Lean In Dissent

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist . Bookmark the permalink.

Though I’m radio silent, this email was important:

After reading your piece, I thought you may be interested in this article [from Dissent]. I doubt you’ll agree with everything, but certainly an interesting / similar take to yours on Lean In:

Where other feminists focus on articulating the amount of free or underpaid labor that women do, Sandberg places a priceless value on labor itself and encourages more of it, whether paid, unpaid, or poorly paid.
The loser in the Lean In vision of work isn’t one version of feminism or another […] but uncapitalized, unmonetized life itself. Just as Facebook relies on users to faithfully upload their data to drive site growth, Facebook relies on its employees to devote ever greater time to growing Facebook’s empire.
Sandberg is betting that for some women, as for herself, the pursuit of corporate power is desirable, and that many women will ramp up their labor ever further in hopes that one day they, too, will be “in.” And whether or not those women make it, the companies they work for will profit by their unceasing labor.

The quote seems right, but there’s an important difference between my article and Dissent’s, I am not splitting hairs, it’s fundamental.

The problem is that Dissent is just as fooled as everyone else is in thinking that Sandberg’s book is interesting/relevant in itself, “the fact that she is COO of Facebook is a sufficient resume to speak on women’s issues,” and so they think they need to address what Sandberg says…. because Sandberg said it. But that’s the trick. We don’t parse out what the (female) CEO of General Dynamics says, no one writes articles about her, because what she says can’t be used to promote the system, what Phebe Novakovic believes won’t motivate a future 9-5er to work overtime: she’s not pretty enough, she works in explosions, she’s not aspirational. That’s why there is no Time Magazine spread on her, even though she rules the world. To paraphrase the great Marshall McLuhan, the messenger isn’t the message, and the message isn’t the message. The medium is the message, properly massaged.

The crucial point is a meta one: Sandberg herself is being used in exactly the way Dissent says she is getting other women to be used. Whatever Sandberg believes she is doing, the system is using her as a battery (to get women to work harder, for less money, in exchange for the trappings of power– fame, titles, prestige.) If we believe Sandberg is earnestly trying to advance women in the workplace, then the system is using her (comparatively) cheap labor for the purpose of enhancing that very system, not changing it.

To illustrate why Dissent has missed the point, let’s take Dissent’s thesis and summarize it in one sentence: “Sandberg is a lunatic because she is asking women to work harder for the system, in exchange for titles/prestige/the trappings of power.” Not only is this thesis wrong, it is a defense against change, because if you don’t agree with Sandberg’s message, you find fault only with Sandberg. Meanwhile, the system proceeds unmolested.

I realize that “the system” is a nebulous term relying on an even more nebulous “unconscious”, lacking clear definition, so I’m going to try and define it. First, start with a single individual, and eliminate value words like “purpose” and “unintended consequences.” If a guy cheats on his girlfriend in a way that likely could get him caught, one might say, “he wants to get caught.”

Now  add a few more individuals. I want an ipad, but I can’t afford the $10000 it would cost to make it in America AND generate to Apple the same nominal profit of $300/ipad, so then the ipad has to be made in China with cheaper labor. So while one can say, “the consumer wants an ipad,” and “Apple wants $300 in profit per ipad”  the sum of those wants is “the system”:  “The system wants cheap Chinese labor.”  The system doesn’t want it because it’s awesome, it wants it because it added up the wants.

To be clear, the fact that ipad consumers don’t “want” cheap Chinese labor is irrelevant. All of their choices want cheap Chinese labor. You can say the same about renewable energies, something that everyone says they “want,” yet all of their choices sum up to the system’s want: the system wants to protect the oil industry. The CEO of ExxonMobil isn’t to blame, you are.

To go back to Sandberg, if the system wants cheap female labor, how would we change the system? Only by wanting different things. Simply, if the majority of women wanted to work less, that would be the game. But the majority of women do want to work less, but they also want to buy X, Y, Z aspirational products, and they want X,Y,Z way more then they want to work less. If you sum up those “wants,” and add in the wants of Nordstrom’s, Nine West, Whole Foods, Visa and Mastercard, etc, and throw in what the media wants, then it is technically correct to say: the system wants women to become batteries.

