered, guest workers do not often leave a country; in staying they are disproving the “sojourner theory” and ostensibly undermining national sovereignty and border controls. According to this story, the globalization of the economy will follow its inner logic, leaving a minimal and substantively empty role for the nation-state (e.g., administering voting, organizing the military and police, and addressing the few needs that the market cannot satisfy). Capital and people will flow across borders freely, naturally distributing wealth and labor where needed. The disappearance of the boundaries and strictures of the nation-state, not to mention ethnic nationalism, is not only highly desirable but also inevitable. Put more simply, deregulation is said to equal freedom, and the traditional role of the nation-state, with its accompanying problems of ethnic nationalism, is a hindrance to this freedom.
Critics of the nation-state, who were most prominent in the 1990s, also believe that the nation-state is an obstacle to freedom, albeit democratic rather than economic freedom. Their texts, which focus on the illiberal aspects of the power of the nation-state and nationalism—aspects that not only curtail freedom but also uproot people more permanently than ever before—do not see the nation-state or nationalism disappearing any time soon. These criticisms thus seem increasingly irrelevant as we enter a more global world; nonetheless, in response, many of these thinkers have begun to theorize a politics of cosmopolitanism. In this view, the problems of the nation-state remain but are complicated by increasing economic globalization. Cosmopolitanism addresses the need for a corresponding political program to attend to the changes that economic globalization has brought. However, despite this adaptation, had it not been for the events of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing events leading up to the Iraq War, the literature critiquing the nation-state and nationalism might have all but disappeared.
In this book I propose that the nation-state’s power is indeed changing and that the nation-state (particularly the United States) is both fighting its own obsolescence and promoting economic globalization. Thus, while neoliberals would have us believe that economic and political deregulation is the most advantageous route for us all, allowing greater freedoms, they also paradoxically demand total faith in the state and its decision making in the war against terrorism (most recently in the Iraq bombardment and war of 2003), signaling an absence of freedom. This paradox suggests strongly that prerogative power—state action outside of the law, “that which marks the state as a state”—is being strengthened while democratic power (discussed below) is on the decline. Hence, the case of the United States weakens the argument that the nation-state is disappearing; rather, it is democratic values and practices that appear to be more endangered now than ever before. This position is possible if the process of economic globalization is viewed not as a tendency to erase the boundaries of the nation-state but rather as a tendency to reconfigure the national boundaries and obscure the hegemony of more privileged nations over less privileged ones. The United States can be then viewed as strengthening its own position even with blurrier boundaries. Indeed, the globalization of the economy not only requires a stronger state but also allows for more intensive economic exploitation than in the past fifty years as well as greater disenfranchisement. In this way, sovereign power and the contingency of global capital are mutually reinforcing. I will examine these ideas by exploring the changing workforce and nature of work in the United States in the present day.
It is widely recognized that blue-collar work has changed in the United States, along with the workforce performing these jobs. As a result of changes in the demand for labor in the United States, blue-collar work now largely means service work, agricultural work, and unskilled manufacturing. Significantly, this employment is more labor intensive (for example, handwork over using machinery in garment production; physical labor over use of machinery in agriculture) as well as more dangerous than in the recent past (as a result of deregulation, the proliferation of sweatshops and illegal factories, and the nature of some work, especially agricultural work). Most of the individuals performing this work are not unionized and are subject to low-wage strategies that include temporary or contract jobs, no benefits, and irregular hours. In fact, the conditions that Marx described in the mid 1800s—disenfranchisement of workers, inability to unionize, subsistence-level wages without benefits, long hours, dangerous conditions—now exist because of deregulation, the globalization of the economy, and the regular exercise of prerogative power (the legitimate suspension of the law).
Marx’s ideas have often been discredited in the United States because workers were eventually allowed to vote, unionize, and assert their civil rights and were gradually paid decent wages, with benefits and guaranteed job stability. Workers’ political enfranchisement thus (theoretically) undermined the possibility of their economic exploitation. When Marx was writing, workers were politically disenfranchised, were forbidden to unionize, had few political rights, and were paid subsistence-level or even lower wages. Thus, economic exploitation was necessarily tied to political disenfranchisement as well as to political domination. Furthermore, workers toiled in dangerous conditions that often led to their physical deterioration. The conditions that Marx described, which were once viewed as obsolete, exist again today and are being legitimated and encouraged by the state.
This connection between the state and global capital seems counterintuitive in an increasingly deregulated economy. The dismantling of the welfare state and transition to workfare, the elimination of affirmative action in hiring, and the promotion of worker flexibility (meaning that jobs are nonunion, temporary, without benefits, and so on) are all examples of what would appear to be the state’s yielding power to the economy. Mobility of capital, increasingly deregulated workspaces, and the promotion of low-wage strategies (which, the argument goes, provide for full employment and reduce welfare expenditures) are also examples of what appears to be the growing absence—or even impotence—of the state. In one sense, this absence is real: working conditions are now more “casual” or informal, variously involving temporary contracts, long hours, casual factories, and industrial homework. Market-driven decisions ostensibly preclude the state’s presence. But in another sense, the state has merely been playing a different role—and an increasingly economic one—since the end of the Cold War. As Saskia Sassen argues, the state is still indispensable for guaranteeing contracts, providing military support, and protecting capital investments. It is also an active agent in choosing low-wage strategies, promoting worker flexibility (and the corresponding decline of unions), and ensuring that there is a supply of low-wage workers. I will be analyzing these last elements in terms of prerogative power as it has manifested itself significantly in the suspension of law in U.S. wars on terror, drugs, and narco-terrorism. That is, the individuals being targeted in these wars are significant elements of a new, more flexible labor pool. Exploitation, I will argue, cannot be simply economic; it necessarily involves asymmetries of political power such that workers are treated as less than citizens.
