Functionalist birtherism

President Obama has had a consistent problem with widespread misconceptions regarding his birthplace, nationality and even religion. Despite discussing his childhood extensively, releasing his birth certificate and participating in Christian rituals these misconceptions do not go away. Defenders of his administration have attributed this to racism and xenophobia, which, in my estimation, is largely accurate. Regardless of the true motivations behind these claims, Durkheim would likely attribute this phenomenon to the natural tendency for social systems to achieve balance.

Formal, structural racism has characterized American institutions for the majority of the country’s history. Even now as this formal characteristic has been stripped from the country’s laws and institutions, inequality remains the norm, indicating that structural racism still exists, albeit informally. American society has largely maintained stability since the Civil Rights Era, and is becoming more cohesive as a result of integration, but the societal segments that enjoyed higher privilege before integration have an interest in a social order that no longer exists. They navigate a confusing set of competing values, where they must maintain solidarity with both their ancestors that constructed and exercised their privilege as well as the social structures that they belong to in the present. This can lead to startlingly contradictory rationalizations – such as racism is bad but African-Americans were happy before integration, or that the President is unfit to serve in office, not because of the color of his skin but because an imaginary legal technicality that just must be true. These sorts-of statements may be a two-faced expression of values, but at the same time they allow participation in a greater social structure that emphasizes uncomfortable values.


Marx and the Military Industrial Complex

In the first article above, author Lee Fang discusses what is often termed the military industrial complex, and calls out so-called pundits that have financial stakes in the conflict with ISIS. Additionally, Fang criticizes the Pentagon’s funding requests for including requests for more F-35 planes, that are not yet considered ready to fly. I’ve also included an article by Eli Lake about how military contractors who served in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts are hoping to be hired again in the conflict with ISIS.

Marx would consider all of this to be in line with his writings, although I am not sure even he could have predicted the extent to which this would occur. According to Marx, one of the ultimate effects of capitalism is the tendency for capitalists to co-opt governments, in order to produce policies that favor the capitalists’ ability to make profit. For example, by making the government pass laws that allow capitalists to elongate the workday, capitalists can increase labor and therefore profit (absolute surplus labor). By getting the government to allow unsafe processes or environmentally dangerous techniques in manufacturing, capitalists can reduce the amount of necessary labor and make more profit as well (relative surplus labor via industrialization).

Marx’s writings are best applied to the manufacturing industry, which was presumably a dominant economic sector during his lifetime, but I think he would have had just as much to say about the modern military industrial complex. In this industry, the consumer is the government – so the capitalist’s influence in government directly impacts the amount of profit the capitalist can conceivably make. In other words, the capitalists create government demand and then bleed that demand until they’ve made as much money as they can. Marx accurately predicted that capitalists would use government like this – and while the trends in privatization probably would not have surprised Marx, I think the practice of private firms being used to fight wars would be pretty shocking to his 19th century viewpoint.


Weber’s Iron Cage and Frye’s Bird Cage

Max Weber used the metaphor of the iron cage of bureaucracy to communicate how he thought bureaucracies would transform society. As these highly efficient bureaucracies took hold, Weber asserted that they would control and constrain the population indefinitely, because bureaucracies would last forever. This is strikingly similar to Marilyn Frye’s metaphor of the bird cage, which symbolizes the double binding nature of gender inequality – the bird may believe that it is free or able to escape because the bird’s field of vision only allows it to see one bar at a time, but in reality there are so many bars that the bird will always be constrained in its cage.

Modern experience suggests that bureaucracies are not bird cages. Presumably neither consumers nor bureaucrats would describe their perception of themselves as “free” when interacting with bureaucracies. If one’s first reaction to being denied their driver’s license application is to try to find a loophole or another way to drive instead of conforming to the bureaucrat’s expectations, that person will probably not get a driver’s license.

However, that is not to say that the two metaphors are completely incompatible. Presuming the two metaphors are similar in a meaningful way, one may be able to apply Weber’s thinking about bureaucracies to gender inequality. Weber defines six characteristics in his ideal type of bureaucracies:

1. An explicit division of labor with delineated lines of authority.

2. The presence of an office hierarchy.

3. Written rules and communication.

4. Accredited training and technical competence.

5. Management by rules that is emotionally neutral.

6. Ownership of both the career ladder and position by the organization rather than the individual.

These attributes also apply to gender inequality:

1. The division of labor – the distinction between what is perceived as women’s work and men’s work is integral to the idea of gender roles.

