The Great Unraveling

In less than a month I will return to Bosnia and Herzegovina (for the second time in two months) to address the Conference on Education, Culture, and Identity in Sarajevo. This year the conference is tackling “New Trends and Challenges of Today’s Europe.” My paper, written well before the refugee crisis, is titled “The Rise and Fall of the European Dream.” I am told that it, along with the other conference papers, will be published sometime later this Winter.

euflagFor “Today’s Europe” a month is an awfully long time. In a month Greece has reelected Alexis Tsipras and Syriza. In a month the Turkish conflict on its southern boarder has reignited. In a month Hungary has shipped fleeing refugees to internment camps and is erecting US border-like fences to keep non-Hungarians out. And just today four EU nations — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania — have elected to line-veto member states’ obligations to provide humanitarian aid, assistance, and refuge for refugees fleeing from hardship.

I would be the last to suggest that sovereign states are obligated to renounce their right to control their borders. However, that is not what is at issue here. At issue is the declining capacity of any nation or group of nations to check the expanding circle of social, political, and economic chaos taking shape just beyond the edge of their political boundaries. A half-century earlier, the US would have stepped in — as it did in post-War Japan, Europe, and Yugoslavia — and paid whatever price was necessary to guarantee the restoration of industrial capacity, markets, trade and economic growth. Policy makers in the 1940s recognized that social and economic disorder invited precisely the kind of political disasters and human terrors that pocked Europe’s landscape in the 1930s, leading them to endorse and financially back strong public institutions and a broad social franchise. And back then the US could do that.  So bloated was the US economy — the only remaining industrial economy following the war — and so desperate were investors to find homes into which they could shovel their excess capital that it scarcely mattered where or into what assets investors dumped their cash.

But, of course, it did matter. In France, Italy, as well as Franco’s Spain, the threats of political extremism were fresh indeed. And in the not unreasonable wisdom of the political science of the day nothing put more of a damper on political extremism than strong public institutions and economic growth. So, the US set to work taming Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito and so pumping western Europeans with the dreams of economic growth and unending consumption that political extremists were left with no alternative but to give in.

That was then. This is now. Everyone knows how to mend the seam that has opened up from the Baltics to the Balkans and from the Balkans to western China. Everyone knows upon what ethno-religious nationalism and political extremism feed. There is no mystery here. Yet, if we take stock of the resources and political muscle needed to arrest this great unraveling and mend the gaping tear that has opened up in the body politic, we quickly understand why and how the situation has gotten so desperate.

Notwithstanding the recent lessons of World Wars I and II, notwithstanding the Great Depression, Nazi death camps, and Soviet totalitarianism, economists and political leaders in the US were coming to believe that the post-War boom was unlike any other in history, that it was produced not by the complete destruction of German and Japanese industrial capacity or the largest government-sponsored industrial growth in world history, but was instead an outgrowth of American know-how, stick-to-it-edness, and good old free enterprise. When therefore the economy began to sour in the late 1960s, political leaders and economists were inclined to feel that the 5-6% returns investors had enjoyed counted for something like a birth right. And to prove themselves justified in this conceit they began cannibalizing the very institutional and regulatory foundations that had allowed families in the 1950s and 1960s to buy homes, send their children to good colleges, enjoy reasonably good health care, and expand their leisure time. More importantly, they began to shift the regulatory burden off the shoulders of investors and onto the shoulders of working families by dramatically reducing or eliminating private responsibilities for public institutions.

This shift in regulatory burdens from private investors to working families — families increasingly ill-equipped to handle these burdens — proved immensely popular in the 1980s. So popular that it became the model for newly liberated countries emerging from under the heel of Soviet domination. Deregulation and privatization continued apace during the Clinton years, draining oceans of capital from labor-intensive industrial production into the waiting and open arms of high-return speculative financial markets.

