Archive for July, 2011

To be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, but a misfortune

July 29th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Work, xkcd.com/386

Reihan Salam is by far the most interesting and creative thinker associated with the National Review. (To clarify: that’s a pretty low bar, but I actually think he’s interesting and creative in general.) So when I saw that he had responded by my post on cheap labor and technological stagnation, I hoped to find some arguments that would challenge my assumptions. Instead, I found this:

I’d argue that fulfilling and valuable work is work that provides individuals with “obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in their path,” to draw on Richard Robb.

It is fairly easy to construct a coherent story for Frase’s notion that supermarket checkout work isn’t sufficiently stimulating to merit survival. Unlike skilled trade work, it doesn’t involve the kind of problem-solving that allows us to stretch our capacities. Rather, it is about offering a service in a friendly and efficient way, which can be taxing but, over time, not necessarily very edifying. I definitely get that idea, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we should devote resources to saving supermarket checkout work per se.

But supermarket checkout work needs to be soon through a different lens. If I’m a young adult who had a child at a young age, my fulfillment could plausibly derive from the sense that I am contributing to the well-being of my child by engaging in wage work. The wage work in question might not be terribly stimulating, but to grin and bear it is to overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in my path to achieving some level of economic self-sufficiency. Granted, I might benefit from a host of work supports, including wage subsidies, etc., but I (rightly) see myself as making a contribution. It is not the work itself that is fulfilling. It is the fact that I am doing authentic work — not make-work designed to teach me a lesson about the value of, say, convincing taxpayers that I deserve my daily bread, but work that someone will voluntarily pay me a wage to do — in support of a vision of myself as a provider that is fulfilling.

I actually have to hand it to him for coming right out and making the “wage labor is good for you” argument, which is a much tougher sell than the usual “we need wage labor or nobody will do any work” argument, and hence is typically delivered in an elided and concealed fashion. But the notion of “authentic” work that’s being deployed here is one I have a hard time wrapping my head around, although I recognize it as a central element of right-wing metaphysics.

It’s easy to glorify the dignity of wage labor when you have a stimulating job at the National Review, but this line of argument rapidly loses its plausibility when you get to the low-wage jobs I was talking about. A lousy supermarket job that you only have because your time is valued at less than the time of an automatic checkout machine is somehow more authentic because someone “voluntarily” paid for it. Presumably it’s more authentic than being a firefighter, since they have to “convince the taxpayers” that they deserve to be paid. And Salam must not think his own job is all that authentic, since the National Review is sustained by rich donors and could never survive if it had to get by on subscription revenue. I could go on about this, but I already did in my review of “Undercover Boss” and my first essay for Jacobin.

As for the specific nature of supermarket work, this comment on the original NR post says it more powerfully than I could. It starts out: “Having worked as a supermarket checker, I can tell you that no one I worked with got anything out of the job other than a paycheck, and the rates of depression and substance abuse among my colleagues were staggering.”

And as a friend put it to me earlier today: “As if the unemployed are unfamiliar with natural and authentic obstacles”. But look, if you do need some “obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in your path”, try training for a marathon or something. Or I can recommend some excellent video games.

The authenticity stuff aside, we also have the patronizing suggestion that a young parent needs to feel that they are “contributing to the well-being of [their] child by engaging in wage work.” As though they aren’t already contributing to that well-being by taking care of a child, which requires a lot more skill and engagement than bagging groceries. Even without the childcare angle, though, maybe people would be less likely to feel they needed to take a crappy job in order to contribute to society, if people like Reihan Salam weren’t running around telling them exactly that.

To be fair, Salam does acknowledge that rather than stigmatizing the unemployed and people who do non-waged labor, we could try to break down the fetishization of waged work that gives it such “nonmaterial and psychological importance”. And I don’t dispute his point that this is a hard thing to do. But he doesn’t even seem interested in it. Instead, at the end of the post, he lays out his hopes for what’s to come: “In my scenario, the number of ‘working poor’ will likely increase”, and “servants and nannies will be the jobs of the future”:

This raises the question of what will happen to those trapped in the low end of the labor market. Recently, the cultural critic Annalee Newitz offered a provocative hypothesis: “We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago,” Newitz writes. As more skilled women enter the workforce, and as the labor market position of millions of less-skilled workers deteriorate, we’ll see more servants and nannies in middle-class homes.

This “back to the 19th Century” vision is a scenario that has occurred to me as well, but I certainly never thought of it as a desirable end point. But hey, if the right thinks that’s the best thing they have to offer, they are welcome to make that their platform.

My question for Reihan Salam, though, is this. If National Review laid you off tomorrow, would you rather collect unemployment or go bag groceries because it would allow you to feel you were doing “authentic work” and had “overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in your path”? Maybe the answer would really be the latter, but I suspect for most people it wouldn’t be.

Cheap Labor and the Great Stagnation

July 27th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

The National Employment Law Project has a new report out Called “The Good Jobs Deficit”, in which they note that the terrible job market is even worse than people realize. Not only are few jobs being created, but those that are being created are predominantly low-wage jobs, worse than the ones they are replacing. Thus the wages of American workers are stagnant or even falling in some cases.

This isn’t really surprising, as we’ve known about the problem of low-wage job growth for a while. But the report made me think about something else: Tyler Cowen’s recent book, The Great Stagnation. In that book, Cowen took note of the stagnation of incomes for the broad majority, but he interpreted it as a symptom of a deeper problem:

Median income is the single best measure of how much we are producing new ideas that benefit most of the American population. Yet the picture is depressing . . . You can see the rate of growth of per capita median income slows down around 1973, which I take as the end of the era of low-hanging fruit. As an approximation, if median income had continued to grow at its earlier postwar rate, the median family income today would be over $90,000.

Cowen goes on to say that “The American left has pointed out and indeed stressed measures of stagnant median income, but it usually blames politics, insufficient redistribution, or poor educational opportunities rather than considering the idea of a technological plateau.” So for Cowen, the causal story is that technological stagnation leads to stagnating income. He treats the innovation slowdown as basically exogenous, the result of a lack of “low hanging fruit”, easily discovered and exploited technologies that can increase our standard of living. So at the end of the book, Cowen’s recommendation is essentially that we should try to make science a higher-prestige occupation, and then just wait around and accept stagnation until somebody finds some more low-hanging fruit.

