Theory and Practice

April 18th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

I’ve been having some conversations about Occupy and its legacy, and whether it “succeeded”. I tend to think that if such a question is meaningful at all, I’d have to answer by going the Zhou Enlai route. But then I was thinking about the improbable media breakout of Thomas Piketty and his doorstop treatise Capital in the 21st Century.

A few years ago, Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez were obscure economists, well known to income data nerds like me but otherwise anonymous as they went about generating pictures like this:

Rise-of-the-Super-Rich-Piketty-and-Saez-2008

Then Occupy happened, and we saw things like this:

OWS_wonk

And now we have this:

piketty_rock_star

Both Piketty’s theory and Occupy’s practice are open to criticism—some of both will be forthcoming in Jacobin. And of course the salience of inequality, and hence Piketty’s star profile, aren’t wholly a product of Occupy. Still, one could hardly ask for a simpler illustration of the dialectic of theory and practice, and of Marx’s contention that “theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”

Trumbo’s Taxes

April 15th, 2014  |  Published in Data, Statistical Graphics

Having filed my taxes in my customarily last-minute fashion, I thought I’d get in on the tax day blogging thing. Via Sarah Jaffe, I came upon the following interesting passage from Victor Navasky’s history of the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names:

Conversely, during the blacklist years, which were also tight money years for the studios, agents often found it simpler to hint to their less talented clients that their difficulties were political rather than intrinsic. Since agents as a class follow the money, it is perhaps a clue to the environment of fear within which they operated that, for example, the Berg-Allenberg Agency was, even in late 1948, ready, eager, willing, and able to lose its most profitable client, Dalton Trumbo (at $3000 per week he was one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood)—and this even before the more general system of blacklisting had gone into effect.

The first thing that struck me about this that wow, that’s a lot of money. It’s not clear where the figure came from. But Navasky did interview Trumbo for the book, so I have to assume it came from the man himself. Now, presumably Trumbo wasn’t working all the time, but rather getting picked up for various jobs with slack periods in between. But supposing for a moment that he did: $3000 a week (or $156,000 a year) would be a pretty cushy life now, so it would have been an astronomical amount of money in 1948. (And it’s highly likely that there were people in Hollywood who were making that much. Ben Hecht is said to have gotten $10,000 a week.)

The second thing is to note that even being as rich and famous as Dalton Trumbo wasn’t enough to protect him from the blacklist. In general, of course, the rich stick together and protect their own. But there are some lines you still can’t cross, and the blacklist was one of them. In the end, ideological discipline trumped the solidarity of rich people. Which is what makes the rare radical defectors from the ruling class so significant.

But my final thought was, I wonder what Trumbo’s net income would have been, had he made that much money? After all, that was the heyday of high marginal tax rates in the United States, those legendary 90 percent tax brackets that seem so unimaginable to people now. So I got to wondering how much Trumbo would have paid in taxes then, and how much he would have paid on a comparable amount of money today.

Fortunately, the Tax Foundation provides excellent data on historical tax rates. I used the spreadsheet here, which describes the federal income tax regimes from 1913 to 2013. Using that data, we can get a rough approximation of how much our hypothetical Dalton Trumbo would have paid in taxes, although of course it doesn’t take into account any particular deductions or loopholes that may have played into an individual situation—and it’s well known that few people actually paid the very high marginal rates of that time. So take this as a quick sketch, meant to demonstrate two things. First, how much our tax rates have changed, and second, how marginal tax rates really work.

Here’s a table showing how Trumbo’s income would have broken down in 1948. Each line shows a single tax bracket. The first three lines show that rate at which income in that bracket was taxed, and the lower and upper bounds that defined which income was taxed at that rate. The last two columns show how much income Trumbo received in each bracket, and how much tax he would have owed on it.

Tax RateOverBut Not OverIncomeTaxes
20.0%$0 $2,000 $2,000$400.00
22.0%$2,000 $4,000 $2,000$440.00
26.0%$4,000 $6,000 $2,000$520.00
30.0%$6,000 $8,000 $2,000$600.00
34.0%$8,000 $10,000 $2,000$680.00
38.0%$10,000 $12,000 $2,000$760.00
43.0%$12,000 $14,000 $2,000$860.00
47.0%$14,000 $16,000 $2,000$940.00
50.0%$16,000 $18,000 $2,000$1,000.00
53.0%$18,000 $20,000 $2,000$1,060.00
56.0%$20,000 $22,000 $2,000$1,120.00
59.0%$22,000 $26,000 $4,000$2,360.00
62.0%$26,000 $32,000 $6,000$3,720.00
65.0%$32,000 $38,000 $6,000$3,900.00
69.0%$38,000 $44,000 $6,000$4,140.00
72.0%$44,000 $50,000 $6,000$4,320.00
75.0%$50,000 $60,000 $10,000$7,500.00
78.0%$60,000 $70,000 $10,000$7,800.00
81.0%$70,000 $80,000 $10,000$8,100.00
84.0%$80,000 $90,000 $10,000$8,400.00
87.0%$90,000 $100,000 $10,000$8,700.00
89.0%$100,000 $150,000 $50,000$44,500.00
90.0%$150,000 $200,000 $6,000$5,400.00
91.0%$200,000 -$0$0.00

