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May 24, 2007

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Foucault Is Dead

In the UK (and particularly in Scotland, with all its remote rural parts) there is currently a crisis with post offices closing down. Previously, these were state subsidised, but now less so - the justification appears to be that anyone who lives in a remote area can use the virtual world to organise this stuff. So if they receive welfare payments, they should collect them direct into their bank account, not via a post office counter etc. I'd be interested to know if the post offices in the US and other places are subsidised, or if there simply are no post offices in rural areas.

Bob Allen

Those "Top company to work for" lists are hilarious. "Most admired" is funny too--Wal Mart brags about that alot, of course, they are admired by Forbes et al. The company I work for is number 1 with GI's, top 100 with working mothers, top fifty according to "Latina Style" and God only knows what else. Yet it has a culture where managers are allowed to swear at and belittle each other.

patrick j. mullins

Jodi--interesting that you'd bring up the supermarkets here--my best friend lives up at 115th Street and just Wed. we were talking about a grocery up at 125th Street where everything is left mostly unmanaged, with items left on the floor. The supermarkets have been a Mafia controlled thing in NYC for some time, Didion mentions them, although not in much depth, in the New York part of 'After Henry' from 1992. It mentioned which families controlled certain major kinds of businesses, I can't remember which. There was also huge talk later in the mid 90's of a giant supermarket being planned for East Harlem, but I don't know what happened. But any investigation of supermarkets in any of the 5 boroughs has to include the Mafia. I don't know to what degree the mob still runs what businesses, but they've been run out of South Street Seaport by Giuliani and much of their business in the Garment District was closed down by Spitzer's efforts a few years ago. It's always interesting the way they operate in the shadows--mansions in Malba, Queens, but no dominant presence, except for the occasional don like Giancana and his association with Kennedy (Judith Exner, etc.) appearing in various circles. But the illegality (I don't mean the ethics, of course) always means they don't control the Establishment wealth and neighborhoods: They'll get a Palm Steakhouse on the Upper East Side for schmoozing with people who find riffraff relaxing, but they then generally are marginalized to suburbia. I imagine 'the sopranos' was right to locate them in the period of production in parts of smaller burgs where they can still hold some sway--in Queens, in the last year, in a very identifiably Mafia-controlled neighborhood, with nudie places very much like the Bada Bing, certain restaurants I knew to be Mafia-owned (down to waiters volunatarily imitating Don Corleone) closed.

Also interesting about the rural produce thing: When I spent one summer in Alabama, the smaller, more rural towns had by far the worst fruits and vegetables, except at those roadside stands, which always have just-picked things and so you get either the freshest produce on the one hand or limp lettuce and anemic tomatoes in plastic on the other.

CR

In Europe right now, and, yes, god, every time over here makes more clear that the dinginess at home isn't just an exceptional, ideosyncratic case limited to the place that you live and its hard times, but a structural issue. The enormous public sector payrolls over here - the second transit worker on the street car to sell tickets and answer questions... And, above all (and more pertinent to your post) the fact that people can make a go of it running small, proud little businesses - nice little groceries that aren't simply mobbed-up crapholes to bleed the poor of their last pennies. They can, of course, because there is so much less overhead - the public transit / urban design keeps people shopping in their neighborhoods, there's no worry about providing your own health insurance, etc etc...

Craig

Patrick, most grocery chains have volume marketing arrangements with distributors: hence, rather than getting local corn from down the road in season, the entire chain (across the province, state, country, whatever) will buy in corn from Mexico or whatever. If you have the free time, farmers markets always present better deals on produce than the grocery store. Indeed, some grocery stores - franchised ones especially - are prohibited from carrying local produce in favor of company supplied produce. Hence, it is no surprise that that the shit stores in the chain get the shit deliveries.

patrick j. mullins

Craig--that's very interesting. I didn't bring up my own neighborhood, which has such amazing food shops of literally every kind--perhaps more even than the wealthiest parts of the city--that it's almost embarassing. There is everything from the fruit stand guys on every corner, to being 3 blocks from the Farmer's Mkt. as you mentioned--to now even having the ordinary supermarkets well-stocked with fresh herbs and delicacies. There are also many gourmet stores, which, due to the first-rate ordinary Food Emporiums, Gristede's, etc., are needed maybe once a year at holiday time, for some particular ingredient. This area hasn't been poor for a long time, but parts of it have been becoming luxurious in the last 20 years, so that must explain it. You really can live on almost the cheapest imaginable excellent products--so that, in this case, the Farmer's Mkt., which is the only place with things just-picked that day, just seems expensive compared to the fruit stand people with 5 perfect bananas for a dollar. There are places where you can get 8 oz. of Colombian coffee for 99 cents, so I buy 20 at a time, and also 99-Cent Stores where you can get lots of foodstuffs for even less. Sometimes these unlikely things happen in the midst of expensive environments, and I don't understand all the reasons why it would work this way. We even ran a Burger King out of business because people didn't need it!

