Libertarianism From Above and Below

October 30th, 2013  |  Published in Politics  |  1 Comment

The Public Religion Research Institute recently released a report on the 2013 edition of its American Values Survey, in which they attempt to define and analyze libertarians as a distinct constituency in American politics. But what the report reveals is that when we talk about libertarianism, we’re talking about two distinct phenomena. There’s an ideology with a handful of wealthy backers and a canon rooted in Hayek and Mises; call this one “libertarianism from above”. There’s also an identity claimed by an increasing number of people, call that one “libertarianism from below”. And it turns out that they are very different things.

The survey is about libertarianism as seen from above. That is, it is not primarily a survey of people who identify themselves as libertarians. The researchers begin by defining a “libertarian orientation scale” composed of nine questions about various aspects of government policy: domestic spying, international aid, military force, economic growth and taxes, jobs and econmic welfare, paternalism, gun control, marijuana and pornography. They then identify libertarians on the basis of this scale.

According to the PRRI, a libertarian is someone who tends to agree with the following propositions:

  • Government has gone too far monitoring private telephone and email conversations of American citizens, and the program should be eliminated.

  • The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.

  • The United States should only use military force if its immediate security is threatened.

  • The best way to promote economic growth in the U.S. is to lower taxes on individuals and businesses and pay for those tax cuts by cutting spending on some government services and programs

  • The government should just let each person get ahead on their own

  • It’s not the government’s business to try to protect people from themselves.

  • The federal government has already placed too many restrictions on the sale of guns in the U.S.

  • We should make the use of marijuana legal.

  • We should NOT make it more difficult to access pornography on the Internet.

The intent here, it would seem, is to construct a set of issues that are relevant to current political debates and which cut across traditional political cleavages. For my part, I’m strongly on the “libertarian” side on some questions (military intervention, spying, pot, porn), though perhaps not for the same reasons as many libertarians. Meanwhile, I lean away from the the libertarians on other issues, but with a bit of ambivalence, sometimes just due to the question wording. I question the logic of guaranteeing everyone a job, as well as the notion that education is important because it promotes economic growth. I’m skeptical about state paternalism, although I’m not an absolutist about it. The result is that if I take this survey myself, I end up with a score that, by the scoring criteria given in the report, would make me someone with “libertarian leanings”.

In one sense, I’m typical of PRRI-defined libertarians, who are disproportionately white men under 50. In other ways, however, I’m clearly an outlier, given these libertarians’ penchant for describing themselves as conservatives, opposing gay marriage, and being uncomfortable with muslims. Those findings make it tempting for some of my comrades on the left to use this survey as an opportunity to score points against libertarians. You see, we get to say, libertarianism was just a re-branded right-wing Republican politics all along!

But the more interesting thing is the disjunction between libertarianism as an ideology and as an identity. The PRRI survey begins by setting out a definition of libertarian ideology, and then looking for people who meet it. Their definition is drawn from a study published by the Cato Institute. In that sense we can take it to reflect the priorities of elite instutional libertarianism, which does indeed seem pretty close to the familiar leftist stereotype of a libertarian: a Republican who likes weed and porn. But the fact that constructing the definition of libertarianism in a reactionary way produces a group of reactionary people is not so surprising. Of more interest is just how out of touch this definition is with the people who consider themselves libertarian.

In an appendix, self-identified libertarians are compared with those tagged as libertarians by the survey’s scale. The self-identified libertarians make up about 13% of the population, compared to the 22% libertarian or libertarian-leaning according to the scale. Yet the two groups are very different. Those who think of themselves as libertarians turn out to be more Democrat than Republican, in favor of gay marriage, and even overwhelmingly in favor of raising the minimum wage.

Moreover, anyone hoping to clown the “libertarians” in the PRRI report should think about how well they’d enjoy placing themselves in the “communalist” group that the survey authors construct as the opposite of libertarianism. This means not just embracing government intervention in the economy, but also the war on drugs and porn. Not to mention the kind of humanitarian interventionism promoted by people like Samantha Power, the conviction that “the United States should be ready and willing to use military force around the world to promote American interests and enforce international law”.

Whatever function the libertarian identity has for many of the people who hold it, it’s clearly not quite what the Cato Institute would like it to be. So rather than scoring cheap points, leftists should be asking ourselves what it is that leads people to identify with an ideology that, according to the priorities of its most powerful promoters, has such a tenuous connection with what they actually believe. Some of it, no doubt, is just a marker of disaffection and disgust with the mainstream political spectrum, and the disappearance of socialism as an oppositional identity. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the libertarian critique of liberalism’s paternalist and bureaucratic tendencies. That critique may be disingenuous in the hands of a Cato flack, but it only has any appeal because it speaks to some real mass sentiment.

After all, I consider myself a “libertarian” in the same sense as self-proclaimed libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky. That is, I think that facilitating individual freedom is a central part of the left’s project, and one which has sometimes gotten short shrift from liberals and socialists alike. Libertarian ideology, as Cato and PRRI would like to define it, isn’t really consistent with that project, since it obsesses over government while ignoring the private life of power. But the popularity of libertarianism as an identity is something else, and we would do well to be a bit more careful in our assessment of it.

Class, Technology, and Transit Strikes

October 21st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work  |  1 Comment

With employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on strike, the Sillicon Valley tech elite has reminded us all that despite their enlightened Bay Area lifestyles, they are still, at root, a bunch of rich dudes. Corey Robin ably documents the reactionary politics and moral degeneracy of people who see themselves as heroic entrepreneurs and the people who get them to work as greedy parasites.

The combination of the strike and the government shutdown has shined a welcome light on the more delusional parts of the tech bro intellegentisa, who revel in government dysfunction and dream of stateless techno-utopias. It’s all the more amusing to see these would-be John Galts dismissing the need for government one moment, and bemoaning the shutdown of a public transit agency the next.

But the most revealing of the tech industry commentaries on the strike is this one, in which Gregory Ferenstein attempts to sort out what he sees as a difference of opinion about the virtues of technology and innovation. He asserts that “the very existence of unions threatens the kind of unpredictable disruption that fuels the knowledge economy”, and that what is at stake in the BART strike is not class struggle but rather the tech elite’s “legitimate philosophical differences that assume the benefits to innovation outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers”.

In a way, this attempt to change the subject from class to technology is the mirror image of Gavin Mueller’s essay in a recent Jacobin, in which he takes me to task as a techno-utopian and suggests that “instead of depending on capitalism to give us all the machines we need for a socialism without scarcity or drudgery, we put the installation of technology on hold until ‘after the revolution’”. Rather than fight over how different kinds of technologies are implemented and how the losers from change are compensated, he suggests that we concentrate on “the disempowering effects of automation”. Thus manual control over the production process takes precedence over control over the workplace or the economy. But by portraying technical change under capitalism as always and only a nefarious plot to intensify exploitation and disorganize workers, Mueller affirms the gambit of those like Ferenstein who would prefer to debate the merits of innovation rather than the social relations of class and power. He thus makes an ideal foil from the perspective of the libertarian tech bro.

