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Outsourcing the American Dream?

The growth of the Indian IT sector is widely seen in the US as the result of the "export" of "American" jobs. Ignoring the context of changes within India, American media represent the Indian IT boom as the effect of problems within American political, economic and educational structures. This paper examines how India and Indian IT are represented in relation to America's position within the global economy. On the one hand, IT outsourcing to India is seen as a "natural" result of free market capitalism, but, on the other, it is an "unnatural" disturbance in the balance of power between the US and the rest of the world. I argue that this ambivalence can be better understood by examining how freedom, mobility and autonomy are powerfully articulated in constructions of American national identity. Indian IT workers are threatening not just because they are "taking" American jobs, but because "the American dream" seems to have migrated to India as well. The retreat into economic nationalism and calls to strengthen territorial boundaries suggest the inability - or refusal - to imagine mobility in relation to American national identity in terms other than that of unhindered movement into temporal and spatial frontiers.

Outsourcing the American Dream? Representing the Stakes of IT Globalisation

The growth of the Indian IT sector is widely seen in the US as the result of the “export” of “American” jobs. Ignoring the context of changes within India, American media represent the Indian IT boom as the effect of problems within American political, economic and educational structures. This paper examines how India and Indian IT are represented in relation to America’s position within the global economy. On the one hand, IT outsourcing to India is seen as a “natural” result of free market capitalism, but, on the other, it is an “unnatural” disturbance in the balance of power between the US and the rest of the world. I argue that this ambivalence can be better understood by examining how freedom, mobility and autonomy are powerfully articulated in constructions of American national identity. Indian IT workers are threatening not just because they are “taking” American jobs, but because “the American dream” seems to have migrated to India as well. The retreat into economic nationalism and calls to strengthen territorial boundaries suggest the inability – or refusal – to imagine mobility in relation to American national identity in terms other than that of unhindered movement into temporal and spatial frontiers.


We are, in a way, a whole Nation of inventors and explorers…Webelieve in technology and we are determined to pursue it in allof its manifestations…I do believe that the 21st century can bea Golden Age for all Americans.

– former president William J Clintonspeaking at the 1995 National Medal of Technology ceremony.

I cannot believe that my own government has created a situationwhere I am not discriminated by my race, religion, veteran status,sexual preference, sex or age, but by being a citizen of the UnitedStates.

– viewer e-mail on Lou Dobbs Moneyline, May 23, 2003.

n his regular New York Times Magazine column, “On Language”, William Safire traced the word “outsourcing” back to a statement by an American auto executive in a 1979 article in The Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts: “We are so short of professional engineers in the motor industry that we are having to outsource design work to Germany” (2004:30). The practice of outsourcing itself – that is, contracting with an outside source for labour or goods instead of producing those goods or performing those services in-house – has, of course, a much longer history that is intertwined in the post-war period with the shift to a contingent workforce and the global division of labour. In the current conjuncture though, the reality of outsourcing as a general characteristic of the regime of flexible accumulation has been subsumed within the US by one subtype, namely, the offshore outsourcing of white-collar service jobs. As Safire’s genealogy for the word illustrates, “outsourcing” has become articulated to the globalisation of professional whitecollar IT work and to the failure of the American educational system to produce an adequate number of science, technology and engineering workers. Thus, in popular discourse, offshoring and outsourcing are, with rare exceptions, used interchangeably.1 Although this particular form of offshore outsourcing began in the early 1990s, it only came to national prominence in the

US after the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001. In the space of the last three years it has supplanted the H-1B visa programme as a favourite target of nationalist groups. Most major print and television media outlets such as Time, Business Week, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer and network nightly news shows have done major stories on offshore outsourcing, largely as an explanation for the “jobless recovery” from the dot-com collapse. The issue also became a significant issue in the 2004 presidential election as the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, jumped on the anti-outsourcing bandwagon and castigated “Benedict Arnold CEOs” for placing profits before national loyalty.

Even the most inflated estimates of the total number of information technology (IT) jobs that have either already been lost or that are at risk of being lost amount to only a small fraction of the total number of jobs lost within the US each year. The numbers,2 dutifully marshallsed for either attack or defence, serve largely as props to argue for the objective reality of what is an extremely emotional issue. Outsourcing has become a major national issue not because it affects a large percentage of American workers, but because of the symbolic significance of IT jobs to American national identity. Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, argues:

[The] now spotlighted shift of outsourcing from manufacturing to white-collar professional services to India and elsewhere shows that higher value jobs can also be globalised. In short, globalisation has come back to bite its Anglo-Saxon free market sponsors. The global middle class promised by wired globalisation and liberalised trade barriers is in the making (2004:67).

