Intellectuals and Job Insecurity: I Don’t Think... Therefore I Am
Can we find an alternative way of thinking to combat the “single thought” that’s currently swamping us? And can we still exist as consultants if we even dare to try? Is it possible for us to think at all in Nicaragua today, or will we just continue to blame the system for the limited and routine ideas we churn out in return for considerable financial reward?
José Luis Rocha
Social scientists and other intellectuals have covered a lot of ground in studying the poor. We invade their homes without so much as a search warrant and pester them with surveys. We weigh their children, count their pigs and hens, measure their land and dig up their past. If they gave us half a chance, we’d even rummage in their pockets and have a look under their beds. We investigate how much they have and how much they don’t have, what they spend their money on and what and how much they eat. Then we weigh, survey, dig around and count again because we need to compare the situation after to the situation before. In investigation after investigation we discover new manifestations of poverty, expressed as vulnerability, the weak exercise of citizenship or deficient empowerment.
We are distant and distinct, exterior and superiorWe work under the implicit supposition that the poor are the main element in the problem of poverty. We present them as the hole-riddled bucket we’re going to repair. In this rancid epistemological paradigm, they are objects to be discovered, by definition clearly distinguishable from us. We are in the other corner: distant and distinct, exterior and superior, playing at being unobjectionable and unobjecti-fiable objectifiers, the cognizant subjects whose discerning eye is taken for granted. Only very occasionally do we question whether that eye might not be a little myopic, astigmatic, already a little strained and unable to see so far.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu—who said that we use science to objectify others but never to call ourselves into question—rightly observed that the intellectual world always selects other worlds as its objects and only rarely studies itself, in which case it demonstrates an indulgence that it never displays when studying others. From our lofty intellectual position, we don’t consider ourselves the object of study; don’t see our own gaps and cracks. There’s no profusion of concepts to estimate our deficiencies, assess our weaknesses or correct the way our vulnerabilities affect our perception of reality. And this tends to perpetuate our illnesses, errors and defects.
The conditions in which a thought is produced are very rarely taken into account, as if they were removed from the product to be obtained. It is forgotten that analysis is conditioned by the hermeneutic place. Referring to his profession as a sociologist, Bourdieu mentioned the existence of tendencies towards error that vary by sex, social origin and intellectual formation. And in another text, he pointed out that sociologists always run the risk of applying to the social world categories of thought that the social world have instilled into their spirit. There is thus a need to sociologically analyze the social conditions in which their instruments of thought are produced.
The system’s little secrets While accepted in theory, these simple theses are not so accepted in practice. My previous article on consultants (see “Bureaucrats for Hire” in envío’s January 2005 edition) provoked angry protests from many colleagues in the consultancy profession. Not that I was particularly surprised. We intellectuals are highly allergic to being studied, particularly if the analysis reveals certain little secrets on which depend the reproduction of a system that at the end of the day—despite its many drawbacks—does help us eat, dress, travel and live, and in a none-too-Spartan way.
and obstacles to self-criticism
We rarely turn the scalpel on ourselves, looking for ways to extirpate some of the tumors already forming notable protuberances. We need to put ourselves under the microscope of that same criticism we so generously apply to politicians, the poor, producers, traders, migrants and other subjects who don’t themselves generate analyses but are always exposed to ours. We take refuge behind our supposed commitment to the common good, development, women’s empowerment and other noble causes to acquire a kind of moral license that exempts our lifestyles, motives and forms of work from being questioned or even honestly described. But our commitment deserves to be analyzed because it is partial, part-time and conditioned by un-purged prejudices and the pressures of our cultural environment.