This is a nice illustration of how marginal tax rates work. There is still, unbelievably, widepread confusion about this. People think that if the marginal tax rate is 90 percent on income over $150,000—as it was in 1948—then that means you’ll only keep 10 percent of all your income if you make that much money. But Trumbo wouldn’t pay 90 percent on all of his $156,000, only on the $6000 that was over the $150,000 threshold.

So what was Trumbo’s real, overall tax rate? The tax figures above sum up to a total bill of $117,220. The Tax Foundation data also describes some additional reductions that were applied that year: 17 percent on taxes up to $400, 12 percent on taxes from $400 to $100,000, and 9.75 percent on taxes above $100,000. Taking those reductions into account, the tax bill comes down to $103,521.

So Trumbo would have had a net income of $52,479 in 1948, for an effective tax rate of 66 percent. Now, that’s not 90 percent, but some will surely say that this seems like an unreasonably high level, for reasons of fairness or work incentives or whatever. But let’s keep in mind just how where our Trumbo falls in the 1948 United States’ distribution of income. Here’s a graphical representation of the above data:

trumbo1948

Each bar is a tax bracket. The width of the bar shows how wide the bracket is, while the height shows the income earned in that bracket. The red-shaded portion shows how much of that income was paid in tax. This is a bit visually misleading, because the amount of income in each bar corresponds only to the height of the box, not its volume. But I’ll swallow my data-visualization pride for the sake of a quick blog post.

A few things to note about this graph. You can see how much of the income in the higher brackets was taxed away, due to the extremely high rates there. You can also see that the tax system is progressive, because the height of the red bars slopes upward, even when the amount of money contained in the brackets remains the same. But the most important thing to pay attention to is that dotted line that you can barely see on the far left. That’s the median personal income in the United States for 1948, which according to the Census Bureau was around $1900. In other words, almost all of this would have been irrelevant to half the population, who would have paid just the lowest rate, 20 percent, on all of their income.

If we adjust Trumbo’s income for inflation with the Consumer Price Index, his income would be equivalent to over 1.5 million dollars today. And the tax bill would have been over 1 million dollars. But how would that kind of pay be taxed now? Here’s a table like the one above, except applying current tax rates to Trumbo’s inflation-adjusted pay:

Tax RateOverBut Not OverIncomeTaxes
10.0%$0$17,850$17,850$1,785.00
15.0%$17,850$72,500$54,650$8,197.50
25.0%$72,500$146,400$73,900$18,475.00
28.0%$146,400$223,050$76,650$21,462.00
33.0%$223,050$398,350$175,300$57,849.00
35.0%$398,350$450,000$51,650$18,077.50
39.6%$450,000 $1,066,944$422,509.82

What a difference 65 years and two generations of neoliberalism makes! Now Trumbo’s effective tax rate is only 36.15 percent, and he takes home $968,000 after a $548,000 tax bill. To finish things up, here’s a graphical representation like the one above:

trumbo2013

This time, most of the income falls into the top bracket. But since the rate there is only 39.6 percent, our hypothetical 2013 Trumbo still keeps most of his money. And once again, these brackets are mostly irrelevant to most of the population—note the line marking median income.

The punchline to this story, of course, is that it was things like the Hollywood blacklist that helped set the stage for the period of conservative reaction that gave us these tax rates. Check this nice documentary on Dalton Trumbo to get a sense of a Hollywood radical who puts most of our contemporary celebrity liberals to shame.

The spreadsheet used to estimate these figures is here, if you care to play with it yourself.

The Comforts of Dystopia

March 21st, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism  |  4 Comments

I’m currently working on a longer treatment of Four Futures, my social science fictional speculation about the possible successor systems to capitalism, in a world characterized by pervasive automation and ecological crisis. That book is slotted for Jacobin‘s series; more about that at a later date.

Four Futures was, itself, an extension of “Anti-Star Trek”, a post that still gets some love around the Internet from time to time. The core intuition of both pieces of writing was that while we live in a world that abounds in utopian potential, the realization of that potential depends on the outcome of political struggle. A rich elite that wants to preserve its privileges will do everything possible to ensure that we don’t reach a world of leisure and abundance, even if such a world is materially possible.