For American opponents of offshore outsourcing, though, the emergence of this global middle class feels like the outcome of a zero-sum game that they have lost. From this perspective, the systematic destruction of family farms and unionised manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s and the accompanying rise of part-time and service work was bearable only because of the belief – frequently reiterated by economists, politicians and business leaders – that American leadership in information technologies would assure the creation of more and better IT jobs to take the place of the jobs that had been lost. Thus, the perceived loss of these same jobs is, as Gardels says, “for many…the last straw” (2004:67). In addition to the new vulnerability of whitecollar professionals such as software developers, engineers and financial analysts, many of the occupations that are most vulnerable to foreign competition – medical transcription, tax preparation, financial services and technology support – are exactly those professions that blue-collar workers were encouraged to retrain for in the new information economy.

In this article I contrast the resurgent nationalist sentiment evident in the American backlash against outsourcing with the pro-globalisation position of policy discourse in the US on information technology in the late 1990s. Whereas the former position constructs the rise of the IT industry in India as an “unnatural” disturbance in the balance of power between the US and the “third world”, the latter assumes that global competition for resources and markets is the “natural” outcome of free market capitalism. Although both sets of discourses support the ideology of American superiority, they do so in different ways. As I show in the first section of this article, opponents of outsourcing, notably Lou Dobbs, host of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, articulate a narrowly-defined version of American national identity in which the continued cultural hegemony of white middle class masculinity within the boundaries of the nation state is seen as the necessary condition for American economic dominance globally. The second section contrasts this mainstream media discourse with science and technology policy discourses during the 1990s that drew upon neoliberal political rationality to argue for “equal inequality for all” [Lemke, in Brown 2003] as a model of citizenship. I describe the logic by which minorities and immigrants are welcomed into a national space that is redefined as a locale for global investment rather than as a cultural collectivity. I conclude with the suggestion that the “American dream”, a key element of American national ideology, constructs America both as the space and time of the future and constrains the horizon of “upward mobility” for Americans within the boundaries of the US.

I Opposing Outsourcing: Looking Out for the American Worker in the Global Economy

In May 2003, Lou Dobbs, the anchor of Lou Dobbs Moneyline3 on CNN, started a series of special reports titled “Exporting America” which have since become a regular segment on his nightly show. This segment focuses on the trend towards offshoring white-collar professional and service jobs in information technologies to other countries, especially India. Combining populist workers-first rhetoric with nativist anti-immigrant sentiment, Dobbs has become the pre-eminent voice for anxious middle class American workers on US television. He is not alone in his editorial stand against outsourcing, but his success in becoming the media face of the anti-outsourcing movement make him a significant figure in this debate. Therefore, I focus on him in the next section as I analyse the ways in which the Indian IT worker is constructed as a threat to the integrity of the American nation.

The heightened feeling of the vulnerability of national borders after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks added a new twist to the defensive retrenchment characteristic of economic protectionism. For example, at a conference on outsourcing in early 2004, Frank LaGrotta, a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature proclaimed:

What’s going on with this offshoring of American jobs to India and China is nothing but terrorism – economic terrorism. The job of government is to protect citizens, and that means protect them from terrorism from without, such as foreign terrorists flying airplanes into buildings, or economic terrorists from within, which is exactly what some CEOs of companies engaged in outsourcing are doing [Evans 2004: 94].

Dobbs successfully tapped into this sentiment to articulate economic security with national security. The American national identity produced on Lou Dobbs Tonight illustrates Michael Curtin’s argument that “the central mission of television is not to homogenise, but constantly to organise and reorganise popular perceptions of difference within a global economic order…It repeatedly works to anchor and orient one’s perception of how power and wealth should be distributed” (2001: 338). This work of harnessing elements from multiple discourses into a common sense understanding of America’s place in the world is most clearly apparent in the series, “Broken Borders,” on illegal immigration from Mexico. Although the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks entered the US legally, Dobbs repeatedly raises the possibility that the same borders that are so permeable to Mexicans searching for work in the US could also easily admit terrorists. The association of illegal immigrants from Mexico with terrorists allows him to present his opposition to illegal immigration as a patriotic concern with national security. Viewers responded to this message as the following excerpts show:

How very hypocritical. The Bush administration is vowing to protect our borders one minute, and then conceding to let illegal immigrants in the next. What happened to protecting us fromterrorists who sneak through our borders? (March 8, 2004). In the past week, president Bush has announced programmes which will give jobs to illegal aliens and Indian technology companies. Since he’s so generous in finding work for the rest of the world, I wonder if he would help me out. I’m a US citizen with degrees in engineering and computer science and I can’t find a job (January13, 2004).

These responses from viewers articulate the specific issue of illegal immigration to the threat of terrorism, the “jobless recovery,” and offshore outsourcing. These issues become intertwined as related factors in the attack on American autonomy. By giving a prominent space to viewer opinions, Lou Dobbs Tonight, like other such shows and like call-in talk radio, encourages viewers to feel like participants in an ongoing discussion rather than simply being spectators. As active participants in the processes of meaning-making on the show, viewers are frequently called upon to do the semiotic work of articulating the concerns raised by Dobbs in different segments into a unified narrative.

