Posts Tagged ‘work’

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The goal of mainstream economists is to get everybody to work. As a result, they celebrate capitalism for creating full employment—and worry that capitalism will falter if not enough people are working.

The utopian premise and promise of mainstream economic theory are that capitalism generates an efficient allocation of resources, including labor. Thus, underlying all mainstream economic models is a labor market characterized by full employment.

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Thus, for example, in a typical mainstream macroeconomic model, an equilibrium wage rate in the the labor market (Wf, in the lower left quadrant) is characterized by full employment (the supply of and demand for labor are equal, at Lf), which in turn generates a level of full-employment output (Yf, via the production function, in the lower right quadrant) and a corresponding level of prices (P0, in the upper quadrants). If the money wage is flexible it is possible to ignore the top left quadrant, because, in that case, the equilibrium real wage, employment and output are Wf, Lf and Yf, respectively, whatever the price level. With flexible money wages, the aggregate supply curve is independent of the price level and is represented by YFYF.

That’s the neoclassical version of the story. The Keynesian alternative is that the aggregate supply curve is relatively elastic below full employment and the wage rate is fixed by institutions, and therefore is not perfectly flexible. In such a case, aggregate demand determines the level of output, which will normally fall below the full-employment level.

And so we have the longstanding argument between the two wings of mainstream economics—between the invisible hand of flexible wages and the visible hand of government spending. But, equally important, what the two theories of macroeconomics have in common is the ultimate goal: full employment. In other words, both groups of economists presume that the aim of capitalism is to generate full employment and that, with the appropriate policies—free markets for the neoclassicals, government intervention for the Keynesians—capitalism is capable of putting everyone to work.

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But the argument also goes in the opposite direction: capitalism works best when everyone is working. That’s because capitalist growth (e.g., in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, the green line in the chart, measured on the left) is predicated on the growth of the labor force (the the red line, measured on the right).

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Mainstream economists also argue that a low work rate is an important cause of low incomes and high poverty. They argue that, when considering different policy interventions for this population—including improving educational attainment, raising the minimum wage, and increasing the number of two-earner families—the most beneficial intervention for improving incomes is to assume that all household heads work full-time.

Finally, mainstream economists argue that, in addition to increasing incomes and decreasing poverty, work has an additional benefit: it gives people dignity and a sense of self-worth. The idea, as articulated for example by Brad DeLong, is that having a job gives workers an honorable place in society, which presumably they are deprived of if they receive some kind of government assistance—whether in the form of payments from one or another anti-poverty program or a universal basic income. “Just giving people money” (according to Eduardo Porter) disrupts the incentive to work and undermines the “social, psychological, and economic anchor” associated with having a job.

That’s why there’s such an intense debate these days over the participation rate of U.S. workers. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen to historically low levels (and now stands at 3.8 percent), the lack of participation—whether measured in terms of the labor force participation rate (the blue line in the chart) or the employment-population ratio (the red line)—remains much lower than it was a couple of decades ago.* According to mainstream economists, that’s why rates of growth in output and incomes have slowed. There simply aren’t enough people working.

Once again, there’s an ongoing discussion among mainstream economists about the causes of that decline and what to do about it. More conservative mainstream economists tend to focus on the supply side of the labor market and the unwillingness of workers to make themselves available—mostly because they’re benefiting from some part of the social safety net (such as disability insurance, welfare, or government health insurance). Liberal mainstream economists also worry about the supply side (especially, for example, when it comes to women, who might not be able to work because they don’t have adequate childcare) but put more emphasis on the demand side (for example, the elimination of specific kinds of jobs based on international trade, automation, or the effects of economic downturns). Underlying this debate is a shared presumption that more people working will be better for them and for the economy as a whole.

Even portions of the Left accept the idea that the goal is to move toward more work. Thus, for example, both modern monetary theorists and Bernie Sanders argue in favor of a government job guarantee. The idea is that, if private employers can’t or won’t make the decisions to hire workers and create full employment, then the government needs to step in, as the “employer of last resort.” Again, the presumption—shared with those in both wings of mainstream economics—is that the goal of the current economic system and appropriate economic policy is get more workers to work more.

The utopianism of full employment is so entrenched, as a seemingly uncontested common sense, it’s difficult to imagine a different utopian horizon. But there is one, which emerges from at least three different theoretical and political traditions.

