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.

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.

Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is

15 11 2010

We’re fucked.

That was my response to Jtt.’s question of how to think through this present historical moment. Jtt., of course, is a ‘dogmatic Marxist!’ [said with downward chopping arm motion] while I am merely marxish. Regardless of our differences, however, we share a, ah, certain skepticism with regard to the consequences of a capitalism unfettered by any convincing and practical critique.

Who is there? we asked ourselves. Zizek? Please. The man has the intellectual chops and global scope, but he’s rather too impressed with his own cleverness, a cleverness which substitutes for actual imagination. Habermas has aired himself out into abstraction, and the [post-]Marxists such as Laclau, Mouffe, and Eagleton have either turned inward or narrowed their vision. Their works are still worth reading, but hardly inspiring to the non-theorist.

What happened to critical theory? Marx wrote at a time of great intellectual ferment, following hard on the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and mixing it up with contemporaries such as Proudhon (‘property is theft’) and Feuerbach. And not only did he inspire 20th century theorists and revolutionaries, he laid out a critique to which even non-Marxist felt compelled to respond.

And now? Well now we get, as Nicholas Carr points out, critics of the current modes of communications economics squeaking that they’re ‘not communists!‘ Nope, instead of rigorous historical analysis, we get cotton-candy encomiums to ‘quadrants’ of innovation or the glib giddiness of ‘free‘.

I could point to a certain enervation on the part of capitalist theory as well, but as I am not a capitalist, I leave it to those folks to figure themselves out. I will at least note that there is some stirring in the small pots of ‘behavioral economics’ which take note of how people actually make (or don’t make, as it were) economic decisions, but however welcome is this dose of reality in the sclerotic delusions of the freshwater economists, it is, still, small.

And we leftist and leftish and pink and red folk? Christ. Completely out of it.

Our problem is twofold. One is the collapse of anything like a communist world. There’s Cuba and then there’s. . . Cuba. China is authoritarian capitalist, and North Korea a cultic autarky; Chavez in Venezuela fashions himself a modern-day Bolivar, but his brand of charismatic strong-state leadership is more populist than socialist, and while there are so-called revolutionary leaders in a number of African countries, the politics and economics in these countries instead simply revolve around a party or a personality.

What about Vietnam and Laos, you say? What about ’em?

No, I am sorry to say, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rule of Communist parties across Eastern Europe not only mirrors but in fact reveals the poverty of socialist thought today. I am not at all sorry that the USSR and its client states—almost all brutal regimes—have collapsed, but that they have done so means that capitalist theorists no longer see the need for a vigorous defense of capitalism per se and, as such, content themselves with such matters as quantitative easing and currency manipulation.

More crucially, those of us on the left are left to grapple with the failure of both the ruling and the rule and of communist regimes. Communism was supposed to liberate people and instead it imprisoned them, and no amount of weasling about Stalinist or even Bolshevik distortions can get us around the plain fact that communism failed.

The second piece involves the shattering of a unified epistemological field. Nietzsche began poking his fingers into the cracks of modern liberal thought in the 19th century, but not until the cataclysms of the two world wars and the Cold War confrontations in which the end of everything became possible did the optimism of knowledge shrink back into silence. Dare to know! Kant had exhorted; but now we are thrown back to the Baconian knowledge is power—with the slogan rewritten as threat.

The hermeneutics of suspicion have infected us all, and we who seek liberation distrust liberation movements. What is the downside; there is always a downside.

Bereft of confrontation and confidence, we marxishts have gone into hiding. Oh, we may be able to pull out the old man as a way of seeing into today’s historical conditions, but no longer can we say that there is anything better beyond this—and to those who do say so we can only say, with contempt, Prove it.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone, running away from sustained engagement in this historical-political moment and content to lob water-bombs of derision at the likes of those who squeak that they are not communists or intone on the verities of free.

Marx is dead and the revolution will not be televised. Mouthing revolutionary slogans or whitewashing the past in what-ifs is no substitute for thinking, for thinking down through the failures of communism and down into the successes of capitalism and through the fragments of the-truth-will-set-you-free.