No one seemed to be the least concerned that in this regulatory shift, first the US and Great Britain and then the rest of western Europe were eliminating the very institutional foundations necessary to address the kinds of social and political upheavals that inevitably accompany economic hardship. Now that it is finally dawning on at least  some Europeans precisely what is needed to arrest the great unraveling, the EU is being forced to face the political fallout from growing economic hardship, particularly among its Eastern European members: ethno-religious nationalism and political extremism. But the world is also just now learning how little appreciation there is among electorates in core western European nations — France, Great Britain, Germany — not to mention in the US for the intimate relationship between a broad social and economic franchise and the kind of institutional and political stability we now so desperately need in Eastern Europe and along the eastern and southern Mediterranean rim. Electorates are therefore hard pressed to understand why they should be willing to share the cost for extending a social or economic franchise to individuals elsewhere which their own political leaders have not been willing to provide for their own publics. Thus Greece.

What would it take to change this political climate? What would it take to reverse the trend toward ethno-religious nationalism? Part of the answer must come from the economic and political elites within the unraveling nations themselves. But they cannot shoulder the burden alone. Economic and political actors in the EU and the US need to acknowledge that the policy of deregulation and privatization was ill-conceived, that it was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the post-War economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. They also need to acknowledge that public outlays for education, health, and welfare are necessary not to equalize fortunes, at least not solely or primarily; but are necessary to create political and social stability. This was the hard lesson of the 1930s and 1940s. But it is a lesson that evidently was never fully learned and was all too easy to forget. Here the Randian game being played out in full view within the Republic Party leadership in the US is not simply economically infantile. It is dangerous. The business community in the US needs to take a cold hard look at the 1930s and see something more than the handsome returns made by rent-seekers who, on the backs of world war, saw the value of their assets soar.

And what if we fail to learn this lesson? Just look at “today’s Europe.” Which is why in less than a month I am returning, again, to Sarajevo for the second time in less than two months, where in 1914 it all began.

The Business Community Greets Papa

As most of you know, my authority on all things business is the Wall Street Journal, which dutifully arrives on my doorstep every day except Sundays and Holidays. This morning’s paper featured an Insert about Pope Francis’ visit to the Americas, “The Pope in America,” fully one quarter of which is devoted, not surprisingly, to “Business Leaders Answer the Pope’s Criticisms” (S6-S7). Fair enough.

Pope-Francis-in-CagliariThose readers with a long enough memory may recall my invoking the name and memory of Frank Knight in this blog on several occasions. Frank Knight, along with Jacob Viner, were among the instructors and colleagues of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. But whereas Milton Friedman had the luxury of defending free markets during the (until then) largest government-sponsored economic expansion in history, Frank Knight and Jacob Viner had the misfortune of defending free markets during their darkest hour, the Great Depression. And then as now God’s human representative on Earth, the occupant of Peter’s throne in Rome, was none too pleased with the pain and suffering Capitalism was unleashing upon the world. In 1939, however, it was even worse than today. For it was not only the Catholics, but the Protestants as well, calling for heads of business.

First it was Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. But then in 1936 the Oxford Conference of World Protestantism issued their own “Report on Christianity and the Economic Order.” Both illustrated, in Professor Knight’s view, “exhortation without knowledge and understanding — of well-meaning people attempting to meddle with the workings of extremely complicated and sensitive machinery which they do not understand” (“Ethics and Economic Reform,” Economica 6:24 (Nov. 1939), p. 418).

Professor Knight’s condescending posture towards the Christian world’s two leading institutions in 1939 bears comparison to the remarks of today’s business leaders leading up to Pope Francis’ visit:

The substance of what the pope says may apply to his native Argentina and elsewhere in the developing world, said James Lucier, managing director at Washington research firm Capital Alpha Parners, but it suggests “a complete misapprehension [sic] of American capitalism and market economies in general” (S7).

Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank in Michigan, specifically faulted Pope Francis’ overall approach, saying it paints a caricature of market economies as “generally exploitative.”

“He doesn’t seem to want to concede the sheer number of people who have escaped from poverty as a consequence of the opening up of global markets and the activities of business,” Mr. Gregg said. “I know a lot of Catholic businessmen who are quite demoralized when they hear the pope talk about the daily reality in which they live” (S7).

