On Wage Slavery. On Early Republican Baltimore. Several Things Academics Should Realize. Mario Vargas Llosa.

I am on strike, so we will read this important book review, brought to my attention by my Facebook Friend, Mike. It is a good review of a book which is obviously good for my research, both academic and artistic, and even better for Clio Bluestocking’s research, as it concerns slavery and wage slavery in early 19th century Baltimore.

There are some important things to take away from this review as regards the academic job market and all the advice that is given to one and all on how to best position oneself for non disaster at least, and for success ideally. I often find myself fatigued with these discussions, for reasons including the following:

1) having been in the business for some time and coming from an academic family, I have heard them all before — was in fact already tired of them at a stage in my own career when for others, they were new;

2) the fact that in my own experience, most standard advice does not apply and never has, for reasons already discussed at length in this blog — it is not that I do not know these rules or how to apply them, it is just that I do not find them to cover all, or even most aspects of reality.

3) the fact that self help style advice for clerks on how to get ahead in business came into fashion in the mid to late nineteenth century and has already been parodied, including by our very own honorary author in his 1931 novel Tungsten (yes, I have just complicated this blog by adding to its voices an honorary author).

Here is where some sentences from the review above come in:

a) Capitalism in the early Republic was not “a synonym for market exchange,” he explains, but rather “a political economy that dictated who worked where, on what terms, and to whose benefit” (p. 5) [Hypothesis: the academic job market is not only not a meritocracy. It is not even necessarily a market. It is a political economy that dictates who works where, on what terms, and to whose benefit.]

b) Rockman’s evidence proves that getting rid of slavery was not in the interests of capitalists, who gladly employed white and black people, free and enslaved, on the same job sites for identical wages.” [You want some faculty at each professorial rank, some regular instructors, and some casual labor.]

c) Rockman crunches the numbers to show that, in 1810, between 10 and 20 percent of Baltimore households were headed by women, but employers had a vested interest in fostering “the presumption of female dependence,” because it “justified the secondary wages that in turn guaranteed it” (p. 133).

d) …[C]apitalists were revolutionary historical actors who curtailed the agency of working people by thinking of and using both free and enslaved laborers as interchangeable commodities…. [Rockman] defines “class” “as a material condition resulting from the ability of those purchasing labor to economically and physically coerce those performing it–and to do so under the social fiction of a self-regulating market that purportedly doled out its rewards to the deserving in accordance with the laws of nature” (p. 11).

e) Rockman does not describe class entities emerging around a “shared consciousness, identity, or politics percolating from working people themselves” (p. 11). Rather, class is a vital tool historians can use to expose the dynamics of material and cultural power in American society.

f) [S]laveowners, merchants, and almshouse commissioners rewrote workers’ stories about being poor, disparaging their pretensions to agency and citing laziness, improvidence, and intemperance as the underlying explanations for economic inequality. [Think of how tenured faculty talk about the misadventures of assistant professors and graduate students, male faculty about the misadventures of women, and so on.]

g) [P]oor people’s ventures into the market for reasons other than wages were not evidence of a “nascent entrepreneurism,” a quest for wealth (p. 127). [Exactly, and this is a great opportunity to say once again in the vocative case: FUCK you Mario Vargas Llosa and all of your neoliberal friends, claiming that the desperate Lima peddlers of the 1990s were harbingers of a new capitalist spirit. I ought not to swear but the word fuck drives up hit counts, and Mario Vargas Llosa is intolerably fatuous, and I am on strike.]

h) The culture of capitalism was so pervasive that it provided the script for workers’ struggles to survive even as capitalists took it as an article of faith that poor men and women did not strive. The “social fiction” that workers refused to work hard was powerful because the powerful perpetuated it.

i) While bourgeois employers championed self-fashioning–Frederick Douglass embarked on his quest for “self-made manhood” in Baltimore’s streets–they also believed in a more important “truth”: laborers needed to exhibit industry, perseverance, and other winning character traits to make bosses rich.

j) Rockman brilliantly shows that capitalists not only regulated who could work where and for what, but also defined ambition in ways that ensured workers’ continued struggles with poverty.


22 thoughts on “On Wage Slavery. On Early Republican Baltimore. Several Things Academics Should Realize. Mario Vargas Llosa.

  1. Wow. Sounds really good.

    I am interested in analyses of the systems that organize our lives. I find it particularly frustrating when people deny that these systems exist, claiming that individuals make perfectly free choices that just happen to uphold the dominant social structure. Of course the ruling class’ paid lackeys are employed to claim these systems don’t exist, but it’s frustrating that so many third parties believe the propaganda to the point where they *will not listen* to counter-arguments.