Adam Kotsko

There's a blog called the CTA Tattler that covers public transit issues in Chicago, where public transit is absolutely essential and chronically underfunded. There is a very vocal minority of commenters there who always blame the greedy unionized workers for the system's problems. That's the kind of thing that makes me think we'll never solve these problems in the US.

john buell

My apologies if this posts more than once. Not sure I hit the right button earlier today.

I am inclined to say that the modern US version of capitalism, where the state’s primary function is to enhance the position of the rich while leaving the rest of the population to fend to the tender mercies of the market, places some unexpected and unacknowledged burdens even on relatively wealthy Americans. The system is showing some signs of fraying at the core as well.

Wealth may not buy happiness, but at least private wealth ought to enhance one’s ability to travel, to obtain state of the art health care, and to rest secure in one’s home. Yet even before 9/11, immense wealth may have been losing some of its capacity to assure these goods. Indeed, the specter of terrorism may have inadvertently exposed growing gaps in a public sector vital to the security even of the wealthy. These deficiencies may constitute little reason to pity the wealthy, but they should encourage us to take a closer look at the motives for and defenses of the acquisition of wealth.

In an outstanding piece in the August 5, 2001 LA Times, Peter Gosselin commented that the boom of the last decade, unlike that of the fifties and sixties, left us with no “public monuments.” The earlier era brought the interstate highway system and universal phone service, but after the last decade of growth, “Americans are twice as likely to own a personal computer… But they're also more likely to run short of the power needed to operate it. They can purchase the most technologically advanced health care on Earth but face a rising risk of being unable to find an emergency room… They can buy Perrier but can't always get clean tap water.”

Gosselin’s focus on how the wealthy are now affected by these trends is distinctive. Years ago, The Nation Magazine reported that realtors in Los Angeles marketed properties based in part on the quality of the neighborhood’s air. Some parts of a metropolitan area still are more polluted than others, but smog now increasingly blankets whole regions. In addition, vacation hideaways frequented by the rich, like the island on which I live, Mount Desert Island, are at the end of the pipeline for noxious urban air. Summer has not even started and we have already had two air quality alerts. I wonder how many wealthy visitors to Acadia National Park will be unable to enjoy mid-afternoon tennis or golf during the days coastal Maine is under a smog alert this summer.

The search for paradise through private affluence and free markets has ended up tainting not only our air but even vacation travel as well. Suburban sprawl makes inter and intra city travel increasingly time consuming and dangerous. States now face the dual problem of ever more roads to maintain and a reluctance to fund the public sector. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that:” One-third of the nation's major roads are in poor or mediocre conditions," which contributes to "as many as 13,800 highway fatalities annually.” Even the wealth die in these.

Wealthy citizens have historically minimized delays and dangers by hopping on airplanes. The health of the ambient air on airplanes, however, has now become a concern. An adequate response to new epidemics may well depend on the resources and training of state level public health personnel. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration continues to oppose the Federal assistance needed if states, which face the greatest fiscal crisis since the Depression, are to avoid further massive cuts in many essential public services.

Even now, when injury or diseases strike in the course of travel, the wealthy may face unaccustomed challenges. They are not turned away from an emergency room because they lack health insurance, but emergency room capacity has itself often been downsized in response to the relentless pressure for profit maximization. Today’s New York Times includes an op ed that highlights how desperate overcrowded most emergency rooms have become, and increasingly our hospitals are closing emergency rooms in order not to have to serve those without insurance.

