We Have It Worse

July 7, 2011

In the 1970s there was much talk of a ‘leisure age’ in which, thanks to automation, we would scarcely work at all — and a spate of books brooding earnestly on how we would fill our new spare time without becoming hopelessly lethargic. Anybody spotting one of these forgotten tracts in a second-hand bookshop today would laugh incredulously. The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 in 1981. Far from losing the work ethic, we seem ever more enslaved by it. The new vogue is for books that ask anxiously how we can achieve ‘work-life balance’ in an age where many people have no time for anything beyond labour and sleep.

Francis Wheen, Das Kapital: A Biography (2006)

Rather than the pathetic equivocation of “work-life balance,” I propose a shift to older terms — working conditions. Don’t let some scowling supplicant to Capital from a previous generation tell you that you don’t know how good you have it; by every objective measure we have it worse.

(“Chained to your job” is less a metaphor than you might think, as unpaid prison slave labor proves so much cheaper than decent union jobs… but prisoners are often prone to radicalization…)

Stefan Goldmann on the political economy of digital music

April 22, 2011

DJ Stefan Goldmann tempers (to put it lightly!) the effusion of techno-optimism over digital music and the internet from the past decade. Really, we’re all coming down from that high, aren’t we? One of the most notable parts of this essay is its focus on the restructuring of the labor market for music and sound professionals. Actually, “restructuring” doesn’t quite capture it as much as a verb like “imploding.” These are artisans and craft professionals, not just “suits” who are losing their jobs.

Absurdly, the complete disappearance of economic barriers to distribution (offering a free download doesn’t cost more than the time to upload the file) hit the wallets of the “indies” first, stripping a substantial part of their income. This mostly affected the artists and the personnel around them: designers, engineers, studio musicians, promotion and label professionals, music journalists, et al. The mass of competition they encountered meant anyone with a limited marketing budget had a difficult time surviving in the market. With the same promotional tools available to almost anyone, they lost their efficiency. The professionals listed above basically lost their income. In 2000, an average vinyl single generated a return of a couple of thousand Euros, while in 2011 the same single generates a loss of a couple of hundred Euros, even without what were formerly known as “production costs.” Anything on top, like a bigger production, a decent mastering, or proper sleeve design became factors of deepening material loss. That area of the craft gets subsequently cut off and replaced by an undiscriminating routine of two-step-distribution: “save as” and “upload to.”

At the same time, a vast reserve army of DJs has been created. What does a DJ do besides share music, something that information technology does for us anyway? The advantage, ironically enough, goes to older artists whose reputations were created by the music industry bubble of the decade previous. Technological innovation in the absence of strong social movements benefits those who were already winning (telecoms and venture capitalists in this case).

What have we learned here? The so called “democratization” didn’t work. Everyone did believe they gained access. This access by itself is stripped of value, though, because no one cares that DJ XY from Z has that new record out. Through any available channel I get dozens of requests per day to listen to somebody’s track. That’s after a spam filter and a disclaimer that I don’t want to receive files. The result is that I don’t listen to files at all — I do buy vinyl regularly. DJ XY doesn’t get the gig. If he does by accident, that’s for the cab fare. In Berlin, with its conspicuous population of 50,000 DJs, promoters and club owners don’t have to try hard. There’s always someone who will play for free if asked. Hey, that’s free promotion for the new DJ XY record. Meanwhile in the provincial town of Z, the locals “practice” for free, so they develop the skills they’ll need to “make it” in Berlin one day. That’s where things come full circle. No proper gigs, no record sales, no income. Anyone who is not already “there” doesn’t seem to arrive anymore.

But actually the DJ does do something besides share music, and this is where I disagree with Stefan’s conclusions. He believes the solution to this contradiction is ever more unique and niche works that will “stand out.” In a sense, he folds all of his critiques back into the same old tired solution — create your way out of it through pure hard work and artistic genius! The pure work of art can now stand out! The solution to overproduction of commodities is specialized lovingly produced commodities! This simply won’t work — all sonic innovations are quickly assimilated by sampling technology and metastasize into genres, get sucked into commercial forms, and exhausted of their novelty. Just like all commodities. My very vague groping towards a solution is the creation not of commodities, but of social experiences, of face-to-face interaction and collaboration, solidarities, movements. An mp3 can never do this. A brand can never do this. Music alone can never do this. Only human beings working out their shared future — which is to say, politics — can do this.

