Politics

Smash the Engine

July 3rd, 2014  |  Published in Art and Literature, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer has been praised for its action-movie spectacle and its message of class struggle. It exceeds expectations on both counts. Amid tightly-paced sequences that eschew standard-issue Hollywood pyrotechnics, it evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.

This is a science-fiction adventure set entirely on a train. Or rather, the train, which forever zooms around the planet carrying the last remnants of humanity because the outside world has been rendered uninhabitable. The class hierarchy within the train is expressed physically: the closer you are to the front of the train, the more opulent and leisurely your existence.

The script, written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, takes the central conceit of the train from a decades-old French graphic novel of the same name, though the plots of the two stories are quite different.

Most of the movie’s story focuses on the figures of Curtis and his mentor Gilliam (wonderfully portrayed by John Hurt). They lead a proletarian revolution, touched off by a police raid that seizes several working-class children and takes them away for reasons unknown. They are fighting to make it to the front car and confront the mysterious Wilford, who controls the train and whose corporate emblems appear throughout it.

Curtis makes the stakes plain in an early conversation with Gilliam. “If we control the engine, we control the world,” he says. “Without that, we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.” Not exactly subtle.

As they struggle forward, the revolutionaries confront various representatives of the existing order. Tilda Swinton gives a gleefully wicked portrayal of the sorts of imperious and yet timid figures who serve the ruling class without quite being a part of it. Alison Pill, best known as the sullen indie-rock drummer in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, appears as a prim schoolteacher cheerfully indoctrinating the young ruling class in the ways of self-assured domination and patrician condescension.

Along the way, the band of rebels also breaks out a prisoner named Namgoong Minsu, who once designed the locks dividing the train cars. He and his daughter grudgingly agree to join the revolutionary forces as they continue inexorably toward the front.

It adds up to an exciting and well-constructed action movie, with more interesting characters and more legible cinematography than the chaotic visual gibberish of CGI and explosions that comprise most contemporary American blockbusters. Bong does great things with the cramped and linear environment of the train, from the grim fight scenes in the back to the surreal opulence of the front cars.

And while the excessive length of big Hollywood movies is another of their consistently irritating qualities, I only occasionally found this movie’s two hours overlong. I certainly trust Bong to make editing choices over Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the film and add superfluous voiceovers. As it is, Snowpiercer is an enjoyable spectacle whether you care about its political message or not.

But this is also a story with genuinely subversive and radical themes. If Snowpiercer had merely told the tale of an oppressed working class rising up to seize power from an evil overlord, it would already have been an improvement over most of the political messages in mainstream cinema. There are all sorts of nice touches in its portrayal of a declining capitalism that can maintain its ideological legitimacy even when it literally has no more bullets in its guns.

But the story Bong tells goes beyond that. It’s about the limitations of a revolution which merely takes over the existing social machinery rather than attempting to transcend it. And it’s all the more effective because the heart of that critique comes as a late surprise, from a character we might not expect.

The allegory is perhaps too general to root in any specific theory. But it evokes a tradition of critiques that grappled with the limitations of both reformist social democracy and Soviet Communism, which attempted to seize power and to ameliorate exploitation without really challenging capitalist labor as a system of alienation and domination.

This has taken forms ranging from Moishe Postone’s Frankfurt School-derived critique Time, Labor and Social Domination, to Jacque Camatte’s journey from left communism to primitivism, to Kathi Weeks’ post-work leftism, to Paolo Virno’s adoption of the biblical language of Exodus in his call for a collective “defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism.”

It’s impossible to say how fully this is intended, and whether Bong is familiar with any of the work in this tradition. But while the theoretical wellsprings may be ambiguous, Bong’s leftist commitments are not. He has talked about his past as a student activist and affirmed his membership in South Korea’s socialist New Progressive Party, albeit with the petit-bourgeois reservation that “whatever the party or organization, it isn’t possible to exceed the power of one passionate individual.”

The science fiction website io9 conducted a revealing interview with Bong in which he clarifies his political intentions with Snowpiercer. He says that “the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution.” And what his latest production has to say about class struggle and revolution is complex and powerful, far more so than you’ll get from most ostensibly left-wing filmmakers — or many Marxist theoreticians, for that matter.

