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Sunday, October 10, 2010


Seventh Post

Since some of you are getting into the spirit of the thing, and rooting for one family or another [we have at least one Galt fan], perhaps I should remind you why I am doing this. My larger purpose is advance the thesis that our understanding of society is inevitably, ungetoverably ideologically encoded, partisan, politically implicated. There is no standpoint -- what the Greeks called a pou sto -- from which I can achieve an objective, scientific, neutral point of view. Hence, despite the phrase "Social Science" that is now used universally, the study of society is not, and cannot be, in the contemporary sense of the term, "scientific."

To explain this claim, and offer at least some supporting evidence for it, albeit of a particular or anecdotal nature, I have chosen the concept of the social rate of unemployment. First, I sketched briefly the process by which our most reliable source for such data, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, arrives at a social unemployment rate, and I explained some of the problems with that number, and how the BLS attempts to adjust for what they themselves understand quite well are its inadequacies. Now, I am showing you three quite different conceptions of work, and hence of unemployment, using the rather facetious device of three "families" to illustrate what I have to say. Thus far, I have said a few words about a pre-capitalist conception of work, as illustrated by the fictional Walton family of Walton's Mountain. Now we move on.

What of the Galts? [There is no Galt family, of course. But never mind. I am making this up as I go along, and posting it almost before I have time to proofread it. You will get the point.] In the world of Galt, which is to say the pristine world of pure capitalism, each person has only one obligation to others -- namely, to abide by all contracts freely entered into. Strictly speaking, there are no families -- no Grandmas who must be looked after should they have strokes, no sons who owe it to their fathers to help out in the sawmill. Indeed -- and this is one of the most profound and brilliant of Karl Marx's many insights -- capitalism denies the normal work rhythms and cycles of day, year, and lifetime, replacing them with continuous, homogeneous, standardized production. Since this is so important an idea, and since it is actually crucial to the definition of an unemployment rate, which is the example we are exploring, I shall expatiate on it for a bit.

We human beings are born, we grow up, we work, we grow old, and we die. As the Good Book says, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. Productive labor is natural to us, and it has its rhythms. When the harvest time comes, we work from before dawn until after dusk to gather in the grain before the rains come. In winter, work slows, and we mend our tools, do necessary chores, prepare for the next season. The same rhythms are essential to constructing a building, crafting a chair, mining iron ore, caring for the sick, even writing the laws by which we are governed. Hard work performed according to the natural rhythms of the human body is invigorating, satisfying, fulfilling. Marx captures this brilliantly in his youthful writings, in which he compares productive labor to the creative efforts of the artist, the painter or sculptor.

But these natural rhythms interfere with the steady, calculable, profitable accumulation of capital that is capitalism's reason for being. Hence, slowly, irresistibly, capitalism invades the natural human activities of production and transforms them into standardized, regularized, ceaseless commodity production. [The two greatest film images of this process are Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and the scene from The Lord of the Rings in which Saruman is seen directing the efforts of the Orcs at Isengaard. Note that it is nature, in the form of the Ents, or tree wardens, who destroy their inhuman creations, and it is the forces of nature -- i.e., the irresistible force of water -- by which they accomplish the destruction]

The transformation has a subjective side and an objective side. On the objective side, the endless variety and individuality of craft production is transformed into standardized commodity production. For purposes of rational calculation, storage, and sale, each yard of cloth must be like each other, each safety pin identical to its mate, each dwelling interchangeable with each other. This is accomplished in part by the introduction of machinery, in part by the routinization of the assembly line or the bureaucratic office, in part by the standardization of the record keeping that becomes an essential element in commodity production.

On the subjective side, labor is standardized and routinized, so that it is carried on independently of the natural rhythms of the hour, the day, or the season. Factories run around the clock, for to shut them down is to let capital lie idle and unproductive. This means that some workers must work when they would normally sleep, and sleep when they would normally work. Human beings vary in the rate at which they work. Some are fast workers, some slow, and all of them have periods of intense labor and periods of rest or idleness. But the assembly line never stops moving, so workers must be compelled to adjust themselves to the demands of production, rather than adjusting production to the needs of workers. [Think, for example, of the famous old I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy is working on an assembly line in a candy factory, and falls behind in her job of putting cherries on top of the candies as they flow by relentlessly on the conveyor belt. The scene is played magnificently for laughs by Lucille Ball, but it is a terrifying image nonetheless.]

