Socialism

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.

Workin’ It

February 11th, 2014  |  Published in Socialism, Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Left and the State

January 20th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

The New Republic has long been notorious for posing as a liberal magazine while publishing allegedly provocative or contrarian articles that serve mostly to undermine liberal and progressive politics. This tendency seemed to abate a bit when Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes took over the magazine from the notorious racist and warmonger Marty Peretz. The latest from Sean Wilentz, however, falls squarely within the old tradition. We are to believe that rather than principled critics of the surveillance state, the likes of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are motivated by “paranoid libertarianism”; they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Henry Farrell has already done the necessary demolition of this particular bit of hack-work at Crooked Timber, so there’s no need for me to repeat it. And I’d be less concerned if this line of argument were limited to Wilentz, who has an established track record as a truculent apologist for established government elites. But Wilentz’s argument resembles Mark Ames’ ongoing crusade against Greenwald and Snowden, as well as David Golumbia’s tirade against “cyberlibertarianism” at Jacobin. (Golumbia can be found in the comment section at Crooked Timber as well, mostly supporting the Ames/Wilentz line.) So I’m interested in what drives this obsession with people like Greenwald and Snowden (and presumably Chelsea Manning, although she tends to be invisible in these accounts) as vectors for noxious libertarianism rather than people who are doing courageous and useful work even if their politics aren’t socialist.

I think Henry Farrell is right to see, with Wilentz, an attempt to conflate the ideal of the liberal state with the existing national security state, in an attempt to force defenders of the welfare state to also embrace the authoritarian warfare state. But with the sympathizers to Wilentz’s left, I see something a bit different going on. I found this post from Will Wilkinson helpful in thinking this through. Wilkinson is libertarian-ish in his beliefs, but I find he can provide a helpful perspective despite coming from rather different moral and political economic premises. In this case, I think he correctly identifies the trap that some of these left attacks on people like Snowden or Greenwald fall into.

Wilkinson notes that theoretically, libertarianism is “an argument against the possibility of legitimate government.” This makes it clearly incompatible with most socialist or social democratic attempts to democratize the market or expropriate the means of production. Yet nevertheless “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible.” Substitute “socialist” for “liberal”, and I think the point stands just as well. He further points out that mounting a libertarian defense of our current economic relations depends on a parallel sleight of hand, “confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal.”

But there seems to be an instinct, among some on the Left, to suppose that defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state. Or, to be a bit more subtle, that any critique that emphasizes government authoritarianism merely distracts us from the critique of private power, in particular the power of the boss.

I don’t think it’s true that attacks on NSA surveillance somehow make it harder to bring up corporate privacy abuses or the tyranny of capital in the workplace. But more than that, I think that when leftists set themselves up as defenders of government against libertarian hostility to the state, they unwittingly accept the Right’s framing of the debate in a way that’s neither an accurate representation of reality nor a good guide to political action.

The Right, in its libertarian formulation, loves to set itself up as the defender of individual liberty against state power. And thus contemporary capitalism—often referred to by that overused buzzword, “neoliberalism”—is often equated in casual left discourse with the withdrawal of the state.

But in the works that developed neoliberalism as a category of left political economy, this is not how things are understood at all. Neoliberalism is a state project through and through, and is better understood as a transformation of the state and a shift in its functions, rather than a quantitative reduction in its size. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey underlines the importance of the state in forcibly creating a “good business climate” by breaking down barriers to capital accumulation and repressing dissent. Hence:

Neoliberalism does not make the state or particular institutions of the state (such as the courts and police functions) irrelevant, as some commentators on both the right and the left have argued. There has, however, been a radical reconfiguration of state institutions and practices (particularly with respect to the balance between coercion and consent, between the powers of capital and of popular movements, and between executive and judicial power, on the one hand, and powers of representative democracy on the other)

The growth of the surveillance state, in this formulation, clearly makes up a central part of the neoliberal turn, and is not something ancillary to it.

However, the misrecognition of the specifically neoliberal state continues to mislead liberals and leftists, and not only on the topic of the national security state–a state, it should be noted, that is inextricably linked with the nominally private sector, in the form of contractors such as the one that employed Edward Snowden. As the neoliberal state moves in the direction of governing through crime, it becomes increasingly important to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, a joint public-private project of domination, exploitation and social control.

