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Boltanski is a French sociologist who is little known to American sociologists and social theorists. His “pragmatic sociology of critique” rejects his former colleague Bourdieu’s “critical sociology,” and develops a theory and practice of critique that respects the average person’s ability to understand everyday life and the social forces that shape social reality. Boltanski is self-subversive in the sense that he rigorously critiques his own theories.

Books & ideas

The Empirical Sociology of Critique

An Interview with Luc Boltanski

Translated with the support
of the Institut français

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Books and Ideas: Luc Boltanski, you are a sociologist, a professor at the EHESS, [1] and you are well known for having directed and participated in numerous projects over several decades. This interview gives us an opportunity to reflect on two works that you recently published. First, Rendre la réalité inacceptable (Making Reality Unacceptable) is a short book in which you look back at the creation of Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. The book was published on the occasion of the republication of an article that you co-wrote with Pierre Bourdieu, entitled “The Production of the Dominant Ideology.” The other book, On Critique, considers a series of tools and concepts for rethinking the connection between two clearly identifiable periods of your career. The first stage was that of critical sociology, in which you participated on Pierre Bourdieu’s team as one of his most industrious researchers. The next period was that of a sociology of critique, marked by the founding of the GSPM, [2] in which you reinvented a number of tools for understanding the place of critique in contemporary society. A first and very simple question is: what were you trying to do in these two books? Are you returning to critical sociology, or are you taking stock of your intellectual itinerary, which has gone through several stages? How do you interpret this gesture of republishing and returning to different epochs of your career?

The Critique of Critique

Luc Boltanski: There are several answers to your question. The first is to borrow a phrase from Albert Hirschman that I like very much (I like him, his work, and the phrase): “a tendency towards self-subversion.” I think that I have a pronounced tendency towards critique—towards critique in general, the critique of my friends, and self-critique or self-subversion. And I hate dogmatism. I think that nothing is as opposed to science and intellectual activity as dogmatism. The turn that we made in the mid-eighties, by creating a small group, which included people who had worked with Bourdieu, was an anti-dogmatic turn, not a political one. We were not trying to critique critique, though our actions were often interpreted that way. I think this is part of the reason for the hostility that our work elicited. Some took us to task, saying: “Ah, they’re abandoning critique, they are against critique, they’re turncoats, they’ve become free marketeers, and so on.” Others, to the contrary, said: “That’s great! They have shown that critique is finite, that we had arrived at a post-critical era, etc.” Those are almost exactly the words that were used. But both reactions were completely off the mark. Our problem was sociology. It was to fight against what was becoming, after the creativity of the seventies, a kind of dogmatism, a kind of intellectual routine. We wanted to reopen a number of theoretical problems in sociology that had, in my mind, yet to be resolved. It is important to shed light on problems, even when one does not manage to resolve them.

The status of the two books you mention is somewhat different. The first, Rendre la réalité inacceptable, is a book I wrote for young people—students, but also young people who are not students. I will perhaps return to this point. I wanted to convey to them what it means to work freely, to invent, to be ironic—I am a strong believer in irony—particularly in the years following May 68. I also wanted, at the same time, to republish “The Production of the Dominant Ideology.” First, I had a lot of fun being involved in the writing of that long article. I created a “Dictionary of Received Ideas” for the time, which was a rather enjoyable task. But it also struck me as useful to republish the article, both for historical reasons and to shed light on the political era in which we presently find ourselves. The texts that it analyzes—those of Giscard, Poniatowski, or of contemporary economists—lie at the frontier of two outlooks: between, on the one hand, what at the time was called “technocracy,” which was still deeply statist, still deeply tied to the idea of economic planning, rationality, and industrialization; and, on the other—I’m using big words to simplify things—neoliberal forms of governance. It is very illuminating to return to the middle of the seventies if one wants to undertake the archaeology of the Sarkozian political universe, which has considerably expanded neoliberal policies while dressing them up, at times, in so-called “republican” rhetoric. And, at a personal level, I wanted to clarify, perhaps because I’m getting older and I don’t want to bring a bunch of old, vain quarrels before Saint Peter, my relationship with Bourdieu, which was a very close one—asymmetrical, of course, because I was his student, but also a true friendship—one that, I think, went both ways.