Nevertheless, the relation between the state and global capital is obscured in several ways, as is the possibility of exploitation (both political and economic). First, as mentioned above, it would seem that if workers are politically enfranchised, then they cannot be exploited on the job. If they are full citizens in a democratic country—so goes the reasoning—then they have voluntarily chosen their workplace, wages, and conditions. Furthermore, even as changes are made in the global economy that affect us all—such as the loss of health insurance and the growth of temporary or contract work—it appears that these changes are part of a collective decision to adopt low-wage strategies, thus ensuring full employment. Consequently, the argument goes, the United States is more fiscally responsible in adopting low-wage policies and in calling for more worker flexibility in comparison to the European welfare states with their high rates of unemployment.
However, the groups that are most affected by the dismantling of the American welfare state, the promotion of workfare, and low-wage policies are the most disenfranchised groups. For various reasons the new working class is largely disenfranchised, be it historically (women, African Americans, poorer immigrants of color), de facto (the very poor and homeless), or because those who are affected are unauthorized immigrants, for example. In other words, the changing demographics of the workforce constitute a group’s transformation from one that has historically been enfranchised to one that has been historically disenfranchised or has never been enfranchised (for example, immigrants). In this situation, partial or total disenfranchisement and economic exploitation become mutually reinforcing. Furthermore, the old “labor aristocracy” has suffered unemployment, lower wages, lower skilled jobs, and increased relative powerlessness. This “old” working class is also increasingly being affected by the loss of a social safety net and by a less stable job market. Although I focus much more on the new working class than on the increasingly disenfranchised “old” working class, the shifting power dynamics apply to all, albeit in different ways. In the context of low-wage strategies and demands for worker flexibility, one group has chosen the austerity plan and another group is suffering its effects.
Another obfuscating factor is the idea that the traditional working class has disappeared along with traditional manufacturing jobs. Forgotten is that the “old” working class has not disappeared—rather, it has shifted to service work, in which labor relations are more flexible. Furthermore, the new working class is not recognized as such because the feminization and racialization of labor on the one hand and the growing participation of poorer immigrants on the other are conventionally viewed as distinct processes. The media, academics, and policymakers treat welfare and workfare recipients, poor immigrants, and poor inner-city, American-born minorities as radically different groups. These same groups are also often viewed as marginal, criminal, or irrational and parasitical and thus the opposite of the paradigm of the working class in, say, the 1950s and 1960s. Welfare mothers are treated as parasitical on the state, inner-city residents are often labeled the “underclass”—thus excluding any recognition that they work—and immigrants are viewed contradictorily as stealing jobs, as embodying the Protestant ethic, and as leeching off of the welfare state. All of these groups are perceived as posing problems, but separate ones. Yet at the same time, these groups are often blamed for creating poor work conditions, depressing wages, and exploiting the welfare system.
For example, part of the blame for these changes in the conditions and availability of jobs has been placed on immigrants and policymakers; both are accused of encouraging more relaxed employment laws for foreigners and guest workers. Clearly, immigrant labor in the United States is viewed as conceptually different from American-born labor. For immigrant workers the ongoing debate about their presence and the rhetoric of parasitism (for example, immigrants not only take our jobs and welfare but also send all their earnings back to their native countries) together block any real recognition of exploitative work conditions and wages in the mainstream press and political rhetoric. When exploitation is recognized—as in the case of illegal Thai workers locked up in a makeshift factory—it is presented as anomalous and shocking.
At the same time, for American-born workers, the disappearance of a significant number of skilled manufacturing jobs, the shift from formal work conditions to more informal and deregulated ones, declining union membership, lower wages, the loss of benefits, and the increase in contract or temporary work all serve to mask any exploitation “on the job.” Both images of American-born workers represent a signal change in low-tier work: it is no longer secure, stable, or mainstream. For this reason, exploitation does not appear to be possible; rather, it seems that low-tier jobs are disappearing. Similarly, the feminization of labor hides the fact that work itself has changed; rather, it seems that women are taking jobs away from men and that gender relations have been altered rather than labor relations.
Furthermore, the emphasis on workfare illuminates the relationship between welfare recipients, poor workers, and immigrant workers. This is why, instead of conceptually separating immigrant workers from American-born workers who would fill the same jobs, or the working poor from welfare recipients, I will be arguing that these groups have much in common that these conventional distinctions do not account for. Indeed, the distinction between receiving welfare and working a low-skilled or unskilled job in the inner city can only be arbitrary; the fact is that many individuals pass from one to the other depending on their resources, transportation, and job opportunities as well as the state of the economy. To ignore the linkages between and disciplinary effects on all low-tier workers—whether those workers are new immigrants or part of the old labor aristocracy—is also problematic. However, these distinctions do serve an ideological purpose; in each case, exploitation (political and economic) is hidden behind seemingly moral—and, I will discuss below, ascetic—arguments.