In the Marxian tradition, more work also means more surplus labor, which benefits all those who manage to get a cut of the surplus—but not workers themselves, who fall increasingly behind their employers and others in the small group at the top. That’s because, as employment increases, more workers are performing both necessary and surplus labor. Therefore, even assuming the rate of surplus extraction remains constant, the total amount of surplus created by workers increases. But, of course, the rate itself often increases—for example, as a result of competition among capitalists, who find ways of increasing productivity, which tends to lower the amount they have to pay to hire their workers (as I explain in more detail here). So, what appears to be an unalloyed good in the mainstream tradition—more jobs and more workers—is an economic and social disaster from a Marxian perspective. More workers produce more surplus, which is used to create a growing gap between those at the top and everyone else.

Then there’s the broader socialist tradition, which attacked the capitalist work ethic and claimed “The Right to Be Lazy.” Here’s Paul LaFargue back in 1883:

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

Today, in the United States and around the world, the capitalist work ethic still prevails.

Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

And there’s a third tradition, one that directly contests the idea that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither wing of mainstream economists (nor, for that matter, many today on the liberal-left) has been able to formulate or sustain such insight.

Contesting the utopianism of full employment with a different utopian horizon creates the possibility of imagining and creating a different world—in which work acquires different meanings, in which the distinction between necessary and surplus is redefined and perhaps erased, and for the first time in modern history workers are no longer forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else and achieve the right to be lazy.

 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the labor force participation rate as the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or willing to work. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is currently employed or looking for work. It differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the employment-population ratio (the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population).

 

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The history of capitalism is actually a combination of two histories: it’s a history of employers attempting to hire workers and develop new technologies to make profits and expand the reach of capitalism; it’s also a history of workers banding together to improve wages and working conditions and imagine ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The World Bank’s World Development Report, currently in draft form, comes down firmly on the side of employers and their historical role.

The theme of the 2019 report is the “changing nature of work.” As envisioned by the reports authors,

Work is constantly being reshaped by economic progress. Society evolves as technology advances, new ways of production are adopted, markets integrate. While this process is continuous, certain technological changes have the potential for greater impact, and provoke more attention than others. The changes reshaping work today are fundamental and long-term, driven by technological progress, globalization, shifting demographics, urbanization and climate change.

Beneath the typically lofty but vague rhetoric, the two trends that haunt the report are the increasing gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else and the jobs that will be eliminated with the use of automation and other labor-saving technologies—leading to “rising concerns with unemployment, inequality and unfairness that are accompanying these changes.”

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So what does the World Bank recommend for beleaguered workers, who are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top and whose job prospects are threatened by new technologies?

Here, the World Bank reveals which side of history it’s on. It goes after the kinds of protections workers have long fought for, in both developed and developing countries, but which the world’s employers consider onerous and that make the price of labor power too high. In particular, the World Bank focuses on “high minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms” that make workers both costly to hire and difficult to dismiss. In other words, the World Bank recommends exactly what employers have always wanted: flexible labor markets.

Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.

That’s what the World Bank offers to the world’s employers (“flexibility”), coupled with an empty promise to the world’s workers (“more dynamic labor markets”).

But, as even the World Bank recognizes, such changes would leave the world’s workers even more destitute than they are right now. That’s why they shift the focus to a discussion of a a “new social contract. . .to promote fairness and equality of opportunity for people and firms.”

Possible elements of hypothetical social contract could include: (i) creating jobs; (ii) investing early in human capital; (iii) taxing platforms and superstar firms; and (iv) introducing basic income guarantees.

Once again, it’s exactly what private employers want—more workers with additional skills, a redistribution of monopoly rents, and a minimum income for their workers—as long as employers themselves don’t incur any additional costs. Employers retain their control over the surplus, and therefore over both jobs and workers. And the changes proposed by the World Bank promise them even more surplus as they use new technologies and change the nature of the work that is done for them.

What remains intact in choosing the employers’ side of history is that work, however much it is envisioned to change, is still done by employees for their employers. Governments and the rest of society are then charged with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess left by employers, including the dearth of required jobs and the mass of workers who are too impoverished and insecure to satisfy their own needs.

The idea that the worlds of technology and work are quickly moving far beyond the control of employers—well, that’s the side of history the World Bank remains incapable of comprehending.

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Special mention

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Students are much too busy to think these days. So, when a junior comes to talk with me about the possibility of my directing their senior thesis, I ask them about their topic—and then their schedule. I explain to them that, if they really want to do a good project, they’re going to have to quit half the things they’re involved in.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. “Really?! But I’ve signed up for all these interesting clubs and volunteer projects and intramural sports and. . .” I then patiently explain that, to have the real learning experience of a semester or year of independent study, they need time, a surplus of time. They need to have the extra time in their lives to get lost in the library or to take a break with a friend, to read and to daydream. In other words, they need to have the right to be lazy.

