Today Michael Jordan turns 50.

In thinking through what this means I read a piece by Wright Thompson who wrote the best article about Michael Jordan and aging I believe I've ever read. 

I also turned to Foucault–whose work I've been teaching in my class Race and the Neoliberal Turn. 

Social scientists really haven't examined Jordan in any depth. But Thomas Holt deals with Jordan a bit in The Problem of Race in the 21st Century. Writing about the work race performed in the pre-Fordist, Fordist, and post-Fordist eras, he notes that Jordan's rise coincides (and perhaps brings into being) a new relationship between race, production, and consumption. Whereas black bodies were means of production in the pre-Fordist era as enslaved Africans, and in the Fordist-era as strike breakers and then manufacturing plant workers, Holt argued that black bodies were vehicles of consumption in the post-Fordist era.

…the Jordan phenomenon…is thoroughly embedded in and reflective of the post-Fordist economy. Notwithstanding the incredible basketball skills, competitive character, and magnetic personality Jordan brings to the mix, his professional success is ultimately built on two powerful multinational capital enterprises–the National Basketball Association and Nike. (And in recent years they, of course, have been built largely on him.) Through the marriage of new communications technology, aggressive capitalist expansion, and image, both of these enterprises flourished in the late twentieth century.[foot]Holt, p. 110[/foot]

The primary components of the National Basketball Association were already in place by the time the Chicago Bulls draft Jordan.[foot]In part because of the efforts of David Stern, in part because of the transcendent Lakers-Celtic Johnson/Bird rivalry, and in part because the nation had been dragged (kicking and screaming) into a greater appreciation for black popular culture.[/foot] However he transformed the NBA making it a global brand synonymous with athletic excellence.Nike represents a different case. While we can look at the NBA in hindsight and say it had all the ingredients necessary to make it a global brand, there's absolutely nothing in Nike's history to suggest it would dwarf Adidas without Jordan. Jordan was a primary factor in making both entities multi-billion dollar transnational corporations. 

I think Holt's account is spot-on with one exception. He doesn't quite get what made Jordan JORDAN. It's clear Holt recognizes Jordan's stature. But why Jordan? Why not Clyde Drexler (who was as athletic, arguably as charismatic)? Although I'd argue that place plays an important role here–Portland (where Drexler played much of his career) isn't Chicago by any stretch of the imagination–I don't think Holt recognizes the important role of human capital here.

Which brings me to Foucault.

In the mid-to-late seventies Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures on the relationship between power, knowledge, and subjectivity. Whereas the mainstream view of power approached it as either domination or as implicit coercion, with one group on "top" and other groups on "the bottom" Foucault took a more complex approach arguing that power was much more diffuse and located to an extent in the act of knowledge formation itself. In his 1979 lecture The Birth of Biopolitics, he expands on these ideas by examining the rise of neoliberalism as a specific governmentality.[foot]Foucault defines a governmentality as a specific mode of thinking and associated practices designed to shape how people, institutions, and populations conduct themselves. For him government isn't just about what the state does–what decisions Obama makes or decides NOT to make for example–but rather it is about the way knowledge about conduct is put into practice. This does include politicians and policy makers, but also includes other actors and institutions that seek to shape how people, populations, and institutions act. Governmentalities are ensembles of legal rules that dictate what is legal and illegal, disciplinary practices that shape individual behavior, and management processes that examine aggregate statistics in order to understand and shape aggregates rather than individuals.[/foot] 

One of the theoretical ideas that distinguish neoliberal governmentality from other forms is the theory of human capital–an innovation proposed by a Chicago School economist. Up until the innovation of human capital, economists put physical capital, labor, and land at the center of economies–with labor being defined very very narrowly as a simple and somewhat static measure of the work people performed. The idea of human capital transforms the concept of labor by acknowledging that individuals have the capacity to grow and develop in wonderful ways, not only increasing their capacity to perform labor, but also increasing their capacity to develop new ideas and institutions and increasing their capacity to in turn have children and families with a certain level of human capital that will in turn be developed by them. 

Twenty eight years ago I started my first job at Wendy's making 3.35 an hour. I'm now a professor making…more than that. As a result of my decision to go on to college (aided by my parents) and then my decision to go on to grad school (aided by the University of Michigan who paid my way).  The idea of human capital put people and their ability to engage in this process at the center of the economy. A person who becomes educated can do more for him or herself as well as a society than a person who is undereducated. Education here becomes an act of investment. What distinguishes societies along these lines is not just their physical capital, their land, and their labor. Successful societies invest in their people or better yet create the structures that allow their people to make the proper decisions to invest in themselves.