And yet there is the persistent temptation to invoke the genie of state repression despite the Left’s documented inability to make it do its bidding. That can take the form of “humanitarian” warmongering or what Elizabeth Bernstein has described as “carceral feminism”: “a vision of social justice as criminal justice” that attempts to deploy the repressive power of the state to protect women who are portrayed as helpless victims.

Or take a very different issue, the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to toxic drinking water. The always acerbic and astute Dean Baker notes the witless habit of referring to this event as “a failure of government regulation” and a consequence of “free-market fundamentalism”. The real issue, he notes, is that the state protects the property rights of the rich while allowing them to profit from befouling our common resources. Baker has, I think, done some of the best popular writing attacking the fiction that the Right is for free markets while the Left is for government regulation. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the contest before us in the immediate future is between different regimes of state-created and -enforced property, not between the state and the market.

One should not have any illusions that critics of the national security state all share socialist politics. But we should judge these critics by what they say and do and what their political impact is. An endless inquisition into hidden beliefs and motives, and the attempt to unmask a devious libertarian hidden agenda, makes for a satisfying purity politics for those who want to justify their own inaction. But it does nothing to contest the predatory fusion of state and capital that confronts us today, which must be confronted in the government, the workplace, and many other places besides.

Class, Technology, and Transit Strikes

October 21st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

With employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on strike, the Sillicon Valley tech elite has reminded us all that despite their enlightened Bay Area lifestyles, they are still, at root, a bunch of rich dudes. Corey Robin ably documents the reactionary politics and moral degeneracy of people who see themselves as heroic entrepreneurs and the people who get them to work as greedy parasites.

The combination of the strike and the government shutdown has shined a welcome light on the more delusional parts of the tech bro intellegentisa, who revel in government dysfunction and dream of stateless techno-utopias. It’s all the more amusing to see these would-be John Galts dismissing the need for government one moment, and bemoaning the shutdown of a public transit agency the next.

But the most revealing of the tech industry commentaries on the strike is this one, in which Gregory Ferenstein attempts to sort out what he sees as a difference of opinion about the virtues of technology and innovation. He asserts that “the very existence of unions threatens the kind of unpredictable disruption that fuels the knowledge economy”, and that what is at stake in the BART strike is not class struggle but rather the tech elite’s “legitimate philosophical differences that assume the benefits to innovation outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers”.

In a way, this attempt to change the subject from class to technology is the mirror image of Gavin Mueller’s essay in a recent Jacobin, in which he takes me to task as a techno-utopian and suggests that “instead of depending on capitalism to give us all the machines we need for a socialism without scarcity or drudgery, we put the installation of technology on hold until ‘after the revolution'”. Rather than fight over how different kinds of technologies are implemented and how the losers from change are compensated, he suggests that we concentrate on “the disempowering effects of automation”. Thus manual control over the production process takes precedence over control over the workplace or the economy. But by portraying technical change under capitalism as always and only a nefarious plot to intensify exploitation and disorganize workers, Mueller affirms the gambit of those like Ferenstein who would prefer to debate the merits of innovation rather than the social relations of class and power. He thus makes an ideal foil from the perspective of the libertarian tech bro.

I have no intention of playing that part, however. I’m more interested in examining what the “innovation vs. worker rights” framing presupposes, and what it cedes.

Ferenstein insists that that there’s no need for unions for either the “lucky elite class of tech workers” who have “all the benefits and influence they could ever hope for,” or for the “army of freelance engineers that thrive on unpredictability.” As Scott Kilpatrick observed on Twitter, the “lucky elite” rests on top of a mass of precarious contractors and service employees who have little voice in companies like Google. But Ferenstein’s view is a telling indicator of the wordview of the tech elite, who breathlessly tout “disruption” and glamorize unpredictability and uncertainty. For this elite, losing your job only means moving on to the next startup, or retiring on a pile of stock options. It doesn’t mean prolonged unemployment, homelessness, or being cut off from health care.

For transit workers, of course, disruption and unpredictability have much more dire implications, but Ferenstein would prefer to distract us from that reality by portraying their concerns as the consequence of a philosophical objection to innovation. But instead of playing the straight man to this routine by extolling the virtues of stable employment, let’s ask instead what it would mean to make unstable labor relations the bearable and even pleasant experience that they can be for the elite. It would mean something like what the Danish Social Democrats call “flexicurity”: a system that protects workers rather than jobs, by providing a robust system of unemployment benefits and training programs to ease the burden of joblessness and the transition between jobs.

