Political Economy

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.

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.

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.