20 December, 2016

“Brown shoes don’t make it, quit school, don’t fake it.” (FZ, 1967)

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was a great composer, conductor and arranger of contemporary music, and also a brilliant guitarist. His musical oeuvre spans across a broad range of rock and classic styles, whose assemblage became rather unique. Of the 100plus records that were published under his name officially only (not counting hundreds of bootlegs etc.), 40plus came out posthumous, and more is expected to evolve from the vaults, edited by the Zappa family trust. Zappa was a political animal and he also had a great sense of humour, which played out not only on stage, but also in his writings, in TV- and radio-interviews, testimonials etc. From early on, he was critical of both the codes of conduct of mainstream society and, most importantly, of the power of authority.
 Zappa performing in Hamburg, Dec. 1971 (© Heinrich Klaffs, cc-by-sa-2.0)
This attitude unfolded in an early piece of music titled “Brown shoes don’t make it”, a weird mix of cabaret, rock opera and underground oratorium (as François Couture had once put it in the Allmusic-guide). Brown shoes came out initially on Zappa’s second record Absolutely Free with his then band “The Mothers of Invention” (1967), and a straightforward live rendition was later on included in Tinseltown Rebellion (recorded back in 1979, published in 1981). An energetic version of Brown Shoes from the 1979 tour can be found e.g. here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bH3HsZHe_AI. The song is considered to be one of the very first masterpieces from the scores of FZ.

The song title actually referred to an observation of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, carrying brown shoes to a grey suit, which was perceived by the public to be indicative of a president unable to pay attention to detail – which was a strange public discourse given that this absurd fashion faux pas was no comparison to the bloody imprint that U.S.-American politics was leaving at that time in Vietnam, for which Lyndon B. Johnson was particularly responsible, and what Zappa obviously wanted to render here. In that particular context, the multiple meanings of brown shoes became understood as a sign of protest (along with long hair and no bras) against shallow public commentators and the ruling American establishment – that is, government authorities and business class elites, who eagerly kept younger generations in the endless loop of education, job etc., in order to maintain systems of white supremacy and social segregation locally, and military economic domination internationally. In Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, Zappa picked up the metaphor and held no punches in illustrating the perverted power fantasies of ruling bureaucrats that contrasted their posh appearances (see the original text here http://psychedmaster.org/Brown%20Shoes.html).

50 years after Zappa, brown shoes are still relevant, as evidenced by the UK government’s “Social Mobility Commission” report on the socio-economic composition of professionals in the life sciences and investment banking industries (see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/socio-economic-diversity-in-life-sciences-and-investment-banking). The Commission is an advisory non-departmental public body, whose task is to monitor progress in improving social mobility in the UK, to advise the government on related matters and to advocate for better upward mobility in England. The report revealed that, due to rather peculiar selection attitudes and practices when hiring new staff, the privileged stick to their own social milieux or classes. Thus it becomes rather unlikely that candidates situated at lower social classes have a chance to get a job there. The very particular mechanisms of how this selection process works are described in a few, rather telling sentences. In its own words, which is much better than any commentators’ synthesis could be, it is quoted here as follows:
“A relatively high level of formality at pre-screening often gives way to a relatively high level of informality (emphasis from original, MH) with respect to final decision making, where hiring managers have a tendency to recruit for familiarity and similarity, and focus on perceived ‘fit’. This combination of formality at pre-screening, and informality with respect to final selection decisions, could mount particular challenges for candidates from non-privileged backgrounds. This is particularly the case since the concept of ‘fit’ is often determined by whether aspirant bankers share a social or educational background with current hiring managers. It is though important to underline that the precise impact of these processes varies within and between banks, with some offering a wider range of opportunities to people from diverse backgrounds than others.” (Social Mobility Commission 2016, p. ii)

What these hiring procedures probably have in common is their complex structure, which goes far beyond of what one would expect in terms of written application, pre-selection, interview and decision-making. An intensive double-screening of the materials and also of test-performances is followed by personal interrogation, and in case the impression of the candidate is promising, then he or she will be offered an internship. According to the report, about 77 per cent of those who eventually got a work contract with an investment bank did an internship before (feeding them into the almost endless loop …). Having obtained a degree from a very small number of high-profile universities applies to almost everybody who succeeds in this system.