And this fits neatly into the notion that individuals should act like enterprises, like entrepreneurs, like businesses–the central principle of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism individuals are to treat themselves as enterprises, as entrepreneurs of themselves. They are expected to develop their human capital, to make decisions based on the desire to develop their human capital. And what they do to develop their capital will allow them to make a return on their investment. The role of government is to create the legal framework that makes this type of rational activity possible and likely. Every attempt to create a social safety net DAMAGES the human capital formation process. When we for example tell a poor single mother that she doesn't have to go out and find a job, doesn't have to go out and get educated, but rather can stay at home and care for her children, we are damaging her ability to grow her human capital…because we're making it far harder for her to say "I need to go out, get a job, and get educated."  

I've used this quote a number of times, and will use it again: I'm not a businessman, I'm a BUSINESS, man.

Now how do we get from here to Jordan?

Back to Holt.

Notwithstanding the incredible basketball skills, competitive character, and magnetic personality Jordan brings to the mix, his professional success is ultimately built on two powerful multinational capital enterprises–the National Basketball Association and Nike. (And in recent years they, of course, have been built largely on him.)[foot]Holt p. 110[/foot] (italics mine)

Here Holt takes "the incredible basketball skills, competitive character, and magnetic personality" as well as Jordan's own role in building the NBA and Nike for granted. For understandable reasons–he's interested in articulating the role the black body plays in the post-Fordist economy and for him the most important thing is the labor that black body performs.

But taking a human capital approach allows us to do two things–it allows us to trace the way disciplinary power works under the neoliberal turn, and it also allows us to examine the dark side of the human capital formation process, even for people who've experienced the type of success Jordan have.

What do I mean here?

The theory of human capital formation relies upon the idea that individuals have the capacity to learn and to teach themselves. They have the ability to diagnose where they are, decide where they want to be, and then decide what skills they have to develop to get there. This is disciplinary power at work. When I decided I wasn't "productive enough" to get tenure I read Robert Boice's Advice for Assistant Faculty Members and put myself on a writing program. I, in effect, told myself what to do. Note how power works in this case. There IS someone above me saying "if you don't do X, you won't get tenure, and if you don't get tenure, you're going to have to find another way to take care of your family." But it's really ME doing the work on ME, using expert advice. 

Every time we engage in a weight loss program, every time we read yet another self-help book, every time we decide that we're going to play our babies Mozart in order to make them smarter (and to increase our own parenting skills) we're doing the same thing. We are disciplining ourselves, according to expert knowledge. And punishing ourselves when we fail. This isn't power as domination. This isn't power as coercion necessarily. This is a different form of power.

And one that Michael Jordan mastered. 

It was clear from the moment Jordan stepped on the court that he could score almost at will, through a combination of mid-range jumpers, and acrobatic moves to the rim. 

The line on Jordan at this time was that if you kept him from getting to the rim, making him shoot from further out (or even worse for him, getting his teammates involved) he'd do damage, but he'd be contained. The Detroit Pistons deployed this strategy (The Jordan Rules) to success, standing in the way of Jordan and the Finals in 88 [foot]Where the Pistons lost to the LA Lakers in the NBA Championship[/foot], in 89 [foot]Where they defeated the Lakers for their first NBA Championship.[/foot], and in 90[foot]Where they defeated the Portland Trailblazers for their second NBA Championship.[/foot].

Jordan made a few key decisions that helped the Bulls get passed the Pistons. He embraced the Triangle Offense[foot]An offensive scheme developed by Tex Winter and deployed by then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson that emphasized fluid ball movement that had no set plays per sé.[/foot] and in doing that learned to trust his teammates (particularly Scottie Pippen who went on to become one of the leagues top twenty all-time players). He improved his shooting range and his defensive prowess to increase his offensive efficiency (making him offensively deadly from more than a few spots on the court) and his ability to stop the player he was guarding[foot]Starting in the 1987-88 season Jordan ran off a string of six consecutive all-NBA first team defensive selections.[/foot]. But more importantly, Jordan was the first player in the history of the game to use expert nutritional information and expert workout guidance, hiring Tim Glover. Glover and Jordan worked together to create the breakfast club as well as a scientific workout plan that would keep Jordan functioning at a high level throughout his career.[foot]Since working with Jordan, Glover developed his own workout company called Attack Athletics, and has worked with Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and other high tier NBA athletes. In April he's releasing a book entitled Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable.[/foot] This decision gave him the increased body strength and stamina to withstand the Pistons' punches, and gave his teammates (Pippen most importantly) the strength and the confidence they needed. 

