Posts Tagged ‘history’

SWZ8i

In the summer of 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made headlines by announcing that he had changed sides and was now in favor of reparations to African-Americans (accompanied by an explanation of why, in contrast to four years earlier, he had changed his mind). Two weeks ago, Coates made headlines again by criticizing Bernie Sanders for opposing “reparations for slavery” (accompanied, a week later, by a defense of his critique of Sanders).

Needless to say, this is a sensitive debate, one that over time might contribute to the development of a progressive movement in the United States but also one that, at the present moment, threatens to undermine the fragile foundations of that movement. So, I want to step lightly and, instead of taking a firm position, merely raise a few issues for further discussion.

Chicago

The first point I want to make is that, notwithstanding the title of his original article in The Atlantic, Coates did not make a cases for reparations. He did make a case that the history of American democracy and capitalism is a profoundly racialized history, which stretches back to slavery, continues through the Jim Crow era, and persists to the present. It’s a history this nation persists in overlooking or forgetting—and its effects are profoundly present both in memory and in daily life today. No matter how many times we imagine a post-racial society, we are reminded of the racial disparities and injustices that have accompanied the emergence and development of all of our major economic, political, and social institutions. Coates’s essay provides eloquent testimony to at least some of that history—including, of course, the stark racial segregation of my own city.

But we also have to recognize the fact Coates did not make a case for reparations per se. Nowhere in his essay does he explain how a payment, no matter how large or small, from the United States government to the descendants of African and African-American slaves will actually undo the enduring legacy of racism in the United States.

WealthByRace-med.0

True, there’s an enormous racial wealth gap in the United States—between, for example, median white households and African-American (by a factor of 12) and Hispanic (by a factor of 10) households. Much of that wealth is in the form of housing. But that’s not where the bulk of the wealth in the United States has been accumulated. Rather, we’ll find it in the hands of a small group of wealthy individuals and large corporations—and reparations to the descendants of slaves will do little to close the gap between those at the top and the bulk of individual (whether African-American, Hispanic, or white) households.

Now, to give Coates his due, perhaps he is more interested in the investigation of the consequences of that racist legacy, a public airing and discussion that would be provoked by a full-scale debate about reparations (which would come from passing Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act), and that’s fine. Let us, as a nation, finally come to grips with both the history of American racism and of the racial disparities and injustices that are so much a part of our recent history—from discriminatory subprime mortgages through unequal rates of unemployment and incarceration to racially biased police violence.

Or, alternatively, Coates might reframe the debate about reparations and begin to write about who actually gained from racist policies and practices over the course of U.S. history. If he did, he’d end up with a very small group of slaveowners, landowners, and capitalists (along with a larger, but still relatively small, group of overseers, merchants, and managers) who benefited from the labor performed by a much larger group of slaves, sharecroppers, and wage-workers. He might also add the institutions—including many colleges and universities—that grew from the proceeds of slavery and the slave trade, sharecropping, and capitalist enterprises. Those are the groups and institutions he might want to look at for reparations.

But, if he did, Coates would also discover that the wealth accumulated by a tiny minority of those at the top stemmed from activities that have also employed white (and Hispanic and other) tenants and workers. They’ve all been plundered—whether at work and in attempting to secure adequate housing, by private employers and bankers and through government policy—and, in that sense, are all due reparations.

No, it certainly hasn’t been the same—the same treatment, the same outcomes—for different racial and ethnic groups. Not by a long shot.

The problem is, reparations might not solve that problem of social theft for any of those groups, as it took place over the course of U.S. history and as it still exists today. In fact, we have to recognize, those gaps are getting larger—for whites, blacks, Hispanics, and everyone else.

As I see it, nothing short of a radical change in the way our economy is organized will overcome those gaps. That’s what conservatives and liberals have no interest in but is exactly what Coates and Sanders should be talking about—with one another and with everyone else in the country as this political campaign moves forward.

7841a-image-CH25

source

Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes (pdf) famously predicted that over the next 100 years (and therefore for his contemporaries’ grandchildren) the amount of wealth produced would make it possible for people to devote less and less time to work—such that a 15-hour workweek would be standard. The problem, Keynes thus presumed, would not be to provide adequate living standards and work for people, but instead to find adequate ways of filling the growing number of hours of nonwork.

Keynes was, of course, wrong—not in terms of increasing wealth (which has steadily increased since his time) but with the workweek (which did decline until the mid-1970s but has held pretty steady since then.