While the provision of jobs in investment banking seems to be overall highly competitive, the report states that individuals from relatively privileged backgrounds are likely to enjoy certain advantages at each stage of the selection process. In contrast, those coming from non-privileged backgrounds are likely to experience major challenges. Over the entire recruitment and selection procedure, this may add up to cumulative disadvantage for the latter group. This finding of the report leads to the observation that, in addition to formal skills and qualifications, cultural capital and related politics of distinction play a vital role as well: “Specific forms of cultural capital also play an important role, especially within the sales and advisory functions of investment banks, including corporate finance or mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Here, a candidate’s suitability is assessed by some hiring managers not only in relation to educational background but also to specific behaviours, speech patterns and dress codes (sic!, MH), all of which are arguably more available to those who have been socialised within a middle or upper-class environment. Hiring managers consider that these characteristics, summarized as ‘polish’, reassure clients about their advisors’ expertise and experience, and help build trust.” (Social Mobility Commission 2016, p. iii)

Not surprisingly, social capital plays a role within habits and attitudes, and even more so in dress codes:

“Relatively opaque codes of conduct also extend to dress. To provide one example, for men, the wearing of brown shoes with a business suit is generally (though not always) considered unacceptable by and for British bankers within the investment banking (corporate finance) division. A similar judgement is though not made in relation to M&A bankers from continental Europe for whom brown shoes are permitted.”
Politics of distinction, obviously. Sources such as Augur (2000) or Luyendijk (2015) are noted in the report as providing further evidence for the role of dress codes in the City of London. Quoting further from the report:
“Yet a further qualification is that some bankers in corporate finance may ‘get away’ with wearing brown shoes perhaps, for example, if they are sufficiently senior. Issues relating to dress may seem both superficial and relatively simple for individual from all backgrounds to adopt. However, interviewees suggested that they do play a material role in the selection process, once again, as a demonstration of ‘fit’.”

These politics of distinction perfectly correspond with the particular geography of the “City” of London, a place where the discrete milieu of money makers could evolve and became hegemonic, starting to develop something that is now known as financial industries. Political steering, deregulation and a particular politics of place – also described in the Commission’s report (pp. 61) – went hand in hand in order to let this community develop. Thus geography is part of the story here, and likewise spatial planning as the technology that provides the physical setting within which markets, actors and institutions perform. As a consequence, class structures, business milieux and local framing allow habits, routines and practices to develop, which are quite differently perceived. What is considered a rationale, highly competitive and economically powerful profit-seeking activity by some has also been interpreted as “energetic young men” who trade stocks and shares “in a rowdy, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere” by others (McDowell 2011, 195).

Clearly, the fine-tuned processes that make up the social world of finance and its particular geography are central to the explanation of how money markets work. In so doing, as the UK Government’s Commission’s report reveals, they represent a major challenge to social sustainability and equality. This is one of many issues that tend to be overlooked when it comes to greening, eco-cities and a related reading of sustainable development. The report can be understood as a confirmation of late-modern interpretations of the socio-economic world, of class and difference, as already discussed by Bourdieu (1984) some time ago, and by Piketty (2014) more recently. It may also remind us of the ‘real’ things to talk about when the issue of identity is currently held responsible for societal and political challenges of all kind. It’s the economy stupid – but this economy is produced and reproduced by real people, is deliberately regulated, unfolds in social spaces and is set in material places. … From today’s perspective, it is hard to imagine Frank Zappa would have not made his own sense of this, leaving some scathing comments on brown and black shoes, on power fantasies and the strange mix of suits, ties and testosterone that rules the economic world.

Markus Hesse

Augur, P. ( 2000). The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism. The Rise and Fall of London’s Investment Banks. London: Penguin Books.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Luyendijk, J. (2015). Swimming with Sharks: My Journey into the World of the Bankers (Vol. 4). Guardian Faber Publishing.
McDowell, L. (2011). Making a drama out of a crisis: representing financial failure, or a tragedy in five acts. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36, 193-205.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Social Mobility Commission (2016). Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking. London.
Trance Love Airwaves (n. D.): Psychedelic Music Masterworks and Supplemental. Retrieved from the Web via <http://psychedmaster.org/Brown%20Shoes.html>.

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