Shameless self-promotion

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.

Jacobin/Verso Books Launch

March 11th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Shameless self-promotion, Work

It seems I’m in book-announcing mode this week. Today marks the release of three books from Jacobin magazine’s collaboration with Verso Books. The trio includes Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust (slightly silly profile of Kunkel here), Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America (excerpt here), and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore (excerpt here). I have my own contribution to this series planned for the future, but more on that later. For those in New York, the launch event is on Wednesday the 12th.

The books are all worth your time. But I want to especially highlight Melissa’s which I think is an incredibly important work. I’m proud that for some time now, Jacobin has been consistently putting forward an alternative to the dominant narratives about sex work. I may have been first to write there on these issues, but that was only opening the door to people far better versed in these issues than I, like Melissa and Laura Agustín.

Playing the Whore synthesizes a huge body of theory, research and activism by and for sex workers. But I hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed as being about sex, or about sex work, or about feminism, though it is about all those things. There’s a huge wealth of insight here about the meaning of contemporary labor, and the many complexities of trying to develop new identities that make class politics possible.

Crucially, the book reorients discussion of sex work in the direction of class politics more generally, and away from dehumanized narratives of victimization or the overwrought feelings of would-be middle class saviors. As Grant says toward the end of the book: “There’s one critical function sex worker identity must still perform: It gives shape to the demand that sex workers are as defined by their work as they are by their sexuality; it de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker, not despite sex but to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction”.

Rather than attempt my own clumsy summary, I’ll just tease you with more of Grant’s own words. Here are some of the lines that stood out to me from each of her ten chapters, which I hope will encourage others to pick up the book and delve into the rich context that motivates them.

  • “The Police”: “Rather than couching crackdowns on sex work as fighting crime, now some feminists appeal to the police to pursue stings against the sex trade in the name of gender equality. We can’t arrest our way to feminist utopia, but that has not stopped influential women’s rights organizations from demanding that we try.”

  • “The Prostitute”: “since the middle of the seventies, ‘prostitution’ has slowly begun to give way to ‘sex work.’ It’s this transition from a state of being to a form of labor that must be understood if we’re to understand the demands that sex work is work . . . the designation of sex work is the invention of the people who perform it.”

  • “The Work”: “All that is intentionally discreet about sex work . . . are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti-sex work stigmas and policing.”

  • “The Debate”: “Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional?”

  • “The Industry”: “To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.”

  • “The Peephole”: “Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers.”

  • “The Stigma”: “Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. . . . Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others.”

  • “The Other Women”: “Sex work informs their analysis of sexualization not because sex workers’ lives are important but because sex work makes women who don’t do it feel things they prefer not to feel. It is the whore stigma exercised and upheld by other women.”

  • “The Saviors”: “For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the ‘expert’ journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.”

  • “The Movement”: “Without its student liberation movement, its black liberation movement, its women’s liberation movement, and its gay liberation movement I can’t imagine San Francisco birthing a prostitutes’ rights movement from a houseboat docked Sausalito.”

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.

Frase, Parameswaran, and the Future: This Sunday in NYC

June 13th, 2013  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

This Sunday at 3:00 PM, those of you in the New York area can catch me at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 exhibition space in Queens, where I’ll be participating in a discussion with Ashwin Parameswaran. It’s part of a summer-long season of interesting talks organized by the online magazine Triple Canopy, under the heading “Speculations (‘The future is ___________’)”. (The weekend after my event, there’s another great one between Jacobin contributor Alex Gourevitch and Kathi Weeks, whose book about work and feminism I reviewed for the magazine.) Tickets are ten bucks, five for students, and you can also check out PS1′s interesting collection as part of the deal. And after that you can go eat at the only barbecue joint in New York named after a revolutionary abolitionist.

Ashwin is a fascinating character whose ideas I’ve touched on several times, in connection with topics ranging across social network companies, capitalist stagnation, ecology, and the private welfare state. His writing about automation also bears on the ideas I explored in “Four Futures”. But I’ve never engaged with his writing at length, and I’m looking forward to the chance to meet and talk with him in person.

To get a feel for the areas we’ll be discussing on Sunday, the best place to start is probably this post, followed by this more theoretical treatment if your appetite hasn’t been satisfied. Parameswaran believes that many of the problems with contemporary capitalism can be traced to an approach to macroeconomic management that ensures “stability for the classes, instability for the masses”. Individuals face economic insecurity, but bailouts and corrupt privatization schemes ensure that “incumbent firms have no fear of failure and can game the positive incentives on offer to extract rents while at the same time shying away from any real disruptive innovation.” As he notes—and as Jacobin readers will recall from Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black”—capitalism has thus reproduced the fundamental flaw of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.

