“The proletariat is dead! Long live the precariat!”

Many summers ago, just freed from the enforced boredom of high school, I signed up for a course on Marxist economics. Andy, the teen I worked with, asked if I would accompany him. I envied him his dad, a transplanted Marxist Scotsman, and I relished the transgression I was invited to undertake, especially as a recent apostate from Catholicism.

The class was held at the Proletarian Party (PP) headquarters in a shabby, multi-story building in Chicago’s Loop. I realized as soon as we entered their small office and saw at the other end of the room “Lecture Hall” inscribed in gold leaf on a frosted glass door that this was a bizarre escapade. We were greeted by a small clutch of men and invited to enter the Lecture Hall, which was as narrow as the office we had passed through. At one corner stood a small, finely carved wooden lectern facing a matching dark wood galley with three tiered benches.Andy and I dutifully shuffled into the second tier of benches and waited for the lecture to begin, exchanging glances of dismay.The three elderly men in the office who greeted us followed in minutes. The oldest of them, as best I could tell given my young age, quickly took to the lectern while the other two occupied the front row.

The lecture was one of a series on Marx’s own lectures published posthumously as “Value, Price and Profit”. We sat patiently, tried to absorb the content, and at the end of the lecture, we bought a pamphlet or two, engaged in a brief conversation and departed quickly never to return again. I discovered much later that the Proletarian Party had an interesting history that pre-dated the formation of the Communist Party USA. The PP of course had its share of polemics and splits, but it also had a certain modern relevance as a “party of a new kind” – it forsook electoralism for education of the proletariat. The PP was also the inheritor of the entire inventory of the venerable – and still existing – Charles H. Kerr Company, notorious publisher of Karl Marx.

The musty office, the Lecture Hall, as a diminutive imitation of a 19th Century college lecture hall, and the old pamphlets and books, not surprisingly, gave us teens the impression of an era that had passed. Even though a decade later, in France, May’68 exploded, and then the Italian workers revolted in the early 70s, and lastly, Poland’s Solidarnosc shocked the world in 1980, to mention only a few European upsurges ofworking class rebellion that signaled not a revival, but the demise of the proletariat Mark knew.The class war fought by the proletariat, especially the rebellious industrial workers grimy with soot and sweat as they emerge from the mines and mills, was theirs to loose. Their battles remain inspirational, but to overthrow the system of exploitation that today seems more secure in its hold on our lives requires an analysis devoid of nostalgia.

“The proletariat is dead! Long live the precariat!” This slogan, heard in Europe for more than a decade, resonates not at all in America. Which is ironic since the world battle plan of the economic elite in this country gave rise to the precariat. This portmanteau of precarious and proletariat was coined by academics in the 1980s, and was adopted by youthful organizers of European workplaces and street protests a dozen years ago. Precarious employment, of course, predates the financial crisis by many years (in fact, it is endemic to capitalism), but the rebellion of educated but unemployed and underemployed youth is new.

Guy Standing, currently Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, saw this phenomenon of tenuous employment developing over the decades while working as the Director of Socio-Economic Security Program of the International Labor Organization (ILO) an agency of the UN. Work After Globalization, Standing’s major scholarly exposition, published a few years ago, documents the worldwide changes in the structure of employment, from the central role of industrial jobs, with their union protections and economic security, to the marginal position of “flexible” labor. The precariat, a class-in-formation, as he defines it, is introduced in that volume and elaborated upon several years later in an agitational book The Precariat: The Dangerous Class. Dangerous because the precariat not anchored to party affiliation, since none advocates for it, could opt for a disruptive, vindictive populist demagogue.

In Standing’s current book,  A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens he takes a more positive attitude; buoyed by the worldwide urban occupations, he lays out a programmatic approach to a future politics that extends beyond the educated, but jobless youth of the squares – the precariat that journalists identify. For Standing, the precariat also encompasses all those who have lost the assurances of the capitalists’ grand bargain: income and job security for acquiescence to the demands of production – as defined by the boss. He includes in his definition the traditional proletariat, many of whom are now de-skilled and deprived of benefits, if not without work entirely due to outsourcing. That other major element of the workforce doing the most menial tasks in over-developed economies worldwide – the immigrants – is the precariat, too. Immigrants, as Standing elaborates, lack more than economic security; they lack the political power of citizenship, which is why they are characterized as the denizens – those individuals who inhabit a kind of limbo between citizenship and complete illegality, barely surviving in a marginal, informal economy. The other two sectors, the proles and the youth, gravitate towards denizen status as they increasingly loose some rights of citizenship when they become dependent on welfare.

The Charter

A Precariat Charter – Why a charter? As Standing says, charters are unifying documents and he refers to the disparate elements in 19th century England who demanded reforms of all sorts but who had no coherent approach. The Chartists, as they came to be called, wrote a list of demands that represented the range of grievances and in so doing united what were otherwise contending parties. Another more immediate example of the power of a charter, that Standing does not mention, is the document that the democratic dissidents of Czechoslovakia issued in 1977 called, appropriately enough, Charter 77. This document galvanized the democratic opposition, throughout Eastern Europe.

With A Precariat Charter, Standing hopes to similarly unite the various sectors of the precariat behind twenty-nine articles covering some obvious concerns of the precariat, like student debt, immigrant rights, payday loans, just-in-time job schedules and workfare. Bureaucratic hurdles to gain welfare benefits are also targeted for reform in the articles of the Charter, along with discrimination against the disabled. The many outrages the poor confront daily by the appropriately named “servants of the State” are unreservedly condemned in the Charter. However, there are several articles that move beyond the expected planks of precarian rights and stand out as defining its more radical side.

The first article of the Charter demands that the definition of work be extended to include the unpaid work we perform to maintain and care for family members, especially the young and the elderly. But there is also the work it takes to simply maintain a job or seek one; whole days are easily wasted spent looking for a job. Standing calls this work-for-labor – “work linked to jobs [and seeking them] that is unremunerated and unrecognized.” On top of all this, there is the work done by interns and volunteers especially for non-profits that have to a great extent do the tasks that the state abandoned.

Extending the definition of work is Standing’s retort to the laborist – or what we call in the US, the workerist – policies that blindly call for more jobs no matter how meaningless, de-spiriting or environmentally damaging they may be. There is work that needs to be done, that’s useful and rewarding, but which corporate bosses ignore along with politicians and policy wonks who pursue their agendas of growth by all necessary means.

Occupational communities

But extending the definition of work makes little sense if there is no way to promote the status of workers’ interests in new areas, besides defending workers’ currently exploited. To address this need for affiliation Standing proposes, as another article in the charter, that the precariat organize into occupational communities. He envisions these as a hybrid of the medieval guilds and the craft and industrial unions that, more or less, replaced them as capitalism gained ascendency. The guilds, controlled by masters of a skill or a practice, represented occupational identity, education and camaraderie while the unions exist today primarily to represent the workers during bargaining for contracts and to settle grievances.