When these groups are analyzed together, a different perspective emerges. The working poor often share the same neighborhoods, but they overlap in various other ways as well, including these: they intermarry; they pass from welfare to low-paid jobs and back again; and they are closely related in their integration into the workforce. An influx of relatively poor immigrants beginning in the 1960s allowed for the feminization of labor and at the same time generated an exploitable class of workers. Meanwhile, civil rights legislation facilitated the increased entry of African Americans into the workforce beginning in the 1970s, and this has led to the feminization of African American labor as well as to racial prejudice and more sporadic employment for poorer African American men. Additionally, the decline in manufacturing has decreased the power of the old working class and increasingly made it part of the flexible labor force. Significantly, all of the above groups are now competing for the same types of jobs with similar conditions. Nonetheless, these groups have come to be conceptually separated, and this has allowed political and economic exploitation to remain hidden behind the stereotypes attached to each group. When groups are viewed as discrete units in this way, economic processes can be depoliticized. More disturbingly, workers often internalize these distinctions, turning on one another instead of challenging employers, neoliberal policies and policymakers as well as the old, damaging divisions between skilled and unskilled, productive and reproductive, legal and illegal.
Indeed, these divisions illuminate racial and gender bias and exploitation. First, the immigrants who are most often exploited are women and of color. Second, the same is true for American -born workers, who are subject to racial comparisons. This pits the “groups” against one another, setting off what Edna Bonacich has referred to as the split-market theory of ethnic antagonism, which also applies to gender and prison labor. A split market serves to conceal economic exploitation so that it appears as problems of lax immigration laws, racial conflict, or the breakdown of gender relations among certain groups. Examples include the perception that inner-city turmoil is the inevitable tribal conflict between racial groups; the association of single motherhood with African American pathology, which results in their being blamed for the dissolution of the nuclear family; the “natural” inclination of poor whites to express racial hatred; and comparisons between immigrants and African Americans that portray the former as hard workers and the latter as lacking a work ethic. Samuel Huntington’s recent article about Mexican immigrants not assimilating, not having a work ethic, and generally not being loyal to the United States is further evidence of this antagonism. The focus is persistently on differences among these groups, and it is often contended that these differences are inherent or biological.
When we apply Bonacich’s notion of ethnic and gender antagonism to current conditions, we find that indeed, gender relations have been altered in African American and immigrant communities and that different low-wage groups often do view one another with hostility and suspicion. Less obvious are the gender, ethnic, and racial antagonisms expressed by those policymakers and academics who makes these comparisons or who resort to stereotypes when formulating policies such as the dismantling of welfare and affirmative action. I contend that academic and political elites are antagonistic toward these racial groups and resentful of single mothers on welfare and that economic elites are hostile toward the poor. In fact, the greater participation of poorer immigrants in global forms of blue-collar work has facilitated the reemergence of biological racism and the promotion of a paradigm of femininity among poor women workers that has docility and submissiveness at its core. The elites’ antagonism often goes unrecognized; yet at the same time, the various manifestations of antagonism among these groups are construed as social problems and in this way are depoliticized and removed from an economic context.
Clearly, then, labor exploitation is openly practiced, with consequences that make the “new working class” (semiskilled or unskilled labor made up of women, African Americans, immigrants, and the former labor aristocracy) politically vulnerable. They are underpaid, and furthermore, immigrants can be subject to deportation or placed in holding cells indefinitely. Poor indigenous minority workers are also vulnerable: they must compete against immigrants for jobs that are neither well paid nor stable, and as a consequence they become increasingly disenfranchised. Indeed, the political element of this relationship is crucial to any analysis of exploitation.
The economic exploitation of immigrants is not so very different from what is faced by American-born workers; so it is wrong to argue that a focus on the former must be at the expense of the latter or that the two groups are conceptually different. This exploitation does, however, demonstrate the complex interweaving of global processes, the corresponding increase in administrative functions and prerogative power, and exploitation in a capitalist economy. But at the same time, a crucial part of this argument rests on the relationship between the needs of a global economy and those of prerogative power; this is why I focus much more on minorities, women, and immigrants than on poor white workers, even though the broader dynamics of exploitation (and even racial hierarchies) affect all low-tier workers. That is, as many workers become disenfranchised (if they are not already), they are subject to prerogative power rather than democratic processes. On the one hand, deregulation and a more global economy mark the absence of government regulation in determining the work contract. Workplaces become more deregulated even while jobs in a global economy become physically more demanding. With the decrease in unionization, hours and job security become irregular and unstable. On the other hand, the government ensures that there is an available supply of low-wage workers through workfare programs, guest-worker policies, requirements for worker flexibility, and low-wage strategies. It is significant that the particular groups that make up the new working class are all groups that are policed more often than the average citizen: through immigration surveillance, racial profiling of poor neighborhoods, and the state’s monitoring of welfare and workfare recipients. The United States’ vague and endless “wars”—the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the war on narco-terrorism—and the criminalization of the homeless articulate with the control of poor workers on the job. It is a crucial point that the targets of these wars are not merely the victims of bad laws whose conditions could be ameliorated by reform. More and more, the individuals who make up the new working class are being conceptualized and treated as less –than human based on their historical treatment by liberal institutions. In this context, I will be examining how an ascetic belief system (that is, beliefs based on the Protestant work ethic) obscures and facilitates economic and political exploitation, making it possible to treat some individuals as biological or “bare life,” in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, rather than as citizens or possible citizens.
