Worshipping at the altar of Foucault and the postmodernist esoteric

Getting to work on my master’s thesis is proving to be fraught with difficulty. My new advisor (I had to change when it became clear that the professor I had previously selected simply didn’t want to put in the effort) wants, among other things, for me to read Michel Foucault. He suggested a couple chapters in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (but failed to say which ones) and the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. I am not happy about this; I believe strongly that if someone has something to say, they should write it clearly, and Foucault is notorious for being difficult to read.

So I sat down with Power/Knowledge, because I really, really don’t have time for this, and I was hoping I could get through a chapter while I was holed up in a Palo Alto coffee house waiting out Friday San Francisco Bay Area traffic. Of course, it took longer than that to get through an interview entitled “Truth and Power,” but a couple things clearly emerge.

First, Foucault chooses complex explanations where simple ones will suffice. He notices that the history of scientific progress is punctuated by periods of sudden advance. To me this is unremarkable, but apparently it led to some controversy, suggesting that the wits of those who voluntarily critique Foucault are even dimmer. Foucault rambles on about this only to say that this is not what is important; “rather it is this extent and rapidity [of change] are only the sign of something else: a modification in the rules of formation of statements are accepted as scientifically true,” in other words, a change in dogma.

But Foucault can’t simply acknowledge that as people progress in learning in a single discipline they become ever more invested in the tenets of their field, and that change becomes something to instinctively resist. That would be entirely too simple. No, he wanders off into a textual analysis of a “discursive regime.” Why? He does not say. Foucault does not even mention the simple explanation.

Second, Foucault views power monolithically, as an object like a brick. Perhaps this brick sits on your desk or in your pocket. This is simply stupid-talk. Any anarchist can tell you, and anyone can understand that power is a relationship; it has components: an actor and that which would be acted upon, with the potentiality of that action being an important piece. We do things or refrain from doing things not of our own volition when political authorities tell us to do them and we fear what they could do to us. Compliance thus is borne in the potential of discipline.

This is far from an original concept. The Internal Revenue Service depends on a system of “voluntary compliance” that invokes a better-developed concept of power than Foucault expresses. You file your taxes and pay the amount due because you fear their enforcement. You watch the deductions you take because you fear an audit. And the IRS is well aware of this. They understand well that they would be overwhelmed if even a large enough number of people refused to comply.

So even accountants, whom I think many would criticize for narrowness of thought, have an understanding of power that exceeds Foucault. Yet I see all these speech communication people fawning over Foucault. Foucault, of course, encounters all manner of difficulties in his thinking; to conceptualize power as a monolithic object leads to innumerable complexities. But the simple explanation, the one that anyone can understand, is entirely absent.

I am coming to think that it is not, after all, economics which is the most ideological of social sciences but rather the one I have found myself ensnared in: speech communication.

Employee work hours decline

I’ve been looking more at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data released earlier this month. Workers’ annual average working hours have been decreasing fairly consistently since 1964. In 2008, the average worker worked an average 33.6 hours per week. The average US resident (of the civilian noninstitutionalized population) worked a mere 20.89 hours in the form of employment recognized in labor statistics (this notably excludes uncompensated housework), the lowest number since 1983.

I haven’t been able to work out what this translates to in terms of earnings, because earnings need to be adjusted for essential expenses: food, housing, and energy (which are excluded from “core” inflation statistics) and I haven’t found those numbers.

But given that the need for work has not decreased since 1983, it starts becoming possible to see how hardship for US residents appears to increase in numbers which are not publicized.

Not much of a silver lining in unemployment numbers

The headlines are screaming about how the US has lost the most jobs since World War II. What this fails to account for is that the population and, however you measure it, the labor force is far larger now than in 1945. The Financial Times reports, “The number of jobs lost during the year reached 2.6m, while the unemployment rate – 4.4 per cent before the credit crisis – jumped to 7.2 per cent in December, its highest level in 16 years.” Historically, the percentages look low.

But I distrust the reckoning of who qualifies as being a part of the labor force; the Bureau of Labor Statistics excludes so-called “discouraged workers,” who are no longer actively seeking work. It also includes part-time workers as fully employed, which I do not correct for here. Nor does it make any compensation for people who are having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or for decreased wages as better-paying jobs have been exported overseas; these are other areas also not covered in my analysis.

This means the pain is far worse than appears in my reckoning. The numbers I find most interesting are the percentage of change, especially in the portion of the population that is excluded from the job market, i.e. the very measure that affects all the percentages reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which deceive by omission. While there are a number of shortcomings in my approach, what I want most desperately is a measure of the need for employment or of the people who would work if they had the opportunity. Lacking this, I do not correct for it at all, and thus omit ideological distortions.

