By Harry Targ
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)
For presentation at the upcoming “Moving Beyond Capitalism” Conference, Center for Global Justice, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico July 29-August 5, 2014
The deepening 21st century crises of capitalism-from growing economic impoverishment to neo-fascism to literal destruction of planet earth-demand movements and visions of change unparalleled in quantities and qualities of response. Anti-capitalist responses to these crises range from helplessness to spontaneous activism. Often political reactions ignore the history and context of the crises and the movements that have come before that have planted the seeds of fundamental social change. This paper will survey movements of social change in the era of neoliberal globalization suggesting both the breadth of such movements and the historical context from which they came. The tasks for today still require an analysis of the nature of existing systems and responses, visions of desirable alternatives, and contextualized discussions of moving from here to there. “Moving Beyond Capitalism” requires such a grounding of the future in the past and the present.
21st Century Imperialism: Post-Cold War Perspectives on Global Political Economy
The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed world affairs, scholarly analyses of international relations, punditry, and rationales for imperial foreign policies. A new buzzword became part of political discourse to describe the international system: “globalization.” Almost immediately a large literature was generated suggesting that the world had changed. Globalization was replacing the system of often hostile nation-states that had characterized the world since the sixteenth century.
While interpretations of globalization varied, the common conception of the term suggested that a process of relations was occurring in which interactions between nations, business and financial organizations, groups, and peoples had become so frequent and intense that they were creating one global society. Major globalizing institutions included multinational corporations, especially the 200 largest global corporations with production, distribution, and decision-making facilities in many countries, and international financial institutions engaged in speculative activities all across the globe. At the cultural level a handful of media conglomerates produced a large percentage of the cultural products, images, artistic endeavors, and print and electronic information that the world consumed. Finally, international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the newly created World Trade Organization brought international influence to bear on states that resisted the globalization process.
Students in Milan took to the streets to protest against Italian austerity, October, 4 2013. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Reality always has this power to surprise. It surprises you with an answer that it gives to questions never asked – and which are most tempting. A great stimulus to life is there, in the capacity to divine possible unasked questions.
— Eduardo Galeano
By Henry Giroux
Truthout, July 2, 2014
Neoliberalism’s Assault on Democracy
Fred Jameson has argued that “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” He goes on to say that “We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (Jameson 2003).
One way of understanding Jameson’s comment is that within the ideological and affective spaces in which the neoliberal subject is produced and market-driven ideologies are normalized, there are new waves of resistance, especially among young people, who are insisting that casino capitalism is driven by a kind of mad violence and form of self-sabotage, and that if it does not come to an end, what we will experience, in all probability, is the destruction of human life and the planet itself.
Certainly, more recent scientific reports on the threat of ecological disaster from researchers at the University of Washington, NASA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforce this dystopian possibility. 
As the latest stage of predatory capitalism, neoliberalism is part of a broader economic and political project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital, particularly financial capital (Giroux 2008; 2014). As a political project, it includes “the deregulation of finance, privatization of public services, elimination and curtailment of social welfare programs, open attacks on unions, and routine violations of labor laws” (Yates 2013). As an ideology, it casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality, construes profit-making as the arbiter and essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market can both solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations. As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life driven by a survival-of-the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to exercise power removed from matters of ethics and social costs. As a policy and political project, it is wedded to the privatization of public services, the dismantling of the connection of private issues and public problems, the selling off of state functions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, the eradication of government regulation of financial institutions and corporations, the destruction of the welfare state and unions, and the endless marketization and commodification of society.
Neoliberalism has put an enormous effort into creating a commanding cultural apparatus and public pedagogy in which individuals can only view themselves as consumers, embrace freedom as the right to participate in the market, and supplant issues of social responsibility for an unchecked embrace of individualism and the belief that all social relation be judged according to how they further one’s individual needs and self-interests. Matters of mutual caring, respect, and compassion for the other have given way to the limiting orbits of privatization and unrestrained self-interest, just as it has become increasingly difficult to translate private troubles into larger social, economic, and political considerations. As the democratic public spheres of civil society have atrophied under the onslaught of neoliberal regimes of austerity, the social contract has been either greatly weakened or replaced by savage forms of casino capitalism, a culture of fear, and the increasing use of state violence. One consequence is that it has become more difficult for people to debate and question neoliberal hegemony and the widespread misery it produces for young people, the poor, middle class, workers, and other segments of society — now considered disposable under neoliberal regimes which are governed by a survival-of-the fittest ethos, largely imposed by the ruling economic and political elite. That they are unable to make their voices heard and lack any viable representation in the process makes clear the degree to which young people and others are suffering under a democratic deficit, producing what Chantal Mouffe calls “a profound dissatisfaction with a number of existing societies” under the reign of neoliberal capitalism (Mouffe 2013:119). This is one reason why so many youth, along with workers, the unemployed, and students, have been taking to the streets in Greece, Mexico, Egypt, the United States, and England.
The Rise of Disposable Youth
What is particularly distinctive about the current historical conjuncture is the way in which young people, particularly low-income and poor minority youth across the globe, have been increasingly denied any place in an already weakened social order and the degree to which they are no longer seen as central to how a number of countries across the globe define their future.