Parameswaran’s alternative is what he refers to as “bailouts for people, not firms”. In other words, a strengthening of the welfare state to protect people from economic turbulence, combined with a renewed commitment to capitalism’s “invisible foot”: the real threat of failure for uncompetitive firms. A proposal that might not sit too well with the major sponsor of the PS1 series, the Nazi-founded and now pseudo-privatized Volkswagen.

He argues, furthermore, that this is the only workable alternative to the status quo. He thus rejects the project of some nostalgic liberals to return to the heyday of managed post-war capitalism—”stability for the masses and the classes”. I tend to agree with this perspective, albeit not for exactly the same reasons. But I think Parameswaran’s form of utopian left-neoliberalism is subject to the same critique that I’ve made of another writer with similar predilections. The idea that it’s OK to subject people to the constant disruptive flux of market relations, so long as there is redistribution to compensate them, may make sense as technocratic macroeconomics. Or even as abstract moral philosophy. But I’m not certain it’s sufficient basis for a viable politics, when we have so much evidence that people value stability and continuity as goods in themselves. But that should make for some interesting conversations on Sunday.

New Issue, Political Miscellany

December 20th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Shameless self-promotion

The new issue of Jacobin will be out next week, just after Christmas, and it’s full of great stuff. You should subscribe if you haven’t already, or give someone else a gift subscription if you have. (You can place an order with the right shipping address, send an email to subscriptions@jacobinmag.com with your gift announcement, and we’ll handle the rest.)

This issue’s cover is inspired by my lead editorial, which is both an appreciation and a critique of the Baffler, the small magazine that strongly influenced me and others associated with Jacobin back in its 1990′s heyday, and which was recently relaunched under new leadership. I’m sure people will enjoy the salacious catfight element of sniping at another publication, but I hope they also respond to my larger purpose, which is to explain why the Baffler was so important and appropriate to the time of its initial run, and why I think Jacobin is reacting to a qualitatively different historical moment.

While you’re waiting for the issue to appear, here are two things you should do. The first is to help defend University of Rhode Island professor and Lawyers, Guns, & Money blogger Erik Loomis. As explained in this statement at Crooked Timber, Loomis is the victim of an absurd rightist smear campaign, all because he used Twitter to metaphorically demand NRA head Wayne LaPierre’s “head on a stick” in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. I’ve had my strong disagreements with Loomis, but this is a moment to pull together in solidarity. As an untenured professor, Loomis’s job and career are at risk, and what’s happening to him is a risk that all of us run when we air radical ideas in public. Read the statement for more, or just go right ahead and contact the following administrators at URI:

  • Dean Winnie Brownell: winnie@mail.uri.edu
  • Provost Donald DeHays: ddehayes@uri.edu
  • President David Dooley: davedooley@mail.uri.edu

The second thing I would recommend for U.S. readers is to have a look at this page, which catalogs the positions of Senate Democrats on President Obama’s plan to cut Social Security through a change in the way benefits are adjusted for inflation. Some have already come out against it, but many more haven’t made their position clear, and a few are in favor. If your Senators are in the undecided or pro-cuts group, you can use the site to contact them and either express your disagreement, or try to pin them down on their position. Figuring out where all these politicians stand will be important in trying to beat back these cuts, just as it was in the fight over Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security.


With that out of the way, here are some other things I’ve published elsewhere lately that may be of interest.

I have an essay in a rather unusual venue for me: the “Garage Sale Standard”, a broadsheet that was commissioned to accompany a recent staging of artist Martha Rosler’s “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. My essay, “The Garage Sale and Other Utopias”, can be found in PDF form here. I attempt to place the garage sale in the context of capitalism’s fetish of the commodity, and individual attempts to escape from it:

To alter the conditions that produce things like the Foxconn scandal would require a radical, worldwide transformation of the kind of society and economy we live in. Lacking the ability to bring about such a change, consumers disturbed by what is revealed when objects are defetishized understandably look for ways to avoid implication in processes of production that they find ugly and exploitative. Two of the most popular strategies are ethical consumption and buying secondhand. But while each of these points in certain hopeful and utopian directions, each also demonstrates the limits of seeking individual solutions to a collective dilemma.