2. The presence of an office hierarchy – male privilege virtually guarantees an unfortunate but self-evident hierarchy of gender.

3. Written rules and communication – rules supporting gender inequality exist as laws in many instances, but in the absence of legal discrimination one doesn’t need to look much further than classic religious texts to find formal religious rules of gender discrimination and inequality.

4. Accredited training and technical competence – as bureaucrats are trained for their work, socialization serves to train people in gender, and, in this way, to perpetuate gender inequality.

5. Management by rules that is emotionally neutral – there is no greater example of this than society. Everyone in a given society understands their rules of masculinity and femininity and feels similar discomfort and displeasure when they are not being followed.

6. Ownership of both the career ladder and position by the organization rather than the individual – one cannot be exceptionally masculine or feminine on their own, instead they need others with a shared definition of masculinity or femininity to achieve this.

While it not necessarily meaningful to reduce phenomena to these simplifications, compare them and try to find new knowledge, there may be something to this example. It is unlikely that gender inequality arose for the same reasons that bureaucracies did (for example, I fail to see anyway that gender inequality increases our proficiency of completing complex tasks, or any particular way it is more economically efficient), but perhaps they endure for similar reasons. Both bureaucracy and our perception of gender are extremely rigid, uncompromising and enduring. Borrowing from another one of Weber’s ideas, it is perhaps somewhere in these shared terms that both concepts have found such a high degree of legitimization in modern society.



Marx and organizational theory

I’m a political science major with a sociology minor, and one of the courses I have to complete for my political science concentration is Public Administration. I spent the majority of the day preparing for a group presentation in that class — specifically, my partner and I had to present about a chapter devoted to the organizational theories of bureaucracies.  Although this topic has little to do with Marx on the surface, the similarities between what my Public Administration textbook was discussing and what we have been discussing in Sociological Theory seemed so apparent to me that I kept accidentally slipping Marxian terms and concepts into my discussion with my project partner all day.

Briefly, scientific management (or Taylorism) was a concept that started gaining speed towards the end of Marx’s life. The premise is simple. Quoting from my textbook, “while Weber came to protest the transformation of employees into ‘cogs,’  Taylor embraced this transformation as a prerequisite for scientifically finding the most efficient way of accomplishing any given task” (p. 146). There are certainly a lot of elements of Marx’s alienation present in this example and in bureaucracies in general, but I’d like to go a different direction here and suggest that this is actually an attempt to accomplish what Marx would term industrialization. Capitalists use industrialization to increase surplus production, and therefore profit. In the example of Taylorism, Taylor is literally trying to apply the same rational thought process that is used by capitalists to find new methods of industrialization, except instead of applying it to processes and machines Taylor is trying to apply it to people. He is not simply trying to make people work harder, but he is trying to tinker with their arrangement, their actions, and even their motivations. In Taylorism, workers aren’t people but instead cogs in a clockwork factory — it is the goal of the manager to use the scientific process to determine how those cogs would most efficiently interact.

It wasn’t until after World War I that a paradigm shift occurred. While one of those managers was performing one of Taylor’s recommended empirical studies to determine what motivated his workers, he found something that surprised him: the workers he was studying seemed a whole lot more motivated than the ones that he wasn’t studying. Apparently, the observation that people could have reactions to other people that effected them and their behavior was a surprising revelation in organizational theory. This phenomenon had its own name, the Hawthorne Effect, and inspired an entire rethinking of organizational theory that gave birth to the Human Relations Approach. Of course, whether managers treat their employees like machines or like people has no impact on their ultimate goal in a capitalist society, but I think these examples still help illustrate a degree of validity in Marx’s writings.  The extent to which capitalism has warped our thought processes to ignore a human activity as simple as basic interaction is stunning (and was also, apparently, a major obstacle to integrating common sense into organizational theory).

Rosenbloom, D. H., Kravchuk, R. S., & Clerkin, R. M. (2009). Public Administration: Understanding                      Management, Politics, and Law in the Public Sector (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill .

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