  2. Talk about systems and many will think you’re talking about conspiracy or “blaming society.”

    It’s a hard game to beat — the one in which people have been brainwashed to quite great extremes.

    One of the things you CAN do, however, is to use your knowledge of systems to wrong foot them (whether or not this will help depends on the intelligence and sensitivity of those who put the wrong foot foreward. Some goons simply cannot be taught, but netaphorically fall on the faces over and over without realising it.)

    So you can pretty much presume that if people believe part of the propaganda that seeks to blame society’s victims for their “choices”, they will believe a lot more too — for example about “essential natures” and so on. So you can have quite a lot of fun with these goons because of their beliefs.

  3. “So you can pretty much presume that if people believe part of the propaganda that seeks to blame society’s victims for their ‘choices’, they will believe a lot more too — for example about essential natures’ and so on.”

    Definitely — and key!!!

  4. Note also that no faculty members have commented on this. I don’t think they want to know the news it contains! It is not the Good News (the Gospel of Merit)!

  5. The other thing such people do is to get timelocked in their relationships — a tendency that creates in them all sorts of vulnerabilities that can be exploited very easily.

    For example, what is linked to the notion of “essential nature” apart from the idea that people, fundamentally, do not change?

    So these are such people who think that they know you through and through because they knew what you were like at the age of 12 or something.

    There is someone who has collected quotes I made many years ago, not realising that they were meant ironically for the most part, and that what I thought several years ago is hardly what I’m going to think today.

    Such people always point their blindside towards me.

  6. … and they don’t understand irony. Because ironic speech implies that things are a certain way for now, but could be very different, under different circumstances.

    This way of talking freaks out those who have tunnel vision more than any other way of speaking can.

    The tendency is to fail to understand — or in rarer cases, to take everything too literally. But some people become absolutely frenzied in the face of ironic speech, as if their brains were being attacked by it.

  7. This should be a fantastic book. It will give me a good way to get at Anna Murray, Douglass’s first wife, who was a free wage-earner in Baltimore, and to some of Douglass’s drive not to be a wage-earner for anyone else.

    My graduate school taught me the myth of this academic “meritocracy.” They chose their golden boys, then pinned everyone else into an assigned, static identity in order to explain a “failure to progress,” which was the catch-all reason not to fund or support a student in any way. Yet, even when the un-funded progressed, often faster than the golden boys, some other flaw in the un-funded was found to excuse not funding them. Of course, this was excellent training, because that has been how so many places that I have worked operate.

  8. I should read it to learn more about political economy.

    Graduate school, mine did that too, although I did not entirely notice because I had been warned I would not be a golden boy and I conformed to this, thinking it was all personal to me. Then yes, streaming on ahead anyway, and having them come up with new excuses. It continues up to now!

  9. Weird because I’ve kind of had the opposite experience, of receiving funding when I thought, “I’m not at all the type that gets this funding.” For instance, I received a prestigious travel award, which half made me think that somebody, somewhere must have made a grave error.

  10. It’s not never getting funding Clio means. Discrete research fellowships, travel awards and other kinds of grants are pretty normal and they have to spread the wealth to some degree, and a lot of people have to be funded to some degree if they are going to keep the place running.

  11. I think that the bigger problem (or just as big) is that our research is considered to be something less than it actually is, in terms of its scope and implications. There is some kind of neutering of it that occurs in academia, because the writing is only ever allowed to be a product of existing expectations.

  12. That’s true, too. The analysis of labor in the book on Baltimore really does cover the academic situation — not a market but a political economy that dictates who works where.

    On the neutering of writing, it’s a true problem and I think it is KEY in the question of why (some) academics don’t write enough and so on … it’s not that they’re out of ideas/lazy/whatever, it’s unwillingness to produce more of that kind of thing.

  13. I started out as a golden boy — or thinking that I was — and was quickly kicked out of the club. That meant I had a view of the inside and the outside, and could not ignore that there was, in fact, a system.

    Jennifer, I think what you say is closer to what I meant by “funding.” Funding was just the material dimension of the environment, and they would sometimes fund one year but not the next, so that you could never be certain of how to pace your work from one year to the next. What they were saying, by supporting the “golden boys” (and that is also a literal designation) with consistent funding, was that they approved of their research. The golden boys’ research was usually very traditional, in some cases they were even working on dissertations that were assigned by their advisors (I swear, in one case, the advisor said, “this is the subject, those are the sources, and here is the thesis that you should prove with those sources”). They were not encouraged to do or think about anything particularly original or new.

