Everybody knows the dice is loaded, 13

12 11 2014

Yet more dispatches from the long dissolve:

1. You  there, with the $15/hour janitorial job—what makes you think you’re free to leave to take an $18/hour janitorial job?

Don’t you know “free labor” is about the freedom to hire labor, not of the laborers themselves?

The workers at Jimmy John’s know the score.

2. Yet more wisdom from a mineworker—or, in this case, Mary Middleton, widowed by a mine:

“You get a speeding ticket … and you don’t pay and they’ll want to put you in jail,” Middleton added. “But this man — it’s people’s lives and injuries, and then they just keep letting him keep doing it and doing it.”

Her husband was one of five men killed in an explosion at Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky in 2006. The co-owner of the company, Ralph Napier, Jr., “still owes $500,000 in penalties for the Kentucky Darby disaster. Napier also controls eight other mines that have $2.4 million in delinquent fines.”

3. And tank the world economy, and you get a chance to pay a fine for corrupting the currency.

No jail for anyone, of course.

4. Any halfway-decent Marxist (or Marxisch, as it were), could tell you of the state’s centrality in the development and protection of capitalism; any disputes have centered on to what extent the state retains some autonomy from the relations of production.

The welfare state, which has improved the lives of tens—hundreds—of million of people, nonetheless serves to blunt attacks on the state, and thus on capital itself, by insulating workers from the remorseless machinery of capitalism.

There is a logic for both labor and capital to sign on to this agreement: the state will skim off some of the profit it insures for capital and redistributes it to labor, leaving capitalists their profits and laborers some level of decent living.

This agreement has worked more (Scandinavia) and less (US, UK) well for decades, but the pact has long been unraveling.

And what should no longer astonish me, but nonetheless still does, some people like it that way.

(h/t: Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns & Money)

Everybody knows the deal is rotten, 3

5 08 2014

How wonderful that French and American cultural institutions are expanding into the United Arab Emirates. How wonderful for the Emiratis to visit the Louvre and the Guggenheim or enroll at NYU without needing a passport.

Ibrahim has the sort of intelligence that crackles around him in sly, sarcastic sparks. He is smart in a way so obvious that he tries to hide it from his bosses by speaking in broken English. He knows five languages, loves poetry, and dreams of getting a master’s degree.

Isn’t it marvelous that a man so obviously intelligent and cultured is laboring to bring such cultural riches to the boss who calls him a donkey?

I mean, how fantastic is it that Ibrahim had someplace to go after being chased out of his own country after the NGO for whom he translated couldn’t be bothered to protect him because he wasn’t a real employee? That he was able to pay someone over $700 in order to work in a place that does, in fact, treat him exactly as a laborer?

And shouldn’t we celebrate when

In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company’s profits would be less than 1 percent.

Arabtec could pay more without any pain to themselves! Win win!

Of course, not everyone was so happy: After 3000 men went on strike for  pay raise from $176 to $217 a month,

The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. “Their presence in the country is dangerous,” Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police’s General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.

After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.

I could go on and on and on and on, but you get the point. Conditions are so terrible in these men’s home countries that they pay to work under terrible conditions.

And the neoliberal sings Ain’t capitalism grand! Isn’t it wonderful that these surplus can be put to good use for 200 bucks a month! Isn’t it wonderful that the Louvre and the Gugg and NYU get to extend their brands and the Emiratis—the citizens, not the vast majority of migrant laborers—get to enjoy these brands!

Isn’t it wonderful that a man who speaks five languages and  loves poetry arrived to find only that he wanted to leave?


Okay, there is one truly wonderful thing: the workers are fighting back. They are, damn-near-literally, at the point where they have nothing to lose but their chains.

“Capital is global and derives its velocity from replicating the same model everywhere. Gulf Labor is arguing for a global, humane, and fair standard of labor and migration regulations to accompany, and slow down, global capital,” said Naeem Mohaiemen, a New York–based Bangladeshi artist who is a member of Gulf Labor. “The implications can be staggering. If Saadiyat implemented world-standard labor and migration rights, that could become a precedent for implementing the same standards in the entire region. Then people would ask, what about migrant labor in Malaysia? In Texas? And so on…”

Which is precisely why capital fights so hard against labor.


