Building the Crisis

May 24th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal have an essay at Dissent in which they use the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as an opportunity to explain the theories of Karl Polanyi, and what they mean for the future of progressive politics.

Polanyi was a Hungarian emigré to Vienna and later England and the United States, a veteran of the interwar period that gave us the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. His most famous work, The Great Transformation, was written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In it, he attempted to diagnose the failures of the free-market capitalism of his time, which in his view had given rise to the reaction and war he lived through.

His central point, and the one which has been most influential on contemporary liberals, is that there has never been any such thing as an unfettered or “natural” free market. Rather, all really-existing social formations involve complex ties between people based on a variety of norms and traditions. As Iber and Konczal put it, “the economy is ’embedded’ in society–part of social relations–not apart from them.” For this reason, the attempt to establish unfettered and unregulated markets is doomed: “a pure free market society is a utopian project, and impossible to realize, because people will resist the process of being turned into commodities.”

This is an important insight, and to this point there’s not much about it that I can disagree with. The problem arises when one tries to derive a complete political strategy from this analysis. This is where I part ways with the Polanyian analysis that Iber and Konczal offer.

They suggest that the vision of “socialism” offered by Polanyi, and also by Bernie Sanders, ultimately just involves subjecting capitalism to some humane and democratic limits. They quote a passage in which Polanyi defines socialism as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” Polanyi does not seem to think that markets or capitalist property relations could be superseded (although the later parts of The Great Transformation introduce some ambiguity on this point.) Capitalism will only be humanized and controlled. Iber and Konczal attribute something like this idea to Bernie Sanders: “people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy.”

There is a long tradition, especially associated with Leninism, that rejects this program on the grounds of “reformism.” According to this view, the Polanyi perspective is inadequate because it embraces reforms that ameliorate capitalism. This is taken to be a distraction from the need to build a revolutionary force that can seize state power, overthrow the ruling class, and reconstruct property relations. This is a perspective that Iber and Konczal quickly dismiss: a “traditionally Marxist idea of having the state seize the means of production” which, they say, “has been abandoned even by most who identify as socialists.”

I consider myself a socialist and a Marxist, although a questionably “traditional” one. My objection to the Polanyian analysis is somewhat different, however, from the one Iber and Konczal adduce. I am very much a “reformist” in the sense that my day to day politics involves working for things like universal health care or stronger unions or a less corrupt local government. (This, it should be noted, was also true of many historical communist militants, even if they looked forward to the seizure of power as their horizon.) Where I part company with the Polanyian left–and in some ways, also the traditional Marxist left–is in where I think such struggles ultimately lead.

Some time ago, I wrote a bit about the way Polanyian ideas influence advocates and defenders of the welfare state. In response to sociologist Daniel Zamora’s attack on the theory of Michel Foucault, I noted that for many left critics of neoliberal capitalism, the project of the left is conceived in Polanyian terms, and is therefore limited to the struggle to “cushion workers from the vagaries of the market, while leaving the basic institutions of private property and wage labor in place.” Thus there can be nothing beyond “a welfare state that protects the working class from the workings of an unfettered market.”

There are two distinct objections that I would raise against this project. One is basically normative: a world of somewhat humanized wage labor isn’t the one I want to live in, even if it would be better than the one we live in now. This is rooted in the anti-work socialist tradition, which insists that the ultimate goal of socialist politics isn’t to make wage labor nicer, but to abolish it altogether. Since I’ve written extensively about that elsewhere, I won’t repeat those arguments here.

The second objection has to do with the long-term viability of Polanyian welfare capitalism as an equilibrium within capitalism. The fundamental distinction I would make, between Marxist and Polanyian social democracy, does not have to do with debates over “reform” or “revolution”. In other words, I accept the proposition that in the near term, the socialist project unfolds through incremental struggles that win material gains for workers, within the context of capitalism.

But the end point of Polanyi’s socialism is really the regime that the theorist of the welfare state, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, called welfare capitalism. That is, it is still a society in which the means of production are privately controlled by a small elite, and most people must sell their labor to survive. It differs from unfettered capitalism because of the presence of things like unions, regulations, and social safety net programs, which partially–but never totally–decommodify labor.

It is at this point that we discover the divide between the Polanyian perspective and the Marxist alternative I’m proposing. It all turns on the question of whether this regime is viable.