The plight of youth as disposable populations is evident in the fact that millions of them in countries such as England, Greece, and the United States have been unemployed and denied long term benefits. The unemployment rate for young people in many countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece hovers between 40 and 50 per cent. To make matters worse, those with college degrees either cannot find work or are working at low-skill jobs that pay paltry wages. In the United States, young adjunct faculty constitute one of the fastest growing populations on food stamps. Suffering under huge debts, a jobs crisis, state violence, a growing surveillance state, and the prospect that they would inherit a standard of living far below that enjoyed by their parents, many young people have exhibited a rage that seems to deepen their resignation, despair, and withdrawal from the political arena.
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
June 24, 2014 – TEHRAN (FNA)- Prominent American sociologist Prof. William I. Robinson believes that the United States government is the biggest perpetrator of terror in the world and its military adventures across the globe have claimed the lives of millions of innocent citizens.
According to Prof. William I. Robinson, “if we define terrorism as the use of violence against civilians for political objectives, then the US state is the world’s leading terrorist.”
“US intervention abroad in the 20th century – the forging of a US empire – claimed tens of millions of victims, inflicted untold suffering, and set back the aspirations of freedom and democracy in dozens of countries,” said Prof. Robinson in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency.
Prof. Robinson also went on to say that capitalism, which is the predominant economic and political worldview of the United States and other imperial powers is in the midst of its most severe crisis in close to a century, even worse than the crisis in the 1930s, “because we are on the precipice of an ecological holocaust that threatens the very earth system and the ability to sustain life, ours included, because the means of violence and social control have never before been so concentrated within a single powerful state, and because the global means of communication is also extraordinarily concentrated in the hands of transnational capital and a few powerful states.”
William I. Robinson is a professor of sociology, global and international studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book entitled “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity” was just published in 2014. In the early 1980s, he worked as a journalist in the war-torn Nicaragua. From 1984 to 1990 he was a member of the Union of Nicaraguan Journalists. His articles and writings have appeared on such news websites as Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post and Truth Out.
Prof. Robinson took part in an exclusive, comprehensive interview with FNA and responded to our questions about the demise of capitalism, the future of globalization, the setbacks and failures of the US foreign policy and the human consequences of Washington’s military adventures. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the consequences of the US military expeditions across the world, including the devastation of the natural resources of the countries that are attacked, the killing of the unarmed civilians, the forced migration and displacement of the war-hit population, the pollution of the air, the infliction of irretrievable damages on the environment and the erosion of democratic institutions in these countries? Who is going to compensate for these losses?
A: The US state is acting as the gendarme for global capitalism at a time when global capitalism is in deep crisis. It is the core institution in what I have referred to as the transnational state, and in my view it represents at this time the interests of transnational capital, of a transnational capitalist class.
The United States has committed successive war crimes and crimes against humanity in recent years. However, let us recall that this is the continuation of a long historical pattern, what we used to call imperialism, and some still do refer to as imperialism. The United States as a country was born on the basis of the slavery of Africans and other peoples and genocide against the native populations of North America.
Expansion from the original East Coast colonies began from the very inception of the Republic. Texas was annexed from Mexico in 1836 by white Southern slavers who were seeking to expand cotton plantation based on the slavery of Africans. This expansion continued in 1848 as the United States annexed one half of Mexican territory in a war of aggression justified by “Manifest Destiny”. US rulers then launched extra-territorial expansion, starting with the invasion, occupation, and colonization of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba in 1898, and followed by literally hundreds – perhaps thousands – of interventions in the 20th century, including convert operation, the orchestration of coup d’etats, counter-insurgencies, military invasions, occupations, and so forth – throughout Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but also in Southern and Eastern Europe. US intervention abroad in the 20th century – the forging of a US empire – claimed tens of millions of victims, inflicted untold suffering, and set back the aspirations of freedom and democracy in dozens of countries – yet US rulers had the arrogance and cynicism to claim that its aggression against the world’s people was in the name of freedom and democracy.
Of course the United States does not hold a monopoly on such expansionism and interventionism in the modern era of capitalism. Over the past two centuries, and even earlier, England, France, Spain and other European powers were carving out their own colonial empires, unleashing unfathomable brutality and suffering. The culprit here, beyond a particular nation-state, is an outwardly expanding capitalism involving imperialism and colonialism. The United States stands out because it became the dominant world power in the wake of World War II and set about to construct a truly global empire, the likes of which the world had not previously seen.
However, and this is the key point I wish to highlight here, US intervention around the world clearly entered a qualitatively new period after September 11, 2001. This new period should be seen in the context of emergent 21st century global capitalism. Global capitalism is in the midst of its most severe crisis in close to a century, and in many ways the current crisis is much worse than that of the 1930s because we are on the precipice of an ecological holocaust that threatens the very earth system and the ability to sustain life, ours included, because the means of violence and social control have never before been so concentrated within a single powerful state, and because the global means of communication is also extraordinarily concentrated in the hands of transnational capital and a few powerful states. On the other hand, global inequalities have never been as acute and grotesque as they are today. So, in simplified terms, we need to see the escalation of US interventionism and the untold suffering it brings about, including what you mention – the killing of unarmed civilians, the destruction of the environment, forced migration and displacement, undermining democracy – as a response by the US-led transnational state and the transnational capitalist class to contain the explosive contradictions of a global capitalist system that is out of control and in deep crisis.
