An Interview with Boris Vormann (part 2)

In the final week of the Spring semester, Boris Vormann, Professor of Politics at BCB, agreed to a student interview without being given much warning of the types of questions to be asked. His balanced and insightful answers to questions like ‘what is the future of work’, ‘should the welfare state be reinstated’, ‘what is the role of academia’, and others, shed light on these most basic but essential issues while also clarifying why they are important — why he cares for this subject matter and why we should, too. 

Read the first part of this interview here.

Margarethe Hattingh: Changing gears here a bit now but still connected to this theme of expectations and perceptions, and more specifically to the Future of Work course of the Spring 2018 semester: what do you think the future of work looks like, globally and locally, and what do you think it should look like? 

Boris Vormann: The different visions that are out there about the future of work say more about the positions of the respective researchers than they say about the actual future of work. If you, say, focus on tasks, or if you focus on the future of capitalism or the end of capitalism, this oftentimes is indicative of the research position you’re writing from or the specific field you’re in, more than being an accurate scenario about what’s going to happen. Probably the future is going to be a mixture of these different scenarios that we also read about in class. 

But having said this, I think there are more or less convincing patterns that one can highlight in one’s analysis. If politicians stick to the status quo, which is a sort of laissez-faire position that has led to welfare state retrenchment, a shift to workfare and so on — if we see a similar development in the future, and a displacement and replacement of jobs through automation, and further offshoring, then we would see a lot of highly flexibilized and non-unionized work in the global North and the expansion of precarious labour conditions on a planetary level. But, at the same time, this type of precarization cannot go on forever. I think the actual crisis of democracy we’re in is very much related to these shifts towards workfare, so this is already very much a backlash to the kind of flexibilisation and changes in the worlds of work we’ve seen in the last four decades.

To put it quite bluntly, my guess would be this: If the last 400 years are any indicator, power relations will remain important, and there will be some unevenness about how work is distributed globally, and who gets to shoulder the dirty work and the environmentally and socially costly work, and who doesn’t. But how exactly that relationship falls into place is not set into stone.

M: Then, to the question of what do you think it should look like — you seem to think that the welfare state is very important; do you think that the welfare state ought to be reinstituted?

B: There was in the post-War era a very specific moment, in the Transatlantic and North Atlantic context, of decommodification of certain spheres of life — of education, for example. Decommodification means, essentially, not selling on the market but providing as a public good: Education, infrastructure, health, old age insurance… different things that were organised and/or provided by the state. Now we live in a very different historical moment where we don’t have a railroad national economy anymore, where the political system sort of maps onto the economic relations; but we have a global set of production systems, and we don’t have a political equivalent. So we are still mired in a nation state, Westphalian system, and it doesn’t look like we are in the process of developing some really effective international or even global institutions. We need to rethink how the global economy works in order for people to actually participate and for workers to have a say in the workplace. I think there are different ways this can be done. 

These are difficult questions that can’t easily be answered. But, generally speaking, I do think there needs to be a “re-decommodification” of certain goods to reinvent democracy. And some sort of welfare institutions will have to be part of this new compact.

M: What do you see as the role of academia in trying to affect these relations?

B: Academia is trying to think through these problems from a position that is necessarily normative, to some extent, but also an uninterested position — that’s not trying to create knowledge that is immediately instrumentalised by the market or instrumental for politics, but that is trying to assess a given situation. Not in order for that to be used directly as a tool for someone in power, or in the economy, but to take a disinterested position; even though that is not normative or ‘value-free’.

I think illuminating or enlightening society is part of that, or at least trying to enlighten the discourse and add different perspectives. I know these are terms with heavy baggage. But what I mean is the attempt to create a pluralistic discourse — not enlighten the discourse with ‘the one truth,’ but provide a more thorough understanding of what might be going on. Also questioning power, not accepting the way that things are without questioning these relationships.

This is an ongoing discussion, and we can have it again and again. I’d like to hear your opinion on it, really.

M: It just seems like there are so many possible visions and that no one is achieving… it seems like action needs to happen on all different sorts of levels in order for there to be any positive change. I feel like academia is limited because it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) push a certain agenda, but I feel like that’s also its strength. But then I don’t know how ‘practical’ it is. I think I have more questions than answers, though.

