Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category
In “Language and Politics,” Noam Chomsky makes what I think is an oft’ repeated remark summarizing capitalism:
I mean, don’t really have capitalism, we have some variant of it. But if you think about the ideal form, which we approximate to some extent, I mean, capitalism is a system where everything is for sale, and the more money you have, the more you can get.
My emphasis. When Chomsky says that everything is for sale, he’s referring to how the market mediates our access to pretty much everything. It’s the mode of distribution, whereby things like chairs, lettuce and even human labor are distributed from producer to consumer by way of a transaction or exchange we call a sale – though that isn’t an entirely accurate way of describing it, but I’ll get to that.
There’s another side how everything comes to be for sale, because all the stuff that’s for sale had to be produced. So, the flip-side is that in a world where everything is for sale, everything is produced to be sold. We could say, in a way, that everything becomes a cash-crop. When I said that a producer selling something to a consumer (directly or indirectly through middle-men) is not really well described by the notion of distribution, that’s because producers for the most part don’t make things that are directly consumed by them or anyone else. Most of the time, chairs are made and lettuce is grown to be exchanged or sold first and consumed or used only afterward. This ought to weight heavy on the minds of those who advocate sustainable agriculture and small-time farming.
Many people think of farming as a business like any other, which only goes to show how “everything is for sale.” Farmers are seen as businessmen producing a product for exchange first and consumption second. It’s often the case that they keep some of their own product for their own and their family’s consumption, or maybe they feed it to their livestock, but the dominant character of that production is that it is for exchange. Most small-time farmers, to say nothing of the corporate ones, who farm for a living are producing most of their food not for other people to eat but to buy. Often enough the first party to whom it’s “distributed” is a middle-man called a distributor or maybe a grocery-store. It’s highly unlikely that they’re going to eat any of it themselves; their purpose in buying it is to re-sell it at a profit (Money > Commodity > More Money Than Before). They pay their workers wages or salaries to go buy food for themselves (though they may offer them a “deal” to give the company back some of the wages they just paid them).
Sometimes product is sold at at a Farmers’ Market. There, the relationship between producer and consumer is about as direct as you can get. The food is grown/processed by the farmer and sold directly to the person(s) who will likely eat it themselves (or with their family). However, these farmer-market stands aren’t enough to sustain the farmers on their own on such direct terms. If they don’t have a “real job,” or subsidies, they are usually supplemented by selling in other venues (grocery-stores or restaurants or to organizations that process the food entirely different products), if only because the farmer (and even their family) cannot directly and by themselves sell enough product (while also being a farmer) to make the money they need for all the things they can only pay for with money (taxes, materials/tools, and most labor). They may employ labor and have an ongoing vegetable-stand, but then they probably have to pay for the labor (either to work the stand while they farm or to farm while they work the stand, or more likely some combination of both). The workers may get a cut of the product as partial compensation, but they usually need money, which means more has to be produced in order to sell it in order to get the money to pay for such things.
Farmers who directly sell are in a relatively unique position compared to grocery-stores to deal with unsold product. They can eat it rather than throw it away. Assuming it’s still good but not “sell-able,” they can eat it and that directly sustains them. This is not so in stores and restaurants who often forbid employees from eating food destined for or already in the trash. One rationale has to do with hygiene, but I know from personal experience that this legitimately applies to about a quarter to a third of all food considered “unsellable.” Often enough it looks unattractive from being exposed to the air if it’s a fresh-made food, or is so close to expiring that the management wants to restock but must clear the space to put fresher product there, or they just want to make sure it gets pulled off the shelf lest it sits there until it’s “sell by” date. This food is destined for the trash and it is a terminable offense to eat it in Kroger stores (Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest). I knew people who got fired for what is called “grazing,” which is a term they use to also refer to how, say, someone plucks a grape or two off a bunch in sitting in the open air in the produce section. This is stealing to them because the product in or going to the garbage, they figure, is their property as much as the product on the shelves, and it is their right to destroy it. The more ridiculous though clearly motivating rationale (I have heard managers say this with a straight face) for this policy is that if workers can have a cut of what heads for the garbage, they will have an incentive to throw things away (as if they weren’t already ordering the workers, through direct commands and policies, to throw away hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible food every day as it is) that they can then eat on the company’s dime. I am getting off on a tangent though, since the points I wanted to make are about production. I’ll say, though, that this management of waste or would-be waste is a direct expression of how everything is for sale (even the garbage isn’t free or common property).