You ask me who is going to compensate for these losses. That will depend on how the world’s people respond. There is currently a global revolt from below underway, but it is spread unevenly across countries and has not taken any clear form or direction. Can the popular majority of humanity force the transnational capitalist class and the US/transnational state to be accountable for its crimes? Mao Zedong once said that “power flows through the barrel of a gun.” What he meant by this, in a more abstract than literal way, I believe, is that in the end it is the correlation of real forces that will determine outcomes. Because the United States has overwhelming and “full spectrum” military dominance, it can capture, execute, or bring to trial people anywhere around the world… it has “free license”, so to speak, to act as an international outlaw. We don’t even have to take the more recent examples. In December 1989 the United States undertook an illegal and criminal invasion of Panama, kidnapped Manuel Noriega – whether or not he was a dictator is not the point, as the United States puts in power and defends dictators that defend US and transnational elite interests, and brought him back to US territory for trial. What country in the world now has the naked power “flowing through the barrel of a gun” to invade the United States, capture George Bush, Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other war criminals, and bring them somewhere to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Q: In your writings, you’ve warned against the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the slant accumulation of the global wealth in the hands of an affluent few and the impoverishment of the suppressed majority. What do you think are the reasons for this stark inequality and the disturbing dispossession of millions of people in the capitalist societies? You wrote that the participants of the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos were worried that the current situation raises the specter of worldwide instability and civil wars. Is it really so?
A: We have never in the history of humanity seen such a sharp social polarization between the haves and the have-nots, such grotesque levels of inequality, within and among countries. There have been countless studies in recent years documenting the escalation of inequalities, among them, the current bestseller by Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” The pattern we see is that the notorious “1 percent” monopolizes a huge portion of the wealth that humanity produces and transnational corporations and banks are registering record profits, but as well that some 20 percent of the population in each countries has integrated into the global economy as middle class and affluent consumers while the remaining 80 percent has experienced rising levels of insecurity, impoverishment, and precariousness, increasingly inhabiting what some have called a “planet of slums.”
Photo: Workerless Factory
[Editor's Note: The author skims the surface of capitalism's endemic problem of the growing organic composition of capital (better tools) in relation to the decrease in living labor (fewer workers and less labor time). One reason noted by Marx is that it has no strategic reform solution , but it does set the conditions for socialism, and beyond that, the classless society of communism].
By Jason Perlow
SolidarityEconony.net via Tech Broiler
Open Source. The backlash against Software Patents. Cloud Computing. Bitcoin. 3D Printing. Post-PC. Cord-Cutting. Electric Vehicles and Alternative Energy.
There are ideological and social drivers that are unique to every single one of these things, and yet there is a common thread that ties them together. I call this trend “anti-spendism”.
Anti-spendism is not necessarily a social movement that is tied to the betterment of society as a whole. It’s not like socialism or communism, where we are talking about a desire to more equitably distribute wealth to the have-nots.
It is by definition, the personal, self-centered desire not to expend capital at all. Or to put a more modern take on it, rapid advances in technology have so lowered our perceptions of what things should cost, that ultimately many goods and services have become devalued far below what people are willing to pay for them.
To put it bluntly, anti-spendism is “Hell no, we won’t pay” syndrome.
And while a case could be made that thriftiness in the trade of goods and services has always existed, even before money itself existed, there has never been a time in our history where thriftiness has overwhelmingly been driven by technology itself, or vice-versa.
The rise of FOSS
It is difficult to say where this all began, but I suspect that it emerged as a confluence of events beginning with the rise of the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) movement in the late 1990s which planted the seeds among the technorati that you could get something of value (Software) for free.
By CJ Polychroniou,
Truthout | Interview – 08 June 2014
Henry A. Giroux (Screengrab via Disposable Life / Vimeo)"The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional," says Henry A. Giroux.
To read more articles by C. J. Polychroniou, Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
C. J. Polychroniou, for Truthout: It is widely believed that the advanced liberal societies are suffering a crisis of democracy, a view you share wholeheartedly, although the empirical research, with its positivist bias, tends to be more cautious. In what ways is there less democracy today in places like the United States than there was, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
Henry A. Giroux: What we have seen in the United States and a number of other countries since the 1970s is the emergence of a savage form of free market fundamentalism, often called neoliberalism, in which there is not only a deep distrust of public values, public goods and public institutions but the embrace of a market ideology that accelerates the power of the financial elite and big business while gutting those formative cultures and institutions necessary for a democracy to survive.
The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional. Of course, what is unique about the United States is that the social contract and social wage are subject to a powerful assault by the right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals from both political parties. Those public spheres and institutions that support social provisions, the public good and keep public value alive are under sustained attack. Such attacks have not only produced a range of policies that have expanded the misery, suffering and hardships of millions of people, but have also put into place a growing culture of cruelty in which those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low skill jobs, homelessness and other social problems are the object of both humiliation and scorn.
Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war – a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low-income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants and others now considered disposable. Liberty and freedom are now reduced to fodder for inane commercials or empty slogans used to equate capitalism with democracy. At the same time, liberty and civil rights are being dismantled while state violence and institutional racism is now spreading throughout the culture like wildfire, especially with regards to police harassment of young black and brown youth. A persistent racism can also be seen in the attack on voting rights laws, the mass incarceration of African-American males, and the overt racism that has become prominent among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party types, most of which is aimed at President Obama.
At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under assault and there is an ongoing attack on immigrants. Education at all levels is being defunded and defined as a site of training rather than as a site of critical thought, dialogue and critical pedagogy. In addition, democracy has withered under the emergence of a national security and permanent warfare state. This is evident not only in endless wars abroad, but also in the passing of a series of laws such as the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and many others laws that shred due process and give the executive branch the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or a trial, authorize a presidential kill list and conduct warrantless wiretaps. Of course, both [former President George W.] Bush and Obama claimed the right to kill any citizens considered to be a terrorist or who have come to the aid of terrorism. In addition, targeted assassinations are now carried out by drones that are more and more killing innocent children, adults and bystanders.