Percent Change in Unemployed (blue) and Excluded (red) Persons:

Percent Change in Excluded Persons:

Percent of Civilian Non-institutionalized Population Employed:

So how do the numbers hold up in my parsing? The civilian non-institutionalized population increased by 0.088% in December, and 0.504% in all of 2008. The fraction included in the job market increased 0.269% to 65.99% for the year, or about half of population growth, and dropped 0.112% to 65.71% in December. The employed portion of the population dropped by 0.559% to 60.99% in December, and 0.653% to 62.18% in 2008, which is certainly bad, but nowhere near as bad as in the years 2002-2005; the drop was 3.583% in 2004. Unemployment increased 6.033% to 4.73% in December, and 18.120% to 3.82% for 2008; the comparable number for 1991 was 22.435%. Finally, the fraction excluded from the labor force increased by 0.474% in December, and 0.961% in all of 2008; as recently as 1999, the comparable figure was 1.241%.

Make no mistake: 2008 was a bad year, and December was a bad month, but strictly in terms of employment losses, I don’t see it as being the worst since World War II. In terms of overall employment, we remain above the level in 1986. But worse is surely yet to come.

Why Mexico’s “Grand Warlock” might be right

We’re supposed to laugh at “Mexico’s self-proclaimed “Grand Warlock” [who] says the United States will pull troops out of Iraq in 2009 and send them to the border with Mexico in an attempt to expand its territory.” After all, he “erroneously predicted last year that oil prices would be stable and that Cuba’s Fidel Castro and singer Britney Spears would die.”

But we should pause to see where his forecast is already true and where it might become true. Mexico has been waging a war, not against the US but against drug gangs on its own territory, in part because the US has sought to fight its war on drugs on Latin American territory, co-opting governments into becoming agents for US law enforcement, and thus reinforcing US hegemony over the region. In this conflict, it is not at all clear that Mexican authorities will prevail and the scale of this conflict is such as to challenge Mexican sovereignty.

I’m not saying this will prompt a US intervention. But I can see where it might. The conflict in Mexico centers in Sinaloa, not directly on the US border, but in the northwestern part of the country. It has spilled into the United States, where Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) claims that “marijuana plantations [operated by outlaw Mexican drug cartels] on public lands, not public lands in Mexico, but on public lands in the United States . . . account for 80 to 90 percent of all marijuana plantation production in the United States.” The media report hysterically on plantations as far north as Oregon. Poe claims they exist in “California, Arizona, Hawaii, West Virginia, Oregon, Tennessee and Kentucky.”

We need to back up a minute. How can Poe possibly know that “80 to 90 percent of all marijuana plantation production in the United States” is run by Mexican gangs? How can anyone guess at aggregate production figures in an illegal industry, an industry whose domestic growers have been concealing their operations from law enforcement (and thieves) for decades? Poe’s claim is simply unsupportable; he cites anecdotal evidence published in US newspapers. He says, for example, “the Washington Times reports . . . that ‘campers, fishermen, hikers and forest and park officials are being intimidated, threatened or assaulted when they come near Mexican-run marijuana’ plantations on American soil, and that ‘all this plant growing produces a street value of $6.7 billion.'” He attributes to law enforcement officials a claim that “drug cartels employ heavily armed bandits to guard these fields and they have superior fire power and surveillance equipment over American law enforcement agents.” This is evidence of violence, not of the scale of production.

This narrative serves two interest groups, those who oppose migration across the Mexican border and those who oppose the legalization of marijuana. It casts Mexicans as drug gangsters and it casts marijuana growers as Mexican drug gangsters. And it raises US interest in the difficulties the Mexican government faces with cartels on its own territory.

Warlock Antonio Vasquez’s forecast still seems like a stretch. Mexicans, who see the US as already occupying half their territory as a consequence of the Mexican-American War, would not be likely to welcome a return visit from troops who were last seen penetrating to the Halls of Montezuma in Mexico City after the US unilaterally shifted Texas’ southern border from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. But as the “war on terror” falters, the old propaganda value of the “war on drugs” remains, and as the US loses its position of world dominance, the diversionary value of a quick strike in Mexico might appeal to an Obama administration beleaguered by the loss of US standing in the world and beset by a persistently bad economy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We have, in the United States, people whose world views have been built around world hegemony, people who have access to very dangerous weapons, and people who might see the country’s problems as a prelude to Armageddon. A Mexican strike might serve to assuage these people as well, forestalling a nuclear, biological, and chemical holocaust, much as the Grenada invasion was part of a “recovery” from the humiliation of Vietnam.