Political Economy

Left of the Dial

July 18th, 2017  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

Elizabeth Bruenig has written about the distinction between “liberals” and “the left.” She proposes that everyone in the broad tent of what she calls “non-Republicanism” is actually a liberal, in the following sense:

The second sense in which almost every non-Republican is a liberal is that they all agree with the tenets of liberalism as a philosophy: that is, the worldview that champions radical, rational free inquiry; egalitarianism; individualism; subjective rights; and freedom as primary political ends. (Republicans are, for the most part, liberals in this sense too; libertarians even more so.)

This is an easy statement for me to agree with–but I also think it brushes past some political distinctions that are important.

Am I a partisan of “radical, rational free inquiry”? I suppose I am, in that, like Marx, I endorse a “ruthless criticism of the existing order,” one which “will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Do I believe in “egalitarianism”? Naturally–one of the basic structural features of my book is the distinction between a hierarchical society, like our own, and one where everyone shares in both the benefits and the sacrifices that are possible or necessary given our level of technological development and ecological constraint.

Individualism? Also uncontroversial, although it’s not entirely clear what the term is supposed to mean. I side with Oscar Wilde, who said that “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.” That instead of the false freedom of those condemned to work for others for a paycheck–free in Marx’s “double sense” of being free to sell our labour power and free of anything else to sell–we can have what Philippe Van Parijs calls “real freedom”, the freedom that comes from having the time and the resources to pursue self-actualization.

As for “subjective rights,” I’m not completely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Rights that are politically stipulated and democratically assigned, I guess, rather than arising from some divine concept of natural law? In that case, again, I’m on board, and I think the “social rights” arguments of people like T.H. Marshall can be usefully synthesized with the politics of opposing oppression and exploitation.

And then, of course, there is freedom. A word lodged deeply in the liberal tradition, and in the American tradition. And one, I think, that should be at the center of socialist politics as well. But freedom from what, and freedom to do what?

Here is Bruenig’s gloss on the meaning of socialism: “the economic aspects of liberalism (free or freeish market capitalism) create material conditions that actually make people less free.”

I like this, yet again I find it vague. In describing my own political trajectory, I often talk about my parents’ liberal politics, and my own journey of discovery, through which I concluded that their liberal ideals couldn’t be achieved by liberal means, but required something more radical, and more Marxist.

But what would it mean to escape “the economic aspects of liberalism”? Would it mean merely high wages; universal health care and education; a right to housing; strong labor unions?

To be clear, I am in favor of all of those things.

But we’ve seen this movie before. It’s the high tide of the welfare state, which is nowadays sometimes held up as an idyllic model of class peace and human contentment: everyone has a good job, and good benefits, and a comfortable retirement. (Although of course, this Eden never existed for much of the working class.) Who could want more?

The historical reality of welfare capitalism’s postwar high tide, though, is that everyone wanted more. Capitalists, as they always do, wanted more profits, and they felt the squeeze from powerful unions and social democratic parties that were impinging on this prerogative. More than that, they faced the problem of a working class that was becoming too politically powerful. This is what Michal Kalecki called the “political aspects of full employment,” the danger that a sufficiently empowered working class might call into question the basic structure of an economy based on concentrated property rights and capital accumulation.

Sometimes socialists will emphasize economic democracy as the core of our politics. Because as the Democratic Socialists of America’s statement of political principles puts it, “In the workplace, capitalism eschews democracy.” According to this line of argument, socialism means taking the liberal ideal of democracy into places where most people experience no democratic control at all, most especially the workplace.

But when you talk about introducing democracy, you’re talking about giving people control over their lives that they didn’t have before. And once you do that, you open up the possibility of much more radical and disruptive kinds of change.

For it is not just capitalists who always want more, but workers too. A good job is better than a bad job, is better than no job. Higher wages are better than low. But a strong working class isn’t inclined to sit back and be content with its lot–it’s inclined to demand more. Or less, when it comes to the drudgery of most jobs. After all, how many people dream of punching clocks and cashing paychecks at the behest of a boss, no matter what the size of the check or the security of the job? The song “Take This Job and Shove It” appeared in the aftermath of a period when many workers could make good on that threat, and did. In the peak year, 1969, there had been 766 unauthorized wildcat strikes in the United States, but by 1975 there were only 238.