For the true believers in libertarian secession, such policy would no doubt amount to an intolerable state incursion on the freedom of the entrepreneur. But I’m more interested in the comment of UserVoice CEO Richard White, quoted by Andrew Leonard (and then re-quoted by Ferenstein): “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”

This doesn’t quite get at the real substance of the dispute, which is more about work rules than about pay. In particular, the union wants to preserve a provision that requires mutual agreement between management and the union before an existing labor practice can be altered.

As is typical in disputes like this, the employer tries to portray the work rule under discussion as an absurd impediment to rational management, while the union raises its valid uses. So BART claims that this rule “makes it difficult to make technological changes like having station agents file reports by e-mail instead of writing them out longhand, using e-mail instead of fax machines to send documents and sending paycheck stubs to each work location electronically instead of hand-delivering them.” But it’s hard to see just why the union would object to this. More plausible is the union’s contention that the past practices rule is useful for things like “preventing BART management from making punitive work assignments to employees who have filed workplace complaints.”

This strike thus turns out to be an excellent example of the dynamic I wrote about some while back, the dialectical interplay between class struggle and technological development. I noted there that technology is two sided under capitalism: it can increase material abundance, and it can also oppress and fragment workers, and often it does both at the same time. In that earlier post I posited that “the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers.” This is what we see played out in the BART strike.

The transit workers’ union, SEIU local 1021, has an interesting post describing their most recent settlement offer. Their proposal, they say, “allows for the continued use of new technology in the workplace but protects workers from changes in work rules that would lead to unsafe conditions.” The post goes on to note the recent fatal accident that occurred recently when two workers were killed by trains under the operation of BART managers. The union strategically positions itself not as an opponent of technology, but as an advocate for innovations that truly improve the transit system, rather than just providing ways for management to degrade the power of labor—whether by imposing unsafe working conditions or by using computer scheduling to disrupt the predictability of the workday, which is the example of anti-worker technology I cited in my earlier post.

In another post, the union notes that “the system is carrying more passengers than ever with fewer frontline workers than ever.” So it seems that the union is not even attempting to preserve all jobs for their own sake, which would be an understandable position but also one that could genuinely impede the introduction of productivity-enhancing changes. Instead, they are trying to shape the development of the labor process in a way that is less dehumanizing to the worker.

But if CEO White got his wish, and we truly did “figure out how to automate their jobs” entirely, the union leadership and the members would probably have some understandable objections eventually. Which is why, as I note in a different post, a viable compromise between labor-saving technology and the working class has to be worked out an economy-wide scale rather than in a single workplace or industry. The Danish model, in other words, or something even more audacious.

Still, the BART strike is a useful starting point for moving away from the technobabble and talking about class and politics. And the approach of “give the workers what they want, then figure out how to automate” is far preferable to the more common “hyper-exploit the workers, while hand-waving about some great innovation that’s going to come along in the future.” What the BART workers are doing can be considered part of the utopian strategy of making labor expensive. And if the tech industry could take on the challenge of transforming economic processes while accepting the rights and dignity of existing workers, that would be some truly disruptive innovation.

The Ethic of Marginal Value

October 1st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Recently David Graeber has gotten some attention for an essay on “the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, which is notable mostly for getting some important arguments about the nature of work into wider circulation than usual. Mainstream economists have taken notice of Graeber’s contention that much of the activity that people are compelled to perform in return for their wages is “effectively, pointless”.

But the result of mainstream engagement, as often as not, is little more than a demonstration of the narrow perspective of the conventional economist. In that vein, I’m particularly enamored of this contribution from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. Tabarrok seizes on an element of Graeber’s essay that echoes something I wrote about a couple of years ago: the weak relationship between the importance of the jobs people do and the reward they receive for doing them. As I put it back then, “it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work.” Or in Graeber’s formulation,”the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”

Tabarrok—along with, apparently, Brad DeLong—views this as an elementary error of reasoning, an example of “the diamond-water paradox”:

Water is cheap and its value low because the supply of water is so large that the marginal value of water is driven down close to zero. Diamonds are expensive because the limited market supply keeps the price and marginal value high. Not much of a paradox. Note that, contra Graeber, there is nothing special about labor in this regard or “our society.”