The concept of bare life is an appropriate conceptual apparatus for this subject because it captures the dynamics of economic globalization, the increasing emphasis on material well-being in contemporary logic, and the status of those who are subject to prerogative power. By bare life, Agamben means biological life that is not abandoned by the state but that does serve as a negative identity against which citizenship is formulated. I will be using the citizenship–bare life distinction as a historically situated epistemological category rather than an ahistorical, ontological one. The notion of bare life is an extension of Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower—that is, the increasing politicization of biological matters in the modern state. Bare life is a more appropriate term than “enemy” (alone) when analyzing the low-tier labor force, whose members are subject to harsh working conditions and are policed through the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the criminalization of poverty more generally. The term bare life, rather than enemy, captures the power dynamics of these “wars” that are waged domestically against individuals who have been criminalized as a result of their status rather than their conduct. However, Agamben believes that bare life is the link between democracy and sovereignty, whereas I will be suggesting that bare life—as he has conceived of it—is more to be found in the linkage between liberalism and sovereignty.
Moreover, Agamben’s concept of bare life should be viewed falling on a continuum; for example, the political status of concentration camp internees is not equal to that of agricultural workers in the United States. The notion of bare life expresses the political status of the new working class, a group that is disenfranchised (de facto or de jure) and that is conceived of in biological rather than human terms—for example, in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender rather than as a citizen; or as subhuman in the case of the homeless. This concept also captures the power dynamic exercised on bare life: prerogative power. Agamben does not use this term; he does, however, state that sovereign power is most political when exercised through the suspension of law—and this is prerogative power. An individual who is bare life is subject to prerogative power whether that power is exercised positively (for example, through a presidential pardon or the benevolence of a welfare worker) or negatively (as with the detainees at Guantánamo Bay in 2005).
As stated above, this notion is developed as an extension of Foucault’s notion of biopower, which can be defined succinctly as the growing concern of politics with biological matters. As Foucault notes, modern power is characterized in part by its concern with biological existence; this is evidenced by the introduction of the census, population control, and matters of public health on the one side, and by genocide, state racism, and sexism on the other. To put it differently, the state cares about the biological well-being of the populace and institutes mechanisms of control to aid public health—that is, it concerns itself with promoting life—but it also treats certain groups as absolutely biological (and therefore not human) and as threats to the citizenry. At this point it is not identity that matters but the reduction of a human to biological status; in other words, anyone can become bare life.
Agamben’s notion of bare life is a radical extension of the concept of biopower for at least two reasons. First, Foucault conceived of state sovereignty as separate from disciplinary power and biopower, whereas Agamben suggests that sovereignty is deployed through these other two power dynamics. While Agamben is right to worry about a unitary conception of power, the examples discussed above are evidence that “placing biological life at the center of its calculations, the modern State therefore does nothing other than bring to light the secret tie uniting power and bare life.” Thus, power is certainly not total but does have totalizing tendencies that must be critically investigated. I, however, supplement Agamben’s more unitary notion of sovereign power by drawing from Foucault’s important contention that late modern power is dispersed, both legal and extralegal, and local. Second, while Foucault focused on the prison as an example of modern power, Agamben maintains that it is the concentration camp that is the most absolute biopolitical space. Bringing together Foucault’s observations on biopower with Hannah Arendt’s studies of totalitarianism, Agamben connects absolute power with contemporary political forms by suggesting that Nazism was merely an extreme form of modern and (especially) late modern sovereignty rather than a historical curiosity or anomaly.
He explains that antecedent to modern power and liberalism, a separation was maintained between oikos (the household) and the political. The political was viewed as a transcendence of the biological and natural. Oikos represented subsistence living and animal need. As Aristotle states, “it is evident . . . that mastery and political [rule] are not the same thing. . . . Household management is monarchy . . . while political rule is over free and equal persons.” In Agamben’s terms, bare life would be located in oikos, in contradistinction to the status of the citizen. Aristotle’s conception of oikos was similar to Locke’s (but not Hobbes’s) notion of the State of Nature: familial relations with the father as head of the household, a subsistence economy, and mere living. However, one realm implied the other; that is, Western politics constituted itself through the exclusion of bare life. If premodern politics founded the separation between man and animal (as in animal need), modern politics was established through the growing union of the two. In this way, bare life perhaps remained in the State of Nature (as liberal writers implied certain individuals did who were lacking rationality) but was not “natural” per se. Thus, modern politics does not signal a rupture from the past but rather the “the growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power.” To put it differently, bare life was the exception that has since become the rule.
Bare life constitutes the political by means of exclusion; it is life abandoned by the law: “Not simple natural life, but life exposed to death (bare life or sacred life) is the originary political element.” The sacred realm in premodern times represented a “zone of indistinction” between the political and the natural. Sacred man could be murdered but this act was not considered sacrifice or homicide: “Life that cannot be sacrificed and yet may be killed is sacred life.” The significance of this, Agamben goes on to show, is that sovereign power has been conceived of in terms of bare life as abandonment or suspension of life itself. This is a highly ambivalent status: “The ban is the force of simultaneous attraction and repulsion that ties together the two poles of the sovereign exception: bare life and power, homo sacer and sovereign.”