On Critique is a little different. It is a theoretical book. It is the first time that I have written a theoretical book that is not tied to investigative work. It is, in a sense, the theory that underlies The New Era of Capitalism. I sought to build a framework that integrated elements connected to critical sociology and elements relating to the sociology of critique. You could say, if you like, that it is Popperian. Last weekend I was rereading some texts by Popper for a book that I’m currently writing. I am far from being Popperian at all levels, but I am in complete agreement with the idea that scientific work consists of establishing models that start from a particular point of view, even though one is fully aware that this point of view is local. The important thing is not to try to expand this local point of view by applying it to everything, which is one of the primary causes of dogmatism. But one can try to build broader frameworks, in which the previously established model remains valid, on the condition that the scope of its validity is specified. In a nutshell, what worried us most about Bourdieusian sociology as it had developed was the outlandish asymmetry between, on the one hand, the great, clairvoyant researcher and, on the other, actors who were steeped in illusion. The researcher was seen as enlightening the actor. Rancière made the same critique.

Combining Structuralism and Phenomenology

Books and Ideas: Yes, he does so in The Philosopher and His Poor, which you mention. There is this asymmetry and then—to leap directly into the debate between critical sociology and the sociology of critique—there is another issue that you discuss in On Critique. Basically, when one has a theory of domination that encompasses everything, one no longer sees domination in any particular place. When domination is everywhere, it is nowhere. Could you reflect on this gesture of discerning the spaces from which domination is practically exercised? The turn to a sociology of critique has been interpreted as an abandonment of the problematic of domination, whereas it seems, from reading On Critique, that something else is at stake.

Luc Boltanski: I think that it is closely tied to another problem that lies at the very heart of sociology and that deeply preoccupied Bourdieu—which he tried to resolve without, in my view, really succeeding. It is a problem that, moreover, has yet to find a genuinely satisfying solution. It goes more or less like this. You can approach social reality from two perspectives. You can take the point of view of someone newly arrived in this world, to whom you will describe this reality. This requires a panoramic point of view, a historical narrative, reference to large entities and collectivities, which may or may not have juridical definitions: states, social classes, organizations, etc. Some will speak of references to structures. A perspective of this kind will tend to shed light on the stability of social reality, on the perpetuation of its asymmetries (to use Bourdieu’s language), on reproduction, and on the great difficulties actors encounter in altering their social destiny or—more difficult still—in transforming structures. But you can also adopt another perspective, which is called the sociology of the actor, that consists of adopting the point of view of someone who acts in the world, who is immersed in situations. No one acts within structures, we all act in determinant situations. And there, you no longer find yourself confronted with actors who, as it were, passively endure reality, but with creative individuals, who calculate, have intuitions, deceive, are sincere, have competencies, and act in ways that modify their immediate reality. No one, in my mind, has found a really convincing solution to combining these two approaches. Yet they are both necessary in making sense of social reality.

One could try to formulate this problem in terms of the relationship between structuralism and phenomenology. I tried to articulate these two approaches in La condition fœtale, starting with the question of breeding and abortion. I am not sure that it was particularly satisfying. Bourdieu tried to combine these two approaches. Before discovering the social sciences, he wanted to devote himself to phenomenology. For him, this articulation depends on the theory of the habitus, towards which I have a number of theoretical reservations. It is a theory that is derived, in large part, from cultural anthropology, as it was developed by anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Ralf Linton, and Margaret Mead. I recently reread Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict, and it is quite strange to see, from a contemporary perspective, how she uses categories drawn from Nietzsche or Spengler. Her main idea is that one can identify cultures that have specific traits—personalities, if you will—and that these personalities will reappear in the psychological dispositions—i.e., in the personalities—of the individuals who are immersed in these cultures. It is a rather bizarre construction, one that becomes circular, so that if you know an actor’s cultural location, as defined by sociology and statistics, you know her dispositions and you know, in advance, how this actor will react in any given situation. It is against this position that we took a stand. But we also wanted to avoid a different model, established in opposition to the cultural model, which, without the help of phenomenology but drawing on neoclassical economics, acknowledges only individuals. According to the Popperian model, known today as methodological individualism, only individuals exist. Each individual has her own motives and makes her own choices, and it is from the aggregation of these various motives (which occurs in ways that are not explained) that historical causality is derived, be it a micro-history of situations or economic or political macro-history. In this model, which sees only individuals, it is forbidden to confer intentionality onto entities that are not individual beings. On the face of it, this seems reasonable. Social groups—political groups or social classes, for instance—cannot be the subjects of action verbs. But, in my view, one problem with this model is that it cannot account for the fact that it is not only sociologists who refer to macro-sociological entities. Everyone does. Actors cannot construct social reality without inventing institutions and collective entities, which they know, at a certain level, are fictions, but which they nonetheless require to make sense of what is happening—that is, history. Our way of approaching the question of action has taken a hyper-empirical turn. We took our inspiration from currents in Anglo-Saxon pragmatism. In our work with Bourdieu, these currents were far from unknown. We had, for example, read Austin, and many authors tied to analytic philosophy. We were very familiar with interactionism and Goffman’s work. It was, incidentally, Bourdieu who first had Goffman translated and introduced him in France. But compared to what occurred in Bourdieu’s group, we radicalized this approach. Our intention was to develop an empirical sociology of critique. To this end, we chose disputes as our principal object of study, as it is through disputes that actors display their critical capacities. We wanted to do fieldwork on disputes that was as precise as possible, approaching them from a position of uncertainty. In other words, we considered—and in this we were very influenced by what Bruno Latour and the anthropology of sciences were doing at the time—all the arguments made in the course of a dispute, in a symmetrical way. For the new anthropology of science, one must not, for example, study the Pasteurian crisis by assuming that Pasteur was right and his adversaries were wrong, but to proceed as if one was faced with two competing theories that had to be treated equally in terms of description, rather than assuming, retrospectively, the position of the theory that won. We adopted the same approach when considering disputes in our fieldwork. We considered major controversies or minor disputes occurring in offices or companies, closely examining the critical capacities of the actors, with the goal of reconstructing a critical theory, somewhat like Dewey, on the basis of the critical experiences of the actors themselves.