Moreover, it’s good that prices are determined on the margin. We would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.

The impressive thing is just how much misdirection and and willful obtuseness Tabarrok manages to pack into a few sentences. The argument crumbles at whatever level one chooses to engage it.

To begin with, the chosen example is an amusing one, since it in no way exemplifies what it purports to demonstrate. Diamonds may be scarcer than water, but that is not what dictates their price. The price of diamonds has been maintained over the decades by the powerful DeBeers cartel, which has kept up prices through a combination of marketing and buying up excess supply. I suppose Tabarrok could counter that the phrase “market supply” doesn’t imply that the availability of a commodity is a function of physical scarcity. But I hardly think he would subscribe to the notion that supply in capitalist markets is or should be primarily determined by the actions of powerful monopolists.

Leaving this aside, Tabarrok is avoiding Graeber’s point by bringing up the marginal cost and the supply of different kinds of labor-power, rather than the social value of different kinds of labor. But even on these terms, it’s a pretty dubious argument. Let’s contrast a couple of the job categories that Graeber brings up: advertising and nursing. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 620,900 people employed as “Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers”, and 2,590,600 employed as “Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides”. If the nurses make less money, even though there are more than four times as many jobs for them, then by Tabarrok’s account it must be because the skills involved in marketing are so rare, and those involved in nursing so plentiful. And yet by many accounts there is a serious nurse shortage, while I’ve yet to hear of a serious PR flack shortage afflicting the nation.

The more obvious explanation would be that wages are largely determined by how powerful workers are, and how powerful their industries are. In the extreme case of high finance, you have a sector that has succeeded in extracting large rents from the economy, as Felix Salmon explains, and has shared those spoils with a privileged layer of bank employees. But to understand this you would have to understand economic outcomes as the result of power relations, not immutable and impersonal market forces.

The most grievous illusion that Tabarrok propagates, however, is that “there is nothing special about labor” when it comes to the determination of prices by marginal value. This a good illustration of the argument that Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs make in the most recent Jacobin: marginal productivity theory is an ethical theory masquerading as a description of social reality. What Tabarrok means is not that there is nothing special about labor, but that there should be nothing special about it. Just as DeBeers can increase the price of diamonds by buying up excess supply, the capitalist class ought to be able to keep the price of labor down by flooding the market with the desperate unemployed. The socialist tradition, however—whether in its Marxist or Polanyian form—holds that there is and should be something special about labor, because labor is people, and the freedom and welfare of the people is the proper subject of political economy.

Of course, the apologists for capitalism insist that they are the ones looking out for the welfare of the people, hence Tabarrok’s clucking reminder that “we would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.” But even on its own terms, such defenses only work on a very abstract collective level, where total wealth matters but its distribution does not. After all, who’s “we” here? As Steve Waldman observes, this means that “it is socialists who are the individualists, attending to the sum of individual welfares, while unsympathetic capitalists rely upon collectivism to justify their good fortune and the policy apparatus that magnifies and sustains it.” Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism”.

Tabarrok seems to think that Graeber is recommending that wages be brought into line with some standard of inherent social value, but this is to miss the point. The point, rather, is to do what we can to separate the right to a decent standard of living from the labor one happens to perform. And, just as important, to break free from the illusions of both libertarianism and meritocracy—that is, from the belief that the price of labor either is or should be the measure of its value.

Curious Utopias

May 13th, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

The Universal Basic Income hit the Washington Post again this weekend, courtesy of Mike Konczal. He focuses on left objections to the UBI proposal, ranging from its effect on gender equality to its relationship with the existing welfare state to its interaction with the struggle for workplace democracy. In the end, he emphasizes the benefits of the UBI, and insists that while we’re unlikely to see basic income in the United States anytime soon, it’s still worth “taking a moment to think Utopian”.

Matt Bruenig objects to Konczal’s characterization of the basic income as “utopian”, on the grounds that it is not something that “proposes to dramatically overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world.” It is only utopian in the very weak sense that it is not currently on the political agenda as something that is likely to be enacted.