I also have an essay in the most recent issue of the New Inquiry, “Sowing Scarcity”. It’s a discussion of agriculture, in which I attempt to combine my longstanding preoccupation with intellectual property laws with a richer appreciation of ecological issues:

This is late capitalism’s inverted world, where business and government treat nature as infinite but strictly ration culture. Thus does capitalism, billed in every economics textbook as the supreme mechanism for allocating scarce resources, degenerate into a machine that introduces scarcity where it need not exist and blithely squanders the things that are in short supply.

Finally, I had a blast appearing on Portland’s KBOO radio to discuss the Basic Income and anti-work leftism with Joe Clement and Kathryn Sackinger and take questions from callers over the course of an hour. You can find the audio file at the link, along with some supplementary reading. If you want to hear an explanation and defense of Universal Basic Income as a Gorzian “non-reformist reform” in audio format, I think this is a pretty comprehensive one.

Finishing the Civil War

October 22nd, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism

A month or two ago, Bhaskar Sunkara came to me with the idea that we could, on a short deadline, turn our long-running discussions about the future of progressive politics in the United States into a “Piven-Cloward plan for the 21st century” for the cover of In These Times magazine. This was, of course, an insane proposal, combining the intellectual hubris of a mid-20th century French philosopher and the slapdash work ethic of an undergraduate pulling an all nighter. But I’ve learned by now not to doubt Bhaskar’s crazy schemes, so naturally I signed on.

You can read the resulting product here, and Francis Fox Piven herself also weighs in with an editorial in the issue. I don’t know whether we accomplished our grandiose aims, but I’m happy we at least made a case for something that’s long been discussed on the left, and which doesn’t get nearly enough attention: the need to shift responsibility for social policy from states and localities to the federal government.

In the essay, we make our case primarily on fiscal grounds, pointing out that the limited ability of sub-national governments to run deficits almost inevitably leads to a politics of austerity. But there’s another aspect to this that we didn’t really talk about, which is the regional structure of American politics. Reactionary approaches to the welfare state are particularly characteristic of the south, both its culture and its political economy. Federalizing social policy is therefore both an act of solidarity with the working class of that region, and a move toward completing the class project of the civil war.

As we note in the essay, Republicans—Romney and Ryan included—favor the inverse of our strategy, and advocate devolving social policy to the states. This has broadly negative consequences for the beneficiaries of such policies, but it has particularly bad implications for the residents of conservative states. Those states, as Jonathan Cohn explains in The New Republic, are markedly stingier about social welfare spending. They also happen to be, by and large, the states with the most poor people. (This is, incidentally, what gives rise to “What’s the Matter With Kansas”-style fallacies about poor people voting against their economic interests, due to the phenomenon of rich people living in poor states being more strongly Republican.)

This bifurcation of state-level social policy, which Cohn glosses as “Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala”, also has a strongly regional pattern. Consider the following image, from the sidebar to Cohn’s article:

The division between our local Scandinavias and Guatemalas tracks a very old north-south division in American politics, which is where the civil war comes in. Michael Lind recently argued at Salon.com that:

The core of today’s Democratic Party consists of the states of New England and the Great Lakes/Mid-Atlantic region that were the heart of the Union effort during the Civil War. The core of today’s Republican Party consists of the states that seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.

Lind goes on to argue that:

Notwithstanding slavery, segregation and today’s covert racism, the Southern system has always been based on economics, not race. Its rulers have always seen the comparative advantage of the South as arising from the South’s character as a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation site in the U.S. and world economy. The Southern strategy of attracting foreign investment from New York, London and other centers of capital depends on having a local Southern workforce that is forced to work at low wages by the absence of bargaining power.

Centralizing welfare policy is therefore a way of avoiding a situation that pits the residents of the liberal states against an immiserated workforce in the south. This is an act of principled solidarity—a refusal to simply leave southern workers to deal with their conservative elites on their own—but also a pragmatic necessity. We may not yet be able to demand a global social democracy, but we can at least avoid an invidious race to the bottom with our fellow Americans.

Our essay concludes by envisioning the welfare state as a foundation for freedom:

Freedom to give their children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible healthcare. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.

The decommodification of labor that’s entailed by egalitarian social policy is a partial emancipation from the unfreedom of the workplace. The stakes in this debate are therefore much higher than simply the existence of a “safety net” or a rudimentary social wage. It’s about giving workers the confidence and the material security necessary to make bolder demands for social change.

You sometimes see Trotskyist sectarians using the slogan “Finish the Civil War! Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!” But before we get around to the revolution bit, just getting a robust national-level welfare state would in itself be a big step toward the completion of the emancipatory project.