But I think Cowen gives insufficient attention to the reverse causal story: one cause of technological stagnation is that labor is too cheap. As Daron Acemoglu explains in this paper, you can use the tools of mainstream economics to construct a model in which the development of labor-saving technology is more rapid when there is scarcity of labor. Economic historians have suggested that one of the reasons that technological progress in the 19th century was faster in the United States than in Britain was that labor was scarce in the U.S.

The reasoning here is pretty straightforward. A rational manager will only adopt labor-saving technology if it is cheaper than the labor it replaces. And when labor is scarce, wages rise as employers compete against each other for workers, making it more attractive to save on labor by using machines instead. For instance, suppose a self checkout machine for a grocery store ends up costing $10 per hour over its lifetime, when you account for purchase and maintenance costs. If your cashiers make $8 per hour, there’s no reason to use the machines. But if they make $12, you have an incentive to replace cashiers with machines, and manufacturers have more incentive to come up with this kind of labor saving technology.

This isn’t great for the cashiers who lose their jobs, obviously. But in the larger scheme of things, working at a supermarket checkout isn’t the kind of fulfilling and valuable work we really want to preserve, and this kind of technological change is necessary if we want to improve our overall standard of living and move in the direction of a post-scarcity society. That’s one of the reasons I argued that preserving and creating jobs shouldn’t be the left’s main preoccupation. Instead, we need to ease the pain of unemployment for those who are displaced.

But in addition, we need to raise wages. So how do we make labor more expensive? One way is to raise the minimum wage and increase rates of unionization, which are both good ideas. And rising wages in China will hopefully start to improve the situation on a global scale. But in the United States, the most important thing is to get back to full employment–i.e., create labor scarcity throughout the labor market. Just keep in mind that we don’t necessarily need to do it by creating a ton of jobs.

Against Jobs, For Full Employment

July 26th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

Mike Konczal said something on Twitter that pointed out the odd resonance between this Will Wilkinson post at the Economist and the rant against obsessing over “job creation” that I wote for The Activist. Actually, I originally wrote it for the newsletter of the political organization that I’m a member of, the Democratic Socialists of America, and my argument was directed at my fellow leftists who I think sometimes lose sight of our historic criticisms of wage labor as a source of alienation and domination.

Wilkinson, by contrast, is kind of a softcore libertarian. And yet here he is echoing a longstanding commonplace of Marxism:

David Ellerman, one of my favourite challenging thinkers, argues that the employer-employee relationship is more like the master-slave relationship than we are inclined to believe. I know this sounds a little crazy, and I don’t entirely buy his argument. But take a look; he’s on to something. Philosophical questions of self-ownership and the alienability of labour aside, I am convinced that autonomy is profoundly important to most of us, and that the sort of self-rental involved in the employment relation is regularly experienced as a lamentable loss of autonomy, if not humiliating subjection. I think a lot of us would rather not work for somebody else.

This is not really very different from Marx’s account of alienated labor in capitalism. (It is, incidentally, especially hilarious to see this is published by the Economist. It has existed since Marx’s day, and you can actually find passages in Marx’s work where he trashes the Economist for basically the same reasons people trash it today.) I was making basically the same point in my essay:

Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs — that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.

In other words, wage labor sucks, and a lot of people will only do it if the alternative is destitution.

Of course, Wilkinson’s argument differs from mine in important ways. In particular, he conceives of the alternative to wage labor in terms of other kinds of monetized interactions, like “cutting hair for money in a kitchen, or legally making a few bucks every now and then taxiing people around town in a 1988 Ford Escort”, whereas I focused more on socially beneficial activities that are outside the money economy altogether, like taking care of children and writing open source software, and on the inherent benefits of simply increasing everyone’s free time. Hence his policy recommendations, while overlapping with mine somewhat, are focused on deregulation and opening up the informal economy.

I’m not necessarily against deregulating the labor market. But deregulation would have to be paired with a far more robust social democratic safety net in order to ensure that a life outside the control of the boss is possible for everybody, and not just for a small labor aristocracy of people like Will Wilkinson (and me). That’s why my essay talked about national health care, more generous unemployment, efforts to reduce the work week, and ultimately some kind of guaranteed income that allows people to survive outside of the labor market. (As for where the money for this should come from, please see John Quiggin.) Those are the things that make exiting the labor market a real option for the non-rich. And just as importantly, they reduce the risk and uncertainty that’s associated with not having regular, full time employment. As it stands, the downside risk of losing your job is much greater if you’re less educated, less healthy, or have more dependents than Wilkinson does.

I view all of this as an alternative strategy for getting back to full employment that doesn’t rely entirely on job-creation programs. I want to clarify this point, because it wasn’t made well in my original essay, which was constructed to be as brief and inflammatory as I could make it in order to attract as much attention to the argument as possible. I’ve noticed that some people conflated my rant against jobs with an opposition to full employment.

So I should make clear that I’m not opposed to full employment; in fact, I think that achieving and maintaining full employment is of paramount importance if we want to give people the real option of cutting back hours or quitting their jobs. For example, we know that there are lots of people who wish they could work fewer hours, but whose employers won’t let them. And studies like these probably understate the desire for fewer hours because they don’t do a very good job of distinguishing the desire for work from the desire for money. But whatever people would like to do, they don’t have much leverage to negotiate or to find new jobs if they face a millions-strong reserve army of the unemployed. In a high-unemployment environment like the current one, we see people who have jobs being worked harder, but quitting at historically low rates.

However, the demand for full employment is distinct from the demand for jobs in ways that are politically salient. It is important to bear in mind that “full employment” is not just another way of saying “lots of jobs”. It is a piece of economic jargon, a technical term for the situation in the labor market when employers’ demand for labor meets or exceeds the supply of people looking for jobs across all the broad categories of employment. Keeping the economy in this state is highly desirable for working people and for leftist politics, for reasons best explained in the 1940′s by the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, in his important essay on “Political Aspects of Full Employment”:

[U]nder a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders.

