labels matter: unpacking posner and florida (by way of arendt)

Richard Florida and Richard Posner are guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan this week.  They each use their first posts to engage in the politics of labeling, identification and categorization.

Posner’s post is a typically thoughtful expository on why the current crisis should be labeled a “depression.” He rejects the prevailing definitions of recession and depression in favor of an alternative that comes pretty close to the notion of a “deep crisis” as it’s employed by Fligstein, Powell and others: a depression is a downturn that undermines fundamental assumptions about the forces that shape the economy. Recessions, in contrast, correct imbalances, but they don’t fundamentally alter underlying assumptions. Of course, by this definition you can’t really tell if you are in a recession or a depression while it is occurring. It’s not, in that sense, ‘objective’ since you can only tell if you were in one retroactively.

But striving for objectivity would miss the point of arguing over a label. At a moment of heightened uncertainty, the contest over the label is as important as its content (if not more). At this uncertain moment, people don’t quite know how behave.  Should I assume the world will “get back to normal” once things settle down and therefore just hunker down until it blows over? Or, should I be prepared to make some significant adjustments in the way I conceive of my role, my identity and my behavior because the world is going to look significantly different on the other side? Should the government stand back and let the economy work itself out? Or, should the government provide clarity and shape the system in fundamental ways? The answer depends on which label you subscribe to. If Posner’s definition gains widespread acceptance, it suggests one course of action in response to uncertainty over another. It also suggests that the Obama administration is right to take drastic measures because if it doesn’t influence the world that results from this crisis, someone else will.

Florida’s post is also about labels. He attempts to reinvigorate of the concept of “class” and suggests that prevailing categorizations need to be adjusted. Distinctions such as “upper class” and “lower class,”“blue collar” and “white collar”,“lumpenproletariat” and “bourgeoisie,” give way to a clean trichotomy: “working class”, “servicing class” and “creative class”.

Florida’s definitions reflect Hanna Arendt’s distinction between labor, work and action. For Arendt, labor corresponds roughly to Florida’s definition of services.  It is the lowest form of doing, having to do with the maintenance of human existence and it is the closest human activity to that of animals. Work or homo faber corresponds to Florida’s working class. The homo faber makes things.  It is the second rung on the ladder; a step up from labor because it transforms nature for human ends. The highest rung is action, the highest form of doing because, while labor and work are both constrained by necessity, action is truly free; it is expressive. All three forms of doing make up what Arendt calls “the human condition”. But it is action which is the most fragile and the most important. For Arendt, the greatest danger, in life and in politics, is restricting the individual’s ability to act creatively.

Richard Florida’s unit of analysis is the (geographic) community, not the individual. But his point is essentially the same: the ability of a community to thrive depends on the degree to which it maintains that element of itself which embraces the freedom to act independently; to begin again. Being vibrant and alive requires a balance between labor, work and action with action being the most vulnerable and therefore the piece most in need of protection.

So far so good.  But then he has to go and layer in the language of class.

Class is a peculiar kind of category. When applied to people, it typically combines both identity and interest. That is, the interests of one class are seen as being in opposition to another class.  Is Florida really calling for the “creative class” to assert its interests in opposition to those of the working and servicing classes?  If so, he is reviving an old theme in American (and non-American) politics. In the 19th century, there was no such thing as a “blue collar worker”.  There was a hard boundary separating “laboring” and “skilled” workers.  Marx, of course, rejected that kind of distinction because it divided the working class against itself; the distinction was a guise that allowed political leaders to play one group off of another in the service of protecting elite interests.  (You can’t bring up class and not dredge up a discussion of Marx, can you?)  But using the word “class” is inherently charged; the semantics matter.

Labeling, identification and categorization have joined networks as workhorse concepts of OrgTheory. We no longer really talk about culture, per se. The discussion has shifted to the cognitive buckets that order people’s heuristic behaviors and beliefs. Contests for meaning revolve around which labels best apply to a given situation. Contests for legitimacy revolve around establishing categories and laying claim to the identities associated with them. Human agency is constrained by the toolkit of categories and labels to which an individual has access.  So calling something a “depression” vs. a “recession”, “working class” or “managerial class” vs. “creative class” (not to mention “civil unions” vs. “marriage”, “torture” vs. “enhanced interrogation”….) is important.  People rely on these labels to figure out how to behave toward one another. So the power to shape the meaning and application of such labels lies at the heart of politics in both organizations and society more broadly.  Its something to be taken seriously.


Written by seansafford

May 18, 2009 at 10:39 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Recently read on a forum where young people were discussing job opportunities after college: “Pretty soon, most of us will be in the serving class”.



    May 19, 2009 at 6:00 am

  2. I’m struck by what seems like a massive shift in Posner’s tone. I’ve always associated Posner with the more conservative camp of the law and economics movement, but his take on the current financial crisis is swinging more to the realm of Polanyi-esque institutional theory. Perhaps we never really knew the real Richard Posner.



    May 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm

  3. He’s an intellectually curious guy from what I can tell. And if Greenspan can question his assumptions, why not Posner?



    May 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm

  4. By the way, the Financial Times has a series on “the Future of Capitalism” where the debate of whether this is a deep crisis, in the sense of a crisis that will fundamentally alter institutions, is taken up:



    May 21, 2009 at 1:52 am

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