So does everyone else.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Paul LaFargue argued, in a scathing attack on the capitalist work ethic, “The Right To Be Lazy,” back in 1883.

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

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Today, nothing seems to have changed. Workers (or at least those who claim to champion the cause of workers) demand high-paying jobs and full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official unemployment rate has declined in recent years, the labor-force participation rate in the United States has fallen dramatically and remains much too low.

Mainstream economists and their counterparts in the world of politics and policymaking—both liberals and conservatives—never cease to preach the virtues of work and in every domain, from minimum-wage legislation to economic growth, seek to promote more people getting more jobs to perform more work.

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This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the “work ethic” remains particularly strong. The number of hours worked per year has fallen in all advanced countries since the middle of the twentieth century but, as is clear from the chart above, in comparison with France and Germany, the average has declined by much less in America and Britain.

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Today, according to the OECD, American and British workers spend much more time working per year (1765 and 1675 hours, respectively) than their French and German counterparts (1474 and 1371 hours, respectively).

But in all four countries—and, really, across the entire world—the capitalist work ethic prevails. Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

That’s the utopian impulse inherent in the right to be lazy.

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Special mention

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work harder

According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.

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It’s about time someone pointed out the obvious: “Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.”

We generally don’t talk that way, of course. However, as Elizabeth Anderson [ht: ja] explains, contemporary workplaces are like private governments, in which employers have dictatorial powers over their workers—and workers have almost no say in how they are governed.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Dictatorship in the workplace—after workers are forced to freely sell their ability to work in the labor market—seems obvious to me and many other heterodox economists. But it’s certainly not obvious to mainstream economists, who like their classical predecessors continue to celebrate the freedom and mutual benefit of wage contracts and the efficiency of firms that are ruled by the representatives of the property owners.*

What is even more interesting, at least to me, is the way Anderson mentions the issue of time and then seems to let it slide.

Here’s how she begins her essay:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

But then Anderson, after mentioning “time theft,” moves on to the various ways employers exercise dictatorial control over their workers and forgets about time. But isn’t time what the employer-worker relationship is all about—the reason that employers act like dictators and workers are forced to surrender almost all their rights while they are working?

What is mostly absent from Anderson’s analysis is time, especially the distinction between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. During part of the workday, employees—whether at Walmart, GM, or Google—work for themselves, and thus receive a wage equal to the value of their ability to work. But they continue working and during those extra hours they aren’t working for themselves, but for their employers. That’s time that’s stolen from the workers, which forms the basis of their employers’ profits.

So, the real “time theft” is not what workers do to their employers, exactly the opposite, what employers do to their workers—when, after necessary labor-time is completed, workers are forced to have the freedom to engage in surplus labor-time.

Thus, when Amazon workers exchange casual remarks while on duty, they’re cutting into the surplus labor-time due to their employers. The half-hour Apple workers wait in line to be searched, for which they are not paid, is a way of making sure that particular activity doesn’t cut into the surplus-time due to their employers. By the same token, when Tyson prevents its’ poultry workers from using the bathroom, who are then forced to urinate on themselves, less time is being spent engaged working for themselves and more for their employers.

In other words, under conditions of workplace dictatorship, time is stolen from workers to  benefit their employers.

Furthermore, because employers, and not workers, are the ones who appropriate the benefits of surplus labor-time, it puts workers in the position of continuing to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and to submit to the dictates of their employers.

Thus, “time theft” is both a condition and consequence of the private dictatorship of employers in the workplace.

A whole book could in fact be written about this idea of “time theft,” inside and outside the workplace.

For example, inside the workplace, new technologies have the effect both of allowing time to slip out of employers’ grasp—as, for example, when workers appear to be working at their desks but, in fact, are surfing the internet or catching up with friends and family members on Facebook—and allowing employers to tighten their grip—especially when it permits control over the pace of work and new forms of surveillance. Technology seems to cut both ways when it comes to “time theft” in the workplace.

But “time theft” is also important outside the workplace. Consider, for example, the standardization of time—which robs many of us of local traditions of time—as well as the fact that there is a large and growing gap in life expectancy between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale—which means time is being stolen from the poor and distributed to the rich.

I could go on. The important point is “time theft” is an ongoing problem of contemporary capitalism, both within the dictatorship of the workplace and in the seeming democracy of our lives outside of work.

It’s time someone wrote that book.

 

*In fact, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics for “proving” that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.