Occupational communities would differ from traditional labor unions in that they would be organized by skills and educational accomplishments, with the members determining and regulating competency; it would no longer be the prerogative of the bosses to rank workers. The role of the guilds to determine skill has been lost to the state that now licenses almost a third of the workers in the US. In Europe, this situation is worse.

Vibrant occupational communities would then replace workplaces as the site of organizing and become the centers of working life. Occupational communities, as I envision them, might begin as virtual communities, must quickly attain a physical presence and develop into an institution that doesn’t exist today – a combination hiring hall, training center (to advance one’s skills), recreation center, dining hall, – in other words, a pleasant hang out for those with similar interests. The idea here is to end the domination of the labor market and the bosses’ exclusive power to hire and fire. The strongest craft and industrial unions had similar, though more modest, arrangements decades ago; few traditional hiring halls remain.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who “organized the workers, not the job,” as Standing mentions, adopted this basic principle of workers’ power over their employment and fought for it amongst agricultural workers to dockhands (stevedores). Any similarity between occupational communities and the IWW, or any variety of syndicalism, however, ends there, at the point of production. The precariat do not envision an entire society organized by craft and job role, especially as automation eliminates employment not only in the over-developed regions, but also in varying degrees throughout the world.

So then one must ask, why suggest, as jobs decline, a modern version of the guilds as the precariat’s necessary response? The immediate answer is that the organized workforce needs at least a voice, if not total control, over the consequences of that decline? And who will agitate for useful work? There is a more philosophical answer: Standing maintains, long with the classic texts of democracy, that associations of individuals (committed to a goal, I would add) are essential for a well-functioning democratic society. How else do individuals bind themselves to a community but by associating with others?

The proposal for occupational communities is not so farfetched in the US. Aren’t the fast-food servers, Amazon’s warehouse workers and Wal-mart’s “associates” disrupting the premier precarious worksites functioning as fledgling occupational communities? These workers are probably the best-organized precariat in the world, and though they are not agitating for radically changing the nature of their work, their demands for better pay and labor union-level security are gaining support across the country. By utilizing a grassroots approach that relies primarily on gathering community support for their campaigns, these workers have exerted political pressure to win major wage gains thereby validating this tactic across a spectrum of poorly paid workers.

Raising the wages of these jobs makes them a bit more tolerable, but still these are awful jobs that no one wants to make a life’s career. And even at $15 per hour the American Dream is unattainable. And in the wings awaits the prototype automated burger-maker that will displace four or five workers and need only one “feeder” to operate. Small vacuum-sized robots already scurry up and down warehouse aisles picking orders with tireless effort. Given these “advances” in production, job security and high wages may be a chimera for many low-pay workers who will have even less success preventing automation than the previous generations of industrial workers.

The point here is to see the precariat creatively organizing, like with hiring halls, for the short-term goal of higher wages as the first salvo in a new kind of class struggle. The longer-term goal is to build a movement for greater security, more freedom and a better livelihood than capitalism can offer. Not more jobs, but, as Standing says, useful work. Capitalism seems incapable of either. If capitalism can’t deliver the goods, to paraphrase Edwin Starr – Capitalism! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Basic Income

Wages, that is, economic security must be divorced from jobs. We need a guaranteed annual income, or as it is called in many countries, Basic Income (BI). This demand is another article in A Precariat Charter and a proposal that Standing supports and agitates for as the co-president of the European Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). There is also a US group called Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). These organizations advocate a modest income given to all, with no means tests (like those imposed on SSI recipients), but as a birthright to cover essential needs and eliminate the struggle for subsistence by the working poor. The assumption is that most people receiving Basic Income would work, but maybe not full-time, and maybe at tasks they devise that suit them. In other words, the labor market would be a sellers’ (the workers’) market.

BI raises the possibility of better working conditions, higher pay, less stress from long hours, and so forth. Those squat robots in warehouses may still exist to do boring jobs, but that hamburger-making machine may not survive. Who will eat cheap fast food in an economy that has slowed down with a shorter working day? And for some who can live frugally, no working day at all. More importantly, if they found a niche for that machine, would the sole worker supplying raw meat, buns and salad to the machine’s orifices last very long in such a tedious job? The goal of a society based on human values, not economic ones, means that the machines serve the operators and not the other way round.

Free time from pointless tasks and more meaningful work can be developed by those who, for example, want to pursue a craft, but have had no time to develop skill, or those who yearn to do a socially useful task, but couldn’t afford to before. Maybe the town’s antique merry-go-round will be restored, or possibly the old abandoned movie theater will be transformed into a community playhouse, and scores of other socially useful tasks, many related to restoring the environment, that today go undone might entice people to take on for pleasure.

The dystopia epitomized by hamburger machines seems the more likely future because the power elite, bent on wholesale environmental destruction and generalized corruption, propels us on a bleak trajectory. Standing unreservedly situates himself in the camp of utopia when he extols the insights on work of the ancient Greeks. Granted that Greek abundance was based on human slavery, while ours should depend, as Paul Lafargue believed, on machine slavery, the Greeks nonetheless cultivated values and habits in their everyday lives that appear fantastical to us. To quote Standing:

The main aim of the [Greek male] citizen was to free up time for leisure, for schole, which was understood as the time and space to participate in the life of the polis (community), in the agora, the commons, the open social spaces. Schole was a combination of learning and public participation; it was intrinsically political. (11)

From classical Greek times, the red threads of a leisurely life are woven into the tapestry of European history and clearly were evident in the 19th century when the Utopians, who admired the colorful weave of this tradition, wished to extend it. And even Karl Marx, the critic of utopians, wanted to have time everyday to philosophize. We are not talking about eliminating all jobs, just the most stupid and boring of them, and reducing the time people spend at the rest. Necessary work, the kind that often is undervalued today, may be the most physically exhausting and should be shared in a just society. The security of a modest income that frees people from the exhaustion of a full-time job might make it more likely that difficult tasks would be shared.

Inequality, always expressed in monetary terms, also applies to time. The wealthy have little problem filling their days spending their money. And the destitute, who appear to have a surplus of time because they are not working, in fact, fill their days hustling for survival. Condemning the poor for a terrible work ethic is the height of absurdity, especially coming from the über-wealthy.

Who Pays For It?

If only the rich defended the standard of self-abuse imposed upon the groveling masses, the idea that time could be recaptured for better uses, would be a simple task. However, the generalized “escape from freedom,” that Erich Fromm documented in his book with that title, when it comes to production takes the form of the work ethic, which excuses workaholicism Instead we should all be eager to fight for freedom from work. The major obstacle to implementing a system of guaranteed income for all, however, isn’t the remnants of the old Calvinism, as much as the belief that the costs of BI are prohibitive – an absurdity given the US military budget, not to mention the bank bailouts.