For this reason, he argues that sovereign power now concerns itself with power over life. Instead of indicating that human dignity has been given meaning or that modern power is significantly more humane, this demonstrates “the absolute and inhuman character of sovereignty.” Political power is thus most fully realized “when it [that power] is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life—that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed—is the life that has been captured in this sphere.” In premodern politics this significance was largely confined to specific figures such as a monarch, sacred individuals, or exiles; political power has since been reconfigured in such a way that bare life has become less the exception and more the rule.
The concept of bare life began to take on greater political significance as a result of two developments. First, the sacred body—the political body—shifted from the king to the people with the development of liberal democracies. Second, capitalism as it developed began to demonstrate the power of political techniques (disciplinary power) to create “bestialized” individuals (or “docile bodies”), who then became the working class; meanwhile, the political began to change its nature so as to involve itself in biological matters, not only as an extension of scientific reason and techniques but also because sovereign power in preliberal and liberal thought included the zone of indistinction (the State of Nature), which made bare life possible both as a crucial element of political theory and as a justification for sovereign power.
Agamben’s most significant example of bare life is the political status of Nazi concentration camp internees. By arguing that workers are treated as bare life in the United States, I am by no means equating their status with that of Holocaust victims; rather, I am suggesting that the power dynamics of the late modern nation-state, in combination with the demands of global capital, have brought about a situation where the law is used to suspend the law. The result is a realm of political undecidability. At best, this places workers in a politically vulnerable position; at worst, it means they can be deported, imprisoned for crimes once considered misdemeanors, detained in holding cells without legal representation, or (in the case of the homeless) arrested for occupying public space. These conditions do not make them criminals with full legal rights and protections but rather stateless, even if this statelessness is more temporary than that of other groups. Clearly, there is a continuum between the status of enemy combatants at Guantánamo Bay and that of individuals imprisoned or detained through the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the criminalization of poverty. In other words, these examples are not conceptually distinct but rather can be placed on a continuum. However, relative to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, the political status of poor workers is much more ambivalent, evidenced by various examples of resistance even when the law is de facto suspended. American ascetic values, developed from the Protestant work ethic, are the ideational justification for treating some individuals as bare life and for denigrating what is viewed as reproductive work (such as service, agricultural, domestic, and informal work). Indeed, service work and the other low-tier, “flexible” jobs of a more globalized labor market reinforce the splits between productive and reproductive work, males and females, citizens and less-than-citizens, and thereby obscure today’s superexploitation of the lowest-tier jobs.
Ascetic beliefs based on the Protestant ethic as analyzed by Max Weber have determined how we define work in the United States as well as who constitutes a working class. Today, the predominant types of low-tier work available in the United States are not considered blue-collar work by those ascetic standards. This is because service, low-skill, and agricultural work and the places where such work is performed (in the home, in casual factories or sweatshops, or in remote areas of the United States in the case of agricultural workers) are associated with subsistence economies and the private sphere. Accordingly, this work is devalued and those who perform it are not recognized as working class. At the same time, the groups who now fill these positions have been conceived of politically, economically, and historically primarily in terms of their identity (biopolitical status)—as blacks, women, poor whites (“white trash”), or immigrants (poor immigrants, of color)—rather than as workers. These identities, which are rooted in biological classifications, demonstrate the increasing importance of biopower in liberal democracies. Add to this cluster of groups those workers who were once unionized and employed in full-time, stable jobs; their transition to nonunion, flexible work conditions signifies their declining political status and increasing criminalization. Clearly, what the elites count as work is economically mainstream, officially recognized, and legally sanctioned. In a more global economy it is difficult to comprehend that employment and the working class have changed rather than disappeared. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge these transitions if we are to better understand the economic and political position of these workers.
Ascetic beliefs were intended for all as they developed in the United States. Thus they now constitute an organizing ethos of contemporary politics and the economy; they are not merely a private or individual ethos. Ascetic beliefs continue to inform how economic and political power are wielded, yet a double standard has evolved: hard work, long hours, and toil for low pay are really only expected of the poor. Meanwhile, the middle classes and the wealthy view their spending and investments as signs of election to grace by God. This double standard does more than mark a cultural divide; it also reveals how it is justified that certain groups are subjected to arbitrary power. To put it in Marxist terms, the values of the Protestant ethic continue to be the ideological justification for the exploitation—both political and economic—of low-tier workers today.
Among other examples I will examine in this book, the fact that guest workers (and many other low-tier workers) cannot unionize, that immigrants are monitored by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), that inner-city workers are racially profiled, and, more generally, that there is less public space for the poor, are all symptoms of a systematic suspension of the law. Indeed, the calls for increased security resulting from the events of September 11, 2001, combined with the general instability that economic globalization has created for all workers, have strengthened the prerogative elements of the state even while devaluing democratic practices. This is why immigrant unions and community organization efforts are viewed as separatist and disloyal, why African Americans’ efforts to protest poor working conditions are perceived as a sign of laziness, and why dissent against the war on terrorism—internationally and domestically—is considered traitorous. The sharp increase in free-speech zones and exclusion zones over the past six years is evidence of decreased tolerance for dissent—particularly left-wing dissent. In this way the instability, insecurity, and anxiety generated by global terrorism and a globalized economy have fortified the arbitrary—prerogative—elements of the state. One contingency feeds the other.