The Making and Unmaking of Social Classes

Books and Ideas: We’ll return to the question of uncertainty, which lies at the heart of On Critique, as your thinking on institutions is connected to the notion of uncertainty. First, in order to understand what is at stake in the historical trajectory marked by the different stages of your thought, there is one social structure which you mention that plays a distinct role in both books: social class. In essence, a major part of your thinking about historical change in recent decades has consisted of saying: we are witnessing a decline, a quasi-disappearance, of entities that, thirty years ago, were considered almost natural. This has political consequences, both in terms of how ideology is formed and in terms of how sociology itself is formed. You say in On Critique that the turn to a sociology of critique and the return—I am not sure if “return” is the best word—the search for a rearticulation, is entirely connected to the presence or absence of social classes in our social world. Are we simply left with the assessment that social classes have nearly disappeared as structuring entities that are worked into the state apparatus, or do you see a revival of forms that actors might latch onto to escape their confining individualism?

Luc Boltanski: I would just like to point out one thing: the logic of scholarly research is not the same as the logic of politics. In the mid-eighties, it was less that we thought that social classes were no longer relevant than that we concluded they were no longer interesting fields of research. When authors have dealt with an issue thoroughly—you find the same thing with novels—you have to move onto another topic. To take a completely different example, after Bataille, it was no longer very interesting to write erotic literature, as he went as far as one could go. You have to move onto other topics. Well, it’s the same for research. I felt, particularly after the publication of Bourdieu’s Distinction, that an analysis of social classes relying on the concept of habitus was not a terrain on which my generation would make new discoveries, on which it might innovate. I remember that the English translator of The Making of a Class [3] told me that he found it difficult to translate “habitus.” I told him: no problem, pal, there’s no “habitus” in The Making of a Class. It was important to adopt different approaches, to interest oneself in other things. The Making of a Class is indeed a book on the formation of social classes, but which approaches them through their political genesis. I should add that this turn occurred at the historical moment when the socialists had come to power, after Mitterrand’s election. Basically, we thought, very naively, that certain things could now be taken for granted politically and that, by the same token, we were freed from the tiresome task of having to repeat incessantly that capitalists exist, that inequalities exist, that domination exists, etc. For the left, it was a rather optimistic period, even if, after the fact, one might think that we were mistaken.

To return to social classes, it is, as you know, an extremely complicated concept, because on the one hand it is a critical concept, oriented to the normative horizon of the disappearance of classes. Considered from this perspective, the description of exploited or dominated social classes is primarily negative. On the other hand, it is a positive concept that seeks to arm you for struggle, because if you describe people only in a negative way, you can’t arm them for struggle. This was a common practice of the Communist Party. You must show how poor, miserable, and oppressed the proletariat is. But you must also show that it is courageous and resistant and that it has its own values which underpin its dignity. Also, something happened in France in particular that did not occur in Great Britain to the same extent, nor in the United States.