Demands for government-led job creation target full employment by increasing demand for labor in the hopes that this will both soak up surplus labor directly and spur increased private sector demand for labor through the multiplier effect of public investment. However, there is no a priori reason why creating more demand for wage labor should be the only or the primary mechanism of reaching full employment. To the extent that job sharing schemes reduce unemployment by distributing work across more workers, the economy can approach full employment without creating new work in the aggregate. Just as importantly, since the definition of full employment depends on both the supply of and the demand for labor, full employment can be reached by reducing the supply of labor rather than increasing demand.

Why would we want to reduce labor supply? One reason, which I emphasized in “Stop Digging”, is that wage labor is a form of domination that lots of people find inherently unpleasant, and that a lot of what people do for wages is less socially desirable than what they could do if they had control over their own time. But another good reason is that certain political priorities that the left supports for other reasons have the effect of decreasing labor supply. Hence a focus on the labor supply side can help us to ensure that the quest for full employment is not at cross purposes with our other goals.

Take, for example, health care reform. It is generally accepted that there are a certain number of people who would like to retire or otherwise leave the labor force, but who stay in their jobs because that is the only way they can maintain access to health insurance. A program of national health care that successfully guaranteed universal coverage and severed health care from employment would cause these people to drop out of the labor force; all things being equal, this would move the economy toward full employment as these jobs were filled by the unemployed and the total pool of people seeking work shrank. However, this move toward full employment involves no net job creation since it is entirely targeted to the labor supply side.

More generally, any reform that makes it easier to survive outside of employment may have the effect of reducing labor supply, if you believe–as I do and Will Wilkinson does–that lots of people would prefer not to work for wages if they can avoid it. Health care, government-funded child care, social security, welfare, and disability benefits are all steps toward what sociologists of the welfare state refer to as the “de-commodification” of labor power. To the extent that people can get by without working for wages, they are able to avoid commodifying themselves and selling their labor.

Even at the height of an economic expansion, large numbers of people are not participating in wage labor. Among Americans aged 16 and older, about a third are neither working nor looking for work–and this was true even before the recession. Some of these people are so-called “discouraged workers” who want a job but have given up looking for one, but many others are retired, or are in school, or unable to work due to disability, or are taking care of children and elders, or are voluntarily out of employment for some other reason. There are ways that public policy could be used to force many of these people into the labor force. But doing so is in general a right-wing policy goal: for the same reason that full employment is politically good for workers, it is bad for capitalists, and the political agents of capital understand that one way of avoiding full employment while maximizing profits is to keep the supply of labor as high as possible. Which is why Republicans are currently obsessed with increasing labor supply while doing nothing to increase the demand for labor.

“Against jobs, for full employment” seems at first like a paradoxical demand, but I hope I’ve shown that it isn’t. By opposing the narrow rhetoric of job creation, I didn’t intend to diminish the importance of tackling the crisis of the unemployed head-on; I merely wanted to suggest that there are alternative avenues for addressing this crisis that are both more humane and more radical.

Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work

[Editors Note: I wrote this a while back, originally for The Activist, but I never bothered to post it here. I'm reposting it now because I have a whole lot more readers than I did a couple of weeks ago, and because I'm going to post a follow-up in the next couple of days.]

Much of the left has, mostly without debating it, coalesced around “jobs” as a unifying political demand. The motivation for this is clear: one of the biggest problems the country faces is that there are 20 million people who are unsuccessfully seeking full time employment. But while it may seem obvious that the solution to this problem is to create millions of new jobs, this is not in fact the only possible solution–and there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment. For one thing, it may not be feasible to create that many new jobs. Moreover, it’s equally debatable whether, from a socialist perspective, it is desirable to create these jobs even if it is possible.

We should differentiate three separate reasons why it might be desirable to create jobs. One is that a job provides a source of income: we often talk about the need to create jobs when what we really mean is that people need income. Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs–that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.

A second argument for creating jobs, and not just handing checks to people, is that having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout. To the extent that this is true, however, it’s largely because we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth. The left has historically perpetuated this view, but we should be challenging it. We should point out that there is a lot of socially valuable work that is not done for pay. The biggest category of such work, as feminists have long pointed out, is household labor and the care of children and elders. But today we are seeing the growth of other categories of valuable unpaid work, in everything from community gardens to Wikipedia.

This is not to say that all of the socially necessary labor of society could be performed by volunteers. The third reason to create jobs is that some useful things won’t get done unless someone is paid to do them. But it’s difficult to make the case that there are enough socially necessary tasks out there to make up our job shortfall and also replace the destructive jobs that we need to eliminate.

Some argue that if we could build the manufacturing sector and start “making things” in America again, we could solve our unemployment problem. The reality is that we already make plenty of things, and the decline of manufacturing jobs is due more to technology than to off-shoring. The U.S. economy produces more physical output now than at any time in American history, but with fewer workers.

Public works are another of the usual suspects. Our infrastructure is indeed in a pretty sorry state, but repairing bridges is not going to create 20 million jobs–and in any case, it’s a short-term fix, since eventually we’ll clear out the backlog of neglected infrastructure projects. Then what?

Finally there is the call for “green jobs”, based on the laudable idea that we need to put lots of people to work moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels. This may be a source of some new jobs, like people making solar panels or weatherizing buildings. But the more common pattern is that old jobs are turning into different, greener jobs. The construction worker is now a green construction worker, and the corporate lawyer is now a corporate environmental lawyer, and so on. These are positive changes–but they don’t create new jobs.

On top of all this, many of the jobs people are currently paid for are socially destructive: forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system: the Republican attacks on Obama’s “job-killing” health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will “kill jobs”.

What, then, should the left support, if not more jobs? Shortening the work week disappeared from labor’s agenda after World War II, and we need to bring it back. We should also make unemployment benefits more generous in order to ease the pain of joblessness. Ultimately, though, we need to get more radical than that, and move away from tightly linking jobs and income. To reiterate, the real problem of the unemployed isn’t their lack of jobs, it’s their lack of money. That’s why some on the left are coming around to the idea of just giving people money: a guaranteed minimum income, which everyone would be entitled to independent of work.

