The limits of anti-Trumpism

July 6th, 2020  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

Max Elbaum is a friend and sometime political mentor. He's also the author of Revolution in the Air, the definitive history of the "New Communist Movement" within the New Left, a tendency that has been broadly influential on my politics as well. So I always pay close attention to his comments on left strategy.

In a recent article for Organizing Upgrade, Max lays out his view of the current terrain for socialists. And while there's much there to agree with, the clear and unambiguous way that he makes his case shows some clear limits to the kind of popular front he wants to exhort socialists to join.

In Max's view, the Left after the end of the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign is divided into two camps. One, the "Never Biden" camp, views the central dividing line in American politics in 2020 as being between workers and neo-liberal capitalists. This means that the enemy is not just Trump and the Republican party, but much of the Democratic establishment as well. Within my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, Max identifies this analysis with the so-called "Bernie or Bust" resolution adopted at our 2019 convention, which bars DSA from endorsing any non-Bernie candidate for President in 2020.

Max goes on to reject this analysis in favor of one which sees American politics as being defined by the popular front against Trumpism:

Today’s which-side-are-you-on dividing line is between a racist authoritarian bloc led by Donald Trump vs. a larger but much more heterogeneous array of forces that, from different angles, regard Trumpism as a dire threat to their rights and interests.

Both the Trump and anti-Trump camps are multi-class alliances. Both contain advocates of neoliberal economics. The conflict between them is nonetheless quite sharp. The dividing line is the system of white supremacy. This racist material relation is not an “add-on” that piles oppression on top of exploitation for certain groups of workers. Rather, it is integral to and interwoven with relations of exploitation in ways that have decisively shaped political conflict in the U.S. since its origins in 1619.

Max goes on to persuasively argue that segments of the ruling class have self-interested reasons to oppose the Trump regime, both because they are personally threatened by its authoritarianism, and because they see it as opposed to the true long-term interests of the U.S. ruling class. But his payoff, and the point that is bound to me most controversial, is what he thinks this implies for socialist strategy.

The long and short of it is that socialists are exhorted that we must above all prioritize "throwing ourselves into the anti-Trump coalition is the best route for both ousting Trump and building the strength of progressive movements and the socialist left."

The problem is not that the analysis is entirely wrong, but that it divides the political options in such a way that important features of the present moment are left out. In his closing, Max presents the possible slogans as being either "Beat Trump" or "Never Biden". That is, socialists must choose either to direct all their energy to electing Biden, or dismiss the significance of this fight on the grounds that Biden is too reactionary and compromised to be worth fighting for. The former, he suggests, is the path toward building strength, the latter towards political marginality and isolation from rising multi-racial progressive coalitions.

This would be a more persuasive argument if---as, from reading Max's text, sometimes appears to be the case---the sum total of what is happening in U.S. politics at the moment were defined by the Presidential election. But the concrete organizing situation is more complex like this, as we can see by considering something that Max refers to repeatedly but never analyzes in detail: the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

From the way these uprisings are discussed in the article, you would think that they were protests against the Trump regime and the Republican Party. It is certainly true that the police themselves---both rank and file and leadership---are part of Trump's base. So too, the "blue lives matter" counter-organizing overlaps substantially with the hardest core of Trump's support.

But the elected leadership that the protests have targeted most directly are mayors and city councils that are largely Democrats. The call to defund the police, which has arisen as the most exciting and distinctive demand of the current wave of struggles, is directed at municipal governments like those of Minneapolis and New York, where police departments have only become more brutal and taken up more of the municipal budget under decades of supposedly liberal leadership.

Mayors like Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Bill de Blasio have found themselves at odds with movements in the street and on the side of the police. And yet, according to Max's analysis, these politicians are part of the very anti-Trump front we are being asked to join!

This might be possible, and even desirable, if the only issue in play were the Presidential election. (Although Biden himself has made this difficult by being very clear in his pro-police stance.) But defunding the police is an issue now, as budgets are being written and passed in a context of pandemic-driven austerity.

A similar argument can be made about the other major driver of politics at the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic. It is true that Trump's total failure to deal with the pandemic, and his attempt to politicize epidemiology and promote conspiracy theories instead, has created a powerful basis for opposing him and the forces he represents.

And yet once again, it has been not just Republicans but also neoliberal Democrats, who Max wants us to see a sallies against Trump, who have been the ones botching the response and using the coronavirus as a pretext for their pre-existing pro-capitalist agenda. In New York, it was Governor Andrew Cuomo---whose media strategy for a time made him a liberal darling in contrast to Trump---who forced through cuts to Medicaid in the middle of a pandemic in a way that managed to provoke even the reliably pro-business Senator Chuck Schumer to rebuke him from the left. And in Philadelphia, mayor Jim Kenney responded to call to defund the police by proposing a budget that increased police funding while cutting social services.

These are only two examples relatively close to where I'm located, but there are others around the country. The point is that it's easy to make politics all about the anti-Republican popular front when you abstract away from the context and the content of the protest movements and organizing that are actually going on.

My intention in arguing all of this is not to uphold the "Never Biden" pole of the argument, which, as Max constructs it, is not particularly appealing. But this is because the argument is laid out in a way that presumes that we all organize in a context where the only choice is to be all in for Biden, or to be politically irrelevant until November. And this, as the foregoing suggests, is manifestly not the case.

As a final example, I'll use my local organizing context in New York's Hudson Valley, a couple of hours north of New York City. Like much of the rest of the country, we've seen waves of unprecedented mobilization in the past weeks, with crowds of hundreds or thousands gathering in the small towns and cities that dot our region. And the call to defund the police has been raised into consciousness and put before local elected officials in unprecedented ways.

Our region is divided between de-industrialized, mostly non-white cities and more affluent and white exurban and rural areas. The threat of the Right is very real here, in both its generically pro-Trump and overtly Nazi forms. But the Biden-Trump contest itself lingers more in the background, even as we pursue police defunding campaigns in cities largely run by Democrats.

The reason for this is fairly obvious: New York State will almost certainly vote for Biden, due to the power of New York City's vote. Where electoral politics in my region has been contested lately, it has once again been a matter not of anti-Trump popular frontism but rather, the left-versus-neoliberals fight that Max's analysis seeks to strategically sideline. Jamaal Bowman won his primary over Eliot Engel, a fairly conventional Democrat (if especially hawkish on foreign policy), in a contest that pitted progressive forces against everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Hillary Clinton to Republican Super PACs.

Virtually nobody on the left disagrees with the proposition that defeating Donald Trump is important and necessary. And in some places and some political contexts, prioritizing Presidential-level electoral organizing will make the most sense. But the reality for many of us is that the fight against capital's liberal face and its conservative one are both happening right now, and it doesn't make sense, as either principle or strategy, to put one of these struggles on the shelf until after November.

Breaking the Norm

November 2nd, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

I was pleasantly surprised with the response to my last post (thanks Red Wedge and Commune and the Art and Labor podcast). But there was one specific misinterpretation that I want to try to clarify. It arises specifically among the "normie" socialists I was targeting in my previous intervention, and it pertains to just what it means for the left to be a "subculture".

I saw multiple people state that in calling for a left that was openly weird, I was calling for a left that set itself apart as a "subculture" that self-consciously stands against the values and norms of the "mainstream" working class culture. And that is, indeed, what the apostles of the normcore left often accuse people like me of doing. But it is not at all what I was trying to do. I wasn't trying to oppose the normal, I was trying to abolish it. I'll try to explain that better in what follows.

It's telling that a certain portion of my readership---and it seems to be disproportionately other white men---sees me talking about trans people, or black people, or queer people, and immediately begins thinking in terms of "subculture". I think this arises from a genuine blind spot and not, in most cases, a conscious bias. The reflex---and it is one that does not only occur in white men, to be sure---is to implicitly associate "mainstream" with whiteness, maleness, cisness, heterosexuality, and the traditional family.

It was this bias that I was critiquing, and that Kate Griffiths critiques in the "what is normal" passage I quoted in my last post. Moreover, both of us were making the point that the "normal" is really a set of expectations that are imposed on the working class by a patriarchal capitalist system. And the real working class, far from adhering strictly to those expectations, is constantly in a state of either failing to live up to them, or not even wanting to try.

