Robot Redux

August 18th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

It never fails that when I get around to writing something, I’m immediately inundated by directly related news, making me think that I should have just waited a few days. The moment I commit bits to web servers about the robot future, I see the following things.

First, the blockbuster New York Times story about Amazon and its corporate culture. The brutality of life among the company’s low-wage warehouse employees was already well covered, but the experience of the white collar Amazonian was less well known. The office staff, it seems, experiences a more psychological form of brutality. I couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of my point that “the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one”. To wit:

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

On to number two! Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post reacts to efforts to raise the minimum wage in exactly the way I mentioned in my post: by raising the threat of automation. She notes various advances in technology, while also observing that in recent times “the industry as a whole has largely been resistant to cuts in labor . . . the average number of employees at fast-food restaurants declined by fewer than two people over the past decade”. But, she warns, that could all change if the minimum wage is raised to $15.

Liberal economist (and one-time adviser to the Vice President) Jared Bernstein responds here. He makes, in a slightly different way, the same point I did: “one implication of this argument is that we should make sure to keep wages low enough so employers won’t want to bother swapping out workers for machines . . . a great way to whack productivity growth.” (Not to mention, a great way to make life miserable for the workers in question.) He then goes on to argue that higher wages won’t really lead to decreased employment anyway, which sort of undercuts the point. But oh well.

Finally, we have the Economist weighing in. This little squib on “Automation angst” manages to combine all the bourgeois arguments into one, in a single paragraph:

[Economist David] Autor argues that many jobs still require a mixture of skills, flexibility and judgment; they draw upon “tacit” knowledge that is a very long way from being codified or performed by robots. Moreover, automation is likely to be circumscribed, he argues, as politicians fret about wider social consequences. Most important of all, even if they do destroy as many jobs as pessimists imagine, many other as yet unimagined ones that cannot be done by robots are likely to be created.

So, to summarize. The robots won’t take your job, because they can’t. Or, actually, the robots can take your job but they won’t, because we will make a political decision to disallow it. Or no, never mind, the robots will take your job, but it’s fine because we will create lots of other new jobs for you.

This summarizes the popular approach to this problem well, from a variety of vantage points that all miss the main point. Namely, that if it is possible to reduce the need for human labor, the question becomes: who benefits from that. The owners, of the robots, or the rest of the working masses?

Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future

August 6th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Work

The current issue of the New Yorker has a story about the odd phenomenon of Chinese lingerie merchants in Egypt. These immigrant entrepreneurs are apparently ubiquitous throughout the poor, conservative districts of upper Egypt, where they dispense sexy garments to the region’s pious Muslim women. The cultural and geopolitical details of the story are interesting for a number of reasons, but I was struck in particular by a resonance with some debates that have recently flared up again about labor and automation, for reasons I’ll get back to below.

“Robots will take all our jobs” is a hardy perennial of popular political economy. Typical of the latest crop is Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, who wrote an article (in which he quotes me), speculating about a “World Without Work” in the wake of mass adoption of robotization and computerization. Paul Mason gives a more leftist and political rendition of similar themes.

As I note in my recent Jacobin editorial, this kind of thing is not new, and is in fact an anxiety that recurs throughout the history of capitalism. Two decades ago, we had the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz musing about the “end of work” and the “jobless future”.

And these repeating waves of robo-futurism call into existence the same repeated insistence that robots are not, in fact, taking all the jobs. Doug Henwood was on this beat twenty years ago and remains on it today. Matt Yglesias, likewise, calls fear of automation a “myth”.

One of the specific things that people like Henwood and Yglesias always cite is the productivity statistics. If we were seeing a wave of unprecedented automation, then we should be seeing rapid rises in measured labor productivity—that is, the amount of output that can be produced per hour of human labor. Instead, however, what we’ve seen is historically low productivity growth, compared to what happened in the middle and late 20th Century.

All of which leads commentators like Yglesias and Tyler Cowen to fret that the robots aren’t coming fast enough. Typical of most writers on this subject, Yglesias just worries vaguely that increases in productivity won’t happen for some unspecified reason.

I’ve argued a number of times for an explanation that connects the question of automation and productivity growth directly to wages and the general condition of labor. The basic idea is very simple. From the perspective of the boss, replacing a worker with a machine will be more appealing to the degree that the machine is:

  • Cheaper than the human worker
  • More convenient and easier to control than the human worker

This implies that if workers win higher wages and more control over their working conditions, their jobs are more likely to be automated. Indeed, arguments like this frequently crop up among critics of things like the Fight for 15 campaign, which demands higher wages for fast food workers and other low wage employees. Prototypes for automatic burger-making machines are cited in order to warn workers that their jobs are at risk of being automated away.