The objections to these ideas are typically: “how do we pay for it?” and “how do we achieve it?”. Finding the money shouldn’t be a problem where the will of a powerful political coalition is present–the richest country in the history of the world can guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone. But building that political coalition is a harder question. The first step is to admit that the current consensus around job-creation is unworkable, and not really any more “realistic” than the ideas I’ve just proposed. The next step is to highlight existing proposals that are being ignored because of the obsession with job creation. For example, Congressman John Conyers recently proposed legislation to subsidize employers that reduce employee hours, a policy that has been effective in Germany. This is an inadequate policy in many ways, but it’s still a more useful focus than just obsessing about how to create new jobs.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths . . . and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again . . . there need be no more unemployment”. One of the things that ought to distinguish socialists from liberals is that we think it’s possible to do better than this. Today, it seems that hole-digging has come to occupy a central place in the imagination of the left. But socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil.

Artificial Scarcity Watch: Nathan Myhrvold is a vile patent troll

July 23rd, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

When I wrote the first “Artificial Scarcity Watch” post, I envisioned it as an occasional feature, highlighting some of the trends that led me to cook up Anti-Star Trek. I think I’m going to have to pace myself, though, because otherwise I’ll spend all my time writing about intellectual property run amok. For instance, this story, about PayPal teaming up with the London police to shut down alleged music piracy websites, is barely worth mentioning.

I saw something else, though, that is too juicy to pass up. The latest episode of This American Life is called “When Pattents Attack!”, and NPR’s Planet Money blog also tells the story. It’s a devastating exposé of a company called Intellectual Ventures, and I highly recommend reading it if you feel that your blood pressure is too low or that you need more anger in your life.

IV is run by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who is confused about climate chage and also has a book about modernist cooking. Malcolm Gladwell had a piece about the company in the New Yorker a few years ago, in which he portrayed IV as a kind of laboratory for innovation, focused on the science of coming up with good new ideas.

That all seems pretty laughable in retrospect. The Planet Money post reveals Intellectual Ventures to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and Nathan Myhrvold to be that lowest of rentier-capitalist parasites: a patent troll. Intellectual Ventures does not, for the most part, come up with ideas. What it does is buy patents–often very broad, legally dubious patents–and then extort licensing fees out of companies that allegedly infringe on them. Or else it licenses its patents to shell companies that exist only to sue people, thus producing eerie scenes like this:

And, in fact, that’s what’s happening with Chris Crawford’s patent. Intellectual Venures sold it to a company called Oasis research in June of 2010. Less than a month later, Oasis Research used the patent to sue over a dozen different tech companies, including Rackspace, GoDaddy, and AT&T.

. . .

The office was in a corridor where all the other doors looked exactly the same —locked, nameplates over the door, no light coming out. It was a corridor of silent, empty offices with names like “Software Rights Archive,” and “Bulletproof Technology of Texas.”

It turns out a lot of those companies in that corridor, maybe every single one of them, is doing exactly what Oasis Research is doing. They appear to have no employees. They are not coming up with new inventions. The companies are in Marshall, Texas because they are filing lawsuits for patent infringement.

As Planet Money points out, this is a gangster business model: pay me, or I sue you.

Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging “from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars … to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders,” Sacca says.

There’s an implication in IV’s pitch, Sacca says: If you don’t join us, who knows what’ll happen?

He says it reminds him of “a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, ‘It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn’t happen.’ “

Hence even companies that know they are in the right will be reluctant to go to court against IV and its patent portfolio, due to the high cost of litigation. But of course, John Gotti is deeply offended by the suggestion that he might be involved in something unsavory. Says the lawyer who coined the term “Patent Troll” (!), but who now works with Intellectual Ventures:

In an email to us, Peter Detkin called the comparison to the mafia “ridiculous and offensive.” Detkin wrote:

We’re a disruptive company that’s providing a way for patent-holders to recognize value that wasn’t available before we came on the scene, and we are making a big impact on the market. That obviously makes people uncomfortable. But no amount of name-calling changes the fact that ideas have value.

True enough. But you can see why many people feel like lots of butcher shops have been burning.

Ah, if only Al Capone had been clever enough to cloak his enterprise in business school jargon–the mafia is a “disruptive company” that is “making a big impact on the market”! Brad DeLong cites this story as evidence that the patent system is broken. But from the perspective of Anti-Star Trek, it isn’t broken, at all. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: create artificial scarcity and enrich a small class of parasitic rentiers.

Anti-Star Trek Revisited: A Reply to Robin Hanson

July 21st, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, xkcd.com/386

[Update: A commenter informs me that Hanson actually does believe in intellectual property for utilitarian rather than moral reasons, so my apologies if I've misrepresented him on that point. It was totally unclear from the post I was replying to, but I should have done some more poking around before I made that assumption.]

One of the best things about having something you wrote go flying around the Internet for a few days is that you get lots of feedback and ideas from interesting people with whom you’d normally never interact. This is the promise of what Brad DeLong called the “invisible college”, and I must say I’m really enjoying it. It’s kind of like getting peer reviewed for a journal article, except that the volume and quality of reaction I’ve gotten to Anti-Star Trek has been superior to the actual peer reviews I’ve received.

Most people who took the time to write about my post were inclined to view it favorably, but of course the real fun is being told that you’re wrong on the Internet. Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias actually tried to defend Anti-Star Trek as a superior arrangement to actual Star Trek. I think Hanson is some kind of libertarian, and the tone of the post is pretty snide and condescending, but whatever; I’ve said nastier things about libertarians. It’s still worth addressing what he says. His argument has three separable components: the first misses the point, the second is irrelevant, and the third reveals an important moral disagreement about what makes for a good society.

First, Hanson wants to say that really, my portrayal of Star Trek as a communist society is wrong. There are still some resource constraints, we see market exchange (although I’d argue it’s mostly what Erik Olin Wright likes to call “capitalism between consenting adults), and so on:

Now it should be noted that Star Trek fiction has many cases of people using money and trading. Even setting that aside, replicators need both matter and energy as input, and neither could ever be in infinite supply. So even an ideal “communist” Star Trek must enforce limited budgets of access to such things. Lawyers and guardians would need to adjudicate and enforce such limits.

