badges of ability

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Aug 1 03:09:04 PDT 1999

At 11:13 31/07/99 PDT, kelley wrote:

>to get on with the list discussion of Hidden Injuries of Class

I think the argument is a convincing one about how people internalise social relations as qualities within their individual selves. It becomes fetishistic, as Marx analysed commodities to be. Indeed of course under capitalism labour power is a commodity. Marx argues in chapter one of capitalism how the social qualities of the commodity are hidden as in a fetish.

I think it is necessary to remember though that Hidden Injuries was written at the end of the 60's and published in 1972. A number of their respondents still came from strata without higher education that knew they were "working class". However the picture was much changed in that area of Boston by national and cultural identity having precedence over working class identity.

Since the 60's on the one hand the large manual working class jobs have further fragmented, on the other higher education in various forms is more available. There is more of a continuum of jobs which may need a variety of skills. Further the proposition that ability is about control and access to a monopoly of information has been fragmented for all working people by the explosion of computer information, the destruction of ideas of social authority, and the loss of certainty expressed in post-modernist perspectives.

So the intense comparison of one's own ability as a seller of labour power with that of other people is more blurred. The children of professional who has sent them to college will do service jobs to pay off a student loan, alongside immigrants. Children from virtually all strata may drop into the under class through drugs and unemployment.

Fame comes now through novelty and not through ability.

Television powerfully educates everyone. Standard scores on IQ tests continue to rise generation by generation.

> sennett and cobb take issue with a purist marxist notion of class and
>power as the either/or of propertied v. propertyless.

What page is this reference to a marxist analysis please?

I do not see it as property versus no property, although one of the authors might have been literally from the bourgeoisie. The issue is that there is a continuum of labour power through the educated and managerial working class to the intelligentsia. This is a stratum not a true class. Compared to when Sennett and Cobb were writing, it may merge with the educated working class or it may provide a springboard for aspirations to join the bourgeoisie. Eg Barton went from chemist, to day gambler in capitalism, to mass murderer. No way was he a representative of finance capitalism. In a sense he is a victim too, as he sought his badge of ability, and could only assert an identity by eliminating his "persecutors".

> weber and gramsci showed how power became legitimated
>and operated in other ways. authority makes people obey w/o recourse to
>brutal violence. the power of capital becomes obscured as power actually
>asserts itself in much less obvious, more insidious ways: badges of ability
>legitimate power through the authority of science--the natural and social
>sciences, medicine, education, managerial science, psychology and
>psychoanalysis, social work--all of which maintain power by establishing a
>monopoly on knowledge--what counts as knowledge, who knows, who can know, and
>why. as sennett and cobb write: "an authority judges freedom and dignity ."

True. But when the methods of production change so fast, all must be prepared for "life-long learning" as Blair emphasises in his efforts to solve unemployment by getting working people to intensify their exploitation themselves.

Professionals may now be dependent on computer literate secretaries. A foreman who has not been on a regular educational refresher job may blow the plant up by accident. If his stress levels are not monitored by an active personnel policy, he may blow the plant up deliberately.

One wing of speculative capital working with marginally productive old technology, may intensify exploitation in a really antiquated way, but modern large companies have a sophisticated policy for managing staff, including in teams. They are not all individuals. S & C describe how some of George Corona's injury is having to manage a quantity of individuals who are not a team.

Quality outcomes can mean it is just as important that the man on the conveyor belt allowed his attention to wander as that the senior chemist did not reference all the research papers.

>to illustrate, sennett recounts his fieldwork in a school in the
> he reveals how the children of manual laborers are defined as among the
>ordinary and incapable, generally, of being among the talented few. they
>to accept this because the teacher as authority, backed by IQ tests, the
>school, the institutional authority of schooling in general.

IQ tests are dead in England. This is from another era.

> children, they
>say, turn their anger at powerlessness--at their loss of freedom--on those
>students who are among the chosen few --the 'suck ups' or 'the jocks' or 'the
>geeks' depending on local school culture

and occasionally kill them.

>"so they turn on the few who are approved...though [they] do not blame the
>"suck-ups" for their own position in the classroom. the legitimization of
>power is like a cloak of secrecy over the origins of one's anxiety. it is
>this cloak of secrecy that makes these children feel responsible for a
>situation they did not create" [90].

Althusser has a good point that schools are part of the Ideological State Apparatus.

>worse, sennett and cobb argue, is that they are prosecutors of themselves and
>one another. they blame themselves; it is their own fault if they don't have
>the ambition and drive to place them among the few and, so too, it is the
>fault of others:

That's how it works, and modern personnel practice harnesses this in "team-building" exercises.

>"under these circumstances, how much a person has to take orders comes to
>represent inversely how much ability he has at work, for the more talent a
>person has the more freedom....

Surely the higher jobs in the intelligenstia have also been, as the Communist Manifesto says, proletarianised. The recent 1 billion dollar transatlantic law firm may not have many rough-handed lawyers but they will be subject now to quality and productivity appraisal. They will be properly *managed*. It will not be a small muddled chambers helped out by a clerk and a few secretaries.

>so, eric, the hidden injuries are internal.

Yes it all has to be internalised.

>a hidden scheme of values that sorts men into different classes

>the result is that we are both judges and judged.


In that sense I have a slight reservation about the concept of "injuries". It is undoubtedly true that ill health goes with relatively low social status. That is one of the most robust findings of research. Interestingly the relative class position in the country is even more important than the absolute wealth.

But these phenomena do not appear like magic. They are part of the process whereby we are constantly examining ourself and comparing our interactions with other people.

The critique of capitalism should not be regarded as opposed to this sort of analysis. The approaches need to be integrated.

Chris Burford


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list