And from Catholics in Congress:

“I’m not about to get myself into an argument with the pope,” Mr. Boehner [Republican House Leader and devout Roman Catholic] said. “There’s one thing we know about this pope: He’s not afraid to take on the status quo” (S7).

“You never know what you get with the white smoke,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) a fellow Catholic.

“I’m a Jesus guy, but I don’t agree with the pope,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R. Okla.) a prominent skeptic of global warming. “It’s the whole extreme liberal agenda and just because he’s the pope doesn’t mean that it’s any more gospel than it would be otherwise.”

Rep. Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.) said he would boycott the pope’s speech to protest a potential focus on climate change. “When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” Mr. Gosar, who is Catholic, wrote in an op-ed on

“The pope is the highest authority on issues of Catholic religious doctrine,” said Catholic Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.). But “he has no more authority on issues of foreign policy or on issues of economic policy than frankly any other individual,” the law-maker said.

Although unlike today’s capitalist cheerleaders both Jacob Viner and Frank Knight were outspoken athiests when it came to religion (Viner as a secular Jew, Knight came from a large Plymouth Brethren family), Knight was keenly interested in the contributions religion had made to the ethos of modern capitalism. Here Knight was more inclined to follow Thorstein Veblen and Friedrich Nietzsche than Max Weber. It was on account of their slave mentality that Christians had quietly and submissively embraced the work-discipline imposed by early capitalism.

Thus, for example:

But there is enough to make it clear that the intent of the teachings was to have these conditions accepted and recognised as “given” factors in the world in which individuals and groups have to live their moral and religious lives. Besides the much quoted injunction to “render unto Cesar the things that are Caesar’s,” found in all three synoptic Gospels, there are even more pointed passages, such as the categorical command (in Matthew only) to obey the Scribes and Pharisees (though not to imitate their deeds !). The epistles repeatedly enjoin obedience and respect to political rulers, and command servants to be obedient and respectful to their recognised masters. This last injunction appears in at least a half-dozen places, in as many Books in the New Testament. The word for “servant” covers, if it does not specifically mean, slaves, and it is a familiar fact that the Church never condemned or officially opposed slavery (400).

In the first centuries of its history, the appeal of Christianity was to the lowly strata of society, not to persons holding any sort of power. The lowly were clearly exhorted to accept the existing structure of status and power relations, to obey constituted authorities, and not to try to “do anything about it”. When persons in positions of power, and particularly rulers of states, came to be Christianised, they found little if anything in Christian teaching to guide them in the use of power (419).

The Christian movement itself had become highly organised along authoritarian lines, and the official interpreters of Christian doctrine regarded it as the first and main duty of the political authorities to support, and defer to, the authority and power of ” the Church “, i.e., of these officials themselves. And in performing this duty, political functionaries were by no means supposed to be either gentle or human (420).

There is ample evidence that our grasp of the historical, social, and political settings for the gospels has advanced fairly significantly since the 1930s and that few contemporary biblical scholars or historians of Christianity’s first four centuries would endorse Professor Knight’s authorities; although there is surely substantial evidence that most Christians in the early modern and modern periods found it convenient to interpret the biblical texts to support the emerging absolute Christian monarchies of western Europe. Nietzsche may, indeed, eventually have the last word here.

But it is the other side of this equation — the scientific economic side — not the moral side that most interests me. For what sticks out and calls for attention, particularly in the responses of the House and Senate Republican leadership, is their fear that His Holiness has somehow overstepped the bounds of religious propriety and has entered fields over which he holds neither expertise nor authority. And it is precisely here, I believe, that the conversation grows interesting.

Let us suppose, then, that Professor Knight (a principled atheist) is right. Let us suppose that questions regarding the proper functioning of the market should not be left up to well-intentioned dilettantes (such as His Holiness), but should instead be reserved for experts such as Professor Knight. In this case, what would the scientific judgment regarding human pain and hardship arising out of free market activity tell us?