B: I don’t know if I am entirely settled on these questions either–they are difficult and answers come with trade-offs… If you’re someone who is on the marketplace trying to sell a product, you’re going to have a much different horizon of action than someone who is running for office for a four-year term. The position of academia should be to try and distance itself from these immediate goals of selling a product or trying to get re-elected, and try to think of society more broadly, I think. And obviously there are different schools in the social sciences and political sciences. There are different normative perspectives that exist. But I believe it’s almost an ethical question as a scholar to try and distance oneself from these immediate interests. That’s also the tricky part, because it doesn’t mean that we should just produce in the ivory tower. Research should be relevant. There’s a reason that I do interviews, even though it is sometimes difficult to articulate. And, also, it’s true that there are many downsides to that. Trying to develop a disinterested but not value-neutral position on society is worthwhile.

M: I completely agree. But, it seems that what you say presupposes that everyone ought to view this utilitarian goal as the best, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the right one.

B: What do you mean?

M: It seems most people believe there ought to be more of a balance, less inequality. This is something I commonly hear in class and in casual conversations here. And I do definitely agree with this, to a certain extent, but I do also think there is a cost to the individual — well, it depends on what individual. I don’t necessarily think it’s so self-evidently a good thing for everyone, and that might be why it is so difficult to achieve anything on a broad scale.

B: Because there is not one position; there is a struggle of different positions and understandings of what should be the goal of society. Yes, there are some people who argue that inequalities aren’t such a bad thing, at least if they’re not too pronounced, because they might lead people to be innovative, to go to work etc. There are very different normative positions on this, absolutely.

M: So do you think that the most important thing in the global society is to have less pronounced inequality?

B: I think that it’s unsustainable, the kind of inequality that we’re living on. That would certainly be my normative position.

M: But to fix that, do you think there might need to be some violent action? Or how do you think we can fix it?

B: I am not sure violence has ever attained the political goals it was intended to lead to.

M: Well, it seems to me that you need to forcibly take in order to give somewhere else, which many people would likely be opposed to.

B: Well, if this is what you’re referring to, this is constantly being done. We take from people when there is a tax, for example. There is an assumption that this is correct and legitimate as long as the state is using these revenues responsibly; for certain things and not for others. But oftentimes there is not even a debate about what kinds of investments are being made. There is an interesting group of scholars that is pointing out that sometimes the state is favouring certain groups more than others, but oftentimes does so in hardly visible ways. Raising questions of legitimacy is something that is important to do. Obviously one can debate these initial assumptions; and there are different philosophical positions on it. 

M: Moving on with the question of work — why did you decide to go into teaching at a university level, and why specifically BCB? And, connected to the second question, do you have any special interest in the liberal arts?

B: To answer the last question first, I think it’s by coincidence, or almost by accident, that I have a liberal arts education, even though I never knew or intended it, because I was following those leads that I was interested in. Though I began my studies in the humanities, as I did a study abroad and studied international relations, I realised these courses are also important. I’m interested in discursive questions, but there is something to institutions and our relationships beyond discourses that I also want to understand. So I moved into political science, then moved into sociology and geography. Trying not so much to think from the discipline itself but rather from the themes that I am interested in: state-building,  nationalism, urbanization and globalization. I like to elaborate on them by using or thinking through different traditions. The liberal arts context is somehow quite a natural fit that I wasn’t so aware of, even though I worked at the John F. Kennedy Institute before I came to BCB. Having the opportunity to actually teach and think and write about the things I deem important in such a manner is an immense privilege that I am very lucky to have.

And why the decision to teach at a university? I also have a teacher’s degree at a high school level, but the kind of work that I would be able to do there would look quite different, and the kinds of discussions would be very different ones. I like talking to and teaching adults, and learning from adults. Also, I think at the university students have an age where they shape their own careers, but also their vision and understanding of life, so it is an interesting moment in the lives of those I encounter. I  appreciate the kinds of discussions that are going on. It’s a great luxury that I can think about the things that I want to reflect on — write books, teach classes… it’s a wonderful thing.

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