True enough, but this was a thought experiment. I was trying to extract the element of the Star Trek universe that is both unusual and resonant with present-day trends, and that’s the existence of post-scarcity technologies. Allocating scarce goods and resources is an old and not as interesting problem, so I wrote that stuff out of the thought experiment.

Second, Hanson claims that I’m glorifying the government/military hierarchy of Starfleet over the hierarchies that would be produced by the intellectual property-based regime of Anti-Star Trek.

After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others. This even though Star Fleet displays lots of hierarchy and inequality, and spends large budgets that must come at the expense of private budgets.

The far future seems to have put Frase in full flaming far mode, declaring his undying allegience to a core ideal: he prefers the inequality that comes from a government hierarchy, over inequality that comes from voluntary trade. Sigh.

But the structure of Starfleet has nothing to do with the underlying economic basis of the Star Trek universe. The fact that people can engage in the kind of space adventure we see on the show is something made possible by abundance and an underlying communist social structure, but it isn’t a necessary consequence of it. And the fact that Starfleet is structured like a Naval hierarchy is justified by the existence of hostile alien races–which, again, isn’t the aspect of the Star Trek universe that I was interested in for this thought experiment.

Finally, Hanson wants to suggest that it is just and right that people should be rewarded monetarily for the intellectual property they create.

In both the Star Trek and Anti-Star Trek societies, the main source of long term value seems to be the accumulation of better designs. Yet Frase (and apparently Yglesias) is horrified to imagine that the people who contribute this main value might get paid for their contributions. After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others.

Of course, he doesn’t really mean people should be “paid for their contributions”. That would just mean rewarding people when they come up with a good idea. Anti-Star Trek, however, adds the further requirement that the original creator should get paid every time someone makes use of their idea.

It’s hard to see why you would approve of this, unless you justify it on the grounds of morality rather than economic efficiency. In this regard, it’s interesting to contrast Hanson’s vitriol with Matt Yglesias’s favorable reaction to what I wrote. Both Hanson and Yglesias approve of a maximalist neoliberal vision of markets and commodification in a way that I don’t, although Yglesias’s politics are much closer to mine. But Yglesias approaches intellectual property in basically utilitarian terms: he views the artificial monopoly and scarcity mandated by IP law as justified if and only if it leads to more creation of knowledge and culture. This is also the view of IP that’s enshrined in the constitution: the point of copyright is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Hanson, in contrast, seems to be taking a position that I often see on the libertarian fringes: he thinks that people have some kind of inherent right to be showered with riches if they come up with a popular idea. One response to this is the Yglesias/utilitarian one: this is silly because it doesn’t lead to maximizing overall human well-being, and it’s clear that lots of valuable new ideas get created even in the absence of IP rights.

My response is somewhat different: I don’t think it even makes sense to obsess about who did or didn’t “create” some specific idea. The progress of human culture is a cumulative process–”standing on the shoulders of giants”, Stigler’s Law, and so on. Moreover, all creators are dependent on living in a very specific type of society–technologically advanced, low levels of violence, high levels of education, and so on–that facilitates their work. And the ubiquity of simultaneous invention suggests to me that there is little rationale behind the desire to anoint some specific person as “the creator” of a good idea. Even from a more libertarian perspective, I don’t see the point of rewarding people for coming up with ideas. As Levine and Boldrin like to argue, the trick is to successfully implement and popularize an idea. Or as the Mark Zuckerberg character says to the Winklevii in that Facebook movie: if you had invented Facebook, then you would have invented Facebook.

Nevertheless, I think Hanson’s response is worth paying attention to, because the transition to a world like Anti-Star Trek probably requires a cultural shift from the utilitarian Yglesias perspective on intellectual property to the Hansonian moralistic view, in which copying is viewed as morally equivalent to theft. Yglesias noted in a follow-up that some people objected to Anti-Star Trek on the grounds that under current IP law, things like replicator patterns might not be covered, and in any case copyrights don’t last forever. But as he then notes, laws can change, especially when powerful rentier interests want them to change. And it will be much easier to bring about the transition to eternal, all-encompassing intellectual property protections if people stop thinking of IP as a necessary evil to encourage innovation, and start thinking of it as a basic human right of “creators”.

Artificial Scarcity Watch: Indicted for Downloading from JSTOR

July 19th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Apparently Internet activist Aaron Swartz has been indicted for downloading articles from JSTOR, the database of academic journal articles. Note that Swartz had legal access to the database through MIT, he’s just being accused of downloading too many articles.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. There is some stuff in the indictment about him circumventing JSTOR’s attempts to block him, as well as entering an MIT wiring closet without permission in order to attach a computer to the network. But I think this Wired article gets at the heart of it: “In essence, Swartz is accused of felony hacking for violating MIT and JSTOR’s terms of service.” And, I might add, for doing a scaled-up version of what journalists and academics do all the time when they circumvent the JSTOR paywall by emailing articles to each other.

And what’s really scary is the charge of “theft” for copying the documents. This is the kind of thing we’ll see a lot of in the transition to Anti-Star Trek. And the New York Times account even gives us an example of the kind of warped moral reasoning that is required to equate copying copyrighted material with the theft of physical property:

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” said [U.S. Attorney Carmen] Ortiz in the press release.

In other words, “stealing is stealing whether you’re downloading an electronic file without permission or forcibly depriving people of their posessions”. Besides being despicable, this conflation also seems to pose a risk to people’s ability to correctly apprehend the nature of reality. Both this Ars Technica story and the Wired account refer to the fact that Swartz didn’t distribute the articles and that JSTOR “got the documents back” from him. But the latter statement is incomprehensible–how could they have “gotten back” the articles? He just made a copy, JSTOR never lost them in the first place. And what does it even mean to “give back” a digital file?

