Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reading :: The New Work Order

Originally posted: Tue, 20 Jun 2006 21:10:04

The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism

by James Paul Gee, Glynda Hull, Colin Lankshear

I've seen many cites to this book, and at least a couple of colleagues have recommended it to me. And in fact it was useful, though not as useful as I had hoped. Gee et al. have attempted an analysis of the language of "fast capitalism," both in the popular literature and in workplace settings. What results is often a stinging indictment of "fast capitalism," comparing its claims to its implementations. However, as in much of the literature I've seen criticizing capitalism (or other large-scale phenomena), there's a tendency to compress the phenomenon into a single mode so that it can be nailed down, characterized, and criticized. And -- as I'll point out in a moment -- the authors sometimes use easy equivalencies to get the job done, equivalencies that are not especially convincing or generalizable. Nevertheless, the book provides some real insights into how "fast capitalism" is narrated and characterized.

Before we begin, let's draw a distinction. The authors specifically use the term "fast capitalism" (or "new capitalism") to describe an enterprise-oriented view that emphasizes an enterprise's adaptability, dynamism, flattened hierarchy, and continual reskilling/learning; the term applies to an entire enterprise, from manufacturing to service to management. I've been writing recently about "knowledge economy" work, which is specifically focused on what Reich calls symbolic-analytic work. Knowledge workers can be embedded in a "fast capitalism" enterprise, but they don't have to be; and a "fast capitalism" enterprise necessarily includes workers other than knowledge workers. If we lose the distinction, we commit a category error, and we lose a lot of analytic power.

With that caveat, let's start with some of the really valuable work in this book. In the first couple of chapters, the authors examine the "fast capitalism" literature on learning and knowledge. They argue that

The bottom line is this: the focus of education, we argue, should be on social practices and their connections across various social and cultural sites and institutions. Learners should be viewed as lifelong trajectories through these sites and institutions, as stories with multiple twists and turns. What we say about their beginnings should be shaped by what we intend to say about their middles and ends, and vice versa. As their stories are rapidly and radically changing, we need to change our stories about skills, learning, and knowledge. Our focus, as well, should be on multiple learning sites and their rich and complex interconnections. We will see below and in other chapters that this focus on social practices brings us squarely up against the growing concern in the new capitalism with sociotechnical practices -- that is, with the design of technology and social relations within the workplace to facilitate productivity and commitment, sometimes in highly 'indoctrinating' ways. (p.6)

With this stake in the ground, the authors situate themselves within a generally Vygotskian tradition in which learning is seen as more or less continuous social-cultural-historical development of individuals (even as they acknowledge that the new capitalism coopts the Vygotskian notion of the zone of proximal development, p.62). In contrast, the new capitalism tends toward a systems view, and the authors specifically finger distributed cognition (in which learning is seen as the function of a system, not the trajectory of an individual, and in which individuality is seen as emergent) as a result of the new capitalism -- or at least as its enabler (p.59).

But at the same time, they claim that Discourses (roughly, social languages) create people: "The Discourse of law school creates kinds of people who (overtly or tacitly) define themselves as different from -- often better than -- other kinds of people" (p.11). Those subscribing to a systems view, such as distributed cognitionists and especially actor-network theorists, would make such a claim, but would actually mean it in an ontological sense: in the systems view, actants are constantly emerging, being defined by their emergent relations with other actants. These authors, on the other hand, seem to be working with a weaker version that takes as its bedrock the notion that "people are people," and sees Discourse as providing a classificatory function rather than an ontological one. And consequently they don't quite reach the conclusion that Deleuze does when he talks about the control society being populated by "dividuals" rather than individuals, multiplicity rather than singularity. They conclude that

learning works best -- it is most enculturating, but (alas) also more indoctrinating -- when it is done inside the social practices of a Discourse. Such 'deep' learning always involves the formation of new identities and thus possible conflicts with old ones. We will see in this book that new-capitalist businesses want such 'deep' learning, with its concomitant identity and value formations. (p.15)