The answer, of course, is that scientific judgment has nothing whatever to tell us about how we should respond to human pain and suffering. Or, assuming a more positive tone, science would only tell us that human intervention into markets, let us say through greater public regulation over those markets, imposes inefficiencies onto those markets. We could then ask whether these regulations — let us say, for example, regulations requiring that private capital contribute more to health, education, or welfare — make up these inefficiencies elsewhere, through for example, a healthier, better educated, more secure work force. But, clearly, precisely what economic science could not tell us is whether, taken by itself, promoting health, education, or public welfare were, in and of themselves worthwhile ends to pursue. Nor, however, could economic science tell us whether the distortions imposed on markets or the inefficiencies endured were not worth the efficiencies they introduced elsewhere. All that economic science could tell us is that, up to the margin, some market actors would lose and others would gain (or some actors would both lose and gain) some set of goods or efficiencies.

But, one senses that both Professor Knight and the distinguished members of the House and Senate Republican leadership are saying less than they mean to. They are not only saying that they would like the Pope to leave economics or climate science up to the experts. For, on both accounts “the experts” have spoken loudly and clearly and their words do not match up with the sentiments of the House and Senate Republic leadership. To the contrary, it is as though an alternative ethic, equally or perhaps even more unscientific than the Pope’s, were intruding into the discussion.

According to this ethic, free, unregulated markets, irrespective of the pain and suffering they cause, are in and of themselves goods worthy to be valued. This may be true. But it is not by a long shot scientific. Science, as we have already seen, can only speak intelligibly about margins. Individuals and industries wander across their margins all the time and the worst judgment that falls upon them is insolvency; which, to my knowledge, business men and women are regularly guilty of without incurring either moral reprobation or divine retribution. That’s just how economics are supposed to work. End of story. No metaphysics required.

But one suspects that Mr. Inhofe means more than this. Regulating capital is not only unwise, but unholy. Demanding that capital contribute a larger share to health, education, and welfare not only deprives investors of a greater return (which is surely true); but it also violates a divine law respect the rights of private investors to the highest possible returns, even if these prove harmful to the public. Regulating carbon emissions not only introduces inefficiencies or distortions, but violates a divine right that capital enjoys over the disposition of the Earth.

Nothing that the Pope will say during his visit to America will violate sound economic science. Yes, he may say things that might result in distortions or inefficiencies. And he may say things that result in greater efficiencies and fewer distortions. That is of the nature of human action. Human action changes markets. Beyond this, however, His Holiness will also say things that are well within his divine calling. He will speak about the consequences that follow for God’s children and for God’s creation from the economic decisions we make. We might debate over whether these consequences follow from these decisions. We might even debate over whether we should care about these consequences. Finally, we might debate over whether the Pope enjoys the authority to speak on God’s behalf for God’s children within the Roman Catholic Church or within the Christian Church more broadly.

But at least where economic science is at issue, there will be nothing that the Pope says that will violate the most fundamental principles of economic science. To the contrary, here the onus falls entirely upon those who have deified capital and free markets, evidently granting them precedence even over the sound teachings of the Chair of Saint Peter.

Uber uber alles?

I am teaching a seminar in the Econ Department at Berkeley covering Karl Marx’s economic system in volume one of Capital. To get there, however, we have to pass through GWF Hegel’s “Civil Society,” §§182-256. Which is where Uber, the transportation service, comes in. Like Adam Smith, Hegel too was intrigued by the production function, the relationship between capital and labour wherein each credits technological innovation with the potential of increasing production with diminishing labour. Adam Smith’s apocryphal story about the boy who invented a mechanism for the fire engine boiler to relieve him of this task “and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellow” (I.i 20 [1776]) is sufficiently well-known not to require comment. As it will later in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, so here in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, efficiency is held to issue not only in a greater volume of goods at the same or diminished cost, but, more importantly, to yield substantive liberty or freedom (i.e., more leisure time) to the worker. Hegel, too, is intrigued by the possibility that ever greater specialization will break each task into ever smaller, simpler parts; parts so simple that a mechanism might just as well perform the task, allowing the worker “to step aside and let a machine take his place”:

The universal and objective aspect of work consists, however, in that [process of] abstraction which confers a specific character on means and needs and hence also on production, so giving rise to the division of labour. Through this division, the work of the individual [des Einzelnen] becomes simpler, so that his skill at his abstract work becomes greater, as does the volume of his output. At the same time, this abstraction of skill and means makes the dependence and reciprocity of human beings in the satisfaction of their other needs complete and entirely necessary. Furthermore, the abstraction of production makes work increasingly mechanical, so that the human being is eventually able to step aside and let a machine take his place (§198).

uber-logoIt is in this context that a student raises the reasonable question about the efficiencies entailed by Uber. First and most obviously, the efficiencies arising out of Uber are administrative and regulatory and not technical in nature. Presumably the auto, the driver, the insurance, the maintenance of the private auto, the registered taxi cab, or the Uber vehicle are identical. The efficiency arises then not out of the simplification and subsequent mechanization of a task, but from the externalization of maintenance costs, the externalization of benefit costs, and from the enlargement of the potential workforce, which, all else being equal, places downward pressures on wages. The distributive technological element upon which Uber relies is the most often referenced, but least important feature of Uber since it relies upon coding that is in the public domain, and since therefore its efficiencies can be shared by any coach service (as, in fact, registered taxi cab services scramble to adopt similar technologies).

A more adequate example might therefore be a mass transit train or bus that transports much larger numbers of people more efficiently to and from destinations. Assume for a moment that we only enjoy two transportation alternatives, taxi cabs or buses. Let us also assume that taxi cabs employ more workers than buses and that while maintenance and insurance per vehicle is higher for buses than for taxi cabs, buses transport more people for a lower cost than taxi cabs could transport the same number of people.

While this example comes closer to Hegel’s model, it still falls short because Hegel is imagining that an aggregate set of workers who previously had been employed without the benefit of mechanization — let us say a team of individual coach drivers — are collectively able to step aside once they purchase a single bus to fetch and ferry their fares. Hegel is imagining in other words that all of those who formerly fetched and ferried individual fares would collectively benefit from the efficiencies enjoyed by purchasing and managing a bus to cover the same territory.

It is at this point, however, that a second Hegelian principle kicks in: infinite desire. For, it turns out, I do not want to be stuffed into a public bus which, in order to satisfy the needs of all of its fares, must travel to and fro, much delaying my own itinerary. Again, like Smith, Hegel too distinguishes human beings in this regard from animals whose desires are limited by instinct. My desires, by contrast, are unlimited and are constrained only by my wealth. Unlike Smith, however, Hegel characterizes my boundless desire as a “false infinity.”

Through their representations [Vorstellungen] and reflections, human beings expand their desires, which do not form a closed circle like animal instinct, and extend them to false [schlechte] infinity. But on the other hand, deprivation and want are likewise boundless, and this confused situation can be restored to harmony only through the forcible intervention of the state. Although Plato’s state sought to exclude particularity, this is of no help, because such help would contradict the infinite right of the Idea to allow particularity its freedom (§185).

In other words, left to itself, the market will not prefer the bus to the private coach. In response to my boundless desire, the market will adjust to my need for more comfort, greater speed, greater privacy, lower costs and will, in response to my boundless desire therefore multiply the goods and so the employment alternatives for laborers who, out of their own needs, are ready to satisfy my own. Like Adam Smith’s fire engine boy who wishes to play with his friends, the moment when I can step aside and install a machine in my place never in fact arrives. Only under the condition that the state steps in and restricts my freedom will my “false infinity” be held in check. And, yet, this solution clearly troubles Hegel since this state assistance “would contradict the infinite right of the Idea to allow particularity its freedom.”

Only at the margins, notes Hegel, does the market moderate my desire. “The very multiplication of needs has a restraining influence on desire, for if people make use of many things, the pressure to obtain any one of these which they might need is less strong, and this is a sign that necessity [die Not] in general is less powerful” (§190). Otherwise, my desire consumes the potential freedom released by mechanization. “This process of formation gives the means their value and appropriateness, so that man, as a consumer, is chiefly concerned with human products, and it is human effort which he consumes” (§196). My desire, an expression of my freedom, consumes free time.