The series “Exporting America” complements the narrative of invasion in “Broken Borders” with a narrative of dismemberment. In the case of offshore outsourcing, it is the jobs themselves that are lost, given away by an indifferent government that has corporate interests at heart, not the well-being of American citizens. The critique of offshore outsourcing derives its legitimacy from a narrative of workers’ rights. In this view, offshore outsourcing is the result of corporate greed as companies try to increase profits by replacing higher-paid American labour with lower-paid foreign labour. As the ranks of the formerly prosperous, highly-educated IT workers swelled in the wake of the dot-com collapse of 2001, numerous grassroot groups and websites appeared that inveighed against H-1B visa workers, and, later, against offshore outsourcing. With names like, Save US Jobs, Coalition for National Sovereignty and Economic Patriotism and these websites testify to the power of the internet as a means for gathering individuals into an organised movement and to the strength of the existing articulation between white middle class masculinity and national identity. These groups argue against the industry position that H-1B visa and outsourcing are adaptive responses on the part of business facing a shortage of skilled labour in the US.

For example, a viewer from Georgia wrote in to Lou Dobbs Tonight saying. “Anyone in their right mind would know that outsourcing jobs is bad. Corporate profits are up, executives are making large bonuses, so to hell with the average worker” (April 5, 2004). This e-mail raises the question of how IT professionals can be seen as the “average worker”. Part of the answer is that many of the jobs that have been outsourced are call centre jobs that were indeed held by “average” Americans and not by highlyeducated IT professionals [Hira and Hira 2005:45-47]. The more significant portion of the explanation has to do with how Lou Dobbs has successfully articulated middle class anxieties to working class discourses of suspicion of business and government “elites” whose cosmopolitan desires trump their allegiance to their fellow citizens.

The most vocal constituency opposing offshore outsourcing

– unemployed American IT professionals – belong to the professional elite that, historically, has an antagonistic relationship to the working class. However, this same group claims kinship with blue-collar workers under the umbrella identity of “American worker” and grounds its own claim to capitalist exploitation by selectively drawing on the history of agricultural workers and blue-collar manufacturing workers. The kinship is strengthened by the unmentioned commonality of white masculinity and its naturalised metonymic equivalence with the nation. In a biting critique of the gender, race and class politics of the representation of unemployment in the wake of the dot-com collapse, Katha Pollitt asks, “How do we know the economy is in bad shape? Unemployed white male hotshots are back in the news” (2003:9). Responding to a New York Times Magazine cover story, “Commute to Nowhere,” that sympathetically chronicled the economic and psychological impact of unemployment on professional white male IT workers, Pollitt states simply:

It’s all about masculinity… Those $10-an-hour jobs, the ones we’re supposed to pity the men for having lowered their masculine dignity to take, look kind of familiar, don’t they? They’re the “good jobs” women on welfare are encouraged to get, the ones that are supposed to transform them from mooching layabouts to respectable, economically self-sufficient, upright and orderly citizens (2003:9).

Pollitt stands alone in the mainstream media in pointing out how the pain of unemployment is articulated to fears of the loss of one’s place in society, a place that is shaped by race, class and gender.

Mainstream media coverage of offshore outsourcing, even when sympathetic towards free trade, invariably acknowledged the human cost of this trend in human-interest stories of fired IT workers – workers who are almost always male and white, and are most often middle class professionals. They focus, however, on the bitterness of American workers being replaced by lowcost foreigners and not, as Pollitt does, on the unconscious assumption of racial, class and gender privilege that shapes their belief that their education and experience entitle them to these jobs.

A major part of Dobbs’ appeal has thus been his populism which collapses class distinctions within the US to speak only of “the American worker” and to champion, as one article put it, the interests of “Main Street” against those of “Wall Street” [Grimm 2004:42]. Formerly a staunchly pro-business conservative, Dobbs received considerable assistance in his rebranding from labour unions and associations of IT professionals who are anxious to claim their working class credentials [Creamer 2004]. The website of the American Workers Coalition, a small grassroot group, claims, “There is a person that is asking the right questions to the right people…This man is Lou Dobbs. He is the greatest voice for the American worker” [Elber 2004]. Dobbs’ conversion from free trader to workers’ hero has even won him cautious endorsements by labour unions. Richard Trumka, the secretarytreasurer of one of the largest unions, the AFL-CIO, says “He’s made trade a nightly crusade on his programme…The blind loyalty to free trade is being challenged in the mainstream media” [Schierenbeck 2004].