Such prejudices have to be studied if the hard drive where they were installed by society and our class position is to be reformatted. The nature and modus operandi of the pressures must discovered in order to mitigate their force. And above all, it must be seen how much of what we say is conditioned by those prejudices and pressures. Our behavior is induced and fueled by our sense of belonging to a certain group. That belonging is reinforced by our actions: what we eat, what we wear, what we see at the cinema, among many others. It is enormously reinforced by what we think and say. That belonging also co-opts our good intentions, so that the great idealistic proposals of a member of the middle class, for example, run headlong into his or her consumption habits and survival strategies. Those strategies and habits have to be named and the way they function has to be described to stop them having such a determining effect on what we think and ensure that the commitment is real. The problem is that when an initiative like this gets underway it immediately generates furious reactions that indicate our fierce resistance to being stripped of the label we use to sell ourselves. Self-criticism runs up against many obstacles. Those who doubt it should take a quick look at the defense mechanisms identified by Freud: negation (refusal to recognize the problem), rationalization (self-justifying ideological production), projection (seeing the dollar signs in your neighbor’s eye but not in your own), formative reaction (doing and saying the opposite of what one feels), displacement (looking for a scapegoat) and the like.
We’re in the same corner as those we analyzeIf we intellectuals are not to be slaves to our own rationalizations, we need to see where we are and what strategies we’re employing. This will allow us to understand why we write and think the way we do (issues, approaches, methods, etc). It would be very interesting to unravel the relationship between social conditions and the cognitive limitations of thought production. But in this case we’ll have to limit ourselves to examining the way the labor system in Nicaragua affects intellectual products. What is that system like? What conditions does it imply? The first thing we can state is that we intellectuals are not in the other corner, but rather in the same corner as those we analyze. While perhaps a little distant, we’re not so very distinct.
Generalized precariousness conditions the labor status of intellectuals in Nicaragua—particularly those of us who have gotten involved as consultants. Just as foreign cooperation has consultants paid by the consultancy, universities have lecturers whose earnings depend on the number of class hours they teach, and NGOs and private businesses have drivers who are hired by the day. Institutions don’t want to commit themselves over the long term because that would multiply their obligations as employers.
In the net administrator’s mentality, cost reduction is a primordial objective at whose altar anything can be sacrificed. Instrumental rationality conceives of human beings only as resources, one more productive input whose cost can be mitigated by reducing their use, depreciating them and acquiring them under circumstances that are disadvantageous for them. The tendency of institutions to supply unstable work follows the same logic as the tendency of states to cut social spending.
Being a teacher is increasinglyThe consequences of this system don’t seem like such a big deal to those following its rules. I understand that an institution doesn’t worry about the family tensions that labor instability generates, even when they are obviously affecting work performance. What’s striking, however, is the lack of vision about the effects of working conditions on the planned products. The fact that university lecturers, like salespeople, earn according to quantity—in this case how many hours of classes they teach—leads to an inevitable deterioration in education.
like being a salesperson
A lecturer paid by class wants to invest no more time with each one than is strictly needed. Any extra time spent in preparation, coordination meetings, working with students or in evaluation is effectively subsidizing the institution. The more detailed attention they pay to preparing their lecture and the more concerned they are about professional scruples, the worse the deal is for them. On the other hand, the more they can arrange for class time to be taken up with student presentations, the less time they have to invest themselves. The bottom line is lower education quality and increased moral hazard in the system.
Neither class-paid lecturers nor day-hired drivers will give their best. This system undermines the possibility of harmonizing personal interests with the institutional strategy. There is less appropriation of and identification with the institution, essential elements for a well-functioning bureaucracy. The flip side of the lack of institutional commitment to its employees is, quite appropriately, lack of employee commitment to the institution. Any commonality of interests that could once be built upon is replaced by denuded self-interest on both sides.
Officials implement labor instabilityIn its different manifestations, this labor precariousness is a growing global phenomenon. German sociologist Ulrich Beck called it “the Brazilianization of the West,” given that both the way of life and the multiplicity, complexity and insecurity of work in the South are spreading to the neurological centers of the Western world.
with the best of intentions
Labor stability was one of workers’ fundamental conquests in industrialized countries, and on a more modest scale in non-industrialized countries as well. But we are backpedaling at a dizzying speed. Those implementing the mechanisms of this labor destabilization are not the sharp-fanged Rockefellers and Fords depicted in 19th-century caricatures, but more often than not officials with clear consciences and the best of intentions.
