Monday, July 7, 2008

Has Progressivism Lost Touch with the World of Work?

Andrew Keen's Great Seduction post yesterday, "The tyranny of free content," may actually have less to do with the content itself than with what we might call "the work behind the content." The text behind his sermon came from a talk he gave to a conference of bookseller's called Digitize or Die:

The content business is in crisis, if you want to look at the way it will go take a look at the music industry and newspapers, these sectors have really been on the front-lines of a perfect storm: the problem is that content has become simply an adjunct of advertising.

While I basically agree with this, I find that phrase "content business" a potentially dangerous abstraction that distracts our attention from the more concrete focus of those who work in the "content business" and would like to view their work as a profession from which they can garner a living wage. It is the workers who are in crisis, since the "business" will always be protected by the unholy alliance between its senior managers and its shareholders.

Thus, it is relevant that Keen should invoke Timothy Egan and a blog post he provided to the New York Times Web site entitled "Save the Press." Egan pulls no punches in assessing the fate of journalism in the world the Internet has made, particularly in light of that Internet-driven mantra of free content (as in "information wants to be free"):

Besides, there’s plenty of gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post — even though they are built on the backs of the wire services and other factories of honest fact-gathering. One day soon these Web info-slingers will find that you can’t produce journalism without journalists, and a search engine is no replacement for a curious reporter.

And just how much do most contributors at the The Huffington Post make? Nothing! “Not our financial model,” as the co-founder, Ken Lerer famously said. From low pay to no pay — the New Journalism at a place that calls itself an Internet newspaper.

Yes, the Brentwood bold-face types who grace HuffPo’s home page can afford to work for free, but it’s un-American, to say the least.

Long ago, I was a member of the steelworkers union, and also a longshoreman. If any of those guys on the docks heard that I was now part of a profession that asked people to labor for nothing, they’d laugh in their lunch buckets — then probably shut The Huffington Post down. Doesn’t the “progressive” agenda, much touted on their pages, include a living wage?

We could be left with a national snark brigade, sniping at the remaining dailies in their pajamas, never rubbing shoulders with a cop, a defense attorney or a distressed family in a Red Cross shelter after a flood.

It was that penultimate paragraph that got to me most of all. Egan is not only a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter; he is also a writer with first-hand experience (through membership) of the labor movement and its unions. He understands the world of work, not to mention the impact of progressivism on that world, in ways that those who now inhabit what I recently called the "Sweatshops of the Blogosphere" cannot even begin to comprehend.

Yet it is from the blogosphere that we hear the most strident voices for that "progressive" agenda, which is why Egan's scare quotes are so relevant. However, in the interest of always trying to find another angle, I have to wonder if the problem lies with the bloggers or with the current state of progressivism. When we consider the impact of progressivism on the world of work, we are pretty much restricting our attention to the workings of the American manufacturing economy. Could it be that those who champion those achievements have not yet grokked the transition to a service economy? Remember the strength of the progressive motto, "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay?" Just how does that apply to a troll in a cubicle reading the answers to customer service calls out of a script? Look at how little progressivism has achieved for teachers, even the organized ones? If they are still stuck in a manufacturing mindset, can we really expect them to take on "the plight of working journalists" (the phrase Keen invoked in his own comments of Egan's post)?

Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is now about 25 years old. A "special anniversary edition" came out in 1999. He may not have called everything correctly, but this book does not deserve to be treated as either a relic or a stale monument of social theory. It provides many key insights into how the world of work has changed, and it would be nothing short of pathetic if all those now espousing the political rhetoric of change fail to appreciate the impact of change on the world of work that has now abandoned so many skilled workers.

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