Another index of America’s slide into barbarism and authoritarianism is the rise of the racial punishing state with its school-to prison pipeline, criminalization of a range of social problems, a massive incarceration system, militarization of local police forces and its use of ongoing state violence against youthful dissenters. The prison has now become the model for a type of punishment creep that has impacted upon public schools where young children are arrested for violating something as trivial as doodling on a desk or violating a dress code. Under the dictates of the punishing state, incarceration has become the default solution for every social problem, regardless of how minor it may be. Discordant interactions between teacher and student, however petty, are not treated as a criminal offense. The long arm of punishment creep is also evident in a number of social services where poor people are put under constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions. It is also manifest in the militarization of everyday life with its endless celebration of military, police and religious institutions, all of which are held in high esteem by the American public, in spite of their undeniably authoritarian nature.
As Edward Snowden made clear, the hidden registers of authoritarianism have come to light in a trove of exposed NSA documents which affirm that the US has become a national security-surveillance state illegally gathering massive amounts of information from diverse sources on citizens who are not guilty of any crimes. To justify such lawlessness, the American public is told that the rendering moot of civil liberties is justified in the name of security and defense against potential terrorists and other threats. In reality, what is being defended is the security of the state and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the controlling political and corporate elites.
Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It 1
Reposted with the kind permission of the Institute for Precarious Consciousness
1: Each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect. 2
Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. This is not a static situation. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect 3 is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and /or its social sources are formulated. Hence, capitalism constantly comes into crisis and recomposes around newly dominant affects.
One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.
Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem.
In the modern era (until the post-war settlement), the dominant affect was misery. In the nineteenth century, the dominant narrative was that capitalism leads to general enrichment. The public secret of this narrative was the misery of the working class. The exposure of this misery was carried out by revolutionaries. The first wave of modern social movements in the nineteenth century was a machine for fighting misery. Tactics such as strikes, wage struggles, political organisation, mutual aid, co-operatives and strike funds were effective ways to defeat the power of misery by ensuring a certain social minimum. Some of these strategies still work when fighting misery.
When misery stopped working as a control strategy, capitalism switched to boredom. In the mid twentieth century, the dominant public narrative was that the standard of living – which widened access to consumption, healthcare and education – was rising. Everyone in the rich countries was happy, and the poor countries were on their way to development. The public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s – a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery. Job security and welfare provision reduced anxiety and misery, but jobs were boring, made up of simple, repetitive tasks. Mid-century capitalism gave everything needed for survival, but no opportunities for life; it was a system based on force-feeding survival to saturation point.
Of course, not all workers under Fordism actually had stable jobs or security – but this was the core model of work, around which the larger system was arranged. There were really three deals in this phase, with the B-worker deal – boredom for security – being the most exemplary of the Fordism-boredom conjuncture. Today, the B-worker deal has largely been eliminated, leaving a gulf between the A- and C-workers (the consumer society insiders, and the autonomy and insecurity of the most marginal).
2: Contemporary resistance is born of the 1960s wave, in response to the dominant affect of boredom.
If each stage of the dominant system has a dominant affect, then each stage of resistance needs strategies to defeat or dissolve this affect. If the first wave of social movements were a machine for fighting misery, the second wave (of the 1960s-70s, or more broadly (and thinly) 1960s-90s) were a machine for fighting boredom. This is the wave of which our own movements were born, which continues to inflect most of our theories and practices.
The Economist, Jan 18th 2014
IN 1930, when the world was “suffering…from a bad attack of economic pessimism”, John Maynard Keynes wrote a broadly optimistic essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. It imagined a middle way between revolution and stagnation that would leave the said grandchildren a great deal richer than their grandparents. But the path was not without dangers.
One of the worries Keynes admitted was a “new disease”: “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” His readers might not have heard of the problem, he suggested—but they were certain to hear a lot more about it in the years to come.
For the most part, they did not. Nowadays, the majority of economists confidently wave such worries away. By raising productivity, they argue, any automation which economises on the use of labour will increase incomes. That will generate demand for new products and services, which will in turn create new jobs for displaced workers. To think otherwise has meant being tarred a Luddite—the name taken by 19th-century textile workers who smashed the machines taking their jobs.
For much of the 20th century, those arguing that technology brought ever more jobs and prosperity looked to have the better of the debate. Real incomes in Britain scarcely doubled between the beginning of the common era and 1570. They then tripled from 1570 to 1875. And they more than tripled from 1875 to 1975. Industrialisation did not end up eliminating the need for human workers. On the contrary, it created employment opportunities sufficient to soak up the 20th century’s exploding population. Keynes’s vision of everyone in the 2030s being a lot richer is largely achieved. His belief they would work just 15 hours or so a week has not come to pass.
When the sleeper wakes
Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently. They start from the observation that, across the rich world, all is far from well in the world of work. The essence of what they see as a work crisis is that in rich countries the wages of the typical worker, adjusted for cost of living, are stagnant. In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.
At the same time, even in relatively egalitarian places like Sweden, inequality among the employed has risen sharply, with the share going to the highest earners soaring. For those not in the elite, argues David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, much of modern labour consists of stultifying “bullshit jobs”—low- and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use. Keeping them employed, Mr Graeber argues, is not an economic choice; it is something the ruling class does to keep control over the lives of others.
