anti-Star Trek

To Boringly Go

February 20th, 2018  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Now that I’ve finally finished off the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I can finally read the takes! See here for Gerry Canavan’s round-up of some of them, including his own.

And since I owe my book, and much of my public reputation, to a blog post about Star Trek, I obviously need a take of my own.

I started out skeptical, if only because the most recent entries in the Trek franchise are the weak if underrated Enterprise TV show and the recent slew of movies, which are little more than generic action set pieces reskinned with Starfleet uniforms. And after the first few episodes, my misgivings about Discovery were straightforward to articulate. I worried that in the era of Peak Television, J.J. Abrams, and Battlestar Galactica, we were doomed to yet another Gritty Reboot, leaving behind the quirky liberal communist utopia that Gene Roddenberry had initially set forward.

At season’s end, I find myself…uncertain. The finale was certainly a rather sloppy rush job, and the season itself was wildly uneven. But the characters are great. Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh and the rest comprise a more competent dramatic core than the franchise has ever seen. And at least things have been left in a state where something interesting can be done in future episodes, something that makes the existence of “Star Trek” something worthwhile in the first place, as anything more than an empty nostalgia engine and marketing opportunity.

It’s by now a commonplace of Trek criticism that the first season is always bad. Those of us who apotheosize The Next Generation as the true expression of Trek, for instance, can only do so by assuming away the entire first season. (And ascribing “Code of Honor” to some kind of malicious imposition by a time-traveling Borg cube.) And here we find the real problem with the tedious fanboy argument over whether something like Discovery is “really Star Trek.”

This argument is as unavoidable as it is intolerable, once one has accepted one’s diagnosis as an incorrigible Trek nerd. We are then forced to grapple with a cultural icon spanning many decades and series. And when we do, we find that actually, the problem isn’t with the new show. Actually, Star Trek is rarely really Star Trek. Our platonic ideal of Trek is a collage of fondly remembered–or misremembered–episodes, characters, themes. We edit out the parts that don’t fit. Since we all make the collage differently, we’ll never all see the same Trek.

Where does Discovery fit? Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie primarily in its haphazard commitment to the political ideal of the earlier shows. Although that is a problem, as it leads the scripts to swing herky-jerky from grimdark blood spatter to cringe-inducing monologues about the high-minded mission of the Federation.

Maybe what’s missing is the loose, almost ambient quality of life as a Starfleet officer, especially in the shows of the Next Generation era. It’s about the hum of the idle engine, not the scream of a photon torpedo. In the early part of Discovery, I would happily exclaim, practically pump my fist, on the rare occasions I could say: “Yes! People standing around and talking! Now that’s Star Trek!” (But not people talking in Klingon. Please, ease up on the subtitled Klingon.)

Out of some combination of lower budgets, longer seasons, and less investment in long bombastic story arcs and endless plot twists, the TNG-era shows revel in the banality of life on board. Couples bickering, people doing aerobics on the holodeck, mundane diplomatic missions or sensor sweeps. Of course, something always arises, episode by episode, to heighten the stakes and hold the viewer’s attention. But we aren’t immediately forced, as Discovery was in one short season, into an all-encompassing conflict that threatens not just the ship but the galaxy, not just the galaxy but the universe, not just the universe but every universe ever. Sometimes it’s enough just to help a troubled Betazoid and a lonely space creature find meaning and happiness together.

Perhaps that’s why I keep returning to “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, the moment where the show finally began to win me over. And still probably my favorite of the first season’s episodes.

The layers of fan service certainly didn’t hurt–not only does this episode bring back Original Series rogue Harry Mudd, it directly rips off its central time-loop plot device from a TNG episode I’ve always loved. In the process, the episode demonstrates that Discovery is capable of relatively autonomous stand-alone episodes, freeing itself from the relentless drumbeat of serialized grand narratives that characterizes so much modern television.

Discovery chose the perfect TNG episode to knock off, because the plot of “Cause and Effect” directly encodes that ambience, that banality, that Discovery badly needed to get in touch with. Both the TNG original and this remake episode revolve around people going about their daily lives, only gradually realizing that something has gone horribly wrong. Of course, Discovery does still feel compelled to kick it up a notch: its focal point is a party suffused with social awkwardness, whereas in the first version it was a chummy poker game.

But still, the episode is built around two underappreciated ideas that make for great Trek: life is mostly boring, and not everything has to serve the main plot of the season.

The first point is one that motivated the approach to my book’s chapter on “communism”, which was directly inspired by Star Trek’s post-scarcity and post-capitalist utopia. What I came to understand was that I was dealing with a problem similar to that faced by the TNG writers, as recounted in William Shatner’s highly entertaining documentary about the show, Chaos on the Bridge.

Some of the early TNG writers describe their frustration with Gene Roddenberry’s edicts about the nature of life in the 24th Century. This was supposed to be a society without hierarchies, without conflicts–so how the hell do you write a compelling drama about that? As it turned out, this dramatic constraint was a productive one, giving rise to the mix of soap-opera minutia and high-minded sci-fi weirdness that characterizes so much of the show. And it was a similar constraint that drove me to talk about communism, not just as a flat pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die idyll, but through things like Cory Doctorow’s semi-dystopian reputational economies.

Directly following from the notion that life is often boring and annoying, comes the consequence that our characters cannot always be wrapped up in galactic struggles to save existence. Sometimes it just has to be a day at the office, and we keep watching simply because a Federation starship is a more interesting and inspiring office than ours. That thought motivated me to portray the communist future not as a magical resolution of the human condition but, to follow Freud by way of Corey Robin, the conversion of hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

The Next Generation shows appeared at a time when television was experimenting with long-form storytelling and long narratives, rather than self-contained episodes of the week. This was eventually facilitated, of course, by the Internet and the binge-watching culture it gave rise to. But before that, you had interesting blends of the episodic and the serial–the most fully realized was probably The X-Files, which interwove an ongoing conspiracy thriller with one-off “monster of the week” plots.

In the case of Star Trek, though, this historically determinate evolution of the form interacted in a very productive way with the underlying themes of the show’s worldbuilding. So my hope for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery is that it can remain in touch with this way of making television, albeit in a way that suits our present historical circumstance.

Bougies to Proles: Drop Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Bubbles and Tech Bubbles

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

The Time Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragedy of the Commons in the Rentier Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intellectual Property and Pseudo-Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comforts of Dystopia

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

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.

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”

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

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

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.