After the Popular Front, in 1936, and after the establishment of the welfare state, in the postwar years, a political system was set up that tried to integrate social classes into the representation of the political order, to make them official, and to give them a role in the construction of the political collectivity. Until then, in France, the collectivity had been conceived in what we might call Rousseauist terms, that is, as composed of “pure” citizens, defined with no reference to their proprieties or interests, as “men without qualities,” if you like. This occurred somewhat along the lines of corporatism, while preserving the critical aspect of social classes, as well as, in part, their antagonistic character. By the same token, references to social classes became complex. It was simultaneously a critical notion and a concept used to describe the institutions of the welfare state. Social classes were also integrated into actors’ mental categories. In the early eighties, Laurent Thévenot and I wrote a study (that appeared in English) entitled “Finding One’s Way in Social Space.” [4] Our approach was through exercises that were almost games, carried out in groups. We showed how the socio-professional categories of the INSEE, [5] which were invented in 1936 following the establishment of the welfare state, had equivalents in the actors’ own cognitive categories. They were tools for defining one’s own identity and for identifying others. If you look at films from the seventies, like those of Claude Sautet, you see that in a way they are “Bourdieu Light”: you have specific milieus, people who have a specific personality because they belong to these milieus or to a social class, etc.

What happened in sociology in the eighties was that people said: these things have been established, we’re going to think about something else. It’s not that they’re wrong, but we’re going to go a step further, to understand how people construct these categories, how they have other ones, particularly by considering the phenomena of disadjustment that was starting to destroy the coherence of social classes as they had been established institutionally through the relationship between market and work, the system of classification, the world of schools, INSEE classifications by way of collective bargaining agreements, etc.

But, that said, the profound changes shaping the social world have been neglected. There has been another phenomenon, tied to changes in capitalism and in politics: the dismantling both of the critical force implicit in the notion of social class and of its institutional character as a tool for grasping the political world. To put things in slightly complicated terms, what I studied in The Making of a Class, without realizing it, was the establishment in the fifties of a very rigid boundary between, on the one hand, the labor movement and the world of labor, and, on the other hand, everything else. This is when the boundary hardened. Everyone else became known as cadres—managers—a word that lumped together workers who had become self-educated foremen and great industrialists trained at elite schools who had become corporate employees and which managed to make a reality out of this assemblage composed of people who belonged to the same entity but were incapable of describing this entity, in which no one had the same habitus. And this was, at the time, politically and economically necessary. Later, I would say, in the eighties and even more after 1989, following the collapse of communism and the threat that socialist countries posed during the Cold War, this boundary disintegrated. During my lifetime, I have witnessed the rise of the category of “manager,” as well as its fall. This category no longer seems at all necessary. “Worker” has been replaced by “operator.” Today, there are operators and “executives” or “project managers.” As I see it, one of the major trends now underway is the implementation of a divide that is not instituted and that is a divide separating “executives”—in a nutshell, the rich, society’s upper crust—from everyone else. The reason is that one no longer has to contain the working class, which has lost, which is no longer seen as a threat, and which has, in a sense, unraveled.

Books and Ideas: There is no longer a critical force that might be integrated into a discourse.

Luc Boltanski: No. Perhaps one will come back. But you could say that, in the thirties, everyone believed in social class: social Catholics, corporatists, those who would become fascists, socialists, communists, etc. Except for liberals, everyone believed that something like social classes existed and that it was necessary to consider them and integrate them into the state. And everyone believed very strongly in the state. This was the problematic that dominated the period extending from the thirties to as late as 1970. The period that immediately followed May 68 was really the apogee of the welfare state—before Giscard, who after all was a great politician (I have a lot of admiration for Giscard, even if I naturally disagree with most of his policies), endeavored to displace the social question and to entertain the possibility of a weakening of the unions, followed by a halt to, even a dismantling of, the welfare state.

Books and Ideas: Notably by promoting—you show that this is the flip-side of the decline of class—the collectivization of questions of gender and the societal questions that took their place.

Luc Boltanski: Absolutely. And he was right to do so against the moralizing opposition of the Gaullists. With regards to social class, we have thus arrived, in sociology, at a rather bizarre situation, which, in some respects, creates a convergence between the substantialist position of Bourdieu and that of someone like Rosanvallon, when he tried to explain that classes don’t or no longer exist. When I was writing The Making of a Class, Bourdieu, who nonetheless, I think, had considerable respect for this work, would tell me that, when you get down to it, managers don’t exist, at least not as a class, since, because of its heterogeneity, the category included actors endowed with different habiti. Then, several years later, Ronsavallon referring to our research on social categories—my work, as well as that of Desrosières and Thévenot, for example—wrote that these works showed that social classes don’t exist, that they were, in a sense, artifacts. This was a misunderstanding of our work. We were trying to define what you might call an ontology of collective beings. We wanted to investigate the modalities of existence of these “inexistent beings” (as logicians call them) that are collective entities. They do not exist as individual, substantive beings do, but they exist devilishly—if I might say so—albeit in other modalities of existence. Substantialism, which, in the seventies, was often invoked to defend the existence of classes, was later used to argue for their non-existence. So a new “taken-for-grantedness” was established in the eighties and nineties. Its basic insight was the idea that we no longer live in a class society. We live in a society with a broad middle class and a little fraction of the excluded who, out of charity, must be helped, and a little fraction on the top, composed of the rich, the too rich, who should be more mindful of the public good, of “living together,” etc.—in short, more moral, and whom we must try to make moral. This was the beginning of this moral society to which we still belong. I called our group the “Political and Moral Sociology Group” as an homage to Hirschman, but, personally, I don’t like moralism.

