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Western Social Science Meetings

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: April 18, 2000
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Defining Crime in the New Millennium: Downsizing
Travis Fraser, UWP, and Cliff Parks,CSUDH

Part of Teaching Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, March 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

The hard copy text will be put together from all our contributions later in the week.

Some thoughts --- jeanne

When we first began to discuss this paper last semester, these were some of the thoughts I had on the topic, particularly based on David M. Gordon's Fat and Mean. Cliff has my copy of that book, so these bits and pieces are from memory. I think Sonya has a copy, too, so I'll look for an exchange with you two.

  • Structural Violence:
  • I was most amazed at Gordon's classification of downsizing as impersonal. That would place it in the category of structural violence, not violence -- not harm done to any specific individual, but to individuals treated as fungible objects. Gordon says early in the book that corporations have downsized to save on the cost of workers, that they simply want to cut down on production costs. Senior workers, as the most expensive, are the most costly. Gordon compares downsizing to throwing a grenade into a packed room. The company doesn't care which twenty-fixe workers are dismissed, anymore than the grenade does. Workers in this matter are fungible. And, as Gordon notes, any twenty-five will do. As a matter of fact, one of his primary concerns is the lack of concern, the lack of any measures to downsize effectively, and the emphasis on just cutting back expenses.

    I have been horrified in the last few years, as students come to me to report "jeanne, I got a real job, one with benefits." Increasingly, jobs are part-time, sub-contracted, no benefits. Skills, once workers are employed, become specific to a corporation. Then, when these workers are dismissed in their 40s and 50s they are less valuable to corporations than younger, more energetic workers who will work for less, and/or who are in no position to demand benefits.

    Age, which means that security for family and self become more important with time, and the built-in obsolescence of skills, particularly in new fields, such as computer sciences, work to enhance the marketability of the young. There was a point, 15 years or so ago, when law schools spoke of "enterprise liability" and the "cost of doing business," in which we attempted to understand the cost to individuals and the community that are incurred when corporations pursue profits. Sometimes there are major costs, such as severe injuries due to exposure to toxins or due to equipment failure, and/or environmental hazards that spread much further. How should we apportion those costs, which may not have been foreseen, such as asbestos and tobacco exposure? If they were incurred as a normal part of the business of earning profits, then should not some portion of that cost be charged to the corporations that made that profit? The current concern over age of the senior worker, over disabled workers, over discrimination in access to the hierarchy of profit is a major issue for the next decade.

    The crime I had in mind when we first addressed this topic was the crime of viewing the problem as one of "costs," one of "fungible workers," with little attention ot the costs to the community of retraining, of retooling, of creating community solidarity that deals with the issues of access, health, aging. If the corporation is to make profits from the production of the community's workers, these community costs are a part of the "cost of doing business," and should be borne fairly by the corporation that gained from the workers' efforts.

Some thoughts on theory --- jeanne

I have been reviewing Charles Lemert's Postmodernism Isn't What You think and David Rasmussen's Handbook of Critical Theory, in an attempt to sort out Lemert's classification of radical modernism (Habermas) as one of the postmodernisms. Like Craig Calhoun, I find it hard to choose one right path amongst all these theoretical perspectives. Since my chosen job is to educate "the knowing individual as such" (Horkheimer), and not to shape any ultimate theory, if such can be done, I prefer eclecticism, openness to the many perspectives. Rasmussen's review of the origins and development of critical theory provides a good balance to Lemert's debunking of postmodernist dragons.

Immersed in Rasmussen's "Critical Theory and Philosophy," I came across passages that I think are important for us to consider as we discuss downsizing and Corporate America:

In his historical review of critical theory, Rasmussen goes back to the early days of the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt. "[I]f Marxian class theory was correct the proletariat was to bear the disctinctive role of being those who were able to interpret history and bring about the transformation that such insight would sustain . . . As Lukacs would later think, there would be a certain transparent identity between Marxian social theory and the activity of the working class." (Rasmussen, ibid., at p.16.) Thus, there was a sense in which critical theory sought to ground itself in the praxis of the working classes. But Fascism and the "Stalinization of Russia" effectively "de-couple[d] the link between theory and revolutionary practice. . ." (Ibid., at p. 17), leading to "a movement away from Marxian materialism."

Rasmussen quotes Habermas as saying in 1968, "The revolutionary thrust of the proletariat has long since become realistic action within the framework of society. In the minds of men at least, the proletariat has been integrated into society." (Ibid., at p. 18)