The Huffington Post Strike, Matthew Yglesias, and the Decline of the Progressive Blogosphere
Why am I not at all surprised to see blogger wunderkind—and member of the progressive establishment blogosphere in good standing—Matthew Yglesias advocate that people scab and cross a picket line? In this case, the dispute is over the strike at the Huffingtonpost. Two labor unions, the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union have called a strike and a boycott of the Huffington Post over the fact that they, you know, don’t pay their workers. At the same time, my brother in the UAW, Jonathan Tasini has filed a class action lawsuit against the Huffington Post on behalf of the unpaid bloggers. The activism was launched, of course, after it was announced that Arriana Huffington would make $315 million dollars selling the website to AOL without paying a cent to the bloggers who helped make it popular.
A couple of quick points about the strike and then some broader thoughts:
First, a strike has been called by legitimate unions. You might disagree with tactics, or even, as Yglesias claims, think that it’s counterproductive to the interests of the unpaid bloggers, but scabbing a picket line (even a virtual one) is a serious deal. Unless you have damn good reasons, you should always trust the workers who have called a strike. I don’t see how anyone can call themselves on the Left if they proudly cross a picket line.* And its one thing to do that in private, or because you were unaware of the picket line. Its another to publically advocate scabbing while taking money and publically representing a (supposedly) progressive organization like the Center for American Progress.
Second, It’s easy to overthink the complexity of an issue like this. Stepping back it is, like every other strike, a matter of class loyalties. Do you side with unpaid information-age workers, or AOL, one of the biggest information conglomerates in the world? There is no way that poorly paid information workers will ever get a fair deal unless they organize and fight. You either side with them (like Erik Loomis does) or you side with the faceless multinational corporation (like Yglesias does, whether he intends to our not). There’s no neutral ground in cyberspace.
Erik Loomis, who originally called Yglesias out, compares the bloggers to grad students, and the comparison is apt. In both cases there are groups of information workers who are paid little or nothing on the empty promise that one day in the future you might get a cushy job. Like Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, or tenured professor. In both cases, though, the very fact that people are willing to work for free at the beginning of their career erodes the need for people in those cushy jobs at the end of the career. In the case of academia, universities won’t hire lots of full time professors when they can rely on TAs and adjuncts (who are all hoping one day to become professors) to teach all the classes. As universities need less and less professors, the competition becomes more and more fierce, and so grad students are more and more willing to take poorly paid jobs in order to pad their resume. The vicious cycle continues.
Yglesias seems to think that because some people are willing to blog for free (as I do!), this means that the bloggers at the Huffington Post shouldn’t strike. By that logic, of course, the workers at the Stella D’Oro factory shouldn’t have struck since many people bake chocolate chip cookies for fun. The obvious difference between most blogs and the Huffingtonpost is that something different happens when your labor enters a marketplace and someone begins to profit off it. Especially when we’re talking $315 Million in profit. I think most of us have a pretty good moral economy in which we understand that you have a moral claim on money that is being made off your labor.
Moreover, as writers on the (actual) left are well aware, the appropriation of cultural work by capital is a central aspect of neoliberalism. The sale of the Huffington Post can be put in the broader context of the enclosure of the digital commons. As Michael Hardt defines it, biopolitical production relies on “the production of ideas, affects, social relations and forms of life.” Neoliberalism is dependent on “capitalist strategies for privatizing the common through mechanisms such as patents and copyrights.” In other words, this isn’t the 1930s anymore, when the relevant fights were in the Ford factories. Today, increasingly labor is intellectual labor, about manipulating data, ideas, and culture. (Of course, there were labor fights in the cultural industry in the 1930s too, I know, but I’m simplifying for the sake of the argument.) The Left has to respond to these changes in labor by finding ways to organize and advocate for workers in these information industries.
But in a broader sense, as Loomis originally pointed out, this whole issue is symptomatic of a larger issue: the decline of the progressive blogosphere as an independent and outsider voice. Yglesias, of course, is a perfect symbol for this. Today, from his nice perch in the Center for American Progress, he spends most of his time lecturing Teachers’ Unions on why we need to privatize our education system, advocating deregulation of one form or another, and asking himself, for every social problem, “what would my econ 101 textbook say?” If he isn’t writing for the New Republic and hosting cocktail parties in 10 years I’ll be shocked. His good friend Ezra Klein, although not as eagerly neoliberal, openly celebrates the technocratic worldview, seemingly unaware that bureaucratic efficiency is not the same thing as justice, equality, and dignity.
The other blogs have either become election oriented advocacy sites (like Dailykos) or got sucked up into one establishment think-tank or establishment magazine or another. The anti-establishment tone, the sense that the Democratic Party had to be saved from itself, the skepticism of elites, etc… are all mostly gone now, replaced by this weird fetishism of the technocrat or sadly predictable loyalty to the Democratic Party. Its true there are still a couple of left-overs from the original wave of bloggers. Your Atrioses, Digbys, and Glenn Greenwalds, who keep alive the flame. But it’s nearly impossible for new voices to enter into the conversation like they are.
And ironically, of course, it is this very system—the control of the blogosphere by established writers and institutions—that shuts out new bloggers and forces them to do humiliating things like work for free for the Huffington Post in the vain hope that they will one day be able to make a living out of it.
* The only exceptions I see are if the strike is a hate-strike, in which case you should cross the line, or rare instances in which some conservative workers strike to derail socialist policies, as when the Canadian doctors tried to prevent the single payer system from being implemented, or the CIA funded anti-Allende strikes in Chile. In those cases a broader solidarity trumps the solidarity you owe the workers. Obviously a virtual picket line can be more difficult to respect than a flesh and blood one. I certainly have followed links to the Huffington Post, and see no purpose in getting too self-righteous about people still reading it now and then. But I certainly won’t advocate it. And certainly won’t advocate the far greater action of writing for it.