The association with the working class lends political legitimacy and authenticity to Dobbs’ critique of offshore outsourcing by tapping into both the history of working class struggles against the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the association of the working class with “heartland” America. As Chakravartty (2005b) argues, “white-collar nationalism” in both India and the US, enabled by recent technological and economic changes that have made the white-collar professional emblematic of each nation’s hopes and aspirations, has been effectively harnessed to a conservative social and economic agenda. Following from earlier blue-collar opposition to NAFTA, this current form of nationalism draws upon and expands the discursive connections between nationalist populism and anti-globalisation sentiment. Unlike middle class professionals, the working class’ loyalty to the nation is not suspect.4 However, this discourse does not go unchallenged. For example, the following reader response to Business Week’s (February 3, 2003) cover story, “Is Your Job Next?” is a representative of the refusal to accept the erasure of class distinctions:

We blue-collar workers have been telling you white-collars formore than 20 years that we all should be buying American. Butno one listened. You white-collars had to have your imports whilebad-mouthing American products. You never looked back untilit was too late. Hop into the lifeboat with us – hope you can finda seat. (“What Happens…” 2003:18)

Dobbs’ articulation of American nationalism is successful in countering such class-based arguments through his populist discourse on strengthening citizens’ rights against the influence of business on state practices and policies. Furthermore, by raising the spectre of American becoming a third world country as it “exports” its standard of living, Dobbs transposes class difference onto national difference. The viewer e-mails he chooses to read out on the show reflect this position:

Thank you for your continued focus on “Exporting America”. Iam a former IT worker who has a new career as a bartender. Today I read IBM is planning a further migration of IT jobs to Indiaand China. The people affected are expected to train their replacements. There should be a Patriot Act that applies to corporations as well as citizens. God help us all (December 15, 2003).

Dobbs is successful in appealing to disparate groups – political liberals, cultural conservatives and economic libertarians – because the organising opposition in his discourse is that between the nation and the market. In many ways his position resonates with what Mark Rupert (2000) calls “far-right ideologies of American exceptionalism [that] represent transnational integration as an insidious threat to the special identity of America as a (white, masculine, Christian) nation” (2000:95). Although Dobbs shares many of the same positions as these groups, he stays away from the terrain of religious morals. Unlike religious conservatives, his values and point of view are, as he says, “based on sound precepts of economic policy” and not on religious morality [Battaglio 2003]. This difference from far-right ideologies is significant because Dobbs has claimed the ideological terrain on which leftist or liberal critiques of neoliberal globalisation could have “articulate[d] themselves within popular common sense and thus…define[d] the horizons of political action” [Rupert 2000:117]. Unlike the Democrats, he is willing to speak of workers’ rights and national loyalty and able to articulate these values to a clear agenda – protecting national security. Furthermore, he grounds his claim to common sense logic in the completely naturalised belief in the inherent superiority of American labour.

For example, in an interview with Atul Vashistha, CEO of NeoIT, an American consultancy firm for companies interested in setting up offshore operations in India, Dobbs kept cuttingoff Vashistha’s attempts to build a common ground (for example, by agreeing with him on the need to address the concerns of displaced workers) by painting him as a cold-hearted freetrader. Dobbs counters Vashistha’s argument that offshore outsourcing is simply “the next evolution in the global economy” that is bringing greater prosperity to both Indians and Americans by re-describing it as “the United States…shipping its wealth, its jobs, standard of living and quality of life to third world countries” that lack any of the environmental or labour protections of the US. Dobbs chastises corporations for trading American jobs for short-term profits, but he never criticises the capitalist logic that requires firms to keep growing. In fact, the only way he can argue for a “national economy” is to refuse to entertain the idea that foreign labour can compete on anything other than cost, a position that renders it self-evident that if only Americans had a level playing field they would be able to best any and all competitors. Thus, Dobbs feels he can authoritatively tell Vashistha, “You are not innovating. You are not being more efficient. You are talking about hiring cheaper labour. Those are only code words for cheap labour” (January 21, 2004).

The solution put forward by Dobbs in his nightly show and in his book Exporting America is that the state should provide a mixture of incentives for and penalties on businesses to encourage them to “keep” jobs in the US. He argues that “[w]e should be seeking to raise the standard of living globally, not reducing American standards to those of a third world country” (2004: 157). However, as I show next, anti-offhsoring positions construct the differences between Indian and American workers in a way that “reinforces racism rather than solidarity” [Chakravartty 2005b].

Indian IT Worker vs American IT Worker

The successful naturalisation of middle class white men as “the American worker” carries with it the assumption that the privileges of cultural citizenship bring with them those of economic citizenship as well. Despite their vociferous opposition to outsourcing and immigration, Dobbs and others are emphatically not critical of either free trade or of capitalism. Rather, they position themselves as proponents of free and fair trade. Americans, they insist, can out-compete and out-produce any other labour force in the world – if they are competing on a level playing field. According to Dobbs, the Information Technology Professionals Association of America (ITPAA) and others, Indian IT workers are an increasingly sought after talent pool in the global economy solely because they are willing to work for a fraction of the wages paid to American IT workers.