The film will inevitably be read as a fable of ecological catastrophe as well, with the inhospitable cold of the world outside the train arising as an unintended consequence of attempts to reverse global warming. But this is something of a red herring (or a green herring, as it were). The cold, brought about by a mysterious substance perhaps inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s “ice-nine,” has no real narrative purpose other than to restrict the remains of humanity, and the film’s story, to the interior of the train.

In his io9 interview, Bong makes explicit that “it’s not humans per se, but capitalism that’s destroying the environment.” And clearly it’s capitalism that’s at the heart of his allegory. Or, to be a bit more precise, an industrial logic that has defined the history of capitalism, but that was taken up by many of the anti-capitalist state-building projects of the twentieth century.

The train symbolizes that system, which subordinates everyone to logics of domination through labor while convincing them that no other world is possible — that only death awaits them outside the machine.

If Curtis’ journey represents a revolutionary class struggle, his final encounter with train-leader Wilford expresses the limitations of the main twentieth-century revolutionary projects. For it turns out that he is only capable of perpetuating the train’s oppressive logic, albeit perhaps with a new figurehead in charge. Wilford even suggests that the whole “revolution” was a charade he concocted — if not in collusion with Gilliam, than at least with his service as a useful idiot.

Were that the endpoint, we’d be left with a nihilistic trope familiar from anti-revolutionary liberalism: Meet the new boss, same as the old. For something more radical, we have to look elsewhere: to Nam, the former system insider turned renegade.

The narrative hides Nam’s significance for most of its length. It seems not coincidental, in his first movie for English-speaking audiences, that Bong makes this character one of the only prominent non-Westerners in the movie. He is played by Song Kang Ho, a regular in Bong’s Korean work, and speaks no English lines.

The Curtis character, meanwhile, misdirects the audience into seeing him as the film’s protagonist, right until he meets his pathetic dead end. He is played by Chris Evans, who is not just a handsome young slice of white beefcake, but literally Captain America.

Yet it’s the surly Korean who turns out to be the real hero. At a climactic moment, he tries to warn Curtis away from a confrontation with Wilford that will prove disastrous. Instead, he suggests that the whole premise of the train is a lie — that the conditions have ripened to make life outside the train finally possible. He offers, to put it in Marx’s words, the possibility of a realm of freedom beyond the train’s implacable world of necessity.

Once again, Bong’s sympathies seem unmistakable. In the io9 interview, he asks whether it is “more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” Of Nam, he says only that his ideas of class struggle are “above” anything Curtis can conceive.

Making a break for freedom brings with it great risks, of course, and Snowpiercer doesn’t shy from this, either. The political scientist Adam Przeworski once proposed that the transition out of capitalism might inevitably entail an intermediate period of great hardship: “To reach higher peaks one must traverse a valley.”

And one can’t know for sure that the higher peaks will ever be attained; catastrophe is also a possibility, the common ruin of the contending classes. The conclusion of Snowpiercer resembles such an apocalypse, albeit with some hope for the future. But even then, it’s not clear whether this was the only possibility, or whether the catastrophe was only a result of Curtis and his comrades’ inability to see where the real revolutionary road lay.

All too often, explicitly political art fails as both art and politics. Socialists shouldn’t put up with half-assed imitations of popular genres, nor with political messages denuded of anything but the lowest common denominator.

What makes Snowpiercer satisfying is that it commits neither error. It’s an engrossing and stylish movie, and its underlying themes go beyond merely pointing out class exploitation to challenge the logic of capital. It’s a movie that should be seen as widely as possible, if only so that Bong Joon-ho gets more chances to make movies for English-speaking audiences that badly need them.

Stay Classy

June 24th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

There’s a passage from Barabara Ehrenreich that I used to find very powerful.

The original radical . . . vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. This of course means equality among the races and the genders, but class is different: There can be no such thing as “equality among the classes.” The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class.

Many still find this formulation appealing, judging by the frequency with which I see similar sentiments expressed by my peers. And I still find it beguiling as well. But over the years I’ve come to see that it’s fundamentally wrong, and encourages a very misleading way of thinking about how class works.

Ehrenreich’s framework is common among those who decry “identity” politics, and insist on the unifying and universalizing qualities of class, as against race and gender, as a banner under which to rally the Left. Sam Gindin, in his generally excellent contribution to the most recent Jacobin, accuses “identity politics” of “parsing the working class into ever more fragmented subgroups”. He insists that identities “cannot combine into a new politics because their essence is their separateness. Something else is needed to bring them together in a broader, more integrated, and more coherent politics”, and “that ‘something’ is class.” He concludes that “class trumps, without underplaying, issues of identity.”