But one of the things I’ve struggled with, as a writer, is the tendency of my more speculative writing to mine a streak of apocalyptic quiescence on the radical left. To me, the story I’m telling is all about hope and agency: the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed, and only through struggle will we get it distributed properly. I suppose it’s no surprise, though, after decades in retreat, that some people would rather tell themselves fables of inevitable doom rather than tackling the harder problem of figuring out how we can collectively walk down the path to paradise.

So of the four futures I described, the one that I think is both the most hopeful and most interesting—the one I call “communism”—is the least discussed. Instead it’s exterminism, the mixture of ecological constraints, automation, and murderous elites, that seems to stick in peoples’ brains, with the anti-Star Trek dystopia of intellectual property rentiers running a close second.

But strip away the utopian and Marxist framework, and all you have is a grim dismissal of the possibility of egalitarian politics. You get something like this, from Noah Smith, which echoes my account of exterminism but updates it to our present drone-obsessed times. For a lot of isolated intellectual writer types, it can be perversely reassuring to think that achieving a better world is not just difficult, but actually impossible. How else to explain the appeal of Chris Hedges?

Another piece of news that recently aroused this sensibility was this Guardian post about an alleged “NASA study” predicting the “irreversible collapse” of industrial civilization. Here, via Doug Henwood, is a critique of the study itself and the lazy media that propagated it. And another Twitterer links to this, which is even more damning. In short, the study—which the original author didn’t even bother to link to—had little to do with NASA, and was a crude theoretical model based on a handful of equations. Frankly, as far as futurology goes, I think “Four Futures” was built on a far sounder scientific foundation.

What depresses me is not so much the perambulations of a crank with a Guardian blog, such people will probably be with us forever. But many people I know and like were eager to share this thinly sourced bit of nonsense around Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that it spoke to a desire for apocalyptic scenarios among ostensibly pragmatic leftists.

This fatalism is the perfect complement to the equally inane positivity that pervades bourgeois discourse, whether it’s coming in the form of self-help as dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich, or as the phony utopianism of silicon valley plutocrats. The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright, while left curmudgeons reassure themselves with the conviction that it’s inevitably gloomy. We don’t win from playing this game, taking our meager emotional returns while our opponents take their payment in a much more tangible form.

Jacobin/Verso Books Launch

March 11th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Shameless self-promotion, Work

It seems I’m in book-announcing mode this week. Today marks the release of three books from Jacobin magazine’s collaboration with Verso Books. The trio includes Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust (slightly silly profile of Kunkel here), Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America (excerpt here), and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore (excerpt here). I have my own contribution to this series planned for the future, but more on that later. For those in New York, the launch event is on Wednesday the 12th.

The books are all worth your time. But I want to especially highlight Melissa’s which I think is an incredibly important work. I’m proud that for some time now, Jacobin has been consistently putting forward an alternative to the dominant narratives about sex work. I may have been first to write there on these issues, but that was only opening the door to people far better versed in these issues than I, like Melissa and Laura Agustín.

Playing the Whore synthesizes a huge body of theory, research and activism by and for sex workers. But I hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed as being about sex, or about sex work, or about feminism, though it is about all those things. There’s a huge wealth of insight here about the meaning of contemporary labor, and the many complexities of trying to develop new identities that make class politics possible.

Crucially, the book reorients discussion of sex work in the direction of class politics more generally, and away from dehumanized narratives of victimization or the overwrought feelings of would-be middle class saviors. As Grant says toward the end of the book: “There’s one critical function sex worker identity must still perform: It gives shape to the demand that sex workers are as defined by their work as they are by their sexuality; it de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker, not despite sex but to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction”.

Rather than attempt my own clumsy summary, I’ll just tease you with more of Grant’s own words. Here are some of the lines that stood out to me from each of her ten chapters, which I hope will encourage others to pick up the book and delve into the rich context that motivates them.

  • “The Police”: “Rather than couching crackdowns on sex work as fighting crime, now some feminists appeal to the police to pursue stings against the sex trade in the name of gender equality. We can’t arrest our way to feminist utopia, but that has not stopped influential women’s rights organizations from demanding that we try.”

  • “The Prostitute”: “since the middle of the seventies, ‘prostitution’ has slowly begun to give way to ‘sex work.’ It’s this transition from a state of being to a form of labor that must be understood if we’re to understand the demands that sex work is work . . . the designation of sex work is the invention of the people who perform it.”

  • “The Work”: “All that is intentionally discreet about sex work . . . are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti-sex work stigmas and policing.”