It’s certainly true that basic income is hardly utopian in its etymological sense of meaning “nowhere”. A recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique describes an experiment with UBI in an Indian village. The experiment is run by a trade union called the Self Employed Women’s Association, and it found that with just an extra $3.65 per month, “people spent more on eggs, meat and fish, and on healthcare. Children’s school marks improved in 68% of families, and the time they spent at school nearly tripled. Saving also tripled, and twice as many people were able to start a new business.” This is consistent with the results found in basic income experiments in Namibia and in 1970’s Canada.

Meanwhile, there have long been critics on the Left who criticize basic income proposals precisely for their perceived lack of utopianism. As Konczal notes, Barbara Bergmann argues that it is more important to secure broader access to specific goods like child care, health care, and education: “The fully developed welfare state deserves priority over Basic Income because it accomplishes what Basic Income does not: it guarantees that certain specific human needs will be met.” In a New Left Review essay, Göran Therborn strikes a similar tone, referring to the basic income as a “curious utopia of resignation” arising in response to welfare state retrenchment and diminished prospects for working class control over the workplace or the means of production.

From the perspective of the basic income’s leftist advocates, however, there is another way in which it can be considered a deeply utopian project. Fredric Jameson discusses two different meanings of utopia in his study of utopian politics and science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future. The first is utopia as a fully-elaborated program for the future society, which is close to Bruenig’s sense of the proposal to dramatically overhaul society. But the second is the utopian impulse, which appears across much broader domains of everyday life and politics, including even “piecemeal social democratic and ‘liberal’ reforms”. Such impulses may not themselves be the program for a utopian society, but they can point in the direction of future programmatic realizations.

The French writer André Gorz was a longtime proponent of the basic income, and is also responsible for a well-known theorization of its utopian transformative potential. In one of his early works, Strategy for Labor, he attempted to do away with the tired Left debate over “reform or revolution” and replace it with a new distinction:

Is it possible from within—that is to say, without having previously destroyed capitalism—to impose anti-capitalist solutions which will not immediately be incorporated into and subordinated to the system? This is the old question of “reform or revolution.” This was (or is) a paramount question when the movement had (or has) the choice between a struggle for reforms and armed insurrection. Such is no longer the case in Western Europe; here there is no longer an alternative. The question here revolves around the possibility of “revolutionary reforms,” that is to say, of reforms which advance toward a radical transformation of society. Is this possible?

Gorz goes on to distinguish “reformist reforms”, which subordinate themselves to the need to preserve the functioning of the existing system, from the radical alternative:

A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. These changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

One criticism of the basic income is that it will not be systemically viable over the long run, as people increasingly drop out of paid labor and undermine the tax base that funds the basic income in the first place. But from another point of view, this prospect is precisely what makes basic income a non-reformist reform. Thus one can sketch out a more programmatic kind of utopianism that uses the basic income as its point of departure. One of my favorite gestures in this direction is Robert van der Veen and Philippe van Parijs’ 1986 essay, “A Capitalist Road to Communism”.

The essay begins from the proposition that Marxism’s ultimate end is not socialism, but rather a communist society that abolishes not merely exploitation (the unjust distribution of the social product relative to work performed) but also alienation: “productive activities need no longer be prompted by external rewards”.

They then go on to sketch out a scenario in which a reform instituted under capitalism leads to communism without the intermediary stage of socialist construction. This thought experiment revolves around the achievement of an unconditional, universal basic income. Suppose, they say, “that it is possible to provide everyone with a universal grant sufficient to cover his or her ‘fundamental needs’ without this involving the economy in a downward spiral. How does the economy evolve once such a universal grant is introduced?”

Their answer is that the basic income would “twist” the capitalist drive to increase productivity, such that:

Entitlement to a substantial universal grant will simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding work (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway, people can now accept a high-quality job paid far below the guaranteed income level). Consequently, the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.

If you extrapolate this trend forward, you reach a situation where all wage labor is gradually eliminated. Undesirable work is fully automated, as employers feel increasing pressure to automate because labor is no longer too cheap. Meanwhile, the wage for desirable work eventually falls to zero, because people are both willing to do it for free, and able to do so due to the existence of a basic income to supply their essential needs. As Gorz puts it in a later work, the Critique of Economic Reason, certain activities “may be partially repatriated into the sphere of autonomous activities and reduce the demand for these things to be provided by external services, whether public or commercial.”