So the point is not to set the left up as its own separate subculture. Rather, the point is to embrace the full diversity and weirdness of working class culture as it already exists and to embrace that, and accept the inherent weirdness of then adding to that a politics that demands the overthrow of the entire capitalist mode of production. All the variegated parts of the working class have to come together to form the only subculture that matters: a class implacably opposed to capital, rejecting the powers of accumulated wealth. Composing that class will not happen by subsuming all of our various subjectivities under some blank normality. A lot of people intuitively get that; how else to explain socialists' infatuation with the juggalos?

And in any case, normie is itself a subculture. In a Facebook thread discussing my post, Jesse Kudler notes that in many cases:

Young white educated people actually universalize from their rather particular circumstances and orientation. So being a queer communist or whatever becomes "weird" or "a subculture," but being a white 20-something with an advanced degree who likes Chapo and spends a lot of time shitposting on Twitter is "normal" and "universal" when in fact it's clearly actually its own hyper-specific sub-culture.

As Kudler said in a later post, learning Roberts Rules of Order is itself very weird subcultural behavior. But people don't see it this way, often because they come from a demographic background that has been socialized to think of whatever it is they do as "normal".

One consequence of this mental habit is that it inhibits the ability to distinguish between not centering some particular part of the working class, versus actually dismissing or attacking that class fragment.

This came up in the debate I referenced earlier, about Asad Haider's Mistaken Identity. In response to a poorly argued review at Jacobin, Samuel Schwartz responded with a clear explanation of what was wrong with the entire premise of an argument that says certain demands, like Medicare for All, are superior by virtue of being "universal".

The problem becomes immediately evident when Medicare for All is opposed to some supposedly "particularist" and therefore divisive demand such as abolishing ICE or abolishing prisons. What is it, exactly, that makes these demands particular? They do not demand abolishing ICE or prisons only for certain people, they simply demand that nobody should be deported or incarcerated.

The charge of particularism can only made to stick if it is taken to describe, not who is affected by a policy, but who is most perceived to be affected by it. And this brings us to another rhetorical move that is routine in normitarian universalist circles: the insistence that some "universal" demand like Medicare for all is "really" the most anti-racist or feminist demand, since in practice women and people of color will benefit the most from it.

There are two related problems with this. First, as an organizing strategy it amounts to a belief that white and male workers are fundamentally racist and patriarchal, and can only be won to socialism if they can be tricked into believing that they are not fighting for the interests of women or people of color. This is, I think, contrary to reality and historical experience, but worse than that it is self-reinforcing: a politics that deliberately avoids talking about race or gender will never be able to challenge racism and sexism and homophobia in its own ranks, and the movement and the class that forms around that politics will, in fact, be more reactionary than it might have been otherwise.

Moreover, after the interests of marginalized fractions are pushed aside, once "universal" demands quickly lose their universality. One can easily imagine a compromise version of Medicare for all that leaves out reproductive rights, or the trans health services that, as Fainan Lakha notes, are critical to a left-wing health care politics. And the very fact that health care delivery has those specificities, for particular groups, shows that all "universal" policies are particular in their implementation.

All of this is why all of our "subcultures" of the working class are important---and yes, that includes the subculture of straight white couples who want to form nuclear families and raise kids in the suburbs. What's objectionable about normie socialism isn't that some people desire that lifestyle. It's that they insist on making it the center of attention at the expense of everyone else. That's what many found odd about Jacobin's recent embrace of socialist pro-natalism arguments. On a policy level I find much to agree with in the linked articles. And I don't have anything against people who want to be in heteronormative couples and have children. I just have a hard time believing that such people represent a specially persecuted group on the left. More likely, I think some people get uncomfortable when their particular needs and desires aren't treated as if they are more normal or healthy or important than everyone else's.

A related problem came up in the debate over the Haider review that I mentioned above. What critics had to point out, whether explicitly or not, was that the entire premise of the call for universalism was patriarchal and white supremacist. That is, it measured universality not in terms of who a demand applies to, but in terms of how much the implied "normal worker" (white, male, cis, straight) could feel it applied to them. When this is pointed out it immediately leads to defensive reactions, because, unsurprisingly, a political tendency that assiduously avoids talking about race and gender is not very good at structural understandings of race and gender. Instead, people tend to fall back on the kind of liberal ascriptive politics they paint onto their opponents: an argument that a particular argument or strategy has racist premises gets turned into an accusation that the people making that argument are, themselves, irredeemably racist as people.

But the point here isn't to draw some kind of line in the sand dividing the woke from the backwards. Rather, it is to seriously investigate what it takes to actively take the working class as it exists in itself, in many different modes and combinations of everyday life, and combine and compose that into a fighting class for itself. That won't be done by ignoring the way we are divided into many "subcultures" that live class in different ways and uniting under a blank banner of the normal. It will be done by all of us learning to admit we aren't as normal as we might want to believe.

Keep Socialism Weird

October 29th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Feminism, Fiction, Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

Gritty says: "our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

"our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

The above statement, though today often attributed to antifa mascot Gritty, was actually made by Kate Griffiths of the Red Bloom Communist Collective. It reiterates themes discussed in a wonderful interview they did with Red Wedge magazine, entitled "Normie Socialism or Communist Transgression".

I've thought about it a lot these past few weeks, through Kavanaugh, the attacks on migrants, the transphobic attacks of the Trump administration, and now the synagogue massacre by a far right anti-semite. And how in each of these cases, I've had to step back and try to really understand how these political events feel to the people directly targeted by them, in contrast to me, who is of course enraged by it all but still feels mostly safe from it.

In particular I'm thinking about something the interviewer mentions, the "cries from some quarters of the Left bleating about transgression, pathologizing broader Left culture --- implicitly queer folks, but others as well, notably cultural producers. . . . the core of the complaint from some circles is that the Left are a bunch of oddballs". This is what Griffiths calls "normie socialism", a belief that we will somehow better relate to the "real working class" if we adapt to its supposedly bourgeois and patriarchal norms rather than running around like a bunch of freaks.

But what is it to be normal? Griffiths notes:

Mostly, it involves being rich enough not to be embarrassed, but it also involves not being too queer; participating in de facto and de jure segregation along lines of race, gender and citizenship in housing and the labor market; getting a job that matches your “potential” or education; or which can afford you signs of stability and affluence. The ideal is a life organized around the moral imperative of providing the best possible future for your children (which you should probably have) or at very least one which keeps you from being “dependent” on your extended family, the state, or other people at all beyond the medium of exchange. But that kind of “normal” is increasingly a pipe dream for anyone who ever had access to it and has always been tenuous-to-unattainable for much of the working class. For some parts of the working class it has always been, in fact, recognized as such and undesirable.

They go on to observe that the normie socialist discourse evades many conversations about the left's historical limitations, the way patrarchial, heterormative, or white supremacist norms and practices have held back organizing and distorted revolutions. And about how being "out" as a communist isn't separate from being out as queer, or trans, say. They all work together. And they're all weird. The vision of this communism isn't just one of traditional nuclear families with nice suburban lives, only with health care and a union and free education and a guaranteed government job.

It's a questioning and recombining of all identities and forms of social life, for which securing the basic physical necessities of life is merely the pre-condition. It's rejecting gender, the family, work as we understand them. It's the radical revaluation of values that, as Jasper Bernes observes in Commune, can be found in both the value form Marxism of Moishe Postone and the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin.

In other words, communism is really, really weird. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

And yet we have liberals and ostensible socialists, the Jonathan Chaits and Angela Nagles and even other writers at Jacobin peddling the fantasy that the alt-right is somehow a consequence of the left being too weird, too queer, too willing to question white supremacy or heteronormativity.

The resurgence of fascism, also documented in Commune, and the horrifying synagogue murders, should finally slam the door on those who want to blame the left for fascism, to pretend that if we just toned it down on Tumblr and got everyone back in the closet, sad boys in the suburbs would flock to us instead of the alt-right. But of course people like Chait and Nagle will keep peddling the same tired old line, as long as people are willing to pay to hear it.