  • “The Debate”: “Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional?”

  • “The Industry”: “To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.”

  • “The Peephole”: “Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers.”

  • “The Stigma”: “Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. . . . Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others.”

  • “The Other Women”: “Sex work informs their analysis of sexualization not because sex workers’ lives are important but because sex work makes women who don’t do it feel things they prefer not to feel. It is the whore stigma exercised and upheld by other women.”

  • “The Saviors”: “For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the ‘expert’ journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.”

  • “The Movement”: “Without its student liberation movement, its black liberation movement, its women’s liberation movement, and its gay liberation movement I can’t imagine San Francisco birthing a prostitutes’ rights movement from a houseboat docked Sausalito.”

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”

March 10th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy  |  2 Comments

Today marks the English-language publication of Thomas Piketty’s eagerly awaited Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t comment on the adequacy of its approach to the problem of capital in the twenty-first century. But I can comment on a specific problem of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” that turns out to be illuminating.

In his review of the book, Dean Baker complains that Piketty’s account is overly deterministic, largely due to an inattention to the details of institutional structures which shape the distribution of wealth and income, and which are potentially subject to change by political means. In particular, he draws attention to one of his, and my, recurring themes: intellectual property. Using drug companies as a case in point, Baker notes that this industry makes up 2 percent of GDP and 15 percent of corporate profits, based entirely on “government granted patent monopolies”.

Drug patents may be the most egregious example, but there’s plenty more where that came from. After reading Baker’s review, I headed over to Amazon, with the thought of picking up an ebook edition of Piketty’s book. There I found that the Kindle edition retails for a whopping $27.48, for a grand total of $1.45 in savings over the physical, hardcover edition.

Only copyright law and digital copy protections make this possible, of course—copying an ebook is trivial and nearly costless. And who benefits from that? Presumably some royalties accrue to Piketty and his translator, Arthur Goldhammer. Which I can’t really begrudge, although Piketty already enjoys a comfortable faculty position at the Paris School of Economics.

But the other beneficiary is the publisher, Harvard University Press, and it’s a bit harder to see how they need the money. HUP is a division of Harvard University, which, some incidental educational operations aside, is primarily an enormous investment fund presiding over $32 billion dollars in assets. Which brings us around to another of Dean Baker’s objections, which is that the unusual success of Harvard’s investments may not simply be due to the expertise of its financial managers. He proposes insider trading as another plausible (albeit unsubstantiated) explanation: “graduates of these institutions undoubtedly could [provide] their alma maters with plenty of useful investment tips.”

All of which is to say that while I laud Piketty’s support for increased taxation of income and wealth, the peculiar case of his own book illustrates Baker’s important counterpoint. It’s a point that could equally be directed at certain Marxists and other leftists, for whom all efforts at reformist politics are doomed to fail a priori: “capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it”, and thus we should pay close attention to “the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.”

Guards, Workers, Machines

February 17th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism, Work  |  1 Comment

I see that a couple of my longtime interests—guard labor and the relationship between wages and productivity—have surfaced in the New York Times and the Economist, respectively.

The Times published an article by the economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, advancing their research on what they call “guard labor”: the work of security guards, police, the armed forces, prison staff, and others whose function is chiefly “guarding stuff rather than making stuff”, in the words of another economist they quote.

Bowles and Jayadev first proposed the concept of guard labor, as far as I know, in this paper from about ten years ago. Their basic insight is that maintaining a system of unequally distributed private wealth requires a large amount of repressive labor that is not directly productive. I first drew on their idea a few years ago in my sketch of the economy of anti-Star Trek (and I should note that the economics of Star Trek has also gotten another recent treatment.) I returned to it in “Four Futures”, which also considers the increasing significance of guard labor in a society characterized by abundant and unequal wealth alongside ecological scarcity.

In their latest update, Bowles and Jayadev advance their analysis by empirically analyzing guard labor in a cross-national perspective, and relating it directly to income inequality. They find, unsurprisingly, that higher levels of inequality are strongly correlated with a stronger share of guard labor in the economy. To over-simplify only a bit, societies with a greater social distance between the rich and poor require more people to protect the haves from the have-nots. Thus Bowles and Jayadev suggest that reducing economic inequality is an important part of rolling back our increasingly militarized, carceral society.

Meanwhile, at the Economist, we have Ryan Avent (technically unattributed, according to the magazine’s annoying convention), writing about an apparently unrelated topic: the relationship among productivity, economic growth, and wage stagnation. The post is long and contains a number of interesting detours, but the basic point is simple: “productivity is often endogenous to the real wage.” What this means is that technological change in the production process isn’t something that happens independently of what’s happening to the wages of workers. Rather, high wages spur productivity growth because they encourage businesses to economize on labor. Conversely, lots of workers competing for jobs at low wages is a recipe for slow growth, because there is little incentive to use labor-saving technology when labor is so cheap.