In Chapter 1, I explore the history of certain key ascetic arguments in liberal thought and modern philosophy in order to deduce the role they have played not only as the “spirit of capitalism” (Weber’s term) but also as the guiding ethos of modern politics, particularly in the United States. In interrogating the ostensible moral basis of asceticism, I suggest that Carl Schmitt’s notion of “political theology”—the intermixing of ethical or religious, political, and economic concerns—is an apt term for modern ideational structures. In this way, ascetic values are not especially moral or humane but do, however, illuminate the divide between productive labor and subsistence economies, between civilization and barbarity, and between those who occupy civil society and those who occupy the State of Nature. These divisions are clearly political and economic. Furthermore, a double standard operates in such a way that one group is subject to the rule of law and the other has the power to suspend it. Weber, Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche have all theorized on the origins and meaning of asceticism in modernity; by comparing their theories we can elucidate the complex mechanisms by which ascetic values are tied to the regular exercise of prerogative power domestically.
This argument challenges the conventional separation of welfare—and its related attributes or forms—and warfare. This distinction is posited as one between a liberal, democratic state that functions according to the rule of law and a state that operates in the international realm, can declare war, and deals with foreign nationals. The divide between the two functions of a modern nation-state can be attributed to the idea that a liberal democracy can only be deemed so if it is free from arbitrary power. This reasoning, I contend, is faulty: liberal theorists never intended to do away with prerogative power but rather the arbitrary power of a king. Prerogative power was conceived of in a liberal democracy, notably in Locke’s writings, as being deployed legitimately in the domestic realm if it was for the common good and exercised rationally. As discussed above, contemporary examples of prerogative are the increased surveillance of immigrants through the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. This argument also challenges the moral basis of welfare, workfare, and treatment of the poor more generally. Family caps, workfare, antiabortion legislation, the promotion of heterosexual, two-parent families, and the decreasing well-being of welfare and workfare recipients are evidence that what is at stake is not improving the lot of the poor but controlling and “re-engineering” them. I maintain that the ascetic beliefs applied through these policies constitute a mechanism of domination and are being used to justify coercion. Finally, I explore how ascetic values have an elective affinity with biological categories such as race and gender in such a way that vices and excess are associated with poor women, minorities, and immigrants. Poor men are also subject to ascetic judgments and policies and are often blamed for not fulfilling their predestined role as independent wage earners. Ascetic values are thus tied to biopolitical considerations. Alternatively, consumer spending, stock-market speculation, and capital investments are all linked to civic duty and patriotism. In all of these manifestations, ascetic values provide a nexus between economic exploitation and the deployment of prerogative power even while obscuring these relations.
In Chapter 2, I critically examine this component of state power and how it relates to bureaucratic and administrative processes. The term prerogative power is not altogether familiar; and when it is used, it is usually lumped together with sovereign power. However, it is a very important application of sovereign power that, while it has been conceived of as anomalous when deployed domestically, is increasing in regularity and strength at that level. Liberal governance signifies the rule of law; prerogative power is the suspension of law. The former is rational in the Weberian sense; the latter is arbitrary. Prerogative is exercised in times of emergency or during a war; alternatively, it is deployed when the laws are outdated or do not adequately account for a particular situation. The subject (in the philosophical sense) of liberal governance is a citizen or a citizen-subject, whereas the subject of prerogative power is “bare life” (Agamben’s term) or an “enemy” (in Schmitt’s formulation). The politicization of bare life is not altogether new, but in modernity it is no longer the exception; rather, it is the exception that has become the rule.
In much of contemporary political theory analyzing the United States, the government is conceived of as being wholly liberal. As a consequence, capitalism is viewed as having an elective affinity with liberal values, yet there is no base/superstructure relationship. Political theorists leave the analysis of foreign-policy decisions to those who study security or international relations; or alternatively, they analyze exercises of political sovereignty in liberal democratic terms (for example, the idea that the war in Vietnam should have been stopped because it was incongruous with democratic values). In this way, the study of sovereignty—more specifically, prerogative power—has been conceptualized as something entirely different from liberal or democratic power or as entirely the same as liberal power and values. When sovereignty is studied, it is often framed in terms of Machiavelli and Hobbes and is frequently used as either a critique of liberalism (as with Strauss, Schmitt, and others) or for the purposes of international relations theory. In fact, what needs to be asked is how prerogative power operates in liberal capitalist states (particularly the United States) and how and why it is deployed domestically and not just on foreign soil. For this reason, John Locke’s ideas on liberal democracy and prerogative are central to my investigations.