Now here's the $1million question. Why did Jordan do this? Up until this point, no one had considered using scientific training methods to develop their games. Basketball players had begun to lift weights by this time, but no one had trainers (and personal cooks). 

Jordan was arguably one of the top five ruthless competitors in the NBA.[foot]I'd include Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant in this group.[/foot] Writing about Jordan's second retirement, Michael Wilbon wrote the following:

"I can remember this time in, I think, 1990 when Scottie decided to challenge Michael one day in practice," Hodges said. "Michael kind of backed up for a half-second. Then he proceeded, literally, to score on Scottie at will. It was incredible. I mean, Scottie Pippen even then was one of the best players in the league and Michael just rained points on him. Scottie had to step back and say, 'Slow up, man.' "

That's what it's like to be Michael Jordan, to feel compelled to win every duel in every dusty street, to turn back every challenge both real and perceived. One night in Chicago, Jordan asked whom I had come to write about. It was an opposing player with Washington ties who was averaging 20-plus points a game, having a great season. "Well, what are you going to write when he gets no points tonight?" Jordan asked. "I'm telling you right now, your boy is getting nothing." When Jordan and the Chicago starters went to the bench toward the end of a blowout two hours later, the player I went to write about had three points and Jordan had made him nuts.[foot]More here.[/foot]

Allegedly, Jordan grew up believing his parents liked his older brother Larry more than they liked him. And in response took every opportunity he could to prove them wrong.  This thing, this habit of proving his parents wrong, bled over into other arenas of competition. It bled over into his development as a high school player–Jordan's best friend Larry Smith was picked to play varsity over Jordan and he never forgot it. In the story linked above, Wilbon noted that Jordan not only created slights, in some cases he invented slights out of whole cloth. The Smith story is one of them. Jordan transformed it from "Jordan's best friend picked to play varsity over Jordan" to "Jordan cut from high school team". It was this "thing" that Jordan used to develop the skill of persistence, of working through adversity, playing through pain, of getting up seven times after getting knocked down six.

Jordan isn't Jordan without that. Perhaps because of his genetic gifts he goes on to play basketball at the college level. Perhaps he becomes a decent pro. But he doesn't become a brand. 

Holt's telling a short story about the work that race does in the post-Fordist era and perhaps for that reason he misses this in his analysis of Jordan. But I'd argue it's difficult to understand the turn towards what Holt calls post-Fordism but is really neoliberalism, without examining human capital.

For instance he isn't able to see why neoconservative arguments so neatly work within neoliberalism. 

And while it's clear that he understands that people like Jordan are in some ways, cogs in a machine, he doesn't quite understand how processes of human capital formation often end up imprisoning the people that use them.

For me this is the money quote of the Thompson article I link above.

There's no way to measure these things, but there's a strong case to be made that Jordan is the most intense competitor on the planet. He's in the conversation, at the very least, and now he has been reduced to grasping for outlets for this competitive rage. He's in the middle of an epic game of Bejeweled on his iPad, and he's moved past level 100, where he won the title Bejeweled Demigod. He mastered sudoku and won $500 beating Portnoy at it. In the Bahamas, he sent someone down to the Atlantis hotel's gift shop to buy a book of word-search puzzles. In the hotel room, he raced Portnoy and Polk, his lawyer, beating them both. He can see all the words at once, as he used to see a basketball court. "I can't help myself," he says. "It's an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can't. If I could, then I could breathe."

Here's Jordan's Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech…the speech where by all rights he should be most at peace. Do you see peace here? There are two types of disciplinary power–there's the type of power used on people and populations who we don't think are able to properly govern themselves, and then there's the type of disciplinary power we deploy on populations able to do so. On ourselves. Jordan has in effect imprisoned himself. As I think on Michael Jordan turning 50, I'm not sure there's anything more tragic about this moment. Jordan paid a price for greatness, a terrible price. One, given the turn, it is likely impossible for us to fully escape.