First published in www.laviedesidees.fr. Translated from French by Michaël C. Behrent with the support of the Institut Français.


I am in Bismarck ND. I am here shooting an indie film. I play a bland man who has murdered a Supreme Court judge. I have no memory of the event. Tonight we are filming a scene in prison where I am interviewed by an international journalist. I think I prefer a death sentence to life in a Bismarck prison!/
Larger view

MnSCU surveys employers about needed job skills

by Alex Friedrich, Minnesota Public Radio

April 30, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Employers across the country are saying too many American workers don’t have the right skills to fill open positions. In Minnesota, the State Colleges and Universities system is surveying employers in the region to find out what skills they’re not seeing in recent graduates and older workers — and what else employers need from higher education.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone announced last month a new effort to better match MnSCU programs to needed skills. Since then, system officials have held more than 30 listening sessions in fields such as health care, transportation and engineering.

At one such session last week in Minneapolis, the focus was on information technology, which is a growth industry. In the past three years the number of IT job postings in Minnesota has tripled to about 15,000, even during an economic downturn. But up to 10 percent of those jobs were unfilled, according to Advance IT Minnesota, an office within MnSCU that aims to develop a stronger IT workforce in the state.

That gap could double in the next decade if things don’t change, because Minnesota’s workforce is aging and the number of high school graduates is declining.

So MnSCU officials recently talked with members of the Minnesota High Tech Association. Executives from about a dozen companies got together at the Minneapolis Convention Center to discuss what they need in the work force. What they said was pretty typical of what businesspeople have been telling MnSCU.

Tech executives — like their counterparts across the state — need everything. It just depends on the size of the company.

Joseph Ward of RJA Dispersions stressed broad technical skills — for example, a chemical engineer who knows computing.

“I’d ask for more cross-training in the engineering disciplines so people can do a bit of IT, or maybe more than a bit when it’s needed,” said Ward.

And some executives said job applicants aren’t required to have a bachelor’s degree, since technology changes a lot over four years. Instead, some suggested offering technical skills in two-year degrees — or in even shorter classes or certificate courses.

Executives at some larger companies said they don’t necessarily want the focus to be on tech skills that they can outsource to other countries.

“Technical will always be there. In fact, it’s easier to teach the technical skills,” said Tim Dokken with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. “It’s much more difficult to train the soft skills and how to get people to influence, collaborate, work together.”

Those companies prefer well-rounded people. They say many tech workers have liberal arts backgrounds and shifted into technology.

It’s not just skilled graduates that executives wanted out of MnSCU. Lynn Hunt of Hunt Utilities Group says rural employees need more access to education. That means training programs run at their facilities, or online.

“What I’ve seen is the need of reaching both the older and the younger faster at home,” Hunt said. “They don’t have the time to take from their jobs. A very, very small company — you can’t let them go. Each person there is so needed.”

MnSCU will use the information it gathers at the listening sessions to shape the programs it’ll offer in the future. And it will update the survey every few years.

But there are some who question the premise of the MnSCU project, including one of its own faculty members. Monte Bute, a sociology professor at Metropolitan State University, says there’s no proof of a jobs/skills mismatch.

The skilled workers and students are already there, he says. Employers are just unable — or unwilling — to pay wages high enough to attract them.

At the Minneapolis listening session, Bute scolded the business executives in attendance, noting that they pushed for budget cuts and lower taxes while expecting even more out of a strained public education system.

Bute said the government shouldn’t pay for training or education that companies themselves should be providing.

“When is business going to start picking up their share of the tab, and quit expecting families and students to pick up the bulk of the tab?” he said.

MnSCU officials will hold sessions for the agricultural sector in June and July. It’ll address other sectors of the state’s economy, such as financial services and insurance, in the fall.

Minneapolis StarTribune, April 19, 2012


Lori Sturdevant was right to call out the Legislature for failing to pass a bonding bill with significant funding for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (“Sharp strategy for MnSCU. One catch … ,” April 1. However, she gave a nod of approval to Chancellor Steven Rosenstone’s Workforce Assessment Initiative without adequately investigating his basic premise.