It is important to ask what democratic power can mean as the seeming opposite of this conceptual pair: prerogative power versus democratic power. Democratic power involves at least two crucial elements. Eschewing the binary between democracy as only agonism, protest politics, tension, and always outside institutions (hence, it must be “fugitive”) and the idea that democracy is always institutional and systematic, I argue that democratic actions and processes must retain elements of both. The first type of argument often tacitly assumes that there is an “outside” to power; the limitations of the second type have been described by authors since the 1800s. First, democratic power is strongest when secondary associations are encouraged to exist and flourish, not just as social clubs or spheres of influence but as checks on governmental power. Nevertheless, these civic groups cannot be classified as democratic if their means or ends are undemocratic (as is the case with white supremacist and vigilante groups). Furthermore, these secondary associations are most salubrious for a modern democracy when they remain contingent and temporary rather than embodying the ressentiment of a permanent minority. Dissent should be not only tolerated but also openly encouraged and respected. However, as Sheldon Wolin states, democracy “involves more than participation in political processes: it is a way of constituting power. Democracy is committed to the claim that experience with, and access to, power is essential to the development of the capacities of ordinary persons because power is crucial to human dignity and realization. Power is not merely something to be shared, but something to be used collaboratively in order to initiate, to invent, to bring about.” Nonetheless, against Wolin, this constitution can include institution building or actions within given institutions and processes—innovation arises from existent conditions rather than any mythical “outside.” Given the dynamics I will be elaborating in this book, it is difficult to argue that truly democratic power is being deployed today in the United States except in isolated pockets. Democratic conditions certainly exist, but as de Tocqueville presciently remarked, the same conditions also make totalitarianism possible.
In Chapter 3, I review notions of economic exploitation that pertain to our particular historical context, linking this concept to the exercise of prerogative power and ascetic values and to the processes of economic globalization in the United States. First I explore why or how Marxist thought—in particular the idea of exploitation—has largely been pushed aside in academic and popular thought since the end of the Cold War. I maintain that as people declare that communism is dead, Marx’s ideas now represent a “return of the repressed . . . not as false consciousness but alterity repressed by the metaphysics of presence in its specifically modern form: to wit, the metaphysics of subjective self-reflection,” as Samuel Weber aptly states. If Marxism is a specter that continues to haunt us, as Jacques Derrida claims in Specters of Marx, then the notion that capitalism and neoliberalism have replaced Marxism once and for all can be problematized: “The return of the ghost—the specter as revenant—describes the impossibility of neatly separating life from death, same from other, presence from absence, past from future.” The denial that exploitation is taking place involves more than a brokering of power or economic interest; it can also be explained by a temporal amnesia during which the past and future are overwhelmed by the present. In this way our ideational structures—namely, asceticism and neoliberalism—negate the validity of challenges to their foundations. Beyond these two rubrics, however, lies the notion of bare or biological life, which is at the root of ascetic ideas and allows issues of race, ethnicity, and gender to obscure economic exploitation.
Exploitation is also hard to discern due to the globalization of the economy and thus the temporary nature of jobs and the possibility that businesses will relocate overseas. That is, it seems that jobs are disappearing rather than exploitation occurring. To argue that exploitation is indeed happening, I begin with Tommie Shelby’s “naturalistic” theory of exploitation and build on the power dynamics he suggests by referring to Foucault; at the same time, I historicize Shelby’s theory. As Shelby remarks, what is crucial to understanding exploitation is not physical coercion or even involuntary participation in an exploitative activity. Rather, it is power differentials that determine whether a situation is potentially exploitative. For this reason, I investigate not only how subjects are economically exploited but also how they become the objects of prerogative power, and hence, how state interests are inextricably tied to economic interests—especially in times of neoliberal political domination. Exploitation at such times is both economic and political—for example, poorer groups serve as normative models against which citizenship is constructed. In keeping with Marxist theories of racism and sexism, I also examine materialist bases for prejudice that are reinforced in academic work, the media, and popular culture.
In Chapter 4, I explore these changes in terms of race and gender, arguing that women and minority groups fit the dictates of biopower and thus give meaning and substance to who is treated as bare life (the subject of prerogative power). Departing from Agamben, I contend that racism, sexism, and ethnic hatred (among other things) are precisely ideological effects of biopower that must be examined in tandem with analyses of power and sovereignty. The political and economic conditions of these groups have important similarities and illuminate the growth of prerogative power and the effects of economic globalization. First, I trace the history of immigration to the United States beginning with the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which has led to the greater participation of immigrants in the low-tier labor force. Second, I investigate the greater racialization of working-class jobs since the (relative) desegregation of the job market in the 1970s and the effect that economic globalization has had on poorer African Americans since the 1980s. Third, I look at the feminization of labor, which is tied to the first two processes. Backlashes against immigration, the increasing popularity of pseudoscientific racism against African Americans, and the paradigm of the ideal female worker (docile and politically and economically vulnerable) are connected in several ways. In the first place, each of these historical developments is inextricably linked to the others. The racialization of labor and the greater participation of immigrants in low-tier work allowed for a change in the workforce performing blue-collar work; at the same time, it facilitated the transformation to a more global economy. Meanwhile, the feminization of labor is a result of the increased presence of poorer, low-skilled immigrants and rising prejudice against African American males. To put it differently, each of these groups (albeit there is considerable overlap among them) is competing for the same types of work in a globalized economy; this only ensures that wages remain low and that processes of deregulation, worker “flexibility,” and capital mobility can continue to develop unchallenged.