All of this goes to the point that even if we could get back the postwar welfare state, that simply isn’t a permanently viable end point, and we need a politics that acknowledges that fact and prepares for it. And that has to be connected to some larger vision of what lies beyond the immediate demands of social democracy. That’s what I’d call socialism, or even communism, which for me is the ultimate horizon. The socialist project, for me, is about something more than just immediate demands for more jobs, or higher wages, or universal social programs, or shorter hours. It’s about those things. But it’s also about transcending, and abolishing, much of what we think defines our identities and our way of life.

It is about the abolition of class as such. This means the abolition of capitalist wage labor, and therefore the abolition of “the working class” as an identity and a social phenomenon. Which isn’t the same as the abolition of work in its other senses, as socially necessary or personally fulfilling labor.

It is about the abolition of “race”, that biologically fictitious, and yet socially overpowering idea. A task that is inseparable from the abolition of class, however much contemporary liberals might like to distract us from that reality. As David Roediger details in his recent essay collection on Class, Race, and Marxism, much of the forgotten history of terms like “white privilege” originated with communists, who wrestled with the problem of racism not to avoid class politics but to facilitate it. People like Claudia Jones, or Theodore Allen, whose masterwork The Invention of the White Race, was, as Roediger observes, borne of “a half century of radical organizing, much of it specifically in industry.”

And so too, no socialism worth the name can shrink from questioning patriarchy, gender, heterosexuality, the nuclear family. Marx and Engels themselves had some presentiment of this, some understanding that the control of the means of reproduction and the means of production were intimately and dialectically linked at The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. But they could follow their own logic only so far, and so it fell to the likes of Shulamith Firestone to suggest radical alternatives to our current ways of organizing the bearing and raising of children. It took communists the likes of Leslie Feinberg and Sylvia Federici to complicate our simplistic assumptions about the existence of binary “gender.” And the more we win reforms that allow people to define their sexualities and gender identities, to give women control of their bodies, to lessen their economic dependence on men, the more this kind of radical questioning will spill into the open.

So that’s what it means to me to be on “the left.” To imagine and anticipate and fight for a world without bosses, and beyond class, race, and gender as we understand them today. That, to me, is what it means to fight for individualism, and for freedom.

That’s one reason that I make a point of arguing for a politics that fights for beneficial reforms–single payer health care, living wages, all the rest–but that doesn’t stop there. A politics that fights for the “non-reformist” reform: a demand that is not meant to lead to a permanent state of humane capitalism, but that is intentionally destabilizing and disruptive.

The other reason is that, for all the economic and political reasons noted above, we can’t just get to a nicer version of capitalism and then stop there. We can only build social democracy in order to break it.

Is that what every liberal, or even every leftist, believes? From my experience, I don’t think so. That’s not meant to be a defense of sectarianism or dogmatism; I believe in building a broad united front with everyone who wants to make our society more humane, and more equal. But I have my sights on something beyond that.

Because if we do all agree that the project of the left is predicated on a vision of freedom and individualism, then we also have to regard that vision as a radically uncertain one. We can only look a short way into the future–to a point where the working class has had its shackles loosened a bit, as happened in the best moments of 20th Century social democracy. At that moment we again reach the point where a social democratic class compromise becomes untenable, and the system must either fall back into a reactionary form of capitalist retrenchment, or forward into something else entirely. What our future selves do in those circumstances, and what kinds of people we become, is unknowable and unpredictable–and for our politics to be genuinely democratic, it could not be any other way.

Building the Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How high is too high, for the minimum wage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Beyond the Welfare State

December 10th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

Jacobin has published Seth Ackerman’s translation of an interesting interview with French sociologist Daniel Zamora, discussing his recent book about Michel Foucault’s affinities with neoliberalism. Zamora rightly points out that the “image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life” is a very strained reading of a thinker whose relationship to the crisis of the 1970’s welfare state is at the very least much more ambiguous than that.