Walter Benn Michaels, tireless critic of liberal race and gender politics, uses similar language. For him, “battles over gender, race, and sexuality are battles against discrimination”. This makes them utterly incommensurable with struggles over class, which “has nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination; it has to do with exploitation.” Class is different, he says, because it is “a fundamentally unequal relation”. Thus, while anti-racism or feminism insist only on equality between races or genders, class struggle differs in its insistence on abolishing the class distinction.

This kind of rhetoric relies on a flimsy and inadequate reading not just of race and gender, but of class as well. In order to portray class as the unifying symbol, and all other identities as merely divisive, it must juxtapose categories at completely different levels of analysis. It simultaneously neglects the way in which race and gender are part of social systems and not just individual identities, while ignoring the way that class, too, functions at the level of identity politics.


Ehrenreich, Gindin, and Michaels seemingly have no vision of anti-racism or feminism beyond the horizon of liberal tolerance. The only endpoint they can see is “equality among the races and the genders”, which, as Gindin points out, implies that the “essence” of these groups “is their separateness”. But they are the ones essentializing separateness, ignoring a whole tradition of activists and writers for whom the goal is not merely equality but the abolition of both race and gender.

You’d never know from these discussions that anyone had ever troubled the gender binary. Among radical feminists, there has always been a current that sees the ultimate aim not as an equality between hypostatized essences, but as the elimination of the gender binary entirely.

In some versions, this can veer into calls for androgyny that have some uncomfortable Harrison Bergeron overtones. But one can just as easily follow the path of Silvia Federici, who calls it “absurd to assume that any form of gender specification must always, necessarily become a means of exploitation and we must live in a genderless world.” This suggests that her utopia is a world in which gender differences don’t disappear, they merely lose their function as categories of hierarchy and oppression. The performance of gender could then become more fluid, playful, and theatrical, following the models set down by queer and transgender cultures.

Likewise, radical understandings of race have viewed it as a social construct inseparable from the origins of capitalism, with “black” and “white” representing a dichotomy that must be overcome just as much as—or along with—the opposition between labor and capital. Barbara and Karen Fields demonstrate that racial categorizations are not pre-given, but must be painstakingly reproduced through a political and discursive practice of “racecraft”. “The social alchemy of racecraft”, they write, “transforms racism into race, disguising collective social practice as inborn individual traits, so it entrenches racism in a category to itself, setting it apart from inequality in other guises.”

In a much older work emerging from the Communist tradition, Ted Allen wrote of the “invention of the white race”, and insisted that the “race” was not a biological phenotype, nor merely even a “social construct”, but “a ruling class social control formation.” No wonder, then, that Allen’s research led followers like Noel Ignatiev to demand the “abolition of whiteness”.


If all this goes to show that there is far more to anti-racism and feminism than liberal diversity politics, the notion of “class” evoked by the writers cited above can be attacked from the other directiosn. Ehrenreich, et al, speak of class strictly as an abstract social structure, and race and gender solely as individual identities. Yet each exists in both dimensions.

In an old essay at Jacobin, I tried to unpack the dual meanings that “class” holds in the socialist imagination. Writers like Sam Gindin evoke “the working class” as the collective agent that can bring about universal liberation. But what does this term signify? Rather than trying to restate the point, I’ll just quote myself on the curious career of “the working class” in leftist rhetoric:

It did not simply mean class in the structural sense: workers who survive by selling their wage labor, confronting capitalists whose wealth comes from hiring that labor and producing for profit. The working class in that sense encompasses the vast majority even in the rich countries, but it has no sense of shared collective identity and hence is politically inert—it is a class “in itself” rather than “for itself,” to use the old Marxist jargon. Hardt, Negri, Virno, and other contemporary theorists of the “multitude” gesture at something like this all-encompassing version of the working class, but in their hands the category expresses a hope for a future politics more than it identifies a concrete and existing collective agent.

The working class as it existed in Old Left political discourse was a sociological category, and it often referred to a specific type of wage labor: the industrial proletariat, employed in large-scale factory work. Such workers were thought to be the leading edge of socialist politics not merely because they were exploited by capital, but because they occupied a specific environment that tended to forge a collective identity and to facilitate disruptive mass action: factories in which workers were employed for a long period of time, and where they were massed together each day performing similar, routinized work.