Extensive quotes from Molly Crapapple’s Slaves of Happiness Island, in Vice
h/t Jen Graves, The Stranger

Which side are you on

15 07 2014

A few more short thoughts on recent Supreme Court decisions, and some connections between them:

1. That mashupCorporations are people, my friends, and some people are more equal than others—is a distressingly apt line:

Two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings—AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors—have deeply undercut these centuries-old public rights, by empowering businesses to avoid any threat of private lawsuits or class actions. The decisions culminate a thirty-year trend during which the judiciary, including initially some prominent liberal jurists, has moved to eliminate courts as a means for ordinary Americans to uphold their rights against companies. The result is a world where corporations can evade accountability and effectively skirt swaths of law, pushing their growing power over their consumers and employees past a tipping point.

2. Is the Court’s contempt for labor leading or following a more general social contempt for labor?

3. Remember, reproductive labor is the first form of labor, the basis of all other labor.


And one non-Court related note:

I will never be an orthodox Marxist—I lack the optimism required of the orthodox—but if you want to understand the political culture in the US today, you’d do worse than to start with the domination of capital over our entire political-economy.

This doesn’t mean that all is determined by capitalist relations, that there is no autonomous space for politics and culture, or that there is no resistance to capital.

But it does mean that you can understand a lot if you understand that if capital is up against any other interest—labor, community, environmental, educational, safety, public—capital almost always wins.

If capital has no interest, then the politics is up for grabs.

We are left fighting over scraps.

You can’t go on, thinkin’ nothing’s wrong

21 10 2013

Two things.

One, I hate Google Drive. Maybe if it worked I wouldn’t hate it, but it’s not working so I hate it.

Two, I don’t know if this is depressing in and of itself or for its utter lack of imagination.

The question of labor is going to be huge in this century: if machines are more efficient than people for the vast majority of tasks which people currently perform, then what is to happen with those people?

Do you think the sun will shine more brightly on those released from the factories, the fields, the retail counters, and the office cubicle? Once the machines are installed, what use will be found for humans?

One possibility is to rationalize our sociability, to  monetize the things that separate us from machines , which is what Brad DeLong suggests:

Our society will then be enormously rich: our collective and average productivity will be awesome. But the society will only be a good society if we can figure out how to employ each other in high-value (3b) activities–only if we find ways to organize life so that most of us can actually add a lot of value by amusing, pleasing, and encouraging others will we have a society of mutual respect, and of only tolerable inequality.

The problem with this interpretation, however, is with the notion of “added value”, which is a nice way of saying “economically useful”. In previous versions of capitalist society, economic utility was a way for [non-enslaved] humans to free themselves from blinkered judgments of “one’s proper place”: by dint of one’s wit and work, a man could make his own way.

That way might still be terrible—Marx and Engels made much of the barbarity of industrialization—but, as those who toil in the 21st century version of the “dark satanic mills” observe, it sure beats life down on the farm.

But now the hollowing out of men and society that Marx saw as the culmination of capitalism is breaching our consciousness. We worked because we were human and because we were human we worked: we accepted the deal that our worth was to be found in our utility because we could always find ways to make ourselves useful.

And now, if we are no longer able to make ourselves useful?

I hate Google Drive because it’s meant to be useful and it is not useful. It is a useless tool, a contradiction in terms; if it can’t be made useful, it should be discarded. But if humans become useless tools, are we to be discarded? What’s next?

I don’t trust Marx’s solution, because, really, there is no solution. But we need a new imagination; there must be something more.

Hazy shade of winter

22 09 2013

I have—surprise!—some sympathy for declinist narratives.

It’s easy, it’s fun, and it adds a nice gloomy depth to one’s otherwise-apparently shallow existence.

Still, sometimes the dread is a real question, as in, Are we humans nearing the end of a long moment of open society and democratic governance? Will our polities at some point transform into mere corporations of some sort of consumerist, militarist, or theocratic bent?

Two linked—or maybe one double-sided—dynamic(s) seem to be emerging: i) no work, and thus no use for, those who are unable to fit themselves into an increasingly technologically complex economy; ii) increasing control over the lives of those who are employed.

Tyler Cowen has been hitting on the first theme at his blog, Marginal Revolution, and in his new book, Average is Over. From what I can tell of his numerous references to the book, our present economic situation is dissolving into one in which most people, precisely because they are “most people” (i.e., average), will be squeezed out of economic life and will have to make do with a marginal social existence.

And the second? Consider Penn State’s desire to reduce its health care costs. It’s instituting a new wellness plan aimed at creating healthier, which is to say, cheaper, employees; a part of that plan, since shelved, required those employee to fill out a mandated survey in which they were probed about their plans to become pregnant, whether they’ve suffered depression, or been divorced.