Since my tangent somewhat took the steam out of where I was going with production, I’ll get to the quick and dirty point I made in a comment on Mark Bittman’s NYTimes oped about sustainable agriculture. Namely, to have a serious conversation about sustainable agriculture we need to talk about agriculture as a common resource. That is, as part of the commons. Historically it’s been a chief activity to take place on common-land and is as far as human endeavors go one of the most common (i.e. universally useful and to some extent necessary). It’s the key to sustainable agriculture, because if agriculture remains essentially privatized, the efforts to create sustainable agriculture will continue to benefit those who can “afford” it while under-writing the political, social and environmental costs of unsustainable though immediately lucrative agriculture. I daresay that privatized agriculture is itself unsustainable.
What Mr. Rutten is peddling in the LA Times today is an apology for non-unionized workers’ stockholm syndrome. Most of them have no alternative means of livelihood to the market of private labor contracts that the owning-class monopolizes and co-ordinates to their advantage. The owning-class (speaking on behalf of their god, variously known as the market, capital, economic necessity, value – or if you’re going to get really Old School, Mammon) has told those workers they are going to get less, and being the unorganized lot they are they have had little choice but to accept. However, having so thoroughly identified with the owning-class, these non-unionized workers don’t even begin to think they’ve been screwed by that class and its economic laws of value, growth and capital accumulation. They have been hosed though, and not only should they not be angry at those who refuse to be screwed, but Rutten shouldn’t be trying to legitmate their misplaced resentment. To do so takes us back to 1930s Germany when it was popular to point to the well-organized Jews as not just racial but economic scape-goats for the German workers’ own struggle with global depression. Unions are not to blame for the current economic malaise, which Rutten offers as a token of pseudo-objectivity, but their non-capitulation to the forces of global capitalism is the only hope this country has.
One commenter, who at least seems to have read the comment I left on this article (essentially reproduced above), lashes back:
So we should all have contracts/pensions/free healthcare like the public employee unions? And we would all be better off and thrive happily ever after?
Hey, What the heck. It worked well for GM and Greece. Lets give it a try.
I never said anything about happily ever after. This union-busting stuff is part of a struggle to which we may see no clear-cut end in our lives. I make no arguments about the economic desirability of unions either (i.e. from the “bargain” perspective). Yes, though, we should ALL have the kind of livelihoods that public employees unions (fight to) secure for them. That this is at odds with an economic system rooted in principles of value, growth and capital accumulation is an argument against the latter.
A thought I posted on facebook, after which a thread of comments follow.
“If there are more skilled social-service jobs, the college-grads forced to work retail or worse will leave, because who the fuck wants to do that, making jobs for the… less-skilled. People who [with regard to Measures 66 and 67 in Oregon] talk about ‘job-killing taxes’ seem to think that everyone wants to work dead-end retail jobs. They’re already there, and a lot of the wrong people are working them.”
Matt Reiter: retail is fun~~~~~~~not.
Eric S. Gregory: So there are ‘right’ people for dead-end retail jobs?
Joe Clement: I had second-thoughts about that the second I hit send. No, Eric, no one should work dead-end retail jobs, though I don’t rule out them out (just the necessity of working them). My point is that those most affected by 66 and 67, especially 67, are those corporations whose job-making potential is largely in this field.
The work they offer is not socially-necessary, which isn’t a backdoor into some bizarroland the libertarians dread where you can only do the work the government offers. There are plenty of medical and education positions these taxes keep, if not expand. Even the unskilled labour that ODOT may employ is more socially necessary than ensuring your complete costumer-satisfaction at Fred Meyers.
To the extent that they do serve a role in keeping Capital in circulation enough (and possibly redirected to more democratic organizations, which I do believe exist, even in the world of necessary goods) that the people don’t choke (a starving population is a lot harder to mobilize than a minimally fed one), I don’t rule out retail jobs.