This incongruence should be immediately plain for all to see when institutions with “alternative” pretensions apply such mechanisms. Their programs and texts promote democratization, while at the same time they are volatizing their hiring, reducing their personnel in line with financial imperatives and sliding towards concentrating posts, wages, perks and labor stability among a select group of people who are best placed in the system to assert their rights. But such institutions blind themselves to this incongruence by justifying it as a means of survival. The institution’s beneficent mission is presumed to guarantee that any holocaust perpetrated in its honor is beneficent.
Unstable, well-paid consultantsTogether with lecturers and drivers, consultants are another form of labor destabilization—albeit a generally well-paid one. By adopting this model, multilateral organizations, the state and private business, universities included, can avoid dangerously inflating their payroll and guarantee net benefits from their human resources, with incoming funds exceeding costs. The same is happening in Europe: the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague and the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton offer employment on the condition that those contracted contribute the equivalent of 150% of their salary through consultancies.
submitted to intense pressure
Subjected to such pressure, the quality of the consultants’ work is nose-diving, but without either their prestige or that of the brand name for which they are producing appearing to be compromised. By quality, I’m not referring only to the composition, presentation, amount of empirical evidence amassed or client satisfaction. Quality is also measured in terms of the progressive levels of depth achieved in researching and analyzing a given subject. Such progress cannot be improvised. Obtaining it requires a gradual, step-by-step, concept-by-concept installation of capacity, review and critique, applying and adjusting our predecessors’ work. Quality is measured, for example, in the discovery of new issues, new, more complex investigative veins that haven’t even previously been tapped much less explored. And above all, it is measured in the courage to maintain that functional critique that for Bourdieu defines the intellectual and which he described as freedom from the powers that be, critique of topics, demolition of simplistic alternatives and restitution of the complexity of problems.
No time or funds for heretical ideasWhile “single thought” is spreading across the globe, the conditions of production are affecting the other possible way of thinking. The consultancy system generally contemplates no time for questioning. He who pays the piper not only calls the tune, but orders and imposes the subjects, approaches, deadlines and means of dissemination. All of these selection mechanisms filter out illegitimate words or heretical ideas that might open up new perspectives and call the system into question. The client-readers condition what can be said. The problem is obvious: one can’t be provocative when the IDB is paying and wants a text to disseminate as part of its collection of articles. Legitimate concepts must be used, which definitely restrict the horizon of what can be thought.
It amounts to a very subtle form of ideological intolerance that is thus more effective than the kind orchestrated by classic state totalitarianism. Market totalitarianism—in which only marketable things are said, written or even thought—is both more complex and more devastating to critical thought. It castrates anything mobilizing or provocative that might exist in the research profession. The main problem is not whether to charge or not to charge, to charge a lot or a little, but rather the mutilating effect of the system, its sterilizing effect on the critical function expected of intellectuals.
Canned internet fare The people best able to survive in the consultancy field are those who have learned to do the most saleable verbal juggling. The consultant’s recipe has to include a few figures here, a generous sprinkling of tables there and a garnish of fashionable clichéd terminology to taste… understood as the consumer’s taste. It’s not actually necessary to have read Nobel economics prize winner Douglass North; it’s enough to mention “transaction costs” and the “weight of institutions in economic development” to appear an expert on new institutional economics. And just mentioning “panoptic architecture” serves to make us sound like experts on Foucault. Consuming canned Stiglitz on internet enables us to state that “informational asymmetries” impede the development of markets because they can lead to an adverse selection in resource allocation. By adequately folding together these concepts—which are actually very revolutionary—we can achieve a state in which there’s no danger of creating anything revolutionary because we establish no dialogue with either the authors or our readers.
and a sprinkling of clichés
And just as the school system applies criteria that select certain kinds of skills and ends up reproducing pre-existing social differences because those skills are linked to differences in inherited cultural capital, so the consultancy system maintains the differences among consultants. Thus, those paid and contracted more are the ones with the best recommendations and qualifications, which are more often than not the direct result of inherited capital. But the consultancy system goes even further: by rewarding more those who most elegantly package the same already consecrated ideas, reflection is stagnated, perpetuating the current dramatic realities.