At the same time, Zamora’s argument demonstrates the limitations imposed by the displacement of “capitalism” by “neoliberalism” as a central category of left analysis. For his tacit premise seems to be that, if it can be shown that Foucault showed an “indulgence” toward neoliberalism, we must therefore put down his influence as a reactionary one. But what Foucault’s curious intersection with the project of the neoliberal right actually exemplifies, I would argue, is an ambiguity at the heart of the crisis of the 1970’s which gave rise to the neoliberal project. That he can be picked up by the right as easily as the left says much about the environment that produced him. Meanwhile, Zamora’s own reaction says something important about a distinction within the social democratic left that is worth spending some time on, which I’ll return to below.

Zamora makes much of the neoliberal move away from the attempt to reduce inequality, in the direction of targeted efforts to alleviate poverty and provide a minimum standard of living. (In a juicy bit bound to delight those of us immersed in the wonky details of empirical measures of inequality, he even quotes one of Foucault’s right-wing contemporaries positing that “the distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty is in fact the distinction between capitalism and socialism”.) But in doing so, he elides the force of the Foucauldian critique of the welfare state. It is true that the move away from universal social provision and toward targeted aid is a hallmark of social policy in the era of welfare state retrenchment. But this is not the main point of Foucault’s argument, even by Zamora’s own telling.

Foucault, he argues, “was highly attracted to economic liberalism” because “he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left.” It is possible to see this as nothing more than either reaction or naïveté, as Zamora seems to when he warns of Foucault’s mistake in putting “the mechanisms of social assistance and social insurance . . . on the same plane as the prison, the barracks, or the school.” But it’s possible to extract a different lesson about the nature of the system that Foucault was analyzing.

At the heart of Zamora’s own project, he says, is a disagreement with Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s argument that Foucault represents “a desire to use neoliberalism to reinvent the left.” Rather, he argues “that he uses it as more than just a tool: he adopts the neoliberal view to critique the Left.”

Here we have the crux of the problem. For Zamora, the key political opposition is between “neoliberalism” and “the Left.” But neoliberalism is only a historically specific phase of capitalist class strategy, one which itself developed in the context of the particular form of welfare capitalism and class compromise that arose in the mid-20th Century. So if “the Left” is conceived primarily as a project against neoliberalism, its aims will be limited to the restoration of the pre-neoliberal order, which Zamora defines as “social security and the institutions of the working class.”

But the value of Foucault, and others like him, is in highlighting the limits of any such strategy. Postwar welfare capitalism was, to be sure, a substantive achievement of the working class and the socialist movement. And it represented an equlibrium—call it the Fordist compromise—in which workers shared in the benefits of rising productivity.

But it was also an inherently contradictory and self-subverting order. This was true both from the perspective of capital and of labor. For the capitalist, long periods of full employment and strong labor movements meant a profit squeeze and escalating political instability as workers lost their fear of unemployment and poverty. The Fordist compromise was no more satisfactory for workers, as the historian Jefferson Cowie documents in his writing on the 1970’s. What was called the “blue collar blues” represented the desire of workers for more than just higher paychecks: for more free time, for control over the labor process, for liberation from wage labor.

The welfare state institutions that arose in that context were marked by the same contradiction: they were at once sources of security and freedom, and instruments of social control. As Beatriz Preciado says, in a quote Zamora produces as evidence of the bad new libertarian left: “the welfare state is also the psychiatric hospital, the disability office, the prison, the patriarchal-colonial-heteronormative school.” One aspect of the welfare state made it dangerous to the employing class, while another chafed on the employed (and unemployed). Welfare capitalism has always been characterized by this tension between universalistic benefits tied to a universal notion of social citizenship, and carefully targeted systems of qualification and incentive designed to prop up specific social relations, from the workplace to the street to the home. This is a key insight of the school of comparative welfare state study that distinguishes the decommodifying from the stratifying elements of the welfare state.