The point should not be to protect these jobs, but to reduce and ultimately eliminate the ‘necessity’ of working them in the first place. That way, if you really get your jollies frying chicken-strips at the Deli of the Hawthorne Fred Meyers, then you can. Since I doubt many of us would do that kind of thing, organizations like Freddies might either have to downsize or disappear completely.
In a world where the jobs they offer are seen as socially necessary because they’re work period, this would be a disaster. In the world I’m talking about, it’s good riddance.
I also don’t rule out the possibility that in a more equitable environment, working in a grocery-store (a socially-necessary job, unless you assume State-run distribution centers, in which case the grocery-store model I think still makes more sense) could be an unalienated activity.
Whether you prefer some kind of Marxist fisherman-by-day philosopher-by-night approach is for you to decide. I think that many, most probably, would like a monotonous life of steady work in a field they basically like.
Eric S. Gregory: I’m in general agreement, Joe. I just bristle at certain notions of entitlement that might (by implication) exclude or construct a class of others (not that you’re doing this–just wanted to clarify).
At this point in my life, I’ve worked over 30 retail jobs (and I might add that working for the Library–at least the actual work involved–isn’t all that different from working at Borders. I was there for 3 years in the early 90s) and while there were some terrible times, I’ve often found retail jobs to be somewhat liberating–especially for living a nomadic semi-exploratory lifestyle. I don’t even mind the work (I have no problem ‘serving’ people)–it’s the money that ultimately becomes insulting and it’s the money (and benefits–lack thereof) that makes these jobs so easy to take and leave and take and leave and take and leave(hence the liberating aspect). I spent my 20s and 30s moving around the country, living ‘simply,’ doing bands and music, drugs, etc., moving laterally from one shit retail job to the next every year or 2. To some extent, the jobs and the lifestyle went hand in hand and I understood that while working a ‘career’ (ugh) certainly wouldn’t preclude the lifestyle above, it would have made it more difficult (and the “serious” office jobs I worked during those years typically resulted in termination, rather than voluntary abandonment). I still think that the Burger King gig I had in the mid-80s was possibly the best job I’ve ever worked (managers laying out lines of blow and sharing big fat doobies with the workers, showing up tripping out of one’s mind without any worry of job-related paranoia, fucking with peoples’ food, working with probably the most diverse cast of characters I’ve yet encountered).
I’ve always seen dead-end jobs as a means to lifestyle invention/play and as temporary paths and ways around the predictable. But I also had the luxury to position myself as such.
Joe Clement: While no where nearly as glamorous as yur Burger King gig, working at Freddies last year, in the Deli, allows me to say: I can relate. Some of the most satisfying work I did every day (I even looked forward to it, in part because it meant the end of the shift was near) was sweeping/mopping the whole deli. I even contemplated for a whole ten minutes, upon the remarkable suggestion of a co-worker who noticed me dancing with the mop, how satisfactory life could be as a janitor.
I think you’d agree though, that the freedom these jobs impart is an index of how little freedom they really offer in terms of self-determination and participation in collective action. They can keep a working-class, ready for mobilization, fed long enough to start something, but they couldn’t really form a stable or satisfactory economic base (especially when you consider how the predominance of such jobs in the US is an index of a very unfree world on the whole).
Eric S. Gregory: Agree 100%, yes. But insofar as having to make accommodations, compromises and to live within the constrained coordinates of late capitalism, there’s something –what shall I call it?–illuminating? exciting? penetrative? about choosing to not choose a career that will come to colonize and define you. Of course, retail defines as well–but it can also allow one to see more extensively how fucked we really are. And if you coordinate your lifestyle with the material conditions of your employment (minimum wage, no health benefits, demeaned social status), you can sometimes have a good fucking time.
Obviously, this way of accessing retail work as an ideal for living doesn’t work as well if you have a chronically debilitating medical condition or usually, if you’re over 50 (I’ve worked with some over 50s who knew exactly what they were doing).