Be that as it may, drudgery may soon enough give way to frank unemployment. There is already a long-term trend towards lower levels of employment in some rich countries. The proportion of American adults participating in the labour force recently hit its lowest level since 1978, and although some of that is due to the effects of ageing, some is not. In a recent speech that was modelled in part on Keynes’s “Possibilities”, Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, looked at employment trends among American men between 25 and 54. In the 1960s only one in 20 of those men was not working. According to Mr Summers’s extrapolations, in ten years the number could be one in seven.
This is one indication, Mr Summers says, that technical change is increasingly taking the form of “capital that effectively substitutes for labour”. There may be a lot more for such capital to do in the near future. A 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, of the University of Oxford, argued that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted. That includes accountancy, legal work, technical writing and a lot of other white-collar occupations.
Answering the question of whether such automation could lead to prolonged pain for workers means taking a close look at past experience, theory and technological trends. The picture suggested by this evidence is a complex one. It is also more worrying than many economists and politicians have been prepared to admit.
The lathe of heaven
Economists take the relationship between innovation and higher living standards for granted in part because they believe history justifies such a view. Industrialisation clearly led to enormous rises in incomes and living standards over the long run. Yet the road to riches was rockier than is often appreciated.
In 1500 an estimated 75% of the British labour force toiled in agriculture. By 1800 that figure had fallen to 35%. When the shift to manufacturing got under way during the 18th century it was overwhelmingly done at small scale, either within the home or in a small workshop; employment in a large factory was a rarity. By the end of the 19th century huge plants in massive industrial cities were the norm. The great shift was made possible by automation and steam engines.
Industrial firms combined human labour with big, expensive capital equipment. To maximise the output of that costly machinery, factory owners reorganised the processes of production. Workers were given one or a few repetitive tasks, often making components of finished products rather than whole pieces. Bosses imposed a tight schedule and strict worker discipline to keep up the productive pace. The Industrial Revolution was not simply a matter of replacing muscle with steam; it was a matter of reshaping jobs themselves into the sort of precisely defined components that steam-driven machinery needed—cogs in a factory system.
The way old jobs were done changed; new jobs were created. Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University in Illinois, argues that the more intricate machines, techniques and supply chains of the period all required careful tending. The workers who provided that care were well rewarded. As research by Lawrence Katz, of Harvard University, and Robert Margo, of Boston University, shows, employment in manufacturing “hollowed out”. As employment grew for highly skilled workers and unskilled workers, craft workers lost out. This was the loss to which the Luddites, understandably if not effectively, took exception.
With the low-skilled workers far more numerous, at least to begin with, the lot of the average worker during the early part of this great industrial and social upheaval was not a happy one. As Mr Mokyr notes, “life did not improve all that much between 1750 and 1850.” For 60 years, from 1770 to 1830, growth in British wages, adjusted for inflation, was imperceptible because productivity growth was restricted to a few industries. Not until the late 19th century, when the gains had spread across the whole economy, did wages at last perform in line with productivity (see chart 1).
Along with social reforms and new political movements that gave voice to the workers, this faster wage growth helped spread the benefits of industrialisation across wider segments of the population. New investments in education provided a supply of workers for the more skilled jobs that were by then being created in ever greater numbers. This shift continued into the 20th century as post-secondary education became increasingly common.
Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University, and Mr Katz have written that workers were in a “race between education and technology” during this period, and for the most part they won. Even so, it was not until the “golden age” after the second world war that workers in the rich world secured real prosperity, and a large, property-owning middle class came to dominate politics. At the same time communism, a legacy of industrialisation’s harsh early era, kept hundreds of millions of people around the world in poverty, and the effects of the imperialism driven by European industrialisation continued to be felt by billions.
The impacts of technological change take their time appearing. They also vary hugely from industry to industry. Although in many simple economic models technology pairs neatly with capital and labour to produce output, in practice technological changes do not affect all workers the same way. Some find that their skills are complementary to new technologies. Others find themselves out of work.
Take computers. In the early 20th century a “computer” was a worker, or a room of workers, doing mathematical calculations by hand, often with the end point of one person’s work the starting point for the next. The development of mechanical and electronic computing rendered these arrangements obsolete. But in time it greatly increased the productivity of those who used the new computers in their work.
Many other technical innovations had similar effects. New machinery displaced handicraft producers across numerous industries, from textiles to metalworking. At the same time it enabled vastly more output per person than craft producers could ever manage.
For a task to be replaced by a machine, it helps a great deal if, like the work of human computers, it is already highly routine. Hence the demise of production-line jobs and some sorts of book-keeping, lost to the robot and the spreadsheet. Meanwhile work less easily broken down into a series of stereotyped tasks—whether rewarding, as the management of other workers and the teaching of toddlers can be, or more of a grind, like tidying and cleaning messy work places—has grown as a share of total employment.
But the “race” aspect of technological change means that such workers cannot rest on their pay packets. Firms are constantly experimenting with new technologies and production processes. Experimentation with different techniques and business models requires flexibility, which is one critical advantage of a human worker. Yet over time, as best practices are worked out and then codified, it becomes easier to break production down into routine components, then automate those components as technology allows.
If, that is, automation makes sense. As David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), points out in a 2013 paper, the mere fact that a job can be automated does not mean that it will be; relative costs also matter. When Nissan produces cars in Japan, he notes, it relies heavily on robots. At plants in India, by contrast, the firm relies more heavily on cheap local labour.
Even when machine capabilities are rapidly improving, it can make sense instead to seek out ever cheaper supplies of increasingly skilled labour. Thus since the 1980s (a time when, in America, the trend towards post-secondary education levelled off) workers there and elsewhere have found themselves facing increased competition from both machines and cheap emerging-market workers.
