Archive for January, 2010

Public art of the day

Posted: 31 January 2010 in Uncategorized
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Man Running Through Fence

Job Martens and Piet Meeuws

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 30 January 2010 in Uncategorized
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Unfortunately, this is how capitalism works—by disciplining and punishing those who do the work.

First, unemployment is not falling (even though national income is growing) and the duration of unemployment is rising:

Second, and as a consequence, real wages and benefits are falling:

Wage and benefit costs, both before and after adjusting for inflation, grew more slowly in 2009 than in any year since the U.S. government began tracking data in 1982, as double-digit unemployment weakened workers’ ability to command higher pay.

In the past 12 months, the cost of wages and benefits received by workers other than those employed by the federal government rose 1.5%, according to the Labor Department’s employment cost index. In the same period, consumer prices rose 2.7%.

Adjusted for inflation, wages and benefits fell 1.3%, after rising 2.8% in 2008, the first year of the recession. The inflation-adjusted cost of wages and benefits at the end of 2009 stood just 1.1% higher than at the end of the previous recession in 2001, the Labor Department said.

Even the rate of growth of health expenditures is low by historic standards:

Private employers’ health-insurance costs rose 4.4% in 2009, after increasing 3.5% the year before. The 2009 increase, though, was the second-lowest rate of increase in more than a decade, according to the survey. The Labor Department noted that this reflects, in part, employers’ reducing their contributions to employees’ health insurance or switching to lower-cost health plans.

National income is growing but labor remuneration is falling. This is precisely how capitalism attempts to get out of its crises: by restoring capitalist profitability. By any means necessary.

The Great Recession

Leon Reid IV

According to a new study released by the Food Research and Action Center (based on data collected by Callup), nearly 1 in 5 Americans is struggling with hunger.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Food hardship in the Gallup survey for the nation as a whole rose from 16.3 percent of respondent households in the first quarter of 2008 to 19.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. In 2009, the rate dropped slightly, with the rate in the four quarters of 2009 hovering between 17.9 and 18.8 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2009, it was 18.5 percent.
  • The food hardship rate is even worse for households with children. Respondents in such households reported food hardship at a rate 1.62 times that of other households – 24.1 percent versus 14.9 percent in 2009.
  • In 2009, in 20 states, more than one in five respondents said that they experienced food hardship; in 45 states more than 15 percent reported food hardship. For households with children, in 22 states one quarter or more of respondents reported food hardship.
  • Of the 100 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), 82 had 15 percent or more of respondents answering that they did not have enough money to buy needed food at times in the last 12 months. For the 50 largest MSAs, 15 had more than one in four households with children reporting food hardship.
  • Of the 436 Congressional Districts (including the District of Columbia), 311 had a food hardship rate of 15 percent or higher. In 139 of them the rate was 20 percent or higher. Practically every Congressional District in the country had more than a tenth of respondents reporting food hardship.

Clearly, food hardship—running out of money to buy the food that families need—is a national problem. It is a national problem both because the rate is appallingly high and because it touches virtually every corner (almost every state, Metropolitan Statistical Area, and Congressional District) of the nation.

So, while mainstream economists dither on about per capita income levels, the current crises of capitalism are throwing people out of work, lowering the wages of many others who still have a job, and making it impossible for millions in both groups to put a decent amount of food on the table.

Economist of the day

Posted: 29 January 2010 in Uncategorized
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Have we really reached the situation where the Senate as a body and individual Senators – accomplished men and women, who stand on the shoulders of giants – must bow down before financial markets and high-ranking executives who are really just talking their book?

Simon Johnson

Rethinking society

Posted: 29 January 2010 in Uncategorized
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Daniel Little’s project of working through the basic categories of social theory is quite valuable. Not that I’ve always agreed with him (e.g., here). But I certainly learn a great deal in reading his posts.

His latest–on social relations, processes, and activities—is a good example. Little introduces the idea that there are “persistent phenomena in the social world” that can’t be characterized as structures, organizations, or institutions but are better understood as activities and processes. In short, they’re more akin to verbs rather than nouns.

His examples are friendship, solidarity, and inflation. Let me try something similar with class. Within mainstream social science (except, of course, in mainstream economics, where class literally doesn’t exist), class is often conceived as a noun: underclass, middle-class, upper-class, and so on. Traditional Marxists, too, often invoke class as a noun: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the peasantry, and so on. Such notions of class as social things—as nouns—obscure the relational and dynamic dimensions of class.

One alternative is to rethink class in terms of process, and to investigate class processes as component parts of many (but not all) structures, organizations, institutions, activities, and relations within society. Thus, in Marxian terms, class processes—the processes of performing, appropriating, distributing, and receiving surplus labor—are one set of processes within society. They combine with—they constitute and are constituted by—other social (political, cultural, and economic) and natural processes to make up the social and natural worlds.

This notion of class is relational in that it focuses on pairs: performing and appropriating surplus labor, appropriating and distributing surplus labor, distributing and receiving surplus labor. And it is dynamic, in that class processes represent flows of surplus labor through time and across space.

Let me illustrate this idea with the (productive) capitalist enterprise. The enterprise is a social institution made up of many different activities: production, marketing, hiring, selling, research and development, and so on. These activities are, in turn, composed of social and natural processes: political (e.g., giving and obeying orders), cultural (e.g., notions of fairness and justice), economic (e.g., paying wages and salaries), and natural (e.g., chemical transformations). A subset of the economic processes are class processes: the processes whereby surplus labor is performed and appropriated (capitalist exploitation or, in Marx’s vivid language, the sucking of the blood of the laborers) and the processes whereby that surplus is distributed to others (call them subsumed or distributive class processes, the processes whereby others who do not perform or appropriate surplus labor—merchant capitalists, finance capitalists, the state, and so on—receive a cut of the “booty”).

What are the implications of such a notion of class processes? First, the focus is on participating in class processes, not belonging to one or another class. Second, there is no claim that class processes constitute the essence of reality: individuals participate in both class and nonclass processes, and the activities and institutions of society comprise both class and nonclass processes. Third, class struggles refer to situations in which there is tension and conflict over the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of class processes, not to who is doing the struggling.

That’s how Marxist social theorists begin to rethink society, from a class perspective.