I have no intention of playing that part, however. I’m more interested in examining what the “innovation vs. worker rights” framing presupposes, and what it cedes.

Ferenstein insists that that there’s no need for unions for either the “lucky elite class of tech workers” who have “all the benefits and influence they could ever hope for,” or for the “army of freelance engineers that thrive on unpredictability.” As Scott Kilpatrick observed on Twitter, the “lucky elite” rests on top of a mass of precarious contractors and service employees who have little voice in companies like Google. But Ferenstein’s view is a telling indicator of the wordview of the tech elite, who breathlessly tout “disruption” and glamorize unpredictability and uncertainty. For this elite, losing your job only means moving on to the next startup, or retiring on a pile of stock options. It doesn’t mean prolonged unemployment, homelessness, or being cut off from health care.

For transit workers, of course, disruption and unpredictability have much more dire implications, but Ferenstein would prefer to distract us from that reality by portraying their concerns as the consequence of a philosophical objection to innovation. But instead of playing the straight man to this routine by extolling the virtues of stable employment, let’s ask instead what it would mean to make unstable labor relations the bearable and even pleasant experience that they can be for the elite. It would mean something like what the Danish Social Democrats call “flexicurity”: a system that protects workers rather than jobs, by providing a robust system of unemployment benefits and training programs to ease the burden of joblessness and the transition between jobs.

For the true believers in libertarian secession, such policy would no doubt amount to an intolerable state incursion on the freedom of the entrepreneur. But I’m more interested in the comment of UserVoice CEO Richard White, quoted by Andrew Leonard (and then re-quoted by Ferenstein): “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”

This doesn’t quite get at the real substance of the dispute, which is more about work rules than about pay. In particular, the union wants to preserve a provision that requires mutual agreement between management and the union before an existing labor practice can be altered.

As is typical in disputes like this, the employer tries to portray the work rule under discussion as an absurd impediment to rational management, while the union raises its valid uses. So BART claims that this rule “makes it difficult to make technological changes like having station agents file reports by e-mail instead of writing them out longhand, using e-mail instead of fax machines to send documents and sending paycheck stubs to each work location electronically instead of hand-delivering them.” But it’s hard to see just why the union would object to this. More plausible is the union’s contention that the past practices rule is useful for things like “preventing BART management from making punitive work assignments to employees who have filed workplace complaints.”

This strike thus turns out to be an excellent example of the dynamic I wrote about some while back, the dialectical interplay between class struggle and technological development. I noted there that technology is two sided under capitalism: it can increase material abundance, and it can also oppress and fragment workers, and often it does both at the same time. In that earlier post I posited that “the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers.” This is what we see played out in the BART strike.

The transit workers’ union, SEIU local 1021, has an interesting post describing their most recent settlement offer. Their proposal, they say, “allows for the continued use of new technology in the workplace but protects workers from changes in work rules that would lead to unsafe conditions.” The post goes on to note the recent fatal accident that occurred recently when two workers were killed by trains under the operation of BART managers. The union strategically positions itself not as an opponent of technology, but as an advocate for innovations that truly improve the transit system, rather than just providing ways for management to degrade the power of labor—whether by imposing unsafe working conditions or by using computer scheduling to disrupt the predictability of the workday, which is the example of anti-worker technology I cited in my earlier post.

In another post, the union notes that “the system is carrying more passengers than ever with fewer frontline workers than ever.” So it seems that the union is not even attempting to preserve all jobs for their own sake, which would be an understandable position but also one that could genuinely impede the introduction of productivity-enhancing changes. Instead, they are trying to shape the development of the labor process in a way that is less dehumanizing to the worker.

But if CEO White got his wish, and we truly did “figure out how to automate their jobs” entirely, the union leadership and the members would probably have some understandable objections eventually. Which is why, as I note in a different post, a viable compromise between labor-saving technology and the working class has to be worked out an economy-wide scale rather than in a single workplace or industry. The Danish model, in other words, or something even more audacious.

Still, the BART strike is a useful starting point for moving away from the technobabble and talking about class and politics. And the approach of “give the workers what they want, then figure out how to automate” is far preferable to the more common “hyper-exploit the workers, while hand-waving about some great innovation that’s going to come along in the future.” What the BART workers are doing can be considered part of the utopian strategy of making labor expensive. And if the tech industry could take on the challenge of transforming economic processes while accepting the rights and dignity of existing workers, that would be some truly disruptive innovation.

The Ethic of Marginal Value

October 1st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  4 Comments

Recently David Graeber has gotten some attention for an essay on “the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, which is notable mostly for getting some important arguments about the nature of work into wider circulation than usual. Mainstream economists have taken notice of Graeber’s contention that much of the activity that people are compelled to perform in return for their wages is “effectively, pointless”.

But the result of mainstream engagement, as often as not, is little more than a demonstration of the narrow perspective of the conventional economist. In that vein, I’m particularly enamored of this contribution from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. Tabarrok seizes on an element of Graeber’s essay that echoes something I wrote about a couple of years ago: the weak relationship between the importance of the jobs people do and the reward they receive for doing them. As I put it back then, “it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work.” Or in Graeber’s formulation,”the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”

Tabarrok—along with, apparently, Brad DeLong—views this as an elementary error of reasoning, an example of “the diamond-water paradox”:

Water is cheap and its value low because the supply of water is so large that the marginal value of water is driven down close to zero. Diamonds are expensive because the limited market supply keeps the price and marginal value high. Not much of a paradox. Note that, contra Graeber, there is nothing special about labor in this regard or “our society.”

Moreover, it’s good that prices are determined on the margin. We would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.

The impressive thing is just how much misdirection and and willful obtuseness Tabarrok manages to pack into a few sentences. The argument crumbles at whatever level one chooses to engage it.

To begin with, the chosen example is an amusing one, since it in no way exemplifies what it purports to demonstrate. Diamonds may be scarcer than water, but that is not what dictates their price. The price of diamonds has been maintained over the decades by the powerful DeBeers cartel, which has kept up prices through a combination of marketing and buying up excess supply. I suppose Tabarrok could counter that the phrase “market supply” doesn’t imply that the availability of a commodity is a function of physical scarcity. But I hardly think he would subscribe to the notion that supply in capitalist markets is or should be primarily determined by the actions of powerful monopolists.