The long-run trajectory, therefore, is one in which people come to depend less and less on the basic income, because the things they want and need do not have to be purchased for money. Some things can be produced costlessly and automatically, as 3-D printing and digital copying technologies evolve into something like Star Trek’s replicator. Other things have become the product of voluntary co-operative activity, rather than waged work. It therefore comes to pass that the tax base for the basic income is undermined—but rather than a crisis, as in the hands of basic income critics, this becomes the path to utopia.

Consider, for example, a basic income that was linked to the size of Gross Domestic Product. We are used to a capitalist world in which the increase in material prosperity corresponds to a rise in GDP, the measured value of economic activity in money. But as wage labor comes to be replaced either by automation or voluntary activity, GDP would begin to fall, and the basic income with it. This would not lead to lowered standards of living, because the falling GDP here also denotes a decline in the cost of living. Just like the socialist state in certain versions of traditional Marxism, the basic income withers away. As van der Veen and van Parijs put it, “capitalist societies will smoothly move toward full communism.”

The capitalist road to communism is truly a utopia. Not only in the colloquial sense of a total transformation of a society, but also in its overly simplified and rationalistic picture of social evolution. As Jameson notes, utopias are defined as much by their closures and exclusions as their positive programs, as much by what they cannot say as what they can. A utopia often says more about the present in which it was written than it does about the future it depicts.

In the case of the capitalist road to communism, the things left out include the political struggles that would ensue if social development threatened to evolve the capitalist class out of existence, gradually sapping their profits and their social power. This began to manifest itself even under the meager basic income in the Namibian experiment: white landlords were deeply hostile to the basic income and denied the evidence of its benefits, perhaps because they are “afraid that the poor will gain some influence and deprive the rich, white 20 percent of the population of some of their power.” Also brushed aside are the ecological limits that might make true abundance elusive. Both of these are themes I attempted to flesh out in “Four Futures”. A third issue, which I’ve discussed a bit elsewhere, is the ingrained gender norms that may be reinforced by expanding the domain of “voluntary” labor, which often amounts the imposition of unpaid work on women. But the conceptual clarity of van der Veen and van Parijs’ rendition is enlightening in its very implausibility and incompleteness, a demonstration of the utopian impulse contained in an apparently timid policy proposal.

Post-Work: A guide for the perplexed

February 25th, 2013  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work, xkcd.com/386

In Sunday’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat invokes the utopian dream of “a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work—a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.” This “post-work” politics may be unfamiliar to many readers of the Times, but it won’t be new to readers of Jacobin.

Post-work socialism has a proud, if dissident tradition, from Paul Lafargue to Oscar Wilde to Bertrand Russell to André Gorz. It’s a vision that animates my writing on topics ranging across the contradictions of the work ethic, the possibilities of a post-scarcity society, the politics of sex work, and the connection between post-work politics and feminism. Others have addressed related themes, like Chris Maisano on shorter working hours as both a response to unemployment and a step forward for human freedom, and Sarah Leonard on the pro-work corporate feminism of Marissa Mayer.

The basic vision of the post-work Left, then, is one of fewer jobs, and shorter hours at the jobs we do have. Douthat suggests, however, that this vision is already becoming a reality, and he warns that it is not a result we should welcome.

It’s something of a victory that a New York Times columnist is even acknowledging the post-work perspective on labor politics, rather than ignoring it completely. Hopefully he’s been taking his own advice, and reading about it in Jacobin. But Douthat’s take is a rather peculiar one. To begin with, he claims that we have entered an era of “post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job”. But it’s not clear what he bases this claim on. It’s true that labor force participation rates—the percentage of the working-age population that is employed or looking for work—has declined in recent years. From a high of around 67 percent in the late 1990’s, it declined to around 66 percent before the beginning of the last recession. The recession itself then produced another sharp decline, and the rate now stands below 64 percent.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this reflects masses of people taking advantage of our material abundance to increase their leisure time. As those numbers show, most of the decline in the participation rate was due to the recession (and some of the rest is probably due to demographic shifts). If the economy returned to full employment—that is, if everyone who wanted a job could actually find one—the participation rate would probably rise again. For how else are people supposed to “find ways to live . . . without a steady job”, when incomes have stayed flat for decades despite great increases in productivity?

