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  • Matt Drabek
  • August 02, 2019 02:52:20 PM

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Wherein an Iowan writes about leftist politics, philosophy, and maybe baseball.

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Winter Reading List (2020)

I did a summer reading list about 6 months ago. In fact, I did two of them. Let’s try a winter reading list! And this time I’ll combine fiction and non-fiction into a single list. Here’s what I’ve been reading this winter, along with an upcoming book or two. Sarah Broom – The Yellow House … Continue reading "Winter Reading List (2020)" The post Winter Reading List (2020) appeared first on Base and...

I did a summer reading list about 6 months ago. In fact, I did two of them. Let’s try a winter reading list! And this time I’ll combine fiction and non-fiction into a single list. Here’s what I’ve been reading this winter, along with an upcoming book or two.

Sarah Broom – The Yellow House

The first thing to say about this is that there’s a lot of book here. Not in terms of length, but in terms of range of topics and emotional content. Broom’s memoir is about her family’s house in New Orleans. But it’s about much more: residential segregation, family history, Hurricane Katrina, and returning home. I didn’t really expect this book to become my biggest winter reading list challenge, but there I was. I read it shortly before flying home for Christmas, or at least to a place that was home when I was a kid. And this year, the trip came about a month after the death of my grandmother, who was a huge part of my life back in those days. Broom’s story is probably more complicated and interesting than mine, but it’s nice to have motivation to think about the place and people of ‘home’.

Cory Doctorow – Radicalized

This is less a book than a collection of four novellas around a common theme. What’s the theme? Doctorow focuses on tech dystopias. The topic’s been on my mind lately, though my focus is more on the dystopian potential of the present. Doctorow spins fantastic tales of the near future. The strength of these stories is that they’re both fantastical and plausible. He hits just closely enough to the surveillance state, the oppressive immigration system, racism, et al. that these stories become believable.

Daniel Immerwahr – How to Hide an Empire

Immerwahr bills this book as a ‘territorial history’ of the ‘Greater United States.’ Most people think about US history – and even US empire – in terms of the continental 48 states plus overseas conflicts. But Immerwahr draws attention to the US’s long history of direct colonization of overseas territories, places like the Philippines, Hawai’i, Guam, et al. He thinks political analysis in the US ignores these places at the peril of good interpretive work. The book has gotten a mixed reception on the political left. But I think it’s worth a winter reading list read as long as you view it as a directed and limited history.

Erik Olin Wright – Understanding Class

This is an excellent introduction to the study of class. Wright’s magic is applying Marxist principles to the 21st century in a way that doesn’t require understanding Marx to understand class. It’s not easy to do. Not that there’s anything wrong with understanding Marx. If you want to do that, read David Harvey. But if you want to read about class and varying perspectives on class – from class stratification approaches to Weberian approaches to Marxist ones – read this book. The book isn’t without its faults. I think Wright wrongly attributes to Marx a normative theory, and his writing is sometimes clunky in ways we might expect of a good academic sociologist. But his writing is also impeccably clear…in ways we might expect of a good academic sociologist.

Michael Walzer – A Foreign Policy for the Left

I suspect this is the most polarizing book on my list. Walzer’s the longtime editor of Dissent, an older leftist magazine representing a viewpoint associated with the ‘right wing’ of leftist movements. He starts his book with what I think is an excellent point: there’s no real leftist consensus on foreign policy, even at very basic levels. And so, Walzer proposes a consensus. While I think the project is a noble one, I don’t think Walzer’s consensus works. His views – pro-democracy, pro-global fair trade, pro-Israel, pro-war in cases like Kosovo and Afghanistan, anti-war in cases like Iraq or Iran – are difficult to disentangle from standard liberal or progressive ones. There’s nothing discernibly leftist about this attempted leftist foreign policy consensus.

Winter Reading List Bonus: Upcoming Books

So, what’s next on the winter reading list? Here’s what I’ve got in the pile.

Nathan J. Robinson – Why You Should Be a Socialist

You’ve probably heard of Robinson as the editor of Current Affairs. Or maybe you haven’t. Whatever. Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs. In this case, the ‘pile’ is quite literal. I’ve got a pile of books to read sitting next to me as I write this post. And this book is on the top of it. I’m interested in what he has to say by way of an argument for socialism. Also, I’m interested in how his approach contrasts to others.