Standing’s retort to the argument of high costs has been honed over the many years that he has been active making the case for BI. His proposal, another article in the charter, is that “democratic sovereign wealth funds” be created by taxing the profits from resource-based production. The fund created by these revenues would then be invested and the earnings distributed equally as a social dividend to people. The Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), set up in 1976 to distribute oil revenues, operates essentially on this model. Every year the residents of Alaska, including children, share a dividend that has averaged $1,500 recently.

The APF is popular amongst advocates of BI: lauded by them as the beginnings of an income fund that transcends the divisive politics of right/left and that can be demonstrated as a pragmatic approach to the larger issues of distributing income in a equitable way. And it works, in the US Alaska rates best on economic equality. But are we to trade income security for accelerating climate change? A pact with the devil to extract the wealth from hell hardly suits the angels of justice.

Resources however can extend beyond the prime targets of financial speculation – coal, gas and oil along with ores and metals. Resources need not be extractive; they can be renewable. In some European countries, communities earn an income from the wind and solar power that they generate. Almost anything can be a resource – from water to software – and instead of private interests earning rents from them, they could be the basis for communal support.

The Commons

What we are talking about here is the commons and Standing wants to revive it, not simply as a source of funds to finance a guaranteed income for all, but more importantly as an arena for what he calls “deliberative democracy.” The commons today serves as a model, for instance with community gardens, of grassroots governance. European cities have a long history of setting aside, and protecting, land for use as vegetable gardens, called allotments. For several decades now American cities adopted a similar program to meet demands for what was, initially, a more enriched social life. However, the popularity of community plots increased as dire news depicted our corporate food system, in its quest for profits, as poisonous. What began as a pastime –  “urban farming” – evolved into a charged political statement. On weekends, when the office-worker gardeners descend onto their plots, a verdant agora takes shape. From many of these humble beginnings, communities across the country have reversed a trend and opened cooperative food stores on a pace not seen in many decades. And cooperatives, as democratically run economic institutions – one person, one vote – are commons.

However, free access to the internet and shared software is more widely recognized as a model of the commons, certainly with the tech-savvy section of the precariat, who view the commons as much virtual as material. This is precisely why Standing sees the wired precariat as the leading sector of the precariat – they have the ability to organize swiftly and effectively as we have seen in Spain (Podemos) and in Italy (Five Star Movement).

Amongst some, the commons is recognized as a response to the democratic deficit – or to use Standing’s preferred term – “the thinning of democracy.” Standing however has a more nuanced view of social change than many of the popularizers of commoning. He sees the precariat as still in need of forming itself into an agent of change – a class-for-itself – to agitate for the commons. The commons needs that; the commons will not come about by wishing it so.

At its peak of economic power, the traditional proletariat was a fighting class that secured the benefits of the welfare state through the social democratic politics that it helped to shape at that time. Unfortunately, as Standing laments, we are still stuck with the outmoded political concepts that arose at the time when the industrial proletariat had power. We need a new politics.

A new politics

The center of this new politics in the Age of the Precariat must be a new organizational form to galvanize this new class into a fighting force of class struggle – occupational communities. As mentioned above, we may be seeing these slowly develop as low paid workers (and contract workers) begin to organize and fight their corporate bosses, but they are still at a very early stage of formation and their future is unclear. To become the fighting machine in a new class war they still have to be battled-tested on the fields of race and gender, for instance. The boss class is expert on creating dissension in the ranks of workers. One need only refer to the social divisions employers enforced in the early labor movement. However, women, blacks and immigrants often find themselves in identical situations, and the recognition of commonality in struggle begins to define class.

There are five assets that should be central to a transformative movement of a new class according to Standing. And the first is security. This is only partially understood as a demand by the organized section of the American precariat. There is an illusion that the precariously employed need to regain what the old labor movement had. The security that workers achieved in the expanding industrial realm, where it was assumed, by both the workers and the employers, that one had a job for life, does not hold for the service sector. Real security can only be achieved when economic security is recognized as a right on the same level as political rights, and this is the basis for demanding a guaranteed income for all. This is the foundation of a new politics.

The second element of precarian politics involves control of time. And here too, the fight for better wages and working conditions implies gaining some control of one’s work schedule, but this is not much better than asking for a longer leash. At the very least, the demand should be to share jobs and work less, so that individuals can steal time back from the boss for their use. Again, this requires a substantial economic cushion in the form of basic income.

The third aspect of a new politics requires “access to and control of quality space.” For decades squatting defined a robust faction of political opposition and for far longer artists and crafts workers have sought space to work in. Today co-working spaces and Hubs for the officeless precariat are sprouting everywhere, but Standing has something else in mind. The “quality space” in question must provide a venue for the practice of democratic deliberation, like the occupied squares. The worldwide occupations, with all their flaws, were a necessary first step, a precursor, in a process that had to begin with the recognition that the mass of humanity, while not agreeing on an agenda, did agree on defining the enemy. The isolated precariat found her and himself reflected in square after square as the occupations spread and this formed a basis, in more places than the corporate press will report, for further collaborations. New spaces are needed to create a new politics.

The fourth element is education. It should be stated immediately that this is not “education for innovation” or some such bullshit, but something completely outlandish like “education for a fuller life.” Education should be free and it should extend throughout life. And instead of what passes for higher education, or adult education, I think it should look more like a grouping of writers, artists, crafts people, inventors or whatever, who attract a following much like the medieval scholars and circuses. Black Mountain College, Bread and Puppet Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe are all historic examples of education morphing into, creation, agitation and community to create new knowledge and to revive traditional wisdom. The last element in Standing’s list is financial capital, which was covered above with the discussion of democratizing sovereign wealth funds and the commons.

Conclusion

A Precariat Charter carries a European accent; can it be understood in the US? I am certain that Standing believes it can and so do I. However, there are some obscure colloquialisms to overcome for it to be understood in the US. Two stand out. In Europe, many people understand the Basic Income argument, not so here. While several pundits have endorsed it, including recently Robert Reich, and Jacobin publishes favorable articles regularly, there is no significant grassroots group that has adopted it and supports it. (Not surprisingly, there is one in Canada) And the same can be said of the term (and concept) “precariat.” It may never translate well and that could be fine if the momentum for better wages links up with the unemployed. This is where the hiring hall comes in; it could become the center for questioning a range of labor related issues.