One way to think of this is as the permeation of the contradictions of bourgeois democracy into the economic sphere. Just as capitalist democracies exist in an uneasy tension between the principles of “one person one vote” and “one dollar one vote”, so does the system of economic regulation simultaneously work to support the power of the working class and to control it.

In contrast, Zamora seems unwilling to countenance this two-sided quality to class compromises in capitalism. As he puts it, the choice is either “that social security is ultimately nothing more than a tool of social control by big capital” (a view held by unnamed persons on “the radical left”), or that the bourgeoisie “was totally hostile” to institutions that “were invented by the workers’ movement itself.”

Zamora appears to view social insurance as representing the creation of “social rights” that cushion workers from the vagaries of the market, while leaving the basic institutions of private property and wage labor in place. This is a non-Marxist form of social democracy with deep theoretical roots going back to Karl Polanyi and T.H. Marshall, and it was arguably the main way in which the European social democratic parties saw themselves in their heyday. This kind of social democracy is the protagonist in Shari Berman’s recent book on the history of European social democracy, in which the Polanyian pragmatists are pitted against Marxists who, in her view, ignored the exigencies of social reform altogether in favor of an apocalyptic insistence that the capitalist system would inevitably collapse and usher in revolution. The endpoint of this kind of Polanyian socialism is a welfare state that protects the working class from the workings of an unfettered market.

There is, however, another way to think about the welfare state from a Marxist perspective. It is possible to believe that fighting for a robust and universal welfare state is a necessary and desirable project, while at the same time believing that the socialist imagination cannot end there, because the task of humanizing capitalism generates its own contradictions. On this view, the system Foucault analyzed was a system that could not simply continue on in static equilibrium; it had to be either transcended in a socialist direction, or, as happened, dismantled in a project of capitalist retrenchment. From this perspective, the importance of figures like Foucault is not just as misleaders or budding reactionaries, but as indicators of social democracy’s limits, and of the inability of the mainstream left at the time to reckon with the crisis that its own victories had produced. By the same token, neoliberalism can be seen not just as a tool to smash the institutions of the working class, but also as a mystified and dishonest representation of the workers’ own frustrated desires for freedom and autonomy.

Zamora speaks of Foucault imagining “a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.” Other than the name, this does not sound much at all like the really existing neoliberal turn, which has only reconfigured the densely connected relationship between state and market rather than freeing the latter from the former. This vision of autonomy sounds more like the radical move beyond welfare capitalism, toward Wilde’s vision of socialist individualism. (Provided, that is, that we accord autonomy from bosses equal place with autonomy from the state.) Postmodernism as premature post-capitalism, as Moishe Postone once put it.

None of this is to say that the fight for universal social provision is unimportant; nor is it to dispute Zamora’s point that the fight for universal economic rights has tended, in recent times to be eclipsed by “a centering of the victim who is denied justice” as he quotes Isabelle Garo.

The point is only that it is worth thinking about what happens on the other side of such battles. Whether one finds it useful to think along these lines depends, ultimately, on what one sees as the horizon of left politics. Zamora speaks mournfully of the disappearance of exploitation and wealth inequality as touchstones of argument and organizing, and of the dismantling of systems of social insurance. Yet he himself seems unwilling to go beyond the creation and maintenance of humanized forms of exploitation, a perhaps more egalitarian (but not equal) distribution of wealth. He speaks favorably of Polanyi’s principle of “withdrawing the individual out of the laws of the market and thus reconfiguring relations of power between capital and labor”; meanwhile, André Gorz’s elevation of the “right to be lazy” is dismissed and equated with Thatcherism.

This Polanyian social democracy as a harmonious “reconfiguring” of the capital-labor relation is a far cry from the Marxist insistence on abolishing that relation altogether. But its inadequacy as either an inspiring utopia or a sustainable social order is the real lesson of the crisis that gave rise to neoliberalism. And while Foucault may not have come to all the right conclusions about addressing that crisis, he at least asked some of the right questions.

Gamer’s Revanche

September 3rd, 2014  |  Published in Art and Literature, Feminism, Games, Political Economy, Politics

There was a time when I might have called myself a “gamer.” That is, I’m someone who plays and thinks about video games, and views them as a rich cultural form full of potential, both as art and as sport.

