Sunday, 13 December 2009

A Brief Commentary On a Picture

According to the New York Times, this is how Prof. Sidney Plotkin of Vassar “dramatizes the pressure a president faces in a falling economy”. Click here to see how.

The paper said that Prof. Plotkin shines “a Marxist light” on the economic crisis, though Marx is an “uninvited guest,” the professor was quick to add.

What does he know about his uninvited guest?

Marx wrote: “In the analysis of economic forms … neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both”.

Prof. Plotkin has substituted dramatization for abstraction. He no doubt thinks that this shows his enthusiasm. And he may well be enthusiastic. But there is a deeper rationale behind his theatrics which makes them appeal to his students and administrators.

Here is an excerpt from the manuscript of Vol. 4 of Speculative Capital. We pick up where the product is produced and must now be sold, i.e. converted into money. Without this conversion, the production process will come to a halt:
Given this centrality of sales and its practically limitless sub-specialties in a Capitalist society– in the U.S., one would find hiring ads for “nuclear waste salesman” – it is natural that the subject is deeply embedded – intertwined, really – with the culture. Often, it is the driver and creator of the culture, especially in the “Anglo-Saxon” U.S. and U.K., where the businessman’s influence goes further than it would in other nations. The culture in these countries could be said to be the culture of a salesman, as it is shaped by the habits, sensibilities, tastes and priorities of a salesman. This point can best be seen by a look at Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The book’s title is precise. It telegraphs the content, so attention must be paid. Carnegie wants to win friends. Why? Because he wants to influence them. But the purpose of this influence is not bringing new friends to the righteous path. Carnegie is not an Islamic zealot practicing the Prevention of Vice and the Propagation of Virtues. He wants to influence people in order to sell to them. Friendship is a strategy, a mere means, towards that end. Note the word “win” – not finding friends or making friends but winning friends. The purpose is exploitation, after which “friends” become what they always were: people. It is a singularly cold-blooded and cynical title.

A straight line connects Dale Carnegie to the modern financier, Michael Milken who, responding to a minion’s comment that the rate they were charging a friend was too much answered: “Who are we going to make money off of if not our friends?”

I am not overstating the role of this depression-era salesman. Dale Carnegie did not invent the ways of salesmanship. He merely categorized them – arranged them around a central theme and in doing so, gave them cohesion and focus. His is the authentic voice of a salesman the way braying is the voice of a donkey.

Look at his chapter titles: Three Ways of Handling People; Six Ways to Make People Like You; Twelve Ways of Winning People to Your Way of Thinking; How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment (in 9 steps, ending with “Making People Glad to Do What You Want”). Little wonder, then, that his book became the manifesto for a country whose “chief business” President Coolidge had declared was “business”.

What Carnegie began has grown into a multi-billion a year “self-improvement” and “interpersonal skills” business. Millions of people have taken courses on dressing, speaking, walking, even sitting – that would be “your silent presence” – to hone in their selling skills.

The graduates have then gone on to quietly instill the culture with the values that they learned and internalized in the classrooms. In this way, the modus operandi of the salesmen has turned into the cultural trait of the society. When the modus operandi changes, the culture changes.

One main change in the past 40 years has been the intensified competition due to the falling rates of profit. That has made selling a far more stressful occupation than it was in the heydays of the U.S. industrial power. The salesman is under constant pressure to be more “productive”, meaning that he has to sell more in less time.

The ensuing stress has darkened his mood. The passive Willy Loman has given way to the obscenities-spewing, conniving and downright criminal salesmen of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

In practical terms, efficiency squeeze has necessitated harsher sales tactics. One is that the prospective buyer has to be evaluated quickly: is he/she going to buy or not? There is no time to be wasted on those “just looking”. This could only be done visually, checking the prospective buyer’s car, clothes, shoes – in short, any outward signs of material wealth. Hence, the elevation of the visual and “first impression” above all else. Rorschach test is the “psychological” test of this culture in which the salesman constantly and quickly “sizes up” his prey ...

In this way, the reliance on the visual becomes the norm. The “visual art” rises.
Prof. Plotkin’s understanding of economics is shaped by the salesmen, in the same way that Black, Scholes and Merton’s understanding of options was shaped by the traders. Those who have read Vol. 3 know the price one pays for blindly following these agents of circulating capital.