What is viability? A concise definition comes from the sociologist Erik Olin Wright–who comes from a Marxist background, but whose work has strong Polanyian overtones. He has worked extensively on defining “real utopias” that could be offered as alternatives to the present system. He argues that any such utopia must satisfy three criteria: desirability, achievability, and viability. The first two are what they sound like: is this where we want to go, and can we get there?

As noted above, I think the Polanyian vision is somewhat lacking in terms of desirability. But it would still be a step forward. And on the question of achievability, I have no real quibbles: I support reformist struggles for the welfare state because I view them as achievable, compared to the alternative strategies of building an insurrectionary communist party, or writing sectarian polemics and waiting for capitalism to collapse on its own.

Viability is where all the problems arise. Wright defines the viability question as follows: “If we could create this alternative, would we be able to stay there or would it have such unintended consequences and self-destructive dynamics that it would not be sustainable?”

Recall the definition of Polanyi socialism as the situation in which “people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy.” Is that a stable equilibrium, acceptable to both capitalists and workers? Or is it an inherently unstable situation, one which must break toward either the expropriation of the capitalist class, or the restoration of ruling class power?

Unlike the Polanyians, I think the welfare state is, in Wright’s terms, not viable. Unlike Wright, however, I do not think that this invalidates it as a goal. Rather, I think that socialist politics is inevitably a task of “building the crisis.” And the great tragedy of postwar socialism was the perverse division of political labor it gave rise to, between revolutionaries who refused to engage with reformist politics, and reformists who were unable or unwilling to deal with the crisis that their victories inevitably produced.

So, what makes social democracy non-viable as a stable system? For this, we need to turn to the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, and his famous 1943 essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment.” The core insight of that essay is that economic struggles between workers and bosses are ultimately not about the size of the wage, or the stability of employment, or the generosity of benefits. They are about power.

It is possible to construct arguments showing that putting unemployed workers back to work would be good for capitalists too, in the sense that it would lead to faster growth and more profits. But as Chris Maisano explains in his exegesis of Kalecki, “the biggest barriers to the maintenance of full employment are primarily political in nature, not economic.”

This is because in a situation of low unemployment, workers are less afraid of what Kalecki called the “power of the sack”. As they become less afraid of the boss, they begin to demand more and more of the capitalists. Unions and social democratic parties strengthen; wildcat strikes proliferate. Eventually this dynamic calls into question not just profits, but the underlying property relations of capitalism itself. Welfare capitalism thus reaches what we could call the “Kalecki point,” where its viability has been fatally undermined.

In that situation, employers become willing to take drastic action to get workers back into line, even at the expense of short term profitability. This takes many forms, including state-led attacks on unions and the refusal of capitalists to invest, a “capital strike” in which money is moved overseas or simply left in the bank, as a way of breaking the power of the working class.

David Harvey, in his Brief History of Neoliberalism, essentially portrays the right wing turn of the 1980’s as a reactionary resolution of this crisis: a move away from the Kalecki point that entailed a restoration of capitalist class power rather than a leap into socialism. Jonah Birch provides a useful case study of France’s Mitterand government during this period, which pushed the boundaries of the social democratic compromise and was finally forced back by the power of capital. The failure of the Rehn-Meidner plan, which was essentially a gradualist scheme to socialize the means of production in Sweden, provides a similar example.

So far I’ve argued that the social democratic class compromise is inherently non-viable, and tends toward conflict and crisis. But another way to look at it is that welfare capitalism can be made viable, but only in a way that subverts its socialist promise. This is because “the power of the sack” can be reconfigured into other kinds of disciplinary power, depending on the nature of the particular welfare capitalist regime we’re talking about.

Recently, I discovered (via Mariame Kaba), the work of Elizabeth Hinton. Hinton’s work focuses on Lyndon Johnson’s 1960’s “Great Society” expansion of the welfare state, and its connection to the construction of the carceral state–the rise of mass incarceration and militarized policing. She shows that while the Great Society was expanding access to things like income support and health care, a simultaneous “War on Crime” was subjecting the poor, and especially the black poor, to increased surveillance and state repression. Her analysis indicates that this was not an accidental juxtaposition, but part of a cohesive reconstruction of the relationship between the state and the working class.

This is easily comprehensible in terms of the contradictory nature of the welfare state and the problem of the Kalecki point. Without the welfare state, workers are disciplined by the power of the sack–or, in situations where workers are sufficiently organized and cohesive to resist the boss anyway, by private militias.