Stefan Goldmann – Everything Popular is Wrong

the end of laissez-faire

March 7, 2011

Economists, like other scientists, have chosen the hypothesis from which they set out, and which they offer to beginners because it is the simplest, and not because it is the nearest to the facts. Partly for this reason, but partly, I admit, because they have been biased by the traditions of the subject, they have begun by assuming a state of affairs where the ideal distribution of productive resources can be brought about through individuals acting independently by the method of trial and error in such a way that those individuals who move in the right direction will destroy by competition those who move in the wrong direction. This implies that there must be no mercy or protection for those who embark their capital or their labour in the wrong direction. It is a method of bringing the most successful profit-makers to the top by a ruthless struggle for survival, which selects the most efficient by the bankruptcy of the less efficient. It does not count the cost of the struggle, but looks only to the benefits of the final result which are assumed to be permanent. The object of life being to crop the leaves off the branches up to the greatest possible height, the likeliest way of achieving this end is to leave the giraffes with the longest necks to starve out those whose necks are shorter.

If we have the welfare of the giraffes at heart, we must not overlook the sufferings of the shorter necks who are starved out, or the sweet leaves which fall to the ground and are trampled underfoot in the struggle, or the overfeeding of the long-necked ones, or the evil look of anxiety or struggling greediness which overcasts the mild faces of the herd.

John Maynard Keyes, “The End of Laissez-Faire” (1926)

An excellent short essay worth reading in its entirety.

the neverfuture

February 20, 2011

The contemporary crisis exhibits a number of unfamiliar characteristics stemming from the inability of advanced capitalist societies to bear the costs of a new socio-technical infrastructure, to supersede the existing fixed-capital grid. The latter currently entrenches a 60-year-old complex of productive forces at the core of the world economy. The structural impasse that this has created has not been fully grasped, leading to difficulties in historicizing the last quarter-century of capitalism. Fredric Jameson’s conception of postmodernism as the cultural logic of the period is arguably the great benchmark of contemporary epochalism. In the early 80s, Jameson originally conceived of this new order of things as a prefiguration of groundbreaking new technologies and energy sources of capitalism. In order to understand the subsequent trajectory of capitalist society, it is important to recognize that this great leap forward, what Ernest Mandel called the Third Technological Revolution, never really materialized. Even a more modestly conceived ‘post-Fordism’ failed to release a productivity revolution that would reduce costs and free up income for an all-round expansion.

Instead, the latest phase of capitalism got an ersatz form of growth primarily through credit-card consumerism and asset bubbles. Jameson’s explanation for contemporary society’s inability to experience and represent the totality of the world system initially attributed it to some immeasurable disproportion between human agency and newly unleashed nuclear and cybernetic productive forces. But in later accounts, the locus of the problem silently shifted to mapping an opaque, pseudo-dynamic world of financial markets. Initial anticipations of an exhilarating new cultural condition gave way to totalizations of a more closed and derivative situation. Capitalism’s culture became an organized semblance of world-historic dynamism concealing and counteracting a secular deceleration in ‘the real economy’.

But what about information technology and containerization—the two signature technological breakthroughs of the period? These have undoubtedly powered a huge increase in world trade, over and above the growth of the world economy itself. Computerization and ‘just in time’ modes of organizing supply chains made it easier than ever before to bring manufactured goods to the world market, and relocate production. These cost-reducing technological and organizational changes countered the potentially inflationary consequences of the growing supply of various forms of money. Alongside American deficits, these trade-promoting changes were responsible for accelerating East Asian and especially Chinese growth. But unlike a ‘nuclear-cybernetic industrial revolution’, or the shift to some alternative energy source, technological change in this form has, by and large, brought vast quantities of goods from countries with lower labour costs into world markets already weighed down by overproduction of their higher-cost equivalents, instead of fuelling growth through the creation of whole new lines of production.

In the 90s it seemed plausible that containerization, post-Fordist production and supply chains and information technology in the new office place were the driving forces of a transition to a New Economy, one more productive, and in different ways, than anything that had come before it. But this great transformation somehow failed to show up statistically and, in due course, the stock-market crash of 2001 brought an end to the decade of cyber-hype. Altogether less plausible was the subsequent expectation that technologically retrograde real-estate bubbles, providing markets for exporters of consumer durables and raw materials, could be a sustainable basis for economic growth. Rather than leading to any ‘New Economy’ in the productive base, the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black–Scholes and subprime—such are the technological landmarks of the period.

–Gopal Balakrishnan, “Speculations on the Stationary State”

Cyberpunk dreamers and postmodern fantasists were wrong. The same old mode of production was merely dressed up in debt-financed wrapping paper. The future literally never happened.

The relations of 3D printing

February 19, 2011

The economist has a recent cover story on the wonders of 3D printing. It does sound pretty amazing, especially if you are like me and have read Matt Mason’s breathless account of how piracy is the next Schumpeterian revolution in capital. Kids designing and printing their own shoes, skateboards, and jewelry — homemade YouTubes will never be the same!