New Jacobin, New Blog

August 29th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

[A note for whoever still comes around these parts: I now have my own personal blog on the Jacobin site, where I posted the introduction below. For the time being, I intend to keep cross-posting everything here, and I may also use this space for writings that get censored by our power-mad publisherdon't quite fit the parameters of the Jacobin blog.]

As you can see, things have been prettied up quite a bit around here, as Remeike Forbes and Daniel Patterson have stepped up their game once again with a great site redesign.

As part of that revamping, I now have my very own blog, which I guess means I actually have to start blogging again. I’ll be back soon enough with my usual ramblings about work, robots, laziness, out-of-control intellectual property laws, and just giving people money, but in the meantime I thought I’d introduce the blog’s title.

“Saint Monday” is, naturally, a reference to my ongoing preoccupation with transcending the empty fetish of the work ethic and opening up time for freedom, life and leisure. It refers to a joke from the early days of capitalism, which is recounted by Witold Rybczynski in this essay (and also in his wonderful book of the same name):

Eighteenth-century workers had, as Hugh Cunningham puts it in Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, “a high preference for leisure, and for long periods of it.” This preference was hardly something new. What was new was the ability, in prosperous Georgian England, of so many people to indulge it. For the first time in centuries many workers earned more than survival wages. Now they had choices: they could buy goods or leisure. They could work more and earn more, or they could forgo the extra wages and enjoy more free time instead. Most chose the latter course. This was especially true for the highly paid skilled workers, who had the greatest degree of economic freedom, but even general laborers, who were employed at day rates, had a choice in the matter. Many of these worked intensively, sometimes for much more than the customary ten hours a day, and then quit to enjoy themselves until their money ran out.

It was not unusual for sporting events, fairs, and other celebrations to last several days. Since Sunday was always an official holiday, usually the days following were added on. This produced a regular custom of staying away from work on Monday, frequently doing so also on Tuesday, and then working long hours at the end of the week to catch up. Among some trades the Monday holiday achieved what amounted to an official status. Weavers and miners, for example, regularly took a holiday on the Monday after payday—which occurred weekly, on Friday or Saturday. This practice became so common that it was called “keeping Saint Monday.”

Saint Monday may have started as an individual preference for staying away from work—whether to relax, to recover from drunkenness, or both—but its popularity during the 1850s and 1860s was ensured by the enterprise of the leisure industry. During that period sporting events, such as horse races and cricket matches, often took place on Mondays, since their organizers knew that many working-class customers would be prepared to take the day off. And since many public events were prohibited on the Sabbath, Monday became the chief occasion for secular recreations. Attendance at botanical gardens and museums soared on Monday, which was also the day that ordinary people went to the theater and the dance hall, and the day that workingmen’s social clubs held their weekly meetings.

Or, for a more contemporary take on the issue, there’s this:

The just-released new issue of Jacobin has several articles that speak to these themes, including James Livingston’s celebration of “postbourgeois” consumer culture and—for subscribers only!—Chris Maisano’s insistence on full employment as the key to liberation from labor and Audrea Lim’s reflections on the importance of ecstatic spectacle.

There’s plenty of other great stuff in the issue as well, of course. Check out Melissa Gira Grant on sex work, Mike Beggs on David Graeber, Seth Ackerman and James Oakes on the Civil War, Eli Friedman on China and plenty more besides.

New Works and Anti-Works

May 4th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion, Work

I’ll blame my recent silence on the fact that I was moving again—as of Tuesday, I’m back in the Grand Duchy. Clearly either the spirits of the Haymarket martyrs or the exploited employees of British Airways were punishing me for traveling on Mayday, because I ended up spending the better part of 24 hours waiting in lines, being redirected to unexpected cities, and having my luggage lost. Consider that lesson learned.

I’ve once again managed to return to Europe just as things are getting interesting in the U.S., with Occupy-aligned activists pulling off some impressive Mayday actions. But you can get plenty of reporting and analysis on that from Jacobin honcho Bhaskar Sunkara, from his new perch at the In These Times “Uprising” blog.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new things appear recently that I haven’t mentioned here. I neglected to plug the latest issue of Jacobin, which is full of great stuff as usual. It also includes my essay on post-work politics, centered around Kathi Weeks’ book The Problem With Work, which I’ve mentioned here before. See also Mike Beggs on “Keynes’ Jetpack” and Tim Barker reviewing James Livington’s Against Thrift, which cover closely related themes.