In the era of the welfare state, however, the partial decommodification of labor creates a great danger to capital, because it enhances the autonomy of workers, whether employed or not, to make demands on capital and the state. It was just this recognition that drove organizers like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward to organize welfare recipients in the late 1960’s.

Police violence, drug wars, mass incarceration, onerous requirements on benefit recipients: these are all ways of disciplining the worker in the era of the welfare state, in the absence of the power of the sack. This also means that struggles against police oppression and incarceration are not parallel or ancillary to class struggle and the movement for socialism, but are fundamental to it: they attack the disciplinary regime that maintains the stability of our particular regime of capital accumulation.

For the the more Polanyi-ish, and Pollyana-ish, it’s possible for us all to get along in a world where workers have comfortable lives and the bosses still make money. That’s the vision that seems to animate Iber and Konczal’s explainer. The alternative Marxist argument is that capitalism is defined by the power struggle between workers and capital, and the Polanyian version of socialism attempts to elide that contradiction in favor of a vision of harmonious co-existence.

Where this vision fails is not in the short term but in the long run. It leaves the left ill-equipped to address the inevitable crises that a successful reformist program generates, and I would argue that the belief in the possibility of permanent class compromise contributed to the defeat of the left and the victory of neoliberalism.

So the problem isn’t that we can’t win reformist victories for workers. History has shown that we can. The problem is what comes after victory, and we need a theory of socialism and social democracy that prepares our movements for that phase.

A $15 minimum wage is too high and that’s great

April 15th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

How high is too high, for the minimum wage?

Dylan Matthews, in his wrap-up of the Democratic primary debate, says that his “off-the-record conversations with left-leaning Democratic economists” indicate that many of them “express grave concern about the $15-an-hour figure, about the danger that this time we might be going too far.” His Vox colleague Timothy Lee is tagged in to make the same argument in another post.

This despite the fact that Hillary Clinton has now apparently joined Bernie Sanders in endorsing the $15 minimum, going back on her previous unwillingness to go above $12.

And you know what? I think they might be right. It might be the case that a $15 an hour minimum wage is, as Matthews put in a tweet, “dangerous”. To which my response is: that’s awesome!

The reason that bourgeois economists tend to think a high minimum wage is “dangerous” is because they think it will lead to reduced employment. This is for two reasons.

First, because if it becomes economically infeasible to hire people at $15 per hour for certain jobs, the employers may just go out of business, reducing the demand for labor. There is a large body of literature suggesting that this objection is overblown, dating back to Card and Krueger in the early 1990’s. But it’s hard to dispute that there is some level at which higher minimum wages will lead to reduced employment.

The second thing that could reduce employment, even if the minimum wage doesn’t force any businesses to go under, is automation. If it costs $15 an hour to pay a burger-flipper at McDonalds, perhaps it will become more appealing to turn to a burger-flipping robot, of the sort offered by Momentum Machines. This is a retort often thrown at living wage advocates by conservative critics: joke’s on you suckers, raise your wage and we’ll just automate your job!

Together, these arguments amount to a radical case for high minimum wages, not against them. Because they both get at the underlying political principle that should motivate any argument for higher wages: people need more money. That’s completely separate from the question of whether things like low-wage fast food jobs should exist at all, which they probably shouldn’t.

In other words, if $15 an hour makes it a little easier for a McDonalds worker to survive, that’s great. But if it leads to some of those jobs disappearing entirely, then that forces us to confront an even bigger and more important question. Namely, how do we separate the idea of providing everyone with a decent standard of living from the idea of getting everyone a “job”? I’ve argued before that job-creation is a hole that we should stop digging.

The fight for 15 should be dangerous. I hope it is! I hope it leads to shorter hours, and a universal basic income. That’s what I’d call some real disruptive innovation.

The Long March

March 16th, 2016  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  1 Comment

I had to stop using this as my Facebook profile pic so I could promote my book. But this post seemed like an appropriate place to pay tribute to ‘Wario Tronti’.

Bernie Sanders will probably lose the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, after his impressive but inadequate showing on March 15th. But the left still won that night.

The Sanders campaign has energized and galvanized a big chunk of people, especially young people. And it has made it routine to talk about “socialism” in polite company. So as someone who has been out in the wilderness talking about Marxism and socialism for 20 years, I can’t but love it for those reasons.