Joe Clement: I agree with you too. Working in the Deli only entrenched my belief in a democratic world of self-organized collectivity (communism for short). I just fight elevating this subjective, one-dimensional freedom [of retail-nomadism within the constraints of Capitalism] above the objective freedom such a system actively denies. Not everyone who discovers how to cope with the stresses of Capitalism finds the time or motivation to see to its end (or radical restructuring for those more attuned to the neo-liberal jargon). You and I and some others are lucky, if not in a Nietzchean sense a bit superior even, and that isn’t enough for me any more than being born into the right caste 2500 years ago was enough for the Buddha.
The point shouldn’t be to relegate retail-work or similarly unskilled labour, but the social-necessity of the relations in which it is currently implicated and further implies.
This appeared in the Guardian about a week ago. Hat-tip to Larval Subjects and kpunk.
And most difficult of all is that persistent bugbear of the left: who is the subject for change? In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the term proletariat was used precisely to indicate a class with nothing to lose, who are capable of taking the high risks required in any radical political transformation. Is there any such group today? Vast sections of the working class have been fully pulled into dependency on the liberal state. Immigrants are often atomised and lacking solidarity.
I think what we lack is theoretical work that explains plausible scenarios in which autonomous worker co-operatives could be politicised and achieve universal scope.
Coombs is talking about how the proletariat become dictators of capitalist society. Where is the universality is the right question to ask. Listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting today, which is running its fundraiser, reminded me that competitiveness is a false form of association that fails to be universal. That point of failure is where we might find a universal aspiration, to a form of cooperation that does not do away with the desire to create, innovate, improve and discover.
I, too, want to know is what is to prevent these occupied territories from competing with each other, what universal civilization is to unite these collectives that does not pit them against each other? When we speak of Capitalism, we evoke the absurd notion of a universal social substance supported by competition. So long as our communes are ran like companies, we will fail to flourish, whatever that really means. Then again, maybe that’s the trick: ethical competition, “Homer’s contest.” A universal aspiration lived as eternal contestation, but not a moral compensation for our being free.
From an exchange I had with Hannah:
Me: I had an encounter with who I could only call a holy man in the deli the other day, though it was something of a mixture of two separate occasions with the same guy.
[The first time], he ordered a half-sandwich from our list of prepared recipies. However, per some stupid rule, we’re not allowed to sellf half-sandwiches from that list. You have to do the ‘make it yourself’ option to get a half-sandwhich. He wanted it with our soup-and-sandwich special, which is a half-sandwhich with a cup of soup. I started to go into my script of why I can’t do it and why I think it’s still a dumb rule, but I stopped myself and just said, ‘you know what, I’ll just make it for you.’ He then wouldn’t stop applauding me, and said I was a model worker, someone who he’d hire in a heart-beat if he had the money to run his own sort of business (sandwich related or otherwise).
i’d applaud you too
Me: A couple weeks later, he came back again, and was chatting up me and my partner. The prior incident kind of came up again, and quickly turned into a conversation about how the management don’t manage properly (i.e. they do it top-down). I can’t remember exactly how he put it, which unfortunately was what I thought was so significant about it, but he said something to the effect of ‘you know how I know when God is talking to me? He doesn’t talk down, but talks up.’ That struck me as absolutely brilliant, and reminded me of something Peter O’Toole said (‘When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself’). It’s also the basic philosophy I have toward social organization, especially in terms of ‘the work-place.’
This is why I think 1 Kings 3:16-28, the story about Solomon solving a dispute between two women arguing over a baby, is so important.
God’s will does not descend down through Solomon to the women in dispute, but arises from the true mother herself* – i.e. the one who would give up her baby, as well as her utterly vital status in the community as a mother (she was otherwise a prostitute, an under-classling), her life essentially, rather than have it cut in half per Solomon’s judgement).
There is a lesson about collective (political) action in this story, which the holy man brought together for me by connecting it to the way the deli was ran. The key is to view all these characters as actors in a network, and not mere individuals (you are starting to get through to me Levi). My experience in the deli has re-enforced by faith in communism, of collective self-management. The injection of the privative relation, the one which the false mother maintains both towards the child and Solomon’s judgement, that disrupts the flow of this process, is experienced coming from above.