“So,” Rebecca Stone [ht: ja] asks, “what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?”

fig2

As it turns out, Benjamin Friedman has recently published an essay in which he attempts to understand how Keynes got it so wrong—in other words, why the possibility of less work has in fact become impossible. The key reason is that Keynes failed to allow for an increasingly unequal distribution of income. With a growing gap between a tiny group at the top and everyone else, real wages and thus median income basically stopped growing in the mid-1970s, which is “roughly coincident with the leveling off of the average workweek.”

Thus, Friedman concludes,

with widening income inequality in recent decades the failure of either the incomes or the consumption of most American families to keep up with the growth of U.S. output per capita bears directly on the initial accuracy but subsequent failure of Keynes’s prediction for work. Until the 1970s, Keynes was right on both fronts: per capita output grew at the upper end of the range he predicted, most families’ incomes grew even faster (inequality was mostly narrowing during that period), and the workweek continued to decline. But with widening inequality from the early 1970s on, the growth of most families’ incomes became far slower than he had predicted, and the workweek stopped declining. The latter combination has persisted ever since.

In other words, what Keynes did not understand is that workers don’t just produce wealth, which they can then enjoy by reducing the amount of work they do. They produce wealth that stands opposed to them, wealth in the form of capital, which is then used to render part of the working population superfluous, thus dragging down the wages of other workers, who are then employed to boost the profits of their employers. The workweek of the employed population doesn’t decrease, even as they are joined to new technologies and are transferred to new sectors of the economy.

Keynes’s grandchildren are in fact producing much more wealth. But the increasingly unequal way that wealth is apportioned across society renders impossible the possibility of shortening the time they work for their employers and increasing the hours of nonwork they can enjoy in their own pursuits.

Only a fundamental change in the way wealth is produced, and thus in the way the economy is organized, will make that possibility actually possible.

*Yes, I know Keynes was gay and, although he was married to Lydia Lopokova for 21 years, he didn’t have any children, let alone grandchildren.

Addendum

And Keynes wasn’t a very good currency trader either.

3AqeReR

There are, of course, many different definitions of “socialism”—what it is and what it is not.

That’s not new. Socialism has been intensely debated and variously defined since the term was first invented in the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, especially after it became “respectable” by the middle of that century. But it is interesting that socialism was the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s web site this year.

“Socialism has been near the top of our online dictionary look-up list for several years,” said editor-at-large Peter Sokolowsk. “However, this year look-ups for socialism moved up even further, beginning with the July campaign events for Bernie Sanders, remaining high throughout the following months and spiking again after the first Democratic debate in October.”

Merriam-Webster said that the fact that Sanders has embraced socialism “shows the term has moved beyond its cold war associations”.

Unfortunately, the three main definitions offered by Merriam-Webster actually reflect its Cold War associations. Its usage discussion is a bit more accurate:

It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal.

What is important right now is that curiosity about and interest in socialism are clearly on the rise. There will be plenty of time to debate the term—what is has meant historically (beginning with the so-called utopian socialists), what it means now (e.g., in the still-evolving Sanders campaign), and what it might mean (in the concrete circumstances of the United States and elsewhere)—if that curiosity and interest continue to grow.

 

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders made the case that democratic socialism is a thoroughly American tradition, best exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Peter Dreier recently made a similar argument:

Because the word “socialism” has been demonized, few Americans call themselves socialists or even social democrats. But public opinion polls — including the Pew Research Center, Hart Research Associates and The New York Times/CBS — show that a vast majority of Americans agree with what Sanders actually stands for.

For example, 74% think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that “our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;” 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers’ rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

On those matters — both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions — Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans. There’s a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans’ frustrations with the status quo. That’s what American socialists have been doing for over a century. Indeed, socialism is as American as apple pie.

Dreier’s examples of U.S. socialists include “some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Eugene V. Debs, and Gloria Steinem.”

Let me add a few others, off the top of my head, from various walks of life and eras of U.S. history: Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ed Asner, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Jay Gould, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Harry Belafonte, Edward Bellamy, Ron Dellums, John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Meridel Le Sueur, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Robert Dale Owen, Upton Sinclair, and so on.

There have also been many socialist mayors in the United States—including, of course, Sanders himself.

(now all together)

(now all together)

You’d think, if you’re going to write about the inhumane effects of robots on our daily lives, you’d at also acknowledge the long, rich history of human movements and thinking about machinery and other technological developments since at least the nineteenth century.