And there are deeper, more important political battles ahead. The most popular socialist podcasts traffick in the supposed normality of themselves and their listeners, even as they flirt with right-leaning transgression in the form of "ironic" racism or anti-semitism. Leading figures in the Democratic Socialists of America seem to be captivated by a paranoid fixation on a supposed plague of "wokeness" and "identity politics", which they are certain will reduce a resurgent American socialism to solipsistic white-guilt struggle sessions if not ruthlessly supressed.

But what does it mean to take our weirdness seriously as political practice? The Le Guin and Postone idea can sound abstract and moralistic, detached from the concrete work of politics. But for me, it amounts to consciously trying to weird my politics and myself.

I am, in certain respects, pretty "normie": straight, cis, white, middle class, the stereotype of a DSA socialist. The point of saying this is not to navel-gaze or self-flagellate or essentialize identity categories, much as the anti-identitarians want to misrepresent it that way. It is to do the opposite, in fact---to try to trouble those categories and get weird. I can't change the advantages my social location gave me, and in fact I want to put them to use for the revolution. What I can do is try to spend more time in spaces that aren't full of people like me, and more time trying to develop political empathy, to see what being a transfeminist communist means, and what it is to struggle with, and against, identities other than the ones ascribed to me. In the process, I can get a little more weird.

I can, in other words, through listening and understanding, try to approach the kind of psychic mobility that would grant me, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it, "a command of the conditions of existence and the social mechanisms which exert their effects on the whole ensemble of the category to
which such a person belongs (that of high-school students, skilled workers,
magistrates, etc.) and a command of the conditions, psychological and social, both associated with a particular position and a particular trajectory in social space." This is not a distraction from socialist or communist politics, it is that politics in practice. I would go so far as to say that without developing this command, good organizing is impossible.

Just as importantly, armed with greater empathy and knowledge, I can bring what I know back to the political work I do, and to the "normies". That means, at a larger scale, making sure that, for example, DSA is getting more involved in things like the International Women's Strike and the Trans Book Bloc, rather than recoiling from them in favor of some supposedly pure, "universalist" "class" politics. It means, at a smaller scale, talking to and encouraging fledgling comrades, whose politics may not have gotten much past the Bernie Sanders campaign, to think and act more radically and more deeply.

That's the way forward because it's ideologically and morally right, but also because it's strategically what is most likely to work. Certainly the anti-woketarian inquisitors in DSA mostly seem to have succeeded in generating a lot of ill will, disillusionment, and anger from people who could have been comrades. It's their excesses, and not some over-investment in being self critical about racism or patriarchy on the left, that I'm worried will drive people away and shatter promising organizing projects.

And as Griffiths argues:

I don’t think it will work on its own terms, that is, simply electing socialists or even more Democrats to office. It relies on an already unrealistic and static account of the commitments and sympathies of working class people, who like me, each have their own individual political stories of change, through relationships, through organization and through action. If any of this works, to the extent that it recruits newly politicized socialists, they aren’t going to stay still; we see that I think in a lot of the political expressions of local DSA chapters and working groups, and in even in the development of the Chapo Trap House fandom, which often exceeds its authors in political sensibility and vision.

In other words, warmed-over minimalist social democracy may get you closer to high tide, but it won't prepare you for what you find when you get there. These days I'm sometimes reminded of the antics of some of the Maoist and Trotskyist students of the 1960s, who thought they could connect with "real" workers by cosplaying as clean-cut, conservatively dressed normies. The real workers, of course, were already quitting their jobs, growing their hair out, and getting into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now as then, the times call for a politics and a sensibility that is, as the old line of Lenin's had it, "as radical as reality itself."

Keep Socialism Weird!

Post-Work: A guide for the perplexed

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

In Sunday's *New York Times*, conservative columnist Ross Douthat [invokes](http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/opinion/sunday/douthat-a-world-without-work.html) 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](https://twitter.com/JHWeissmann/status/305681756441427969) 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](http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/) to [Oscar Wilde](http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/wilde-oscar/soul-man/index.htm) to [Bertrand Russell](http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html) to [André Gorz](http://books.google.com/books/about/Paths_to_paradise.html?id=5wTsAAAAMAAJ). It's a vision that animates my writing on topics ranging across [the contradictions of the work ethic](http://jacobinmag.com/2011/01/hipsters-food-stamps-and-the-politics-of-resentment/), [the possibilities of a post-scarcity society](http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/), [the politics of sex work](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/03/the-problem-with-sex-work/), and [the connection between post-work politics and feminism](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/04/the-politics-of-getting-a-life/). Others have addressed related themes, like Chris Maisano on [shorter working hours](http://jacobinmag.com/2011/01/take-this-job-and-share-it/) as both a response to unemployment and a step forward for human freedom, and Sarah Leonard on the [pro-work corporate feminism](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/12/she-cant-sleep-no-more/) of Marissa Mayer.

The basic vision of the post-work Left, then, is one of [fewer jobs](http://jacobinmag.com/2011/07/against-jobs-for-full-employment/), 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](http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/opinion/sunday/douthat-how-to-read-in-2013.html), 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](http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2012/10/understanding-decline-in-participation.html)). 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](http://stateofworkingamerica.org/charts/productivity-and-real-median-family-income-growth-1947-2009/) 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](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/10/working-for-the-weekend-2/), [myself](http://jacobinmag.com/2011/07/against-jobs-for-full-employment/), and [Seth Ackerman](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/05/the-work-of-anti-work-a-response-to-peter-frase/) 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](http://kboo.fm/node/52414), 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](http://www.nber.org/digest/jul06/w11895.html) 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*](http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Time_Divide.html?id=3T1qJfLuohgC). And as it happens, I have some published [academic research](http://www.peterfrase.com/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](http://unionosity.com/precarity-2/guy-standing-discusses-the-precariat/) "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](http://sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/81/4/1171.short) 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](http://jacobinmag.com/2012/03/the-scourge-of-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](http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/mcjobs-should-pay-too-inside-fast-food-workers-historic-protest-for-living-wages/265714/) 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](http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor)---or for that matter, at [Pret a Manger](http://jacobinmag.com/2013/02/in-defense-of-soviet-waiters/).

Although it's pitched in a kindlier, *New York Times*-friendly tone, Douthat's argument is reminiscent of [Charles Murray's](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_Apart:_The_State_of_White_America,_1960%E2%80%932010) 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](http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/dec/20/instagame/) 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.

The Change is Too Damn Fast

March 13th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, xkcd.com/386

Matt Yglesias has [responded to me](http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/03/12/equality_requires_abundance.html), although in a way that sort of misses the point I was trying to make.

Part of his post is given over to reiterating the position that increasing the amount of housing stock in desirable cities would be a correct and egalitarian thing to do, even if it inconveniences some of the incumbent owners and residents. Let me emphasize that I *agree* with this. But he goes on to speculate that I hedged my position because it "makes [me] feel icky to embrace deregulation", as though my critique were a symptom of an affective disorder.

That really isn't the point. I'm actually quite a bit farther toward the left-neoliberal "deregulate and redistribute" end of things than many of my comrades on the Left. My argument---which was meant as a self-critique of my own tendencies as much as Yglesias'---is that we need to be attentive to the people's legitimate objections to rapid change, which complicate any project that wants to substantially rearrange the existing order.

Yglesias doesn't really respond to my argument that his overall deregulatory project tends to make life more volatile, when stability is itself a value to a lot of people. What he does say, in response to my comment that "there’s no a priori reason to say that the desire to have a stable, predictable life or job or neighborhood is less valid than the desire to maximize economic growth", is that:

> The question is not whether some fixed pool of people should give up stability in exchange for more money. The question is whether the incumbents should be asked to give up some stability for the sake of other people who are currently excluded from the opportunities the incumbents enjoy. My answer is that yes they should. That we should work toward plentiful housing not merely for its own sake, but precisely for the sake of equality.