The problem, as usual, is technophiles like Mason and the Economist writers haven’t read their Marx. Well, Mason probably hasn’t and the Economist probably has, but then it repressed it deep down to the same spot where reside those acccidentally discovered Polaroids of their parents on vacation in Aspen. Anyway, what Marx says is that a mode of production — basically, the way a society organizes to make its stuff can be broken down into two parts:

  • productive forces: human labor power (what people do) and the means of production (the equipment used — here’s where our cool 3D printers live)
  • relations of production: how people are arranged to produce things. This includes stuff like property law, as well as things like the division of labor and the class structure of a society.

Technophiles almost never look at the second one because they get so into the means part — the technology. We could even venture an explanation for why this is so along ideological lines: technophiles are often privileged individuals — educated, white, male — who speak from the perspective of classes who receive lots of advantages from the economic system. They don’t see (or choose to ignore) the exploitative nature of the relations of production, under which most of society labors for the benefit of a small segment. These are the capitalist relations of production, between what Marx labeled the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (suppliers of labor power). Plenty of people, including Marx, have offered other categories, but most of them aren’t really that useful because they often lead to forgetting the fundamental divide between people who work and people who own that work.

So the sci-fi scenario of countercultural youth making their own stuff that Mason provides us slips into relations of production that very few people (and almost no children) fall into — the oft-romanticized (and oft-reviled) petit bourgeoisie (or “small business owner”) who owns his means of production and works on them. But what if we looked at 3D printing from the perspective of the relevant class division under capitalism, the one that hasn’t fundamentally changed from the time Adam Smith was looking at it?

Mason, like most commentators, wants to talk about the petit bourgeoisie because he is one. Other culture producers — writers, designers, academics — tend to like Mason because they want to be like him, and Mason, as a former music critic, has spent most of his career writing for this audience. Now, the owners often like hearing about this perspective too (various CEOs pay Mason to talk to them about his ideas) because they seem to fulfill certain promises of capitalism about working hard and innovating — schema where the relations of production don’t matter because individuals can escape them through will power and effort. But owners fundamentally understand that this isn’t really how things get done.

Here’s where the Economist helps us. It’s not written for culture producers; it’s written for (and by, most likely) the bourgeoisie class of owners. So we can leave out the Disney crap about will power and effort to succeed because the bourgeoisie are already on top. They just have to stay there by buying the latest manufacturing technology, like 3D printers. These are already in use by one of the most capital-intensive industries on the planet, aircraft manufacture.

So the window-dressing of the manufacturing revolution will be Mason’s skaters and hip hop kids turning entire social worlds into customizable MySpace profiles. But the real story will be in less sexy places, like manufacturing plants. Instead of the machines there now, we might see all manner of copy machines. The factory would look kind of like a Kinko’s.

Which means instead of factory workers, people working in these places would be more like copy-center workers. They’d mostly just push buttons and follow simple directions. You wouldn’t need as many of them, they’d need little training, and you wouldn’t have to pay them as much — just like copy center workers now. You could even have part open to the public so those hip kids could have a place to print their sneakers. And as an owner, you’d make a lot more money because you’d pay your workers a much smaller share of what your factory produces. And the other class? A lot more of them would find themselves completely useless, and therefore unemployed. The rest would be Kinko’s employees, working a shitty job for $7.50/hour without benefits. The factory floor houses the copy center. The industrial mode of production would have service sector relations of production. Owners benefit. Workers lose.

And the petit-bourgeois culture creators? They can try to figure out how to get rich like Matt Mason selling flattering fables to the wealthy. Or maybe they’ll get hired by Apple or Google when the app-store version of 3D printing design hits the market. Or, maybe, just maybe, they can try to change things.

This change will never come from technology, the means of production. The real necessary revolutionary change is in the relations of production, which requires struggle against those who benefit from these relations remaining how they are.

Adam Smith and Collective Bargaining

February 18, 2011

Adam Smith, for all the considerable flaws in his thinking, wasn’t stupid. He understood the class conflict inherent to the economic system he was describing.

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

He also understood that this wasn’t an even match-up. Under 18th Century capitalism, not only were most workers living hand to mouth, organizing was expressly forbidden by law. It’s pretty clear that Smith thought this was an unfair state of affairs.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

Of course, workers organized and fought anyway, were beaten, killed, thrown in prison, and vilified in the capitalist press. But their “masters,” the owners of the factories, organized themselves as well. These organizations operated with the consent of the law to do what it is masters always do, the very aspect that unites them as a class: lower the wages of the workers. But this operated out of sight.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.

“As ignorant of the world as of the subject” is a phrase I’ve had occasion to deploy more than a few times today. Smith realized that part of the invisibility was ideological. Implicit to the capitalist system was that owners would try to pay their workers as little as possible, so it didn’t seem worth remarking upon. He also saw how this secrecy was a great asset to owners, who could maneuver out of sight until they were in a better position to thwart worker aims. So they worked behind closed doors.