James S.A. Corey – Unnamed Final Novel

I’ve been reading the books from The Expanse series for several years now. And I’m awaiting the final novel, which is supposed to come out later this year. As yet, the date and title are unannounced. I’m still waiting. I’ll just watch the TV series while I wait.

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Using Identity as Political Currency

There’s a certain line of thought out there in the political ether. The idea goes something like this. People use their identity to take political action, win offices, pass legislation, steer conversations, or direct movements. Or, to put it more simply, they use identity as political currency. Now, when people say this, they often speak … Continue reading "Using Identity as Political Currency" The post Using Identity as Political Currency appeared first on Base and...

There’s a certain line of thought out there in the political ether. The idea goes something like this. People use their identity to take political action, win offices, pass legislation, steer conversations, or direct movements. Or, to put it more simply, they use identity as political currency.

Now, when people say this, they often speak ominously or conspiratorially. By ‘people’ here, they have in mind members of marginalized groups. They think those sorts of people (i.e., others) use their identity as political currency. That’s something we should keep at the back of our minds, because people (and here I mean ‘white people, usually white men’) tend to overlook cases where members of their own group do things like this.

So…what is it to use identity as political currency? How’s it done? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or both/neither?

Political Currency

I’m thinking about political currency pretty broadly here. But mostly what I have in mind is political capital. That term refers to the building of resources or power within political contexts (e.g., the resources or power needed to do things while holding political office, among other examples).

As an intro to these things, the wikipedia article I linked in the last paragraph does the job well enough. But people love drawing distinctions. Especially me. You don’t make it through a Philosophy PhD program without loving distinctions. What kind of distinctions? Often in these conversations, distinctions among sources of political currency. Let’s say, among others, one’s reputation versus one’s record in office.

But you don’t often see identity listed as a source. At least not directly. Perhaps identity lurks behind some discussions about a politician’s reputation. Or perhaps even their political experiences. But I want to look at it directly. How is identity a more direct source of political currency?

Six Ways People Use Identity as Political Currency

How do people use identity as political currency? I’ve charted out six ways. Are they exhaustive? Probably not. But they’re things I’ve noticed and find interesting. I think they’re a good starting point.

Before I get to the six ways, I want to reiterate the point I made at the outset. Lots of Americans, mostly white Americans, start from the premise that ‘identity’ issues apply only to members of marginalized groups. But let’s cut the shit. That isn’t true. Even identity politics in the US started as a defense of white identity. Plenty of others point this out. I wrote earlier on the book Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider, who makes the point clearly.

And the point applies well to using identity as political currency. Members of many identity groups do it, but whites did it first and in the worst ways. I’ll organize this post accordingly, from methods used most often by white men to methods used most often by members of other groups.

1. Asserting White Male Privilege

And so, here’s where we start. White guys using their white male identity as political currency to gain the short-term benefits of white male privilege. How does this happen? Whiteness and maleness open doors for lots of white guys. Even for white guys who aren’t otherwise qualified or who’d never be taken seriously if they weren’t white guys. Donald Trump is the recent and loudest example.

But, also, someone mention the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign? Oh, and where’s Beto?

I won’t say much else about this one, because I hope my readers already know a bit about white male privilege. The reason I’m writing about it now is that many of you might not think about white maleness as political currency. You should.

2. Conflating Race with Socioeconomic Status (SES)

We know lots of Americans use race as a proxy for SES (e.g., income, wealth, or education, as opposed to class). And that they do so to their own advantage, or at least their own short-term and/or perceived advantage. On some conceptions of white privilege, to provide whites with the ‘wages of whiteness’ is, in fact, its primary function. Some whites thus degrade non-whites – particularly black Americans – as poor to provide themselves with a mental boost. Applied by others, rather than self-applied, this conflation may lead to more obvious material benefits, e.g., jobs, school admissions, et al.

3. Pinkwashing, et al.

Party leaders are losing their grip on the nomination process. And actual voters are taking it away from them! Maybe even as recently as 5-10 years ago, it was ‘the party decides‘. But now, perhaps not so much. On the GOP side, Donald Trump won over the objections of…just about every party leader. Thus far, Democrats have kept a lid on it. How? One method: satisfying the left-most voters by pretending someone’s identity makes them more ‘progressive’. Thus, they assuage the base without impacting policy.