As it happens, this is exactly what I suggested a few years ago, in response to Tyler Cowen’s theories of technological stagnation. I’ve elaborated the point, and even drawn on the mainstream economist Daron Acemoglu, who also crops up in Avent’s post. But economics writers have been remarkably resistant to the idea that wages and technology can dynamically interact like this, and the Economist post still treats it as a scandalous proposition rather than something that seems compelling and obvious on its face. Thus we find ourselves trapped in an endless, unhelpful debate about whether or not technology is some kind of independent, inevitable cause of unemployment and wage polarization.

Having examined various aspects of the problems that arise from a glut of too-cheap labor, Avent ends up very close to where I do on these issues, in particular on the value of reducing labor supply. A higher minimum wage is important, since it provides the necessary incentive to economize on labor. But it’s not sufficient, because we also need to reduce the amount of hours of work, both through shorter hours and lower labor force participation. That means something like a Universal Basic Income not tied directly to employment. Which brings us back to the same place Bowles and Jayadev end up as well: massive redistribution to tackle income inequality and share out the benefits of a highly productive economy.

Avent notes with amusing understatement that “redistribution at the scale described above would be very difficult to engineer.” It will require, in fact, pitched class struggle of no less intensity than was necessary to build the socialisms and social democracies of the 20th century. But taking that path is the only way to get to something resembling the two egalitarian endings I sketched, as part of my speculative political economy choose-your-own-adventure in “Four Futures”, which I called communism and socialism. The alternative is to continue along the path Bowles and Jayadev describe, to a society locked down by guard labor—whether that’s the rentier dystopia of pervasive intellectual property I called rentism, or the inverted global gulag of rich enclaves scattered across a world of ecological ruin, which I called exterminism.

Workin’ It

February 11th, 2014  |  Published in Socialism, Work  |  4 Comments

I’m pleased to see that a silly partisan dispute over an obscure finding in a Congressional Budget Office report has gotten people talking about the merits of working less. Alex Pareene has a good reaction to the finding that the Affordable Act will lead some people to quit their jobs: good! As he says, “People should be free from shitty jobs.” Even Paul Krugman is in on the act, pointing out the dishonesty of right-wingers who praise the dignity of work even as they attempt to make actual work as undignified as possible.

But in a more selfish way, I’m also glad that Kevin Drum is on hand to warn liberals against denigrating the dignity of work. He notes and approves of the fact that “Most people want to work, and most people also want to believe that their fellow citizens are working. It’s part of the social contract.”

This isn’t a view confined to liberals, and it crops up in some exchanges I’ve had with Jacobin co-editor Seth Ackerman. In a response to me, Ackerman makes a similar argument: “there is . . . an impulse to resent those with ‘undeserved’ advantages in the distribution of work”, and therefore “there will always be this social demand for the equal liability of all to work”. Thus he insists that “emancipation from wage-work should happen through the reduction of working-time along the intensive margin”, i.e., through a reduction in working hours among the employed. Alex Gourevitch, meanwhile, makes a somewhat different case, celebrating the value of “discipline” and the “renunciation of desire” against what he perceives as the embrace of pure hedonism and immediacy by anti-work writers.

The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work”, particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life”. Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.

These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear seperately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.

There are, most of us agree, some things that are socially necessary, that are undertaken for money, and that require discipline and self-sacrifice. Teaching is the first that comes to mind, in light of the struggles around that profession.

It is hard, at first, to think of something that’s necessary and paid but that doesn’t require some sort of self-discipline or renunciation of desire. But perhaps a pure form of rentier capitalist can be thought to engage in such activity. Simply enjoying a stream of investment income and blowing it on whatever you please is the opposite of self-sacrifice and discipline. And yet the drive to make investments profitable and to satisfy the consumption whims of those with money is the motor that drives a capitalist economy, so it is “necessary” within the context of that system.

By now, the left is pretty conscious of the huge amount of difficult and necessary work that isn’t paid, whether it’s women raising their children or the labor of social media. Hence the demand for Wages for Housework and, now, Wages for Facebook.

Some things are necessary for the reproduction of society even though people often do them for free and don’t perceive them as disciplined or self-sacrificing. Sex, to take the most obvious example. Of course, sex can also be a disciplined performance undertaken for money. But, as Melissa Gira Grant explores in her upcoming book, the existence of sex work can be very discomfiting for people who are emotionally invested in the idea of sex as a space of pure non-work. But that, I’d argue, is itself a symptom of our confused and fetishistic conception of what work is.