Hopefully this all blows up in the faces of the prosecutors, as Henry Farrell predicts. Restricting access to academic journals is particularly egregious, since almost nobody involved in their production–the authors, the peer reviewers, most of the editors–gets paid by the companies that own the journals.

Policy, Politics, and Strategy

July 19th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

Back in January, Freddie DeBoer wrote a post in which he noted the absence of a genuine left in the mainstream political blogosphere. He astutely observed that the distinction between the moderate and extreme left is generally formulated in terms of differences in tone–the calm ratiocination of an Ezra Klein versus the fiery polemic of a Glenn Greenwald. But in terms of their political allegiances and their policy preferences, all of these people are just regular mainstream liberals.

DeBoer went on to accuse most of the mainstream liberal bloggers of being neo-liberals, in the sense that they a) favored deregulation, globalization, and the general expansion of market relations; b) were instinctively more hostile to people on their left than to people on their right. Whatever the merits of this accusation, it started the discussion off on a hostile note. There was some discussion from folks like Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias, but then the conversation kind of trailed off.

Now, however,the debate seems to have re-started on a somewhat sounder footing. Once again, it started with somebody crticizing Matt Yglesias for being a neoliberal–in this case, Doug Henwood. For a while, it seemed like a rerun of a sterile debate that counterposed thinking about policy to thinking about politics. But Noah Millman came up with a good summary of what is actually at stake: the integration of policy analysis into a larger theory of politics. Henry Farrell then intervened with a framework that I think is very helpful:

He seems to be muddling three very different things together – “policy proposals,” “theories of politics,” and “actionable programs to rebuild the American left.” “Policy proposals” are clearly what he’s most comfortable with – proposed institutional or regulatory changes that would lead to attractive policy outcomes. And they are obviously good and important things to debate.

But equally obviously, they are not the whole of politics nor anywhere near it. Policy is not made, in the US or anywhere else, through value-neutral debate among technocrats about the relative efficiency of different proposed schemes. Hence, the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. Obvious examples include policies on campaign spending, or union organization, which directly affect the ability of political actors to mobilize in the future.

Here we have three distinct elements of a comprehensive left political strategy:

  • Detailed policy ideas
  • Short-term political strategies for building a coalition to implement policy ideas.
  • A long-term strategy for pursuing policies that strengthen the coalitions that can win and sustain progressive policies, rather than undermining them.

To some degree, there can be a division of labor between these three levels. It’s really too bad that Matt Yglesias somehow ended up in the middle of this debate again, because he isn’t really the issue. He’s focused on policy, and that’s fine–we need to have detailed policies lying around that successful political coalitions can draw on when they get into power. But to some degree, everyone has to have at least a basic idea about how the three levels fit together. Otherwise, as Farrell says, policy thinkers “have difficulty thinking about the interactions between short-term policy proposals that they like and the political conditions that might make these and other proposals achievable, and sustainable after they have been brought through.” This is where the criticism of policy wonk bloggers as neoliberals is correct–more so in some cases than others. There is a tendency to believe that politics happens by having good ideas and convincing people of them, rather than through the clash of power and interest.

My only real contribution here is to point to a specific example of the above contradiction playing out in our current politics. There has been a lot of discussion lately of Suzanne Mettler’s work on the submerged state: government policies and services that people benefit from but don’t realize that they benefit from. For example, the majority of people who benefit from the mortgage interest tax deduction don’t think they use government programs. This phenomenon is directly linked to one of the Left’s political problems: as J.P. Green points out, anti-government sentiment is still widespread among Americans even at a time when the need for regulation and intervention in the economy should be most obvious. That kind of attitude is very hard to combat if people aren’t aware that they benefit from government programs: “get the government’s hands off my Medicare”, and so on.

And I think you can directly connect this to the problem that Farrell addresses: neoliberal policy thinkers who lack a theory of politics, and hence don’t think carefully about whether they are promoting policies that will ultimately undermine the political basis for being able to win elections and enact progressive legislation. Specifically, they will often favor policies that grow the submerged state. This may make sense from a narrow policy perspective, since it does actually help people. But because it isn’t visible, it doesn’t do anything to increase the number of people who think that government programs make a positive difference in their lives.

This problem also arose in the adminstration’s attempt to stimulate the economy. To take one very specific example: consider the tax cut that the Obama administration passed. This was an income tax cut of $400 to $800 per year. But instead of sending people checks, the administration decided to quietly reduce the amount of withholding from paychecks. From a technical policy wonk standpoint, this was a perfectly defensible idea. The idea, based on Sunstein-Thaler “nudge”-type theories of libertarian paternalism, was that if people didn’t notice their temporary windfall they would be more likely to spend rather than save it. The consequence is that doing the tax cut this way makes it more effective as stimulus in the short run.

But the downside is now clear: most people didn’t realize they got a tax cut at all. From the policy wonk perspective, of course, that was the point–but it meant that Obama didn’t gain anything politically from having cut taxes, and Republicans could still go around claiming that he had raised taxes.

As the old saying goes, you may not be interested in theories of politics, but theories of politics are interested in you.

Reanimated Marxism

July 17th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

In the new Jacobin, Mike Beggs has a great article about Marxism in which he lays out an approach to Marx’s thought that very much resonates with my own conception of Marxism:

If we are to engage in these ways with modern economics, what, if anything, makes our analysis distinctively Marxist? It is the two-fold project behind Capital as a critique of political economy: first to demonstrate the social preconditions that lie beneath the concepts of political economy, and especially their dependence on class relationships; and second, to demonstrate these social relations as historical, not eternal.

These two strands of Marx’s thought are as valid as ever. The way to apply them today is not to maintain the form and content of Capital as a complete, separate way to approach economics, as if we are superior because we begin from superior principles. Instead, I think it is to approach modern economics as we find it and ask the same kinds of critical questions: what are the social conditions that make economic phenomena appear the way they do? It is to deal not only, not even mainly, with economic high theory, but also with the applied economics produced every day in the reports and statements of central banks, Treasuries, the IMF, etc., and ask, what are the implicit class relations here? Why are these the driving issues at this point in history? What are the deeper social contradictions lying behind them? The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.