Alliances of the working poor and the poor at working won’t itself create a movement of the precariat like the one that Standing outlines. The next hurdle to surmount if actual collaboration occurs will be the most difficult, especially given the workerist legacy of the old labor movement that so many still worship and which confines possibilities of new labor struggles against work as we know it. I believe that environmentalists could checkmate the senseless drive for more jobs before social justice groups get around to mounting a critique. This may seem an unlikely prospect since the only time (some) environmentalists united with social justice groups and labor was to agitate for Green Jobs, a demand that has disappeared faster than a magician’s rabbit, but it’s not inconceivable.

If a radical force developed within environmentalism that could get traction for a policy of de-growth (another European term that translates poorly) coupled with a program of mitigating the effects of climate change, then there’s a possibility that what constitutes a “quality job” – supporting nature – could displace the nonsense that a “good job” is determined by the size of the paycheck. And further, given that US Farm Policy for years paid farmers for not working (The Soil Bank), a novel environmental demand could be to extend that benefit to the extractive industries and pay oil and coal workers to find pleasurable, non polluting, pursuits?

These musings are easily ridiculed and yet reading A Precariat Charter two short years after his preceding book, The Precariat: The Dangerous Class should caution us from assuming that we are being realistic when we think history moves in predictable ways. On the heels of the previous book’s bleak tone, The Charter accurately depicts a more optimistic future. Standing’s evidence for a more positive outlook is mainly European. Certainly, the spectacular rise of Podemos in Spain about the time of the book’s publication seems to confirm Standing’s analysis.

Here in the US we have less certainty about the political power of our indigenous precariat. While the lack of a conscious precariat network of rebellious participants as exists in Europe must be considered a major drawback, no one can deny that in the past few years the working poor have waged a very combative grassroots fight. Whether they can develop the autonomy that they will need to take their fight to the terrain that A Precariat Charter depicts, is uncertain. One thing is certain though, no social change of any significance will occur without a new class struggle.

_ _ _ _

Postscript etc., Of course, like its historic precursor, the precariat hopefully will abolish itself and not live forever. The title is a provocation as are most of my titles. Maybe this is an adolescent addiction influenced and sustained by my love of 60s music. Or possibly I spent too much time thinking of marketing ploys when I worked. Or maybe I am just stupid! If it is a burden, I carry it lightly.

 

 

 

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The Sharing Economy = Brand Yourself

The Share-My-Bed press conference announcing its provocative rollout was extensively covered by the entire spectrum of news media. The “Sharing Economy” has obviously become mainstream. The college dropout CEOs of this multi-million dollar start-up were literally rolled out on an enormous bed custom-built for the occasion. As confirmation of future financial success, they said they had difficulty keeping their website up most of the night due to the enormous sign-up traffic.

The above is satire. But how far is farce from reality when your closet can be monetized? An author of a recent book on The Sharing Economy said that it was worth over $100 billion. 1 And a venture capitalist, who invests only in start-ups with a multi-billion dollar future, believes that monetizing space in homes is only the beginning. Next is “monetizing all the stuff in houses, front yards, backyards, and driveways.”2 Solar companies monetize roofs when you lease their panels, so his prediction seems less like fantasy and more like a business plan.

Sharing, we are told, has come a long way from the days of the San Francisco Diggers’ Free Box in Golden Gate Park, or, also in the 60s, Amsterdam’s Provos and their White Bicycle Plan for sharing bikes, or, for that matter, Food Not Bombs and their free food sharing that captured the imagination of thousands throughout the country, and beyond, decades ago. Sharing as a social custom goes back before time; the examples just mentioned, however, took the concept into the political arena to make a point. In the 90s, the practice of bypassing the market was revived by a proliferation of community gardens, bike clinics, info shops and free schools. These projects were amplified by the internet (remember Craigslist?) and by the development of free software. 3 Soon file sharing became ubiquitous – like Napster, most notoriously for some. The freewheeling environment of online communities like freecycle, reallyreallyfree, couchsurfing proliferated. At the same time, the confrontational politics of sharing diminished.

The mass media ignored these adventures in de-commodification, except to publicize a scandal. This may explain why recent stories of the Sharing Economy place its origins in Silicon Valley, as if the tycoons of social media created it – supposedly another clever, cutting-edge innovation. That misplacement, while it upsets some, let’s call them the stalwarts of sharing as an anti-establishment gesture, in fact, makes sense if we capitalize the term and recognize that it’s a marketing ploy.

But are the disgruntled stalwarts missing the big picture here? Is The Sharing Economy absorbing their pristine projects, meant to increase trust in society, and magnifying them a million-fold? Many including Jason Tanz in a recent Wired 4 article seem to think so.

Tanz, while recognizing that users of car and space sharing are drawn to it either to save money or to make some spare change, says there is more to it than survival. One of Tanz’ informants juggles a few jobs, along with driving her car for a sharing company. She is typical of others who drive the streets to “share” their car with strangers. The poor economy motivates their participation, in the same way that the users (the pick-ups) like the cost savings, and the convenience.

However, Tanz’ main point is that the structure of these enterprises fosters a different relationship – a more intimate one – than the traditional economy provides. Getting a ride from the individual who owns the car is more engaging than taking a taxi, and staying in someone’s spare room is more “real” than staying in a hotel. Tanz reports that people like the bond – the trust – that is formed from face-to-face transactions.

Lyft, a car-sharing company, suggests that riders act like a friend and sit in the front seat with the driver rather than in the back like a fare. Their main slogan – “Your friend with a car” – seems to reproduce in everyday life the “friendships” one has with Facebook. Airbnb, an online space-sharing service, also encourages the extension of a social media persona, with photos of the host, an upbeat bio and willingness to exchange repeated emails with the prospective renter, excuse me, “guest.”

Of course, face-to-face interactions – so long as they are with another middle-class person (Tanz quotes a guy saying he wouldn’t “share” his car in Philly) – are generally pleasurable experiences. And they sell product! This is why retail clerks are forced to ask you if you need help and waitpersons inquire about the state of your happiness.

What’s new here? I have been seeing the same auto mechanic for many years and we always share a laugh or two. I greet the owner of my favorite restaurant. Same for my bookseller. Are we seeing here a monetization of an experience yearned for because the anonymity of modern society makes these interactions scarce? And let’s not forget, hi-tech surveillance must mediate the interaction to prevent creeps from spoiling the fun (I mean, transaction). Is a level of authenticity missing here? We meet others not in the context of their lives, but through a mediated process that relies on making privacy an historic artifact. And more, just as years ago online dating eliminated the matchmaker, today cab drivers and hotel clerks face the prospect of joining matchmakers on the pages of old family photo albums.

We have reached the point where our atomized lives are taken for granted and social interactions are only possible because a third party facilitates them, of course, with our eager compliance. After all, we freely make our private lives (such as they are) public. You accept a ride with a stranger, but you can know beforehand, if you want to, what book she is reading and her favorite songwriter.