Meanwhile, some of the things people do work very hard to get paid for are of dubious social utility. The people who design high frequency trading algorithms are undoubtedly hard-working and ingenious. But it’s hard to justify what they do even within the parameters of a capitalist economy, which is why calls for a financial transactions tax are so appealing. And the things in this category aren’t necessarily bad things—professional sports aren’t necessary for social reproduction either, even though they’re well paid and are acknowledged to be “hard work” in the third sense of work given above.

At the same time, there can and does exist lots of activity that satisfies Gourevitch’s criteria of discipline and diligence, even though it’s unpaid and it’s hard to claim the status of social necessity for it. The world is full of amateur photographers and recreational hunters who have no particular ambition to get paid for what they do. And we can also add all those competitive endeavors that don’t sustain paid professional careers, like Scrabble or video gaming outside of a handful of esports.

What of the work that isn’t work in its first (necessary) or third (renunciation of desire) sense, but still keeps the “getting paid for it” part? Certain kinds of celebrities who are “famous for being famous” come to mind. This is tricky, however, since often the appearance of effortlessness conceals a disciplined and carefully managed performance. But the difficulty of conceiving of this kind of work indicates the problem with certain work-obsessed solutions to economic deprivation, such as the so-called “job guarantee”. Proponents of such schemes seem to think that people should only get paid if they have “jobs”, and yet they are indifferent to what the content of those jobs is, leading some of us to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just give out the money without the jobs.

Finally, we come to the triple negative, things that aren’t considered work in any of the three senses I’ve given. The paradigmatic example of something that is useless, unpaid, and completely hedonistic would, of course, be masturbation. And it’s not surprising that, in a culture suffused with the work ethic, “masturbatory” is a common term of denigration. But there’s nothing wrong with masturbation provided you don’t impose yours on others—although as Doctor Jocelyn Elders discovered, you have to be careful about saying that in public.

All of which is a long-winded way of making the point that if we’re going to debate the meaning, importance, dignity, and existence of work, we should be a lot more careful what we mean by the concept. When I talk about reducing or eliminating work, I almost always mean work in my second sense: wage labor. Getting rid of the necessary work of social reproduction—say, by automating it—may be desirable, but maybe not, depending on the situation; I know not everyone is down with Shulamith Firestone’s proposal to grow babies in tanks. And I certainly agree with Gourevitch that disciplined commitment to seeing a project through is an important aspect of, as he puts it, the “full expression of human creativity and productive powers”.

It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them–whether out the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something”.

So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.

I like the way Drum puts it: “people want to believe that their fellow citizens are working”. The word believe suggests that it’s the ideology of what counts as work that’s doing the, well, work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name of social solidarity.

Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work–though we do need that–but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers Voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.

Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.

The Fantasy Politics of the Libertarian Alliance

January 23rd, 2014  |  Published in Politics  |  2 Comments

Watching the online banter about my last post, I saw several people–both supporters and critics of my argument–suggesting that I was proposing some kind of “alliance with libertarians”. This is peculiar in that I never said such a thing anywhere in the post. My point was that libertarians don’t, and shouldn’t, have a monopoly on anti-statist politics, and that there are stoutly Marxist reasons to see the national security state as a key political target of the class struggle.

The main reason I didn’t call for a left-libertarian alliance is that I don’t know what such a thing would even mean. Are Cornel West and Rand Paul to have a grand summit and sign a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact declaring a cease in hostilities in light of our common war on liberalism?

Obviously that’s ridiculous, and people who criticize “alliances” with libertarians are really questioning the validity of any political issue that might find leftists and libertarians on the same side. But this applies a level of sectarian rigor that is rarely found outside of the most insular Trotskyists. Politics makes for all sorts of strange bedfellows–recall that the Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act, which would raise capital standards for big banks, is co-sponsored by progressive hero Sherrod Brown and reactionary Louisiana Republican David Vitter.

Yet I don’t recall a lot of handwringing about the left’s “alliances” with right wing Christian fundamentalists, presumably because it’s obvious that a tactical alignment on a single issue doesn’t entail accepting your enemy’s entire worldview. I would think it’s obvious that effective politics means making common cause with people who you find distasteful in some ways. But maybe I’m just used to it because I’m a socialist, and I’m used to working with liberals who believe all sorts of lousy things–for example, that the progressive legacy of the New Deal includes the military and prison industrial complex.