In a Galt world, there is no acknowledgement of the personhood of the workers, who are conceptualized by the economists who theorize this world as inputs into production. A Galt world is thus free of racial, religious, ethnic, or age prejudice. Capital is blind to all such human distinctions. It will employ men, women, or children, Whites or Blacks, Irish or English, Jews or Muslims or Christians or Satanists [there is hope therefore that Christine O'Donnell might finally find a full time job]. Anyone who can do a standardized day's labor for a standardized day's pay is equally welcome to enter into a wage bargain with the entrepreneur who is the living embodiment of Capital. This is one of the great attractions of a Galt world, and we must never forget it, for one of the triumphs of capitalism is its extinction of pre-capitalist prejudice.

In a Galt world, capital makes no allowance for the natural progressions of human life. Even though the next generation of productive workers can be provided to capital only through the processes of pregnancy and birth, capital makes no allowance for working mothers. Nor does capital make a place for young workers just learning the ways of productive labor, or for aging workers whose level of productive effort must necessarily be lower. In contrast with the world of the Waltons, in which an appropriate place is found for everyone in the collective productive life of the family, in a Galt world, a person is either employed full time at a competitively determined wage, or is totally unemployed. All of us are familiar, either from personal experience or from movies, television, and literature, with the worker who is fully employed one day and completely unemployed the next. [I speak from personal experience, of course, being now officially retired. All of us who have gone through this wrenching and completely non-human transformation cling to the shreds and tatters of our former lives. I call myself "Professor," even though of course I no longer am a professor.]

Thus, the concept of an unemployment rate is itself a product of capitalism, as standardized as the IPods and Dining Room Suites and yards of cloth that come off the assembly lines. Simply to use the concept -- and how can we avoid it? -- is implicitly to accept the ideological underpinnings of capitalism, and to endorse them by failing to call them into question. To ask "Has the unemployment rate ticked up this month?" is to enter a Galt world.

To be sure, there are a few theoretical problems with the concept of an unemployment rate in a Galt world, one of which is that according to the classical laissez-faire economists who keep the sacred flame of that world, persistent unemployment is impossible. Hence, during the Great Depression, when one quarter of America's workers were out of work, economists insisted for some time that unemployment was simply a transient result of normal friction in the labor market. They were saved from their madness by Keynes, but seventy-five years later, we see a resurgence of the old-time Galt religion.

Well, enough of the Galt world. Tomorrow, we visit the Marxes.


M said...

Another great film depiction of what you describe is in the classic silent film Metropolis. An early scene in there depicts workers at a large machine moving with a rhythm and order that makes them appear as part of the machine itself, rather than human beings operating a machine.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good show. There have been a number of such film images, especially in old films from the 20s and 30s. A great send-up of the capitalist workplace [and of unions] is the marvelous Peter Sellars comedy, I'M ALL RIGHT JACK.

JP said...

You write that simply to use the concept of 'unemployment' is to somehow buy into an ideology, and that this shows how there cannot be a neutral account of society.

Is this correct? If so, I fail to see the argument here. If I give the unemployment-rate I am saying that, in a certain society, X number of people meet a certain proxy-standard for 'unemployed'. Saying this does not commit me to the claim that this measure applies to all societies, that it is somehow natural or given, or even to the claim that the relevant proxy is a good measure of unemployment.

Could you say a bit more about the problem with regards to objectivity or neutrality?

Angus said...

Like JP, I'm still a bit unclear on how "deeply" ideology pervades the concept of unemployment. Are you saying that it is impossible even for careful individuals to keep all the normative connotations of unemployment at bay and just focus on what it is actually measuring, or just that society as a whole cannot sever the concept from its normative connotations?

I realize the unemployment example is just supposed to show, in microcosm, how the overlapping network of putatively scientific concepts that comprise the dominant ideology are laden with substantive political connotations, so I guess my question is really to what extent are discrete individuals capable of severing the normative connotations of an ideology's conceptualization of reality so that - I can feel that this way of putting it is going to make me sound like a prat - only the facts remain.

chandra said...

Hidden facts revealed!

Assembly Line Worker Job Description