Rather than recognize the difficulties that poor workers face, the media as well as politicians and prominent academics have pointed to racial conflict (as with the Los Angeles Riots of 1992) and the decline of marriage in inner cities as occurring naturally (as a result of either tribalism or the inherent immorality of certain groups). These examples allow comparisons to be made between immigrant and American-born minority communities regarding patriotism, the work ethic, and commitments to family values. Often as well, they facilitate comparisons between male and female workers. Recent arguments that Mexican immigrants lack a work ethic and any loyalty to the United States may appear to contradict the much more prevalent claims that immigrants are far better workers than African Americans, but both sets of contentions issue from ethnic, gender, and class antagonisms—that is, the antagonism that European (that is, white) Americans feel toward all minorities, the tension between the poor and the middle-class and wealthy (exacerbated by the instability that economic globalization fuels at all levels), and resentments generated by the feminization of labor. All of these antagonisms are inverted in such a way that middle-class and elite observers lament the deterioration of family values in African American communities; yet the same observers ignore the fact that divorce rates and the incidence of single motherhood are high across the board. At the same time, the Los Angeles Riots and other racial incidents are viewed as inevitable tribal conflicts among certain groups; yet the antagonism that is reflected in biological racism against African Americans and Latinos by Anglos is never exposed. Moreover, the economic reasons for ethnic or racial conflict and for marital decline among dominant groups are almost never investigated in any sustained fashion. The constant discussions about which groups have better morals and work ethics mask the elites’ antagonism toward these groups, as well as the economic conditions that foster tensions.
In this way, ascetic values obfuscate exploitation as well as the antagonism of political and economic elites toward the most oppressed and exploited groups. More disturbingly, these reactions to the poor (be they immigrant, African American, white males, or females of any group) are based on biological conceptions that place individuals below the level of citizen and consign them to subhumanity. This reflects a profound cultural division; furthermore, it brings to strong light the powerful consequences of these groups’ political and economic status. It is in this chapter that I connect the deployment of prerogative power, justified and facilitated by ascetic ideas, to economic and political exploitation. A close examination of the recent history of these three groups shows how all of these are linked in ways that are not conventionally recognized.
In Chapter 5, I discuss possible ways to address the increasingly impersonal and diffuse processes and deployments of economic and political power. There are certainly examples of grassroots activity (ranging from the World Trade Organization protests to the unionization efforts of Justice for Janitors to recent mass protests on behalf of immigrants in the spring of 2006) that allow us to hope for a transformation of power structures, both economic and political. In fact this constant grassroots activity by workers (be they immigrants or American born), by immigrant groups such as MeCHA, La Raza, and AIWA, and by protesters against the WTO and other global institutions is evidence that apathy is not the problem (never mind that mainstream political theorists seem to focus constantly on that issue in their citizenship studies). The problem, rather, is that these activities are being devalued, criminalized, or condemned instead of being seen for what they are—the agonistic activities that a vibrant democracy needs. This is why it matters so much how institutions respond to protests and grassroots organizations. Alternatively, Bonnie Honig argues that groups of individuals need to take power; they must not simply wait around for it to be granted. The problem is that spaces of prerogative power are effectively stateless, which makes “taking” a risky proposition.. As Patchen Markell remarked recently, what may be at stake in this sort of situation is “the erosion of the contexts in which events call for responses and, thus, in which it makes sense to act at all.” For this reason, governance must do more than provide for democratic dissent, unionization, and other organizing activities; it must also reconfigure sovereignty so that it is more diffuse, democratic, and local, and so that it can serve as a check—rather than a partner—on the more destructive aspects of global capitalism.
In response to the questions I pose in this book, I draw from Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of mutual love, arguing that short-term commitments (such as guest-worker programs), exploitation, and de facto or de jure disenfranchisement will only ensure that democratic power (manifested as protests or unionizing) remains weak and ineffective. In contrast, authentic love—which is merely a theoretical construct for the purposes of my argument rather than a politicized emotion—holds the binaries of productive–reproductive work, citizen–non-citizen, and biological–human in healthy, dialectical tension, thus removing the hierarchy in each pair. Beauvoir’s concept of authentic love remains true to the Heidegerrean framework on which Agamben relies and allows for a fuller elucidation of how the suspension of these binaries will open them to a more democratic potential. Conceiving of democracy in terms of this existentialist perspective contests any unitary conception of sovereignty and necessarily demands responsibility and accountability in the use of prerogative power. Furthermore, it emphasizes that what has been taken to be exceptional, deviant, or anomalous in contemporary politics is in fact symptomatic of the problems of modern citizenship.
In sum, in this book I explore how prerogative power in the United States is deployed domestically and consistently (rather than as an exception); and how, given the changes that economic globalization has brought, this power has enabled the state to fight its own obsolescence while allowing for the disenfranchisement and greater exploitation of some workers. In this project, I examine how ascetic ideas in liberal and modern philosophy not only justify and function as catalysts for the deployment of prerogative power, but also serve to obscure its exercise domestically. The contemporary manifestation of ascetic values is neoliberal discourse and policies that allow for greater freedom and mobility of capital and enterprise. Supposedly, this results in a freer and more flexible workforce that is much less likely to be exploited politically and economically. But what in fact happens is the opposite: in this age of economic globalization, these different variables are working together to exploit the new working class politically and economically and are veiling state power in a capitalist ethos in which the ascetic spirit subsumes the political.
All of the arguments in this book owe a great intellectual debt to the work of Saskia Sassen, William Julius Wilson, Wendy Brown, Sheldon Wolin, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben. I hope to investigate not just the economic consequences of globalization but also the political, connecting the literature on nationalism and statelessness to materialist critiques of capitalism. And in the process, I will be exploring how the racialization and feminization of labor and the increased use of immigrant labor are crucial to these power dynamics.
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