Archive for July, 2015

capitalism-crash

The other day, I expressed my doubts about Paul Mason’s arguments about postcapitalism. But others see his argument in a much more positive light, including some friends of mine, Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, and Stephen Healy [ht: sk].

They, too, however, assert that “technology does not in and of itself guarantee a better future.” What are needed, and which they see emerging in the midst of capitalism today, are “explicit ethical commitments that are developed independent of online apps and cyber networks.”

Technology is augmenting relations of care for others. Technology does not bring these relations into being.

In our research on the diverse economic practices that exist outside the purview of mainstream economics, we find people are forging new types of economies around six ethical concerns:

  • What do we need to survive well?
  • What happens to surplus, or what is left over after our survival needs have been met?
  • How do we act responsibly to those whose inputs help us to survive well (whether other people or the environment)?
  • How much and what do we consume in order to survive well?
  • How do we care for the commons – the gifts of nature and intellect that we rely on?
  • How do we invest so that future generations can also live well?

I think they’re right: we do need to be aware of the ways the existing set of relations—the relations of capitalist commodity production—not only create capitalist subjects, but also noncapitalist subjectivities.

The way I’ve put it in my own writing, capitalist commodity production both presumes and constitutes particular kinds of individual subjects (which Marx referred to as “commodity fetishism,” i.e., particular notions of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham”). But it also brings into existence new collective subjectivities—new ways of “being in common”—that can transcend capitalism.

A concrete example might help here. The existence of capitalist healthcare (of healthcare providers as well as healthcare insurers) both presumes and supports the idea that healthcare is an individual concern: we are supposed to take care of our own individual healthcare (whether through the established healthcare system or via “alternative” therapies) and purchase healthcare commodities (again, either established or alternative) if and when they are necessary. But it is also the case that the existence of healthcare commodity markets also brings together providers and consumers—nurses, doctors, and patients—who have an interest in a different kind of healthcare, one that is less interested in profits and more in the well-being of both providers and consumers.

That alternative subjectivity—that “being in common” in relation to healthcare—can serve as the basis of a noncommodified, noncapitalist form of healthcare. And, pace Mason, new kinds of information technologies might even be useful for connecting producers and consumers in postcapitalist ways. There’s nothing automatic about it, of course. Still, both new ethical commitments and information technologies signal the possibility of ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The key is to find ways to combine those emerging technologies and ethical concerns in a political movement that is inspired by a fundamental critique: both what is wrong with the existing order and an imagining of a concrete alternative.

That’s what comes next. . .

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As Emily Flitter reports,

For Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, there’s something awkward about the Harley-Davidson motorcycles that he has been posing on at presidential campaign stops: each one bears a sticker on its frame that reads “Union made in the USA.”

Walker has made the iconic American brand a centerpiece of his campaign kick-off tour this month, visiting four dealerships and sometimes showing off his own 2003 Harley Road King as he seeks to harness its appeal to older white male voters.

But there is another side to Harley that the Republican candidate has been less vocal about – it is a leading example of a successful company that has a strong relationship with labor unions.

Indeed, as Adam Davidson explained last year, Harley-Davidson’s resurgence has been on the basis of, not (like the rest of U.S. manufacturing) at the expense of, union labor.

But, in another U.S. irony, Harley-Davidson’s success has involved significant sacrifices on the part of its unionized workers:

Harley’s very existence was in question in 2009. Today it is a manufacturing role model, and that has a lot to do with its workers. The average tenure of a line worker at the York plant is 18 years, and these workers are extremely devoted to the company. (“How many factory workers have the company logo tattooed on their arm?” Dettinger asked me.) Magee said there was no question that the workers were earning their relatively higher wages. Costs have fallen by $100 million at the plant and quality has improved even more significantly. Customer demand is extremely high, especially now that people can get a bike within a couple weeks of ordering rather than waiting a year and a half. Harley’s stock price is back near the peak it reached at the top of the bubble in 2006. Craig Kennison at the research firm Baird told me that “it’s certainly the best turnaround I’ve ever seen.” Recently, the York plant won the Oscars of manufacturing: an IndustryWeek Best Plants award.

This sort of success wasn’t without a cost. The machinist union agreed to let Harley lay off 1,000 plant workers and implement a multiyear pay freeze. But every machinist I spoke with said that he understood that the alternative would be no jobs at all in York.

Yep, on both counts, only in America!