On the level of national competition, India is able to maintain this cost advantage for two reasons: first, because it lacks the environmental, social and legal protections mandated in the US; and, second, because of its sheer size in terms of population. A frequently cited statistics is that India has 300 million middle class English speakers – greater than the entire population of the US. On the level of individual competition between Indian IT workers and American IT workers, the superiority of the American worker is reasserted in a two-part argument: first, Indian workers lack creativity and the ability to innovate; and, second, Indian workers will free up American labour to move into the next frontier of technological development by taking over routine IT jobs.

For example, in an article titled, “The Indian Machine,” Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson says of India’s IT workforce, “Never before have we [Americans] seen such a powerful labour force rise so quickly” (2004:99). However, he quickly allays American workers’ fears by invoking a teleological narrative of technological progress where each new technology – agriculture, industry, information – wreaks havoc on existing social and economic patterns, but leads to more advanced, more satisfying, and more productive arrangements. According to Anderson, India may appear as “an artificial intelligence, the superbrain that never arrived in silico”, but it will simply free up “humans” to continue with the real work of creativity while “the Indian machine” performs the work of service and maintenance. In a similar vein, Daniel Pink, in the feature article “The New Face of the Silicon Age”, is at pains to point out that Indian programmers, like the Japanese two decades earlier, are unable to think of anything beyond technical perfection: “[N]ever – not once

– does anybody mention innovation, creativity, or changing the world” (2004:138). In Pink’s essay, the Indian programmer emerges as the perfect learning-machine – able to continuously improve and self-monitor to attain benchmarks set by external judges, such as CMM certifications – but a machine that remains dependent on others, namely, Americans, for input:

After all, before these Indian programmers have something to fabricate, maintain, test or upgrade, that something first must be imagined and invented. And these creations must be explained to customers and marketed to suppliers and entered into the swirl of commerce in a fashion that people notice, all of which require aptitudes that are more difficult to outsource – imagination, empathy and the ability to forge relationships [Pink 2004:138].

Leaving aside the condescension of the first sentence for a minute, the assumptions embedded in the second sentence warrant closer attention. Pink’s ability to reassure white-collar workers in the US that their jobs will only become better depends on the assumption that the suppliers and customers will still be American. Or, even if they are not, that they will still desire that which is American. What Pink does not interrogate, but what the American media’s fascination with call centre workers clearly reveals are the slippages between “American” as an instrumental performance, “American” as a description of state-defined identity and “American” as a subject-position embodied by white middle class men.

The intense affect mobilised around the issue of outsourcing is sustained on Lou Dobbs Tonight through its articulation with illegal immigration, corporate crime, and failing public education into a discourse that reassures the American middle class of its essential innocence and its status as the bearers of authentic American values, values that are betrayed by both elites and the barbarians at the gate. The narrative of American identity in the context of the global economy produced on Lou Dobbs Tonight is a determined attempt to maintain Americans as tourists in or consumers of the global, armchair imperialists who are not subject to the vicissitudes of the global economy such as war, economic necessity or cultural transformation. However, this comfortable naïveté is the privilege of an unmarked position that can see itself as the view from nowhere/anywhere. Moments when this privilege is threatened open up the possibility of rearticulating national identity to come to terms with a new situation.

This current period of vulnerability opens up the possibility for Americans to engage with globalisation in a manner that would allow them to “come to terms with the difference between being a land of immigrants and being one node in a postnational network of diasporas” [Appadurai 1996:171]. It needs to be seen as an opportunity for middle class Americans to recognise their commonality with their counterparts in the rest of the world and to organise with them in a bid to reshape the landscape of the global economy. There are certainly elements of this recognition to be found in global labour movements, but it is missing from mainstream representations. What we find here instead is Lou Dobbs offering a retreat into economic nationalism – a discourse that is doomed to failure under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

The new American identity emerging in the global economy might very well be one that relies on the desire of others to sustain its own existence. This unwelcome realisation is headed off in dominant constructions of national identity by:

[the] further act of narcissistic distortion: we imagine that these peculiarly American inventions (democracy, capitalism, free enterprise, human rights) are automatically and inherently interconnected and that our national saga hold the key to the combination. In the migration of our words, we see the victory of our myths. We are believers in terminal conversion [Appadurai 1996:175].

However, as call centre workers’ instrumental appropriation of American-ness suggests, the desire for American style on the part of the rest of the world is matched by a confidence in their ability to appropriate, embody and produce that style for themselves and for their own purposes.

Doreen Massey arguing against the idea that globalisation has “left us placeless and disoriented” points out that “those who today worry about a sense of disorientation and a loss of control must once have felt that they knew exactly where they were, and that they had control” (1992:9). Like the presence of wealthy Asian immigrants in California, the rise of the Indian IT sector “makes ordinary Americans question their assumption of an insular North America that is exempt from the disruptions of globalisation that are happening ‘elsewhere’ ”, and “make[s] whiteness a more problematic concept in the era of globalisation” [Ong 1999:109].

