Political Economy

Marx and the Two Crises in “New York 2140”

September 18th, 2018  |  Published in Fiction, Political Economy, Politics

What follows resembles remarks I made at an event marking an art exhibition at the Verso Books, to which Kathy Newman kindly invited me. The event took place on the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one of the critical moments in the last great financial crisis. The artwork I mention is described here.

The unveiling of the photo, artist at right

The unveiling of the photo, Susanne Slavick at left, artist Alberto Jaar at right

Thank you for coming, and to Kathy for inviting me. Marx would probably be amused and a bit distressed to have pride of place here. I am of the camp that believes that Marx concluded, in his mature thought, that the theoretical system he had developed was suitable and necessary for understanding the capitalist mode of production, and for no other historical period or type of society. He would therefore be disappointed to find that he and his ideas had still not been rendered irrelevant.

Since we’re here to consider a work of art dealing with the financial crisis, I thought I’d talk a bit about one of the best works of financial crisis art, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Robinson is both a Marxist a great writer of speculative fiction. New York 2140 imagines a future for this city that is very different from its present in one way, and very much the same in another.

The difference is that much of the city is underwater. Using extreme–but far from impossible–projections from current climate science, Robinson posits that the melting icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland have caused sea levels to rise by 50 to 60 feet. Such a dramatic rise means that all of Manhattan south of 34th Street is permanently underwater, while the region from there north to Central Park is the “intertidal”, which is only dry at low tide. And yet people continue to behave like New Yorkers, stubbornly sticking around and trying to keep their partially-underwater buildings from collapsing. (The main characters live in the MetLife tower at 23rd and Madison.) Meanwhile the more cautious money has decamped–for Denver, wonderfully chosen as a symbol, as it is one of our highest elevation and most boring cities.

Now this is a different sort of crisis than the one we’re marking here. Only it really isn’t. The financial crisis and the climate crisis both stem from the operation of capitalism, a system that Marx showed us is prone to go into and out of crisis, again and again.

One fundamental reason for recurrent crises is capitalism’s need for endless growth. The reason for this has do with something that’s a bit futurist and science fictional about capitalism itself. It is a system predicated on deploying money in order to make more money–not merely in zero-sum competition between capitals, but as a whole. It is generally said, by bourgeois and left economists alike, that a healthy capitalism needs to average something like 3 percent growth a year.

How is this possible? How can all the capital that exists represent a quantity greater than itself? Because some of it is what Marxists call “fictitious” capital, which represents not value that exists in the present, but value that exists in the future, when some act of consumption will validate and valorize investments made in the present.

When this system is working smoothly, the magic of compound interest means that even growing at 3 percent or less a year, the amount of capital in existence can increase very rapidly. David Harvey notes that between 1970 and and 2010, the amount of global capital seeking investment outlets grew from $0.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion. Thus capital’s historical record of rapid increases in material production and wealth is also, paradoxically, a problem for the system, because all of this capital has to be invested in something that will produce a positive return, and there are a limited number of such investment outlets, particularly in a world of rising income inequality and diminished purchasing power among the working class.

What is necessary, then, is for some portion of this excess value to be destroyed, “devalued” in Marxist terms. This means only that things become worthless, not that they are necessarily physically destroyed. There are many ways this can occur. Of course, companies go bankrupt and their shares become worthless, in the ordinary course of capitalist competition. War is a popular method of devaluation. But sometimes, things are so out of balance that a massive, system-wide correction is the only way to get back to a baseline of positive growth. Ice Cube, rapping about the LA riots, once said that “riots ain’t nothing but diets for the system.” In a way, so are financial crises.

But what does this have to do with climate change, which is where I started out? Quite a bit, as it happens. For one thing, catastrophic climate change is a hell of devaluation method. In the last crisis we heard a lot about “underwater” homeowners, those who owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth on the market. Now we face the prospect of houses being worthless because they are literally underwater. (Not that you would know that if developers and their friends in government have anything to say about it.)

Or maybe not totally worthless after all. I mentioned that New York 2140 is a financial crisis novel–Robinson has said he wrote it in response to the crash of 2007-8. And for all the geographic changes in his New York, what has not changed is finance capitalism, which seems almost implausibly similar to today’s. A major plot point of the book turns on a property bubble related to investment in partially underwater properties, and a financial crisis triggered by a massive hurricane. One of the focal characters is a banker who specializes in betting on this intertidal real estate.