Today class in the second, sociological sense continues to appear in progressive rhetoric, but it has less economic specificity in deindustrialized economies dominated by precarious service sector work. Instead, it has largely been assimilated to the language of identity politics, treated as a set of cultural markers and practices that are correlated with having lower wages and fewer educational credentials. Academic centers exist to “increase awareness of and respect for working-class life and culture”. There are organizations devoted to battling the evil of “classism”. Class is conceived here not as Gindin’s broad, integrating force, but in precisely the differential terms he ascribes to race and gender. Classism is defined by the “Class Action” nonprofit, for example, as “differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class.”

One response to this, from the more traditional kind of class warrior, is to insist that this move is invalid, that class is different for the reasons Ehrenreich and Gindin give. But just because class is a structural relation doesn’t mean it isn’t also an identity. Class exists in its sociological sense, even if this is not identical with its status as an economic category. Classism is a real phenomenon, and it manifests itself even among those who are committed to class struggle in a more structural sense. It crops up every time a soi-disant leftist ridicules the tastes and mores of a rabble it perceives to be made up of fat, lazy, stupid rubes.

To say that combating classist attitudes is not a substitute for overthrowing class relations does not imply that such attitudes are irrelevant. To make an analogy with racism, my recent post argued that the anti-racist attitudes of individuals could still reproduce racist economic structures. Yet it would be a monstrous absurdity to claim, on that basis, that this absolves white people of the responsibility to try to be individually less racist. And so too, adjusting perceptions of those perceived as “working class” will not by itself abolish the capitalist exploitation of labor, but it is a necessary precondition for building a movement that can do so. To deny this is to insist that class remain at the level of abstract, academic theory rather than lived experience. It’s the equivalent of the white person who can talk a good game about the history of racism but claims not to “see race” in everyday life.


Ultimately, the partisans of crude “class first” politics want to have it both ways: they claim class as an identity superior to all others, but they do so on the basis of an abstract structural definition of class that nobody directly feels or experiences as their identity. Once class as a lived identity is understood in its particularity, it becomes subject to the same limitations and contradictions that beset race, gender, and all other oppressed identities in capitalism. If one is labeled woman, or black, it is impossible not to be aware of that fact; yet only in rare instances does this manifest in a self-conscious and collective politics of feminism or black liberation. Likewise, identifying with the culture of the working class is not a sufficient condition for a class politics.

One of the more insightful—though not self-aware—demonstrations of this was Mark Fisher’s recent denunciation of academic identity politics as a “vampire castle”. As an example of the invidious politics of identitarian division, he cites the case of British celebrity leftist Russell Brand. While noting that Brand is a famous millionaire, he nevertheless notes the way in which ostensible leftists criticized him in terms that can only be described as classist:

Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. I don’t know the individual who wrote it, and I wouldn’t wish to name them. What’s important is that the post was symptomatic of a set of snobbish and condescending attitudes that it is apparently alright to exhibit while still classifying oneself as left wing. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. Brand, apparently, is ‘clearly extremely unstable . . . one bad relationship or career knockback away from collapsing back into drug addiction or worse.’ Although the person claims that they ‘really quite like [Brand]‘, it perhaps never occurs to them that one of the reasons that Brand might be ‘unstable’ is just this sort of patronising faux-transcendent ‘assessment’ from the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ — which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ — how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Rather than see how he is engaging in his own brand of identity politics, Fisher bizarrely uses this episode to prop up the notion of class as something that transcends identity. Which it does, but no more so than race or gender. Patriarchy is more than sexism; white supremacy is more than individual racism. And all Fisher demonstrates with this anecdote is that capitalism is more than just working class identity.

And what of class as a structural relation of power, in all its Marxist glory as a central category of the capitalist mode of production? Marx himself had a more sophisticated appreciation of it than many of his epigones; he famously argued that “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” Class as an abstraction, as the extraction of labor time by capital, only manifests itself through concrete social forms—including gender, race, and what we call “class” in its cultural sense. A culture that’s more richly developed in the UK than it is in the United States, but that in the U.S. sometimes stands in for “the straight white male working class”, a useful marker for an exploited group that has no other markers of oppression to draw on.