But inevitably, there’s a layer of inexperienced activists who have such an affective investment in the campaign that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They make out this one politician to be more significant than he is, while at the same time misunderstanding his real value. Not just because Sanders’ “socialism” is no more than what would, in many other contexts, be considered a tepid kind of European welfare capitalism. To really appreciate the significance of Sanders, you have to see his candidacy as something other than just an electoral campaign, something that’s about more than just the ability of one guy from Vermont to win a certain number of delegates and prevail at a convention.

Recently, Corey Robin wrote about the campaign and encouraged Sanders supporters to keep up the fight. Rather than “get too caught up in the question of delegate counts,” he advised, we should “educate, agitate, and organize the body politic.” And we should specifically do that through the Sanders campaign because while “the Left loves social movements,” such movements are “not immune to the mood and medium of electoral politics,” which he portrays as a way of concentrating and focusing the Left’s energy.

I’d put it a bit differently. The Sanders campaign is a “social movement,” and it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the fact that this particular movement is occurring through the medium of electoral politics. Certainly at the level of infrastructure and personnel, Sanders draws on the remains of prior organizing around politicians like Howard Dean and Barack Obama. But Bernie as an unexpected social phenomenon and dank meme inspiration is just as much a successor to recent non-electoral movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

It’s in the ebbing and flowing of these interconnected movements that we can see the evolving components of a resurgent left, a nascent challenge to capitalism that takes multiple forms, some electoral and some not. Partisans of political candidates, especially presidential candidates, have a tendency to hype up every election as the key turning point upon which all politics depends. But it’s probably better to see things like the Sanders campaign as part of what the Italian “workerist” Marxist tradition called the process of “class composition.”

Class composition, as the historian of workerism Steve Wright puts it, deals with “the relationship between the material structure of the working class, and its behaviour as a subject autonomous from the dictates of both the labour movement and capital.” The activists who developed the concept, like Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti, where struggling with an old Marxist problem: transforming a working class “in itself” into one “for itself.” That is, how can atomized individuals, exploited in capitalism, become part of a self-conscious collective, with a shared identity linked to social transformation?

For the original workerists, class composition was closely tied to the experiences of industrial workers in the factory. But later users of the concept, including Antonio Negri, began to expand the concept more broadly. They insisted that the experience of class reached out into the city, and into the family, so that the process of class composition had to take into account the fullness of a worker’s life rather than just his or her experience in wage labor itself. Which means that the forces of class composition can include not just the minimum wage you make at McDonalds, but the police officer who harrasses you on the way home from your shift.

To take this all back to the concrete, and to the voting on March 15th, it’s most illuminating to look not at the presidential primary, but to something else that happened in Illinois and Ohio. In Illinois, state’s attorney Anita Alvarez lost her primary by a huge margin, while at the same time Tim McGinty was losing his race in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland. Like the Sanders phenomenon, neither of these were expected results until very recently.

What linked Alvarez and McGinty was their connections to notorious recent police murders: Alvarez waited 400 days to file charges against the officer who killed 17 year old Lacquan McDonald, and McGinty failed to indict the officers involved in the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice. Both of their losses are being seen, correctly, as wins for Black Lives Matter and related movements that have agitated and organized against state violence against people of color.

Chicago, in particular, is instructive, and really needs a detailed case study far beyond what I can offer here. To use the workerist terms, the class composition in Chicago is far more advanced than what’s found almost anywhere else in the country. From afar, it’s difficult to even untangle all the various strands. But they range from black feminist formations like Assata’s Daughters (who were central to the anti-Alvarez campaign) to the Chicago Teachers Union, whose successful strike in 2012 made them a powerful institutional force for the broader Chicago left.

Even in Chicago, the left hasn’t yet won its big prize, the removal of mayor Rahm Emanuel. But that may be yet to come, as the working class there gains power and coherence. And that should be a source of reassurance for Sanders supporters as well, giving confidence that his campaign isn’t the end, but only one step in a much longer process.

Bougies to Proles: Drop Dead

March 16th, 2016  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism

So it seems that a Trump-related mania has led some of the leading lights of the American right to take off the gloves and reveal that it isn’t just non-white working class people they hate, it’s all of you dirty proles. Kevin Williamson:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

The proximate cause may be Trump, but there are deeper forces at work. What seems to be dawning on the right wing of our ruling class is that the people who they long ago made economically superfluous may now be politically inconvenient as well. And in that case, what good are they? A few years back, I put it like this:

The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources, is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite. This is in contrast to capitalism, where the antagonism between capital and labor was characterized by both a clash of interests and a relationship of mutual dependence: the workers depend on capitalists as long as they don’t control the means of production themselves, while the capitalists need workers to run their factories and shops. It is as the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever” had it: “They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn/But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” With the rise of the robots, the second line ceases to hold.