The language of "incumbents" and "insiders" plays a central role in the neoliberal critique of regulation, whether in land use or in the labor market. And it's an argument I have some sympathy for. One of the things that most irks me about progressive nostalgia for the post-New Deal golden age is the way it elides the exclusions---of non-whites, of women, of non-union members---that made up the other side of stable high wage employment for the white male breadwinner.

But if an analyst portrays the issue merely in terms of a few insiders and an excluded mass, then he sets himself too easy a task. It's not just rich owners of San Francisco real estate who benefit from some kind of "insider" status. Many of us are insiders, whether due to rent regulations or union membership or occupational licensing. In any particular case, it's easy to set this up as a matter of egalitarianism and access. But generalized across the entire economy, what this amounts to is *everyone* (or most people) losing stability to
some degree, in return for everyone having more freedom and access. There can be a tradeoff between equality and stability, and my point was simply that it *is* a tradeoff. And it's the unwillingness to jump into the whirlwind of market relations that I think drives some of the revulsion at Yglesias' political project from certain quarters.

People want, and have always wanted, institutions that protect them from the pressures of the market. Even if one would *like* people to act as perfect left-neoliberal subjects---obeying the dictates of the profit motive by day, enjoying their generous transfer payments by night---the historical evidence is that people rarely behave that way. This argument is basically drawn from [Polanyi](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Polanyi); here is how the deregulators of an earlier age are criticized in [*The Great Transformation*](http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2008/06/polanyis-the-gr.html):

> Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was dis­carded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social conse­quences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The ele­mentary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undi­rected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely re­-teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the an­cients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth.

Polanyi's argument wasn't merely a normative one, but an analysis of history. He argued that industrial society was characterized by a "double movement", in which efforts to subordinate society to the self-regulating market were met with the "self-protection of society". This entailed efforts to impose limits on the market's control over the "fictitious commodities": labor, money, and, yes, *land*. It should be noted that Polanyi believed that the cataclysmic changes wrought by capitalism---the enclosures, the industrial revolution---were on balance *good things for humanity*. But he believed that someone needed to stand athwart history yelling "slow down!":

> A belief in spontaneous progress must make us blind to the role of government in economic life. This role consists often in altering the rate of change, speeding it up or slowing it down as the case may be; if we believe that rate to be unalterable---or even worse, if we deem it a sacrilege to interfere with it---then, of course, no room is left for intervention.

When it comes to the abundance-stability tradeoff, Yglesias and I are more on the same side than not---I'm ready to move in the direction of abundance, relative to the status quo. But we still have to take into account the disruptive impact of removing someone's "insider" protection---whether it's a restrictive zoning ordinance or an occupational licensing scheme. The insiders have be either persuaded, bribed, or coerced into giving up their privileges. And since a large proportion of Americans are "insiders" in one or another part of the economy, figuring out how to strike this balance has major implications for the democratic legitimacy, achievability, and feasibility of the project Yglesias is advocating. Which is why I spend so much time talking about ways to counteract the volatility of life in contemporary capitalism---like, for instance, [the basic income](http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/9185?in=58:05&out=61:18)---without reproducing insider-outside dynamics.

The Perils of Extrapolation

November 18th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, xkcd.com/386

So [Kevin Drum](http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/11/back-chessboard-and-future-human-race) and [Matt Yglesias](http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/11/17/371098/the-back-half-of-the-chessboard/) have read Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee's *Race Against the Machine* e-book, and *both* of them managed to come away impressed by the exact argument that [I identified](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/10/the-machines-and-us/) as the weakest part of the book's case. Namely, the belief the Moore's law---which stipulates that computer processing power increases at an exponential rate---can be extrapolated into the indefinite future. It's true that Moore's law seems to have held fairly well up to this point; and as Drum and Yglesias observe, if you keep extending it into the future, then pretty soon computing power will shoot up at an astronomically fast rate---that's just the nature of exponential functions. On this basis, Drum predicts that artificial intelligence is "going to go from 10% of a human brain to 100% of a human brain, and it's going to seem like it came from nowhere", while Yglesias more generally remarks that "we’re used to the idea of rapid improvements in information technology, but we’re actually standing on the precipice of changes that are much larger in scale than what we’ve seen thus far."

Let's revisit the problem with this argument, which I laid out in my review. The gist of it is that just because you think you're witnessing exponential progress, that doesn't mean you should expect that same rate of exponential growth to continue indefinitely. I'll turn the mic over to Charles Stross, from whom I [picked up this line of critique](http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/05/shaping_the_future.html):

> __Around 1950, everyone tended to look at what the future held in terms of improvements in transportation speed.__

> But as we know now, __that wasn't where the big improvements were going to come from. The automation of information systems just weren't on the map__, other than in the crudest sense — punched card sorting and collating machines and desktop calculators.

> We can plot __a graph of computing power against time that, prior to 1900, looks remarkably similar to the graph of maximum speed against time.__ Basically it's a flat line from prehistory up to the invention, in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, of the first mechanical calculating machines. It gradually rises as mechanical calculators become more sophisticated, then in the late 1930s and 1940s it starts to rise steeply. __From 1960 onwards, with the transition to solid state digital electronics, it's been necessary to switch to a logarithmic scale to even keep sight of this graph.__

> It's worth noting that the complexity of the problems we can solve with computers has not risen as rapidly as their performance would suggest to a naive bystander. This is largely because interesting problems tend to be complex, and computational complexity rarely scales linearly with the number of inputs; we haven't seen the same breakthroughs in the theory of algorithmics that we've seen in the engineering practicalities of building incrementally faster machines.

> Speaking of engineering practicalities, I'm sure everyone here has heard of Moore's Law. __Gordon Moore of Intel coined this one back in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistor count on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months.__ This isn't just about the number of transistors on a chip, but the density of transistors. A similar law seems to govern storage density in bits per unit area for rotating media.

> As a given circuit becomes physically smaller, the time taken for a signal to propagate across it decreases — and if it's printed on a material of a given resistivity, the amount of power dissipated in the process decreases. (I hope I've got that right: my basic physics is a little rusty.) So we get faster operation, or we get lower power operation, by going smaller.

> We know that Moore's Law has some way to run before we run up against the irreducible limit to downsizing. However, it looks unlikely that we'll ever be able to build circuits where the component count exceeds the number of component atoms, so __I'm going to draw a line in the sand and suggest that this exponential increase in component count isn't going to go on forever; it's going to stop around the time we wake up and discover we've hit the nanoscale limits.__

So to summarize: transportation technology *looked* like it was improving exponentially, which caused people to extrapolate that forward into the future. Hence the futurists and science fiction writers of the 1950s envisioned a future with flying cars and voyages to other planets. But what actually happened was that transportation innovation plateaued, and a completely different area, communications, became the source of major breakthroughs. And that's because, as Stross says later in the essay, "new technological fields show a curve of accelerating progress — until it hits a plateau and slows down rapidly. It's the familiar sigmoid curve."

And as Stross says [elsewhere](http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/unpleasant-medicine.html), "the first half of a sigmoid demand curve looks like an exponential function." This is what he means:

Sigmoid and exponential curves

The red line in that image is an exponential function, and the black line is a sigmoid curve. Think of these as two possible paths of technological development over time. If you're somewhere around that black X mark, you won't really be able to tell which curve you're on.

But I'm inclined to agree with Stross that we're more likely to be on the sigmoid path than the exponential one, when it comes to microprocessors. That doesn't mean that we'll hit a plateau with no big technological changes at all. It's just that, as Stross says in yet [*another* place](http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intcs.htm):

> New technologies slow down radically after a period of rapid change during their assimilation. However, I can see a series of overlapping sigmoid curves that might resemble an ongoing hyperbolic curve if you superimpose them on one another, each segment representing the period of maximum change as a new technology appears.

Hence economic growth *as a whole* can still look like it's [following an exponential path](http://inpp.ohiou.edu/~brune/gdp/gdp.html).

None of which is to say that I wholly reject the thesis of Brynjolfsson and McAffee's book---see the review for my thoughts on that. In a way, I think Drum and Yglesias are underselling just how weird and disruptive the future of technology will be---it's not just that it will be rapid, but that it will come in areas we can't even imagine yet. But we should be really wary of simply extending present trends into the future---our recent history of speculative economic manias should have taught us that if something [can't go on forever](http://survivalandprosperity.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Shiller-Housing-Bubble-Graph.jpg), it will stop.