But among intellectuals, appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others. Appeals to class in the abstract neglect that the working class is always some particular working class, and it can be marked (the female worker, the black worker) or unmarked (the male worker, the white worker). Far too often, exhortations to reject “identity politics” in favor of “class” amount to an insistence that the unmarked worker be taken as the definitive example of the genre. Appeals to class thus degenerate into a kind of cultural populism, more comfortable visualizing the typical worker as a white coal miner rather than a black woman in an elementary school or behind a McDonald’s counter. Higher wages can be a “class” issue but abortion or police brutality cannot, because the latter are too closely identified with the part of the working class that is marked by gender and race.

I prefer Robin D.G. Kelley’s rendering of the matter, in an essay on the white “neo-enlightenment” Left that is worth reading in full:

Class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender, and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender, or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.

Class politics ultimately confronts the same dilemmas as radical race and gender politics, as I discuss in my review of Kathi Weeks. Emancipation of the working class means abolishing the class as such, and thus giving up the comforts of working class identity. That can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But it’s essential that we face it, rather than comforting ourselves with the fable of class as the universal solvent that does away with all identity and leads directly to enlightenment.

Gentrification and Racial Arbitrage

June 2nd, 2014  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Politics

This post spins out something that occurred to me in the course of writing about consumerist politics and its limitations. One of the sections concerns gentrification, and the political dead end of blaming it on what Anthony Galuzzo called “the fucking hipster show”.

Artists, students, and others classified as “hipsters” are often blamed for gentrification, rather than being understood as people who are often driven into poorer and browner neighborhoods by large-scale processes rooted in capital accumulation and government policy. This creates a divisive cultural distraction from the need to organize neighborhoods across race and class lines. I go into that in more detail in the forthcoming essay. But I had an odd thought about the racist dimension of gentrification that didn’t fit in there.

Racism is a central, unavoidable component of the whole process of gentrification in places like the United States. Landlords in non-white areas perceive that if they can bring white people into a neighborhood, they will attract more people like them. At first, the newcomers may be the low-income hipster types, but they are the pioneers who make the area safe for colonization by the rich. The ultimate outcome is that the non-white residents get priced out and displaced, along with the original gentrifiers. It’s a process that’s been repeated so many times in recent decades that that it barely needs explaining anymore.

But it occurred to me is that the first wave of white gentrifiers are engaging in what we might call, by analogy with finance, a kind of racial arbitrage. Arbitrage is the practice of exploiting differences in prices for the same good in different markets. When such discrepancies appear, it can be possible to make risk-free money by buying out of one market and immediately selling into another.

Early gentrifiers aren’t engaging in arbitrage in this strict sense; the gains that go to early home-buyers, for instance, are consequences of the unfolding of the gentrification dynamic itself and not of some market imperfection in static comparison. But in the early stages, racism gives rise to a situation where the perception of certain neighborhoods diverges from their lived reality. A white person who notices this can exploit it to procure housing at a discount.

This is primarily because, all things being equal, white people perceive a neighborhood as having more crime the more black people it has in it. Blacks are, in fact, more likely to live in high crime areas, but white perceptions go beyond this reality (see the linked paper for a detailed study). A white person who knows this will realize that an apartment in a black neighborhood will be systematically cheaper than the same apartment in a white neighborhood. By renting in the black neighborhood, whitey gets a discount without actually facing any additional danger.

The size of this discount is magnified by a second aspect of white racism about black crime. This one relates not to how much crime there is, but to what drives crime, and in particular violent crime. Many white people believe that rather than having a rational basis, violence in black neighborhoods is driven by some kind of cultural pathology or inherent animalistic nature. We therefore come to believe that mere proximity to black people puts us in danger.

This is illustrated in the recent, excellent debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. (Excellent on Coates’ side, that is. Chait’s contribution consisted of digging himself into a hole, then calling in a backhoe.) Chait, like many white liberals, tends fall back on nebulous ideas of black cultural pathology to explain why black people face higher levels of violence and poverty. The primary difference between people like Chait and his conservative counterparts is Chait’s magnanimous acknowledgment that black pathology stems from the legacy of slavery rather than inherent inferiority.

Coates demolishes this whole patronizing and misbegotten enterprise. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in Baltimore, he shows how violence and machismo can be understandable and even necessary ways of surviving in a tough environment. “If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield.”