Leaving this aside, Tabarrok is avoiding Graeber’s point by bringing up the marginal cost and the supply of different kinds of labor-power, rather than the social value of different kinds of labor. But even on these terms, it’s a pretty dubious argument. Let’s contrast a couple of the job categories that Graeber brings up: advertising and nursing. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 620,900 people employed as “Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers”, and 2,590,600 employed as “Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides”. If the nurses make less money, even though there are more than four times as many jobs for them, then by Tabarrok’s account it must be because the skills involved in marketing are so rare, and those involved in nursing so plentiful. And yet by many accounts there is a serious nurse shortage, while I’ve yet to hear of a serious PR flack shortage afflicting the nation.

The more obvious explanation would be that wages are largely determined by how powerful workers are, and how powerful their industries are. In the extreme case of high finance, you have a sector that has succeeded in extracting large rents from the economy, as Felix Salmon explains, and has shared those spoils with a privileged layer of bank employees. But to understand this you would have to understand economic outcomes as the result of power relations, not immutable and impersonal market forces.

The most grievous illusion that Tabarrok propagates, however, is that “there is nothing special about labor” when it comes to the determination of prices by marginal value. This a good illustration of the argument that Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs make in the most recent Jacobin: marginal productivity theory is an ethical theory masquerading as a description of social reality. What Tabarrok means is not that there is nothing special about labor, but that there should be nothing special about it. Just as DeBeers can increase the price of diamonds by buying up excess supply, the capitalist class ought to be able to keep the price of labor down by flooding the market with the desperate unemployed. The socialist tradition, however—whether in its Marxist or Polanyian form—holds that there is and should be something special about labor, because labor is people, and the freedom and welfare of the people is the proper subject of political economy.

Of course, the apologists for capitalism insist that they are the ones looking out for the welfare of the people, hence Tabarrok’s clucking reminder that “we would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.” But even on its own terms, such defenses only work on a very abstract collective level, where total wealth matters but its distribution does not. After all, who’s “we” here? As Steve Waldman observes, this means that “it is socialists who are the individualists, attending to the sum of individual welfares, while unsympathetic capitalists rely upon collectivism to justify their good fortune and the policy apparatus that magnifies and sustains it.” Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism”.

Tabarrok seems to think that Graeber is recommending that wages be brought into line with some standard of inherent social value, but this is to miss the point. The point, rather, is to do what we can to separate the right to a decent standard of living from the labor one happens to perform. And, just as important, to break free from the illusions of both libertarianism and meritocracy—that is, from the belief that the price of labor either is or should be the measure of its value.

Frase, Parameswaran, and the Future: This Sunday in NYC

June 13th, 2013  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

This Sunday at 3:00 PM, those of you in the New York area can catch me at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 exhibition space in Queens, where I’ll be participating in a discussion with Ashwin Parameswaran. It’s part of a summer-long season of interesting talks organized by the online magazine Triple Canopy, under the heading “Speculations (‘The future is ___________’)”. (The weekend after my event, there’s another great one between Jacobin contributor Alex Gourevitch and Kathi Weeks, whose book about work and feminism I reviewed for the magazine.) Tickets are ten bucks, five for students, and you can also check out PS1′s interesting collection as part of the deal. And after that you can go eat at the only barbecue joint in New York named after a revolutionary abolitionist.

Ashwin is a fascinating character whose ideas I’ve touched on several times, in connection with topics ranging across social network companies, capitalist stagnation, ecology, and the private welfare state. His writing about automation also bears on the ideas I explored in “Four Futures”. But I’ve never engaged with his writing at length, and I’m looking forward to the chance to meet and talk with him in person.

To get a feel for the areas we’ll be discussing on Sunday, the best place to start is probably this post, followed by this more theoretical treatment if your appetite hasn’t been satisfied. Parameswaran believes that many of the problems with contemporary capitalism can be traced to an approach to macroeconomic management that ensures “stability for the classes, instability for the masses”. Individuals face economic insecurity, but bailouts and corrupt privatization schemes ensure that “incumbent firms have no fear of failure and can game the positive incentives on offer to extract rents while at the same time shying away from any real disruptive innovation.” As he notes—and as Jacobin readers will recall from Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black”—capitalism has thus reproduced the fundamental flaw of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.

Parameswaran’s alternative is what he refers to as “bailouts for people, not firms”. In other words, a strengthening of the welfare state to protect people from economic turbulence, combined with a renewed commitment to capitalism’s “invisible foot”: the real threat of failure for uncompetitive firms. A proposal that might not sit too well with the major sponsor of the PS1 series, the Nazi-founded and now pseudo-privatized Volkswagen.

He argues, furthermore, that this is the only workable alternative to the status quo. He thus rejects the project of some nostalgic liberals to return to the heyday of managed post-war capitalism—”stability for the masses and the classes”. I tend to agree with this perspective, albeit not for exactly the same reasons. But I think Parameswaran’s form of utopian left-neoliberalism is subject to the same critique that I’ve made of another writer with similar predilections. The idea that it’s OK to subject people to the constant disruptive flux of market relations, so long as there is redistribution to compensate them, may make sense as technocratic macroeconomics. Or even as abstract moral philosophy. But I’m not certain it’s sufficient basis for a viable politics, when we have so much evidence that people value stability and continuity as goods in themselves. But that should make for some interesting conversations on Sunday.

Curious Utopias

May 13th, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work  |  4 Comments

The Universal Basic Income hit the Washington Post again this weekend, courtesy of Mike Konczal. He focuses on left objections to the UBI proposal, ranging from its effect on gender equality to its relationship with the existing welfare state to its interaction with the struggle for workplace democracy. In the end, he emphasizes the benefits of the UBI, and insists that while we’re unlikely to see basic income in the United States anytime soon, it’s still worth “taking a moment to think Utopian”.

Matt Bruenig objects to Konczal’s characterization of the basic income as “utopian”, on the grounds that it is not something that “proposes to dramatically overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world.” It is only utopian in the very weak sense that it is not currently on the political agenda as something that is likely to be enacted.

It’s certainly true that basic income is hardly utopian in its etymological sense of meaning “nowhere”. A recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique describes an experiment with UBI in an Indian village. The experiment is run by a trade union called the Self Employed Women’s Association, and it found that with just an extra $3.65 per month, “people spent more on eggs, meat and fish, and on healthcare. Children’s school marks improved in 68% of families, and the time they spent at school nearly tripled. Saving also tripled, and twice as many people were able to start a new business.” This is consistent with the results found in basic income experiments in Namibia and in 1970′s Canada.

