When Bad Things Happen to Good Scholars

Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth
Juliet B. Schor

Plenitude_FNL_cvrMaybe it’s an east coast thing.

The United States, unlike most countries in Europe (and maybe the world), has 3 capitals: the political one (DC), the financial one (NY) and the cultural one (split between NY for publishing, news and ‘high’ culture and LA for entertainment). Since the only one on the west coast focuses on a product for the masses I can imagine that a scholar there finds it easier to ignore.

If that supposition is correct then the east coast is the place where scholars risk being seduced by the bright lights of the ‘public intellectual’ industry. I think there must be an entire army of publishing and TV news functionaries who do nothing but troll campuses from Virgina to Maine looking for experts to speak in non-technical terms on the issues of the day.

How can such an effort not result in compromises that aren’t always for the good?

I asked myself that question repeatedly as I made my way though Judith B. Schor’s Plenitude, a volume that embraces the worst contradictions and editorial practices of what I’ll call popular scholarship. Schor arrived on my radar screen about a decade ago, after she had published two volumes on the economic and workaday plight of more or less ordinary Americans. Those books, The Overworked American (1993) and The Overspent American (1999) are masterful examples of the publishing industry’s ability to package and promote.

Juliet B. Schor

Juliet B. Schor

Consider the titles alone. What a fabulous way to suggest continuity and a series. An academic press would  no doubt actually create a series and might even have an advisory board to suggest and maybe even select what’s published. Who has time for all that rigmarole? Suggest a series and you have a series; it’s marketing 101.

In those volumes Schor explored changes in the amount of time American spend at work, and the amount of money Americans spend, over the course of several decades. If the first marketing ‘P’ is ‘Product’ I can think of no better way to identify a self-selected audience of literate, educated folks seeking to understand just what sort of mess they find themselves in.

As I recall those books, the structure, quite typical really, was to describe the current state, illustrate the change over time with data and (this being what distinguishes the trade from the academic press) summing up with prescriptive policy recommendations. That last bit is what makes reading books like this painful. No matter how reasonable the author seems, no matter how much effort has been made to set up the recommendations as the only possible corrective, the recommendations are going nowhere. Not in this political climate anyway. But that’s the way the genre works so they’re there.

The work itself, as near as I can tell, was solid. I’m the kind of reader who will check a few readily available sources for accuracy and nothing stands out in memory as being questionable. I recall that I read both in close proximity and in the midst of a big read on what’s come to be known as the 1%. And the conclusion I came to was the opposite of Schor’s: somebody didn’t need to do something; I needed to.

Fast forward a decade and we have the present volume, penned in the wake of the financial crisis. This time the prescriptions are, mercifully, directed at the individual. But that requires more packaging than usual and so we get a program, masquerading as a world-view: Plenitude, with all its echoes of Heidegger for the Ivy-educated set. Finally, the scholar and I have arrived at the same place.

Make no mistake, this is a book intended to launch a movement. There’s data, but compared to prior volumes it’s scarce. There are facts, but ones that events have eclipsed since the book’s 2009 publication date . There are predictions, which are so wrong 5 years on that they ought to serve as a warning against predicting in print. And there is the most annoying aspect of all, the repeated cheerleading.

This last bit comes, I think, from the editors of business books. The books they publish aren’t meant for the elite-school-MBA crowd. Those guys, at least while they’re in school, read the likes of  Michael Porter. The gal with a BS in business from Almost Anystate U is looking for a leg up and she’s the audience for most business books. And bless the editor’s hearts, they apparently believe that such an audience needs to be spoon-fed through repetition.

clickingThe first time I remember encountering this was in Faith Popcorn‘s Clicking. I am not a fan of the former Ms. Popkov, finding her method unmethodical and her offering dubious. Her book, at least for me, provided ample support for both those assertions. But what really sticks in my mind is how each chapter ended with an exhortation incorporating her gerund-title: ‘Now you’re clicking’ or ‘That’s clicking’ are fair approximations.

Schor finds herself in similar territory, saddled with a ponderous noun. So there’s a lot of ‘Plenitude offers…’ and ‘When we embrace Plenitude…’ It’s weak and, honestly, it’s twaddle. Marxism, to take just one handy example, is a world-view. A sentence such as “When we embrace Marxism we begin to move towards a place where we better understand the forces arrayed against labor by capital” is open to argument but there’s a real program and way of looking at the world  behind it. Schor offers neither.

That’s not entirely fair. In good east coast fashion Schor’s point of view is solidly liberal. If you like the world wrought by the Harvard/Yale crowd that graduated in the late 1960s through the late 1970s you’ll climb on board. Color me skeptical.

I began with the east coast so let me end on the west because distance has some virtues. Arlie Russel Hochschild, seen before in these pages, covers a lot of  the same ground as Schor from her perch in Berkeley. There she and her colleagues, Claude S. Fischer. Michael Hout (now at NYU) and others have maintained a critical distance from the liberal establishment. For me, that’s  made for richer analysis and deeper thinking.

You’d be better off taking your time with The Commercialization of Intimate Life than trying to figure out if you have a life of plenitude. We all have that, we just need to believe it.

 Postscript (August 23, 3014)
My complaints about Plenitude, I think, are quite clear. But I did Schor a disservice by not explaining what she means by plenitude. Leave aside the charts, graphs and belabored arguments for a programmatic approach and it boils down to the old saw: be grateful for what you’ve got. Which if you think about it, isn’t bad advice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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