I regard such warnings not as arguments against higher wages, but arguments for them. Workers, in the course of fighting for their interests, drive the dialectic that forces capitalists to find less labor-intensive ways of producing. The next political task, then, is to make sure that the benefits of such innovation accrue to the masses, and not to a small class of robot owners.

What I fear most is not that all of our labor will be replaced with machines. Rather, like Matt Yglesias, I worry that it won’t—but for a slightly different reason. Again, bosses prefer workers to machines when they are cheaper and easier to control. Hence the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one.

Which brings us back, finally, to the Chinese lingerie merchants. The article’s author, Peter Hessler, speaks to one such merchant, and asks him to comment on the biggest problem facing Egypt. To his surprise, his subject, Lin Xianfei, has a quick answer: gender inequality.

But the point turns out not to be that Lin is some sort of secret passionate feminist. Rather, his perspective turns on the exigencies of capital accumulation. For it turns out that while one kind of patriarchy is an impediment to business, another kind can be quite valuable to the shrewd businessman.

The problem, from Lin’s perspective, is that Egyptian women in his region don’t work in wage labor at all, or if they do they only do so for short periods of time, before marrying and retreating into the home. Even worse, local norms about proper female behavior preclude taking women out of their homes to live on site in massive dormitories, as might be done in China. Thus it becomes unfeasible to run factories on 24-hour production cycles.

Hiring men, meanwhile, is out of the question—another man, Xu Xin, tells Hessler that Egyptian men are too lazy and undisciplined for manufacturing work. Hessler goes on to note that “at the start of the economic boom in China, bosses hired young women because they could be paid less and controlled more easily than men”.

He proceeds to comment that female Chinese workers turned out to be “more motivated”, as though he is identifying something distinct from their weaker power position relative to men. But it is really the same thing. “More motivated”, here, refers to the motivation to work hard for the boss, for someone else’s profits and someone else’s riches. To behave, in other words, like obedient machines. The Chinese capitalist objects to the patriarchal structure of rural Egyptian society not because it is patriarchy, then, but because it is a form of patriarchy that is inconvenient to capital accumulation.

And sure enough, faced with recalcitrant humans, the textile magnates of Egypt turn to the same solution that the Chinese electronics firm Foxconn adopted in the wake of worker uprisings there. Wang Weiqiang echoes the other industrialists’ complaints about Egyptian labor: the men are lazy, the women “will work only during the daytime”. As a result, “he intends to introduce greater mechanization in hopes of maximizing the short workday”.

Greater mechanization and the maximization of a short work day might seem tragic to the capitalist, but it summarizes the short term goal of the post-work socialist left. Ornery, demanding workers work to drive technological developments that further this goal. And the socialist-feminist rendition of this project insists that we can prevent workers from being treated as machines not by shielding them with patriarchal and paternalistic morals, but rather by insisting that men and women alike can recognize their paid and unpaid labor in order to better refuse it.

Beyond the Welfare State

December 10th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

Jacobin has published Seth Ackerman’s translation of an interesting interview with French sociologist Daniel Zamora, discussing his recent book about Michel Foucault’s affinities with neoliberalism. Zamora rightly points out that the “image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life” is a very strained reading of a thinker whose relationship to the crisis of the 1970’s welfare state is at the very least much more ambiguous than that.

At the same time, Zamora’s argument demonstrates the limitations imposed by the displacement of “capitalism” by “neoliberalism” as a central category of left analysis. For his tacit premise seems to be that, if it can be shown that Foucault showed an “indulgence” toward neoliberalism, we must therefore put down his influence as a reactionary one. But what Foucault’s curious intersection with the project of the neoliberal right actually exemplifies, I would argue, is an ambiguity at the heart of the crisis of the 1970’s which gave rise to the neoliberal project. That he can be picked up by the right as easily as the left says much about the environment that produced him. Meanwhile, Zamora’s own reaction says something important about a distinction within the social democratic left that is worth spending some time on, which I’ll return to below.