Such processes have steadily and relentlessly squeezed labour out of the manufacturing sector in most rich economies. The share of American employment in manufacturing has declined sharply since the 1950s, from almost 30% to less than 10%. At the same time, jobs in services soared, from less than 50% of employment to almost 70% (see chart 2). It was inevitable, therefore, that firms would start to apply the same experimentation and reorganisation to service industries.
A new wave of technological progress may dramatically accelerate this automation of brain-work. Evidence is mounting that rapid technological progress, which accounted for the long era of rapid productivity growth from the 19th century to the 1970s, is back. The sort of advances that allow people to put in their pocket a computer that is not only more powerful than any in the world 20 years ago, but also has far better software and far greater access to useful data, as well as to other people and machines, have implications for all sorts of work.
The case for a highly disruptive period of economic growth is made by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at MIT, in “The Second Machine Age”, a book to be published later this month. Like the first great era of industrialisation, they argue, it should deliver enormous benefits—but not without a period of disorienting and uncomfortable change. Their argument rests on an underappreciated aspect of the exponential growth in chip processing speed, memory capacity and other computer metrics: that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years is always equal to the progress they have made since the very beginning. Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee reckon that the main bottleneck on innovation is the time it takes society to sort through the many combinations and permutations of new technologies and business models.
A startling progression of inventions seems to bear their thesis out. Ten years ago technologically minded economists pointed to driving cars in traffic as the sort of human accomplishment that computers were highly unlikely to master. Now Google cars are rolling round California driver-free no one doubts such mastery is possible, though the speed at which fully self-driving cars will come to market remains hard to guess.
Brave new world
Even after computers beat grandmasters at chess (once thought highly unlikely), nobody thought they could take on people at free-form games played in natural language. Then Watson, a pattern-recognising supercomputer developed by IBM, bested the best human competitors in America’s popular and syntactically tricksy general-knowledge quiz show “Jeopardy!” Versions of Watson are being marketed to firms across a range of industries to help with all sorts of pattern-recognition problems. Its acumen will grow, and its costs fall, as firms learn to harness its abilities.
The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.
Jobs that are not easily automated may still be transformed. New data-processing technology could break “cognitive” jobs down into smaller and smaller tasks. As well as opening the way to eventual automation this could reduce the satisfaction from such work, just as the satisfaction of making things was reduced by deskilling and interchangeable parts in the 19th century. If such jobs persist, they may engage Mr Graeber’s “bullshit” detector.
Being newly able to do brain work will not stop computers from doing ever more formerly manual labour; it will make them better at it. The designers of the latest generation of industrial robots talk about their creations as helping workers rather than replacing them; but there is little doubt that the technology will be able to do a bit of both—probably more than a bit. A taxi driver will be a rarity in many places by the 2030s or 2040s. That sounds like bad news for journalists who rely on that most reliable source of local knowledge and prejudice—but will there be many journalists left to care? Will there be airline pilots? Or traffic cops? Or soldiers?
There will still be jobs. Even Mr Frey and Mr Osborne, whose research speaks of 47% of job categories being open to automation within two decades, accept that some jobs—especially those currently associated with high levels of education and high wages—will survive (see table). Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and a much-read blogger, writes in his most recent book, “Average is Over”, that rich economies seem to be bifurcating into a small group of workers with skills highly complementary with machine intelligence, for whom he has high hopes, and the rest, for whom not so much.
And although Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee rightly point out that developing the business models which make the best use of new technologies will involve trial and error and human flexibility, it is also the case that the second machine age will make such trial and error easier. It will be shockingly easy to launch a startup, bring a new product to market and sell to billions of global consumers (see article). Those who create or invest in blockbuster ideas may earn unprecedented returns as a result.
In a forthcoming book Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, argues along similar lines that America may be pioneering a hyper-unequal economic model in which a top 1% of capital-owners and “supermanagers” grab a growing share of national income and accumulate an increasing concentration of national wealth. The rise of the middle-class—a 20th-century innovation—was a hugely important political and social development across the world. The squeezing out of that class could generate a more antagonistic, unstable and potentially dangerous politics.
The potential for dramatic change is clear. A future of widespread technological unemployment is harder for many to accept. Every great period of innovation has produced its share of labour-market doomsayers, but technological progress has never previously failed to generate new employment opportunities.
The productivity gains from future automation will be real, even if they mostly accrue to the owners of the machines. Some will be spent on goods and services—golf instructors, household help and so on—and most of the rest invested in firms that are seeking to expand and presumably hire more labour. Though inequality could soar in such a world, unemployment would not necessarily spike. The current doldrum in wages may, like that of the early industrial era, be a temporary matter, with the good times about to roll (see chart 3).
These jobs may look distinctly different from those they replace. Just as past mechanisation freed, or forced, workers into jobs requiring more cognitive dexterity, leaps in machine intelligence could create space for people to specialise in more emotive occupations, as yet unsuited to machines: a world of artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors.
Such emotional and relational work could be as critical to the future as metal-bashing was in the past, even if it gets little respect at first. Cultural norms change slowly. Manufacturing jobs are still often treated as “better”—in some vague, non-pecuniary way—than paper-pushing is. To some 18th-century observers, working in the fields was inherently more noble than making gewgaws.