We saw a bit of this with Barack Obama in 2008. But it really burst out into the open with the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. Bernie Sanders and his supporters called Clinton the establishment candidate. Clinton and her supporters responded in many cases by pointing to her gender. The problem? The Clintonista response was a non-sequitur.

In the 2020 cycle, Pete Buttigieg presents an even more striking example. He’s one of the most conservative Democrats in the race, and I’ve argued he might be the worst candidate. However, many progressives like Buttigieg. Why? For one, he’s gay. His identity lends the appearance of bona fides without the fact of it. Of course, his identity isn’t the whole story. His apparent intelligence, along with a healthy dose of white male privilege, plays a role. But his sexual orientation does work here.

There’s at least tentative empirical evidence this strategy works. How? By playing on implicit biases of voters. There’s evidence that voters, when asked to identify the ideology of politicians, move politicians to the left merely for being a member of a marginalized group.

4. Excusing Bad Politicians

And then there’s the flip side of #3: when even supporters admit certain Democrats aren’t very good, but assert they would be good if only some state of affairs obtained. In this case, the state of affairs is the end of sexism/racism/et al. That is to say that certain Democrats would be more progressive if only voter prejudices (or GOP sexism or racism) weren’t holding them back. It’s these forces turning them into ‘establishment’ candidates.

Supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are notorious for doing this. Sometimes one just can’t ignore Obama or Clinton centrism. It’s too obvious to deny. And so, they justify centrism by pretending it’s not a product of the real Obama or Clinton, only the Obama or Clinton that racism or sexism generates. Sometimes Democrats pepper a bit of this into a broader narrative aligning more closely with #3 above. Rebecca Traister played it this way in New York magazine. At other times they use it in the context of concern trolling Obama or Clinton rivals (in this particular case, the author of said concern trolling, Jessica Valenti, reportedly did it after consulting with the Clinton campaign). But we can discern the basic move in many contexts.

5. De-legitimizing Dissent

Here’s where we have more of a break. The first two ways of using identity as political currency are practiced mostly by straight white men, and the second two are practiced by a wide range of people. But these final two ways are mostly in the realm of members of marginalized groups.

Sometimes people use their marginalized identity as a shield to batter others. In some cases, it’s just explicit physical abuse. And so,  we have cases where people justify physical violence against their partner because they’re ‘more oppressed’ than their partner. If we think about it for even a second, these cases ought to be clear enough and easy to condemn.

But I think there are more difficult, more common, and therefore probably more pernicious cases. For example, cases where people use identity language to influence, manipulate, or gerrymander conversations in such a way that opponents simply can’t be taken seriously. Or that opponents are desirable, wrong, or oppressive simply by definition because of who they are.

It’s tough to recognize this. But when you push at a case, typically the argument  reduces to something like: “I’m a member of [Group X] or have gone through [Experience Y], and therefore if you disagree with [a claim that the person attributes to their identity or experience, but is actually a factual claim that’s true or false independently from one person’s identity or experience], you’re [a rape apologist, an awful person, oppressive, etc.].”

As a philosopher, I find these cases particularly frustrating because they’re almost always informal logical fallacies of one kind or another. And people employ these fallacies to shut down important discussion.

6. Exploiting White Liberal Guilt

And now for a contrast. I take this one much more light-heartedly. What I have in mind here is things like corporate diversity seminars, workshops or lectures at businesses, diversity Ted Talks, et al. Due to various facts about corporate politics, members of marginalized groups give these lectures to almost always white, sometimes male audiences. But what happens here is that trainers, lecturers, etc. charge money that people pay due to white liberal guilt.

Do these seminars accomplish anything? Probably not much. Are they kind of a low-level scam to transfer money from businesses to diversity consultants and lecturers? Sometimes. But why should I get upset about that? If companies or wealthy people want to spend their money on these events, I suppose we should let them. And if a few members of marginalized groups benefit from the wealth transfer, I guess that’s good.

Let’s just not assign more political merit to these events than they warrant. And, really, it’s unclear whether this is a matter of using identity as political currency at all. That is to say, the political currency element is sometimes absent, replaced more directly by monetary currency.