The irony here is that the same national subject – the IT worker

– now calling for a policing of national boundaries was constructed in the heyday of the American IT boom as the global subject par excellence. The Clinton administration enthusiastically promoted the internet as a revolutionary technology that would not only be “the key to economic growth for national and international economies”, but would also, through the Global Information Infrastructure, inaugurate a “new Athenian Age of democracy” [Gore 1994]. However, this enthusiastic promotion of Information Age globalisation under the benign leadership of the US assumed that the US would still be able to shape its own destiny. The dream of a “frictionless” global economy applies only to capital and commodities, not to people. The globalisation of IT labour is threatening partly because it suggests that the US may not be able to control the nature and direction of global flows of people, capital and commodities. The next section examines how IT workforce policy under Clinton adopted a different strategy, one that aimed at maintaining America’s global leadership in this field over maintaining the integrity of a conservatively imagined national community.

II IT Workforce Policy

Time after time, in epoch after epoch and country after country, technological advance has produced higher wages and living standards, not mass unemployment. This is exactly what we expect to happen again in the 21st century. And the government should be helping this process along – facilitating growth and change, not impeding it.

– 1994 Economic Report of the president.

The current debate on the impact of globalisation on the American IT workforce needs to be read in the context of the American technology and education policy in the late 1990s which expressed concerns over the size and demographic composition of the American IT workforce. The US technology policy in the 1990s is an example of what Aihwa Ong calls postdevelopmental state strategies in which “the state focuses…on producing and managing populations that are attractive to global capital” (1999: 216). Drawing on Foucault’s concept of governmentality, Ong argues that post-developmental state strategies result in “a system of variegated citizenship in which populations subjected to different regimes of value enjoy different kinds of rights, discipline, caring and security” (1999:217).

The Clinton administration’s technology policy promoted a marketplace logic of equality of opportunity with an emphasis on recruiting minorities and lifelong reskilling. Its three key elements were: focusing research and development on successful commercialisation of technology; re-imagining the US as a place for global economic investment rather than as a national economy; and, the cultivation of human capital in order to attract investment in research and production.

According to a 1997 report by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the agents of productivity are companies, not workers. Nonetheless, to maintain its attractiveness as a location for business investment and research, the US needs to be able to provide a skilled workforce. Human capital thus becomes the most valuable economic asset a country possesses. In 1996, at the beginning of the IT boom, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) reported, “increasingly, our country’s competitiveness and what we as individuals earn depend on what we learn. From factory floors to farms to offices and hospitals, knowledge and the ability to use information and technology are becoming the keys to employment and wealth” (1996:75). However, according to the NSTC’s estimates, only 22 per cent of Americans possessed the skills that would be needed for 60 per cent of the new jobs created in 2010 (1996:75). The US’ shortage of skilled workers threatens to weaken its position globally, but the solutions to this problem weaken the hegemony of white middle class masculinity within the nation.

In order to increase its access to a skilled IT workforce, the US faced a demographic challenge: In 1997, non-Hispanic white males accounted for 65 per cent of the science, technology and engineering workforce even though they comprised only 36 per cent of the population. According to demographic projections, by 2050, the proportion of minorities in the workforce will have doubled to almost 50 per cent from 25 per cent in the year 2000 [NSTC 2000:11]. Unless minorities are actively and successfully recruited into science, technology and engineering, the IT workforce in the US will shrink substantially even as IT becomes more and more central to economic growth.

Aside from purely quantitative arguments for extending economic opportunity to minority groups, government policy reports also expressed a more qualitative argument for this position. William A Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, testified in 2000:

Our profession is diminished and impoverished by a lack of diversity. It doesn’t take a genius to see that in a world whose commerce is globalised, engineering designs must reflect the culture and taboos of a diverse customer base. Absent a diverse engineering team, these sensitivities may not be reflected. But it’s deeper than that…it is that the range of design options considered in a team will be smaller. It’s that the constraints on the design will not be properly interpreted…There’s a real economic cost to that [NSTC 2000:16-17].

Wulf’s (neo)liberal embrace of diversity is informed by the desire to, literally, capitalise on difference. Beyond Wulf’s consumerist logic, there is no vision of social equality and justice as a desired good in and of itself. Rather it is presented as a means to a larger end: developing a productive workforce capable of fulfilling the needs of employers.

Neoliberalism might have worked toward promoting racial equality if the labour force was purely national. However, the sudden demand for IT workers in the late 1990s made it easier for employers to opt for the short-term solution of immigration and offshoring rather than the long-term effort of challenging racial discrimination. The xenophobic slant of the anti-offshoring movement conveniently ignores the ways in which the domestic labour market is structured by race, gender and age discrimination to begin with.