Climate crisis is coming–whether it will be as bad or worse than Robinson imagines is, at least in part, up to us and our political movements. But addressing it means confronting capitalism, just as dealing with financial crisis does. Marx himself understood how capitalism drove ecological destruction, because of the what James O’Connor called capital’s “second contradiction” with nature, after its primary one with labor.

In Marx’s day, the impact of carbon emissions on climate was not yet well understood. What was an object of intense investigation, however, was soil fertility. Marx followed the chemist Justus von Liebig, who observed that urbanization and industrialization were systematically depriving the soil of nutrients and harming crop yields. This happened because food was still being grown in the country, but it was then being transported to the cities to be consumed by the new industrial proletariat. The resulting waste, rather than being returned to the soil as in agrarian times, went into the gutters of London. Marx described this as a great disturbance in “the metabolic interaction between man and the earth”. Later Marxists like John Bellamy Foster refer to Marx’s theory of the “metabolic rift.”

The missing shit of the absent proletariat was first replaced by bird shit, mined from guano deposits off the coast of South America, and then by industrial fertilizers. Those fertilizers were and are produced using large amounts of fossil fuel, meaning that the resolution of the soil fertility crisis fed directly into the atmospheric carbon crisis that we face today. I suspect that the resolution of that crisis, whether it is undertaken on an eco-capitalist or an eco-socialist basis, will, like the answer to diminished soil fertility, involve intensifying rather than reversing our manipulation of the human interchange with nature, managing rather than simply closing the metabolic rift. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson that along with a zero-carbon energy system, we probably need some kind of geoengineering–meaning either taking carbon out of the atmosphere, or blocking some portion of sunlight from penetrating the atmosphere–if we are to head off a human catastrophe.

What I want to leave you with, however, is the recognition that we are headed into a climate crisis, of which this weekend’s hurricane in North Carolina is one omen, and that we are well overdue for another financial crisis. It’s impossible to know exactly what will touch off that crisis, but one alarming indicator is student debt, which has astonishingly more than quadrupled in less than 15 years. (The concentration of this debt among a certain stratum of young adults should play a role in any explanation of phenomena like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Occupy Wall Street, which began seven years ago this Monday.)

But we should be wary of the tendency, indulged occasionally by environmentalists and leftists, to suppose that ecological or economic crisis can overturn capitalism on its own. Capital, remember, is not a thing but a form and a relation, a process of turning money into more money. That process does not require money to deployed in making any particular thing, or in making a thing at all (consider the value of intellectual property in the right to copies of an image; an image of Karl Marx’s grave, say.)

There is a happy and only partially delusional version of the eco-capitalist story, in which big business makes money from recycling and solar panel installation; this view was on display just this week at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, attended by the likes of Starbucks and the financial firm Blackrock. But there’s a darker side too, money to be made directly from the devastation of climate change. Naomi Klein popularized the term “disaster capitalism” to refer to the use of crisis as a pretext for neoliberal retrenchment, as seen for example in the gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But there is a way capitalism can also profit from the disaster itself–there’s a lot of money to be made cleaning up, rebuilding, and relocating, not to mention selling gated communities and private security services to those who are rich enough to move to higher ground and hide from the victims of climate catastrophe.

In New York 2140, financial and environmental crisis coincides with a massive debt strike, so that instead of 2008-style bailouts, the system truly does begin to collapse and transform into something else. We won’t have to wait until 2140 to face another crisis in the real world, the only question is whether this time, we can force a resolution that works for us, rather than for capital.

On the Politics of Basic Income

July 16th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

In the course of preparing some brief comments on the Universal Basic Income for another site, I decided to write up my attempt to clarify some of the politics behind the current debates about UBI as a demand and as a policy. This is adapted from remarks I gave earlier this year at the University of Leeds, for a symposium on the topic.

One of the major obstacles to clear discussion of UBI is the tendency to pose the issue as a simple dichotomy: one is either for or against basic income. In fact, however, it must be recognized that both the advocates and opponents of UBI contain right and left flanks. The political orientation one takes toward basic income–and in particular, whether one is considering it primarily from the perspective of labor, or of capital–has profound implications both for how one thinks a UBI should be fought for and implemented, and what one thinks it is meant to achieve.