Only then—perhaps—can we say if there is anything better.

Nothing comes from nothing

6 12 2009

‘No! You cannot argue with me! The problem is entirely theological.’

‘Well, philosophical, at least. Existential in any case.’

‘Theological. The deepest question of human beings! We are at the point of crisis. We are!’

‘It’s always there. Always. What’s new?’

‘We cannot continue to live like this. No! We cannot!’

Jtte, my orthodox-Marxist-and-orthodox-Catholic colleague, and friend, is at the frayed ends of her orthodoxy.

She is, in other words, less orthodox than she insists.

I don’t know what prompted this crisis, for her, or, to put it less personally, what prompted this recognition of crisis in the world. We keep trying to make lunch or dinner dates, but our schedules block us from anything more than a quick argument between classes.

And it would help to know, because I don’t know what to make of what appears—appears—to be a profound alienation and an acute need to clamber beneath that alienation, to something real.

I don’t want to push this interpretation too hard, not least because I really don’t know what the hell is going on with her. (And, as a conversation with another friend last week reminded me, ’tis best not to insert meaning into the unsaid.)

I am also admittedly puzzled by her insistence upon crisis. What, now, is different? There is nothing new in capitalism, nothing new in technology, no paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in science, no visitations from outer space nor even, to follow up a recent discussion, the barest hint of asteroids or global nuclear exchange or some new pandemic.

Yeah, things are falling apart, but things are always falling apart.

And yes, we are in the midst of an anthropic fucking-over of our climate, but one to which our scavenger species will adapt. Life may be worse in a hundred years, but it will continue.

So why the crisis?

Jtte, at least, is optimistic: She thinks we will become more human, more of whom we’re supposed to be, that life will get better (whatever that means).

Do we need a crisis for that? ‘Existential crisis’ is one of those tropes around which to build a novel or film or some form of art. It’s what happens when we get everything we want or nothing we want or everything we thought we wanted, or when we lose everything, or when what matters becomes jumbled with what does not—it’s what happens when we live, and think or feel our lives.

Crap. None of this is what I wanted to say. It’s not right, it doesn’t fit. None of these words. . . huh. Nothing.

My friend Jtte is sounding an alarm and I don’t know why.

Free free, set them free (pt II)

19 08 2009

When we last left off, we were discussing the difference between free and, well, not-free. . . .

More to the point, while we humans may generate bits, we ourselves are made of atoms. However useful may be the comparisons between one’s genome and the bits and bytes of computing, our genomes require us to take in a certain amount of energy (in the form of calories, a.k.a., food) in order to function. And in order for these genetic information processors to receive their requisite amounts of energy, some other genetic information processing unit (gipu) must grow and deliver said energy to a location wherein multiple gipus may—wait for it—purchase said energy for their use.

Information may be free, but food isn’t. And for one to acquire such food, one must be, yes, paid, for one’s work. This payment, of course, also allows for the purchase of such old-economy items as a home, clothing, car, bike, beer, and computer, electricity, and broadband connection.

Thus, while I may blog for no payment, I don’t rely upon this blogging to pay for the rest of my life. And while WordPress may recoup costs by placing ads in my blog (as, for example, my e-mail providers do with my messages), that I neither pay nor get paid doesn’t mean that money isn’t changing hands somewhere up or down the line.

So how do I get paid? By absorbing, rearranging, and delivering information, i.e., I teach. And as much as I enjoy teaching, if CUNY wouldn’t pay me, I wouldn’t be doing it. In other words, I distinguish between a hobby (blogging) and wage-labor (teaching). Were such wage-labor to disappear, so too would would the hobby.

In other words, if I don’t get paid, I am unable to support my life—as in lifestyle, or, at the extremes, the biology itself.

Thus the basic question: if the economy is to be based on free, how is anyone to live?

Marx noted that capitalism required its laborers to be sustained, however minimally, in order to be able to work. (Corpses tend toward absenteeism.) Among the elements of the allegedly-inevitable crisis of capitalism would be the immiseration of the proletariat below the level of sustainability.