What Do These Things Have in Common?

Way back when I founded this blog, I distinguished between identitarianism and identity politics. Where might this post stand in relation to that post?

I guess it’s complicated. If you look at the list above, these actions are often rather individualistic. When people do these things, they benefit themselves first, and their groups only second, if at all. And so, I wouldn’t really put any of this stuff in the ‘identity politics’ box. If it’s in any box, it’s in the identitarian one.

Consequently, I might finish with a contrast. Let’s talk about the example of call-out culture. In its original form, the call-out was an emergency actions to prevent online abuse. That’s it. On its own, and in this form, it wasn’t about political currency at all. Nor was it really even about gaining anything for anyone. Just stopping abuse.

Paired with an educational program and/or broader movement, we might use the call-out as a part of a worthwhile program of identity politics. And embedded in a broader left-wing movement, it might be part of something much more ambitious. None of this involves using identity as political currency. At least nothing like what I catalog above.

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The End of Forgetting

I recently read Kate Eichhorn’s book The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media. In fact, I picked it up while I was at the 4S conference in New Orleans. It seemed to offer the best of science studies, namely careful analytical work around important issues in science and technology. Good stuff. I’m curious … Continue reading "The End of Forgetting" The post The End of Forgetting appeared first on Base and...

I recently read Kate Eichhorn’s book The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media. In fact, I picked it up while I was at the 4S conference in New Orleans. It seemed to offer the best of science studies, namely careful analytical work around important issues in science and technology. Good stuff.

I’m curious about the effects of social media on childhood. I’ve seen plenty of evidence social media changes – and perhaps distorts – childhood. What kind of evidence? Young people carefully curating their social media profiles, grandstanding or engaging in other attention-seeking behavior online, using temporary and/or anonymous chat apps, and propagating oddly insular and distorted views about most Americans.

The End of Forgetting appealed to me for another reason. I’m 36 years old. Born in 1983, graduated high school in 2001, and graduated college in 2005. I grew up in a rural area, and we didn’t have high speed Internet until almost all the rest of the US already had it. That’s a long way of saying I’m one of the final Americans to have a childhood completely free of social media and almost totally free of the Internet. I also don’t have children. This means I have no direct experience of growing up with social media. None.

I don’t know much about Kate Einhhorn, but I don’t think she grew up with social media, either. Maybe she had the same curiosity.

The End of Forgetting

Here’s Eichhorn’s view. Prior to the digital age, we had more freedom to shed our past. Maybe we did something dumb or embarrassing 20 years ago. Back then, we could do something about it. What was that? One, we could change who we interacted with. But, two, the media we had available were things we could delete or destroy. We can collect and destroy physical photos. And VHS tapes, too, if they even still work on our current media players.

The digital age isn’t like that. Childhood perpetually haunts us because we can’t erase it and start over. And not only that, but we can’t really move beyond it at all. Even when there’s nothing especially bad about it. We can’t grow through previously normal life stages because of the consistent narrative the digital age provides for us.

Eichhorn asserts that forgetting is a normal part of growing up, and it’s a part young people have now lost. Consequently, they can’t grow up. And I think Eichhorn has some good reasons to assert these things.

The End of Growing Up

The End of Forgetting provides us with a thesis that’s ultimately about a new state of arrested development. Our past haunts us in ways it simply couldn’t before the late 1990s or early 2000s. One, parents ubiquitously share images and videos of their children from the moment of birth. Granted, that’s not totally unique. It happened with camcorders and VHS. But in 2020, it’s almost impossible to opt out of this system in any way and at any stage of life. That which is on Facebook will perpetually exist in digital form. This limits our ability to do lots of things, from preventing bullying to changing our identities to growing into better versions of ourselves.

Two, social media limits our choices about how much of our lives to take with us as we become adults. 30 years ago – and even more so 50 years ago – we had far more control over who contacted us. We could decide to list our number in the phone book or not to list it. We could answer it, not answer it, or take it off the hook. And we could pack up our bags and leave town, leaving people behind we didn’t want to see. Social media makes all these things more difficult. And marginalized groups, particularly LGBTQ youth, feel the most negative effects.