The Fog of War and the Case for Knee-jerk Anti-Interventionism

November 10th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics, xkcd.com/386

In my last [post on Libya](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/09/libya-and-the-left/), I took a sort of squishy position: while avoiding a direct endorsement of the NATO military campaign there, I wanted to defend the existence of a genuine internal revolutionary dynamic, rather than dismissing the resistance to Gaddafi as merely the puppets of Western imperialism. I still basically stand by that position, and I still think the ultimate trajectory of Libya remains in doubt. But all that aside, it's important to look back carefully at the run-up to the military intervention. A couple of recent essays have tried to do so---one of them is an exemplary struggle to get at the real facts around the decision to go to war, while the other typifies the detestable self-congratulatory moralizing of the West's liberal warmongers.

The right way to look back on Libya is [this article](http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n22/hugh-roberts/who-said-gaddafi-had-to-go) in the *London Review of Books*, which I found by way of Corey Robin. Hugh Roberts, formerly of the International Crisis Group, casts a very skeptical eye on the claims made by the the NATO powers in the run-up to war, and on the intentions of those who were eager to intervene on the side of the Libyan rebels. At the same time, he acknowledges the intolerable nature of the Gaddafi regime and accepts the reality of an internally-generated political resistance that was not merely fabricated by external powers. But rather than accepting the claims of foreign powers at face value, he shows all the ways in which NATO actually managed to subvert the emergence of a real democratic political alternative in Libya, and he leaves me wondering once again whether the revolution would have been better off if it could have proceeded without external interference.

There are a few particularly important points that I want to draw out of Roberts' essay. First, he shows that, in a pattern that is familiar from the recent history of "humanitarian" interventions, many of the claims that were used to justify the imminent necessity of war do not hold up under scrutiny. First, there is the claim that military force had to be used because all other options had been exhausted. As Roberts observes:

> Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that __Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate.__ Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.

Whether or not you believe that the Gaddafi side would ever have seriously engaged in negotiations over a peaceful settlement, or whether you think such negotiations would have been preferable to complete rebel military victory, it seems clear that the NATO powers never really gave them the chance. This is reminiscent of what happened prior to the bombing of Serbia in 1999: NATO started bombing after claiming that Serbia refused a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo conflict. What actually happened was that NATO presented the Serbs with a "settlement" that would have [given NATO troops](http://www.inthesetimes.com/projectcensored/ackerman2317new.html) the right to essentially take control of Serbia. The Serbs understandably objected to this, though they were willing to accept international peacekeepers. But this wasn't enough for NATO, and so it was bombs away.

A second element of the brief for the Libya war that Roberts highlights is the peculiar case of the imminent Benghazi massacre. Recall that among the war's proponents, it was taken as accepted fact that, when NATO intervened, Gaddafi's forces were on the verge of conducting a genocidal massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, and thereby snuffing out any hope for the revolution. Here is what Roberts has to say about that:

> Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.

Roberts goes on to cast doubt on one of the specific claims of atrocity against Gaddafi: that his air force was strafing protestors on the ground. This claim was widely propagated by media like Al-Jazeera and liberal war-cheerleaders like Juan Cole, but Roberts finds no convincing evidence that it ever actually occurred. Reporters who were in Libya didn't get reports of it, nor is there any photographic evidence---this despite the ubiquity of cell-phone camera footage in the wave of recent uprisings. The evaporation of the sensational allegation calls to mind the run-up to yet another war: the first Gulf War, when the invasion of Iraq was sold, in part, by way of a [thoroughly made up](http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0906/p25s02-cogn.html) story about Iraqi troops ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.

Beyond revealing the weakness of the empirical case for war, Roberts also highlights something I hadn't really thought of before: the way the West's case for intervention promotes an anti-political and undemocratic framing of the conflict that has a lot in common with the sort of anti-ideological elite "non-partisanship" that I [wrote about](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/10/polarization-and-ideology/) a couple of weeks ago in the context of domestic politics. Roberts observes that the NATO powers portrayed themselves as the defenders of an undifferentiated "Libyan people" rather than partisans taking one side in a civil war. By doing so, they short-circuited the development of a real political division within Libyan society, a development that in itself was a desirable process:

> __The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts.__ As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. __Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya.__ In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.

It's possible, after reading all of Roberts' essay, to remain convinced that the NATO attack was a lesser evil on balance, and to retain some optimism about the future trajectory of Libya. But he nevertheless provides an important reminder of just why it's so important to beware of Presidents bearing "humanitarian" interventions. The liberal war-mongering crowd likes to deride those of us who bring strongly anti-interventionist biases into these debates, on the grounds that we are irrationally prejudiced against the United States, or against the possible benefits of war. But in the immediate prelude to war, such biases are in fact entirely rational, precisely because the real dynamics on the ground are so murky and hard to determine, and the arguments used to justify intervention so often turn out to be illusory after the fact.

This reality does not, however, prevent the liberal hawk faction from coming out with some triumphant breast-beating and score-settling when their little war looks to be a "success". Michael Berube has a [new essay](http://www.thepointmag.com/2011/politics/libya-and-the-left) in this genre, and it's terrible in all the ways the Roberts essay is excellent. In both tone and content, it's a shameful piece of writing, and Berube should be embarrassed to have written it---but since it placates the tortured soul of the liberal bombardier, he is instead [hailed](http://www.juancole.com/2011/11/berube-on-libya-and-the-left.html) as a brave and sophisticated thinker.

Berube argues that opponents of the war in Libya are fatally flawed by a "manichean" approach to foreign policy: rather than appreciate the nuances of the situation in Libya, he claims, opponents of the war lazily fell back on "tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism". These tropes, says Berube, are an impediment to forging "a rigorously *internationalist* left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies."

This is, I suppose, an improvement on Michael Walzer's call for a "decent" left (where "decency" consists of an appropriate deference to U.S. imperial propaganda). But as the Roberts essay shows, the pro-war faction are on shaky ground when they accuse others of relying on a ritualized set of tropes: the imminent humanitarian disaster and the impossibility of a non-military solution are themselves the repetitive--and routinely discredited--way in which war is sold to those who consider themselves liberals and internationalists. The eagerness of people like Berube to pick up on any thinly-sourced claim that vindicates the imminence and necessity of bombs suggests that the case for humanitarian intervention has become increasingly routinized as the Libyas, Iraqs, and Serbias pile up.

And it is striking that, in contrast to the careful skepticism of Roberts, Berube simply assumes that NATO action was necessary to prevent imminent catastrophe. In doing so, he evades all the difficult questions that arise in the Roberts essay. He relies, for example, on Juan Cole's refutation of numerous alleged "myths" of the anti-interventionists; among them is the argument that "Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him". Berube derides this claim as "bizarre", and indeed it would be if this were actually the argument that any serious party had made. But the argument for intervention was not merely that Gaddafi could potentially have "killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents". As Roberts notes, that's the inevitable end result of just about any failed armed rebellion, and imprisonment and killing was probably an unavoidable endgame no matter how matters in Libya were resolved. The victorious rebels, after all, have imprisoned or extrajudicially killed a large number of people on the pro-Gaddafi side, including Gaddafi himself; and that's not to speak of the direct civilian casualties from the actual bombing campaign.

But Berube elides all of this, by implying that those who questioned the predictions of a humanitarian apocalypse were absurdly denying the possibility of *any retaliation at all* against the rebels. Thus, while acknowledging that in principle "the Libya intervention could be subjected to cost/benefit analyses and consequentialist objections", he proceeds to pile up the human costs of non-intervention, while leaving his side of the ledger clear of any of the deaths that resulted from the decision to intervene. This allows him to portray the pro-intervention side as the sole owners of facts and common sense, before launching into his real subject: the perfidy and moral obtuseness of the war's critics.