The west coast utopianism of Wired’s Tanz outraged New York Magazine writer Kevin Roose.5 In his rebuttal article, he comes out swinging. For him, the Sharing Economy is marketing savvy working its magic in a depressed economy. And the increase in “trust” is a function of nothing more than a market exchange. He strikes back, “…what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust.”

Roose’s critical remarks on, what I call, the Austerity Economy, and the creation of too-eager-to-please DIY hotel managers and desperate on-call chauffeurs, while powerful blows, nevertheless miss their mark without an historic perspective. Over a decade ago, the idea of sharing on a systematic though informal basis – as the stalwarts will tell you – arose from a confluence of social dynamics, like anti-consumerism and the desire to create vibrant communities, and not solely, or even primarily, as a response to the economy. And as I noted above, the sharing they instigated and supported began years before the Great Recession.

Bike sharing, couch surfing and, to a lesser extent auto sharing, were originally projects of informal groups and non-profits. It didn’t take long for municipal politicians seeking popularity to scale up fledgling bike-share endeavors to city-sponsored programs. The reasonableness of foregoing major purchases, like autos, and at the same time acting ethically towards the environment, just made sense to lots of people. After the banking crisis, as we all know, the economy looked like a days old balloon and “green” options suddenly became necessities.

Grassroots sharing receded as a form of oppositional activity when the promoters, as I call them, appeared with their new discovery – the “sharing movement” – and displaced the stalwarts as the spokespeople of sharing.6 The promoters say that sharing should extend beyond the limited non-market exchanges of the stalwarts. With new social forces, as they believe, at their backs, the promoters are proceeding to publicize the profitable innovations of a host of micro-entrepreneurs and to agitate for reform in governmental agencies.

When one investigates the background of the promoters, it is remarkable how many corporate refugees one finds amongst them. Seemingly their previous employment prepared them to undertake their current crusade, both in the sense that they yearned for meaningful work and in the sense that as seasoned corporate executives, some in marketing not surprisingly, they have the skills both to expand the scope of sharing to include small businesses and to accelerate the adoption of favorable legislation to legitimize their operation. On the housing front, they celebrate the popularity of collaborative housing arrangements, as the stalwarts did back in the day of couch surfing as a non-profit service, but then promoters extend their reach to support online rentals. And, further, they hope to convince local governments to change zoning codes to facilitate these rentals. 7 It is probably not fair to say that the promoters made career changes, not life changes, just because they use their business-trained web smarts and organizational abilities to adopt a flashy media presence for their sharing movement. But still, as a consequence of these promotions they come to support, as we will see, the rise of big corporate sharing ventures. The less spectacular grassroots, non-market stuff that spawned early interest in sharing tends to fade in significance.

We now have the spectacular emergence of the third generation of sharing advocates and they, I am sorry to say, are the exploiters. You met the likes of them in the opening paragraph. These are the CEOs of The Sharing Economy consisting of Airbnb, RelayRides, Lyft, Exec Cleaning, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Panda Parking and so forth. The typical character in this role is exemplified by the alumnus of the Harvard Business School who started an online thrift store. At his portal your old clothes are “shared” directly with the new wearer – for a price.8

The promoters’ success in expanding the reach of sharing to include micro-entrepreneurship prepared the way, possibly unintentionally, for the exploiters by celebrating the world-wide expansion of sharing – from local to global. The Sharing Economy by utilizing the web to not only connect folks everywhere, but more importantly, to monetize those connections, ushered in what both promoters and exploiters see as the next wave of economic advancement for the whole of society – e.g., more jobs. The promoters, who advocated sharing as compatible with commodification and the marketplace, agree with the exploiters that sharing, as they define it, is an unstoppable socio-economic phenomenon – the equivalent of a new industrial revolution.9

But why do the promoters ally with the exploiters, these Moguls of Sharing and their mega-billion dollar sharing corporations? Doesn’t it occur to them that the corporate world they abandoned has reentered their lives? Like Tanz in his Wired article, they think billion dollar corporations will spread the “meme” of sharing (my tongue resolutely positioned in my cheek with the mention of memes), and ultimately humanize the economy. The sharing fraternity believes face-to-face transactions, even if they occur in the marketplace, create trust. And it’s true, sharing has the power to release ethical impulses in all of us. And freely giving to others resonates with people who wish to escape, if only briefly, the desperation and mendacity of everyday life. But when the promoters consider trust as the currency of the new economy,10 they misappropriate the ethic of the stalwarts as the basis for their micro-entrepreneurial economy of extreme commodification. To succeed in this so-called new economy one’s brand needs to be relentlessly polished and rate five stars consistently, or fail. And become the new debtors? Sounds like the old economy to me.

In the discussions that have occurred amongst the advocates of sharing – from the stalwarts to the exploiters – one definition of the term frequently appears only to be jettisoned by the more recent arrivals on the sharing scene. Professor Russell W. Belk defines it as:11

the act and process of distributing what is ours to others for their use and/or the act and process of receiving or taking from others for our use.

He elaborates that this definition includes voluntary lending, pooling, allocating of resources and authorized use of public property. Renting and leasing do not fit the definition, as any dictionary would confirm. According to Danielle Sacks, who writes for Fast Company, Silicon Valley investors use the phrase “underused asset utilization” instead of sharing since it clarifies how the investor makes his money.12

Belk’s definition, though perfectly reasonable, doesn’t fit the requirements of the sharing meme and was rejected by one scholar of sharing as too narrow. The sharing meme, to establish its significance as a source of inspiration and motivation, must incorporate an expansive notion of sharing.13 We have here a recognizable methodology borrowed from advertising: a concept, in this case sharing, is drained of its traditional meaning, that is, its context discarded, to be re-defined. Specifically, sharing is simply defined as the act itself. Sharing as reciprocity – what could be called the core activity that has always sustained societies – simply disappears.14

Promoters of sharing strive to make it a universal meme. Similarly, some think that the commons is everywhere. These proselytizers maintain that the street I live on is a commons that I share with my neighbors. On the contrary, our street would be a commons if we bought it from the city, removed the asphalt and cement and, for the lack of a better idea, planted a vegetable patch. And likewise, I don’t share the street I use it. It is a means to an end, not a resource we can divvy up with anyone. OK, I grant that I don’t drive down the middle of the street too often and certainly not when there’s oncoming traffic. I share the street then. But this is exactly my point, sharing is a secondary aspect of the street. It would be better to say I don’t drive down the middle because I want to preserve my physical integrity, or simply, I want to obey traffic regulations.