Meanwhile, there have long been critics on the Left who criticize basic income proposals precisely for their perceived lack of utopianism. As Konczal notes, Barbara Bergmann argues that it is more important to secure broader access to specific goods like child care, health care, and education: “The fully developed welfare state deserves priority over Basic Income because it accomplishes what Basic Income does not: it guarantees that certain specific human needs will be met.” In a New Left Review essay, Göran Therborn strikes a similar tone, referring to the basic income as a “curious utopia of resignation” arising in response to welfare state retrenchment and diminished prospects for working class control over the workplace or the means of production.

From the perspective of the basic income’s leftist advocates, however, there is another way in which it can be considered a deeply utopian project. Fredric Jameson discusses two different meanings of utopia in his study of utopian politics and science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future. The first is utopia as a fully-elaborated program for the future society, which is close to Bruenig’s sense of the proposal to dramatically overhaul society. But the second is the utopian impulse, which appears across much broader domains of everyday life and politics, including even “piecemeal social democratic and ‘liberal’ reforms”. Such impulses may not themselves be the program for a utopian society, but they can point in the direction of future programmatic realizations.

The French writer André Gorz was a longtime proponent of the basic income, and is also responsible for a well-known theorization of its utopian transformative potential. In one of his early works, Strategy for Labor, he attempted to do away with the tired Left debate over “reform or revolution” and replace it with a new distinction:

Is it possible from within—that is to say, without having previously destroyed capitalism—to impose anti-capitalist solutions which will not immediately be incorporated into and subordinated to the system? This is the old question of “reform or revolution.” This was (or is) a paramount question when the movement had (or has) the choice between a struggle for reforms and armed insurrection. Such is no longer the case in Western Europe; here there is no longer an alternative. The question here revolves around the possibility of “revolutionary reforms,” that is to say, of reforms which advance toward a radical transformation of society. Is this possible?

Gorz goes on to distinguish “reformist reforms”, which subordinate themselves to the need to preserve the functioning of the existing system, from the radical alternative:

A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. These changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

One criticism of the basic income is that it will not be systemically viable over the long run, as people increasingly drop out of paid labor and undermine the tax base that funds the basic income in the first place. But from another point of view, this prospect is precisely what makes basic income a non-reformist reform. Thus one can sketch out a more programmatic kind of utopianism that uses the basic income as its point of departure. One of my favorite gestures in this direction is Robert van der Veen and Philippe van Parijs’ 1986 essay, “A Capitalist Road to Communism”.

The essay begins from the proposition that Marxism’s ultimate end is not socialism, but rather a communist society that abolishes not merely exploitation (the unjust distribution of the social product relative to work performed) but also alienation: “productive activities need no longer be prompted by external rewards”.

They then go on to sketch out a scenario in which a reform instituted under capitalism leads to communism without the intermediary stage of socialist construction. This thought experiment revolves around the achievement of an unconditional, universal basic income. Suppose, they say, “that it is possible to provide everyone with a universal grant sufficient to cover his or her ‘fundamental needs’ without this involving the economy in a downward spiral. How does the economy evolve once such a universal grant is introduced?”

Their answer is that the basic income would “twist” the capitalist drive to increase productivity, such that:

Entitlement to a substantial universal grant will simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding work (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway, people can now accept a high-quality job paid far below the guaranteed income level). Consequently, the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.

If you extrapolate this trend forward, you reach a situation where all wage labor is gradually eliminated. Undesirable work is fully automated, as employers feel increasing pressure to automate because labor is no longer too cheap. Meanwhile, the wage for desirable work eventually falls to zero, because people are both willing to do it for free, and able to do so due to the existence of a basic income to supply their essential needs. As Gorz puts it in a later work, the Critique of Economic Reason, certain activities “may be partially repatriated into the sphere of autonomous activities and reduce the demand for these things to be provided by external services, whether public or commercial.”

The long-run trajectory, therefore, is one in which people come to depend less and less on the basic income, because the things they want and need do not have to be purchased for money. Some things can be produced costlessly and automatically, as 3-D printing and digital copying technologies evolve into something like Star Trek’s replicator. Other things have become the product of voluntary co-operative activity, rather than waged work. It therefore comes to pass that the tax base for the basic income is undermined—but rather than a crisis, as in the hands of basic income critics, this becomes the path to utopia.

Consider, for example, a basic income that was linked to the size of Gross Domestic Product. We are used to a capitalist world in which the increase in material prosperity corresponds to a rise in GDP, the measured value of economic activity in money. But as wage labor comes to be replaced either by automation or voluntary activity, GDP would begin to fall, and the basic income with it. This would not lead to lowered standards of living, because the falling GDP here also denotes a decline in the cost of living. Just like the socialist state in certain versions of traditional Marxism, the basic income withers away. As van der Veen and van Parijs put it, “capitalist societies will smoothly move toward full communism.”

The capitalist road to communism is truly a utopia. Not only in the colloquial sense of a total transformation of a society, but also in its overly simplified and rationalistic picture of social evolution. As Jameson notes, utopias are defined as much by their closures and exclusions as their positive programs, as much by what they cannot say as what they can. A utopia often says more about the present in which it was written than it does about the future it depicts.

In the case of the capitalist road to communism, the things left out include the political struggles that would ensue if social development threatened to evolve the capitalist class out of existence, gradually sapping their profits and their social power. This began to manifest itself even under the meager basic income in the Namibian experiment: white landlords were deeply hostile to the basic income and denied the evidence of its benefits, perhaps because they are “afraid that the poor will gain some influence and deprive the rich, white 20 percent of the population of some of their power.” Also brushed aside are the ecological limits that might make true abundance elusive. Both of these are themes I attempted to flesh out in “Four Futures”. A third issue, which I’ve discussed a bit elsewhere, is the ingrained gender norms that may be reinforced by expanding the domain of “voluntary” labor, which often amounts the imposition of unpaid work on women. But the conceptual clarity of van der Veen and van Parijs’ rendition is enlightening in its very implausibility and incompleteness, a demonstration of the utopian impulse contained in an apparently timid policy proposal.

Porno for Pirates

May 7th, 2013  |  Published in anti-Star Trek  |  1 Comment

As someone who made a certain amount of my reputation by using the Star Trek universe to illustrate the dangers of strong intellectual property law, I feel obligated to comment on the recent court decision against the entity commonly referred to as Prenda Law. The case combines copyright battles, Star Trek, and pornography—if I can slip in a picture of a cute animal, I may be able to construct the Platonic ideal of a popular Internet post.