He finds plenty of juicy targets, because there was indeed some dodgy argumentation on the anti-war side. There was, as there always is, a certain amount of vulgar anti-imperialism that insisted that opposing NATO meant glorifying Gaddafi and dismissing the legitimacy of his opposition. There was, too, an occasional tendency to obsess over the war's legality, even though law in an international context is always rather capricious and dependent on great-power politics. And Berube is clever enough to anticipate the objections to his highlighting of such arguments:

> Those who believe that there should be no enemies to one’s left are fond of accusing me of “hippie punching,” as if, like Presidents Obama and Clinton, I am attacking straw men to my left in order to lay claim to the reasonable, vital center; those who know that I am not attacking straw persons are wont to claim instead that I am criticizing fringe figures who have no impact whatsoever on public debate in the United States. And it is true: on the subject of Libya the usual fringe figures behaved precisely as The Left At War depicts the Manichean Left. Alexander Cockburn, James Petras, Robert Fisk, John Pilger—all of them still fighting Vietnam, stranded for decades on a remote ideological island with no way of contacting any contemporary geopolitical reality whatsoever—weighed in with the usual denunciations of US imperialism and predictions that Libya would be carved up for its oil. And about the doughty *soi-disant* anti-imperialists who, in the mode of Hugo Chavez, doubled down on the delusion that Qaddafi is a legitimate and benevolent ruler harassed by the forces of imperialism, there really is nothing to say, for there can be nothing more damning than their own words.

For the record: yes indeed, Berube *is* engaged in "hippie punching", attacking straw men, and selectively [nutpicking](http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/10/21/the_limits_of_nutpicking.html) the worst arguments on the anti-war side. And to what end? As with so much liberal imperialism, it seems that the purpose here is not so much to provide an empirical and political case for the war, as it is to confirm the superior moral sensibility of the warmongers, who are committed to high-minded internationalist ideals while their opponents are mired in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. The conflation of good intentions with good results bedevils liberal politics in all kinds of ways, and nowhere is it more damaging than in the realm of international politics, where morally pure allegiances are difficult to find.

Berube complains that "for what I call the Manichean Left, opposition to U.S. policy is precisely an opposition to entities: all we need to know, on that left, is that the U.S. is involved." To this, he counterposes his rigorous case-by-case evaluation of specific actions, which is indifferent to the identity of the parties involved. But while this is a sound principle in the abstract, Roberts' exposé of the shaky Libya dossier demonstrates why it is so dangerous in practice. Given our limited ability to evaluate, in the moment, the hyperbolic claims made by governments on the warpath, a systematic bias against supporting intervention is the only way to counter-balance what would otherwise be a bias in favor of accepting propaganda at face value, and thereby supporting war in every case. Even if the outcome in Libya turns out to be an exceptional best-case scenario---a real democracy, independent of foreign manipulation---this is insufficient reason to substantially revise a general-purpose anti-interventionist [prior](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prior_probability). And even if the outcome of the NATO campaign has not played out as badly as some anti-war voices predicted, the details of that campaign's marketing only tend to confirm the danger of making confident statements of martial righteousness while enveloped in the fog of war.

The Conservative Leftist and the Radical Longshoreman

September 29th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Work, xkcd.com/386

Via [Yglesias](http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/09/28/330662/productivity-increase/), I find to my dismay that some alleged progressives at [Lawyers, Guns, and Money](http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/) are exulting in the failure of supermarkets to replace human checkers with automatic checking machines. Like Yglesias, I don't think bemoaning automation in this way is helpful. He gives the empirical argument that slow productivity growth hasn't historically been good for workers, and that too-low wages are probably one of the things impeding the adoption of productivity-enhancing technology. The second is an argument that I [made before](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/07/cheap-labor-and-the-great-stagnation/), specifically using the supermarket checkout machine as an example. But now I want to make a broader ideological point about this.

These two posts, the one from [Erik Loomis](http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/09/on-self-checkout-at-supermarkets) and especially the follow up by ["DJW"](http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/09/two-cheers-for-luddism), contain two distinct arguments for the anti-machine position. To take the second and less compelling one first, there's the claim that maybe being a supermarket checker isn't so alienating and menial after all:

> Secondly, this line of thinking makes some assumptions that I’m sympathetic to, but can’t entirely get on board with. First, __the assumption that we can theorize about jobs in this concrete and certain way and determine that supermarket checker (and I assume many much worse jobs) are ‘menial’ and we should hope for a world in which humans don’t do that sort of thing.__ I like my early Marx, too, but I can’t get on board with this. I simply don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of universal theorizing about the essential nature and value of this or that job. __People have long found meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work.__ Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives. Marx, of course, chalked this sort of thing up to alienation and false consciousness and the like, but I’m more of pluralist about what a dignified and fully human life looks like. At a minimum, __I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.__

This is reminiscent of my exchange with [Reihan Salam](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/07/to-be-a-productive-labourer-is-not-a-piece-of-luck-but-a-misfortune/) from a couple of months ago, and I don't find this argument any more compelling from the left than I did from the right. I'll just note that by framing the issue in this way, DJW totally effaces the real nature of work in a capitalist society. To pretend that the existence of many people who work as supermarket checkers reflects their "ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms" is to ignore the reality that for the worker without independent wealth, the only "choice" is between obtaining the wage they need to get by, or starving in the streets. You don't see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

Moreover, there's no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn't more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that's presumably a good thing.

I doubt the LGM bloggers really endorse such a program, though. As I said, I don't think the argument is based on an ideological principle at all; rather, it's the result of a pragmatic calculation:

> First, let’s be clear that __this is some deeply utopian stuff.__ This makes third party advocates seem downright practical. We’ve had a modern capitalist economy for quite some time now, in many different countries, and I can’t think of any that have come anywhere close to this, or made it a meaningful priority. Of course __some unpleasant and meaningful jobs have been largely eliminated, and more probably will be in the future, but when this does occur it is almost always with indifference or actual malice toward the eliminated worker__, rather than compassion. And while the overall mix of jobs in a society may improve for the better over time, __it’s virtually never the case that workers in eliminated fields end up better off. If the elimination takes place in a moment of robust employment they may be OK, but for the most part those who lose the jobs are going to be worse off for a good long while.__ Even in the most robust and humane welfare states the modern world has developed, unemployment is generally associated with a decline in living standards, sense of self-worth, and so on.

Leave aside for a moment that this argument sort of implies that no-one should ever lose their job, which is inconsistent with the assumption of a capitalist economy; I'm willing to chalk that up to a sloppy formulation. The general principle being expressed here isn't unreasonable or irrational: sometimes it's better to help a few workers here and now than to run off after utopian pie in the sky, and we should be wary of the slippery logic that it's OK to impose hardship on a few workers for the sake of the greater good. This is the same thinking that's at work in defenses of [licensing cartels](http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/07/19/273414/the-distributional-impact-of-barber-licensing/) that protect some workers at the expense of consumers and excluded laborers, and in attacks on investments in urban infrastructure that [may have the effect](http://current.com/green/92560577_david-harveys-urban-manifesto-down-with-suburbia-down-with-bloombergs-new-york-fast-company.htm) of pricing some people out of their neighborhoods. These aren't silly things to be worried about--if you can't achieve anything positive, you should at least do no harm. And as the left has gotten weaker and weaker, such arguments have gotten more and more plausible. But we've reached a point where some people seem to be opposed to any policy at all that imposes a burden on any group of workers.

It's an attitude that bespeaks an intensely conservative and defensive politics, and one which has internalized the great right-wing motif of the past several decades: there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. To Loomis and DJW, the possibility of a historically novel progressive alternative is literally unthinkable. For them, the only choices are a) an intensification of neoliberalism's logic of inequality and joblessness; or b) a desperate struggle to hold on to the remnants of the 20th century Keynesian social compromise. Given those options, I'd take the second choice as well.

But I don't think those are the only options, and moreover I don't think that in the long run this position is really as pragmatic as it seems. It commits the left to an endlessly reactive, defensive struggle over a shrinking commons, while leaving us bereft of any compelling vision to offer people. And trying to fight off automation won't be a matter of a few rear-guard skirmishes, but of all-out societal-scale war: see Farhad Manjoo's [ongoing series](http://www.slate.com/id/2304442) on the pervasive effect of robotization throughout all sectors of the economy.