The final twist to this otherwise simple addition is that what you want is often taught to you by that very system.  For example, in running through the above, what you didn’t say was, “maybe I don’t want an ipad.”  That thought cannot occur to you…. because the system wants it.  Try saying this to your friends and see what happens: “I’m not interested in a career, I just want to get married and have kids.”

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11 Responses to Lean In Dissent

  1. JohnJ says:

    I read this yesterday and mulled it over at work today. I understand there is an ever-forthcoming book that will hopefully go into more depth, but I thought, since you went to the time and trouble of blogging this, that you might be interested in the thoughts and questions that occurred to me. When the book is finally available, these are the ideas I look forward to learning most about. I’m sure the answers are too complex for a blog or blog comment, though.

    If “the system” is defined as the aggregation of wants, I can understand how other people’s wants and my wants combine to encourage me to satisfy other people’s wants in the pursuit of my wants. (If I want Jimmy’s X, I can trade my Y for Billy’s Z, and then trade that Z for Jimmy’s X.) But I don’t really understand the mechanism by which their wants act as incentives to encourage me to want more so that I will then do more to satisfy their wants. I believe this is your argument about how we are all encouraged into consumerism. But it seems to me that people’s wants are more often a result of seeing what others have, and are not a result specifically of other people’s wants. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have poverty. Poor people have wants too. If there were a feedback effect of the kind you describe, I would expect society to be far more consumerist than it actually is. There are a lot of places around the world where people actually tend to be very happy with what they have. http://is.gd/cXRhx0

    I think there has been some conflation of the term “system”. You used to use the term to refer to something that discourages change. I interpreted that to mean the system that exists within each of us, that rationalizes things as not being our fault, which negated in our minds the need for change. “What happened wasn’t my fault, therefore I don’t need to change.” This I could easily comprehend, and I could recognize this within myself. I liked defining it this way because it felt very empowering to me. I could do something about that thought process. It was my thought process and I could change it. But now… what am I supposed to do about what other people want?

    Because you’re talking about more than just telling me not to let other people define what will make me happy. Telling me that I can choose what makes me happy is one thing. If you were just making selfishness into a virtue, I’d be totally cool with it. You said before that the point was to get people to take responsibility for their decisions. But letting people be free to decide what they want for themselves won’t work. In other places, you have said that you believe people need less freedom. By that, I think you mean this: http://is.gd/WS3cHf If that’s the case, I believe you are wrong.

    My concern would be the use of the rationalization against change to blame consumerism on “society”. In the attempt to blame society for consumerism, it’d be easy for any one individual to deny personal responsibility. If you start feeding into that, well… that’d be just what the system would want you to do, wouldn’t it?

  2. kpmarlo says:

    I can’t speak for TLP but here’s what I understand. He doesn’t seem to be blaming consumerism on society over the individual (” The CEO of ExxonMobil isn’t to blame, you are.”), he seems to be saying that your wants, plus the wants of every single person, including the people running corporations (summarized by “Apple” or “ExxonMobil”, these are composed of a lot of people), the wants of all of those people are added up to make up what “the system” wants. Other people’s wants do encourage you to want more. Apple wants you to want an iPad because the point of Apple is to sell its products, so it will encourage you through marketing to want an iPad, it’s your decision whether you get one or not. Get one and you’re supporting Apple, so Apple will have the resources to keep marketing going to continue encouraging you to want its products. Don’t buy an iPad, Apple will sell you something else, something it can successfully market to you.