Now, however, even people who usually ignore games have been introduced to the figure of the “gamer,” and he is something entirely different. The gamer is threatened by women who share his tastes, and calls them “fake geek girls”. The gamer reacts to Anita Sarkeesian’s criticism of sexist tropes in video games with a bombardment of violent threats against her and her family. The gamer attacks feminist game creator Zoe Quinn with misogynist abuse and baseless allegations of corruption in reaction to a nasty blog post by a bitter ex-boyfriend.

It is not news that video games are often hostile to women, both as an industry and as a fan culture. Nor is it new that there are excellent feminist critics pointing this out within the games press, like Leigh Alexander and Samantha Allen. But the latest debates over misogyny and games have boiled over with new intensity in discussions among game consumers and creators, and have also reached beyond these circles. The New Inquiry has rounded up a collection of links for those who need to get up to date.

Evidently not everyone with a deep interest in games is a bitter, reactionary young man who reacts with violent misogyny to even the hint of social justice. But that faction of “gamers” has demonstrated its outsize ability to police the boundaries of debate and to drive out consumers, creators, and critics who challenge them, with the consent of a silent majority. What, politically, does this specific right-wing demographic represent?

The culture of video games has long been a fairly insular one—as has, to a greater or lesser extent, the wider “geek culture” in which it has been embedded, encompassing phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction and fantasy novels and movies, and comic books. All of these forms have long histories of politically subversive, socialist, and feminist experimentation. But in their best-funded and most widely consumed commercial forms, they have especially catered to certain kinds of socially awkward boys and men, providing them with alternatives to dominant standards of masculinity.

At the same time, however, they cultivated an alternative misogyny, based on resentment of other men and a desire to usurp their patriarchal dominance, rather than overturn patriarchy entirely. Hence the geek culture is a breeding ground for Nice Guys who see themselves as persecuted outcasts but are unable to get over their desire to control women.

It’s impossible to dispute anymore that gaming is a completely mainstream mass-culture phenomenon in purely economic terms: consumer spending on games now rivals or exceeds spending on music and movies. And yet these gamers cling to an identity as marginalized underdogs, even as they defend the game industry’s existing practices of sexism, racism, and class exploitation.

Part of this has to do with the lag between economic and cultural acceptance. Games may be mainstream as an industry, but they have not yet achieved cultural parity with other media and other art forms. So we still get great film critics writing bumbling rants about why video games can’t be art, and the New York Times expressing wonderment at the notion that competitive sports can be mediated by computers.

This is not unusual for any young medium; cinema and television faced similar lags. Eventually, people who grew up with games will be in positions of cultural authority, and the idea of games as an inferior or ephemeral medium will disappear.

The assimilation of games into the larger culture poses a problem for a reactionary segment of gamers, however. It means engaging with a society that, while it is still capitalist and patriarchal, still suffused with racism, has also been challenged for decades by those it has traditionally marginalized. Wider engagement inevitably changes the parameters of geek culture, as new voices and new ideas are incorporated. Some gamers would like it both ways: they want everyone to take their medium seriously, but they don’t want anyone to challenge their political assumptions or call into question the way games treat people who don’t look and think like them. They hate and fear a world where games are truly made by and for everyone; where women make up a majority of the gaming audience; where a trans woman dominates one of the world’s great eSports.

It’s important to call these people what they are: not just anti-social jerks and not only misogynists, but as Liz Ryerson says, overall the right wing of people involved in games. No surprise, then, that they resemble conservatives who resentfully bemoan the liberal bias of Hollywood or the condescension of elite college professors. This isn’t a problem with gamer culture. It’s a problem with our entire culture, and specifically with the attitudes and behavior of a rightist, predominantly white and male section of that culture.