To take another example, when my kids were in co-op preschool I volunteered there one day a week. During that period, I learned a great deal about the practice of conscious communication and, happily, it benefited me later in the contentious world of commerce. Preschools are wonderful arenas for struggling over resources – the toys. Guiding the preschoolers to play without fights, and soliciting their input to help resolve their differences, required skill defining boundaries and rules. They learned how to process their desires and I learned how to patiently help them negotiate. They learned to share a limited number of toys after the agreements were settled. Sharing meant a lot, but the process of reaching the agreement meant more. Daycare could be called a sharing experience and no one would argue that, but for me anyway, it was mainly a learning-to-socialize-by-negotiating experience. And often the rules’ setting wasn’t about sharing, but about how to play a game. It would seem odd to say that after they set the ground rules the kids were sharing. No, they were playing. The sharing again might be a part of the game, but if so, it was secondary.

The children in the preschool were, in fact, learning the basic skills of commoning. Adult commoners share, in the broadest sense of the term, but specifically, and importantly, they are commoning. That is they are following guidelines that they, or more likely their ancestors, established. It is noteworthy that commoning is not a static condition. Things change in life. The commons, whatever the resource, might be stable, but not necessarily forever and new rules must accommodate changed circumstances. Commoners may have precedent to assist them in formulating new rules, nevertheless the commoning can never be considered finished, it is always a process.

Those who support the resurgence of the commons are fully aware of the historic richness of commoning. The layers and layers of experience fine-tuning basic arrangements so that all benefit fairly from their commons is like a rich porridge juxtaposed to the thin gruel of the democracy we accept today. We should be embarrassed. The depth of participation and the sophistication required to establish a just system of commoning could have been the basis for the fuller blossoming of a truly democratic society. The enclosures put an end to that. Commoning, as an historic practice, equally cannot be displaced by a term like sharing that has no specific referent beyond the one stalwarts defend – freely giving to another what we have.

This brings us to another form of commoning that has gained popularity recently, including with the advocates of sharing – cooperatives. Cooperatives are like a little commons, generically speaking. Food co-ops often require members to volunteer to do some portion of the work, for example, and so it can be said that they are sharing the tasks of the cooperative. In the same way, farmers might share a processing facility, and, as another example, a marketing co-op makes it possible for members to share advertising costs, etc.

So given this, it appears reasonable to think of cooperatives as sharing institutions, certainly more so than corporations (even if they are facilitating the “utilization of underused assets”). However, as with the commons, the sharing that takes place in cooperatives follows democratically (if not consensually) established procedures. We don’t share in cooperatives; we cooperate. And like with commoning, we collaborate in specific, defined ways as members.

In the context of how we actually get things done, sharing may evoke a good feeling based on friendly exchanges, but it doesn’t assume a process of actually accomplishing a goal. In Argentina over a decade ago, the workers occupied factories to restart them and re-create their jobs. They had little to share but their misery.

It’s generally agreed for social change we need a vision of a better future society to motivate us to question our conformity to the status quo. But a vision – like universal sharing – goes only so far, even with social support. What’s better is to fasten a vision to a foundation of successful endeavors. Precedents, coupled with a pragmatic approach, improve the chances that taking control of one’s livelihood will be successful. The workers in Argentina a decade ago had a vision and, with a mighty effort and community solidarity, they succeeded. Today their vision can be shared (yes, shared!) with others. But more importantly, their successful reoccupations of their workplaces motivate others to follow. They set an example for others.

Vast social changes – on the level of radical transformations – require a number of preconditions including experiments and failures, and, then, learning from the experience of that cycle of creation and destruction. What is required above all, it seems to me, is to strive through that learning process for precise analysis and that entails practice in critical thinking. Sharing as an umbrella concept can’t measure up to the task before us. It elides vastly different economic practices – from really free to renting, let’s say – on the assumption that they are all guided by a foundational ethic that transcends the economic reality.

Commoning, cooperative enterprises, collectives of all sorts – all projects that develop a more profound understanding of communication than that which the dominant society can tolerate – have the key to breaking the bonds that limit our ability to function as fully human. I mean by that, a solid sense of our unique individuality refined by peer relationships where respect and transparency prevail. These sound like lofty concepts, in fact though this is how radical democracy works. Where it works – which ain’t in too many places.

Those who are familiar with worker cooperatives, which I believe are pivotal institutions to develop and sustain values like solidarity and reciprocity, know how difficult it is to overcome the conditioning, really the brainwashing, of this society. This is more than simply implanting the wrong ideas – self-deprecating ones instead of liberating ones. The social conditioning we endure approaches somatic proportions that lead to all sorts of self-abuse. However, exercising transparent peer relationships, actively de-conditioning, is necessary for any successful cooperative venture. And through attentive listening, giving and receiving criticism within a safe circle of affinity and recognizing the opinions of others, even when they threaten your own views, result in a positive outcome for the group as a whole. And de-conditioning brings with it positive benefits for the participants. Marina Sitrin’s recent article from Argentina about how community activists have achieved a new sense of self-worth reminds us of this.15 None of this social complexity and its liberating potential is transmitted by the notion of sharing.


1 Rachel Botsman quoted in Danielle Sacks’ Sharing Economy. Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/1747551/sharing-economy)

2 Reid Hoffman quoted in Sacks’ article.

3 Richard Stallman “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software” https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html

4 Jason Tanz From “Trust in the share economy” WIRED http://www.wired.com/2014/04/trust-in-the-share-economy

5 Roose “The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Trust, It’s About Desperation” New York Magazine – http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/04/sharing-economy-is-about-desperation.html

6 E.g. Rachel Botsman, Lisa Gansky, Neal Gorenflo, Benita Matofska to name but a few more well known promoters

7 SELC – Sharable Cities Brief

8 James Reinhart, co-founder of ThredUp quoted in Sacks.

9 Morgan Matthews “Radical Sharing for the New Industrial Revolution” Triple Pundit – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/05/radical-sharing-new-industrial-revolution/

11 Russell W. Belk (2010) “Sharing” Journal of Consumer Research 5:715-734

12 Danielle Sacks’ Sharing Economy. Fast Company – http://www.fastcompany.com/1747551/sharing-economy

13 Julian Agyeman et al (2013) Sharing Cities, p.4 Available as a pdf from http://www.sharing.org/learn-more/further-resources-sharing

14 A key concept of Edgar Cahn (Time Bank founder) -http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2011/building-the-core-economy

15 http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2014/04/08/defending-the-earth-in-argentina-from-direct-action-to-autonomy/

 

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The maypole’s revolutionary heritage

The May Day domestication of the Beltane celebration and the vital role of the maypole, which the event literally revolves around, veils more than its pagan origins. The history of the maypole includes its little known place in the popular festivals of revolutionary France at the end of the 18th Century. French Catholicism successfully eradicated most vestiges of the maypole’s pagan symbolism, but the peasants’ festivities associated with it persisted despite the priests’ efforts to suppress them.