“Fast work” and “fast think” is Critical knowledge of what others have done, the possibility of discussing and establishing dialogue and the adaptation of novel theories employed as instruments of analysis are intellectual traditions that more often than not are cancelled in the rapid work and labor destabilization system generated by consultancies. The supply and demand of “fast work” and “fast think” is the consultancy world’s equivalent of the catering industry’s “fast food.”
consultancy’s “fast food” equivalent
And just as a gourmet would never dream of finding an exquisite dish in Burger King, for example, no experienced reader has much expectation of stumbling across some memorable finding in any text produced by a consultant. This isn’t because consultants are necessarily mediocre intellectuals; they just don’t have the time to think. Their clients don’t seem to expect that from them; in fact, it may be that they prefer them not to think too much. That’s why so many consultants repeat, cut, paste and get no further than a handful of slogans. They saturate their presentations with an overwhelming juxtaposition of quotes from classic works in an attempt to impress. Consultants calculate that there will always be neophytes and novices among their audiences who will be left open-mouthed by even their most insipid ideas.
The impact of a particular thought is also influenced by the dissemination time. A World Bank norm is not to publish the research it finances for two years. Given the demented rhythm of Nicaraguan politics, where everything is in constant flux, this norm means that such texts are left to rot as the ideas they contain lose their applicability and relevance. Everything becomes ephemeral. On the political stage, the actors, the script and the guilty are all constantly changing. Diagnostic studies become almost immediately obsolete—with the exception of those that focus on cultural factors. And even that thought, forcibly matured by delayed publication, becomes increasingly innocuous and odorless. It has no applicability in any era and is therefore valid for any of them.
The tyranny of statistics To legitimize a way of thinking that is born devalued, the consultant adds a centuries-old sauce to the spaghetti of slogans. The tables, graphs, avalanche of statistics and cascade of numbers are spices designed to cover up for the absence of thought. The tyranny of mathematics is reinforced. Statistics are deified, transformed from instrument into totem. Ignoring the quote—part exaggeration and part truth—attributed to Mark Twain that there are lies, big lies and statistics, consultants want the statistics to say everything and don’t bother to analyze how the data selection and gathering themselves shape the object of the investigation.
and a concealment strategy
This feature is neither inconsequential nor devoid of an interested bias. The obvious interest is to demobilize. Consultants often present social problems as technical economic problems or fail to mention them altogether when they are the most relevant aspect of a given sphere of study. They say, for example, that micro businesses need to improve their information flows, but don’t analyze who hogs the information and how the information channels are managed.
They also say that micro businesses should vary their designs, improve their marketing and train their human resources, which are very commendable findings. But they pay no attention at all to social conflicts within micro businesses or between them and their suppliers or clients. Such conflicts reveal opposing strategies and explain why certain designs and marketing models are suitable in one market segment and not another, why the human resources are so unsatisfied, why employers won’t invest in training them and why micro businesses prefer to compete through prices rather than quality.
The fact is that examining such aspects in greater depth requires quite a lot more than just the string of clichés and simple-minded surveys and interviews with which most consultants season their studies. Researchers who get introduced into the consultancy system easily learn how to cover up.