Right wing gamers project an overweening sense of superiority and entitlement, while at the same time constructing an identity based on marginality and victimization. In this, though, they aren’t really that different from many revanchist movements in capitalist societies. They’re much like the Tea Party right, which laments the disappearance of the America it recognizes—that is, the America where straight white men are systematically advantaged. This is a basic element of the reactionary mind: a fundamental opposition to equality as such. So it is with gamers for whom, as Tim Colwill puts it, “the worst possible thing that can happen here is equality.” This group of angry gamers no longer “recognizes their country,” as it were, what with all these women and queers and leftists running around.

This is why it’s wrong to suggest, as Ian Williams does, that gamer culture’s fatal flaw is to be “tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life.” The idea that communities organized around shared cultural consumption are inherently reactionary is so broad as to be vacuous, and it could apply equally to movie buffs, sports fans, or Marxist theory aficionados. It’s possible for any politics, left or right, to devolve into mere consumption choices. But that is not the problem currently on display among gamers. Indeed, the danger arises from their choice not to just passively consume, and to lash out in defense of what they believe “true” gamer culture should be.

The attacks on people like Anita Sarkeesian should be understood as collective political acts, and the reactionaries who carry them out should be understood as ideological representatives of a specific political tendency among those who create and play games, rather than waved off with moralizing Adbusters-ish rhetoric as a bunch of consumer dupes. What threatens these gamers is the notion that gaming does not exist only to reassure their misogynist preconceptions, and that they may have those premises challenged. For not only is the culture of games broadening, but even the big-budget commercial segment that most caters to the backward fantasies of these young men is contracting relative to other parts of the industry, like indie, mobile, and web games.

As Leigh Alexander points out in her more sophisticated deconstruction of the “gamer” identity, “It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.” Change the words “consumer demographic” to “beneficiaries of the welfare state,” and you could be talking about Tea Partiers defending their Medicare while denouncing welfare queens.

So this is not just a story about gamers. And within the boundaries of the games world, it is also not merely a story about a “toxic culture” among game fans, but rather about an industry that is structurally and systematically reactionary, and cultivates the same values among a segment of its consumers. It’s not just 4chan mobs terrorizing writers and game designers, it’s a games business that pushes out workers who don’t fit its political assumptions and demographic stereotypes, by way of the same sexist practices that pervade the tech industry generally.

Famous game designers and studio owners won’t openly endorse the threats and terror of anonymous trolls, but those trolls are the shock troops that help keep the existing elite in power. The respectable men in suits will continue to hire the same boy’s club while making excuses for why women just don’t fit in as programmers or game designers or journalists. But the fascistic street-fighting tactics of the troll brigade work in the service of keeping everything in the industry the way it is.

Not only is it a useful tool for shutting down dissenting voices, the existence of these angry-nerd movements among fans and consumers does what fascistic movements always do: divide the working class by getting some of them to identity with the boss, which in this case serves to shore up the hyper-exploitative industry that Ian Williams has elsewhere described. The existence of a vociferously hostile vigilante squad shutting down dissenting speech makes it easier for studio heads to hire nothing but the same white men and then work them to death, for forum administrators to claim free speech and shrug at the hatred spewed on their pages, and for the industry to claim that they’re only satisfying “the audience” when they reproduce the same narrow and bigoted tropes year after year. Meanwhile the “good” geeks get distracted from the main event as they tussle with the trolls, like SHARPs and Nazi skinheads brawling at a basement show.

Which isn’t to say that death threats are a great look for the suits at the top of the game industry hierarchy. The trolls may sometimes get out of control, just as the Republican establishment sometimes loses control of the Tea Party, or the industrial capitalists sometimes lose control of the Nazi brownshirts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of one dialectically inter-related political project. The Cossacks work for the Czar. The street fighters are there to police the boundaries of discourse, to forcibly drive out anyone who challenges the existing hierarchy—women, people of color, LGBT people, even the odd white man deemed to be too sympathetic to the women and the commies.

Gaming doesn’t have a problem; capitalism has a problem. Rather than seeing them simply as immoral assholes or deluded consumerists, we should take gaming’s advanced wing of hateful trolls seriously as representatives of the reactionary shock troops that will have to be defeated in order to build a more egalitarian society in the games industry or anywhere else.

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.