    Also, by showing the Louis clip and talking about TLP’s comment that people need less freedom, what did you mean? It seems that you’re saying TLP might’ve meant that we need less technology, to revert to an era when we had less choices. Let me know if I’m not understanding correctly, but if I am, I will say I don’t think that’s what he meant. I think he meant people would possibly be happier if they chose a path in life and stuck to it, forced themselves to follow through with it regardless of distractions and whatever other things they like along the way. For instance, if you like medicine and law and you’re funny, well, pick one, follow it through (if you’re trying to be a full time comedian while also trying to get through med school while keeping law school I’m your mind, you might not get good at any of those, thus you might not feel fulfilled by any of those). That doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor and be a comedian, but force yourself to give everything to each of those things. If you can’t do that, choose one and stick to it.

    • JohnJ says:

      TLP is vague at times, usually, I think, as a result of attempting to be mysterious and aloof. S/he says that the system is “simple addition” of everyone’s wants. But to go from that to “Whatever Sandberg believes she is doing, the system is using her[.]” is quite a leap. She is acting because everyone else, in the aggregate, wants her to so act. She has her wants, and “the system (of everyone else’s wants)” gives her some of what she wants in exchange for giving the system what it wants.

      But the system is also encouraging her to want what the system wants her to want, which is what the system has to offer. This both encourages change (“enhanc[ement]”) and discourages change (other than “enhanc[ement]”) by selling aspirational products. The system is “selling” identity in exchange for helping the system to sell identity.

      I’m not disagreeing that it works this way. I can’t really disagree or agree until I understand the argument, and I don’t understand why it works this way.

      • TheCoconutChef says:

        But to go from that to “Whatever Sandberg believes she is doing, the system is using her[.]” is quite a leap.

        It’s not.

        Within Alone’s logic, it immediately follows that the sum vector of everybody else’s desire render Sandberg’s irrelevant. She’s selected, interviewed, packaged, framed, edited, bought, by many people who aren’t her, do these things for their reasons irrespective of want her intent may be.

        I can’t really disagree or agree until I understand the argument, and I don’t understand why it works this way.

        The superficial answer seems to be protection against change. If we define the system as the machine whereby wants are processed (hello, pleasure principle) then its job gets to be to maximize the satisfaction of those wants.

        But there is nothing to say that any two of those desire cannot be contradictory, whence the only way to satisfy both of them — which is impossible — is to trick one of them into believing that it got satisfied (the one we want less ie. woman with power).

        But in order for the trick to work we have to not see it, whence unconscious. This would be why terrible advices given to woman has to come from a “successful” woman.

        Imagine Don Drapper going “Ladies, the way toward a successful career is to choose your husband well.”

        • TheCoconutChef says:

          I’m thinking of Hilary Clinton for no reason at all right now.

        • Guy Fox says:

          She’s selected, … packaged, framed, edited, bought, by many people who aren’t her, do these things for their reasons irrespective of want [sic] her intent may be.

          Sure. Why not consider it a selection mechanism? I think what’s itching JohnJ might be the lack of a deliberate will anywhere in there, but you could consider it like life: variation, selection, reproduction. But it might just be that the semiotics of society no longer allow for much meaningful variation, so you get one type dominating everything.

          Before I copy and paste a relevant rant I directed at a friend recently on this subject, let me remind, say, that some other (former) site regulars and I have a site going to discuss exactly this sort of thing, and we welcome your submissions. Check us out.