Wealth can mitigate every one of these problems, but it is hard to argue that the decay of such “public monuments” as quality medical centers, public transit, clean air, and pure water doesn’t take a toll even on the most affluent. Might not their quality of life improve with the tradeoff of a little more in taxation for improvement in public amenities? If the answer is yes, then one can only conclude that for some resistance to taxation and the public sector is rooted in something more than economics. Private affluence and freedom from any publicly imposed limits have become the core of personal identity and ends in themselves. Sadly, an obsession with these private liberties may trump even one of their best historic justifications, enhancing the quality of life.

khalid mir

John Buell, fantastic post.

I think this ties in with what some would call the 'end of politics' (though Jodi disagrees with this as far as I can understand).

The decline of public man (sennet's brilliant book) and public monuments reminds one that this is , perhaps, an age similar to Late Antiquity in its turning inward and private affluence.
(see the wonderful Peter Brown's World of Late Antiquity)

On the radio (Radio 4) I was listening to an interesting discussion of how this may be the first generation in any civilisation that doesn't leave behind any significant public monuments (increasingly images will be stored on compters). Perhaps this is not too surprising given the trends in creative destruction or, since Bauman has been mentioned, 'instant living'. Why should there be monuments when everything that is solid melts...

I think your last point is intriguing. Might I be provocative , though, and ask whether maybe it isn't , perhaps, this obsession with the quality of life that has led to (or at least been inextricably linked with) such an emphasis on such freedoms?

john buell

Khalid,

Thanks for your provocative comments. I have not read Richard Sennett's Fall of Public Man, but what I had in mind was not so much turn inward as as kind of hard identity politics among the wealthy, a sense that they and their way of life are God-given, complete, and not open to challenge and a politics of domination that reflects this. How this particular form of identity and politics came to emerge would then become a story of the breakdown of the post world war II/ New Deal consensus in US politics. That consensus had once provided a check upon the wealthy and had at least provoked some change in what I might label a kind of gilded age mentality. But that consensus that was itself insufficiently attentive to
its racial and gender limits and its catelogue of rights. When it broke down, the way was open for various forms of right wing fundamentalism and hard identity politics among the wealthy, which had always had some sway, to come to dominate again. But
I am afraid I am just thinking out loud now and will have to think some more about this.

khalid mir

Yes, you make a good point about the consensus John-along the lines of David Harvey in neo-liberalism or Kiely in Globalisation/anti-Globalisation.

I think there is a sense that "identity" politics (not just that of the rich) is itself a product of the de-politicisation that results from late capitalism. Perhaps "inwardness" or "virtual realities" is only one aspect of this. Hannah arendt has a wonderful phrase about genuine pleasure opening out into the world. What's shocking for me is how much modern pleasure ('freedom') is morphing into compulsions.

But where I differ with you, perhaps, is that the identity politcs is really "hard". In an age of liquid modernity I think the strongest tendencies are pushing to the idea that there is no such thing as identity or fixed nature (or essence, to use an older term). Everything is a blank slate. In some sense, then, the fundamentalisms are a reaction to that.. a looking for creature comfort, warmth.

but there's no going back to "the muddy centre" (wallace Stevens). It is also interesting that it is so rare for western politicans to talk about Fraternity (and to a lesser extent, equality) and continue to talk about freedom (negative liberty of the market).

I think these are related since how can one talk about community which is universal -what St. Paul would call "neither Greek nor Jew" and what we might call "neither east nor west"(and not particular identites) and still talk about individualism.

Just thinking out loud. Is this the old debate between Market and Republic (which in itself is, perhaps, the secualr version of the city of God vs city of Man)?

I like what you have to say about the re-emergence of the right-wing. It makes me think of the 'cultural contradictions of capitalism'.

Btw, was leafing through Bauman's liquid times yesterday and he makes the same point that you do about how the 'global elites' have no attachment to place (unlike the old patrons). The Gosselin article was excellent. Thanks.

Regards,

K.

rwilson

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't there a Tops Supermarket about a half mile up the road in Geneva? Why don't you consider a protest outside of Wegman's to promote the problems you have (I would make a bet you are not the only one who feels this way). Finally, you complain about the "prepared chickens"...sounds like a product of convenience which exists only because of capitalism.

This is just so classic. When things are cheap and easy i.e. Wal-Mart, the left complains that people aren't getting enough wages or benefits or a sweatshop is exploiting children. But, when those everyday conveniences that we take for granted are disrupted, there are cries that capitalism take advantages of those who feed it.

Jodi

Tops seems empty the few times I've entered it--few employees, few customers.