Neoliberalism constructs the human exclusively as “homo oeconomicus” such that “all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality” [Brown 2003]. Collapsing the productive tension between economic rationality and moral percepts in classical liberalism, neoliberalism “relieves the discrepancy between economic and moral behaviour by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits and consequences”. Clinton’s technology policy illustrates the neoliberal criteria for social policy that it “meet profitability tests, incite and unblock competition and produce rational subjects” [Brown 2003].

Under the rubric of neoliberal citizenship, the best that American workers can hope for is to study and work harder to produce themselves as desirable commodities in the chain of production. The lynchpin of the new social contract that promises lifetime employability not lifetime employment is increased publicprivate collaboration and rethinking education in instrumental terms as job training. In its 1997 report, Science and Technology: Shaping the 21st Century, the OSTP reported favourably on various educational programmes designed to introduce internet and computer technologies into the classroom saying, “these programmes and others are helping our classrooms resemble more closely the 21st century workplace” (1997). Reskilling and vocational training programmes have long been held out as the panacea for technological unemployment [Bix 2000], but, as the pace of technological change accelerates, education and retraining move closer and closer together. The Computing Research Association, a non-profit research advocacy group, claims, “[the] rapid turnover in technology makes it imperative that IT workers adapt to new technologies and new products. This means that they must continuously work at keeping their skills and knowledge up to date or risk becoming obsolete and unemployable” (1999).

Much of the debate over increasing the caps on H-1B quotas in the late 1990s hinged upon differing estimates of the shortage of IT workers. The debate began in 1997 with an Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) report that claimed the US was facing a huge shortage of skilled workers. As IT workers organised against the programme they argued against this position, claiming instead that a sizeable population of skilled American IT workers were being overlooked in favour of cheaper H-1B labour. If we look more closely at each position, we can see that the difference of perception stems from how each defines a skilled worker. The Information Technology Task Force’s investigations in 1998 described this difference as “the Make vs Buy decision” [OTP 1999:11]. Companies can either “buy” workers as they need them, “seeking the exact skills and experience needed for a particular project” [ibid:11], or they can “make” them by investing time and money in helping workers keep their skills sets current. Shorter and shorter product development and life cycles, make the “buy” decision a much more attractive one, a trend that came under heavy criticism. For example, an Information Week article complained that companies “treat filling IT jobs like buying PC’s, looking to fill a specific spec sheet for the lowest price” [cited in OTP 1999:11].

The Council on Competitiveness, a business-supported think tank, warned that “the unique set of conditions that propelled the United States to a position of world leadership may not be enough to keep us there” (1998:7). They argued that “long-term success requires access to the best and brightest globally” (13). In the 1990s, business leaders and government policy reports both argued that American leadership can only continue by reimagining the US as an attractive investment site for global capital and not as the sovereign home of the imagined community of the American nation.

With further contraction of the American welfare state and the transition from a universal state-citizen contract to a productivitybased contract with citizens qua individual worker, the rights of each citizen are calibrated by the extent to which he or she is deemed to be a productive worker. However, this differentiated biopolitical investment in the population is at odds with the imagined community invoked by the nation. As I have argued in the previous section, opponents of outsourcing and H-1B immigration have been successful in equating white male middle class professionals with the American worker. However, the kinds of labour being described as central to national strength and productivity is labour that is symbolically reallocated to nonwhite, non-American bodies.

I suggest, therefore, that these policy documents can be usefully read as pedagogical discourses instructing American citizens on their proper relation to the global. This discourse is, however, deeply contradictory: on the one hand Americans are told they are citizens of the greatest country in the world; and, on the other that they are told that they not skilled enough to get employment

– and thus be productive members of society – in their own country. In the next section I analyse how the idea of the American dream fuels this contradiction by sustaining an unexamined faith in American superiority.

III Conclusion: A Myth of Endless Frontiers

[T]he fantasy of the American dream is an important one to learn from. A popular form of political optimism, it fuses private fortune with that of the nation: it promises that if you invest your energies in work and family-making, the nation will secure the broader social and economic conditions in which your labour can gain value and your life can be lived with dignity. It is a story that addresses the fear of being stuck or reduced to a type, a redemptive story pinning its hope on class mobility [Berlant 1997:4].

Workers – working class and middle class alike – repeatedly connected the loss of their job to offshore outsourcing to their loss of faith in the American dream. For example, one worker, fired after 24 years of service when the plant closed, asked, “There still probably is an American dream. But what about us? What happens to our American dream?” [Kahn et al 2004]. This question is made all the more urgent because the new information technologies that were supposed to usher in a new era of opportunity have done so – but not, Americans feel, for them.