          So here’s the rant:
          As for ‘the system’, economists have a great term that they often misunderestimate, which is a word I use literally. It’s ‘the tyranny of small decisions’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranny_of_small_decisions#Earlier_references_to_the_idea). You care about the environment, but you forgot your travel mug at home, so you’ll take the disposable cup and sleeve for your Grande *this time*. You know about the media echo chamber, but you can’t really listen to FoxNews because you cannot accept that anybody could take it seriously. You know that advertising objectifies women, and you know that all the models are airbrushed anyway, but your head always turns when you walk by the Victoria’s Secret billboard. You know that everything you can buy at the supermarket is from Monsanto, Kraft, and 3M, and you hate them all, but those funny detergent nuts never gets your whites whiter than white, and you really love mountain grove scent. Oh, and your flannel-shirted neighbour doesn’t know any of this and acts in the world without the guilt, which isn’t much better. Multiply this by the 1 000 000 000 who live this way and the 6 000 000 000 who aspire to it (though TLP only considers different classes in the USA, with race usually proxying for class), and you get the world as we know it, which is what TLP means by ‘sum the vectors’. The system is the world we allow ourselves to live in. It consists of images that we paint and that do not correlate with reality, and many know this but won’t do anything about it. So how does the individual lose? First, the individual will loses. You know you should be better, but since the system gives you a bye with disposable cups, irreplaceable mountain grove scent, and fake, painted women who are paid and proud to be objectified, you fail painlessly. Second, real people with real biographies get screwed. Everybody who pays attention knows that SSI is terrible, and many aren’t even paying attention, but nobody feels impelled to change anything because it’s just bearable enough for those suffering and just cheap enough for those paying. The benefactors’ conscience gets a bye and their outrage, which the popular narrative feeds, insulates them against guilt. Meanwhile, you get kids sleeping and eating with cockroaches. Everybody knows that people in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Angola, inter alia have it rough and that resource income insulates their governments from having to change, and consuming less energy and synthetic materials would change something. But the bus is for chumps and until *they* sell me fresh potato chips in a paper bag that I can store for 6 months, I’ll stick to Doritos in plastic, thanks. Meanwhile, people are being stoned and starved while riches are flowing in the pipeline just outside of town. Yes, it’s madness. You must be new here.

          • operator says:

            Check us out.

            Spamming links to your little crapfest around, are you?

            Put ‘em away – nobody wants to see that.

            Would rather have something awesome to read every four or five months than have to slog through crap every other day or – worse – write something.

    • Or says:

      I think the problem with freedom is if you’ve never learned how to use the freedom you already have, more freedom has negative marginal value. It just takes up space in the garage and turns you into a hoarder.

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  4. Zo says:

    But the most trenchant, important thing TLE writes is: “The problem is that Dissent is just as fooled as everyone else is in thinking that Sandberg’s book is interesting/relevant in itself… “the fact that she is COO of Facebook is a sufficient resume to speak on women’s issues …” and though this just begins his/her argument, it names the utter falseness of most all this however-amorphous “system” (which I think is just shorthand for, read Marx and maybe C. Wright Mills.) That which is so rarely named, anymore, and is related to the rise of the monied internet. Sheryl could not be less interesting, or, apparently, more self-involved; she tweeted after the SFO plane crash that she was okay–but she was on a different flight! These people know fuck-all, and publish that fact all the time now. Where the hell is authenticity, authority, adulthood, truth?

  5. johnterencejr says:

    Yes, it’s madness. You must be new here.

    Ha. I love this. Great rant, hear hear.

    Late to the party, don’t know if anyone’s still up but I do think that what JohnJ is saying about the “desire of the Other” deserves to be addressed.

    It’s the circular bit at the end about how the system is also always teaching/informing participants how/what to desire that really opens up a theoretical can of worms, and I think the most useful way of trying to understand the whole cumbersome concept is as a decentered structure.

    Zizek talks a lot about this, so if you’re familiar or adventurous you can check out The Interpassive Subject. I’m tempted to pull a lengthy quote out instead of trying to articulate it, but what the hell.

    The difficult question JohnJ seems to have raised is how the desire of the Other (e.g., “The system desires cheap Chinese labor: it doesn’t desire it because it’s awesome, it desire’s it because it added up the wants”) gets conflated with my own desire. What Zizek does really effectively, I think, is (in typical pirate fashion) to show how the question is already wrong. See, the assumption is the ME, as though I have desires, authentic ones, an authentic self. The bait and switch isn’t concocted by anyone, though — and this is why Marx is always playing in the background of TLP’s thought — it’s unconsciously constructed by everyone at the point-of-contact with the material world: the fetish. Fetishism — the deep, ideological kind, the narcissistic kind — is the “vanishing mediator” that conceals not some secret, but only that there is no secret. The cake is a lie.