And, yet, clearly this is not the end of the story for Hegel. For even as my bottomless desire consumes free time and so eliminates the efficiencies generated by mechanization, it also therein multiplies the inefficiencies entailed by the satisfaction of my desires. And it is for this reason that Hegel characterizes civil society, left to its own devices, as inherently incoherent and self-defeating:

Particularity in itself [für sich], on the one hand indulging itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice, destroys itself and its substantial concept in the act of enjoyment; on the other hand, as infinitely agitated and continually dependent on external contingency and arbitrariness and at the same time limited by the power of universality, the satisfaction of both necessary and contingent needs is itself contingent. In these opposites and their complexity, civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of the physical and ethical corruption common to both (§185).

What is missing according to Hegel is an agent or actor representing the public interest, which evidently does not, nor can ever arise out of even the aggregate of private interests represented by civil society.

Which brings us back to Uber. No, Uber does not constitute a social efficiency. Even on a regulatory and administrative level, its relative greater efficiency over registered taxi cabs or public transportation would have to be demonstrated and cannot be assumed. (Is there, for example, a net time over cost gain; or is this no more than a rent-seeking opportunity created by the externalization of costs?) In any event, however, Uber does not yield the kind of substantive freedom Hegel contemplated in his discussion of technological innovation. Moreover, even were we to assume that by relieving registered taxi cab drivers of their employment, this technology allowed taxi cab drivers to “step aside and install [Uber] in their place,” since registered taxi cab drivers are not members of the community benefiting from this technology, it would be more apt to lump them with Adam Smith’s fire engine boy, who presumably never did run off to play with his friends but was instead recruited to work in the dangerous textile industry on London’s East End. Which, of course, is no argument in favor of private coaches, whose desire to limit Uber arises no less than the desire of Uber drivers, from the very particularity whose desires know no bounds.

None of this, of course, would have surprised Georg Wilhelm in the least. In order to take advantage of the efficiencies produced by mechanization, Hegel recognized that the public and public interest would have to play the decisive part identifying leisure time, health, and education as public values worth cultivating. Hegel felt that he had discerned a possible mechanism driving this public interest in the generally recognized revulsion that seizes cultured individuals when they encounter poverty, exciting in them the desire to take steps publicly, beyond “the contingent character of almsgiving and charitable donations (e.g. for burning lamps before the images of saints, etc.),” to improve the condition of individuals caught in poverty.

The subjective aspect of poverty, and in general of every kind of want to which all individuals are exposed, even in their natural environment, also requires subjective help, both with regard to the particular circumstances and with regard to emotion and love. This is a situation in which, notwithstanding all universal arrangements, morality finds plenty to do. But since this help, both in itself [für sich] and in its effects, is dependent on contingency, society endeavours to make it less necessary by identifying the universal aspects of want and taking steps to remedy them (§242).

In this sense, Hegel recognized (pardon the pun) that Uber was ill-suited to be über alles. Nicht war?

Philosophy of Right: The Family

If any was in doubt over the relationship between capital and GWF Hegel’s interpretive categories, these surely must yield before his treatment of the family, §§142-181, in Philosophy of Right, where the subjective, feminine, element and the objective, male, element are held in marriage to form a universal. To be sure, this misogynist metaphor enjoys its own prehistory. And, yet, remarkably or not, this prehistory survives its passage into the nineteenth century not only intact, but much fortified by the journey. The element of desire is feminized and sensationalized — literally made subject to sensation [Empfindung] — while the male is objectified and rationalized. Insofar as the metaphor holds good — i.e., insofar as misogyny enjoys social and legal validity into the twentieth and now into the twenty-first centuries — it may help us to account for the sexualization of the commodity, which is held to liberate those who consume it (and who in turn are consumed by it) however briefly from their bondage to physical being. In this orgasm, the commodity user is released. Yet, GWF Hegel fundamentally misrecognizes the unique historical and social construction of this meme ascribing it instead to being as such and so he naturalizes a disinction inscribed everywhere on the commodity whose social being consists of a sublime immaterial value form and its material form of appearance.