The Nature of Perpetual Childhood

So, while I was reading The End of Forgetting, I thought about the nature of perpetual childhood. If that’s the state of today’s youth, what does it look like? What does its future look like? How does it impact our cultural forms, educational systems, political organization, economic resources, et al.? Does it bear any relationship, with, say new ways of organizing relationships or new ways of working?

Answering these questions would also help us evaluate the book’s core thesis. I think ‘the end of forgetting’ is a very compelling way to look at social media’s impact. But while constraining our growth and identity formation in some ways, social media opens these things up in others. It tethers us to the past while helping us find people more like ourselves. And, consequently, it’s possible the latter outweighs the former. If so, maybe social media opens up new – albeit different, and sometimes for the worse – ways to grow up.

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Who Can Win the Democratic Nomination?

We’re at the final debate before the primaries begin. At this point, our question is no longer ‘who’s in the race, and what are they saying?’. Rather, it’s ‘who can still win the Democratic nomination?’. The time for candidates to make their case is mostly over, and the time to start voting is near. The … Continue reading "Who Can Win the Democratic Nomination?" The post Who Can Win the Democratic Nomination? appeared first on Base and...

We’re at the final debate before the primaries begin. At this point, our question is no longer ‘who’s in the race, and what are they saying?’. Rather, it’s ‘who can still win the Democratic nomination?’. The time for candidates to make their case is mostly over, and the time to start voting is near.

The Democrats started with about 25 candidates, and now they’re down to 13. 13! It still seems like too many for January 2020. Even now, I say it’s too early to predict the winner. But it’s not too early to start making some cuts. And so, I’ll start not with the question of who will win the Democratic nomination, but rather the question of who can win it. Among the 13 remaining candidates, which ones have a notably nonzero chance of victory?

The Criteria

Yeah, whatever. How do we know who can win? In a strict sense, we can’t. Sorry, but it’s not that easy. I’ll sketch out criteria, though, to make it easier. Here’s what I’ll use.

First, national polling. Which Democrats poll reasonably well across the country with likely primary voters and caucusgoers? By ‘reasonably’, let’s say about 5% or higher. In a race with lots of candidates, 5% counts as a good measure of significant levels of support. Any candidate hitting 5% nationally has at least some chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Second, early-state polling (i.e., mostly Iowa and New Hampshire, but also Nevada and South Carolina). Even if a candidate doesn’t poll well nationally, they might poll well in one of the first four. A strong performance in, say, Iowa or New Hampshire could revive a weak campaign. Polling 5-7% in these states is a good marker of a potential surprise candidate.

Third, campaign donations. Candidates who don’t poll well could signal support with a large donor base or large donation levels. They could also signal support with donations that increase over time, even if the dollar amounts aren’t large.

Finally, I’ve listed these in order of importance. National polling is the best measure of a candidate’s support and likelihood of winning the nomination. A candidate who performs well overall could perform well anywhere. And donations, while signals of support, aren’t useful unless they translate into votes.

The Cuts

So, who’s cut? I’ll start with the candidates who do well on none of these criteria. That’s the easy part. 538 maps all these features pretty well, and so I’ll use their data as a major source. Here’s a list of candidates who don’t hit 5% nationally, don’t poll well in the early states, and don’t hit large enough numbers of donors to put themselves in the top 5 or 6: Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick.

None of those candidates will win. They’re cut. Our list of 13 is down to 9. But it gets tougher from here. Four candidates do well on some of the criteria, but not all of them: Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang. Let’s look at each and evaluate them in turn.

Borderline Cases

Bloomberg entered the race very late, but he’s polling reasonably well at the national level. Usually 5th place, and rarely worse than 7th. He doesn’t poll well in early states, but this is a part of a strategy to start on Super Tuesday. Probably a bad strategy. Just ask President Rudy Giuliani, who employed the strategy in 2008. He has no donors to speak of, but he’s putting a ton of his own money in the race. In the event there’s no clear leader or two-way race before Super Tuesday, he could compete. He’s in.

The Booker campaign, on the other hand, shows little sign of life. He has a decent donor base, but he’s polling in the low single-digits both nationally and in the early states. His polling is going down rather than up, and he’s routinely in 8th or worse place. He’s out.