For a newer rendition of that argument, in more terrifying detail, you can order my book, which I will now commence shilling with tedious regularity.

Work to Need

February 23rd, 2016  |  Published in Socialism, Work

Many of us have found ourselves in jobs where there just wasn’t much work to do. We spent days sitting at desks surfing the Internet, while using innovations like the boss key, in case we needed to show our boss some pretense of being “busy.” This is ultimately a demoralizing and demeaning existence of pseudo-leisure, time which is not our own but is not being used for any purpose.

Anyone who has had that experience no doubt smiled at the story of Spanish civil servant Joaquín Garcia, employee of a municipal water company. When he was considered for an award for 20 years of service, it was discovered that he had not in fact shown up for work in 6 years, while continuing to draw his paycheck.

Garcia insisted that there was simply no work for him to do, and that he had been put in the job in the first place as political retaliation. Other sources contested the original report, claiming that he did show up to work but merely spent his time reading philosophy—becoming an expert on Spinoza, according to Mr. Garcia—which would make him just another case of dreary workplace pseudo-leisure.

But it was the original vision, of a man simply walking away from the pointlessness of his work, that gave the story its viral appeal. It punctured the mystification of “work,” that oppressive abstraction that I’ve tried to break down many times before. Garcia rejected the “work” of dutifully showing up for a job that had no reason to exist, in favor of the self-fulfilling “work” of reading philosophy. What might we all do if we could do the same?

The “work to rule” action is a popular labor tactic, an alternative to going on strike. It involves carefully and literally following every rule in the contract, which in most workplaces has the practical effect of slowing work down to a crawl. But perhaps we need something like the opposite: “work to need.” If everyone with a pointless, wasteful, or destructive job simply refused to show up to it, we would learn a lot about how much of our time is taken up with “work” that has everything to do with our dependence on wage labor, and nothing at all to do with the things we need to run a decent society.

Robot Redux

August 18th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

It never fails that when I get around to writing something, I’m immediately inundated by directly related news, making me think that I should have just waited a few days. The moment I commit bits to web servers about the robot future, I see the following things.

First, the blockbuster New York Times story about Amazon and its corporate culture. The brutality of life among the company’s low-wage warehouse employees was already well covered, but the experience of the white collar Amazonian was less well known. The office staff, it seems, experiences a more psychological form of brutality. I couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of my point that “the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one”. To wit:

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

On to number two! Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post reacts to efforts to raise the minimum wage in exactly the way I mentioned in my post: by raising the threat of automation. She notes various advances in technology, while also observing that in recent times “the industry as a whole has largely been resistant to cuts in labor . . . the average number of employees at fast-food restaurants declined by fewer than two people over the past decade”. But, she warns, that could all change if the minimum wage is raised to $15.

Liberal economist (and one-time adviser to the Vice President) Jared Bernstein responds here. He makes, in a slightly different way, the same point I did: “one implication of this argument is that we should make sure to keep wages low enough so employers won’t want to bother swapping out workers for machines . . . a great way to whack productivity growth.” (Not to mention, a great way to make life miserable for the workers in question.) He then goes on to argue that higher wages won’t really lead to decreased employment anyway, which sort of undercuts the point. But oh well.

Finally, we have the Economist weighing in. This little squib on “Automation angst” manages to combine all the bourgeois arguments into one, in a single paragraph:

[Economist David] Autor argues that many jobs still require a mixture of skills, flexibility and judgment; they draw upon “tacit” knowledge that is a very long way from being codified or performed by robots. Moreover, automation is likely to be circumscribed, he argues, as politicians fret about wider social consequences. Most important of all, even if they do destroy as many jobs as pessimists imagine, many other as yet unimagined ones that cannot be done by robots are likely to be created.

So, to summarize. The robots won’t take your job, because they can’t. Or, actually, the robots can take your job but they won’t, because we will make a political decision to disallow it. Or no, never mind, the robots will take your job, but it’s fine because we will create lots of other new jobs for you.

This summarizes the popular approach to this problem well, from a variety of vantage points that all miss the main point. Namely, that if it is possible to reduce the need for human labor, the question becomes: who benefits from that. The owners, of the robots, or the rest of the working masses?

Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future

August 6th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Work  |  1 Comment

The current issue of the New Yorker has a story about the odd phenomenon of Chinese lingerie merchants in Egypt. These immigrant entrepreneurs are apparently ubiquitous throughout the poor, conservative districts of upper Egypt, where they dispense sexy garments to the region’s pious Muslim women. The cultural and geopolitical details of the story are interesting for a number of reasons, but I was struck in particular by a resonance with some debates that have recently flared up again about labor and automation, for reasons I’ll get back to below.

“Robots will take all our jobs” is a hardy perennial of popular political economy. Typical of the latest crop is Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, who wrote an article (in which he quotes me), speculating about a “World Without Work” in the wake of mass adoption of robotization and computerization. Paul Mason gives a more leftist and political rendition of similar themes.

As I note in my recent Jacobin editorial, this kind of thing is not new, and is in fact an anxiety that recurs throughout the history of capitalism. Two decades ago, we had the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz musing about the “end of work” and the “jobless future”.

And these repeating waves of robo-futurism call into existence the same repeated insistence that robots are not, in fact, taking all the jobs. Doug Henwood was on this beat twenty years ago and remains on it today. Matt Yglesias, likewise, calls fear of automation a “myth”.

One of the specific things that people like Henwood and Yglesias always cite is the productivity statistics. If we were seeing a wave of unprecedented automation, then we should be seeing rapid rises in measured labor productivity—that is, the amount of output that can be produced per hour of human labor. Instead, however, what we’ve seen is historically low productivity growth, compared to what happened in the middle and late 20th Century.

All of which leads commentators like Yglesias and Tyler Cowen to fret that the robots aren’t coming fast enough. Typical of most writers on this subject, Yglesias just worries vaguely that increases in productivity won’t happen for some unspecified reason.

I’ve argued a number of times for an explanation that connects the question of automation and productivity growth directly to wages and the general condition of labor. The basic idea is very simple. From the perspective of the boss, replacing a worker with a machine will be more appealing to the degree that the machine is:

  • Cheaper than the human worker
  • More convenient and easier to control than the human worker

This implies that if workers win higher wages and more control over their working conditions, their jobs are more likely to be automated. Indeed, arguments like this frequently crop up among critics of things like the Fight for 15 campaign, which demands higher wages for fast food workers and other low wage employees. Prototypes for automatic burger-making machines are cited in order to warn workers that their jobs are at risk of being automated away.

I regard such warnings not as arguments against higher wages, but arguments for them. Workers, in the course of fighting for their interests, drive the dialectic that forces capitalists to find less labor-intensive ways of producing. The next political task, then, is to make sure that the benefits of such innovation accrue to the masses, and not to a small class of robot owners.

What I fear most is not that all of our labor will be replaced with machines. Rather, like Matt Yglesias, I worry that it won’t—but for a slightly different reason. Again, bosses prefer workers to machines when they are cheaper and easier to control. Hence the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one.

Which brings us back, finally, to the Chinese lingerie merchants. The article’s author, Peter Hessler, speaks to one such merchant, and asks him to comment on the biggest problem facing Egypt. To his surprise, his subject, Lin Xianfei, has a quick answer: gender inequality.

But the point turns out not to be that Lin is some sort of secret passionate feminist. Rather, his perspective turns on the exigencies of capital accumulation. For it turns out that while one kind of patriarchy is an impediment to business, another kind can be quite valuable to the shrewd businessman.

The problem, from Lin’s perspective, is that Egyptian women in his region don’t work in wage labor at all, or if they do they only do so for short periods of time, before marrying and retreating into the home. Even worse, local norms about proper female behavior preclude taking women out of their homes to live on site in massive dormitories, as might be done in China. Thus it becomes unfeasible to run factories on 24-hour production cycles.

Hiring men, meanwhile, is out of the question—another man, Xu Xin, tells Hessler that Egyptian men are too lazy and undisciplined for manufacturing work. Hessler goes on to note that “at the start of the economic boom in China, bosses hired young women because they could be paid less and controlled more easily than men”.

He proceeds to comment that female Chinese workers turned out to be “more motivated”, as though he is identifying something distinct from their weaker power position relative to men. But it is really the same thing. “More motivated”, here, refers to the motivation to work hard for the boss, for someone else’s profits and someone else’s riches. To behave, in other words, like obedient machines. The Chinese capitalist objects to the patriarchal structure of rural Egyptian society not because it is patriarchy, then, but because it is a form of patriarchy that is inconvenient to capital accumulation.