The planting of the pole marked the settling of community accounts. Rents paid, labor contracts finalized, unsettled disputes resolved, and old business of all sorts completed initiated the annual celebration around the maypole. The past was noted, or paid, and the future started afresh with dancing and singing and drinking. The clergy frowned, the nobility hid and mostly the king’s regime tolerated the frivolity.

But when the Bastille was liberated, and the Republic founded, the peasants took the upheaval to mean that they could overthrow the yoke of subservience to the aristocrats and clergy. The prospects of a better life were heralded as the maypoles came out everywhere to signify the momentous occasion – the end of the old, and despised, order. Communities that had neglected the maypole pageant previously, revived it with gusto. The trees gathered from the forest for the maypoles were larger, and the food and drink correspondingly increased.

The merriment however reached new heights beyond the gastronomic prospects, when symbols of authority where stripped from chateaus and churches and set afire. Elaborately designed weathercocks, commissioned by the local 1-percent to grace their mansions, and their equally expensive pews that dominated the floor space of the local churches, went up in smoke – the utter, and calmly systematic, destruction of the most obvious signs of privilege. The revolutionaries in Paris were shocked as news reached the capital of these rapidly spreading festivities, but they were helpless to suppress them. It was all over before they could muster a response.

Occupy and the recent global urban insurrections comes to mind when reading Mona Ozouf’s Festivals and the French Revolution which details the eruptions by unruly provincials as they freed themselves of submissiveness to authority. However, instead of violent crackdowns on the peasantry, the leaders of the Revolution chose to co-opt the popular festivities by meticulously designing and staging their own festivals for the edification of the masses and for their education in Republican sentiments. The topics celebrated included Youth, Victories, Old Age, Agriculture, Spouses, the Sovereignty of the People and, of course, Reason and, not to be forgotten, Festival of the King’s Death.

The festivals, and there were thousands of them, were staged all over the land in the ten-year period up to Bonaparte’s coup, and they were pivotal for the expansion of the new order. We could say that they were the mass media of the era. And like mass media today, it served the purposes of power more than the noble purposes of enlightenment. The resources and manpower devoted to this endeavor were extraordinary, but as the leaders realized, witnessing the carnivalistic mobilizations of the people, necessary to gain control of the revolutionary process.

They managed, for example, to cleverly redirect the popular impulses when the people began planting Liberty Trees along with erecting maypoles. The cultural symbolism of the tree is obvious in a revolutionary situation, but the French didn’t innovate here. The Liberty Tree, originally called The May Tree, comes from the American Colonies ten years before the Declaration of Independence. The Colonists used the trees as centers to assemble for anti-British protests and to post handbills to these living kiosks. In 1775, Tom Paine wrote a widely distributed poem in honor of these trees.

For freemen like brothers agree

With one spirit endued

They one friendship pursued

And their temple was Liberty tree

The French leaders in the capital, to get the march on the peasants, began issuing declarations regarding the size and type of tree to plant and then the precise ceremony to accompany the planting.

The Festivals were somewhat successful in establishing conformity with the wishes of the Paris elite, but disobedience prevailed as the commoners resisted regimentation to the new order – their desires once released were not to be confined anew. And this resistance was by no means limited to the peasants of the countryside, with Marat’s death, the sans-culottes of Paris rose up in citywide mourning, defying all restrictions on demonstration.

Attempts to limit processions were another defeat for the men of the Revolution. Historically public displays marked all celebrations, including the thirty-two feast days observed in Paris, and which even the Church tried to limit before the Revolution. It is debatable that to continue to observe the Church calendar, along with the newly imposed revolutionary one, demonstrated the populaces’ religiosity more than its desire for community ritual in an otherwise oppressive daily life.

The leaders of the French Revolution in their quest to introduce an “enlightened” world to the populace, and to banish superstition and servility, relied upon their privileged education in the classics of Greece and Rome. The generalized motif of all the festivals related back to a nobler age. And here, on the presumption of greater knowledge, an “elevated” perspective on life, the French Revolution launched the “expert” to counter the monarchists and the clergy – the forces of darkness.

Today, unfortunately, we continue to be plagued a host of “informed sources” – be they legislative advisers, economists, urban planners or academics of dubious distinction beyond conformism. All of them corollaries of authoritarianism. On May Day we can speculate on what a richer life – one imbued with the true nobility of struggles for freedom and a desire to celebrate the abundance of joy nature holds – if only we overthrow the new forces of darkness that have gained their hold on us. It’s time to replant Trees of Liberty.

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Jacobin Lays an Egg

The latest issue of Jacobin, the thirteenth issue of the journal produced by the youth of Democratic Socialist of America, continues, and significantly expands, its lively coverage of politics. What interests me most about the magazine is its critical coverage of work. Peter Frase’s essays on the topic are always worth a read. Frase doesn’t quite channel Paul Lafargue, but he comes closer than any other writer I know of this side of the Atlantic. You might say that is faint praise, but still it is enough praise that when I read in the current issue an article that seems to revive the old lefty handwringing about the demise of the American Dream when it comes to jobs, I was surprised.

The article in question – In the Name of Love – by Miya Tokumitsu, riffs on what the author says is the “unofficial work mantra of our time” – “Do what you love. Love what you do.” Ms Tokumitsu pulls these words from the mouth of Steve Jobs as he delivered them in his (now) famous 2005 Stanford University Graduation Speech and slaps them up against the precarious reality of work in America, and beyond. What follows, in part, is a criticism of the presumptions of the privileged that blinds them to the reality of daily life of the masses, who hardly have the energy to imagine what they love nor the money and time for it if they wished to pursue it.

Most of this essay execrates those who, obviously successful in their pursuits, adopt this slogan as a “philosophy” of life to exploit, as bosses, interns and to manipulate their employees (or team mates) to become workaholics. A corporate culture that requires extreme self-abuse as a demonstration of one’s love for the job is simply transferring the creditor/debtor power relations of neo-liberalism to a micro level. And as Ms Tokumitsu makes clear, individual effort, riveted into the skulls of youth not much after toilet training, is the driving force behind this socio-pathic behavior.

Let’s be clear about this – there is nothing new about wanting to find work one can, if not enjoy, at least take pride in. The auto mechanic doesn’t dream of oil-soaked, injured hands, but of righting a mechanical problem – that brings satisfaction at the end of the day. In other contexts, the same applies for the plumber and the electrician. These examples of skilled jobs, and not the “knowledge” work the author highlights, and seems most comfortable discussing, by definition entail pride in execution. Craftwork for generations stood as an example of the good work people sought, and in those small, self-sufficient communities Thoreau mentions in “Life Without Principle” that work was dominant.