Steyer polls badly at the national level, but decently in the early states. Why? He’s flooding the early states with TV and mail advertisements, and they’re buying him about 5-7% support there. He does decently with donors, and he’s pouring a ton of his own money into his campaign. In short, he looks more like Bloomberg than Booker. He’s in, but marginal.

Yang is the case I find most difficult to evaluate. He doesn’t consistently poll above 5% nationally or in early states. He has a small donor base, but it’s a very enthusiastic one. Yang polls in about 6th or 7th place, which is noticeably better than Booker. And his numbers are trending – if very slowly – in a positive direction. He’s in, but barely. Yang is by far the most marginal candidate who’s in.

A Note on Amy Klobuchar

O.K., I haven’t mentioned Amy Klobuchar at all. What gives? She’s in, and it’s not a tough decision. I once said Klobuchar probably needed for Biden to pass on the race for her to have much of a chance, and that’s still accurate. She’d benefit enormously from a Biden exit. But she’s doing well enough on the criteria to stay in the conversation. She doesn’t poll well at the national level, but she has a solid donor base and she polls well above her national levels in Iowa. With a strong performance in Iowa, she could compete.

So, Who Can Win the Democratic Nomination?

This leaves us with 8 candidates: Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang. Some of these candidates clearly have a better chance than others, but there’s a possible world in which any of them win.

First Tier

Here’s where I think they rank, in terms of likelihood of winning the Democratic nomination:

1. Joe Biden
2. Bernie Sanders
3. Elizabeth Warren
4. Pete Buttigieg

Biden and Sanders still lead. Biden polls in first place nationally, and he remains competitive enough in the early states to support his status as a (historically rather weak) front runner. Sanders polls second nationally and first or second in the early states. He’s way ahead of everyone in terms of donor bases. Warren polls much better than Buttigieg nationally, though Buttigieg polls better in early states. They’re pretty close.

Second Tier

There’s a big drop-off after the top four. Here’s where I see it.

5. Amy Klobuchar
6. Michael Bloomberg

Klobuchar and Bloomberg are close. Based on national polling, I’d give the edge to Bloomberg. But his ‘skip the early states’ strategy is foolish, and Klobuchar passes him on the strength of her polling in Iowa.

Third Tier

Honestly, I don’t think the last two have much chance of winning. But, again, I’m being cautious. Here’s the finish.

7. Tom Steyer
8. Andrew Yang

Could one of them win? I guess. But don’t bet on it. And there you have it: a list of who can win the Democratic nomination. What do you think? Amy mistakes/additions/subtractions/re-orderings?

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Coworking and the Precariat

Beware Silicon Valley and its tech dreams. But you (hopefully) already knew that. What else? Or, perhaps, what (aside from the obvious) falls under the Valley’s scope? For one, the eerily dystopian utopia of its Ted Talks and its free beer and free dinner in recently gentrified utopian spaces. And for another, the young, disaffected … Continue reading "Coworking and the Precariat" The post Coworking and the Precariat appeared first on Base and...

Beware Silicon Valley and its tech dreams. But you (hopefully) already knew that. What else? Or, perhaps, what (aside from the obvious) falls under the Valley’s scope? For one, the eerily dystopian utopia of its Ted Talks and its free beer and free dinner in recently gentrified utopian spaces. And for another, the young, disaffected men currently embracing Andrew Yang‘s UBI snake oil. Any discussion of coworking spaces starts here.

But it hardly ends here. What comes next?

What is Coworking?

Coworking sounds deceptively simple. People lack shared workspaces. Some of those people are business owners or freelancers. Others are scientists without a lab, desk jockeys without a desk, or home-based workers without a home office. They’re workers who lack the company of others they need to be happy and productive. And so, they have needs coworking satisfies.

That’s the story, anyway. Is it accurate? The story isn’t totally amiss. Coworking spaces materialized everywhere in major – sometimes even minor – cities through the 2000s and 2010s. If we visit those spaces, we’ll find those types of people. But we’ll find others, too. We’ll find people who escaped the comforting effluvia of the corporate office for the terrible freedom of precarity. We’ll find temp workers, part-timers, freelancers, and white-collar workers whose employers decided they didn’t merit a cubicle among the office’s dwindling supply.