All of which is why, in the end, I lump in left critics of Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden’s “libertarianism” with obvious partisan hacks like Sean Wilentz. Their arguments all point to the same thing: not a clarification of the Left’s politics, but merely a stigmatization of anything that attacks the security state, as if that’s somehow incompatible with the values of the Left. And it’s dispiriting that some people are unable to see that I was never arguing that the Left needed to be more like libertarians, but rather that a position of principled opposition to the repressive functions of the state is indispensible for a consistent and emancipatory left politics.

The Left and the State

January 20th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  2 Comments

The New Republic has long been notorious for posing as a liberal magazine while publishing allegedly provocative or contrarian articles that serve mostly to undermine liberal and progressive politics. This tendency seemed to abate a bit when Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes took over the magazine from the notorious racist and warmonger Marty Peretz. The latest from Sean Wilentz, however, falls squarely within the old tradition. We are to believe that rather than principled critics of the surveillance state, the likes of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are motivated by “paranoid libertarianism”; they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Henry Farrell has already done the necessary demolition of this particular bit of hack-work at Crooked Timber, so there’s no need for me to repeat it. And I’d be less concerned if this line of argument were limited to Wilentz, who has an established track record as a truculent apologist for established government elites. But Wilentz’s argument resembles Mark Ames’ ongoing crusade against Greenwald and Snowden, as well as David Golumbia’s tirade against “cyberlibertarianism” at Jacobin. (Golumbia can be found in the comment section at Crooked Timber as well, mostly supporting the Ames/Wilentz line.) So I’m interested in what drives this obsession with people like Greenwald and Snowden (and presumably Chelsea Manning, although she tends to be invisible in these accounts) as vectors for noxious libertarianism rather than people who are doing courageous and useful work even if their politics aren’t socialist.

I think Henry Farrell is right to see, with Wilentz, an attempt to conflate the ideal of the liberal state with the existing national security state, in an attempt to force defenders of the welfare state to also embrace the authoritarian warfare state. But with the sympathizers to Wilentz’s left, I see something a bit different going on. I found this post from Will Wilkinson helpful in thinking this through. Wilkinson is libertarian-ish in his beliefs, but I find he can provide a helpful perspective despite coming from rather different moral and political economic premises. In this case, I think he correctly identifies the trap that some of these left attacks on people like Snowden or Greenwald fall into.

Wilkinson notes that theoretically, libertarianism is “an argument against the possibility of legitimate government.” This makes it clearly incompatible with most socialist or social democratic attempts to democratize the market or expropriate the means of production. Yet nevertheless “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible.” Substitute “socialist” for “liberal”, and I think the point stands just as well. He further points out that mounting a libertarian defense of our current economic relations depends on a parallel sleight of hand, “confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal.”

But there seems to be an instinct, among some on the Left, to suppose that defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state. Or, to be a bit more subtle, that any critique that emphasizes government authoritarianism merely distracts us from the critique of private power, in particular the power of the boss.

I don’t think it’s true that attacks on NSA surveillance somehow make it harder to bring up corporate privacy abuses or the tyranny of capital in the workplace. But more than that, I think that when leftists set themselves up as defenders of government against libertarian hostility to the state, they unwittingly accept the Right’s framing of the debate in a way that’s neither an accurate representation of reality nor a good guide to political action.

The Right, in its libertarian formulation, loves to set itself up as the defender of individual liberty against state power. And thus contemporary capitalism—often referred to by that overused buzzword, “neoliberalism”—is often equated in casual left discourse with the withdrawal of the state.

But in the works that developed neoliberalism as a category of left political economy, this is not how things are understood at all. Neoliberalism is a state project through and through, and is better understood as a transformation of the state and a shift in its functions, rather than a quantitative reduction in its size. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey underlines the importance of the state in forcibly creating a “good business climate” by breaking down barriers to capital accumulation and repressing dissent. Hence:

Neoliberalism does not make the state or particular institutions of the state (such as the courts and police functions) irrelevant, as some commentators on both the right and the left have argued. There has, however, been a radical reconfiguration of state institutions and practices (particularly with respect to the balance between coercion and consent, between the powers of capital and of popular movements, and between executive and judicial power, on the one hand, and powers of representative democracy on the other)

The growth of the surveillance state, in this formulation, clearly makes up a central part of the neoliberal turn, and is not something ancillary to it.

However, the misrecognition of the specifically neoliberal state continues to mislead liberals and leftists, and not only on the topic of the national security state–a state, it should be noted, that is inextricably linked with the nominally private sector, in the form of contractors such as the one that employed Edward Snowden. As the neoliberal state moves in the direction of governing through crime, it becomes increasingly important to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, a joint public-private project of domination, exploitation and social control.