The multiple poles of the UBI debate are represented in the following diagram: Diagram of pro- and anti-UBI positions The Left-wing version of Basic Income is associated with thinkers like Kathi Weeks and André Gorz. Their hope is that with a basic income, as Weeks puts it, “the link between work and income would be loosened, allowing more room for different ways of engaging in work.” Moreover, Weeks argues, drawing on the legacy of the Wages for Housework movement:

Demanding a basic income, as I see it, is also a process of making the problems with the wage system of income allocation visible, articulating a critical vocabulary that can help us to understand these problems, opening up a path that might eventually lead us to demand even more changes, and challenging us to imagine a world wherein we had more choices about waged work, nonwork, and their relationship to the rest of our lives.

Left UBI advocates like Weeks tend to see basic income as part of a broader set of demands and proposals, rather than a single-shot solution to every social problem (though this monomaniacal focus does have its adherents on the Left.) They thus support what Los Angeles collective The Undercommons refers to as “UBI+,” in which a baseline guaranteed income supplements other forms of support, which they contrast with “UBI-,” “a basic income advanced as a replacement for labor regulations and other security-enhancing government programs.”

The danger of Right-wing basic income, or UBI-, was identified by Gorz in his 1989 Critique of Economic Reason:

The guaranteed minimum is an income granted by the state, financed by direct taxation. It starts out from the idea that there are people who work and earn a good living and others who do not work because there is no room for them on the job market or because they are (considered) incapable of working. Between these two groups, no lived relation of solidarity emerges. This absence of solidarity (this society deficit) is corrected by a fiscal transfer. The state takes from the one group and gives to the other. . .

. . . The guaranteed minimum or universal grant thus form part of a palliative policy which promises to protect individuals from the decomposition of wage-based society without developing a social dynamic that would open up emancipatory perspectives for them for the future.

Something like this vision animates much of the advocacy for UBI in capitalist and conservative circles. The clearest exposition of this perspective comes from far-right writer Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous The Bell Curve. His 2006 book In Our Hands roots his basic income proposal in the right-wing tradition of Milton Friedman, and its subtitle makes explicit what UBI is supposed to be: “A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.” He insists on “getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare.”

It is something like this version of UBI that appeals to the likes of Elon Musk. It is also the prospect that drives some on the left to vociferously oppose the idea. Sociologist Daniel Zamora, who I’ve sparred with on occasion, argues that “UBI isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, but an ideological capitulation to it.” He argues that a political and economically feasible basic income could only be something like Murray’s proposal: too little to live on (thus promoting the spread of precarious low wage jobs) and paid for with drastic cuts to the rest of the welfare state. Moreover, he argues that even a relatively generous UBI would only intensify the logic of neoliberal capitalism, by perpetuating a condition in which makes “market exchange the nearly exclusive means to acquire the goods necessary for our own reproduction.”

Zamora calls instead for reducing the scope of the market through the struggle for decommodification. This perspective is reflected by those like Barbara Bergmann, who emphasize the importance of directly providing “merit goods” like health care, education, and housing, rather than relying on the private market. This is important, because a Murray-style UBI- of marketized social provision would be radically inegalitarian for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. Bergmann’s prioritization of this substantive service provision is reflected in the advocates of “Universal Basic Services” as an alternative to Universal Basic Income.

Of course, Charles Murray and Elon Musk are still somewhat anomalous within the broader pro-capitalist Right. Some, like James Pethokoukis, argue that UBI is an unnecessary expense, because the breathless predictions of mass technological employment are unlikely to come true (echoing some of the analysis of leftist critics like Doug Henwood). Others, like Thomas Sowell, are philosophically opposed to “divorcing personal rewards from personal contributions.”

Having set up four different poles of attraction, it’s worth thinking about what attracts and repels each position in the debate to each of the others, again with reference to the diagram above. What unites the pro-UBI forces is a willingness to think beyond a society defined by work as wage labor. Even Murray, more of a traditionalist than some of the Silicon Valley futurist types, argues that reduced labor force participation is an acceptable and even desirable consequence of UBI, because it would mean “new resources and new energy into an American civic culture,” and “the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs.” This finds its left echoes in those like Gorz and Kathi Weeks, whose UBI advocacy stems from her post-work politics.