Opting for an “alternative” by Some researchers have conclusively demonstrated that the main problem facing coffee producers is not an abrupt excess of supply and fall in prices, but rather an inequitable distribution of profits the length of the marketing chain that is accentuated by speculators. That is an invaluable and very provocative finding, but it is a cover-up to assume that the problem can only be resolved—although even that would be difficult enough—by increasing the scale of operations and improving the efficiency of fair trade initiatives. Such proposals are typically launched by consultants working for a micro-cosmos, such as the NGO that contracts them and wants to build paradise in an eggshell.
building utopian castles in the air
With the best of intentions, consultants conceal and demobilize by limiting their proposals to technical aspects and constrain them to a highly limited sphere. They forget—and thus conceal—the fact that the solution has to involve negotiations between social sectors and a mutual deliberation of forces and pressure mechanisms. Instead of examining the weave of the social fabric, they seek to build castles in the air.
They opt for alternativism: as the current distribution of credit isn’t democratic, let’s create non-conventional banks; as producers aren’t receiving fair prices, let’s link up a parallel chain that pays out fairly. Building alternative institutions is a good thing because it fills vacuums, solves certain people’s problems and creates new experiences that can be replicated on a greater scale. But it is negative when it excludes or helps avoid broader and national struggles, because it then becomes an elegant form of giving up.
After the surfeit, where are you Karl Marx?Marxism and other approaches take into account the essential aspects of social and political struggles. It would be a good idea to recover their analytical instruments. Perhaps we are currently experiencing a wave of rejection due to satiation. Marxism saturated Nicaragua in the 1980s. The university and high school pensum oozed it. The philosophy taught was pure, insipid dialectic materialism. The texts produced by many intellectuals sterilely repeated Marxist slogans. At the time, someone very shrewdly observed, “It’s just as bad not being able to read Marx as having to read only Marx.”
But Marxism has been too hurriedly abandoned, throwing out the baby of its ideology-dismantling hermeneutics along with the bathwater of its economistic determination and its mechanistic positivism. Luckily, a number of Marxist concepts survive, transformed, as contraband in the baggage of many authors. Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism is more or less a form of historical materialism. False consciousness is a useful finding for all heirs of Freudian, Nietzchean and Marxist thinking. But it is difficult to sell such approaches and concepts to the slogan buyers, so they have limited application among consultants who are entirely dedicated to what is marketable.
Everything’s for sale: A change in symbolic goodsThe sale of thought consumes a large amount of the time earmarked for its production. This not only limits what can be said and written to what can be sold, it also imposes an investment of time, energy, emotions and money into all aspects of the ceremony and paraphernalia linked to professional success, including clothing, relations, manners, brochures, business cards, forums, flirting with journalists, etc. Such investment proves very profitable, which is what makes it worthwhile sacrificing everything to it, including thought. And this new trait reveals a shift in Nicaraguan intellectuality. Intellectuals used to be more inclined to value symbolic goods: recognition, tributes, publications, illustrious but unpaid posts and, above all, the accumulation of knowledge.
Suddenly such symbolic goods have become devalued and the only ones desired are those that can be exchanged for material goods. It’s the equivalent of passing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, that time of economic boom triggered by gold and silver from the Americas from which the sense of humanist optimism emerged. It was precisely then that the usefulness of prestige accompanied by material benefits became apparent. Góngora complained that everything was for sale, with the court selling its gala, the war its courage and the universities even their knowledge. In today’s Nicaragua, the symbolic goods of gala, courage and wisdom are only useful, or are of far greater use, if they can be sold.
The crisis in academia:Given the devaluation of symbolic goods, the search for material goods became a priority, amounting to a Copernican turnaround. Many institutions have fallen victim to this shift, which deserves a more detailed examination than I can provide in this article without sounding like an outmoded moralist. One interesting example of institutions affected by the shift towards the preeminence of material goods is provided by the universities, which are currently incapable of retaining the professionals they so carefully attracted for decades. Their move towards contracting lecturers paid by class hour has reinforced the nomadic labor practices of white-collar workers. Unattractive wages and labor instability have turned universities into a labor niche from which many good professionals have fled into the arms of the far more attractive world of consultancy.
From symbolic goods to material goods
When symbolic goods had more weight, even high-flying business people and wealthy professionals were attracted by the draw of academia. Lecturing offered the kind of social visibility that their manager’s desks or legal practices just couldn’t give them. It also provided the chance to cultivate new, attractive relations, o publicize their ideas, exercise a vocation for teaching and assume another identity.
