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On the social engineering of the governmentalist Left and the social engineering of the governmentalist Right

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

From Jesse Walker at Reason (2009-02-11):

What gets people upset, and rightfully so, President Barack Obama declared last week, is executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Pounding his fist, he announced that the flood of federal money into corporate hands would cease, effective immediately.

Ha! No, of course he didn’t say that. He announced that henceforth, when taxpayers subsidize a failing Wall Street firm, the company will have to cap the boss’s pay at $500,000 a year.

It was merely the latest effort to expand the bailouts into a behavior modification program. When Democrats proposed a subsidy package for Detroit last year, for example, the plan included another set of limits on executive pay. Not to be outdone, the Republicans countered with a requirement that union workers agree to wage cuts. But for the most part, the idea of using the taxpayers’ money as a Trojan horse for new controls has been a Democratic enthusiasm, not a Republican one.

Or at least that’s how it’s been during this crisis. In the early and mid-1990s, it was Republicans who called for social engineering via the public purse, and it was Democrats who served as inconsistent opponents. That time, the money wasn’t destined for banks and auto giants. It was earmarked for poor people, and the instructions attached to the money involved working, going to school, or taking birth control. The most extreme proposal, endorsed by James Q. Wilson, Myron Magnet, and other neoconservative social critics, would have required many welfare mothers to live in group shelters. Magnet was willing to achieve this through directly coercive means. (In his 1993 book The Dream and the Nightmare, he proposed that if mothers refuse to enter the group homes and fail to support the children, then the state will intervene to take the children away.) But Wilson framed the proposal the same way Obama framed his Wall Street plan. Interviewed by Reason magazine in 1995, he said his system would be voluntary in the sense that, if you want public support, that’s the way you get it. You don’t have to go there. But you won’t get any money and you won’t get any housing units.

That suggestion never became law, but a host of milder workfare and learnfare proposals were enacted on the state level. And in 1996, of course, Bill Clinton signed the federal welfare reform bill, which established new work requirements for people on the dole and strengthened social workers’ surveillance of their lives.

— Jesse Walker, Reason (2009-02-11): Corporate Workfare

Read the whole thing.

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14 replies to On the social engineering of the governmentalist Left and the social engineering of the governmentalist Right Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Nick Manley

    I thought Clinton just limited the amount of time you could be on welfare. One of my primary research interests as a currently amauter social scientist is on a design for a non-state individualist social safety net organization. In the meantime, I appreciate the efforts of groups like the ACLU to combat social engineering abuses directed against current welfare dependents.

    One example:

    NEW ORLEANS – The ACLU of Louisiana condemns State Rep. John LaBruzzo for suggesting that poor people, or those who use government services, should be sterilized to save taxpayer expense.


    Mark Twain may have been right ( :

    Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

    ~ Mark Twain, a Biography

  2. Rad Geek


    The TANF bill imposed a five-year lifetime cap on receiving welfare; it also increased the stringency of work and job training requirements, and transferred primary authority over administering the program to state governments; the state programs receiving the block grants were then stuck with federal quotas in terms of how many welfare recipients they had to get into some kind of work programs, and how much they had to reduce their caseloads; while at the same time being granted quite a bit of latitude to design and impose all kinds of new conduct requirements, surveillance, drug testing, etc. that poor people had to submit to in order to avoid having their benefits reduced or cut off. (So that, for example, the proliferation of new social-engineering workfare and learnfare programs were the result of the efforts of governors like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and John Engler in Michigan, rather than built-in components of the federal bill.)

  3. Aster

    “The most extreme proposal… would have required many welfare mothers to live in group shelters.”

    Neo-convents. Nothing changes.