But white gentrifiers moving into black neighborhoods don’t face anything like this same environment of violence. For one thing, a major source of random violence in black communities is the police, who certainly don’t treat white newcomers the same way. For another, these newcomers are disconnected from the social networks, and the legal and illegal economies, on which many urban residents depend for survival, but which can also be suffused with violence. Certainly, white gentrifiers may be subject to property crime if they are perceived as rich or as easy marks. But the notion that they face the same murder rate as their black neighbors is simply preposterous. (For women, of course, there is an additional set of concerns about safety. But here, too, there can be an overestimation of the likelihood of being raped by a strange black man rather than the pleasant-seeming friend who might even claim socialist politics.)

Nevertheless, when I’ve mentioned the possibility of moving to a high-crime, predominantly black neighborhood, I’ve heard jokes—even from leftist comrades—along the lines of “heh, only if you want to get shot”. These are, presumably, people I won’t have to compete with for an apartment. Hence the racist perceptions of crime’s sources and targets drives down rents further and compounds the racial arbitrage.

The anti-racism of the early arrivals, then, is what helps start the whole process of revaluation and displacement. There’s an almost absurd quality to it: white supremacy is so pervasive, and its structural mechanisms so powerful, that even white anti-racist consciousness can be a mechanism for reinforcing white supremacy. It’s an important lesson that shows why anti-racism isn’t just about purifying what’s in our hearts or our heads. It’s about transforming the economic systems and property relations that continue to reproduce racist practices and ideas.

Adjusting to the Apocalypse

May 13th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

The news that a section of the West Antarctica ice sheet is now irreversibly melting into the ocean is awesome and terrifying. As a vivid illustration of the scale of climate change, it merits the aghast reactions that I’ve seen from the lefties around me.

Yet I can’t help but think about what I wrote recently, about another prediction of ecologically driven disaster. That prediction of civilizational collapse turned out to be based on tendentious speculation, while the findings about the Antarctic ice are the product of extended research by two separate teams of serious researchers. So in this case, it’s tremendously valuable to know what’s happening no matter what the political impacts are.

But I once again wonder if the publicity around these findings will wind up doing much good. It certainly could, if the combined enormity and easy comprehensibility of this new finding gets more people to take climate change seriously.

Yet I fear it will, instead, mostly be taken up by people who already make “being very serious about climate change” a significant part of their identity. And if the news is read in an apocalyptic way, it can as easily breed fatalism as political will.

While the irreversible nature of the melting ice sheet is touted above all else, just as important is the time scale over which it will unfold. The rise in sea levels, which could be five feet, ten feet, or even more, will occur over the span of a century or more. From the New York Times article:

The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.

While 100 years is an infinitesimal amount of time in geological terms—hence what makes the phenomenon so shocking and important—it is nevertheless an extremely long time in the context of an industrialized human society. It’s hard to imagine human society dealing with environmental changes of this magnitude, but perhaps no more so than picturing the regimes of 1914 reckoning with the upheavals of the past century.

Societies will adapt, even if those adaptations will entail enormous expenses and dislocations. And indeed, adaptation is already happening. This mostly doesn’t mean fanciful geoengineering schemes, but rather things like the secretary of Housing and Urban Development working with a water management expert to bring Dutch water-control techniques to the United States, or congress debating the impacts of flood insurance policy on low income homeowners.

It’s true, as Matt Karp writes at Jacobin, that overturning the fossil fuel-based economy will require a monumental political struggle and a massive redistribution of wealth. But we should not think merely in terms of an epochal battle to either defeat Big Oil and “save the planet” or else perish. Equally important is to contest the adjustments and adaptations that we now know must be made, even if we could somehow decarbonize the economy tomorrow.

These adaptations will impose costs and burdens, and the ruling class will do what it can to impose those burdens on those who can least bear them. In other words, the politics of climate change are and will continue to be intertwined with class struggle across all domains, not just in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. I believe, of course, that socialism is also the best answer to the ecological crisis. But I also agree with Christian Parenti that “in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of totally economic re-organization.”

To me, Marco Rubio’s climate change denialism and Obama’s dithering over the Keystone pipeline are at least as terrifying as the latest word from Antarctica. As is the rise of a climate apartheid that allows the rich to evade the consequences of a warming world. Fortunately, our immediate political obstacles, unlike the movements of the glaciers, are at least potentially susceptible to change through collective action.

Theory and Practice

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

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

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

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

Then Occupy happened, and we saw things like this:

OWS_wonk

And now we have this:

piketty_rock_star

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

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.

Jacobin/Verso Books Launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”

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

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.

Workin’ It

February 11th, 2014  |  Published in Socialism, Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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