We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter 8

So Smith would have understood what is happening in Wisconsin right now, and he would have expected most news to look like this. The “masters” are trying to revert back to those glory days when workers had no right to organize because it will allow them to better lower those workers’ wages. Why? Not to balance the budget, but to shift wealth — in this case, public funds — into the hands of those in the ruling class. And Adam Smith knew what the result of that was:

Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities.

Or as Krugman says:

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

the conditions of connectivity

October 1, 2010

What is sometimes misunderstood is that though new communication technologies, exemplified by satellite-linked internet cafés in small cities in Africa and South Asia create an equality of access to information at the level of the subject, the socio-structures and cultures of circulation also, and at the same time, engender an objective dependence that inhabits the very conditions of connectivity itself, so that individuals’ acts of subjective freedom are always self-annulling at another and higher level. The conditions of connectivity, which permit someone, living almost anywhere, to download medical information to help diagnosis for a relative in need of medical care, to read a report on human rights and political detainees that the state would better like unread, or to correspond regularly with a friend living overseas, are also the conditions of encompassment and domination by circulatory capital and the infrastructure of the metropole generally.

–Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (2004)


July 4, 2010

In news that should not actually be shocking to anyone, since a lot of this started to surface a couple of years ago during the crisis, when narcodollars provided the only liquidity in the global financial system:

Banks Financing Mexican Gangs Admitted in Wells-Fargo Deal

By the laws of neoliberal finance large pools of capital cannot be impeded in their movements, even if they come from such illegitimate sources as one of the world’s largest industries. “These criminal empires have no choice but to use the global banking system to finance their businesses,” admonishes one official, but the lesson of the article is the converse: these banks have no choice but to use criminal empires to finance their businesses. Indeed, they have incentives to do so, since “too-big-to-fail” laws protect them from prosecution. “They seem to be willing to do anything that improves their bottom line, until they’re caught.” Or even after, since share prices rose after the Wachovia indictment. This is of course the iron law of fiduciary responsibility to one’s shareholder, encoded in our legislation, in which — theoretically, formally, and in practice — share prices determine all values, including social ones. Laundering money for drug cartels may be illegal, but it is not sufficiently illegal, just as negligently drilling for oil may be illegal, but not sufficiently illegal to prevent it from being done. The logic of deterrence behind the law completely breaks down. Pay a token fine, perhaps fire a token executive, and get on with the business of business — crime. In fact “crime” may not even be an appropriate term, since nothing these companies do is against the norm or even really against the rules.

This has become apparent to me in Mexico, a place where the lines between legal and illegal, criminal and legitimate, have become completely illegible. News reports discuss criminals who “wear police uniforms,” but everyone knows that the reason the criminals wear police uniforms are because they are the police. (The same reports come from Iraq and Afghanistan, where death squads “wearing police/military uniforms” are responsible for numerous atrocities.) Just like any hired gun, they can be contracted by narcos to provide muscle for cartel operations. In some cities, police openly sell drugs. The government is implicated too: by some accounts, the violence between drug gangs maps — unevenly and chaotically — to the struggle for power between the neoliberal PAN, the old PRI party dictatorship, and any number of smaller parties jockeying for a share of the pie. That current President Felipe Calderon stole the last election is simple common sense among mexicanos, but, as is so common, and obvious after the Bush elections in the U.S., the laws are designed not to stop crime but to enable its continuation.

“For four years, Mexican authorities have been fighting a losing battle against the cartels. The police are often two steps behind the criminals,” the story bemoans, but these simple dichotomies, practically obligatory for the Manichean mentality of Americans, simply make no sense in Mexico. The distinction between law enforcement and law-breakers becomes hazy, shaky, a relic of language more than a coherent representation of reality. And so it goes for the rest of the world, whose trajectory is shaped ever more completely by a financial system fueled by crime. This is not crime in the sense of leftist “capitalism is crime” rhetoric but crime in actual fact, and under the norms that any reasonable person would recognize. And yet it is crime that cannot be punished on the rare circumstances that it is evenly known, much less openly acknowledged as in Wachovia’s case — to punish it would be to “cause panic in the financial markets,” which of course, would cause misery to us all. Multinational crime in its disregard for life, law, or morality, is the perfect embodiment of the neoliberal logic of total deregulation — neoliberalism reveals itself as crime and crime becomes neoliberal.

And so the material basis for our lives, conveniently summed up by “the economy,” runs on crime; crime is irrevocably bound up in global political economy that to cordon it off makes no sense. Forbes magazine understands since now it places cartel leaders in its list of the world’s richest individuals: the ruling class is criminal not in the sense of Marxist rhetoric, but in point of fact. And crime, whether or not we ourselves break the law, interpenetrates our lives. But this is a thought for a later post.