It is not hard to make the leap from this to saying that Capitalism is self-managing, but this self-management is a kind done in bad faith, again as represented by the false mother, who exercises her selfishness by way of Solomon’s (external) judgement. What I am talking about is the self-management of the “You have heard it said … but” sort. Jesus is, after all, speaking within the Jewish tradition, while simultaneous breaking (from) it.
You have heard it said that you may only order half-sandwiches from the make-your-own menu, but…
If Stalin said, “from each according to their ability; to each according to their work,” Obama formulates the flip-side of the State Capitalist ideological creed as “from each according to their ability; to those according to what they can afford.”
So, Mike Huckabee wants to get rid of the IRS and repeal the 16th Amendment, which allows the federal government to collect income taxes. He is a proponent of what’s called FairTax, a variety of tax ideas typically billed as a “consumption tax.” I have to admit there is a simple, almost tempting elegance to it: we get rid of all federal level taxation, and replace it with a federal sales tax of about 23%. On top of this, families (depending on household composition) up to the poverty level essentially get all their money back over the course of the year; instead of a once-a-year refund-check, they get a monthly prebate. Supposedly this makes the tax progressive and not regressive, in that the assumption is that people who make more money aren’t necessarily spending as much of it (they save it or, I guess, invest it), and therefore aren’t getting taxed for it as much. They still get that prebate (again, varying with household composition), though since they are assumably consuming more than this minimum, they are not getting all their taxes back. Another way of putting it is, the tax does not “punish” people for just getting by at or below the poverty level, so they get their income supplemented with the prebate checks to offset the sales taxes; those above this threshold, if they are spending much more than it, are really the ones carrying the tax burden, though it only gets higher as one makes more money. Another way still of putting this is with something of an example I’ll borrow from wikipedia:
For example, a family of four (a couple with two children) earning about $25,000 and spending this on taxable goods and services, would consume 100% of their income. A higher income family of four making about $100,000, spending $75,000, and saving $25,000, would consume only 75% of their income on taxable goods and services. When presented with an estimated effective tax rate, the low-income family above would pay a tax rate of 0% on the 100% of consumption and the higher income family would pay a tax rate of 15% on the 75% of consumption (with the other 25% taxed at a later point in time). A person spending at the poverty level would have an effective tax rate of 0%, whereas someone spending at four times the poverty level would have an effective tax rate of 17.2%.
At the top of the list made by Americans for Fair Taxation in support of the FairTax is that it “enables workers to keep their entire paycheck.” This is achieved, at least in part though probably mostly, because the FairTax movement involves repealing the 16th Amendment—eliminating Income Taxes and the IRS in general. It is a supply-side economic move masked as a demand-side, as the most widely made purchase is left out of this picture while at the same time remaining the central element: human labor.
It bears a more than striking resemblance to a Lacanian objet (petit) a, or when we put it to work (Jodi Dean reminded me of this), a Zizekian obscene supplement. The FairTax says it wants workers to get their fair compensation for their work, and that the real boon in this is their increased spending power, though it is the implicit transaction between employer and worker, paradoxically with regards to human labour, that is left out of this plan’s scope. In other words, human labour qua spending power is liberated while at the same time never brought into question.
It just makes no sense to tout this elimination of income taxes as an achievement, when it would just as easily could be achieved by taxing employers for buying their workers’ labour. In a way, this is how income taxes work now, though they really target the tax-paying worker and not the employer like they should. Effectively, taxing employers and not employees for working would be taxing employer profits (perhaps into practical non-existence) and turning them around for social ends. In other words, FairTax tries to have the populist appeal of Socialism without the economic model to realize it.
It’s at once surprising and not that neoliberals have not jumped on this more, though I think it ultimately is because how closely it takes them to Socialism. It is a very short though profound logical leap to say, “If we are going to tax the consumption of all these goods and services on the part of consumers, why not producers too, who consume human time and energy for money?” It is as if that thought were an object-cause of Capitalist desire: they must approach it all the time in order to manage all the while stoking the fires of Capitalist growth, but ever realizing it would amount to the completion of the Capitalist telos: the blowing out of that flame and the end of Capitalism itself.