    Herd people together where they can all watch each other and make sure they are all the same, playing socially lethal games of ‘Survivor’ with one another by seeing who can fawn the most over some goody-two-shoes state welfare nun who spends most of her respectably bloodstained income keeping a hideous cheap suit spotless. More likely than not, an ex-welfare case herself seething with major class inadequacy issues, who sold out and climbed up over everyone else by finding Jeebus and biting down the pain of rigid self-control by dishing it down to others. A true-believer convert to the psuedo-bourgeois bureaucracy who, like true believers everywhere, is a fake and a hypocrite at heart shouting pieties to convince herself. The kind who memorises regulations and Bible verses and treats them as equally holy (and equally reinterpretable- as required to suit the needs of current prejudice and expediency).

    The practical result of this petty matriarchy is a Platonic dictatorship of self-punishing guardians. No one gets better under Nurse Ratched- that’s not the point- the point is to use someone’s helplessness as a means to reshape their souls. Trying a reshape souls by a means other that getting someone to want and desire something different just produces more disfunction. But this is useful- the more people lose hope the more they are willing to cowe down to moral terrorists who tell them that only by learning to become miserable little slaves can they ever get their lives together. Those who do the awful heroic effort of whipping themselves into this rigidity become the snitches, the cronies and the lieutenants- little capos over the damaged, who stay damaged because they never get enough independence, love, respect and competence to leave.

    The conservatives often look back to the good ole days when established churches provided the social safety net directly (and funded equally coercively- church membership and tithing being unwritten expectations of social citizenship). They say that this ‘worked’ while ‘impersonal’ state welfare does not. Usually their history and social science are screwy- paternalism and disfunction neatly reproduce each other and kinder regimes have better track records- but, after all, ‘worked’ depends on the goal you are trying to achieve. If what you want to do isn’t to overcome poverty but control the dangerous classes it works just fine. And of course, plenty of (classist) liberals go along with this, either because they share the same moral code (and religions) or because they don’t get that jamming people into collectives goes naturally with invasive tyranny. All the caring and concerned altruism bleeds into horribly wrong worldview which thinks that people are bad and are made superficially good by internalising prisons and beatings. Which of course only makes sense given a destructively raging psychology which wants to hurt and projects this rage onto a human nature in need of supervision and restraint.

    And people consider the cultural spaces which nurture this poisonous social dynamic to be centers and symbols of morally good action? What aren’t they smoking? The human world would be a better place if the likes of James Q. Wilson more often died of mysterious and sudden illnesses.

  4. Soviet Onion

    But Aster, tell us what you really think.

  5. Nick Manley

    Soviet Onion,

    Me thoughts:

    Couldn’t they just change their minds…?

    Then again, I am inclined to see the Prop 8 pushers drop dead right now. What a “waste” of my intellectual energy they’ve engendered via their nonsense.

    The Supreme Court rules again on March 5th! Time to see where theocratic politics in America will go or not go.

    Crosses fingers

    I am hopefully going to be able to go out and celebrate at the nearest LGBT event whenever news of a potential positive ruling hits.

  6. Soviet Onion

    Yeah, same here. SWOP-Chicago is actually having a fundraiser party on the following day, and it would be nice for everyone to actually have something worth celebrating.

  7. Nick Manley

    I’d say a SWOP party would be a celebration by itself. I went to an event during Sex Worker Festival week or whatever in San Francisco once.

    Good stuff!

  8. Soviet Onion

    Oh, I agree. It’s just hard to keep spirits when every new piece of news is some “random” act of violence, the exercise of some crippling law or derogatory media portrayal. That, coupled with the general decline of sexual freedom and LGBT rights across the board just makes for a very bleak emotional landscape these days.

    For anyone who’s watching, don’t forget that March 3rd is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers! (and yes, holidays should end in exclamation points).

    And Nick, if you run Pete Eyre again, ask him about the John from Baltimore who spoke toward the end of the national march. It’s a hilarious story. And tell him you know Soviet Onion from Chicago, the guy who wrote about Somalia.

