Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Gem from the Late C. Wright Mills

“You’ve asked me, ‘What might you be?’ Now I answer you: ‘I am a Wobbly.’ I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation than to political ethos, and I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. […] I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It’s a kind of spiritual condition. […] A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He’s also a man who’s often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn’t made up himself. He doesn’t like bosses—capitalistic or communistic—they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom.”

C. Wright Mills, Letters and Autobiographical Writings, ed. Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills, intro. Dan Wakefield (Berkeley: University of California P 2000.) 25.

We could get distracted by Mills’s use of “capitalism.” But for now, can I stipulate (whether or not this is historically accurate—though of course I’m interested in Mills’s own thinking) that by “capitalism” he doesn’t mean “free markets” but, rather, something closer to “social dominance by capitalists”? With that stipulation in place: what’s your instinctive reaction to the sentiment he expresses?

Suppose he had written this:

“You’ve asked me, ‘What might you be?’ Now I answer you: ‘I am a lover of freedom.’ I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation than to political ethos, and I take ‘freedom-lover’ to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. I am a freedom-lover, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a freedom-lover is? It’s a kind of spiritual condition. A freedom-lover is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He’s also a man who’s often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn’t made up himself. He doesn’t like bosses—corporate or political—they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is the kind of freedom I love.”

Would the slight changes in wording make any difference?

8 comments:

Gary Chartier said...

I found this paragraph in the Wikipedia article about Mills; it’s quoted as part of an a not-necessarily-successful attempt to place Mills politically. Again, though, I’m as interested in people’s reactions to the substance as I am in new information about Mills (though I do have a soft spot for Mills both because of his indispensable contributions to power elite analysis and because of his role as a source of inspiration for the New Left).

nfactor13 said...

I've read some of the anti-bossism statements from left-libertarians, and I've been struggling to come up with a good definition of a boss so that one could recognize them in the field, so to speak. So, for example, you see two people engaged in a contract. Given the possibility that one of them is a boss, who is it? I have a tentative test for it, and that is, if there is a boss, they must be offering money as their part of the exchange, or at least money must be included in what they offer.

This doesn't imply necessarily that bosses have more money than non-bosses. "The customer is king" is a way of expressing this, too, I think, even though the customer is often weaker individually than the person or company that s/he is purchasing from.

So I'm wondering how the anti-bossism idea relates to my definition. Is it a completely different concept or concern? If so, what's a better test?

Gary Chartier said...

Well, I think the answer is: it's a matter of degrees. As I suggested in my exchange with Stephan a couple of weeks ago, whether I'm subject to a boss is perhaps a function of at least three factors:

a. the average amount of time I can spend without monitoring or direction;

b. the degree to which I'm responsible for achieving a specified outcome versus the degree to which I'm responsible for following specified procedures; and

c. the degree to which my work supervisor is directly or indirectly accountable to me.

My instinct is to say that, if I can freely elect my work supervisor, or if I can freely elect someone to whom she is immediately or ultimately responsible, then I probably don't have a boss. Similarly, if my responsibilities are defined in terms of outcomes, not processes, I probably don't have a boss. And if my span of control is extensive, I probably don't have a boss.

Stephan is surely right that "boss" isn't a rigorously defined category with sharp edges. I still think I can usually know one when I see one.

MBH said...

Gary, I like "wobbly" better because it implies an unsteadiness within the conventional world.

Roderick T. Long said...

Coincidence?

Gary Chartier said...

I have no problem with "Wobbly" at all; I just wanted to give people with an unwarrantedly negative view of the IWW and alternative on which to focus, since my main concern here was with the vision of comprehensive freedom Mills articulated, not the label he used for it..

MBH said...

I didn't mean to imply that "freedom-lover" doesn't work. I think that would work better for some people. I guess I was just saying something about myself. Pardon my knee-jerk confessionalism.

Gary Chartier said...

This is the blogosphere. Knee-jerk confessionalism is probably de rigeur. :)