And sure enough, faced with recalcitrant humans, the textile magnates of Egypt turn to the same solution that the Chinese electronics firm Foxconn adopted in the wake of worker uprisings there. Wang Weiqiang echoes the other industrialists’ complaints about Egyptian labor: the men are lazy, the women “will work only during the daytime”. As a result, “he intends to introduce greater mechanization in hopes of maximizing the short workday”.

Greater mechanization and the maximization of a short work day might seem tragic to the capitalist, but it summarizes the short term goal of the post-work socialist left. Ornery, demanding workers work to drive technological developments that further this goal. And the socialist-feminist rendition of this project insists that we can prevent workers from being treated as machines not by shielding them with patriarchal and paternalistic morals, but rather by insisting that men and women alike can recognize their paid and unpaid labor in order to better refuse it.

Time Bubbles and Tech Bubbles

March 18th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Shameless self-promotion  |  1 Comment

The Time Bubble

The new issue of Jacobin is out. It’s about technology, a longstanding preoccupation of mine, and I have the lead editorial. Check it out, along with all the other great stuff in the issue.

I also wrote something for the newest issue of the New Inquiry, which is themed around “futures”. My essay is here. In some ways it functions as a companion piece to my editorial, although it’s generally loopier and weirder. It was retitled from my editor’s original suggestion, “The Time Bubble”, following the Fantastic Four storyline I reference in the text.

The above is an image from that storyline, showing the FF penetrating said bubble on their “time sled”. Which is named Rosebud II. I loved this series of comics when I first read it as a 10 year old, and I still have fond feelings about it. Walt Simonson was great on that run, which he both wrote and drew. He has a wonderfully angular and abstract art style, and he’s a witty writer with a good science fiction mind.

So I’m glad I got to build an essay about Marxist political economy around this story. Not that I’m the first person on the Internet to build an elaborate and vaguely ridiculous theory around these comics. For a far more ambitious and absurd attempt, you have to check out this site. The author argues that the 1961-1989 run of the Fantastic Four actually constitutes the “Great American Novel”, an unmatched examination and synthesis of all the big questions that confronted American society during the cold war.

The site’s coverage of the time bubble story can be found here. The author makes a bunch of metafictional arguments about the relationship between the stories and the upheavel in Marvel’s editorial direction at the time, which was of course totally invisible to me when I was 10. The time bubble, he argues, represents the end of continuity and permanent change in the Marvel universe. It is about “all powerful beings”—i.e., editors—“who prevent the world from moving into the future” by dictating that writers cannot make permanent changes to the characters and worlds that they are writing.

Later on, there’s another funny series of comics riffing on Marvel’s internal bureaucracy, with a dimension of infinite faceless desk jockeys standing in for a directionless editorial team. It’s all hilarious and wonderful. But really, just go read the comics.

The Tragedy of the Commons in the Rentier Mind

February 12th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek  |  2 Comments

Complementing my last post, here’s a story about the twisted ideology that now surrounds intellectual property, where IP is considered not just as utilitarian necessity, but as some kind of inherent natural right. In the most absurd form, it is seen as a moral responsibility for creators to zealously defend any IP they can get their hands on, and maximize whatever amount of money they can squeeze out of it.

This article is about our trendy hot sauce of the moment, Sriracha. Specifically, it is about the fact that while the hot sauce in question is strongly associated with a particular product made by Huy Fong foods, the Sriracha name itself is not trademarked. As a result, everyone from your local twee sauce artisan to Heinz and Tabasco is now jumping in with their own Sriracha.

None of this seems to much bother Huy Fong’s founder, David Tran. But boy does it bother all the people that look at this scenario and see a bunch of juicy lawsuits!

The author of the LA Times article calls it a “glaring omission” not to trademark the word.

“In my mind, it’s a major misstep,” says the president of a food marketing consultancy.

Even his competitors are baffled. “We spend enormous time protecting the word ‘Tabasco’ so that we don’t have exactly this problem,” says the CEO of a rival hot sauce company that’s now going into the Sriracha market. “Why Mr. Tran did not do that, I don’t know.”

An IP lawyer laments: “The ship has probably sailed on this, which is unfortunate because they’ve clearly added something to American cuisine that wasn’t there before.”