Employers claim that many jobs are going unfilled because the labor pool is unqualified. This thesis remains unproved. Business lobbies are playing Rosenstone like a fiddle. Their disingenuous strategy has little to do with reform or producing well-educated persons. Rather, they want the public sector to pick up the tab for employee training in order to reduce labor costs and maximize profits.

Let us not mince words: Workforce development is corporate welfare.

To be fair, Sturdevant and Rosenstone are not alone in their enthusiasm for workforce development. Business leaders, legislators, state agency commissioners, reporters and editorialists, and even Gov. Mark Dayton have fallen prey to this latest institutional fad. The sociologist Joel Best’s recent book captures this phenomenon: “Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads.”

How does this bedazzling process work? Every institutional fad needs a good story — a perplexing problem and a compelling solution. What is the problem that Rosenstone seeks to solve? Minnesota’s jobs-skills mismatch. How is he going resolve this predicament? He has made an “all in” bet on workforce development.

Where did MnSCU’s “mismatch” story line come from? Credit David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the MnSCU Board of Trustees from 2007-10. Olson proselytized the jobs-skills mismatch for the chamber while simultaneously reshaping MnSCU’s educational mission as workforce development.

MnSCU is planning 50-plus “listening sessions” with “Minnesota employers to gain a better understanding of their current and future workforce needs.” Sponsoring this initiative with MnSCU are the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and none other than the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Does Rosenstone really expect unbiased data from these listening sessions? His workforce-development strategy depends not on dog-and-pony shows, but on reliable evidence of a jobs-skills mismatch.

Economists from Columbia University, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and New York University devised a sophisticated skills-mismatch index that they used in a 2011 study, “Measuring Mismatch in the U.S. Labor Market.” They published a follow-up paper on March 29. Their conclusions raise doubts about any significant structural or long-term mismatch:

“Based on this mismatch index, we conclude the following: First, the index displays considerable cyclicality, increasing notably in recessions. Second, the index has fallen appreciably during this recovery and is now near its pre-recession level. This pattern suggests that although mismatch rose considerably during the Great Recession, that rise proved temporary.”

In other words, the market has been working out the mismatch. Even during the recession, the problem was, to some extent, an illusion. It was often not a shortage of skills but employers’ inability to find workers at the wages offered. The way to resolve a labor shortage in a free market is for employers to raise wages. If they don’t, workers are free to pursue other opportunities.

The jobs-skills mismatch may be little more than a public-relations ploy by employer associations to get the public sector to pay for apprenticeships and job training that employers once provided. These same business lobbies have spent a small fortune seeking lower taxes, resulting in higher-education cuts that made tuition increases inevitable. Corporations not only want to call the tune for public higher education, they want students and their parents to pay the piper. Back in the day, students became well-informed citizens; today, they become commodities for industry.

These policy decisions about the future of higher education constitute a moral hazard. Economist Paul Krugman defined moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.” Rosenstone and Olson, on behalf of MnSCU Board of Trustees and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, are making a risky gamble on Minnesota’s future. Students, faculty and taxpayers will bear the cost if this wager is lost.

I work in a union shop. A few colleagues are non-members. They have doubts about the efficacy of collective action.They behave as if activism is beneath them, or that they have no dog in this fight. I can only assume that they are either naïve or woefully ignorant of the existential threat that the so-called “Right to Work” (RTW) amendment poses to every faculty member in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.

Equally deluded are the handful of “principled” libertarians who claim that unions are a coercive imposition on their “freedom.” They want neither to belong to a union nor to pay anything for the benefits that a union bestows upon them. Economists call these two groups “free riders.” In truth, that is just a polite euphemism for freeloaders.

The Inter Faculty Organization (IFO) forces no one to join. However, you are mistaken if you believe that you are not dependent on the union for the wages, benefits, and workplace protections that you enjoy. Because non-members receive the same benefits from our contract settlements as do members, we ask that you pay a “Fair Share” of the cost of bargaining and protecting the provisions of that agreement.

The IFO holds to a rather old-fashioned idea: We are a community of scholars. In the 12th century, Peter Abelard established at the University of Paris the progenitor of the modern college and university. Modeled on the medieval guild, Paris exemplified the principle of autonomy, a federated and self-regulating community of teachers and scholars.

During the 20th century, trustees and a new class of professional administrators eventually destroyed those self-governing faculty guilds that had persisted for 800 years. Teachers and scholars increasingly became wage slaves in a corporate university, at-will employees with few protections, minimal bargaining power, and little say in governance. Administrators and trustees held a monopoly of power in higher education.

