Thursday, October 18, 2007

Work "Ethics"

Below I've copied in full an op-ed article in todays NYT by some putz named Roger Cohen. Now I'm not very clear on the global economic issues that France faces in light of the EU, nor do I know much of anything about the strength of the euro in comparison to worker productivity or other national currencies, so even though I've been struggling to come to terms with this more practical kind of knowledge and discourse, I can't yet adequately or confidently comment on these issues. Ever get caught in a conversation with someone who has a background in economics? In my case, that would be my staunchly status quo brother who knows a shit load more than I do about the economy but is still, for all that, totally wrong. It's just that I can't seem to explain to him *why*! It can get brutal, frustrating. Thus, I'm hesitant to engage in any kind of critical anlysis of global capital, a weakness among academic, post-Marxist thinkers that desperately needs to be addressed, I'm more than willing to acknowledge. I often challenge my students to explain the stock market, and yet I'm totally hazy on the subject, which is often my point to them--a la Jameson's claim about the difficulty of cognitively mapping late capitalism, but still, we owe it to ourseleves to have some basic grasp on how the global economy runs. Read the Financial Times, or The Economist, alongside Gramsci or Althusser fer chris' sake!

OK, end of rant.... What struck me as I was reading this tripe was the inherent value the whole world is now demanded to place on something like a "work ethic." An "American" vaule I've always despised, having been chided at several poverty-level wage jobs for having an "inconsistent" one, and which has always reminded me of my poor immigrant family's struggle to believe in the "American Dream" as they ascetically denied themselves much of any joy or pleasure. The American Deam fits nicely into a feudal mentaility from the old country who bred their peasants to be docile work-horses. Come to America, own your own sweatshop! Come to America, work hard, die young! Come to America, live long, work like a dog, leave all your money to your fucked-up, ungrateful kids! Oops, I'm ranting again....

Which leads me to that new "reality" show "Kid Nation." I caught a bit of it the other night and was appalled to see 10 year olds discussing one of their fellow comrades--deciding which one was a "hard worker." The decision left to this group was who they would ultimately award a "gold star" to, which, as it turns out, equaled some kind of 20K scholarship fund, or something like that. Do 10 year olds really need to worry about a work ethic? Do we really need to reinforce the dubious and ideologically suspect link between hard work and economic success to a group of little kids some of whose lips quiver while others literally sob as the votes are being publicly counted for their election to a fantasy town council? So all we can offer as an educational setting to idealistic children is the over-blown fantasy of hard work and competition as a flimsy cover for the principle of eat-or-be-eaten, winner-takes-all, survival of the most cynical or, at best, least reprehensible, all adding up to a "win"? And France needs to grow-up? Yeah, right. Apparently, France doesn't have enough reality TV shows. And they obviously don't begin their indoctrination techniques near early enough.

Hard work, and the concept of a "work ethic" are highly over-rated, but the train keeps rolling. Climb aboard world!


"Not only is Christine Lagarde France’s finance minister, ready to forsake her native tongue, she is, she says, “happier doing this in English.” With that, right off the bat, she declares in ringing Anglo-Saxon: “We are trying to change the psyche of the French people in relation to work.”

A hopeless task, some might say. Deep in the Gallic soul resides the notion that work is exploitation, a ruse concocted by American robber barons, best regulated and minimized and offset by hours of idleness. The demise of the Soviet Union left France leading the counter-capitalist school.

But Lagarde, 51, tall and striking, is not known as “the American” for nothing. Think of her as the face of a new France ditching its cold-war hangover. The sobriquet reflects her linguistic skills, her background as a highflying executive for the Baker & McKenzie law firm and her Chicago-cultivated candor.

In an interview, Lagarde says that more than two decades at a U.S. corporation taught her: “The more hours you worked, the more hours you billed, the more profit you could generate for yourself and your firm. That was the mantra.”

The equivalent mantra in the French bureaucracy might be: the fewer hours you work, the more vacation you take, the more time you have to grumble about the state of the universe and the smarter you feel, especially compared to workaholic dingbats across the Atlantic with no time for boules.

So Lagarde, appointed four months ago by President Nicolas Sarkozy, is aware that she faces a big challenge: “What was really striking to me when I came back from Chicago in 2005 was that the law on the 35-hour week had passed and been internalized by individuals and, I think, had produced disastrous effects.”

What effects? “People did not really talk about their work. They talked about their long weekends.”

Lagarde’s goal, she says, is to slash France’s chronically highly unemployment — now about 8 percent — to 5 percent by 2012 and increase the proportion of the total population in jobs to 70 percent from 63 percent. Rehabilitating work is central to this ambition.

Tax cuts, the termination of unemployment benefits for those refusing two valid job offers, later retirement, incentives for those working more than 35 hours, a slashing of the bureaucracy associated with job-seeking and improved professional training are among measures enacted or envisaged. Legislation to reverse the 35-hour week is possible.

“I think we have to go around it,” Lagarde says of the law. “To demonstrate that it’s not a holy principle and it can be modified, varied, mitigated and possibly reversed.”

Not without a fight, however. French workers are expected to take to the streets today in what will likely be one of many big strikes against the Sarkozy-Lagarde reforms. Former governments have caved as Bastille-storming specters rose.

Not this time, insists Lagarde. “We certainly have the resolve to see reforms through,” she says. “A significant majority voted in support of a reform program that was completely advocated, advertised, trumpeted.”

France, she suggests, is changing in the image of a president whose approach “is not being constrained by rules, principles, protocol, straitjackets.”

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