  9. Nick Manley

    I just saw Pete briefly tonight at CPAC (http://www.cpac.org/). I was hoping to find some of the more Libertarian leaning people there with decent cultural views. I like Pete a lot. He seems culturally cosmopolitan and aware of big business statism. I’ll drop your name next time I see him.

    Interestingly, I was at a Reason mag release party the night before. I was in the presence of Matt Welch and Radley Balko — neither of whom are major influences. I do appreciate Radley’s work on paramilitary policing though.

    I’ve been considering whether to start an ALL chapter here. The Ron Paul crowd has their campaign for liberty. Pete and company have Bureaucrash. The ALL serves the function of introducing a radical voice in Libertarian circles. Fortunately, the interest Pete showed in sex workers rights march shows that BCS can be a good force for non-conservative Libertarian work. I have him pegged as a potential member of any Alliance chapter around here.

  10. Nick Manley

    And oh: I sat down and overheard a guy talking about Starchild! I said “I know Starchild!” Lol. I have to say that the Libers. around here are a mixed bunch. I am just happy I found some I can work with.

  11. Aster

    Soviet Onion-

    What do you mean by the decline in sexual freedom and LGBT rights? Proposition 8 was revolting, but it isn’t clear to me that this signifies a backlash- rather than merely a discrete victory for the bad guys. I would agree with you there’s something going wrong on sexual freedom- Bush’s reactivation of obscenity persections, the End Demand act, the city-by-city assault on the prostitution industry, and a general social atmosphere which encourages rampant discrimination. (and San Francisco’s pansexual BDSM Folsom Street Fair is now being politically harassed by masked crypto-Nazis- ‘for the children’, of course). But this also occurs in a social context where a very cynical heirarchical porn industry has been mainstreamed in the bluer parts of the United States and is pervasive everywhere. Meanwhile, Sex and the City is mainstream (in New Zealand, the government riffs off the image for safety campaigns), and both alternative and popular culture promote a loud and occasionally sincere sexualised ideology- I say insincere because it’s all about status, not selfhood or pleasure. The pattern I see is less simple repression of sexuality than the formation of a heirarchical pattern of class double standards- the classic imperial pattern. Or, yet more precisely, there’s a more ‘liberal’ version of the power elite that wants a power-obsessed winner-take-all type of sexuality, and a conservative power elite that wants to see sexuality outside of reproduction crushed altogether. The second group is more evil and is more dangerous, having more history and cultural subtance behind it- and if the Enlightenment crashes, they win. But looking outside America, they aren’t the whole story. One may take Madonna as a symbol of sexuality’s version of the monopoly neocorporate order. The supermodel is sexuality in the image of the grande bourgeois pimps of the neofascist ‘free market’.

    Incidentally, my suspicion is that sex work in the United States is going to increasingly resemble a third world model of prostitution- as American prosperity fades, mass prostitution is likely to increasingly become a visible social presence- one continually persecuted and marginalised to keep it in its social place, with the result of ghettoised exploitation.

    BTW, I’m always glad to see you writing here. You give me at least a little hope that there remains some individualism within libertarianism.

  12. Nick Manley

    Soviet Onion,

    You should also not forget that gay marriage was legalized in Conn.

    The final outcome in California is far from decided too.

· March 2009 ·

  1. Nick Manley

    You can watch a live stream of the CA supreme court’s hearing for oral argument tomorrow at eqca.org. It starts at 9 a.m. U.S. time.

    Check out this link: http://www.eqca.org/site/apps/cd/content.asp?c=kuLRJ9MRKrH&b=4028667&eventid={A1F26F06-9546-4045-AB8B-D15F0A6A6D71}&contentid={8D4FC7AE-CAAB-4AC1-BC37-D535F1784987}&seid=

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-08-12 – The Neo-Conservative That Is One:

    […] you were wondering, the domestic policy movement Brooks is so eager to revive, incidentally, is the use of an expansive welfare state for Right-wing social engineering. Or here’s the creepy spendthrift fascist neo-conservative Brooks (2013), in his own words […]

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