But though growth in areas of the economy that are not easily automated provides jobs, it does not necessarily help real wages. Mr Summers points out that prices of things-made-of-widgets have fallen remarkably in past decades; America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics reckons that today you could get the equivalent of an early 1980s television for a twentieth of its then price, were it not that no televisions that poor are still made. However, prices of things not made of widgets, most notably college education and health care, have shot up. If people lived on widgets alone— goods whose costs have fallen because of both globalisation and technology—there would have been no pause in the increase of real wages. It is the increase in the prices of stuff that isn’t mechanised (whose supply is often under the control of the state and perhaps subject to fundamental scarcity) that means a pay packet goes no further than it used to.
So technological progress squeezes some incomes in the short term before making everyone richer in the long term, and can drive up the costs of some things even more than it eventually increases earnings. As innovation continues, automation may bring down costs in some of those stubborn areas as well, though those dominated by scarcity—such as houses in desirable places—are likely to resist the trend, as may those where the state keeps market forces at bay. But if innovation does make health care or higher education cheaper, it will probably be at the cost of more jobs, and give rise to yet more concentration of income.
The machine stops
Even if the long-term outlook is rosy, with the potential for greater wealth and lots of new jobs, it does not mean that policymakers should simply sit on their hands in the mean time. Adaptation to past waves of progress rested on political and policy responses. The most obvious are the massive improvements in educational attainment brought on first by the institution of universal secondary education and then by the rise of university attendance. Policies aimed at similar gains would now seem to be in order. But as Mr Cowen has pointed out, the gains of the 19th and 20th centuries will be hard to duplicate.
Boosting the skills and earning power of the children of 19th-century farmers and labourers took little more than offering schools where they could learn to read, write and do algebra. Pushing a large proportion of college graduates to complete graduate work successfully will be harder and more expensive. Perhaps cheap and innovative online education will indeed make new attainment possible. But as Mr Cowen notes, such programmes may tend to deliver big gains only for the most conscientious students.
Another way in which previous adaptation is not necessarily a good guide to future employment is the existence of welfare. The alternative to joining the 19th-century industrial proletariat was malnourished deprivation. Today, because of measures introduced in response to, and to some extent on the proceeds of, industrialisation, people in the developed world are provided with unemployment benefits, disability allowances and other forms of welfare. They are also much more likely than a bygone peasant to have savings. This means that the “reservation wage”—the wage below which a worker will not accept a job—is now high in historical terms. If governments refuse to allow jobless workers to fall too far below the average standard of living, then this reservation wage will rise steadily, and ever more workers may find work unattractive. And the higher it rises, the greater the incentive to invest in capital that replaces labour.
Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove. However, society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.
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April 9th, 2014
Family of African American slaves on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. © Timothy H. O’Sullivan | learnnc.org
Racialized chattel slaves were the capital that made capitalism. While most theories of capitalism set slavery apart, as something utterly distinct, because under slavery, workers do not labor for a wage, new historical research reveals that for centuries, a single economic system encompassed both the plantation and the factory.
At the dawn of the industrial age commentators like Rev. Thomas Malthus could not envision that capital — an asset that is used but not consumed in the production of goods and services — could compound and diversify its forms, increasing productivity and engendering economic growth. Yet, ironically, when Malthus penned his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, the economies of Western Europe already had crawled their way out of the so-called “Malthusian trap.” The New World yielded vast quantities of “drug foods” like tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar for world markets. Europeans worked a little bit harder to satiate their hunger for these “drug foods.” The luxury-commodities of the seventeenth century became integrated into the new middle-class rituals like tea-drinking in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, these commodities became a caloric and stimulative necessity for the denizens of the dark satanic mills. The New World yielded food for proletarians and fiber for factories at reasonable (even falling) prices. The “industrious revolution” that began in the sixteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Book cover of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz © Penguin Books | Amazon.com
The systematic application of African slaves in staple export crop production began in the sixteenth century, with sugar in Brazil. The African slave trade populated the plantations of the Caribbean, landing on the shores of the Chesapeake at the end of the seventeenth century. African slaves held the legal status of chattel: moveable, alienable property. When owners hold living creatures as chattel, they gain additional property rights: the ownership of the offspring of any chattel, and the ownership of their offspring, and so on and so forth. Chattel becomes self-augmenting capital.
While slavery existed in human societies since prehistoric times, chattel status had never been applied so thoroughly to human beings as it would be to Africans and African-Americans beginning in the sixteenth century. But this was not done easily, especially in those New World regions where African slaves survived, worked alongside European indentured servants and landless “free” men and women, and bore offspring — as they did in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America.
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The economics of immiseration would be impossible without the politics of seduction, and capitalism’s appeal to our unconscious will to power and domination is not easily countered.
"The domain of seduction is the sacred horizon of appearances."
Jean Baudrillard, On Seduction
" ‘[I]mmiseration’ concerns not just the wages workers’ receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them."
Frances Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
"[C]apitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based."
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
By Joseph Natoli
Truthout Cultural Analysis
March 31, 2014 – The genius of the internal combustion engine engineered by Etienne Lenoir in 1860 was to release the pressure of such combustion to pistons, rotation and movement. Explosion was controlled and detoured; ignition could be repeated and catastrophe avoided each time. Rising pressure and calibrated release equals relief. Psychology responds to this analogy, as does politics. Increased pressure on low-wage workers makes headlines: "The Walls Close In: Low Wage Workers Finding It’s Easier to Fall into Poverty, and Harder to Get Out." But all wage earners, underclass or middle class, are feeling the pressure. Thom Hartmann reports, "wages have gone down almost seven percent since the recession. And, that decline followed more than three decades of stagnant wages thanks to Reaganomics."