That isn't to say that I'm always opposed to defensive struggles--sometimes that's the best you can do, and sometimes winning a small human-scale victory is worth compromising our broader vision a bit. But the LGM authors go a good deal farther than this: Erik Loomis's original post didn't say that de-automation was a good second best outcome, he said that he was "very glad" to see the self-checkout machines disappear, because they are "a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people." DJW, meanwhile, straightforwardly embraces Luddism. I'm taken aback by a worldview that would make such defensiveness and conservatism central to its ideology. That's not what the left has been about at its best--and as Corey Robin [explains](http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/27/revolutionaries-of-the-right-the-deep-roots-of-conservative-radicalism/), it's not even what right-wing "conservatism" was ever about.

Left out of consideration in these anti-technology arguments is any conception that increased productivity could be used to benefit the masses rather than the elite. The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only [a phenomenon of the past 30 years](http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/epi-on-lagging-wages-rising-productivity/). In the period prior to that, rising productivity went with rising wages: this was the heart of the postwar Keynesian social compact. And in the period prior to *that*, rising productivity went along with a shortening of the working day, through a long series of [bitter struggles](http://books.google.com/books/about/Our_own_time.html?id=h8P-uuyYe_YC). It's odd, and a bit sad, to see the LGM bloggers ahistorically naturalizing the left's weakness, especially given that at least one of the authors I'm discussing is [a college professor](http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11112580/loomiscv--lgm.doc). I thought it was the professors who were supposed remind us of history, and to cling to impractical utopianism. But to find an antidote to the timid conservatism of the professor, we have to turn to the harebrained utopian dreaming of....dockworkers.

Containerization and automation have drastically decreased the need for human labor in America's ports, as anyone who's watched Season 2 of *The Wire* knows. But among some longeshoreman the response wasn't to resist the machines, but to accept them--[with conditions](http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/06/weekinreview/the-nation-the-100000-longshoreman-a-union-wins-the-global-game.html):

> In modern times, far more than other unions, the longshoreman have used technological change to their advantage. In 1960, the West Coast longshoremen agreed to far-reaching automation that replaced inefficient break-bulk cargo, which relied on hooks to move the cargo, with containerized cargo, which relies on cranes. __In accepting automation, the union recognized that productivity would soar and the number of longshoremen needed would plunge__; there are now 10,500 West Coast longshoremen, down from 100,000 in the 1950's.

> In exchange, __the union received an unusual promise: port operators pledged to share the fruits of the new automation. Management promised all longshoremen a guaranteed level of pay, even if there was not work for everyone.__ Management also promised to share the wealth.

Bill DiFazio [wrote a book](http://books.google.com/books/about/Longshoremen.html?id=33aaAAAAIAAJ) about some longshoremen like this in New York, and he makes a case against the view that without wage labor, our lives will lose meanings and we will drift into dissipation. He found instead that the lives of the longshoremen were greatly enriched, as they were freed from dangerous labor and became more deeply involved with their neighborhoods and their families.

Basically, I think this is the deal we need to strike throughout the economy: automation (and relatedly, free trade) in exchange for compensating the displaced. However, the longshoremen were only able to achieve this victory because they occupy an unusual strategic choke-point in the economy. Shutting down the ports can cripple wide swaths of business, and this gives dockworkers a kind of negotiating leverage that isn't available to, say, supermarket checkers. Which is why I think that the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace. That's the essence of my argument for the [Basic Income](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/09/the-basic-income-and-the-helicopter-drop/): just like the dockworkers' agreement, it ensures a level of pay whether or not there is work for everyone, only it generalizes the principle to encompass the whole economy.

You can dismiss that as utopianism if you like. Certainly the call for work reduction and the decoupling of income from employment has been made many times through the generations, from [Paul LaFargue](http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/) to [André Gorz](http://books.google.com/books/about/Paths_to_paradise.html?id=5wTsAAAAMAAJ) to [Stanley Aronowitz](http://www.amazon.com/Jobless-Future-Second-Stanley-Aronowitz/dp/0816674515). But the left does itself no favors by remaining in a defensive crouch, clinging to nostalgia for a political order that was rooted in a very different political economy--and which wasn't even [all that great](http://www.amazon.com/Golden-Age-Illusion-Rethinking-Capitalism/dp/0898625734) to begin with. Despite what William F. Buckley once said, the right didn't win by "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'"--and on issues where they *did* do that, like racial segregation and gay marriage, they have lost or are losing. The modern right provided an offensive strategy and a grand vision of what was wrong with the society that existed and what had to be done to turn it into something better: [one market under god](http://www.amazon.com/One-Market-Under-God-Capitalism/dp/038549503X).

Their dream of unrestrained capitalism, of course, turned out to be a nightmarish fraud. But that's all the more reason to demand something new and better, rather than merely clinging to what's left of the old.

Redistribution Under Neoliberalism

August 8th, 2011  |  Published in Data, Political Economy, Politics, Social Science, Statistical Graphics, xkcd.com/386

Last week, Seth Ackerman wrote a *Jacobin* [blog post](http://jacobinmag.com/blog/?p=891) in which he gave us a snarky attack on the record of "left neo-liberalism" in the United Kingdom. Basically, he showed that while New Labour managed to reduce poverty somewhat with cash transfer programs, the progress was meager and could not be sustained. Since the programs were financed out of a series of asset bubbles, the UK has seen poverty go back up again with the recent crisis.

I don't have much quarrel with this account, but I'm not sure it can bear the weight of the argument that Seth wants to put on it. He suggests that the UK experience is a refutation of the general strategy of progressive neoliberalism, which Freddie DeBoer felicitously dubbed ["globalize-grow-give"](http://lhote.blogspot.com/2011/01/globalize-grow-give-progressivism-and.html):

> First, you embrace the standard globalization model of reduced or eliminated tariff walls, large free trade agreements such as NAFTA or CAFTA, deregulation, and general trade liberalization. This encourages international trade and the exporting of jobs from highly-regulated, fairly well compensated, high worker standard of living places like the United States to the cheap labor, low regulation, low worker standard of living places like China or Indonesia. This spurs international economic growth in both the exporting and importing countries. Here at home, higher growth results in higher tax revenues which can then be redistributed from those at the top of the income distribution (who have benefited from the globalized trade regime) to those at the bottom of the income distribution (who have been hurt by the globalized trade regime that undercuts their wages and exports their jobs).

I think that if you want to really criticize this view, you need to look beyond the UK, which is neither a very generous nor a particularly well-designed welfare state. As it happens, my day job involves analyzing cross-national income data, so I'm going to perpetrate some social science on y'all.

The way I read the "globalize-grow-give" critique, you can extract an empirical claim about how the income distribution should look in a G-G-G economy. The distribution of income *before* taxes and transfers will become increasingly unequal due to deregulation and globalization, but the distribution *after* taxes and transfers are accounted for will not become vastly more unequal because government is compensating for the inequality in the private market.

To test this, I did some simple calculations, following other researchers who have done [similar](http://www.lisproject.org/publications/liswps/392.pdf) [things](http://www.lisproject.org/publications/liswps/458.pdf). Using data from the [Luxembourg Income Study](http://www.lisdatacenter.org/), I calculated the [Gini coefficient](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient), a standard measure of inequality, for several different countries. I calculated two different Ginis:

- The Gini of *market income*. Market income is defined here as income from wages, pensions, self-employment and property. This is income *before* any taxes or transfers are accounted for.
- The Gini of *disposable income*. This is the income that people actually have to spend, after taxes are deducted and any transfers are added in. (For more details about the variables, see the postscript).

Unfortunately, the difficulty of harmonizing cross-national data means that the numbers I have access to are a bit out of date--specifically, they end before the current crisis period. I still think we can learn something useful from them, however. The way G-G-G neoliberalism is supposed to work, the Gini of market income should go up but the Gini of disposable income should not--or at least should rise more slowly. We can think of the difference between market income inequality and disposable income inequality as a rough measure of the amount of redistribution done by the state.