But that’s not what we get from Simon Chandler [ht: ja] who deplores the new artificial intelligence and robotic technologies being developed by a wide range of companies, from Toyota to Amazon. Why? Because they threaten to reduce human autonomy:

With artificial intelligence suggesting to people what to consume, when to turn the heating down, when to get out of bed, and when to do anything else, people will find themselves becoming ever more regularized and automated in their behavior. Regardless of the fact that AI is characterized by its ability to adapt, to learn from how its putative user reacts, it can adapt only so far (especially in its present form) and can perform only so many actions. This means that any person who allows AI into their home will have to adapt to its behavior; will have to begin conforming to their robot helper’s way of doing things, to its rhythms, schedules and choices. As such, they will become more formalized and systematized, losing much of their spontaneity, impulsiveness and autonomy in the process.

Because of this increased tendency toward repetition and inflexibility, the AI or robot assistant will make its “master” more repetitive and inflexible. Its master will come to divide her time and spend her day according to algorithms which, no matter how advanced, are still nowhere near as complex as the human brain. Therefore, with growing frequency, she may be reduced to a mere function of these algorithms, pressured into acting in accordance with her android butler, into adopting the stereotype it foists on her.

Because these AIs would be the product of single R&D centers, such as the Toyota Research Institute, this influence of robots on human behavior will also represent a general homogenizing and centralizing of said behavior. Instead of being the result of innumerable interactions with hundreds of people and with her own community, the AI user’s psychology and personality will be molded to a greater extent by Toyota, Google or Facebook, particularly if this user becomes more socially isolated and more reliant on robotic aids.

What Chandler seems not to understand is that technologies, once invented, take on a life of their own—or, at least, a certain degree of autonomy. And we have lots of examples of people reacting to and thinking about the consequences of those technologies, as they become relatively (and, perhaps these days, increasingly) autonomous.

I’m thinking, for example, of the machine-breaking Luddites who, as both Eric Hobsbawm and Thomas Pynchon explain, were not hostile to machines as such, but using a technique of trade unionism (when labor unions barely existed): “as a means both of putting pressure on employers and of ensuring the essential solidarity of the workers.”

There’s also Marx, who (especially in Part 4 of volume 1 of Capital) wrote a great deal about machinery—as a way of increasing relative surplus-value, in terms of its sweeping-away of handcraft workers, as a means of employing women and children, as weapons against the revolts of the working-class, and much more.

And, of course, building on and extending Marx’s analysis, Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation or Work in the Twentieth Century (pdf): on the role of scientific management as the “displacement of labor as the subjective element of the labor process and its transformation into an object” and the role of machines which “has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor.”

More recently, we have plenty of other sources, such as AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs by the Pew Research Center. What is interesting about the report, which starts from the premise that automation and intelligent digital agents will permeate vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, is that almost half (48 percent) of the technological experts who responded to the survey

envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Finally, there’s Jacobin magazine’s special issue, “Ours to Master,” in which the various authors see new technologies both as today’s instruments of employer control and as the preconditions for a post-scarcity society. As Peter Frase explains,

The mainstream discourse tends toward the facile view that technology is a thing that one can be for or against; perhaps something that can be used in an ethical or unethical way. But technology in the labor process, just like capital, is not a thing but a social relation. Technologies are developed and introduced in the context of the battle between capital and labor, and they encode the victories, losses, and compromises of those struggles. When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified “technology,” it is to the benefit of the bosses.

I hope readers will find the links to these various sources useful.

My only point is that we can do much better than the humanist discussion of the inevitable engagement of humans with their uncontrollable creations (as in Chandler’s case) by examining the consequences and reactions (within specific and quite different capitalist and noncapitalist contexts) of the relatively autonomous technologies that are being invented today—a complex, contradictory process that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.

7364740_orig

The American Economic Association was, in the beginning, a radical organization—founded in 1885, according to Marshall I. Steinbaum and Bernard A. Weisberger, by “Richard Ely, an avowedly Christian Heidelberg-trained professor at Johns Hopkins with a calling to make economics a friend of the working man.” Now, of course, it is anything but radical.

What happened?

Steinbaum and Weisberger’s analysis is that

University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. . .

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

Perhaps the causes of the transformation in U.S. economics during the first Gilded Age help explain why academic unfreedom in economics is so prevalent now, in the second Gilded Age.