American national identity is shaped as much by an imagined shared future than a shared past. Many of its dominant national myths and symbols – ranging from the national motto e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), frontier mythology, the Statue of Liberty, to the creed of equal opportunity – are all dreams about a future community. The inequalities of the past, and, indeed, of the present, can trouble the faith in America as the land of freedom, but cannot shatter this belief because the promise of freedom and equality for all is endlessly deferred and, thus, is endlessly renewable. However, this faith in a better future which is so central to the American dream as an animating cultural myth and a unifying social force depends upon constant expansion into new space. National narratives that promote patriotic identification with the nation in the present do so by assuring a future time and space where contemporary social tensions, political crises, economic inequalities and cultural exclusions will be redeemed.

Sustained by the desire of immigrants who come to America seeking “the future”, American nationalism equates a place – the US – with a time – the future. The ideology of mobility that is so central to American identity does not include mobility beyond the territorial borders of the US. The rise of, first Japan, and now India and China, as rival centres of economic and geopolitical power act as a limit to American expansion and, importantly, as a check on unhindered American mobility.

I want to end by suggesting that perhaps the biggest disadvantage facing American workers is a lack of imagination, an inability to see themselves seeking their dreams elsewhere and, in the process, learning to think of home and nation through “a sense of place…[that is] progressive; not self-enclosing and defensive, but outward-looking” [Massey 1991:28]. In contrast to concepts of places “as bounded enclosed spaces defined through counterposition against the Other who is outside” [Massey 1992:12], Doreen Massey suggests instead that “the identity of a place does not derive from some internalised history. It derives, in large part, precisely from the specificity of its interactions with ‘the outside’” (1992:13).

Lou Dobbs’ call for the US to reassert its cultural and economic sovereignty reveals the desire to control the kinds of interactions between America and the “outside”. Given the centrality of what Bruce-Novoa calls “transformational mobility” (2003:110) to American identity, it is significant that the possibility of an American labour diaspora is never seriously suggested by any participants in the debate on offshore outsourcing. Several viewers of Lou Dobbs Tonight did bring up this possibility, but only to point out the patent absurdity of the idea, for example: “Lou, please stop pointing out the holes in our border, we’ll need those holes in the future to find work in Mexico” (April 9, 2004). In a similar vein, former US Senate minority leader Tom Daschle jokingly dismissed Bush’s claims of having created new jobs by saying, “China is one long commute”.

Mobility as free and self-willed is still the province of the powerful, but the inverse is true as well, that the forced mobility of the labour migrant is productive of knowledges that are empowering, even in adverse conditions [Chakravartty 2005]. As the position of Indian IT workers in the US information economy and the anxiety of Americans having to compete with IT workers in India shows, it is the second type of mobility which is actually more viable in the economic spaces created by neoliberal globalisation. The precariousness of their position encourages Indian IT workers to embrace instrumental technologies of self in order to keep their skills current, to be flexible, and to learn how to navigate the global economy.5

As the book Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers [Sivakumar 2004] illustrates, this subject-position poses a challenge to the hegemony of white middle class masculinity in American nationalism, but it may do so only to replace one hegemonic position with another. Expanding the discourse of workers’ rights within America to include workers in other countries is a necessary step to counter the ways in which flexibility and mobility have been shaped by the demands of global capitalism. But, if workers’ rights remain articulated to an American dream that is essentially consumerist in orientation, then it’s unclear how desirable or sustainable such a goal is. Satisfying as it may be, neither the economic ascendance of China and India, nor the increasing visibility of Indians in the US promise a change in organisation of power on a large scale or challenge to capitalism. Dobbs’ fear that the US is exporting its standard of living is a scary thought indeed because the world cannot sustain that degree of waste and exploitation.




[I would like to thank Itty Abraham, Paula Chakravartty, Chris Chekuri, Shazia Iftkhar and Aswin Punathambekar for their helpful comments and suggestions.]

1 In a move reminiscent of American business’s attempts to sanitise downsizing by calling it “rightsizing,” the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an influential industry lobbying group, consistently used the term “global sourcing” rather than outsourcing. This is significant because it shows that, like the choice of where to locate manufacturing, the choice of labour talent is increasingly globalised. The term “outsourcing” on the other hand clearly assumes a direction of flow

– from the US to other countries such as India and China – and thus establishes a claim of prior ownership of these jobs.

2 Studies by Forrester Research, the McKinsey Global Institute, Gartner, Deloitte Research and UC-Berkeley’s Fisher Centre in 2002 and 2003 helped fuel the outsourcing debate by objectifying the impact of this trend on the American economy in a number of widely-circulated statistics.

3 The show was renamed Lou Dobbs Tonight in June 2003.

4 See Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling (1989) and Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2003) for their discussions of how the oppositions between national/cosmopolitan, working class/middle class, superficial/authentic developed in national politics in the post-war period.

5 See Chekuri and Muppidi (2003) for an analysis of diasporic mobility and the construction of frontiers in Hyderabad. In his defence of H-1B workers’ contribution to the American economy, Sivakumar (2004:140) counters the description of these workers as either vulnerable victims exploited by corporate greed or as uncaring interlopers by emphasising the material considerations that shape their choices, skill sets and attitudes.


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