 George Grosz, "BĂĽrgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie" (1922)


George Grosz, “BĂĽrgerliche Welt/ World of the Bourgeoisie” (1922)

Back in 2011, I suggested we move from focusing on the pathologies of the poor to those of the rich. And that’s exactly what psychologists seem now to be doing. We’ve seen studies of “social class as culture,” “sharing the marbles,” and much more.*

The latest is Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, and Chris G. Sibley on “social sampling”—that is, the idea that wealthier people may be less supportive of redistribution than poorer people because they infer society is wealthier than it actually is because they are surrounded by other wealthy people. And that’s exactly what the authors found:

wealthier (relative to poorer) Americans reported moving in wealthier social circles and extrapolated from them when estimating wealth levels across America as a whole. . . In turn, these estimates were associated with the perceived fairness of wealth distribution in America and with opposition to redistribution, a finding that is consistent with theory on normative-justice judgments.

These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.

Dawtry, Sutton, and Sibley are certainly on to something: we often arrive at social judgments based on anecdotal evidence—things we have either heard or seen—and many of our anecdotes are produced or disseminated within our particular social circles. Those circles are our “sample.”

But that’s not enough. Because we also have other knowledges of the world around us—knowledges that come from the news, novels, music, religious sermons, political speeches, and so on. We’re not just limited to what is said and repeated within our narrow social circles.

So, sure, wealthy people might think the rest of society looks like the worlds in which they live and work. But they also know, through other means, that it isn’t really like that. There are many more people earning far lower incomes than they might come across on a daily basis. Grotesque inequalities exist and they’re getting more and more extreme.

If the rich don’t know about those inequalities, given the other knowledges that are widely available, then they are engaged in practices of willful ignorance.

And that’s another pathology we need to take into account.

 

*Readers will note I find myself always turning to George Grosz to illustrate my discussions of these studies. There must be some other artists I can use. Any suggestions?

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The current situation in Greece appears hopeless. After two European bailouts and five years of Draconian austerity measures, which have left much of Greece in tatters, the Syriza-led government has been forced to accept a third bailout and the imposition of new austerity measures, which will only continue the current depression and leave the country with no real prospects of repaying the accumulation of new debts.

If that’s not a hopeless situation, I don’t know what is.

But Slavoj ZĚŚizĚŚek [ht: db] invokes Giorgio Agamben to the effect that “thought is the courage of hopelessness.”

The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

I think ŽiĹľek is right, although Marx may have put it even better: “You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it, this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope.”

Marx (in a May 1843 letter) was responding to Arnold Ruge, who had expressed a resigned certainty that there could be no popular revolution in Germany. Marx then proceeds to demonstrate how we need to “start all over again”—by studying the philistine “lords of the world” (“lords of the world only in the sense that they fill it with their presence, as worms fill a corpse”), who wallow in “their passive and thoughtless existence.” Marx concludes with the hope that the “enemies of philistinism, i.e., all thinking and suffering people” will eventually arrive at a critical understanding of the old order, which will serve to create a fundamental rupture within existing society and usher in a new one.

The same task has to be taken up today in Greece and, even more so, Europe. Each day we learn more (e.g., thanks to Neil Irwin and others) about how Germany prevailed in the negotiations over Greece in the most recent bailout—and how the rest of Europe (from Lisbon to Latvia) accepted and reinforced the terms of the deal.

The temerity of the Greek government was to challenge the idea that “business as usual”—strict adherence to the existing rules and procedures, from bankers’ dress codes and polite public pronouncements to suggestions (by, among others, Slovenian Finance Minister Dusan Mramor and Wolfgang Schäuble) that the only way the mounting debt could be written down was for Greece to “temporarily” leave the euro zone—would solve the existing problems in Greece and the other austerity-ravaged countries in Europe.

In the end, of course, the Greeks lost. Thus, they have been forced to cobble together parliamentary votes that roll back some of the anti-austerity measures adopted by Syriza since assuming power in January, in addition to levying higher taxes and renewing the program to privatize state assets—just to fend off a liquidity crisis in the banking sector and then to enter into a new round of negotiations over the exact terms of the bailout.

The current situation does, indeed, appear hopeless.

However, in challenging the terms of the bailout—first, in supporting the “no” vote in the 5 July referendum and, then, in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s statements that his government would not implement reform measures beyond those agreed with lenders at the euro zone summit this month—the Greek government has come to represent all the “thinking and suffering people” of Europe and to expose the “passive and thoughtless existence” that characterizes the “lords of the world” who currently reign on that continent.

It is one moment in a long process that is showing the world how the current system cannot solve the problems it has created.

That, perhaps, should fill us with hope.

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Up here, it seems every other car is a Subaru. That’s because they’re relatively inexpensive, all-wheel-drive vehicles. And because Subaru cultivates an environmentally friendly, socially conscious identity.

But, according to a special report from Reuters, Subaru is not particularly friendly or socially conscious about the workers in its supply chain.