Some capitalists have made a similar observation. Even that old anti-semitic bastard Henry Ford  got one thing right about the labor force in a capitalist economy, namely, that if you wanted people to buy your product, you had to pay them enough to afford it. With this insight, he married two essential elements of any economy—the dynamic of consumer supply and demand for products, and the role of labor in creating those products. (In so marrying these elements, he highlighted the dual role of the laborer as both producer and consumer, creating a sustainable form of consumer capitalism that Marx did not foresee.) Capitalism in particular relies upon the differential between the cost of production and the price for the products for the creation of profit; thus, price must more-than-cover costs for profit to be generated.

Anderson breezes past all this. It is fashionable to discount the role of labor in production and to focus exclusively on supply and demand, such that the price for a product is allegedly solely based on s&d and bears little relation to labor costs, but:  no labor, no product. If labor costs didn’t matter, corporations wouldn’t bother to move production overseas in order to drive down those costs.

It’s one thing to engage in a hobby, which presumably one finds pleasurable, for free; it’s quite another to slog through a pile of exams or operate a punch-press or make caramel macchiatos for caffeine-crabby customers for free.

Oh, but manufacturing and retail are so atom-based, so they don’t count (I don’t know if Anderson has anything to say about teaching or medicine or law—rather significant information-based professions). But if this is a truly new economy, then how does one account for such atom-based activity? And given that the bit-based economy requires the presence of such atom-activities, wouldn’t this new information economy be better understood as the icing on the, ah, old capitalist cupcake?

Or is what’s new the notion that we are to labor for free? The costs of producing, say, an investigative report or song or book are completely discounted because the production itself doesn’t matter; what matters is the selling of that product. Thus, a band doesn’t tour to promote their music, a band promotes its music (for free) in order to sell the product (the band itself, on tour).

Again, the selling or trade of a product is a part of any economy, but in order for such trade to become or remain sustainable, it must have some positive relation to the costs of production. Metallica and Madonna have become sufficiently well-known commodities that they can, in fact, sustain themselves  through the sale of themselves, i.e., touring, but how can the unknown band or musician  support themselves outside of such a profitably virtuous circle?

What, posting on YouTube and blogging and Twittering one’s way into fame? Nothing against YouTube or Twitter—and hell, I’ll drop my anti-Facebook stance and throw that in the mix as well—but if everyone is using these fancy bits to generate publicity for themselves, how the hell is one supposed to distinguish oneself well enough to launch that profit-generating (and atoms-based) tour?

Do you know what musicians (and actors and writers and dancers and artists) are called in New York City? Waiters, baristas, teachers, and temps. Our vocation may be in the arts, and we may put a great deal of work into our vocations, but until we get paid for it, it ain’t wage-labor. Which means we have to find another way to pay the rent.

It’s not as if Anderson doesn’t make some intriguing points about third-party payment for certain technologies, and, in this Wired article from 2008, he notes that time has its own costs (although he doesn’t go so far as to make the brilliantly original observation that time is money, perhaps because he’s trying so hard to get away from money). And he notes in this article that ‘free’ is distinct from ‘cheap’ in psychologically important ways. (I won’t comment on this latter observation because 1) I fail to understand what’s new or particularly significant about this observation and 2) he does apparently expend a fair amount of energy in the book explaining what is new and significant about it. Plus, this post is already too long.)

But allow me one last jab. In the Wired article Anderson quotes Milton Friedman’s adage that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch,’ but then goes on to wonder if so-called traditional economics doesn’t have it wrong. Thus:

a free lunch doesn’t necessarily mean the food is being given away or that you’ll pay for it later — it could just mean someone else is picking up the tab.

Exactly. But there’s little new or innovative, much less revolutionary, about this kind of economics, not least because  usually you do, somehow, pay for it later, as, say, in the expenditure of your time viewing or listening to advertising—or, as broke young hotties looking for a sugar daddy or mama learn, in some other atom-based way.

And if you don’t? Say it with me: It’s not free; it’s freeloading.

Ain’t nothing new about that.