In this final season of David Simon’s The Wire, we see the dystopic contemporary Baltimore created by the class war from above. It’s a city ravaged by “quality management,” the same philosophy that administrations across the country have adopted in shunting the overwhelming majority of college faculty into contingent positions.
As Time magazine television critic James Poniewozik puts it, “All The Wire’s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation or a drug cartel. A pusher, a homicide cop, a teacher, a union steward: they’re all, in the world of The Wire, middlemen getting squeezed for every drop of value by the systems they work for.”
What the show grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”
As Poniewozik observes, what this actually means “is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more.” Hence the need for assessment instruments that everyone inside an organization understands to be trivial and easily spun to nearly any purpose by agile institutional actors.
The instruments are supposed to be easily defeated. As upper management continuously urges lower management, who in turn urge the workforce: “be creative” with the numbers. Being creative with the numbers allows managers to survive in their own culture of claiming ever-larger improvements in productivity while papering over the enormous human cost.
The human cost isn’t just the immiseration of the workforce. It’s also the failure of these intrusively and anti-socially managed institutions, “highly productive” on paper, to actually deliver the policing, health care, and education they exist to provide.
In the show, this means that all city departments are under continuous pressure to fudge their statistics to make it look as if this dishonest managerial policy is actually working. The Baltimore Sun fires its experienced reporters and slashes funds to do investigative reporting in favor of fire-chasing and puffery, fleshing out the staff with cheaper, younger, workers, some of whom lack the contacts, experience—and moral compass—to do the job. “Squeezing every drop of value” from every worker means disposing of the most experienced before having to pay their health care premiums or their retirement benefits, and asking young workers to work at a discount because they believe in the mission of the institution.
At the police department, funds to actually investigate homicide and gang crime have been steadily restricted to the point where only “high profile” murders receive resources; most victims receive perfunctory attention, and individual investigators are barred from investing time and resources in long-term efforts to bring down criminal organizations.
In order to shake funds from the system, one homicide investigator gets the idea of faking the evidence in the murder of some homeless men to appear as if they are serial killings.
This plan plays on the interlocking nature of the quality-management values driving public institutions and the privately-owned media with a public-service mission, together with the responsibility-center resource allocation of the mayor’s office: if the newspaper can drum up a market and capture the attention of the mayor, then—and only then–resources will flow toward the investigation.
When he ups the ante by subsequently faking a sexual component to the murders (plain serial killing is not enough), and when a young reporter, under similar pressures at the Baltimore Sun, also fakes journalistic evidence, a very modest stream of resources is finally aimed toward the new institutional mission of the police department, getting the nonexistent serial killer.
A significant fraction of those resources are wasted maintaining the illusion that reporters and police officers are following managerial direction and chasing down the fake murderer.
The small amount left over is secretly diverted to actual policing—a small cadre of dedicated officers use the funds and control over their time recaptured from management to order test results, do surveillance, acquire computers, and actually make a series of arrests.
There’s plenty to say about this in relation to campus administration—the way that managerial control of institutional mission has shifted toward vocational training over education, as Stanley Aronowitz has long observed, and toward direct corporate influence over research and curriculum, as Jennifer Washburn has made abundantly clear.
My own take on this is that the faculty are in a culture-struggle with administration, and they are losing. This isn’t a theory that I have: as I explain in the introduction and Chapter 3 of How The University Works, it’s management’s own account of its program, to prosecute war on faculty and student culture by shaping institutional culture to its own purposes. Quality management is above all an engine for the promotion of a relentless administrative solidarity against traditional faculty values and traditional faculty institutions.
“Quality” processes are the Stalinist iteration of late capitalism, through which the class of functionaries exist in a separate world of servants and second homes while urging everyone else to accept scarcity for love of the mission. It’s no longer just teaching for love—it’s policing and soldiering and urban planning for love, game design for love, word processing for love.
Quality management takes advantage of the fact that most people don’t behave as the self-interested clots modelled by neoliberal economics. Most people are animated by profoundly pro-social impulses. To a limited but real extent, depending on individual factors, janitors do their work for love of clean floors. And it is the overt, cannibalistic intention of quality management to see that—to the absolute limit of the possible—they do that work for love alone.
Only management, in the quality scheme, isn’t done for love. One can see why. Management in the quality scheme is done for hate–for hate of democracy, equality, and the public, in service of a totalitarian culture of subservience to “leadership.”
In the quality scheme, management is paid more to do something most of us can’t do. Most of us can’t live in mansions while our neighbors can’t afford chemo; most of us really believe that accumulation has reasonable limits.
Only a very unusual person can do what the sleaziest small contractor does–pick up day labor, pay them less than the minimum wage to rebuild a suburban kitchen, collect fifty grand, and then dump the workers back on the street corner.
The task of academic quality management is to find those rare people and make them deans, provosts, and presidents.
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