Subaru’s U.S. sales have almost doubled in the past four years. At the heart of that success is the company’s Forester all-wheel-drive SUV, which has carved out a following with American drivers for its performance, price and aura of social responsibility. That’s been a key selling point for Subaru, which has marketed itself in the U.S. as the automaker with a conscience. Subaru’s “Love Promise,” in which it pledges to make “a positive impact in the world,” has helped build loyal consumers in states like California, New York and Washington.

What Subaru does not tout is that its boom is made possible in part by asylum seekers and other cheap foreign laborers from Asia and Africa.

They work at the automaker and its suppliers at Subaru’s main production hub, here in the Japanese town of Ota, two hours north of Tokyo. Many are on short-term contracts. At Subaru, some foreign workers earn about half the wage of their Japanese equivalents on the production line. At the automaker’s suppliers, workers are often employed through brokers who charge up to a third of the workers’ wages. From countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Mali and China, these foreign laborers are building many of the parts for the Forester, including its leather seats, often in grueling conditions.

A Reuters investigation of factory conditions in Ota – including a review of payslips and asylum applications, and interviews with dozens of laborers from 22 countries – reveals that foreign workers are enduring abuses at the hands of labor brokers and companies in the Subaru supply chain. These include workers at Subaru’s suppliers like Lakhan Rijal, a stocky 34-year-old asylum seeker who said he was fired after injuring his back at a plant that makes seats for the automaker. Other foreign workers spoke about being pressured to work double shifts, being dismissed without notice and having no insurance.

Most of the 120 workers interviewed by Reuters were earning the minimum wage for machinery manufacturing in Ota’s Gunma prefecture – $6.60 an hour – or above.

But Reuters also found more than a dozen Indonesian laborers at two small Subaru suppliers who said their net monthly pay was $730. That works out to $3.30 per hour after rent, utilities and fees owed to the dispatch company in their home country had been deducted.

Subaru, like many other multinational corporations, uses the excuse that its suppliers are responsible for their own labor practices and it is not directly involved in supervising working conditions or the brokers who provide the cheap labor.

It seems Subaru shares the love with everyone and everything, except the workers who actually produce the vehicles it sells.

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Until recently, we were certain what would happen with an increase in the minimum wage—and that would be the reason to oppose any and all such attempts. Now, it’s a guessing game—and that uncertainty about its possible effects has become reason enough to oppose increasing the minimum wage.

What the hell is going on?

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First, the certainty: neoclassical economists confidently asserted that the minimum wage caused unemployment (because it meant, at a wage above the equilibrium wage, the quantity supplied of labor would be created than the quantity demanded). Therefore, any increase in the minimum wage would cause more unemployment and, despite the best intentions of people who wanted to raise the minimum wage, it would actually hurt the poor, since many would lose their jobs.

But, of course, theoretically, the neoclassical labor-market model was missing all kinds of other effects, from wage efficiencies (e.g., higher wages might reduce labor turnover and increase productivity) to market spillovers (e.g., higher wages might lead to more spending, which would in turn increase the demand for labor). If you take those into account, the effects of increasing the minimum wage became more uncertain: it might or might not lead to some workers losing their jobs but those same workers might get jobs elsewhere as economic activity picked up precisely because workers who kept their jobs might be more productive and spend more of their higher earnings.

And that’s precisely what the new empirical studies have concluded: some have find a little less employment, others a bit more employment. In the end, the employment effects are pretty much a wash—and workers are receiving higher wages.

But that’s mostly for small increases in the minimum wage. What if the increase were larger—say, from $7.25 to $10, $12, or $15 an hour?

Well, we just don’t know. All we can do is guess what the effects might be at the local, state, or national level. But conservatives (like David Brooks, big surprise!) are seizing on that uncertainty to oppose increasing the minimum wage.

And that’s what I find interesting: uncertainty, which was at one time (e.g., for conservatives like economist Frank Knight) the spur to action, is now taken to be the reason for inaction. And those who oppose increasing the minimum wage are now choosing the certainty of further misery for minimum-wage workers over the uncertainty of attempting to improve their lot.

Addendum

They want less of a guessing game?

Then, let’s make the effects of raising the minimum wage more certain. Why not increase government expenditures in areas where raising the minimum wage represents a dramatic increase for workers? Or mandate that employers can’t fire any of the low-wage workers once the minimum wage is increased? Or, if an employer chooses to close an enterprise rather than pay workers more, hand the enterprise over to the workers themselves? Any or all of those measures would increase the certainty of seeing positive effects for the working poor of raising the minimum wage.

But then we’re talking about a different game—of capital versus labor, of profits versus wages. And we know, with a high degree of certainty, the choices neoclassical economists and conservative pundits make in that game.