Faculty members soon realized that without their traditional form of self-governance, they were individually subject to autocratic behavior by administrators and trustees. The community of scholars became a shape shifter—it organized faculty unions.

The IFO improves and protects your wages, health coverage, pensions, and contract rights, whether you are a member or not. With the combined 2006 and 2008 contracts, the IFO won salaries increases of nearly 17 percent. Since the Great Recession, we have protected those gains and stopped ongoing attempts to cut faculty salaries and benefits. Even if you are not a member, we provide professional representation if the administration violates your contractual rights.

Most importantly, the IFO has organized a countervailing power to the potentially absolute power of MnSCU and local university administrations. We now have shared governance in public higher education. This faculty power grows from a democratic and participatory organization that projects a collective voice—we hang together, or the powers-that-be will hang us one by one. Much of the time, the slogan “The union makes us strong” seems a cliché; the RTW campaign has made this assertion a pragmatic truth.

MnSCU controls public higher education at 31 colleges and universities. Chancellor Rosenstone says he is running a $2 billion business and, befittingly, has joined the board of the Minnesota Business Partnership—an organization composed of the CEOs of the state’s 100 largest banks and corporations.

A Board of Trustees, appointed by former Governor Tim Pawlenty, governs MnSCU. Business leaders, including current and past executive directors of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and the Minnesota Business Partnership, dominate the board. The market ideology that permeates MnSCU has no sympathy for faculty unions. In fact, there are Trustees and MnSCU employees who support efforts to weaken and destroy public unions.

Consider doing your job without the IFO having your back. It is not a comforting thought. The choice is yours—union solidarity today or wage slavery tomorrow.

After I posted “Immunity Deficiency Blues,” I was asked to furnish some more background. This essay, which I published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on 11-17-2010, will provide some context for the reader.

T.S. Eliot thought that April was the cruelest month. I disagree. For me, spring is a time of rebirth and rejuvenation. I would argue that autumn is the most cold-hearted time of year.

Last fall I was afflicted with a mysterious neuropathy that baffled my neurologist. A couple of months later I had hip replacement surgery and a fortuitous x-ray revealed tumors on my lungs. They diagnosed me with stage 3 granular pulmonary lymphoma, a cancer so rare that there are only 500 to 600 cases in the medical literature. Turns out that neuropathy is a symptom of the disease. Who knew?

The prognosis is poor. The median survival from diagnosis is 14 months. More than 60 percent of patients die within five years. I completed chemotherapy in July and the cancer was in remission. However, within a month troubling symptoms appeared. I was increasingly short of breath, gasping after 15-20 paces.  Pulmonary embolisms formed. Most days I took two naps. I had no energy; the smallest tasks were beyond me. Walking became a precarious adventure.

Heart function is one potential victim of chemotherapy. Mine has declined to 20-30 percent. The neuropathy has also worsened. My legs are numb from the knees down and I have minimal feeling in my feet. The outlook is grim. For me, autumn is akin to what Dylan Thomas called “the dying of the light.”

Even as a small boy, I found fall the saddest season. I grew up on an isolated rural homestead and rode the bus to a country school. As the autumn light rapidly diminished, I trudged up our half-mile lane each evening in a darkening and bleak landscape. The few flickering lights in the house and barn were of little consolation. The prairie’s sinister spell of fall twilight lifted once I moved to the city.

Only after I bought a rustic cabin on a river 22 years ago did those distant mood swings return with full force. I remain exuberant until the Summer Solstice. Then the days begin to shorten, only so minutely through July and August. The dying of the light accelerates rapidly from September until the Winter Solstice, and my spirit correspondingly withers. I always close down my cabin on the weekend when Daylight Saving Time ends. As I finish the final tasks, this idyllic setting is awash in dead leaves and darkness. I go into emotional hibernation until the next spring.

This autumn has been particularly difficult. My retired brother flew in from Vancouver Island for two weeks to close down the cabin and winterize our home in the city. While I appreciated his visit and help, it only heightened my sense of helplessness. This must be what the late autumn of life feels like.

I held up remarkably well during chemotherapy. However, the damaging aftereffects of chemo and the doctors’ dim prognosis for recovery have finally broken my spirit. My primary doctor recently gave me a questionnaire for depression: “Little interest or pleasure in doing things;” “Feeling down, depressed or hopeless;” “Feeling tired or having little energy;” Feeling bad about yourself;” “Trouble concentrating on things.”

The results were, frankly, depressing. I have a new stamp on my passport—Prozac Nation. I am now taking an anti-depression drug. When it kicks in, I hope it raises my low spirits. Regardless, no mood-altering drug will change the results of my latest checkup. Autumn just got a bit more cold-hearted.