Zamora makes much of the neoliberal move away from the attempt to reduce inequality, in the direction of targeted efforts to alleviate poverty and provide a minimum standard of living. (In a juicy bit bound to delight those of us immersed in the wonky details of empirical measures of inequality, he even quotes one of Foucault’s right-wing contemporaries positing that “the distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty is in fact the distinction between capitalism and socialism”.) But in doing so, he elides the force of the Foucauldian critique of the welfare state. It is true that the move away from universal social provision and toward targeted aid is a hallmark of social policy in the era of welfare state retrenchment. But this is not the main point of Foucault’s argument, even by Zamora’s own telling.

Foucault, he argues, “was highly attracted to economic liberalism” because “he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left.” It is possible to see this as nothing more than either reaction or naïveté, as Zamora seems to when he warns of Foucault’s mistake in putting “the mechanisms of social assistance and social insurance . . . on the same plane as the prison, the barracks, or the school.” But it’s possible to extract a different lesson about the nature of the system that Foucault was analyzing.

At the heart of Zamora’s own project, he says, is a disagreement with Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s argument that Foucault represents “a desire to use neoliberalism to reinvent the left.” Rather, he argues “that he uses it as more than just a tool: he adopts the neoliberal view to critique the Left.”

Here we have the crux of the problem. For Zamora, the key political opposition is between “neoliberalism” and “the Left.” But neoliberalism is only a historically specific phase of capitalist class strategy, one which itself developed in the context of the particular form of welfare capitalism and class compromise that arose in the mid-20th Century. So if “the Left” is conceived primarily as a project against neoliberalism, its aims will be limited to the restoration of the pre-neoliberal order, which Zamora defines as “social security and the institutions of the working class.”

But the value of Foucault, and others like him, is in highlighting the limits of any such strategy. Postwar welfare capitalism was, to be sure, a substantive achievement of the working class and the socialist movement. And it represented an equlibrium—call it the Fordist compromise—in which workers shared in the benefits of rising productivity.

But it was also an inherently contradictory and self-subverting order. This was true both from the perspective of capital and of labor. For the capitalist, long periods of full employment and strong labor movements meant a profit squeeze and escalating political instability as workers lost their fear of unemployment and poverty. The Fordist compromise was no more satisfactory for workers, as the historian Jefferson Cowie documents in his writing on the 1970’s. What was called the “blue collar blues” represented the desire of workers for more than just higher paychecks: for more free time, for control over the labor process, for liberation from wage labor.

The welfare state institutions that arose in that context were marked by the same contradiction: they were at once sources of security and freedom, and instruments of social control. As Beatriz Preciado says, in a quote Zamora produces as evidence of the bad new libertarian left: “the welfare state is also the psychiatric hospital, the disability office, the prison, the patriarchal-colonial-heteronormative school.” One aspect of the welfare state made it dangerous to the employing class, while another chafed on the employed (and unemployed). Welfare capitalism has always been characterized by this tension between universalistic benefits tied to a universal notion of social citizenship, and carefully targeted systems of qualification and incentive designed to prop up specific social relations, from the workplace to the street to the home. This is a key insight of the school of comparative welfare state study that distinguishes the decommodifying from the stratifying elements of the welfare state.

One way to think of this is as the permeation of the contradictions of bourgeois democracy into the economic sphere. Just as capitalist democracies exist in an uneasy tension between the principles of “one person one vote” and “one dollar one vote”, so does the system of economic regulation simultaneously work to support the power of the working class and to control it.

In contrast, Zamora seems unwilling to countenance this two-sided quality to class compromises in capitalism. As he puts it, the choice is either “that social security is ultimately nothing more than a tool of social control by big capital” (a view held by unnamed persons on “the radical left”), or that the bourgeoisie “was totally hostile” to institutions that “were invented by the workers’ movement itself.”

Zamora appears to view social insurance as representing the creation of “social rights” that cushion workers from the vagaries of the market, while leaving the basic institutions of private property and wage labor in place. This is a non-Marxist form of social democracy with deep theoretical roots going back to Karl Polanyi and T.H. Marshall, and it was arguably the main way in which the European social democratic parties saw themselves in their heyday. This kind of social democracy is the protagonist in Shari Berman’s recent book on the history of European social democracy, in which the Polanyian pragmatists are pitted against Marxists who, in her view, ignored the exigencies of social reform altogether in favor of an apocalyptic insistence that the capitalist system would inevitably collapse and usher in revolution. The endpoint of this kind of Polanyian socialism is a welfare state that protects the working class from the workings of an unfettered market.