Screen shot 2012-05-02 at 10.32.27 AM

Capitalism, as readers well know, hasn’t been doing very well in recent years.* And, of course, every time capitalism falters or makes promises it can’t deliver, alternative ideas—such as socialism—get a hearing. It happened, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century (when the French Revolution wasn’t able to deliver on the promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité), the middle of the nineteenth century (when workers protested the ravages of the Industrial Revolution), the early part of the twentieth century (when union leader Eugene Debs, as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, won almost a million votes), the 1930s (when the Great Depression forced millions of workers onto the unemployed lines), and during the 1960s (when students and many others criticized the military-industrial-academic complex).

If Jonathan Chait is right, it’s happening again. According to him, socialists in Obama-era America

consider the political process fundamentally corrupted by large corporations and harbor suspicions of any policy that relies on, or makes peace with, the profit motive. This idea forms a through-line connecting the left’s objections against the major items of Obama’s agenda. Socialists deemed his health-care reforms deeply disappointing, because they relied on private insurance companies and failed to create a public option to compete with them. They criticized his Wall Street reforms for regulating the big banks rather than breaking them up. And they judged a failure the cap-and-trade law he tried to pass in 2009 and 2010, which compromised too much with energy companies and relied too heavily on market forces. Obama likes to boast that his policies have enabled the private sector to thrive; socialists consider this an inherent problem.

Bernie Sanders is, of course, the standard-bearer of this new discussion of socialism, a term that until recently was simply not allowed in “polite” (i.e., mainstream) political and economic discourse in the United States. But there it is—and, for the first time in a very long time, Americans are being to get a sense that (a) socialism has a very long and rich lineage (which is as old as capitalism itself), (b) in many countries around the world, socialist critics of capitalism are accepted participants in academic and public debate (and, in many cases, have their own political parties), and (c) there are many different approaches to and definitions of socialism (some seeking to regulate and mitigate the negative effects of the excesses of capitalism, others involving a much sharper break from capitalism).

In any case, socialism seems to no longer have the same scary connotations it has had in recent decades and, of course, in many other periods of U.S. history.

The return of socialism helps explain why, for example, some (such as Emma Caterine) argue that Bernie Sanders’s socialism not only is not really socialism, but is actually dangerous to real socialism. To which I can only respond, really, Rosa Luxemburg is the socialist truth you want to invoke in 2015 in the United States, where no social democratic much less communist party even exists? But still, notwithstanding sectarian bickering, the issue of socialism is on the table.

The return of socialism may also explain why Deirdre McCloskey (pdf) [ht: ja], who prides herself on listening to and engaging the rhetoric of others, finds it necessary to be so dismissive of Marx (who, in her words, was “mistaken on almost every point of economics and of history”) and, especially, of the “followers of Marx” (who, again in her words, “have seldom adhered” to the principle of engaging in continuous conversation, “and less so now it seems than once”).

It’s a shame, really, because in my view McCloskey might have something to offer to the renewed discussion of socialism, precisely because of her concern with rhetoric, postmodern epistemology, and the history of capitalism. But, unfortunately, she disqualifies herself precisely because of her dismissiveness (“Marxists have not cracked a serious book in economics published after 1867 or 1885 or 1894”?!) and her unwillingness to cite even a single Marxist economist or economics text of the past decade (the best she can do is attempt to prove how wrong historian Eric Mielants is in his 2008 book, The Origins of Capitalism and the “Rise of the West”). It seems she’s simply thrown herself down the Austrian/libertarian rabbit hole.

Fortunately, in the months (and, perhaps, years) ahead, as the campaign within the Democratic Party develops, and as the capitalist recovery continues to be so one-sided (and, even on its own terms, to threaten a new Armaggedon), the context seems once again ripe for socialism to be taken up as a way both of criticizing the ravages of contemporary capitalism and of exploring real alternatives to the ongoing crises.

As Chait observes, “Even in the face of likely defeat, Sanders has brought new life to an old tradition.”**

*And, to read Paul Mason, might not be doing well in the days and months ahead.

**And, as Harold Meyerson explains, if Sanders does lose, his campaign “has to morph into an enduring left-wing movement.”

This formidable task requires, first, that Sanders’s legions understand the unique historic opportunity that their coming together presents: That their victory in all probability won’t be putting Bernie in the White House, but creating a surging and enduring left. That, in turn, requires them to give as much thought to forming or joining autonomous post-campaign organizations, and envisioning post-campaign mobilizations, as they now do to advancing Sanders’s candidacy. Indeed, they need to start forming such organizations today, while they are together campaigning for Sanders, and in the process even reach out to other progressives who may not be for Sanders. These endeavors can’t and shouldn’t be undertaken by the Sanders campaign itself. They fall exclusively to the volunteers. . .

Is this difficult? And how. Is this necessary? Totally.