Neoliberals, moderate or immoderate, pragmatic or crazed, attribute this sorry state of affairs to a number of variables that Liberals agree with, mostly referring to a transition from a low-tech society to a high-tech society, from a manufacturing base to a financial base, from a hunting, farming and manufacturing economy to an information economy. None of this has any drawing power. But the neoliberal steady refrain, from Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Romney’s 47 percent, has seductive power with that pivotal, crucial, voting middle class. The seductive spin is well-known: "The slow degeneration of working-class family life and the creation of a ‘moocher’ class too lazy and indulged to get a job results from ‘big government’ nurturing and coddling." There is a seductiveness also to other neoliberal reasons as to why immiseration is like the wolf now at every door but those of an elite few. Each "reason" touches a hot spot already fully charged within us. The collapse of a "nuclear family" is the collapse of a patriarchal order that is itself an order preserving male desire. The bureaucracy of public education is no more than the resistance of what is public, governmental and socialist to personal choice and individual freedom. The power of unions resides in a communist-like solidarity that obstructs the free and competitive play of business.
To read more articles by Joseph Natoli and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
All of these briefs are seductive spins within the American cultural imaginary, not because they rest on uncontested fact and evidence, but because they rest on seductions and repressions already deeply embedded in that imaginary. In other words, the way we think now is so heavily layered in fantasies and illusions that the argument that wins the day does not appeal to rationality but rests on those fantasies and illusions. As I have suggested before, this imaginary and its accompanying fantasies and illusions are not partisan, there being no politics ruling imagination. But there is a political use of the imaginary, what I call the politics of seduction, and that arises from an economics of immiseration. There would be little need for the former if such an economics had not led, as it has, to immiseration for an increasing number and the anxieties that emerge from a fear of inevitable immiseration for many more.
There are numerous varieties of seduction, from Eve’s in the garden to Baudrillard’s sense that we seduce by enacting a weakness that we see in ourselves as well as others. We all harbor a never-fulfilled appetite to eat the world whole, and we choose an individual freedom, a supremacy of self-interests and desires, that urges us, like Milton’s Satan, to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. The fantasies of desire are Janus-faced – as are the illusions of power. They have their weaker side – an impotency of desire, a feckless command and a captured will. Romney’s 47 percent of the population would eat up the world if they could but are totally impotent and cannot do so. The totalizing power that the elite seek can never be blocked by the feckless command of unions. Big government is no more than a ridiculed domain of power, not our own, that presumes to rule us. The fantasy links to male desire and personal choice are too transparent to require exegesis.
Seductions work because the appeal is to what is in us, both the desires and the fears, and therefore connections are made and recognition ensures response. And while both appeal and recognition are felt, they are unthought and pre-discursive. We do not think what is unthinkable. We do not express what we fear to think. Nevertheless, power remains here. Eden’s garden is no more than a confinement we need to go beyond, explore what’s outside; God’s one law, call it regulation, blocks our libertine and liberty-seeking nature. We do not need to be tempted to bite the apple; as unthinkable as this may sound, we were made to bite it. And much more. We have an appetite to possess and not to share. All that we have never quells a desire to have yet more. Mutual sharing and aid has no seductive power in our elemental level of being – but domination does. All other species, according to Genesis, awaited Adam’s naming, their identity and place in the world forever held within the province of human need and desire. Global warming can be conquered just as we have conquered nature all along the way. Global ecology movements thus have little seductive attraction as the rational arguments, especially in regard to human-caused climate change, have not been able to deactivate the seductiveness of what is irrational.
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Is China’s extraordinary rise a model of economic reform without political reform? Is China’s Achilles’ heel its political system? Is China’s one-party governance doomed in the face of mounting challenges from a more diversified economy and demanding society?
China’s political governance, adapting itself constantly to new challenges through many minor reforms, has proven crucial for China’s economic success.
These are questions in many Western minds whenever China is mentioned. But the assumptions behind these questions may be misplaced, as one’s understanding of China could be vastly different if a Chinese perspective were adopted. China’s political governance, adapting itself constantly to new challenges through many minor reforms, has proven crucial for China’s economic success. The following five aspects of China’s political governance merit special attention:
First, one-party governance. In fact, there is nothing new about one-party governance in China: in most of the past two millennia since its first unification in 221 BC, China almost always practiced a kind of one-party rule, or rule by a unified Confucian ruling elite selected through public exams (the Keju), claiming to represent — or genuinely representing — most if not all under heaven. Furthermore, in most of the one-party-rule era, China was arguably a better governed country and a more prosperous economy than Europe of the same epoch. China only began to lag behind Europe when it closed its door to the outside world and missed the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, but the country is now catching up fast.
The Communist Party of China has to a great extent followed this tradition and built an impressive system of selecting its leaders based on merit and performance. For instance, its top decision-makers (6 out of 7 Politburo’s Standing Committee members) all worked at least twice as much as party secretaries or governors at the provincial level, which means they have on average administered a population of about 100 million before being promoted to their current positions in Beijing.
The CPC today, like its predecessors in China’s long past, also claims to represent the whole nation, but with a mission to restore the country’s premier world-class status. Key independent surveys, including those by the Pew or the Asian Barometer over the past decade, show a consistent pattern in which the Chinese central authorities command a high degree of respect and support (above 75 percent) within the country. Depicting China’s polity as being on the verge of collapse, as appears so often in the Western media, is out of touch with China’s reality.