Socialism

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 Polanyi does not seem to think that markets or capitalist property relations could be superseded (although the later parts of The Great Transformation introduce some ambiguity on this point.)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.

Work to Need

February 23rd, 2016  |  Published in Socialism, Work

Many of us have found ourselves in jobs where there just wasn’t much work to do. We spent days sitting at desks surfing the Internet, while using innovations like the boss key, in case we needed to show our boss some pretense of being “busy.” This is ultimately a demoralizing and demeaning existence of pseudo-leisure, time which is not our own but is not being used for any purpose.

Anyone who has had that experience no doubt smiled at the story of Spanish civil servant Joaquín Garcia, employee of a municipal water company. When he was considered for an award for 20 years of service, it was discovered that he had not in fact shown up for work in 6 years, while continuing to draw his paycheck.

Garcia insisted that there was simply no work for him to do, and that he had been put in the job in the first place as political retaliation. Other sources contested the original report, claiming that he did show up to work but merely spent his time reading philosophy—becoming an expert on Spinoza, according to Mr. Garcia—which would make him just another case of dreary workplace pseudo-leisure.

But it was the original vision, of a man simply walking away from the pointlessness of his work, that gave the story its viral appeal. It punctured the mystification of “work,” that oppressive abstraction that I’ve tried to break down many times before. Garcia rejected the “work” of dutifully showing up for a job that had no reason to exist, in favor of the self-fulfilling “work” of reading philosophy. What might we all do if we could do the same?

The “work to rule” action is a popular labor tactic, an alternative to going on strike. It involves carefully and literally following every rule in the contract, which in most workplaces has the practical effect of slowing work down to a crawl. But perhaps we need something like the opposite: “work to need.” If everyone with a pointless, wasteful, or destructive job simply refused to show up to it, we would learn a lot about how much of our time is taken up with “work” that has everything to do with our dependence on wage labor, and nothing at all to do with the things we need to run a decent society.

Beginning to See the Light

February 6th, 2015  |  Published in Socialism

So I found myself (h/t Gavin Mueller) perusing Cyril Smith on Hegel, Marx, and the enlightenment, and by way of that Marx’s comments on religion. (For contemporary relevance, see here and here.) Smith quotes an 1842 letter (Marx was 24 at this point; what have I been doing with my life?):

I requested further that religion should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion, since this is more in accord with the nature of a newspaper and the educational level of the reading public; for religion itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself. Finally, I desired that, if there is to be talk of philosophy, there should be less trifling with the label ‘atheism’ (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen, that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people.

This applies, of course, to contemporary anti-religious scolds of the Sam Harris/Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins variety. But the term “religion” could, in many contexts, be replaced with “science” or “reason” today. That is, the authority of science or reason is used as a cudgel against those who might have good—though perhaps misguided—bases for questioning whether the scientific process is distorted by the imperatives of capital accumulation. And so too against those who point out that the right to argue from disinterested reason is not one that is evenly or universally acknowledged. (Repeatedly these days I find myself thinking of this as a model for engaging wrong ideas in the spirit of Lenin’s “patiently explain” rather than a spirit of arrogant derision.)

And Smith points out that reason, and the enlightenment, were for Hegel and many others fundamentally religious concepts:

The atheists, and especially the Enlightenment materialists, who easily settled this entire discussion with the word ‘superstition’, left no more space for subjectivity than their opponents: we are just matter in motion, governed by the laws of Nature, they said. Spinoza had no trouble identifying the laws of nature with God’s will, and Hegel shows that Enlightenment and superstition in the end agree with each other. ‘Marxism’, coming up with ‘material laws of history’, locked the gates still more securely.

Needless to say I endorse the scare-quoting of “Marxism” in this context. The criticism of ideology generally proceeds more constructively by analyzing the conditions of that ideology’s possibility, rather than simply confronting it with counter-ideology. And my favored reading of Marx, from “On the Jewish Question” on outwards, is that the enlightenment ideal of disinterested reason is best posited as the objective of communists, an ideal that cannot be realized in capitalism, rather than an existing regime to be defended against the forces of irrationalism.

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.

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.

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.

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.