Arrayed against the post-work vision of Basic Income are those who treat work as something to be realized and celebrated, rather than transcended or dispensed with. On the Left, this takes the form of various “dignity of labor” arguments which, to use Weeks’ framing of the issue, insist that our main goal should be ensuring better work, not less work. Often this is tied to a defense of the inherent importance of meaningful work, as when the head of the German Federation of Trade Unions argued recently that “pursuing a job was crucial to structure people’s everyday lives and ensure social cohesion.”

In his new book Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield concludes his chapter on automation with a defense of jobs, which “offered us a context in which we might organize our skills and talents,” or at least “filled the hours of our days on Earth.” A recurrent reference point for the job-defenders, like Ha-Joon Chang, is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano, which imagines a highly automated future in which people are made miserable because the end of jobs has made them feel useless. (I cite the novel myself in Four Futures, although I attempt to mount something of a post-work critique of the story.)

This has certain commonalities with the anti-UBI Right, which also sees waged work as inherently valuable and good, although of course only for the lower orders. This can be rooted in a producerist view that “”he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” But it can also simply be a driven by a desire to cement and preserve hierarchies and class power, a fear that a working class with additional economic security and resource base of a basic income would get up to “voluntary efforts to meet human needs” that are a bit more confrontational and contentious than Charles Murray imagines.

The final point to make about my diagram of the UBI debate is the relationship between its diagonal terms, which also turn out to have certain commonalities. Put simply, the diagonals connect positions that agree on the effect of UBI, but disagree about its desirability.

Connecting pro-UBI Leftists like Weeks and Gorz with anti-UBI traditional conservatives is the belief that a basic income threatens to erode the work ethic and ultimately undermine the viability of capitalism. It’s just that the left thinks that’s a good thing. And the overlapping analysis extends to the relations of reproduction as well as those of production. Weeks explicitly presents basic income as an historical successor to the demands of the Wages for Housework movement, a way of breaking down patriarchy and the gendered division of labor.

Historical experience with basic income experiments lends some support to this view. Analysis of the 1970s Canadian “Mincome” program, in which a basic income was provided to residents of a Canadian town, found that “Families that stayed together solely for economic reasons were no longer compelled to do so, since individual members could continue to receive the [Guaranteed Annual Income] separately after a marriage breakup.” From a feminist pro-UBI perspective, this shows the value of basic income in providing women the wherewithal to escape from bad relationships. But to the conservative UBI critic, the lesson is the opposite, as it shows how basic income can undermine the traditional family.

On our other diagonal, we find again an agreement on consequences and a disagreement on desirability. Charles Murray views Basic Income as a way to stabilize capitalism and remove the distortions and perverse incentives of the bureaucratic welfare state. Daniel Zamora views Basic Income as a way to intensify neoliberalism and remove the hard-won gains of decommodified services of the social democratic welfare state in favor of submerging all social life in market exchange. Unions fear that basic income will undermine solidarity based on organization in the workplace, a result that would no doubt be seen as a benefit by many of basic income’s tech industry boosters (as well as nominally pro-labor renegades like Andy Stern).

I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about Universal Basic Income off and on for over a decade, and in that time my sense of its political significance has shifted considerably. I would still call myself an advocate of UBI, for similarly post-work and feminist reasons as Weeks or Gorz. But as the concept is increasingly co-opted by those with right wing and pro-capitalist motivations, I think it’s increasingly important to situate the demand within a “UBI+” vision of expanded services, rather than falling victim to the shortcut thinking that elevates basic income to a “one weird trick” that will transcend political divides and resolve the contradictions of late capitalism.

Moishe Postone, 1942-2018

March 18th, 2018  |  Published in Political Economy, Socialism, Time, Work

UPDATE 2: The news is, sadly, no longer premature. I mourn the man’s passing and celebrate his contribution to an open and liberatory version of Marxism.

UPDATE: I appear to have fallen prey to misinformation, and written a premature obituary. Apologies to Moishe Postone and his loved ones. The remainder of my appreciation of the man remains unchanged.

Moishe Postone was incorrectly reported as having died. This will perhaps be of only peripheral interest, to all but a handful of Marxist theory nerds. But it’s of great interest, and great sadness, to me.