Beggs also posted a fascinating letter from Joan Robinson on the topic of non-orthodox Marxism, prompting a post from Kieran Healy.

Contrast this with the recent series of posts at Crooked Timber, where John Quiggin wrote on “Marxism Without Revolution”. There he poses the question: “what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution?” Quiggin’s own politics are a form of Keynesian Social Democracy, which he sets in contrast with what he sees as the inadequacy or obsolescence of the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

But Marxism is only obsolete if you approach it in the spirit of what Beggs calls the “zombie Marxists”. Like Quiggin, my day-to-day politics are in many ways social democratic–I am concerned with elections, welfare state policy, and the like. Unlike Quiggin, I consider myself a Marxist, primarily because I do still believe in “revolution” in the sense of a transition to a post-capitalist society, though not necessarily in the sense of an insurrectionary seizure of state power by a revolutionary movement.

However, Quiggin raises a number of important points about what is or isn’t still relevant in Marxism, so I found it useful to work out in some detail where I do and don’t agree with his takes on three major aspects of Marxism: class, crisis, and capital.

Class

In the first post, Quiggin says that:

The analysis of economics and history in terms of class struggle is the central distinguishing feature of Marxism, and remains essential to any proper understanding. That said, the specifically Marxist class analysis in which the industrial working class, brought together in large factories, and increasingly homogenized and immiserised, serves as the inevitable agent of revolution, clearly hasn’t worked and isn’t going to.

I don’t quite agree with the first sentence: class struggle was obviously a preoccupation of Marx, but I don’t think that the explanation of history as the product of class struggles is necessarily the most important part of the theory, or the one most relevant to the present day. I will return to that point below.

I do, however, agree with the second point. In Marxist thought, two meanings of “the working class” are often conflated. At a high level of abstraction, the working class is all those who make their living by working for others rather than by owning the means of production and hiring employees to operate them. In this sense almost all of us are working class; yet as Quiggin observes, the working class in this sense is too heterogeneous and diffuse to form a self-aware “class for itself”. Thus Marxists have also long spoken of a working class defined in more narrow sociological terms as given here by Quiggin.

And I agree with Quiggin that the industrial, factory-based working class is unlikely to serve as the collective agent of revolution due to its declining centrality in capitalist economies. Indeed, this very problem is at the heart of my new essay in Jacobin (not currently online), in which I reach back to a theory of non-class based collective identity (Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism) in order to extract some ideas about where the collective revolutionary agent may come from in 21st Century America.

So what use is Marxism, without its central collective actor? We can extract the aspect of Marxist class analysis that is still useful, if we think more carefully about the paradoxical position that the working class occupies in Marx’s thought. On the one hand, the working class in the narrow factory-industrial sense was supposed to be the group that led and carried out the revolution against capitalism. But on the other hand, the working class in the most general sense–as wage labor–is also the thing that is supposed to be abolished by the revolution. The notion of a class that simultaneously realizes and abolishes itself is a clever historical irony, but it is perhaps easier to imagine that the task of abolishing wage labor would be carried out by people who, while they are wage laborers, do not identify themselves or their movement as “working class” first and foremost. Certainly it’s tempting to think so today, when identification with the idea of being someone who “works” is so often bound up with a reactionary politics of producerist ressentiment.

The above, then, is my response to the way Quiggin ends his post. He notes that while the traditional working class may be disappearing, it is still quite coherent to speak of a “ruling class”, the top 1 percent of society. But if there is a coherent ruling class and only an inchoate exploited class, then Marxism risks ending up in a defeatist dead end. What I am trying to suggest, however, is that such defeatism is not inevitable. What is necessary instead is a recognition that while the oppressiveness of wage labor as a system of domination has not disappeared, we no longer know what the political vehicle for overturning that domination will be. The answer is not to give up, but to think harder about different models of collective identity and movement formation.

Crisis

Quiggin breaks Marx’s theory of crisis into two parts . The first is “the idea that crisis is a normal part of capitalism rather than an aberration resulting from exogenous shocks.” The second is “crises would grow steadily more intense, driven by the declining rate of profit, until they brought about the revolutionary overthrow of the system.”

The first component is, I agree, a major intellectual contribution of Marx’s, but I interpret its importance somewhat differently than Quiggin, as explained below. As to the second component, it seems to me that Quiggin is making the same error here that he does in the discussion of class: he insists that Marxism must be closely tied to a doctrine of historical inevitability. Now, there is no doubt that Marx did at times speak in these terms, sometimes for rhetorical effect. And some of the Marxists who followed him (like Kautsky) went much farther in this direction than the founder himself did. But this is not all Marxism is. It is much more helpful to think of it as a systemic, structural account of capitalism, and a way of thinking of the various possibilities for moving beyond capitalism. Speaking of crises “bringing about the revolutionary overthrow of the system”, as Quiggin does, is at best vacuous and at worst counter-productive. At one level, clearly capitalism cannot last forever, and so sooner or later a crisis will end it. But there is always the choice between “socialism or barbarism”, as Rosa Luxemburg put it. And if Marxist-influenced political movements just wait around for the crisis rather than thinking about ways to take advantage of the crises that inevitably arise, then they will fall into just the kind of passivity and defeatism that Quiggin warns against in his post on class.

This last idea, that anti-capitalist movements must take advantage of capitalist crisis, is in my view the most productive use to which Marxist crisis theory can be put. In a way, this makes my critique of Quiggin’s crisis post the inverse of my critique of the class post. Above, I argued that what was especially important in a specifically Marxist class theory was the more “apolitical” structural element, which identifies wage labor as both a defining category of capitalist society and the source of a morally odious form of domination. What has been rendered superfluous is the political argument about the importance of the fraction of the working class working as a factory proletariat. With regard to crisis, my intuition is rather the opposite: I place less emphasis on the structural place of crisis within capitalist development, and instead I emphasize the political meaning of crisis and its importance in thinking about the transition out of capitalism.