The case, decided in the District Court for the Central District of California, concerns a group of lawyers engaged in a particularly egregious form of copyright trolling. Their strategy was to file a large number of lawsuits accusing individuals of illegally downloading a single porn video, the copyright for which was apparently assigned to one of the lawyers’ groundskeeper on the basis of a forged signature. The basis for these lawsuits was quite flimsy, but the firm had no real intention of winning the lawsuits in court. Instead, they would offer to settle—and as the court decision notes, the offer was “for a sum calculated to be just below the cost of a bare-bones defense.” This, combined with the embarrassment of being publicly linked with downloading porn, was apparently enough to extort money from a significant number of people.

The tangled organizational web woven by the trolls is shown in the image below, taken from the court decision. It won’t shock anyone who followed This American Life’s story about patent-trolling front companies. In this case, though, the strategy of obfuscation ultimately contributed to Prenda’s undoing, as the judge concluded that its only purpose was to “shield the Principals from potential liability and to give an appearance of legitimacy.”

Org chart of Prenda Law

It’s also worth noting, amid concerns over ISP monitoring of user traffic, that actually being able to correctly identify downloaders was superfluous to Prenda’s strategy. They claimed to show that their targets had used Bittorrent to download the video. Yet the judge points out that they never bothered to “conduct a sufficient investigation to determine whether that person actually downloaded enough data (or even anything at all) to produce a viewable video.” Nor did they make any effort to “conclude whether that person spoofed the IP address, is the subscriber of that IP address, or is someone else using that subscriber’s Internet access.” Why bother, when they never intended to defend their claims in court? “When faced with a determined defendant . . . they dismiss the case.”

All of this would be signficant enough just for providing an extreme example of the way copyright law can be exploited within the American legal system—what the court decision calls “the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs.” But the author of the decision, judge Otis Wright, took things to another level entirely when he chose to write a decision littered with Star Trek references, beginning with an opening quotation from Spock in Star Trek II: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

It only gets better from there, as Wright unloads his scorn on what he refers to as “the porno-trolling collective”. An analogy to the Borg begins by explaining why “resistance is futile” to the porn-trolling scheme, and several pages later notes that some other attorneys who colluded with the main culprits “were not merely assimilated; they knowingly participated in this scheme.” In his concluding remarks, Wright observes that

Though Plaintiffs boldly probe the outskirts of law, the only enterprise they resemble is RICO. The federal agency eleven decks up is familiar with their prime directive and will gladly refit them for their next voyage. The Court will refer this matter to the United States Attorney for the Central District of California.

Watching these scumbags get their comeuppance gives this story a happy ending. But as usual, the real scandal is what’s legal. There’s no happy ending for Jammie Thomas, the working class mother of four who’s still on the hook for $222,000 for the crime of sharing 24 songs on the Internet. And while bottom-feeders like Prenda get upbraided in court, high class patent trolls like Nathan Myhrvold get puffed up as brilliant innovators by Malcolm Gladwell in the pages of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, we may yet look back on Prenda Law as the real innovators, who were just a bit too audacious and a bit too far ahead of their time.

We Have Always Been Rentiers

April 22nd, 2013  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Statistics  |  2 Comments

In my periodic discussions of contemporary capitalism and its potential transition into a rentier-dominated economy, I have emphasized the point that an economy based on private property depends upon the state to define and enforce just what counts as property, and what rights come with owning that property. (The point is perhaps made most directly in this essay for The New Inquiry.) Just as capitalism required that the commons in land be enclosed and transformed into the property of individuals, so what I’ve called “rentism” requires the extension of intellectual property: the right to control the copying and modification of patterns, and not just of physical objects.

But the development of rentism entails not just a change in the laws, but in the way the economy itself is measured and defined. Since capitalism is rooted in the quantitative reduction of human action to the accumulation of money, the way in which it quantifies itself has great economic and political significance. To relate this back to my last post: much was made of the empirical and conceptual worthiness of Reinhart and Rogoff’s link between government debt and economic growth, but all such disputations presume agreement about the measurement of economic growth itself.

Which brings us to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, and its surprisingly fascinating “Preview of the 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts”. The paper describes a change in the way the government represents the size of various parts of the economy, and therefore economic growth. The most significant changes are these:

Recognize expenditures by business, government, and nonprofit institutions serving households (NPISH) on research and development as fixed investment.

Recognize expenditures by business and NPISH on entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals as fixed investment.

The essential issue is whether spending on Research and Development, and on the production of creative works, should be regarded merely as an input to other production processes, or instead as an investment in the creation of a distinct value-bearing asset. The BEA report observes that “expenditures for R&D have long been recognized as having the characteristics of fixed assets—defined ownership rights, long-lasting, and repeated use and benefit in the production process”, and that therefore the BEA “recogniz[es] that the asset boundary should be expanded to include innovative activities.” Likewise, “some entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals are designed to generate mass reproductions for sale to the general public and to have a useful lifespan of more than one year.” Thus the need for “a new asset category entitled ‘intellectual property products’,” which will encompass both types of property.

What the BEA calls “expanding the asset boundary” is precisely the redefinition of the property form that I’ve written about—only now it is a statistical rather than a legal redefinition. And that change in measurement will be written backwards into the past as well as forwards into the future: national accounts going back to 1929 will be revised to account for the newly expansive view of assets.

Here the statisticians are only following a long legal trend, in which the state treats immaterial patterns as a sort of physical asset. It may be a coincidence, but the BEA’s decision to start its revisionist statistical account in the 1920′s matches the point at which U.S. copyright law became fully disconnected from its original emphasis on limited and temporary protections subordinated to social benefits. Under the Copyright Term Extension Act, creative works made in 1923 and afterwards have remained out of the public domain, perpetually maintaining them as private assets rather than public goods.

A careful reading of the BEA report shows the way in which the very statistical definitions employed in the new accounts rely upon the prior efforts of the state to promote the profitability of the intellectual property form. In its discussion of creative works, the report notes that “entertainment originals are rarely sold in an open market, so it is difficult to observe market prices . . . a common problem with measuring the value of intangible assets.” As libertarian critics like to point out, an economy based on intellectual property must be organized around monopoly rather than direct competition.

In order to measure the value of intangible assets, therefore, the BEA takes a different approach. For R&D, “BEA analyzed the relationship between investment in R&D and future profits . . . in which each period’s R&D investment contributes to the profits in later periods.” Likewise for creative works, BEA will “estimate the value of these as­sets based on the NPV [Net Present Value] of expected future royalties or other revenue obtained from these assets”.

Here we see the reciprocal operation of state power and statistical measurement. Insofar as the state collaborates with copyright holders to stamp out unauthorized copying (“piracy”), and insofar as the courts uphold stringent patent rights, the potential revenue stream that can be derived from owning IP will grow. And now that the system of national accounts has validated such revenues as a part of the value of intangible assets, the copyright and patent cartels can justly claim to be important contributors to the growth of the Gross Domestic Product.