Postone emerged from the Marxism of the German new left, and spent much of his life teaching at the University of Chicago. He was teaching there when I was an undergraduate, but I never took his classes. It was only years later that I read his landmark work, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

That book was the great work of Postone’s life. In a few hundred pages, it elucidated (a word Postone loved) what he called Marx’s “mature critical theory”. His central insight was that Marx’s critique of capitalism was not about glorifying labor, or about promoting some kind of non-exploitative society in which workers could get the full value of what they produced. The point, rather, was to abolish labor as we know it, and with it a society in which labor, and the value placed on it, regulate our lives.

It was a thorough and relentless explication of one of Marx’s famous asides. “To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.”

He wasn’t the only one to grasp this point. Others like Georg Lukacs, Diane Elson–and recently even David Harvey–have made similar points. But my gateway to a post-work, post-laborist understanding of Marx went through Postone, on a winter vacation over a decade ago when I trudged through and broke my head against his work.

And what resulted was the most wondrous kind of experience I know of in social theory. It wasn’t that Moishe Postone told me something I didn’t know. He did something much more significant: he explained something I already knew, but didn’t yet understand.

Rarely will you find me explicitly citing Postone. But to borrow a phrase from Joan Robinson: I may not always have Postone in my mouth, but I have him in my bones.

Moishe Postone, ¡Presente!

Put the Money in the Bag and 86 the Tricks

February 13th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Mixed in with the usual litany of concessions to billionaires and businesses, the Trump administration delights in a petty and banal sadism that at times seems to serve no significant purpose, if we take the purpose of right wing politics to be the accumulation of capital by the rich. Although nobody should be under any illusion about Trumpism, any idea that it is anything other than, as Corey Robin will happily tell us, a familiar iteration of conservatism, just a bit more crass and unmasked.

The latest and best in this cabinet of miniature horrors: a revision of the food stamp program that seeks to replace food vouchers with “a box of food that the government describes as nutritious and 100 percent grown and produced in the U.S.”, on the model of Blue Apron and other purveyors of pre-fabricated (and ecologically terrible) meal kits.

This would, of course, be bad. And it hits the right venal notes of your workaday reactionary politician: if we must have a welfare state, how can we turn it into pork for my petit-bourgeois constituents?

But the food stamp program was already bad, and this merely intensifies its patronizing and paternalizing logic. Those of us who advocate things like the Universal Basic Income from a left perspective do so, in part, because we view the unconditional redistribution of money as something superior to–and more radical than–programs which require recipients to meet requirements and satisfy bureaucrats.

Food stamps are already like that. There are complex restrictions on what food you’re allowed to acquire with your vouchers. Hot or toasted food, for example, is considered an unacceptable luxury. And don’t even dream that poor people might deserve access to things like diapers or tampons. Hence the argument that instead of intensifying this logic with something like the Trump meal-kit proposal, we should go the opposite way, and just hand out cash.

For certain kinds of social-democratic traditionalists, such arguments are dangerous heresy. For people like Daniel Zamora, they are worse than useless–they are, in fact, concessions to neoliberalism, as packaged by such dangerous figures as Michel Foucault.

But without Foucault, or someone like him, how are we to understand something like this latest Trump atrocity? Yes, on one level it’s simply a patronage handout to business. But we’re also dealing here with “governmentality”, and perhaps too “biopower”, those terms concerning the way that states regulate and control the biological functions of their subjects. For it turns out that our political line can’t simply turn on a distinction between reliance on “states” versus “markets”, even though the right might like to pose the question that way. Capitalism is a state-dependent project all the way down, and the crucial question is what the state does, and to whom.

So here we come to a leftist perspective on the welfare state, which cannot just be a one-sided defense of welfare capitalism but also must be a dialectical critique of its authoritarian functions. That’s where the Foucault comes in. As I’ve said elsewhere, we seek to build the welfare state only so that we can break it. And the capitalist class, for all its showy gestures about tearing down the state, builds it too–but it builds it to break us.

And there we find our task, when confronted with conservative welfare governmentality in its absurd Trumpist iteration. We fight for social rights not simply to win benefits, but to get free–free of what Marx called the “double freedom”, where we are free to sell our labor, but also free from the means to do anything else.

Decommodify, decommodify! That is Moses and the prophets!

Or to put it another way, we are Taking these, if you don’t please.

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.