The Social Process of Production

Following a long hiatus, during which I transferred my blog from one host to another, we are back considering K Marx’s mature economic system.

We are now in Chapter 15, volume I, “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” which, considering its future, particularly in socialist nations, one might expect K Marx to be eagerly promoting. He is not. “In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him” (548). So, how might it have made sense (for a list of socialist leaders too long to concern us here) to feel that installing machines to make use of socialist workers was different than installing machines to make use of non-socialist workers?

One clue comes on page 547, where K Marx differentiates between what he calls “the development of the social process of production” and “the exploitation by the capitalists of that development,” seeming therein to suggest that the purely technological elaboration of production can be considered in isolation from the exploitation of this technology to produce surplus value. Is this not precisely what VI Lenin, J Stalin, M Zedong, JB Tito, et al. were doing when they leveraged the factory system on behalf of workers and not against them?

The conclusion appears inescapable that K Marx believed (mistakenly it so happens) that an institutional form in which machines make use of workers might be exploited for the benefit of workers in a socialist state. Is there any reason to conclude otherwise?

Yes, there is. The most direct avenue to this alternative reading is to ask whether K Marx thought any process of production was not social. Clearly the answer is “No.” Here he stands shoulder to shoulder not only with Aristotle and GWF Hegel, but also with a host of eighteenth century economic theorists who eagerly acknowledged that anyone caught at any time in the process of labour was by virtue of that fact its victim. Individuals either own their own private enterprise and employ dependent labourers or individuals work in such a household. Even the hermit depends upon the labour of others. It follows that when K Marx calls attention to the “social process of production” he is not directing our attention to a contrast between a process that is “social” and therefore emancipatory and a process that is not social — political? arbitrary? anti-social? economic? — and therefore oppressive.

The second point that needs making is that irrespective of whether I am producing surplus value for my employer (or for others), we can all recognize more or less humane ways to organize work. In Chapter 15 K Marx is eager to show that the efficiencies generated by large-scale machine production — efficiencies that might accrue to workers and might reduce their work load or shorten their working day — are uniformly reinvested in the production of surplus value. So, yes, K Marx identifies a social mechanism within capitalism that gives rise to a tension between labour and value. The drive for ever greater efficiency gradually makes human input into the production process increasingly obsolete. Yet, because it is subject to the greater mechanism to maximize returns on investment, and because surplus value relies solely on abstract labour time expended, labour must always be called back in to fill the gap between material wealth and value. “The economical use of the social means of production, matured and forced as in a hothouse by the factory system, is turned in the hands of capital into systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the worker while he is at work, i.e. space, light, air and protection against the dangerous or the unhealthy concomitants of the production process, not to mention the theft of appliances for the comfort of the worker. Was Fourier wrong when he called factories ‘mitigated jails’” (553)?

So, what would a regulatory shift away from the production of surplus values look like and how would it change the labour process? Presumably, if my motivation for work was not driven by the production of surplus value, I would not feel compelled to produce more wealth than the market demanded. Would this absence of compulsion also remove the drive for innovation? Clearly the answer is both yes and no. If innovation could grant me more leisure time, then this in itself could motivate innovation. Would it motivate me to produce an iPhone 6s? Perhaps not, unless, of course, doing so had the effect of shortening the work day. Beyond production itself, however, as other social mediations — the environment? family? religion? culture? — outside of private markets reasserted themselves, it is also likely that the drive to produce ever more value would itself undergo a dramatic change.

In terms of K Marx’s economic system, however, it simply makes no sense to suggest (as, e.g., VI Lenin or M Zedong apparently thought) that we would “naturally” be driven to tie ourselves ever more firmly to machine production to realize the higher production goals set by the Party, especially since the primary motivation for this social form has always been the production of greater value.