The BEA also has interesting things to say about how their new definitions will impact different components of the overall national accounts aggregate. They note that the categories of “corporate profits” and “proprietors’ income” will increase—an accounting convention perhaps, but one that accurately reflects the constituencies that stand to benefit from the control of intellectual property. Thus the new economic order being mapped by the BEA fits in neatly with Steve Waldman’s excellent recent post about late capitalism’s “technologically-driven resource curse, coalescing into groups of insiders and outsiders and people fighting at the margins not to be left behind.”

The changes related to R&D and artistic works may be the most significant, but the other three revisions in the report are worth noting as well. One has to do with the costs associated with transferring residential fixed assets (e.g., the closing costs related to buying a house), while another has to do with the accounting applied to pension plans. Only the final one, a technical harmonization, has to do directly with wages and salaries. This is perhaps an accurate reflection of an economic elite more preoccupied with asset values than with the direct returns to wage labor.

Finally, the reception of the BEA report provides another “peril of wonkery”, related to the one I described in my last post. The Wonkblog post about the report makes some effort to acknowledge the socially constructed nature of economic statistics: “the assumptions you make in creating your benchmark economic statistics can create big swings in the reality you see.” And yet the post then moves directly on to claim that in light of the statistical revisions, “the U.S. economy is even more heavily driven by the iPad designers and George Lucases of the world—and proportionally less by the guys who assemble washing machines—than we thought.” This is no doubt how the matter will be described going forward. But the new measurement strategies are only manifestations of a choice to attribute a greater share of our material wealth to designers and directors, and that choice has more to do with class struggle than with statistics.

The Perils of Wonkery

April 16th, 2013  |  Published in Politics  |  30 Comments

The economics blogosphere is buzzing about the errors that were recently exposed in an influential paper by Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff, which claimed that countries with high levels of debt tend to have slower economic growth. See Mike Konczal for the summary or here for the full paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin. In short, the original Reinhart-Rogoff paper had three significant problems, ranging from cherry-picking data, to dubious weighting schemes, to—most embarrassing of all—an Excel spreadsheet error that accidentally left out several crucial data points.

The reaction of the left-wing peanut gallery (at least to judge by my Twitter feed) has been to ridicule liberals for caring about this at all. Obsessing over the analytical missteps in this paper reeks of the preoccupation with having correct and empirically supported arguments, while ignoring the importance of power and ideology. For while this new critique of Reinhart-Rogoff just now became possible because they finally made their original data available, plenty of people pointed out earlier that the whole analysis rested on shaky conceptual foundations. It used a correlation to assert that high debt to GDP ratios lead to slower growth, ignoring the much more plausible theory that the causal order was the opposite, with slow growth leading to increasing debt loads. If the political elite in Washington failed to heed these criticisms, it wasn’t because they were unaware of them, but because the claim that debt leads to slow growth fit a deficit hysteria that was already entrenched. In other words, Reinhart-Rogoff was being used as rhetorical cover for a pre-existing position, not as an actual empirical aid to decision-making.

But rather than dismiss Excel-gate as much ado about nothing, maybe we can use it as a cudgel against the pernicious rise of the “policy wonk” as a model for journalism. As Bhaskar Sunkara noted in a recent article for In These Times, the wonk is a new iteration of American journalism’s obsession with “objectivity”, in this case filtered through the predilections of the “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.” The Reinhart-Rogoff revelations do more than just reveal the folly of relying on the wrong spreadsheets—they expose the shallowness and dishonesty that pervades much of the wonk-journalist milieu.

To return to a familiar whipping boy, let’s review the initial reaction to Reinhart-Rogoff’s paper last summer, over at Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Washington Post website. A post by Suzy Khimm was entitled “Study: Long-term deficits are linked to 24 percent lower growth”, and it simply repeated the study’s claims without critique. For added truthiness, the post is embellished with a graph reproduced from the paper, demonstrating the difference in GDP growth between a group of low-debt and high-debt countries.

As we now know, that graph was based on erroneous data marshaled in support of a logically flimsy premise. But while the data errors wouldn’t be revealed for months, not everyone was fooled. Matt Yglesias—a writer often lumped in with wonks like Klein— dismissed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper as “confused correlation-mongering”, on the grounds that the reverse causal story about debt ratios and growth was far more plausible. (Incidentally, the way Yglesias approached Reinhart and Rogoff’s claims demonstrates how poorly he fits the mode of the Ezra Klein-style wonk-journalist. In contrast to the wonky preoccupation with empirical studies and pretty graphs, Yglesias has argued that “evidence is overrated”, and he often offers positions based on his own ideological predilections and reasoning from first principles.)

This is an approach that can get you into trouble in other ways, but it does sidestep one of the big problems confronting the wonk. The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public. And he is supposed to be distinguished by an immersion in the details of studies and policy papers. But if the wonk wants to cover a wide range of subjects, they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed. Hence it becomes necessary to make a concealed argument from authority. When Wonkblog presents the findings of Reinhart and Rogoff without comment, they are implicitly telling us, “trust these people—they’re famous academic economists”. This is because they don’t have the ability to do what people like Paul Krugman did, and actually assess the correctness of the famous economists’ claims.

Performing this con on the public is dangerous enough. But insofar as the wonk gets high on his own supply, and starts to trust the findings of congenial academics without verifying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be overpowering. It’s easy to read the abstract and the conclusion of a paper and trumpet its findings, without looking too closely at whatever equations or models lie in between. This isn’t actually any more hardheaded than relying on one’s feelings, but it’s an appealing way to give one’s prejudices a fact-like veneer. That’s what seems to have happened to Ezra Klein’s understudy Dylan Matthews, who uncritically accepted some claims about the effect of teachers’ strikes on student achievement, which Doug Henwood was able to easily pick apart by actually reading the studies he was referring to.

This wouldn’t be so aggravating if the wonks were more open about their ideological orientation. If Yglesias promoted a study finding a relationship between strict occupational licensing and slow economic growth, I’d know to look carefully into the details, since his pre-existing views on that subject are well-known. With the wonks, though, close reading and an understanding of ruling class ideology are required to extract the political orientations that are guiding their judgment.

As the policy wonk has risen in prestige, we seem to have reached the point where this entire class of commentators is highly susceptible to what I’ll call “Charlie Rose disease”. It’s a malady named for the host of the eponymous TV show, who has always impressed me with his ability to convey an impression of knowledge and gravitas to his viewer. If you watch his show and actually listen to him talk, you’ll quickly notice that Rose is a shallow thinker even by television standards, and generally quite ignorant about the things he interviews people about. But everything about him—from his face to his cadence to his posture to his austere black-background set to having his show on public television—works together to produce the image of intellectual seriousness, even more than for most TV news hosts.