The cancer is back. It has re-appeared in my lungs and spread to my liver. I feel no urge to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nevertheless, I am not yet ready for a calm acceptance of the coming darkness. I will rejuvenate soon, in spirit if not body. I look forward to opening my cabin in the spring and watching the Yellow River flow, where one day my ashes will be scattered.


Thanks for all your expressions of concern. I am perpetually mystified by the enigma of the human psyche. I got some eerie messages in the last few days. One person wrote to say she had a dream about me. Three others said that for some reason they had been thinking of me. All of them only later discovered I was in the hospital.

I am back home now. No, the cancer has not returned. No, it was not another heart attack. Something much more pedestrian. I had gotten deathly ill last Monday. On Wednesday I went in and discovered that I had severe neutropenia, a dangerous decline of those white blood cells that fight infection. It is commonly associated with extended chemotherapy and AIDS.

Severe neutropenia leaves you vulnerable to any viral infection that comes along. It has occurred five times in the last 18 months. It is an experience you don’t want to repeat. The infection is like five days of the worst case of flu you have ever experienced. In the first 48 hours, I was awake for about two hours total. Fevers raged to 103 and I took demerol to fight the headaches,chills, tremors, and body ache. Massive antiviral drugs and constant IV fluids finally get it somewhat under control.

I had recently written this for MPR: “I had made my peace with death, when suddenly I was expelled from the land of the dying. It is not easy to return to the land of the living and, once again, play an active role in the human comedy.”  Nevertheless, after 10 months of remission from cancer, I was once again playing an active role with a vengeance. In fact, I had deluded myself into believing that I had won Bergman’s mythic chess match with Death. Once again, this week has been a Memento Mori. He stalks me still. 

“But perhaps that is the point: none of us have anything more than a temporary reprieve from our terminal condition.”


by Russ Stanton, IFO Director of Government Relations

The Inter Faculty Organization (IFO)  Board of Directors has elected Monte Bute to the position of Action Coordinator. The IFO represents faculty at Minnesota’s seven state universities. The Action Coordinator will chair the Action Committee and:

  • Help publicize the valuable work and efforts of the IFO and its members to various external constituent groups.
  • Engage in efforts to build solidarity and community within the IFO and its membership and with various external groups.
  • Coordinate information flow between faculty and the Negotiating Team regarding issues and progress of negotiations.
  • Coordinate actions that will move the negotiation process on and encourage settlement.
  • Keep the Negotiating Team informed of action plans and be receptive to input from the Negotiating Team; and
  • Work with the GRC to encourage efforts at writing letters to legislators and the local press.

Monte Bute is an associate professor of sociology at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. His opinion essays appear on the editorial pages of daily newspapers in the Twin Cities. Bute also frequently testifies on higher education issues before the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives.

Bute began teaching at Metropolitan State as a community faculty member in 1984. He finally finished a long-delayed B.A. at the university in 1991. After a 20-year career as a community organizer, he realized that his next mission in life was teaching. To fulfill that calling, Bute began graduate school rather late in life. Professor Bute has been a prolific writer over the years, publishing 65 articles in scholarly publications and the popular press.

Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM) gave Bute the Distinguished Sociologist award in 2004. Bute has received Metropolitan State University’s Outstanding Teacher award and the Excellence in Teaching award. He has also been given awards by Minneapolis Community and Technical College, the Jobs Now Coalition, and the Job Training Partnership Association.

Professor Bute is a past president of both Sociologists of Minnesota and the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA). Bute has been the editor of Sociograph, associate editor of the Sociological Imagination, and has served on the editorial board of Contexts, a journal of the American Sociological Association. He has been a fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.


Letta Page 12:07 pm on January 16, 2012 | # | Reply

The third additional set of films to hit our inboxes comes from the incomparable Monte Bute, of Metro State, who is well-known for his approach to teaching about death and dying while, well, experiencing these ultimately social phenomena. Monte pointed out that he generally has not found documentary to be a particularly good way to help students enter into the world of death and dying, but was readily able to supply five fictional films that work beautifully in a classroom—even one approaching a sometimes too-close topic.

1. “Ikiru,” directed by Akira Kurosawa

2. “The Seventh Seal,” directed Ingmar Bergman

3. “Of Gods and Men,” directed by Xavier Beauvoix

4. “Tell Me a Riddle,” directed by Lee Grant

5. “Dead Man,” Jim Jarmusch

To hear more about Monte’s approach in the classroom, listen to his episode of the Office Hours podcast here on The Society Pages or check out his own TSP blog, A Backstage Sociologist.