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Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I had planned to start today a selective re-posting of a number of essays that have appeared here over the past five years, inasmuch as it has been brought to my attention that there are actually visitors to this blog who have not read every word I have ever written [bizarre, I know, but apparently true.]  But that can wait for a bit.  Today I shall respond to the first two extended comments on yesterday's blog post.

To Michael:  You are quite right to emphasize the explosive growth of the financial sector and its fundamental strangeness.  In a world awash in uninvested capital looking for a home, it is very difficult to remember that human well-being depends on the real economy -- that is, on the production or provision of goods and services -- rather than on the tabulation of monetary value.  We are, as a world society, more than capable of producing enough goods and real services [education, health care, entertainment, and so forth] to provide a decent existence for all seven billion people.  What is more, we could do that without vastly enriching a small number of investors and financial manipulators.  To be sure, we very much need efficient and strongly motivated managers of productive enterprises, but that is entirely another matter.

The fundamental irrationality of our present economic system -- capitalism -- is evidenced by the fact that alongside those who cannot find a job are others working too hard and for too many hours.  It is obviously theoretically possible to shorten the hours and lighten the work load on those employed and then to enlist the unemployed to take their places on the production lines or in the offices.  The obstacle to such an arrangement is not that it would be inefficient but that it would be unprofitable.

A propos, the story is told of the great conservative economist Milton Friedman that he was visiting a South American country and was taken to a showcase government construction project.  When he asked why the men were using shovels rather than earthmoving equipment, it was explained that this was a job-creating project.  "Then why not have them use spoons then?"  Friedman asked.  This was a witty reply, intended to reveal the irrationality of using anything less than the most efficiently labor-saving technology.  But in fact there is a perfectly good answer.  Let us suppose that the purpose of an economy is to provide for human well-being rather than to make profits [an unacceptably radical assumption, I know, but bear with me.]  Let us suppose also [this is a very important assumption, and not at all to be taken for granted] that active, effortful, productive participation in the collective economic activities of the society is a positive human good, not a painful human necessity imposed by the harsh realities of life.  [I am here borrowing from Marx's discussion of alienated labor, as true aficionados will instantly recognize.]  In that case, working some people too hard and giving a part of their output to those who are unemployed in the form of welfare benefits is inferior as a set of social arrangements to sharing the work around so that everyone participates and everyone is adequately supported.  [I urge those of you who wish to pursue this line of analysis to take a look at the first chapter of David Schweickart's fine early book, Capitalism or Worker Control.]

Thus far, I have simply been indulging in what Marx bitingly and with good reason called Utopian Socialism -- which is to say, speculation about better ways of arranging things not grounded in an adequate analysis of the present situation and without any notion of what forces now at work in society could realistically lead to something resembling that imagined alternative future.  Two developments are required to translate these fantasies into a plan of action.  The first, which I have explored in my essay "The Future of Socialism," is transformations within the structure and organization of capitalist enterprises that make coherent, efficient large-scale economic planning materially possible, indeed actual.  As I argued in that essay, these transformations are well underway in the largest capitalist enterprises, driven not by ideology but by capitalist necessity.  The second [which Marx wrongly though would be produced by the first -- see the Manifesto] is the mobilization of the great majority of workers of all sorts behind a demand for a subordination of capitalist enterprises to the general will [if Rousseau will forgive me.]  It is because I understand the necessity of this second development that I keep sniffing the wind and taking heart from every sign, however evanescent, that that great beast, The People, is arousing itself and is slouching toward Jerusalem.

To GT Christie:  "the ordinary worker (including the university educated worker) is becoming superfluous."  That is a profound and deeply troubling truth.  The outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs is almost complete, but the outsourcing or obsolescence of "white collar" jobs is also under way.  All of us are familiar with the rather unsettling experience of speaking to a man or woman in India when we call the customer service of a credit card company or an insurance provider.  But equally odd is the discovery that an x-ray or MRI administered in an American hospital may be read by a perfectly competent but much cheaper medical technician ten thousand miles away.  There are relatively few jobs that require the actual physical presence of an employee in immediate proximity to the customer.  What is more -- and it is this, I think, that GT was getting at -- more and more decent jobs with adequate salaries are being replaced by automated systems.  Only those of us who are really old can recall when operators, rather than switching machines, directed our calls.  If Jeff Bezo's latest dream pans out, the endless variety of things we all order from will be delivered by drones rather than by UPS drivers in brown shorts.

Well, enough for today.  I must go to the store.  I am all out of raw carrots.

1 comment:

Tsung-Yun said...

"Let us suppose also [this is a very important assumption, and not at all to be taken for granted] that active, effortful, productive participation in the collective economic activities of the society is a positive human good, not a painful human necessity imposed by the harsh realities of life. [I am here borrowing from Marx's discussion of alienated labor, as true aficionados will instantly recognize.]"

This line of thought ultimately originates from Hegel, who was himself influenced by Herder's anthropology. In the Phänomenologie des Geistes, it is the slaves whose labor transforms nature, which must be made over into a reflection of the world-spirit so that humanity can finally see itself as the Absolute at the end of history. The interpretation of social activity as the self-realization of humanity originates from Herder's views on language and art.