Give it all a few more cycles of the corporate executive churn. Eventually we’ll find one who eliminates even more office space as a short-term cost-cutting measure. They’ll ride those savings to their next company, victory in hand, getting out before the negative fallout and failing up to their next job.

That’s how it’s done!


And so, productivity lives in the heart of the coworking space, or at least its rhetoric. The company takes care of business on one end, and the coworker uses their newfound space to take care of business on the other. And there’s a loftier aspect of this I’ve left out. Doesn’t it feel good to get more done? Doesn’t it help both the company and ourselves, the elusive ‘win-win’? Can’t we be more social, get more done, collaborate more effectively, network with others, and advance our careers via coworking?

We look busy when we’re coworking. Toiling away in modern parodies of industrial warehouses, making things in gentrified remnants of spaces where, as the story goes, Americans used to make things.

But let us not romanticize our industrial past. In that past, we made consumer products and a ‘middle class’. And we also made instruments of death, from tanks and bombs to cars. What did you think we were churning out of those Detroit factories? Despite the underappreciated downside, at least we made something tangible in those spaces. What do our gentrified warehouses make now? Perhaps project plans and workflows. Certainly software. We can’t fire these things at civilians, which is nice. But it’s oddly unfulfilling.

The Science of Productivity

Then the other shoe drops. The science of productivity gives us surprising little that justifies the corporate rhetoric. And, in fact, it’s worse than this. The science gives a beating to the open office concept, and coworking spaces operate according to that very concept.

What do studies say? We can look at the coverage of individual studies in the business press, or we can look at the lit reviews. They say these spaces suck in just about every way they can suck. These spaces lower productivity and reduce happiness and job satisfaction. They also fail to promote effective collaboration and networking.

Why? That’s less clear, but we can start by citing constant social pressure and surveillance. People react to pressure by shutting out others, by retreating to private space or emails. People prefer private offices to open offices. They even prefer home offices or cubicles.

Why Open Offices?

O.K., so if it doesn’t work and people don’t like it, why does coworking exist? For that, we have to look at financialized capitalism. The first reason is cost, an obvious reason. Companies want to save money on office space, whether in the form of utility costs, insurance costs, et al. Thus, they farm out these things. And for individuals, coworking spaces are the cheapest way to gain office space.

But I think there’s a second and more interesting reason. The tech world invented coworking, as I pointed out. Especially the tech world as it existed in a particular time and place, namely Silicon Valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And tech relies heavily on venture capital. So, what does venture capital like? Workers who look busy! And who looks busier than workers toiling in a warehouse?

Suppose we’re venture capitalists. We’re probably middle aged white guys seeing all these kids with their inscrutable tech wizardry, and we’re holding the purse strings. With the right investments, we can make the cash flow through those Internet tubes, and we can deskill and demoralize middle income workers to boot. Take that, teachers, health care workers, and cab and truck drivers! The kiddies probably don’t remember the glory days of US industry, but we do. We know what work looks like, us Finance Boomers. Well, those kids are conducting a stage performance just for us. And it’s a Tony Award winner.

And so, I think that’s what’s happening here. Despite the fact that open office plans and coworking spaces make people miserable and less productive, they’re great theater. Like SAFe Agile much later, the tech world exported it to the rest of white-collar America.

Gregg’s Counterproductive

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood tech optimism. Yeah, yeah, I’m a sci-fi fan and I know it exists in those circles. But I find the downside to tech patently obvious.

With those thoughts in mind, I recently read Melissa Gregg’s book, Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy. Gregg’s no glib tech optimist. In fact, her approach to science and technology is broadly similar to my own. She sees the ideology of financialization in corporate life, especially those areas (mistakenly) believed to be under the management of the worker. But she sees coworking as a possible site of resistance.

How’s that supposed to go?

Gregg points out the coworking space is a shared space, an aspect of the sharing economy ripe for worker takeover and management. The thought is that workers suffering from precarity come into serendipitous contact through these spaces. Perhaps contact outside the surveillance network of the boss.

And I guess that’s possible, but I find it difficult to overcome the deeper issues of cost-cutting and precarity. People hoping to organize the tech world can and should use these aspects of it. I’d point out in reply, though, that it’s difficult to make these kinds of connections under these kinds of circumstances. At least without a much deeper theory and practice of organizing the workforce, not to mention a full-time organizing staff.

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