There is, however, another way to think about the welfare state from a Marxist perspective. It is possible to believe that fighting for a robust and universal welfare state is a necessary and desirable project, while at the same time believing that the socialist imagination cannot end there, because the task of humanizing capitalism generates its own contradictions. On this view, the system Foucault analyzed was a system that could not simply continue on in static equilibrium; it had to be either transcended in a socialist direction, or, as happened, dismantled in a project of capitalist retrenchment. From this perspective, the importance of figures like Foucault is not just as misleaders or budding reactionaries, but as indicators of social democracy’s limits, and of the inability of the mainstream left at the time to reckon with the crisis that its own victories had produced. By the same token, neoliberalism can be seen not just as a tool to smash the institutions of the working class, but also as a mystified and dishonest representation of the workers’ own frustrated desires for freedom and autonomy.

Zamora speaks of Foucault imagining “a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.” Other than the name, this does not sound much at all like the really existing neoliberal turn, which has only reconfigured the densely connected relationship between state and market rather than freeing the latter from the former. This vision of autonomy sounds more like the radical move beyond welfare capitalism, toward Wilde’s vision of socialist individualism. (Provided, that is, that we accord autonomy from bosses equal place with autonomy from the state.) Postmodernism as premature post-capitalism, as Moishe Postone once put it.

None of this is to say that the fight for universal social provision is unimportant; nor is it to dispute Zamora’s point that the fight for universal economic rights has tended, in recent times to be eclipsed by “a centering of the victim who is denied justice” as he quotes Isabelle Garo.

The point is only that it is worth thinking about what happens on the other side of such battles. Whether one finds it useful to think along these lines depends, ultimately, on what one sees as the horizon of left politics. Zamora speaks mournfully of the disappearance of exploitation and wealth inequality as touchstones of argument and organizing, and of the dismantling of systems of social insurance. Yet he himself seems unwilling to go beyond the creation and maintenance of humanized forms of exploitation, a perhaps more egalitarian (but not equal) distribution of wealth. He speaks favorably of Polanyi’s principle of “withdrawing the individual out of the laws of the market and thus reconfiguring relations of power between capital and labor”; meanwhile, André Gorz’s elevation of the “right to be lazy” is dismissed and equated with Thatcherism.

This Polanyian social democracy as a harmonious “reconfiguring” of the capital-labor relation is a far cry from the Marxist insistence on abolishing that relation altogether. But its inadequacy as either an inspiring utopia or a sustainable social order is the real lesson of the crisis that gave rise to neoliberalism. And while Foucault may not have come to all the right conclusions about addressing that crisis, he at least asked some of the right questions.

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.

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.

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.

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,

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.

In Defense of Soviet Waiters

February 5th, 2013  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Socialism, Work

There’s been a bit of a discussion about affective labor going around. Paul Myerscough in the London Review of Books describes the elaborate code with which the Pret a Manger chain enforces an ersatz cheerfulness and dedication on the part of its employees, who are expected to be “smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged”. Echoing a remark of Giraudoux and George Burns, the most important thing to fake is sincerity: “authenticity of being happy is important”.

Tim Noah and Josh Eidelson elaborate on this theme, and Sarah Jaffe makes the point that this has always been an extremely gendered aspect of labor (waged and otherwise). She notes that “women have been fighting for decades to make the point that they don’t do their work for the love of it; they do it because women are expected to do it.” Employers, of course, would prefer equality to be established by imposing the love of work on both genders.

Noah describes the way Pret a Manger keeps “its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi”. I was reminded of the Soviet model too, but in a different way. I’m just old enough to remember when people talked about the Communist world as a really-existing place rather than a vaguely-defined bogeyman. And one of the mundane tropes that always came up foreign travelogues from behind the Iron Curtain concerned the notoriously surly service workers, in particular restaurant waiters. A 1977 newspaper headline reads “Soviet Union Takes Hard Look At Surly Waiters, Long Lines”. In a 1984 dispatch in the New York Times, John Burns reports that “faced with inadequate supplies, low salaries and endless lines of customers, many Russians in customer-service jobs lapse into an indifference bordering on contempt.”

One can find numerous explanations of this phenomenon, from the shortcomings of the planned economy to the institutional structure of the Soviet service industry to the vagaries of the Russian soul to the legacy of serfdom. But one factor was clearly that Soviet workers, unlike their American counterparts, were guaranteed jobs, wages, and access to essential needs like housing, education, and health care. The fear that enforces fake happiness among capitalist service workers—culminating in the grotesquery of Pret a Manger—was mostly inoperative in the Soviet Union. As an article in the Moscow Times explains:

During the perestroika era, the American smile was a common reference point when the topic of rude Soviet service was discussed. In an often-quoted exchange that took place on a late-1980s television talk show, one participant said, “In the United States, store employees smile, but everyone knows that the smiles are insincere.” Another answered, “Better to have insincere American smiles than our very sincere Soviet rudeness!”