So here's what things look like in the UK:

Income Inequality in the UK

This figure basically supports Seth's argument. Market income inequality has gone way up in the last few decades, but disposable income inequality has gone up by a lot as well. The state is doing a bit more redistribution than it used to, but not enough to make up for the rise in private-market inequality. If you look at the United States, the situation is even worse, as the state has done essentially nothing to counter rising inequality in market income:

Income Inequality in the USA

The question, though, is whether it has to be like this. Let's put the UK alongside another rich European economy, Germany:

Income Inequality in the UK and Germany

Here we see something very interesting. Before you take taxes and transfers into account, the rise in inequality in Germany looks very similar to what happened in the UK--indeed, the two countries converge to almost the same value by 2005. But disposable income inequality has stayed flat in Germany, because the German state has used taxes and transfers to counteract rising inequality.

Every good social democrat loves the Nordic model, so let's finish off with a look at Sweden:

Income Inequality in Sweden

Here the story is a bit different--both market income and disposable income inequality have remained pretty flat, although both have risen a bit. The important thing to note here is that even in the most socialist of welfare states, market income inequality is very high, nearly as high as it is in the UK or US. The fact that Sweden is one of the least unequal countries on earth has to do almost entirely with taxes and transfers.

So what can we conclude from all this? Let me be clear that I don't think this is a knock-down argument in favor of "globalize-grow-give" as a political model. But I think the best argument against the G-G-G model is not that it's economically impossible or dependent on asset bubbles. Rather, I'd point us back to the political arguments enumerated by [me](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/07/policy-politics-and-strategy/), [Henry Farrell](http://crookedtimber.org/2011/07/25/neo-liberalism-the-submerged-state-and-the-politics-of-nudge/), and [Cosma Shalizi](http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/778.html) among others. What makes Sweden and Germany different is not that their economies are different from those in the US and UK (although they are), but that they have different political environments, featuring things like a hegemonic Social Democratic party in Sweden and a strong labor movement in Germany.

So if left-neoliberalism is to be a workable political agenda rather than the motto of useful idiots for the "globalize-grow-keep" agenda of the right-wing neoliberals, it has to either make its peace with the sources of working-class power that currently exist, or else come up with workable models of what might replace them.

*[Postscript for income inequality nerds only: the income variables are equivalized for household size using the square root of the number of persons in the household as the equivalence scale. The variables are then topcoded at ten times the equivalized mean and bottom-coded at 1 percent of the equivalized mean.*

*Note that the transfers included in disposable income are only cash transfers and "near-cash" benefits (like food stamps), not in-kind services like health care. So you could argue that this data actually understates the extent of redistribution.*

*If you'd like to look at the data, including a bunch of countries I didn't include in the post, it's [here](http://www.peterfrase.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/mi_dpi_gini1.csv). For help interpreting the country codes, go [here](http://www.lisdatacenter.org/our-data/lis-database/documentation/list-of-datasets/)]*

To be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, but a misfortune

July 29th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Work, xkcd.com/386

Reihan Salam is by far the most interesting and creative thinker associated with the National Review. (To clarify: that's a pretty low bar, but I actually think he's interesting and creative in general.) So when I saw that he had [responded](http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/273043/cheap-labor-and-future-meaningful-work-reihan-salam#.TjLGDklI9GU.facebook) by my post on [cheap labor and technological stagnation](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/07/cheap-labor-and-the-great-stagnation/), I hoped to find some arguments that would challenge my assumptions. Instead, I found this:

> I’d argue that __fulfilling and valuable work is work that provides individuals with "obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in their path,"__ to draw on Richard Robb.

> It is fairly easy to construct a coherent story for Frase’s notion that supermarket checkout work isn’t sufficiently stimulating to merit survival. Unlike skilled trade work, it doesn’t involve the kind of problem-solving that allows us to stretch our capacities. Rather, it is about offering a service in a friendly and efficient way, which can be taxing but, over time, not necessarily very edifying. I definitely get that idea, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we should devote resources to saving supermarket checkout work per se.

> But supermarket checkout work needs to be soon through a different lens. __If I’m a young adult who had a child at a young age, my fulfillment could plausibly derive from the sense that I am contributing to the well-being of my child by engaging in wage work.__ The wage work in question might not be terribly stimulating, but to grin and bear it is to overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in my path to achieving some level of economic self-sufficiency. Granted, I might benefit from a host of work supports, including wage subsidies, etc., but __I (rightly) see myself as making a contribution. It is not the work itself that is fulfilling. It is the fact that I am doing authentic work — not make-work designed to teach me a lesson about the value of, say, convincing taxpayers that I deserve my daily bread, but work that someone will voluntarily pay me a wage to do__ — in support of a vision of myself as a provider that is fulfilling.

I actually have to hand it to him for coming right out and making the "wage labor is good for you" argument, which is a much tougher sell than the usual "we need wage labor or nobody will do any work" argument, and hence is typically delivered in an elided and concealed fashion. But the notion of "authentic" work that's being deployed here is one I have a hard time wrapping my head around, although I recognize it as a central element of right-wing metaphysics.

It's easy to glorify the dignity of wage labor when you have a stimulating job at the *National Review*, but this line of argument rapidly loses its plausibility when you get to the low-wage jobs I was talking about. A lousy supermarket job that you only have because your time is valued at less than the time of an automatic checkout machine is somehow more authentic because someone "voluntarily" paid for it. Presumably it's more authentic than being a firefighter, since they have to "convince the taxpayers" that they deserve to be paid. And Salam must not think his own job is all that authentic, since the *National Review* is [sustained by rich donors](http://www.nysun.com/on-the-town/encounter-with-conservative-publishing/24259/) and could never survive if it had to get by on subscription revenue. I could go on about this, but I already did in my [review of "Undercover Boss"](http://www.peterfrase.com/2010/03/undercover-boss-and-the-misfortune-of-labor/) and my [first essay](http://jacobinmag.com/archive/issue1/frase.html) for *Jacobin*.

As for the specific nature of supermarket work, [this comment](http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/273043/cheap-labor-and-future-meaningful-work-reihan-salam#comment-236808) on the original NR post says it more powerfully than I could. It starts out: "Having worked as a supermarket checker, I can tell you that no one I worked with got anything out of the job other than a paycheck, and the rates of depression and substance abuse among my colleagues were staggering."

And as a friend put it to me earlier today: "As if the unemployed are unfamiliar with natural and authentic obstacles". But look, if you *do* need some "obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in your path", try training for a marathon or something. Or I can recommend some excellent video games.

The authenticity stuff aside, we also have the patronizing suggestion that a young parent needs to feel that they are "contributing to the well-being of [their] child by engaging in wage work." As though they aren't already contributing to that well-being by *taking care of a child*, which requires a lot more skill and engagement than bagging groceries. Even without the childcare angle, though, maybe people would be less likely to feel they needed to take a crappy job in order to contribute to society, if people like Reihan Salam weren't running around telling them exactly that.

To be fair, Salam does acknowledge that rather than stigmatizing the unemployed and people who do non-waged labor, we could try to break down the fetishization of waged work that gives it such "nonmaterial and psychological importance". And I don't dispute his point that this is a hard thing to do. But he doesn't even seem interested in it. Instead, at the end of the post, he lays out his hopes for what's to come: "In my scenario, the number of 'working poor' will likely increase", and "servants and nannies will be the jobs of the future":

> This raises the question of what will happen to those trapped in the low end of the labor market. Recently, the cultural critic Annalee Newitz offered a provocative hypothesis: "We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago," Newitz writes. As more skilled women enter the workforce, and as the labor market position of millions of less-skilled workers deteriorate, we’ll see more servants and nannies in middle-class homes.

This "back to the 19th Century" vision is a scenario that has occurred to me as well, but I certainly never thought of it as a desirable end point. But hey, if the right thinks that's the best thing they have to offer, they are welcome to make that their platform.

My question for Reihan Salam, though, is this. If *National Review* laid you off tomorrow, would you rather collect unemployment or go bag groceries because it would allow you to feel you were doing "authentic work" and had "overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in your path"? Maybe the answer would really be the latter, but I suspect for most people it wouldn't be.