The post-work landscape that Douthat discovers is therefore very different than the one you’ll find surveyed in the pages of Jacobin. An economy in which people must get by on some combination of scant public benefits, charity, and hustling—because they are unable to find a job—is very different from a world where people are able to make a real choice to either cut back their hours or drop out of paid work entirely for a period of time. That’s why, in different ways, Maisano, myself, and Seth Ackerman have all emphasized that full employment is central to the project of work reduction, because tight labor markets give workers the bargaining power to demand shorter hours even without cuts in pay. And it’s why I have especially emphasized the demand for a Universal Basic Income, which would make it possible to survive outside of paid labor for a much larger segment of the population.

If Douthat’s account of labor force participation is misleading, his account of working time is equally incomplete. “Long hours”, he claims, “are increasingly the province of the rich.” While this claim isn’t precisely wrong, at least within certain narrow parameters, it obscures much more than it reveals. Douthat links to an economic study that finds longer average weekly hours among those at the top of the wage distribution, relative to those at the bottom. This is not a unique finding; the sociologists Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson found something similar in their study The Time Divide. And as it happens, I have some published academic research on the topic as well. In many rich countries, including the United States, highly educated workers (e.g., those with college degrees) report longer average work weeks than the less educated (who also tend to be lower waged, of course).

This finding is often deployed to dismiss the significance of long hours, much the way Douthat does here. If the longest hours are being worked by those who presumably have the most power and leverage in the labor market, the argument goes, then long hours shouldn’t be such a concern. But this is wrong for several reasons.

First, just because hours are longest at the top end of the wage distribution doesn’t mean they aren’t long elsewhere as well—in my research, I found that reported average hours among men were above 40 hours per week across all educational categories. And hours on the job doesn’t cover all the other time people spend working: time spent commuting to work, time spent performing unpaid household and care work (which those on low wages often can’t buy paid replacements for), and what the sociologist Guy Standing calls “work-for-labor”: the work of looking for jobs, navigating state and private bureaucracies, networking, and other things that are preconditions for getting work but are themselves unpaid.

Second, working time is characterized by pervasive mismatches between hours and preferences, which are more complicated than just hours that are “too long”. Jeremy Reynolds has found that a majority of workers say that they would like to work a different schedule than they do, but that these preferences are split between those who would like to work less and those who would like more hours—overemployment alongside underemployment.

The finding that many people report working fewer hours than they would like reflects an economy in which many low-wage workers face uncertain schedules and enforced part-time hours that exclude them from benefits. These workers would clearly benefit from predictable hours, higher wages, and recourse to good health care benefits that aren’t tied to employment, but it’s far from clear that they would benefit from more work, as such.

And Douthat would almost seem to agree. In a passage I could have written myself, he says:

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

Amazingly, he follows this up by answering that last question with a resounding yes. And I might almost be inclined to follow him, if he based his conclusion on the argument I’ve just presented: that in an environment of pervasive unemployment, high costs of living, and a meager and narrowly targeted welfare state, the loss of work isn’t exactly something to celebrate.

Perhaps realizing, however, that this austere vision is hardly a compelling case for the conservative worldview, Douthat tries a different tack. Having acknowledged the implausibility of the “dignity of labor” case for much actually-existing work, he neverthelsss moves right on to the claim that “even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.” He concludes with an appeal to the importance of “human flourishing”, but it’s hard to see much social capital, lasting interpersonal connection, or human flourishing going on in the Amazon warehouse—or for that matter, at Pret a Manger.

Although it’s pitched in a kindlier, New York Times-friendly tone, Douthat’s argument is reminiscent of Charles Murray’s argument that the working class needs the discipline and control provided by working for the boss, lest they come socially unglued altogether. Good moralistic scold that he is, Douthat sees the decline of work as part of “the broader turn away from community in America—from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.” It seems more plausible that it is neoliberal economic conditions themselves—a scaled back social safety net, precarious employment, rising, debts and uncertain incomes—that has produced whatever increase in anomie and isolation we experience. The answer to that is not more work but more protection from the life’s unpredictable risks, more income, more equality, more democracy—and more time beyond work to take advantage of all of it.