And so it is with the wonk—he needs to appear to be deeply knowledgeable about a wide range of obscure and technical subjects. But this entails concealing both one’s ideological biases and one’s substantive lack of knowledge, and relying on the borrowed prestige of academics and experts. In doing so, the wonk becomes the conduit for the experts, or more exactly a crucial means by which their authority is reproduced. The wonk takes the expert’s pronouncements at face value because they are serious, mainstream figures, and the fact that journalists do this reinforces their seriousness and mainstream-ness. One could hardly devise a better way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.

The unraveling of the Reinhart-Rogoff “fact” about debt and growth was only unusual because the supporting research was unusually sloppy. In that sense, critics are correct that there’s nothing particularly special about this one case. But the very absurdity of the episode makes it useful as a means of unmasking the entire corrupt enterprise of policy wonk journalism and its “just the facts, ma’am” pretensions.

Post-Work: A guide for the perplexed

February 25th, 2013  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work, xkcd.com/386  |  3 Comments

In Sunday’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat invokes the utopian dream of “a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work—a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.” This “post-work” politics may be unfamiliar to many readers of the Times, but it won’t be new to readers of Jacobin.

Post-work socialism has a proud, if dissident tradition, from Paul Lafargue to Oscar Wilde to Bertrand Russell to André Gorz. It’s a vision that animates my writing on topics ranging across the contradictions of the work ethic, the possibilities of a post-scarcity society, the politics of sex work, and the connection between post-work politics and feminism. Others have addressed related themes, like Chris Maisano on shorter working hours as both a response to unemployment and a step forward for human freedom, and Sarah Leonard on the pro-work corporate feminism of Marissa Mayer.

The basic vision of the post-work Left, then, is one of fewer jobs, and shorter hours at the jobs we do have. Douthat suggests, however, that this vision is already becoming a reality, and he warns that it is not a result we should welcome.

It’s something of a victory that a New York Times columnist is even acknowledging the post-work perspective on labor politics, rather than ignoring it completely. Hopefully he’s been taking his own advice, and reading about it in Jacobin. But Douthat’s take is a rather peculiar one. To begin with, he claims that we have entered an era of “post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job”. But it’s not clear what he bases this claim on. It’s true that labor force participation rates—the percentage of the working-age population that is employed or looking for work—has declined in recent years. From a high of around 67 percent in the late 1990′s, it declined to around 66 percent before the beginning of the last recession. The recession itself then produced another sharp decline, and the rate now stands below 64 percent.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this reflects masses of people taking advantage of our material abundance to increase their leisure time. As those numbers show, most of the decline in the participation rate was due to the recession (and some of the rest is probably due to demographic shifts). If the economy returned to full employment—that is, if everyone who wanted a job could actually find one—the participation rate would probably rise again. For how else are people supposed to “find ways to live . . . without a steady job”, when incomes have stayed flat for decades despite great increases in productivity?

The post-work landscape that Douthat discovers is therefore very different than the one you’ll find surveyed in the pages of Jacobin. An economy in which people must get by on some combination of scant public benefits, charity, and hustling—because they are unable to find a job—is very different from a world where people are able to make a real choice to either cut back their hours or drop out of paid work entirely for a period of time. That’s why, in different ways, Maisano, myself, and Seth Ackerman have all emphasized that full employment is central to the project of work reduction, because tight labor markets give workers the bargaining power to demand shorter hours even without cuts in pay. And it’s why I have especially emphasized the demand for a Universal Basic Income, which would make it possible to survive outside of paid labor for a much larger segment of the population.

If Douthat’s account of labor force participation is misleading, his account of working time is equally incomplete. “Long hours”, he claims, “are increasingly the province of the rich.” While this claim isn’t precisely wrong, at least within certain narrow parameters, it obscures much more than it reveals. Douthat links to an economic study that finds longer average weekly hours among those at the top of the wage distribution, relative to those at the bottom. This is not a unique finding; the sociologists Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson found something similar in their study The Time Divide. And as it happens, I have some published academic research on the topic as well. In many rich countries, including the United States, highly educated workers (e.g., those with college degrees) report longer average work weeks than the less educated (who also tend to be lower waged, of course).

This finding is often deployed to dismiss the significance of long hours, much the way Douthat does here. If the longest hours are being worked by those who presumably have the most power and leverage in the labor market, the argument goes, then long hours shouldn’t be such a concern. But this is wrong for several reasons.

First, just because hours are longest at the top end of the wage distribution doesn’t mean they aren’t long elsewhere as well—in my research, I found that reported average hours among men were above 40 hours per week across all educational categories. And hours on the job doesn’t cover all the other time people spend working: time spent commuting to work, time spent performing unpaid household and care work (which those on low wages often can’t buy paid replacements for), and what the sociologist Guy Standing calls “work-for-labor”: the work of looking for jobs, navigating state and private bureaucracies, networking, and other things that are preconditions for getting work but are themselves unpaid.

Second, working time is characterized by pervasive mismatches between hours and preferences, which are more complicated than just hours that are “too long”. Jeremy Reynolds has found that a majority of workers say that they would like to work a different schedule than they do, but that these preferences are split between those who would like to work less and those who would like more hours—overemployment alongside underemployment.

The finding that many people report working fewer hours than they would like reflects an economy in which many low-wage workers face uncertain schedules and enforced part-time hours that exclude them from benefits. These workers would clearly benefit from predictable hours, higher wages, and recourse to good health care benefits that aren’t tied to employment, but it’s far from clear that they would benefit from more work, as such.

And Douthat would almost seem to agree. In a passage I could have written myself, he says:

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

Amazingly, he follows this up by answering that last question with a resounding yes. And I might almost be inclined to follow him, if he based his conclusion on the argument I’ve just presented: that in an environment of pervasive unemployment, high costs of living, and a meager and narrowly targeted welfare state, the loss of work isn’t exactly something to celebrate.

Perhaps realizing, however, that this austere vision is hardly a compelling case for the conservative worldview, Douthat tries a different tack. Having acknowledged the implausibility of the “dignity of labor” case for much actually-existing work, he neverthelsss moves right on to the claim that “even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.” He concludes with an appeal to the importance of “human flourishing”, but it’s hard to see much social capital, lasting interpersonal connection, or human flourishing going on in the Amazon warehouse—or for that matter, at Pret a Manger.