Capitalism has always required the worker to conform to the workplace—the creation of the manu-factory is one of the markers of capitalism—but out of this required conformity emerged a counter-trend of uninterest in what the worker did away from work. (Owners didn’t want the responsibility, and labor wanted the liberty.) At higher levels of corporate life managers might have to sign contracts with morals clauses, and non-unionized workers might know that to criticize their company could be firing offense, but, for the most part, if you did your job you’d be left alone away from the job.

I hasten to add here that I think this remains the dynamic, at least in the US, and there’s no clear sign that our society will inevitably devolve into one of en masse control of the low-employment outcasts and individualized control of the fully employed.  I don’t know what will happen, and given the complexity of human life, I am leery of making any kind of long-term predictions about us.

But the hazy signs of decline? They’re all around us, just waiting to be plucked for a Sunday afternoon musing on how the story ends.


For together we cannot fail

2 09 2013

This is history, not abstraction.

This is life, today, all around the world.

Come Mister tally man, tally me banana

28 07 2013

Remember: no food is produced without labor.

Good on Mark Bittman for this most basic reminder of a most basic fact of human life.

We need food to eat, and that food does not come from nowhere. Oh, food corporations would like us to believe that food comes from nowhere—think of the efforts to ban unauthorized filming of conditions in pig and chicken plants—or from some mythical somewhere in which a smiling man lovingly plucks a strawberry or head of lettuce and pulls himself upright to show us the bounty of the Earth, but, really, they’d rather us not think about the workers stooped over in a field, exposed to pesticides and herbicides, cutting and tugging hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables out of the dirt every day.

And slaughterhouses? No one wants to think about slaughterhouses.

I’m not exempting myself from this. I don’t know where most of my food comes from: that I’m assiduous in buying only fair-trade coffee beans only highlights how little I do to source every other item in my diet. Nor do I inquire as to the conditions in the kitchen of the restaurants or (more commonly) the local joints I visit.

Bittman gives one way to begin paying attention:

Well-intentioned people often ask me what they can do to help improve our food system. Here’s an easy one: When you see that picket line next week, don’t cross it. In fact, join it.

I mentioned in my last post that those who are most directly affected by a phenomenon ought to take the lead in directing how to respond to it. Bittman’s advice fits nicely into that schema: the workers themselves are acting, and in so doing, are telling the rest of how to act.

Hear, hear. If you want to get paid fairly for the work you do, then you should support others getting paid fairly for the work they do.

We all should be paid fairly for the work we do.


h/t: Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns & Money

I have heard a million tales; I have told a million more

9 03 2012

Been falling down on the blogging beat. . . and this post isn’t really going to rectify that.

Quick hits, nothing more.


Rush Limbaugh is boring. Bore bore bore boring.

I don’t care about his advertisers, I don’t care about a boycott, I don’t care if he disappears from the radio forever.

Yes, he was a total shit to Sandra Fluke, just as he was a total shit to Chelsea Clinton (and Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama and. . .) and if he doesn’t understand that women can actually enjoy sex then I can only say “ur doing it wrong!!!”

But he lacks anything other than bile and ego, and as I have my own bile and ego, I see no reason to indulge his particular brand of narcissistic nonsense.


I did coupla’ posts a while back deriding the concept of “free” (put in quotes because it was about a price point which wasn’t really zero, just offloaded on to someone else), but the notion has reemerged in another form, as a kind of justification for theft of copyrighted materials.

As someone who participated in the SOPA/PIPA protest, who believes that copyright laws are waaaay overdue for an overhaul, and who doesn’t pay for the third-party content (videos, photos) that I post, I am as much in the moral muck—if not in as quite as deep as some—as my fellow. . . thieves.

Still, I am unmoved by the argument made by some that the delay in release of DVDs or streaming of movies justifies piracy. “I’m not getting what I want as soon as I want it” is less about copyright overreach and more about selfishness.

Anyway, I’m not so much interested in filling out that argument than I am in tossing out the following stray bits:

One, is not the justification for “free” (in either form) some kind of end-state of a labor-dismissing form of capitalism? That is,  value was first removed from labor (in the forms of laborers) and relocated to the anarchic (if manipulated) realm of supply-and-demand; now value is being removed from the production process itself, such that the costs of production are irrelevant to those who demand the end product for “free”.

All that matters is the desire of the consumer, to the detriment of the processes and relationships which enable the desire to be fulfilled.

Two, is the academic publication model in any way relevant to this conversation? Professors produce content for “free” (journal articles, conference papers) or nearly “free” (books, book chapters) as a price of admission into the academic guild.

Produce a sufficient number of these “freebies” and one is granted tenure, which in turn allows one  to produce more such “freebies”.