Time and Labour

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.41.16A colleague shared and asked me for my thoughts on the recent decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) holding that employers who do not provide an office to employees must include compensation to employees for the time they spend traveling to and from their jobs (“Time taken to travel to work ‘should count as work’ according to European court” Independent 10 Sept 2015).

On a purely empirical level, excluding travel time by definition improves the productivity of employees since employers need not compensate employees for the time they spend traveling to and from the work site. Even if we were to argue that compensating employees for this time improves their well-being, perhaps in tangible ways, this would hold true for any number of policies employers might adopt — continuing education, extended sick leave, vacations, shorter work day — all of which could plausibly improve the well-being of workers, but also cut into the production function.

But let us suppose that on a more abstract level that improvements in productivity aim not only or even primarily at increasing rates of return for shareholders or increasing compensation for employees, but also the production of greater leisure time — time off the clock — for these employees. We could make a case for an indirect consequence of including travel time: increasing costs, decreasing productivity, are incentives for employers to adopt technological and/or administrative instruments that aim to recover this loss. So, for example, an employer faced with costs arising from compensation for travel time might find establishing a make-shift office — an administrative solution — more efficient than compensating the employee. Or, as is common in the US, an employer might find it more efficient to subcontract out than employee from within — another administrative solution. Or, where possible — which is the case almost everywhere in Europe, less so in the US — employers could provide employees with transportation vouchers and stipulate that they occupy themselves during transport in tasks that recoup the productivity lost by having to compensate employees during transport — a techno-administrative solution.

However, none of these approaches achieves the aim of opening up more free time for employees. Nor are they likely to. This is because they are grounded in the social fiction that employment — clock time — is required for society to function properly. We need the labour of employees. Employees need the compensation offered for their labour by employers. Consider for a moment the huge leaps in productivity our world has enjoyed since the mid-19th century. We need not list them here, but they are substantial. And on some level they surely help account for the contraction of the working day from 15 hours and 7 days to 12 hours to 10 hours and 6 days to 8 hours and 6 and then 8 hours and 5 days. Let us say that over this time, notwithstanding changes in taste and habits of consumption, we have restored to employees roughly half the clock time that once colonized their days. To be sure, since the 1970s, the working day has recolonized roughly half this time.

But this raises an interesting question about the ECJ’s ruling. On some level, no doubt, increased compensation is good. It allows employees to accumulate consumption and investment during their periods of travel. Moreover, it acknowledges what every employee already knows. Compensated or not, they were already “on the clock” from the moment they turned their attention away from art, leisure, love and learning to face their work days. This is obviously not new. Educators, in this sense, are almost always “on the clock.” Only the line worker truly gets to leave her job at the factory door. But the question this raises is whether compensating employees for travel time constitutes a further step recolonizing time by work.

Let us suppose that all time is compensated time; the time I am with my children; the time I am preparing meals; the time I am worshipping, sleeping, eating, working out. Let us suppose that it is all clock time; and if clock time then such time lends itself to the production function. How productive is my time with my children, preparing meals, worshipping, sleeping, eating, working out? Does my Happy Meal win for me that additional time-value I would have lost shopping and preparing food in my kitchen? Is my spending time with my children the most productive use for their time or mine? Would not a trained tutor or care giver be more efficient? The device around my wrist tells me how productive my sleep has been, how many steps I have taken, how many calories I have consumed — all of which lend themselves to the production function. Perhaps I already live in the world I am postulating. All that is needed now is to assign the proper value to all of these “leisure” activities — activities that contribute to or detract from productivity. Perhaps I already assign value to these activities. And, having assigned values, we could now properly value and compensate employees not just for travel, but for all of their “off the clock” activities; in much the same way that Henry Ford compensated his employees for the efficiencies they created (or consumed) “off the clock.” Yes to ballroom dancing. No to the jitterbug. Yes to church. No to the pool hall.

Europe has decided — as the US has not — to include housing, education, health, and welfare within their social franchise. Europe has already gone further than the US socializing efficiencies. This is all to the good. And, yet, I do wonder whether including more time in “time on the clock” might not be a step backwards.