    Most of the golden boys dropped out, and the ones who graduated did just enough to get tenure and no longer research or write. I often wondered if the advisors wanted to encourage younger versions of themselves, but not to the point that the younger versions became a threat to themselves. I think it may have been a version of the “why aren’t students learning ‘real’ history” articles, like that one in the NYT a few weeks ago. The old guard didn’t want to encourage anything that might make them seem obselete.

    I’ve seen the research ennui replicated in other places, too, with people revising a dissertation for a decade after they have graduated, or publishing the book but not pursuing any research beyond that until they decide that they want to work elsewhere. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of neutering, but now, I see that they probably got bored with what they had produced and lost incentive to do more. They felt irrelevent before they had started.

  14. Aha, then I am a golden boy, not of my school but of my father, a professor. He advised just like that and it is a great weight. Our actual golden boys were the ones who got fellowships consistently and were told they would get jobs (and treated that way). So they didn’t get used up, and got real support (including unambivalent job market support), and were not told things were hopeless, and many are now luminaries. There are other luminaries, of course, and there are some golden boys like those you describe.

    I always had TA funding although it was not officially guaranteed (wasn’t a “package”). My social class, so to speak, was told we wouldn’t get jobs, or picked that up at least and were not disabused of the notion. I always thought I was just along for the ride — the travel grants, research fellowships abroad, opportunity to read and so on.

    By doing that Ph.D. I was putting off the inevitable clerical job in an office, I actually thought. And I was furthermore *happy* with that, since I had not had the self esteem in college to think I could get and do such a job (as opposed to factory, retail, or child care). Graduate school was *very* therapeutic in that way, made me feel like a person. College had helped but it took graduate school to really do it.

    In a way it would have been good not to get an academic job since that would have forced me to explore options, and I could have stayed in S.F. My first job was in L.A. and I really wanted to quit and stay there. When I was living in N.O. I also wanted to quit and stay there. I really do like my research fields and creative teaching, but the sacrifice of living in the rural suburbs where most jobs are, and working in these staid academic environments where my research is irrelevant, causes my ennui.

    I feel completely different in lively urban public university environments, but private schools give me claustrophobia and all these Southern schools with oak trees and cicadas creep me out, that wisteria laden Faulknerian porch sitting creak creak creak also sparks my claustrophobia.

  15. HI Clio– yes, I’m sure you’re right. You are talking about the US system, though, and the Australian one may be a little different in some respects. However, I’ve noticed that those who seem to get the jobs as lecturer (the lowest professional level for an academic) have often studied subjects that are very bland. Hence, I won’t be holding my breath to get a job, and certainly won’t take one where people expect something specific from me because of my gender: I’m not a nurturing type, cannot teach on the basis of nurturing, but on the basis of authority, and so on.

    Like prof Zero, I was never meant to get this far in studies, doing a PhD, since I was a Rhodesian female, destined for the breeding stock of the Anglo-Saxon race. I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for what I have.

  16. Of course, in the discussion at Historiann one is reminded that having been raised NOT to have a career, NOT to be competent, is a sign of class privilege.

    I think it’s more complicated than that, cf. being raised according to some illusions about the class status it is desired you attain, being raised by abused and/or abusive people, and so on.

    And furthermore, being raised to be disabled is hard to overcome. I hear a lot of people saying now that women whose husbands are keeping them and who want independence just want to work for fun or for personal fulfillment or something … white, privileged people say it to bow to women who HAVE to work … but I think this thing of raising women to only stay home VERY insidious than that.

    I mean, I of course appreciate the washerwomen who would rather not have to be washerwomen and who don’t like leaving their children home alone so they can wash for other people. But this skill less, career less scheme for women is a way to put all women in that position, or make them incompetent to take even that position (washing being a skill).

    And so I don’t think that women who could be kept and want to have educations and jobs are just privileged ladies playing, which is what I hear from some people now … it’s an attempt to be aware of race and class, but really it’s patriarchal because it assumes the men are still in charge.

    The struggle in my life has been to have personhood, despite being a girl. If that is not a struggle about coming up from nothing (from non personhood), I don’t know what is.

  17. I do believe that I was raised to only stay at home, and yes, it is a very difficult conditioning to overcome, not in terms of some inherent moral defect, like engendered laziness for instance (which it can be assumed to be), but in the sense of lacking fundamental knowledge about the world, that one absolutely needs, to get ahead.

    I have this knowledge now, but it is really the result of burning the candle at both ends, and effectively dividing my psyche so that one half became the part of the psyche that was directed towards helping me survive, food and shelterwise, whereas the other side was on a life or death mission of reconnaissance, to capture the missing knowledge and bring it home.

    Thus my life has been hard — harder than it needed to have been — but there are compensations in terms of the kind of knowledge and attitudes I have developed, which are freer than those of my peers in either a traditional or more contemporary setting.

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