In addition, I’ve had a couple of other things appear. There’s an essay for the most recent New Inquiry on intellectual property, which covers familiar blog themes but hopefully in some new ways. And a radio interview with Doug Henwood, where we discussed sex, work, and related topics. What these all have in common is that someone edited them, so they’re bound to surpass my usual output in clarity and precision.

Something relevant to the anti-work themes of the Jacobin and Henwood links is this recent post from John Quiggin about “housework in utopia”. He makes the point that if some kinds of drudgery can’t be automated out of existence, we can still promote “social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work.” This gets to one of the core points of Weeks’ book, and of my review: when it comes to perpetuating the work-based society, the ideological power of the work ethic is at least as important as the technical possibilities of production.

I was happy to see Quiggin point out that “Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.” I look forward to the day when “a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch”. Of course, there’s a danger in taking the stereotypically male position of being cavalier about contemporary standards of neatness, since it leaves one open to the critique Belle Waring mounts here. Maybe I’m just reproducing a patriarchal fantasy in which somebody else does the dishes.

But I’ll take the risk—defending the right to be a slob is just another aspect of defending the right to be lazy. As I note in the Jacobin essay, the argument Lafargue makes in the linked essay is that the glorification of unnecessary work has often been an ideology produced and perpetuated by elements of the working class itself. He was talking specifically about wage work, but the same point applies to unwaged work. As Weeks points out in her book, the modern work ethic combines an injunction to compulsory wage labor with a “family ethic” of compulsory household labor.

Historically, it has been men who have done most of the wage labor (though this is less and less the case), and women most of the household labor (depressingly, still mostly the case). So it isn’t surprising that we see more defenses of the inherent worth and dignity of wage work from men, and more defenses of the necessity of unwaged work from women. We shouldn’t take either case at face value. Both waged and unwaged work contain much that is truly necessary for the reproduction of society and the maintenance of a decent standard of living. But they are also forms that sustain huge amounts of senseless or destructive labor, which exists only to reproduce capitalism, patriarchy, and the work ethic itself.

Quiggin makes a general point that I think bears on all discussions of the social and economic meaning of work:

For any of the tasks we think of as housework, there are four possibilities I can think of,

(1) we can do it ourselves, as a crappy chore

(2) we can do it ourselves, as an enjoyable and fulfilling avocation

(3) we can do it using a technological solution that involves little or no labour

(4) we can contract it out to a specialist worker, who may in turn either (a) enjoy the work or (b) find it just as crappy as we do

This applies not only to “housework” but to all work, waged and unwaged. Quiggin contends that the only objectionable possibilities are (1) and (4b), and I tend to agree. Those two bad options basically correspond to two inseparable aspects of degrading and alienated labor in capitalism: unpaid household labor and involuntary wage labor. Options (2), (3), and (4a) correspond roughly to the communism in which “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want”, the slavery of the machine” on which “the future of the world depends”, and capitalism between consenting adults. Somewhere in the intermingling of those three, you’ve pretty much got my utopia.

King of all (Internet) media

March 14th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

As someone who compulsively woke up early to watch Al Jazeera English cover the Egyptian revolution last year, I’m surprised and pleased to now find myself with an op-ed running on the AJE website. Blog readers still get my ideas fresh and hot out of the kitchen, though—the column expands on something I wrote back in January about SOPA, intellectual property, and related issues.

Meanwhile, it looks like that Bloggingheads appearance is getting around. Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for highlighting our discussion of Obama’s awful civil liberties record, in his post on the administration’s shameful role in the imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist. Although I do have to object to being called a “liberal”.

My Bloggingheads Debut

March 11th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

If you enjoy the writing of me or Mike “Rortybomb” Konczal, you’re sure to love staring at our big bald white heads as we jabber about politics. Behold, my first appearance on bloggingheads.tv, as Mike’s guest on the new Roosevelt Institute series “Fireside Chats”:

We get into the state of the left, capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis, the basic income, labor and automation, and of course, Star Trek. I’m not too experienced in doing stuff in this format, but I think it turned out OK. Thanks to Mike for inviting me on—there aren’t a lot of liberal think tank folks who would think to have a kook like me on as their first guest.

In other news of radical socialist media domination, my comrades at the Democratic Socialists of America had a brief moment of fame on the Daily Show:

I think DSA national director Maria Svart acquitted herself well, especially in contrast to “Trotskyist From Central Casting” and libertarian nutball Wayne Allyn Root.