With the collapse of the USSR and the penetration of Western capital into Russia, employers discovered a workforce that adapted only reluctantly to the norms of capitalist work discipline. A 1990 article in USA Today opens with a description of the travails facing the first Pizza Hut in the Soviet Union:

To open the first Pizza Hut restaurants in the Soviet Union, U.S. managers had to teach Soviet workers how to find the ”you” in U.S.S.R.

”We taught them the concept of customer service,” says Rita Renth, just back from the experience. ”Things that come naturally to employees here we had to teach them to do: -smiling, interacting with customers, eye contact.”

In no time, however, the managers hit on what I’ve described as the third wave form of the work ethic. Rather than appealing to religious salvation or material prosperity, workers are told that they should find their drudgery intrinsically enjoyable:

The five U.S. managers – and colleagues from Pizza Huts in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia and other nations – spent 12 to 14 hours a day drilling the Russians on service and food preparation, Pizza Hut style.

As a way of ”motivating them to be excited about what they were doing, we made (tasks) like folding boxes into a contest,” Rae says. ”When they finished, they said they couldn’t believe they would ever have fun at their jobs.”

That feeling, rare in Soviet workplaces, has been noticed. ”A comment made by a lot of customers was that as soon as they walked in, they sensed a feeling of warmth,” Rae says.

It’s the Pret a Manger approach to enforced cheerfulness (which had better be authentic!), combined with gamification, 1990-style. Along the same lines is this blog post from a business school professor, who recounts the experience of the first Russian McDonald’s:

After several days of training about customer service at McDonald’s, a young Soviet teenager asked the McDonald’s trainer a very serious question: “Why do we have to be so nice to the customers? After all, WE have the hamburgers, and they don’t!”

True enough. But while they may have had the hamburgers, with the collapse of Communism they no longer had steady access to the means of payment.

The brusqueness of customer service interactions has typically been interpreted as an indication of Communism’s shortcomings, their low quality understood as a mark of capitalism’s superiority. And it does indicate a contradiction of the Soviet model, which preserved the form of wage labor while removing many of the disciplinary mechanisms—the threat of unemployment, of destitution—that force workers to accept the discipline of the employer or the customers. That contradiction comes to a head in a restaurant where both employees and customers are miserable. As the old saying goes, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

In his recent essay, Seth Ackerman cautions that present-day socialists shouldn’t overlook the material shortcomings of the planned economies, and he notes that “the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself”. But service work is a bit different from the kind of material shabbiness he discusses, since the product and the worker are inseparable. To demand what we’ve come to think of as “good service” is ultimately to demand the kind of affective—and affected—labor that we see throughout the service industry and especially in female-gendered occupations. Paul Myerscough is clearly unsettled by a system in which, “To guard against the possibility of Pret workers allowing themselves to behave even for a moment as if they were ‘just here for the money’, the company maintains a panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment.” But 30 years ago, journalists like Myerscough were the sort of people grousing about rude Moscow waiters.

In a system based on wage labor (or its approximation), the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable. In other words, fake American smiles or sincere Soviet rudeness. The customer service interaction under capitalism can hardly avoid the collision between fearful resentment and self-deluding condescension, of the sort Tim Noah enacts in his opening: “For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me.” Perhaps it’s time to look back with a bit of nostalgia on the surly Communist waiters of yore, whose orientation toward the system was at least transparent.

I have argued many times that the essence of the social democratic project—and for the time being, the socialist project as well—is the empowerment of labor. By means of full employment, the separation of income from employment, and the organization of workers, people gain the ability to resist the demands of the boss. But the case of affective labor is another example that shows why this supposedly tepid and reformist project is ultimately radical and unstable. Take away the lash of the boss, and you are suddenly forced to confront service employees as human beings with human emotions, without their company-supplied masks of enforced good cheer. Revealing the true condition of service work can be a de-fetishizing experience, one just as jarring—and quite a bit closer to home—than finding out how your iPhone was manufactured. In both cases, we are made to confront unpleasant truths about the power relations that structure all of our experiences as consumers.