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Set Your Tivo for Emmy-Winning ‘Breaking Bad’

Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

If modern man’s producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave man, why then, in the United States to-day, are there fifteen million people who are not properly sheltered and properly fed? Why then, in the United States to-day, are there three million child laborers? It is a true indictment. The capitalist class has mismanaged. In face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged, that you have mismanaged, my masters, that you have criminally and selfishly mismanaged. —Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908)

Lately I’ve been fooling around with the hypothesis that there’s a growing split in the professional-managerial class.

On the one hand, there’s a strong movement to proletarianize professionals, conspicuously college faculty, but also physicians, lawyers, and accountants. For more, read AAUP General Secretary Gary Rhoades on the concept of “managed professionalism.”

In this vein, “professionalism” is today more of an ideology than a lifeway. As an ideology useful to one’s employers, for instance, professionalism as devotion to one’s clients, the public good, and the culture of one’s field is clearly a vector for the super-exploitation of all kinds of other workers, from retail sales to schoolteachers.

Like professionals, millions of service-economy and clerical workers are now expected to donate hours of work off the clock, donating time to e-mail and other employer-related communication, engaging in unpaid training and “keeping up,” etc. Throughout the economy, workers are urged to give freely of themselves — to serve — in exchange for psychic returns. All of this “acting professional,” however, doesn’t come with what used to be a professional’s paycheck.

On the other hand, management is increasingly professionalized, via the worldwide triumph of the business curriculum — the first true global monoculture, with the keywords and master concepts (excellence, quality, change, accountability, learning organization, etc.) framed by the “great authors” of our time: W. Edwards Deming, Peter Senge, etc. And yeah, the managers still get a professional’s paycheck and more. They get paid in close relation to their hypocrisy: The better they play “Ya Gotta Serve Somebody” and extract donated work time from everyone else, the more dough they whack down in their own “pay for performance.”

(If I were writing a grant to study the patterns of Ritalin abuse on college campuses, I’d actually be very curious to see whether it’s higher in undergraduates self-identifying as preprofessional versus those with a business major.)

Anyway. One way of looking at certain trends in the mass culture of the professional managerial class (yeah, with 900 channels and a global audience, you can have multiple mass cultures) is in reaction to the proletarianization of the white-collar worker, and the tension between the residual culture of professionals, the dominant culture of management, and the related management-engineered faux-professional cultures of other workers.

The recent “Retreat to Move Forward” episode of 30 Rock once again lampooning GE managment’s “Six Sigma” culture captures this neatly, but really the whole premise of the series is the running war between the workplace culture of entertainment professionals and the junk culture that GE management is trying to impose on them. The episode’s true-enough version of the six pillars of Sigma: “Teamwork, insight, brutality, male enhancement, handshakefullness, and play hard.” (It falls into the not-really-a-joke category, though, when you think about how your university president got the job.)

AMC, the channel that butchers American Movie Classics to the standards of the 400 Club, has somehow tapped into this structure of feeling with two hit series. For viewers of, ahem, a certain age, it offers Mad Men, which radiates nostalgia for comfortable professionalism. For the rest of us it presents the highly-anticipated second season of Breaking Bad, premiering Sunday, March 8. (Missed Season One? Set your Tivo for a rerun of all seven episodes on Friday, March 6.)

The premise of BB is the murderous logic of putting profit-seeking dolts in charge of social goods, like health care and education (or fighting wars, or food security, for that matter). When diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, the scales fall from the eyes of high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, a role for which Bryan Cranston deservedly won an Emmy.

He puts the energy he formerly dedicated to the idealistic service of others into providing security for his family. He becomes a manager, taking over a former student’s small-time meth business, re-structuring the operation to maximize profits. (And before you complain about it exploiting the scourge of methamphetamine to capture the crisis of the PMC, consider that Ritalin and meth are close chemical cognates, frequently taken for similar purposes.)

White’s turn into ruthlessness — he abruptly “breaks bad” — resolving overnight to become the exploiter rather than the exploited, is what separates the show from Showtime’s Weeds, which features a soccer mom dealing pot to keep up her sense of entitlement.

BB is more like The Sopranos, where half-smart gangsters in McMansions allegorize the organized criminals actually running the country, or The Wire, where the actually existing thuggery of management theory in public service is continuously thematized.

All three of these shows repudiate the soggy liberalism and nostalgia of Weeds or Mad Men. They feature what to me is a welcome populist strain of literary naturalism and proletarian sensibility, a hint that we might be returning to an awareness of Jack London’s sense of the eat or be eaten ferocity of the class war from above on the rest of us. I hope so, anyway.

At the dinner party where London’s hero calls the capitalist class on their mismanagement of the vast productive powers at our disposal, they finally reveal the inner Dick Cheney:

“We have no words to waste on you. … We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain.”

If your only experience of Jack London is Call of the Wild and White Fang, do yourself a favor and read The Iron Heel or The Abyss.

I always ask my students to consider the question London poses in the epigraph: With the technological resources to feed, clothe and provide health care for everyone, why don’t we?

With what used to be called “labor-saving devices,” why do we all work so hard?

Still damned good questions a century later.

Even if, like Marx himself, you’re inclined to give capitalism credit for innovation, it’s hard at the present moment not to grant London’s point: The capitalist class and their generously paid servants have spectacularly, gloriously, world-historically mismanaged the powers they helped to unleash. The pursuit of profit isn’t a big part of most areas of most people’s lives, and those areas have generally been degraded, not enhanced, by the brutal, forced introduction of the profit motive.

Future global humanity may or may not find a role for those who actually enjoy spending their one trip on this planet compulsively rooting around after spare change to enlarge the money mountain.

And there are probably circumstances where we can make good use of antisocial jerks with unusually acquisitive and unusually competitive natures — just as one can find a dog’s ferocity occasionally useful. But I think we might agree to keep these folks on a much shorter leash.

One way of doing that is to take professionalism back from the managers — to create a world in which Walter White’s idealistic service of others is rewarded with the modest things he expects, like health care.

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