(Yes, there are salaries and teaching commitments and of course the horrid practice of making authors pay for their own reprints, but I don’t know that any of those throws off the comparison.)


Pundits have nothing to offer people who pay attention.

There’s nothing Cokie Roberts or David Brooks or EJ Dionne has to say that anyone who hasn’t been paying long and sustained attention to politics couldn’t have said for themselves.

Now, I happen to have particular contempt for Cokie Roberts (god, her smugness!), and I may have suggested once or twenty times that all pundits be loaded on to a cruise ship, sent out to sea, and never allowed to dock anywhere ever again, but a decent pundit actually has something to offer someone who wants a quick hit of info on a topic about which she knows little.

But pundits talking to pundits about their punditry? Useless.


And because it’s been awhile, a coupla’ shots of the absurd household’s fuzzier denizens:

Catman! Catman! Catman! Nana nana nana nana CATMAN!

You have GOT to be kidding me.

Trouble, both of ’em.

Replace unionized labor with child labor

20 11 2011

Our boy Newt, GOP flavor of the moment:

“You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model,” he said. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

You can see why pundits praise his intellect.

(Via Politico)

In between all the cracks upon the wall

31 08 2011

Coupla’ thoughts:

1. I know I am not the first to take up the issue of the twilight of labor (or, to put it less poetically, of the replacement of the value of labor with that of productivity)—this gent Marx may have had a thing or two to say on this subject, or so I hear—but it seems to be crucially not simply an economic matter but a political one, that is, that the question of value is not simply an economic matter but a political one.

Fred Clark at Slacktivist has covered this issue ( start here, then click on the “class warfare” category at the bottom for more) and ThinkProgress does a pretty good job highlighting the contempt for working people among politicians and some pundits, so I don’t know that I need to repeat their efforts (or those of the Economic Policy Institute, The Nation, and other usual suspects) in documenting this contempt.

Still, because this seems to me to be a crucial political issue, I do feel the need to work through this issue myself. Is this contempt new? When did it begin? How did it manifest itself previously? What kind of pushback was there? Does the contempt arise mainly from the right, or are the politics of it more complicated? Is contempt even the best way to describe the attitude toward labor? What kind of variation is there across different forms of labor? And, perhaps most urgently, how to respond to the replacement of labor with productivity, that is, to the erasure of labor itself?

This might be a way for me to approach this subject without having to take an econometric approach. I’ve held back on getting into this both because I lack training in economics and because econometrics won’t necessarily get to what really matters about this issue. In other words, I want to consider this as a political matter, not an economic one.

And it is a political matter, a deeply political matter. We Americans have managed historically to suppress and mollify labor in turn, but in the last thirty years the grudging acceptance of labor has turned into a grudge, full stop, and labor consciousness itself  has been dissolved. Why this matters, politically, well, that’s what I’m going to have to figure out.

2. I snarked the other day at TNC’s joint that libertarianism is not a real political philosophy, but didn’t say much beyond that. Later, prior to reading Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concept of Liberty”, I wrote that as a

general matter, I dismiss libertarianism as a serious theory of governance, not least b/c it appears to have contempt even for the notion of government, that is, as a form of organization over and above civil society. Instead, I posit, its chief use is as a critique or as a leavening agent to various legitimate political theories. In short, I question its ability to provide any sort of overriding guidance to those charged w/governing, its applicability to any sort of society beyond a small, like-minded group (i.e., fails test of pluralism – this charge of anti-pluralism requires particular care), or its ability to last beyond a generation or two w/o dissolution or degenerating into authoritarianism.

All find and good; there’s something for me to work with, here, But then I realized:

Okay, but what of the critique of Marxism as lacking a serious theory of government? Could not the same charged [sic] be lodged against it – that it works as a critique or adjunct to Liberal theories, but that it, too, exhibits its own kind of contempt for govt? Gramsci might offer one kind of response, but even there. . . .

I then headed into a dead end, backed out, and wondered

Perhaps, then, the question of whether libertarianism or Marxism offers its own theory of democratic (understood broadly) governance? And it not, why do I take Marxism seriously in a way I don’t take libertarianism?

I’m fine going after libertarianism, not least because its noxious fumes are currently polluting the political air, but for my own sake, I gotta take up at some point that question of what would a socialist government look like.

3. Those candidates who insist that nothing good comes from government need to be forced to explain how they will govern. Cut cut cut ought not be accepted as a governing philosophy, and opponents to these anti-government politicians should hammer them on what they will do, besides less-than-nothing.

4. I really was not able to put together a coherent post tonight, but I thought if I didn’t get these thoughts out, I wouldn’t get these thoughts out.