Although it’s pitched in a kindlier, New York Times-friendly tone, Douthat’s argument is reminiscent of Charles Murray’s argument that the working class needs the discipline and control provided by working for the boss, lest they come socially unglued altogether. Good moralistic scold that he is, Douthat sees the decline of work as part of “the broader turn away from community in America—from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.” It seems more plausible that it is neoliberal economic conditions themselves—a scaled back social safety net, precarious employment, rising, debts and uncertain incomes—that has produced whatever increase in anomie and isolation we experience. The answer to that is not more work but more protection from the life’s unpredictable risks, more income, more equality, more democracy—and more time beyond work to take advantage of all of it.

In Defense of Soviet Waiters

February 5th, 2013  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Socialism, Work  |  6 Comments

There’s been a bit of a discussion about affective labor going around. Paul Myerscough in the London Review of Books describes the elaborate code with which the Pret a Manger chain enforces an ersatz cheerfulness and dedication on the part of its employees, who are expected to be “smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged”. Echoing a remark of Giraudoux and George Burns, the most important thing to fake is sincerity: “authenticity of being happy is important”.

Tim Noah and Josh Eidelson elaborate on this theme, and Sarah Jaffe makes the point that this has always been an extremely gendered aspect of labor (waged and otherwise). She notes that “women have been fighting for decades to make the point that they don’t do their work for the love of it; they do it because women are expected to do it.” Employers, of course, would prefer equality to be established by imposing the love of work on both genders.

Noah describes the way Pret a Manger keeps “its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi”. I was reminded of the Soviet model too, but in a different way. I’m just old enough to remember when people talked about the Communist world as a really-existing place rather than a vaguely-defined bogeyman. And one of the mundane tropes that always came up foreign travelogues from behind the Iron Curtain concerned the notoriously surly service workers, in particular restaurant waiters. A 1977 newspaper headline reads “Soviet Union Takes Hard Look At Surly Waiters, Long Lines”. In a 1984 dispatch in the New York Times, John Burns reports that “faced with inadequate supplies, low salaries and endless lines of customers, many Russians in customer-service jobs lapse into an indifference bordering on contempt.”

One can find numerous explanations of this phenomenon, from the shortcomings of the planned economy to the institutional structure of the Soviet service industry to the vagaries of the Russian soul to the legacy of serfdom. But one factor was clearly that Soviet workers, unlike their American counterparts, were guaranteed jobs, wages, and access to essential needs like housing, education, and health care. The fear that enforces fake happiness among capitalist service workers—culminating in the grotesquery of Pret a Manger—was mostly inoperative in the Soviet Union. As an article in the Moscow Times explains:

During the perestroika era, the American smile was a common reference point when the topic of rude Soviet service was discussed. In an often-quoted exchange that took place on a late-1980s television talk show, one participant said, “In the United States, store employees smile, but everyone knows that the smiles are insincere.” Another answered, “Better to have insincere American smiles than our very sincere Soviet rudeness!”

With the collapse of the USSR and the penetration of Western capital into Russia, employers discovered a workforce that adapted only reluctantly to the norms of capitalist work discipline. A 1990 article in USA Today opens with a description of the travails facing the first Pizza Hut in the Soviet Union:

To open the first Pizza Hut restaurants in the Soviet Union, U.S. managers had to teach Soviet workers how to find the ”you” in U.S.S.R.

”We taught them the concept of customer service,” says Rita Renth, just back from the experience. ”Things that come naturally to employees here we had to teach them to do: -smiling, interacting with customers, eye contact.”

In no time, however, the managers hit on what I’ve described as the third wave form of the work ethic. Rather than appealing to religious salvation or material prosperity, workers are told that they should find their drudgery intrinsically enjoyable:

The five U.S. managers – and colleagues from Pizza Huts in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia and other nations – spent 12 to 14 hours a day drilling the Russians on service and food preparation, Pizza Hut style.

As a way of ”motivating them to be excited about what they were doing, we made (tasks) like folding boxes into a contest,” Rae says. ”When they finished, they said they couldn’t believe they would ever have fun at their jobs.”

That feeling, rare in Soviet workplaces, has been noticed. ”A comment made by a lot of customers was that as soon as they walked in, they sensed a feeling of warmth,” Rae says.

It’s the Pret a Manger approach to enforced cheerfulness (which had better be authentic!), combined with gamification, 1990-style. Along the same lines is this blog post from a business school professor, who recounts the experience of the first Russian McDonald’s:

After several days of training about customer service at McDonald’s, a young Soviet teenager asked the McDonald’s trainer a very serious question: “Why do we have to be so nice to the customers? After all, WE have the hamburgers, and they don’t!”

True enough. But while they may have had the hamburgers, with the collapse of Communism they no longer had steady access to the means of payment.

The brusqueness of customer service interactions has typically been interpreted as an indication of Communism’s shortcomings, their low quality understood as a mark of capitalism’s superiority. And it does indicate a contradiction of the Soviet model, which preserved the form of wage labor while removing many of the disciplinary mechanisms—the threat of unemployment, of destitution—that force workers to accept the discipline of the employer or the customers. That contradiction comes to a head in a restaurant where both employees and customers are miserable. As the old saying goes, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

In his recent essay, Seth Ackerman cautions that present-day socialists shouldn’t overlook the material shortcomings of the planned economies, and he notes that “the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself”. But service work is a bit different from the kind of material shabbiness he discusses, since the product and the worker are inseparable. To demand what we’ve come to think of as “good service” is ultimately to demand the kind of affective—and affected—labor that we see throughout the service industry and especially in female-gendered occupations. Paul Myerscough is clearly unsettled by a system in which, “To guard against the possibility of Pret workers allowing themselves to behave even for a moment as if they were ‘just here for the money’, the company maintains a panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment.” But 30 years ago, journalists like Myerscough were the sort of people grousing about rude Moscow waiters.

In a system based on wage labor (or its approximation), the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable. In other words, fake American smiles or sincere Soviet rudeness. The customer service interaction under capitalism can hardly avoid the collision between fearful resentment and self-deluding condescension, of the sort Tim Noah enacts in his opening: “For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me.” Perhaps it’s time to look back with a bit of nostalgia on the surly Communist waiters of yore, whose orientation toward the system was at least transparent.

I have argued many times that the essence of the social democratic project—and for the time being, the socialist project as well—is the empowerment of labor. By means of full employment, the separation of income from employment, and the organization of workers, people gain the ability to resist the demands of the boss. But the case of affective labor is another example that shows why this supposedly tepid and reformist project is ultimately radical and unstable. Take away the lash of the boss, and you are suddenly forced to confront service employees as human beings with human emotions, without their company-supplied masks of enforced good cheer. Revealing the true condition of service work can be a de-fetishizing experience, one just as jarring—and quite a bit closer to home—than finding out how your iPhone was manufactured. In both cases, we are made to confront unpleasant truths about the power relations that structure all of our experiences as consumers.