And yet there is the persistent temptation to invoke the genie of state repression despite the Left’s documented inability to make it do its bidding. That can take the form of “humanitarian” warmongering or what Elizabeth Bernstein has described as “carceral feminism”: “a vision of social justice as criminal justice” that attempts to deploy the repressive power of the state to protect women who are portrayed as helpless victims.

Or take a very different issue, the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to toxic drinking water. The always acerbic and astute Dean Baker notes the witless habit of referring to this event as “a failure of government regulation” and a consequence of “free-market fundamentalism”. The real issue, he notes, is that the state protects the property rights of the rich while allowing them to profit from befouling our common resources. Baker has, I think, done some of the best popular writing attacking the fiction that the Right is for free markets while the Left is for government regulation. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the contest before us in the immediate future is between different regimes of state-created and -enforced property, not between the state and the market.

One should not have any illusions that critics of the national security state all share socialist politics. But we should judge these critics by what they say and do and what their political impact is. An endless inquisition into hidden beliefs and motives, and the attempt to unmask a devious libertarian hidden agenda, makes for a satisfying purity politics for those who want to justify their own inaction. But it does nothing to contest the predatory fusion of state and capital that confronts us today, which must be confronted in the government, the workplace, and many other places besides.

Regulatory Theater at the S.E.C.

November 7th, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

Lately the Securities and Exchange Commission has been in the news for its newly aggressive enforcement stance. Most prominently, JP Morgan is reportedly settling for $13 billion to end investigations of its mortage-bond sales.

Discussion has tended to center on the particular details of this and other enforcement actions. Was it enough money? Will they admit wrongdoing? Will it be enough dissuade future transgressions? But the profile of S.E.C. chair Mary Jo White, by Nicholas Lemann in the current New Yorker, suggests that flashy enforcement actions may be a distraction from a different problem.

White is a career litigator, who has worked as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan), as well as in private practice for some of the same Wall Street firms she faced off against in her government capacity. This led many to criticize her appointment for its apparent conflicts of interest.

This is certainly a problem. The response, presented in Lemann’s article, is that lawyers like White are part of a “Killer Elite”, too proud and arrogant to be open to corruption by private interests. This is self-serving to say the least. But even if true, Lemann suggests a bigger problem with appointing an enforcement minded litigator like White—a “cop on the beat”, as President Obama said when he nominated her.

The problem is that “the S.E.C. doesn’t just enforce rules that have been broken. It also writes rules to govern future activity.” This rule-writing process has gone into overdrive with the passage of the Dodd-Frank law, and it is an enormously complicated undertaking. Three years after Dodd-Frank’s passage, much of it hasn’t been implemented because the S.E.C. and other agencies haven’t finalized the rules. The issues involved in just one aspect of the law, the Volcker Rule, are so complex that the “Occupy the SEC” group produced a 325 page comment letter about it.

Mary Jo White’s predecessor, Mary Schapiro, was by Lemann’s account more of a regulator than an enforcer, while White is the opposite. The danger, therefore, is that even as the agency starts taking more high profile wins with headline-grabbing prosecutions, the important rulemaking side of the agency’s mission will fall into neglect or be captured by industry lobbyists. “It’s entirely possible”, writes Lemann, “for the government to become a tougher prosecutor and a more lax regulator at the same time.” And he suggests that’s more or less what White and Obama want.

But strict enforcement of the law is of little efficacy if all the truly dangerous behavior has been rendered legal. An overemphasis on enforcement also fosters a “bad apples” theory that blames financial instability on individual bad actors rather than systemically corrupt institutions. How else to explain the preoccupation with pursuing irrelevant bagmen like Wing Chau and Fabulous Fab Tourre?

Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe practices that give the flamboyant appearance of protection against terrorism while doing little or nothing to address real threats. Think of the ritual inconveniences of the airport security line—when as we now know, the people most in danger may be the TSA employees, one of whom was gunned down at Los Angeles airport by a right-wing militant.

The shift in emphasis at the S.E.C. suggests a kind of regulatory theater (a phrase I’m not the first to think of), which produces satisfying headlines of bankers laid low, while failing to write rules that address the real failures of of regulation and oversight in the financial system. The danger is that even some liberals will be bought off by a seemingly populist gesture, even as the emphasis on individual wrongdoers deepens the carceral turn in liberalism while failing to address the inherent contradictions of capitalist finance.

And just as the failure to prevent terrorism merely becomes the pretext for further elaborations of the anti-terrorism bureaucracy, so the lack of sound financial regulation can be a pretext for more of the punitive enforcement actions that White seems to relish. While reassuring the industry that she wants to avoid imposing “unnecessary burdens or competitive harm”, she remarks to Lemann at the article’s close that with regard to systemic risks in the financial system, she sees “any potential risks as a problem that needs to be solved”.