With this basis, the authors forge on to Chapter 2, which is devoted to the theory and practice of fast capitalism. Throughout this chapter, their working assumption is that fast capitalist texts do not describe current changes, but a vision of the future order, a world view. The fast capitalist texts describe and map out such changes, and the authors thus limit their critical engagement to examining the morality and ethics of this world view. And I think this is an error: I would have liked to see more critical engagement with -- or at least acknowledgement of -- the actual economic and organizational changes that have often precipitated these texts. Assuming that these texts were the cause of the phenomena they attempt to describe leads the authors to equate description with prescription in these texts. For instance, the authors indict the fast capitalist texts for their treatment of networks:

The fast capitalist world is one that celebrates temporary and fast-changing networks, whether of co-workers or different businesses. The networks come together for a given project and disperse into other configurations as products, projects, and services change in the hypercompetitive and fast-paced environment of the new capitalism. The fast capitalist literature is silent about the implications of these ephemeral networks for stable communities of people with shared histories and long-term commitments (other than to the vision and core values of the organization). (p.40)

But those networks are actual economic and organizational phenomena, described not just by the fast capitalist texts but also by Manuel Castells, whom the authors cite approvingly. Castells certainly does talk about the implications of these networks in his critically acclaimed and widely cited book, but he doesn't provide any solutions to their shortcomings either. (Neither do the authors of this book, as we'll see in a moment.) Perhaps the difference is tone, and the authors would be more accepting of fast capitalist texts if only those texts would stop making silk purses out of sows' ears!

It's worth noting that the authors correctly link new economy texts to postmodernist theory, although I'm not convinced that the correct term is "coopting" (p.68). But at this point, the authors begin to make some easy equivalencies that, on closer examination, look like square pegs forced into round holes. On p.69, for instance, they claim that Bakhtin's discussion of carnival (which they label "postmodernist," a questionable designation) is paralleled closely by Tom Peters' fast capitalist text using the metaphor of carnival. The parallel is quite incomplete: not only do the authors acknowledge that the fast capitalist author had probably never heard of Bakhtin, the two conceptions of carnival differ in marked ways. (Most obviously, Bakhtin's version is centrifugal, while Peters' is not.) So two authors who had never heard of each other used the same metaphor to describe two very different phenomena -- not a very strong foundation to build the case that fast capitalist texts have coopted postmodernist language!

This problem of equivalency, unfortunately, makes its way into the two empirical studies as well. In Chapter 4, the authors study a training session for manufacturing workers at a "fast capitalist" organization, noting that the (untrained) teacher followed an IRE pattern (inquiry, response, evaluation; see p.97), and making the case that these training sessions served to reinscribe the hierarchy that they were ostensibly supposed to flatten. The claim is convincing, but the authors attempt to indict fast capitalist corporate training in general by pointing out that the curriculum came partially from larger organizations -- again, too big a claim to be supported by the evidence (p.101). Similarly, in Chapter 6, the authors attempt to portray a cooperative in Nicuragua as a peripheral "fast capitalist" company -- despite the fact that the cooperative didn't meet some of the criteria for such a company (e.g., a highly educated workforce) and marginally met others (such as "vision"). They provide no evidence that the cooperative conceived of itself along "fast capitalist" lines or organized itself in alignment with the "fast capitalist" literature (highly doubtful since the members were marginally literate). They do not engage at all with the question of work organization or the crosslinking of disciplines. Yet they confidently declare that "we can construe them as a 'textbook case' of fast capitalist methods" (p.145).

It's almost ironic, then, that the authors urgently tell us that

a sociocultural approach to literacy takes the view that language must always be understood in its social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. We are arguing here that in one of these contexts, crucial in our 'new times,' is the context of the new work order in all its ramifications. Language, indeed our very humanity, is in danger of losing meaning if we do not carefully reflect on this context and its attempts to make us into new kinds of people: for example, people who are 'smart' because they buy the highest 'quality' brushes -- but do not care about, or even see, the legacies of their greed and ignorance writ large on the world. (pp.150-151).

By those criteria, humanity has already lost its humanity -- indeed, has rarely if ever had it!

If you want to engage in the authors' solution, by the way, why don't you nip over to Starbucks and get some fair trade coffee (p.150). Yes, that's pretty much the solution they propose.

Well. Despite the irritation I felt at some portions of the book, it was valuable, particularly the first couple of chapters. I can see why it has been cited so broadly, and I intend to do so myself. >

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