I don't think my consumer issues with Wegmans warrant a political protest; the political issue is neoliberalism, not Wegmans. Wegmans is an example from my life that I reflect on here to show that what seems to be an individual matter is more systemic.

In the past, Finger Lakers for peace has staged protests against the war across from Wegmans. Once, right after a protest I went in to Wegmans to get some cold medicine and a cup of copy. A manager told me to leave the store because I had a protest sign with me as I purchased the coffee. I was talking to someone and didn't move as quickly as he would like. So, he came up to me again with a physically imposing male employee and said that they would escort me out right now. They may have threated to call the police (but my memory might be trying to embellish the story).

I didn't say anything about capitalism taking advantage of anything here, so I don't get your point. Rather, I indicated a failure that can be understood as a failure in capitalism's own terms. So, really, the shoe is on the other foot: neoliberals claim that the market solves everything, is perfectly efficient, leads to the best distribution insofar as supply meets demand. But clearly this is false.

Wal-Mart is another matter altogether. They underpay their workers and encourage their workers to apply for food stamps. They lock in undocumented workers. They prevent their employees in the US (although not China and I think, but I may be wrong on this, not Canada) from unionizing. And, they destroy small towns, small stores, by using their mass purchasing power to undercut local merchants. The threat of a super Wal-Mart in Geneva led to the demise of several businesses (including my favorite scrapbooking store). The protests so far have delayed the store (which will also kill Tops). One effective strategy has emphasizing zoning, the traffic problems, the dangerous parking lot, and the environmental problems created by the run off from the parking lot.

Craig

Regarding Canada: unionized Wal-Marts (in Quebec) were shut down by the company citing unprofitability. Chances are there is a case before the courts.

rwilson

Jodi,

It seems like there is a disconnect in your thoughts. Capitalism is efficient, whether it is perfectly efficient is another issue of itself (I don't beleive that markets are even close to being perfectly efficient, hence why there is money to be made (or lost) in the stock market). Effecient and immediate are two seperate ideas.
Just like a compnay cannot make the decision to open a new store and then physically build that store the next day, it takes time for markets to disgest information and allocate accordingly.

A great example of this was Krispy Kreme donuts. For about two years they were the hottest thing going. New franchises showed up everywhere, but at the same time America started to re-embrace the Atkins diet. Bottom line donuts and a low carb diet do not mix...bummer. While sales at store crawled to a halt and the hyper expansion was deemed a failure, many of the stores stayed open far longer than one would expect, due to the market conditions.

A grocery store is tough especially because, expect for Wal-Mart they are one of the few remaining regional companies in the US. You even said it yourself, Tops is usually empty which would indicate that the people have spoken and prefer Wegmans.

Jodi

Ryan, my point, again, involves what capitalism delivers and where. It does not deliver well to poor people. It has problems in rural environments and in many inner city environments.

Despite Wegman's accumulation of customer information (with the Wegmans cards) and a long term practice of having prepared chickens (over 10 years, and it used to be more efficient in judging and meeting demand), it messes this up with ever greater frequency. Moreover, its practices as a large chain in low population density area create problems for the provision of many foods (they run out of things more frequently than they used to; I attribute this in part to a change in large scale purchasing practices that they instituted several years ago). Yet, it contributed to driving other markets here (Monaco's used to be a very nice market before it became a crappy store and then went out of businnes) out of business (not to mention the elimination of 2 or 3 blocks of housing).

That Tops is empty may not mean people prefer Tops--as I understand it, farm families have shopped at Tops over the last 10-15 years. They may be going to the super Wal-Mart in Canandaigua now (the prediction is that one in Geneva will be the final death knell for Tops). These families may also have cut down on their purchasing. And, they may have moved--this area has had population decline, but I don't know the numbers.

One of the problems in rural areas, particularly with regard to major provisioning, is that there is actually not a lot of choice, so it doesn't make sense to say that 'the people have spoken.' It could be that 'the people' haven't said much more than 'where can we get some food?' It happens, for example, that both Wegmans and Tops may be out of a certain item (pork shoulder, say, or Greek seasoning). For someone who has planned dinner, this can create a problem--drive to Canadaigua? Try to change dinner plans? This might sound trivial, but for a single parent, who works full time, and has school age kids that have extracurricular activities, it can be quite a nuisance, adding to the stress of everyday life.

rwilson

I bet theres a lot of Greek seasoning in North Korea.

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