The way to think about crises in capitalism is not in terms of historical inevitability. On the contrary, crises are the moments when the system is at its least deterministic and most full of alternative possibilities. The last major crises prior to the present one, in the great Depression and the 1970′s, were also the last times when the continued survival of capitalism really appeared in question. Of course, capitalism prevailed and instituted a new regime of accumulation, but this does not mean this was the only possible outcome; history is in some measure stochastic, and there is no reason to be certain who would prevail if we could “run the tape again”. Rather than thinking of post-capitalism as a single telos that we will arrive at when the conditions within capitalism are “ripe”, we should think of the repeated crises of capitalism as producing “branching-off points” in historical time: each crisis could have been the jumping-off point for a successor to capitalism (and those hypothetical successors would each have been different and historically specific), or for a new and revivified capitalism. As things actually turned out, of course, capitalism won out each time. But that’s all the more reason to think about how things might go differently next time.

Today, of course, there is precious little evidence of anyone using the global crisis to challenge the capitalist system; on the contrary, the elite has further entrenched its rule. This has lead some on the Left, like Doug Henwood and Duncan Foley, to forcefully argue against the idea that crisis is ever “good” for the Left. I agree with them in the narrow sense that it is counter-productive to just sit around and passively wait for a crisis to come along and abolish capitalism, and yet I also think their line of critique misses a larger point about the dialectic of reformist struggles and crisis in capitalism. It’s true, as they argue, that incremental victories for the working class–higher wages, an expanded welfare state, and so on–are more likely to be won in stable, healthy economic times rather than in a crisis. But these very reforms tend to reduce the profit rate, erode labor discipline, and generally tip the balance of power away from capital and toward labor. For the ruling class, this is intolerable on both a political and an economic level, and hence the progress of reform itself tends toward crisis–a crisis which must either discipline labor or replace capitalism. The crisis of the 1970′s was a crisis not just of capital, but of the whole Keynesian-New Deal-Fordist class compromise of the postwar years.

If achieving pro-worker reforms tends to produce capitalist crisis, then clearly the left–even, or especially, the reformist Left–needs to have a strategy for directly addressing the crisis, one that goes beyond just preserving an untenable status quo. This, I believe, was one of the fundamental shortcomings of the late 20th century socialist movement. On the reformist, social democratic side, you had parties that understood how to make incremental, day-to-day progress, but were flabbergasted in the face of a crisis, though there were a few intriguing stabs at a transformative strategy such as the Meidner plan. On the revolutionary Communist side, you had parties that ignored such incremental work entirely in order to wait around for the big crisis. Neither perspective is adequate, and what is needed instead is a dialectical synthesis of reform and revolution.

Capital

Quiggin’s final post is about capital, which I view as really the central category of Marx’s mature thought. (The long version of why I think this is more or less Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination.) Quiggin begins with some stuff about the labor theory of value, but debates about that tend to devolve quickly into uninteresting scholastic disputes about “transforming” values into prices, which is neither very interesting nor very central to what Marx was trying to do. He quickly moves on, however, to something much more important:

Most importantly, capital is not just an aggregate of machines, buildings, trading stock and so on. It is a social relation, and gives rise to a kind of society quite different from previous societies where power over land was the core relation.

This notion of capital as a social relation structuring society is absolutely central to my definition of Marxism, and it relates back to my earlier critique of Quiggin’s post on class. What defines capitalism is not a relationship between people, such as capitalists and workers. Political struggles may manifest themselves as contests between groups of people, but the identity of the specific people is not what is fundamentally at stake. This is unlike a pre-capitalist society defined by relations between lords and peasants, say.

Capitalism is constituted by a relation between two categories, capital and wage labor. Each of these categories refers to a particular pattern of actions that is detached from the needs or desires of individual people. The imperative of capital is to turn money into an ever-greater quantity of money irrespective of the particular economic activity by which this is accomplished. The imperative of wage labor is to perform work that one has no inherent interest in so as to acquire the money needed for survival. These categories can overlap and interpenetrate even within the same individual (I am a worker, and I also invest in the stock market). Indeed, as I argued in an earlier post on “capitalism without capitalists”, it is possible to conceive of a society that is structured by the opposition between labor and capital, but in which no human beings occupy the role of “capitalist”.

At the end of the last post, Quiggin describes the politics of his own non-Marxist social democracy:

Capitalism is more dynamic than any previous society, but also, in its pure form at least, more unstable, and at least as unequal. These features have been amplified, in ways we have yet to fully comprehend, by the explosive financialisation of the last three decades or so. . . . The problem for social democrats is to keep the dynamism and innovation while delivering more stable and sustainable, and less unjust outcomes.

I agree with the diagnosis of capitalism, but I define the political problem differently. It may be possible to deliver “stable and sustainable” capitalism for a while, but ultimately such a project is both self-contradictory and morally inadequate. Moreover, I suspect that maintaining “dynamism and innovation” in the present era of immaterial production depends on getting beyond capitalism rather than depending on it; the alternative is the stagnant artificial scarcity of anti-Star Trek. I would say that the problem for Marxist social democrats is to figure out how to build political movements that can win concrete material rewards for people through piecemeal reform, while also creating the conditions for moving society away from the dependence on wage labor and towards other kinds of voluntary forms of productive activity. But I will wait for another post to say more about what I mean by that.

Welcome, Anonymous Internet Hordes

July 15th, 2011  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

Crikey! Seven months after I wrote it, Anti-Star Trek seems to have gone slightly viral. In the past two days I’ve gotten traffic from, at a minimum: Matt Yglesias, Metafilter, Marginal Utility, Gerry Canavan, Against Monopoly, and the On the Media Twitter feed (!). Consequently, today is the highest traffic day in the history of this humble website. And I’m happy it’s from that post, which is one of my favorite things that I’ve written here. Thanks, everybody!

So I suppose I might as well mention that there’s a new issue of Jacobin out now, and I have a contribution in it that discusses the Wisconsin protests through the lens of theories of nationalism and the disappearance of the industrial working class as the collective agent of anti-capitalist struggle. But in a rather unfortunate irony, given that I’m getting all this attention for a post about the dystopian future of artificial scarcity, the article is not currently available online. So you’ll have to shell out for either the paper or digital version if you want to read it. But there’s lots of good stuff in there, some of which is online, so I recommend at least taking a look.