The current preeminence of material goods explains why many intellectuals prefer to dedicate themselves to making presentations in dreary grey conferences—made greyer still by the compulsive use of Power Point—and writing slipshod documents of grey literature rather than well-argued books and articles for scientific and other prestigious journals, or quality magazines aimed at interested laypeople. The fact that publishing only offers a low yield over the long term—and even that is uncertain— explains why consultants very rarely publish anything.
Labor uncertainty and fascination The relative devaluation of symbolic goods is due to the uncertainty surrounding the acquisition of present and future material goods. Material goods are valued more highly—and symbolic goods valued less—because there is far greater labor instability in today’s Nicaragua than was true of Sandinista or Somocista Nicaragua.
with the shop-window effect
Maintaining a job and a determined income level is a daily battle given the uncertainty of achieving either, although this is obviously not a problem for many intellectuals. It’s not so much a question of the improbability of satisfying primary needs, but rather the shop-window effect exerted on some by the ostentatious consumption that state posts and executive positions in private business and foreign cooperation provide.
There has also been an absolute devaluation of symbolic goods triggered by a profusion of those best of all symbolic goods—professional degrees—and complicated further by the lax selection of teaching staff. Universities churn out thousands of BAs and masters. A recent graduate with no particularly brilliant traits can quite easily end up a lecturer. These are just two body blows to academic pedigree. Being a lecturer and flaunting a university degree no longer have the same prestige they once had.
Nicaragua’s national university system has greatly helped accelerate this inevitable devaluation through its policy of issuing degrees with all the generosity displayed by households distributing candy in celebration of the Immaculate Conception. There has been noticeable academic decay following the invasion of the barbarian hordes. It’s an open secret that a BA earned during the sixties is worth four of today’s masters degrees. Measured in terms of how many material goods it can buy, the purchasing power of the university degree as a symbolic good has plummeted.
Chameleon-like, we’ve sold out to this systemShould we view this devaluation of academic prestige as one of the causes of the crisis in intellectuality? The copious production of professionals, a streamlined state sector and foreign investment that buys up existing state companies and at best maintains the same number of employees has implied, and will continue to imply, an increasing drop in the range of job offers for us intellectuals.
But we have implemented a very ingenious salvage strategy, which is in fact class solidarity. To stop foreign cooperation funds from going to direct actions and slipping through our hands, we have placed ourselves in key posts where decisions are made about how to earmark those funds. We’ve perfected the rationalizations about the benefits derived from investing in us, and with chameleon-like virtuosity have adopted the most sellable colors. In other words, we’ve got it all sown up.
In the struggle over the use of bilateral and multilateral foreign aid, which I have caricatured here with a rather broad brush, we have created then exploited a privileged position. From that position, we get the best and avoid the worst of the current system of labor instability, part of a strategy designed to compensate for the instability and uncertainty, the adverse effects of a system that actually perpetuates its perverse mechanisms. By making a pact with the system, we’ve ended up confirming Georg Lukács’ theory that the middle classes tend to accommodate themselves to different regimes, represent strictly private class interests and have a non-transforming nature molded by changes in their surroundings that depend entirely on the behavior of other social groups.
Our responsibility:Our strategy also reveals an underlying attitude: given that we can do so little to take on the system, we have to resign ourselves to working in the miniscule spaces available and the small openings we carve out for ourselves. This is no small achievement in these times of narrowing horizons, but it is sad that so few dare to go against the grain with congruent actions. Will we continue forging pacts because there’s no alternative? Will we continue blaming the system, or will we review its mechanisms of seduction and look at why, how and how far we let ourselves be seduced? One thing I’m sure of is that we’ll never find a way out of this situation by trying to define who the worst sinner is, he who sins for pay or he who pays for sin.
why have we let ourselves be seduced?
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial committee.