That David Tran has added something to American cuisine is hard to dispute. But Tran also has a successful, growing business that has most likely made him very rich. One which he has said, on numerous occasions, he deliberately does not scale up as much as he could, in order to maintain the quality of his product and control the sources of his peppers.

So for whom is it so “unfortunate” that he doesn’t spend his life in constant litigation against anyone who dares make a Thai-style hot sauce and name it after a city in Thailand? Tran himself gives the answer. “We have lawyers come and say ‘I can represent you and sue’ and I say ‘No. Let them do it.'”

Intellectual Property and Pseudo-Innovation

February 10th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy  |  1 Comment

The most common justification for intellectual property protection is that it provides an incentive for future creation or innovation. There are many cases where this rationale is highly implausible, as with copyrights that extend long after the death of the original author. But even where IP does spur innovation, the question arises: innovation of what kind?

I’ve written before about things like patent and copyright trolling, where the IP regime incentivizes innovations that have no value at all, because they amount to figuring out ways to leverage the law in order to make money without doing any work or producing anything. But there’s another category of what might be called “pseudo-innovation.” This involves genuine creativity and cleverness, and the end result is something with real social utility. But the creativity and cleverness involved pertains only to circumventing intellectual property restrictions, without which it would be possible to produce a better output in a simpler way. A couple of examples of this have recently come to mind.

The first is the movie Selma, Ava DuVernay’s dramatization of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like most dramatizations of historical events, the movie takes liberties with the historical record in order to compress events into a coherent and compelling narrative. But one of these liberties is particularly unusual: in scenes recreating actual King speeches, none of the words we hear from actor David Oyelowo’s mouth are King’s; rather they are broad paraphrases of the original words.

As it turns out, this was not a decision made for any artistic reason, but for a legal one: King’s speeches are still the property of his descendants, who make large amounts of money by zealously guarding their copyrights. DuVernay was apparently barred from using the speeches because the film rights to King had already been licensed to Stephen Spielberg; meanwhile, the King family has had no problem lending his memory out to commercials for luxury cars and phone companies. DuVernay does an elegant job of giving the content and the feel of King’s oratory without using his actual words, and one could perhaps even argue that some unique value arises from this technique. But for the most part it’s pseudo-innovation, a second best solution mandated by copyright.

Another example comes from a very different field, computer hardware manufacturing. Here we turn to the early 1980’s and the development of the “PC clone.” Today, the personal computer is a generic technology—the machines that run Windows or Linux or other operating systems can be bought from many manufacturers or even, like the machine I’m using to write this post, assembled by the end user from individually sourced components. But in 1981, the PC was the IBM PC, and if you wanted to run PC software you needed to buy a machine from IBM..

Soon after the PC was introduced, rival companies began trying to produce cheaper knockoffs of the IBM product–the efforts of one leader, Compaq, are dramatized in the AMC series “Halt and Catch Fire”. Building the machines themselves was trivial, because the necessary hardware was all publicly available and didn’t require any propriety IBM technology. But problems arose in the attempt to make them truly “IBM-compatible”—that is, able to run all the same software that you could run on an IBM. This required copying the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), a bit of software built into the PC that programs use to interface with the hardware.

That BIOS was proprietary to IBM. So in order to copy it, Compaq was forced into a bizarre development system described by Compaq founder Rod Canlon as follows:

What our lawyers told us was that, not only can you not use it [the copyrighted code] anybody that’s even looked at it—glanced at it—could taint the whole project. (…) We had two software people. One guy read the code and generated the functional specifications. So, it was like, reading hieroglyphics. Figuring out what it does, then writing the specification for what it does. Then, once he’s got that specification completed, he sort of hands it through a doorway or a window to another person who’s never seen IBM’s code, and he takes that spec and starts from scratch and writes our own code to be able to do the exact same function.

Through this convoluted process, Compaq managed to make a knockoff BIOS within 9 months. Just as Ava DuVernay came up with paraphrases of King, they had essentially paraphrased the IBM BIOS. And the result was something genuinely useful: a cheaper version of the IBM PC, which expanded access to computing. But the truly inventive and interesting things Compaq came up with—the things that make the story worth fictionalizing on TV—are pure pseudo-innovation.

Looked at this way, the world of IP pseudo-innovation looks kind of like high finance. In both cases, you have people making money and even having fun figuring out the best ways to game and counter-game the system, but in none of the complicated trading algorithms or software development strategies add anything to social wealth.