Today salary appears to be the only measure of worth and prestige, contrary to the 19th century when social recognition for work done well counted more than money, but still the desire that drives longing for satisfying work often transcends monetary compensation as the prime goal. The number of small businesses started each year by individuals who take a loss of wages from their previous employment, testifies to this fact.

It is certainly true that many illusions accompany the desire to do work one loves, but to condemn the hope for a better life because it is saddled with fantasy hardly suffices for social analysis. Individualism skews everything, even the deepest, most heartfelt creative impulses. This should not come as a surprise given the wall-to-wall promotion of self-aggrandizement in our schools, the media and most especially in sports. The hold on our culture by this situation chokes countervailing forces. Those forces of community bonding that existed in the past may not have disappeared with the demise of bowling alleys, but it certainly seems more difficult to situate these days. On the other hand, it is not insignificant, for example, that the internet provides a forum, however tenuous, for sociality. Whether it is in collaborative gaming, social interest groups or simply responding to “comments,” the hollowness of isolated lives seeks fulfillment.

The internet may be the worst illustration of the effort to overcome an atomized existence. The better case could be made by considering the growing popularity of collective endeavors from urban agriculture to cultural manifestations, like the explosion of book fairs across the land. And the best case that I could make rests on the accelerating interest in cooperatives and commoning. For instance, the bi-coastal hotbeds of worker cooperatives have now been joined by developments in cities that lie between those two regions.

May be the slogan Jobs promoted should be altered as a more seductive appeal: “Do what you love. Love what you do, together.”

 

 

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In the “world” of kiddie capitalism, kids obey

In the “world” of kiddie capitalism, kids rule obey

 

Several years ago it looked like theme parks would go the way of drive-in movies – down the trap door of history. But recently Walt Disney Co. reported that the profitability of its worldwide chain of theme parks carried the company into the black, wiping out the embarrassing losses of its movies. Creating experiential fantasies (and not the less tangible kind), to accommodate consumers’ desires for more unique experiences, may rank higher in the company’s future.

And it makes sense that given the dismal state of the economy people who can afford it will flock to escapist entertainment, just as they did in the Thirties when they went to the movies en masse. Today with escapist entertainment no farther away than one’s pocket or purse, the fix looses its effect and, like any addiction, more intense pursuits are sought. Tourism thrives on feeding this craving and don’t we marvel at the development of Old Towns in formerly abandoned city centers? Theme parks are simply the most extreme (or extravagant) commercial response.

In North America and Western Europe the market for theme parks has been saturated and, with the economy in the toilet, development has stalled; but this is not universally the situation. China, for instance, has dozens of theme parks and continues its expansion (six major parks opened in 2011) with Disney expected to open its Shanghai venture in 2015.

Interestingly, one of the most innovative new theme parks to open this summer is located in Beirut. Called KidzMondo it offers a thoroughly unique approach to the concept of a theme park. No giant rodent and certainly no Gallic Warrior will be seen on site. What you will see instead are Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, and Pepsi Cola and Colgate will be present, along with sixty popular European and Middle East brands of consumables of one sort or another.

While the branding will be familiar, and comforting, the context is startlingly provocative. KidzMondo is a scaled down (1/3 regular – adult size) replica of a city. It occupies a 30,000 square foot mall on two stories and comes complete with an airport lobby (the entrance), a bank that issues credit cards (all the kids get money), a hospital, fire and police departments and brand name commercial establishments and services galore (that’s where the business funding for the park comes in). The idea is not that the kids (adults are discouraged from entering the premises) simply run around purchasing items at all the stores, but that they enter an establishment to take a job.

So, for instance, Colgate sponsors the dental office and an adult actor playing at being a dentist explains dental hygiene to the kids who don a white smock and pretend to be dentists. At Burger King, the kids are chefs and at Pain d’Or, they are bakers. Or they can be police, firemen (and women, since gender roles are abolished in this mini-utopia).

The promoters maintain that the kids are naturally attracted to the role-playing, but more importantly, education is integral to the whole experience of KidzMondo. They learn job roles of course, but also they learn the basics of budgeting when they use their credit cards as shoppers at the food store, and are checked out by kid cashiers. If they attend the American University of Beirut’s kid’s university, they get a diploma and extra kidlars (KidzMondo currency) at any of the jobs that they take on. Their salary provides them an opportunity to buy toys and other goodies at a store in the complex that accepts only kidlars. To earn enough for a purchase the kids must work, and the more they work, the more kidlars they have to spend. A simple lesson of the (utopian, debt-free) consumer society.

What is amazing about this venture is that it did not originate in America. Did it require an “outsider” to the American Dream to devise this utopia? Or should we recognize that the market economy has become the economic DNA of the world? Trading is not a foreign concept to the Middle East by any means.

There are US charter schools that have adopted a similar system – without the built environment – as a teaching aid. The kids learn math by counting money. They work on art projects that they can then sell in the school marketplace, they run a snack bar and so forth, but these are usually auxiliary aspects of the teaching experience and not the core curriculum, yet.

There are some elements of KidzMondo that teach more than playing at work and being a happy consumer. All the kids are manacled to a Radio-frequency identification (RFID) wristband at the airport and there are hundreds of CCTV cameras tracking the kids to comfort (and amuse) the parents. What does this compliance to surveillance portend?

And what happens to the kid flaneurs that just want to hang out? Do the kid police move them along? Or does the kid psychiatrist intervene?

But maybe this is just my curmudgeonly self in evidence, after all the kidizens do have a constitution that shames every (adult) constitution in the world. The first principle says all kids are equal and united in play. And the second one is even better – kids have the right to be happy and free! What? It goes on: be creative, explore the world, express yourself, be helpful to and respectful of others, and be honest and kind. Furthermore, protect nature and the environment.

The ten principles of the kidizen constitution challenge the KidzMondo (utopian) capitalist system. On second thought, isn’t that the case with the American Constitution (and the Bill of Rights)? But the creators of KidzMondo need not worry about kidizens demanding their rights – they made certain that there is no government in KidzMondo. Hmmm?

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No one is happy at work

A new app for smart phones, Mappiness, clinches the science re polling people about how happy they are. With the free app, the participant receives a random call anytime during the day to record exactly how they feel at that particular moment. With this software in place, researchers at the London School of Economics (who are promoting the app) were able to determine that when queried at work, respondents universally registered “unhappy.”

Do we need further proof of the obvious? No, I’d say. Nonetheless, an academic, not affiliated with LSE we must note, questions the validity of this study:

The point I would make is that work means more to us than just the money it brings. Work can be a source of creative expression and a route to self-realisation. Even where work lacks creativity it can still bring the benefits of social interaction. The problem with seeing work as just a disutility [this is economic-speak for a ‘drag’] is that it fails to capture the dual-sided nature of work in human life. It misses the worth of work both as a means to an end and an end in itself.

OK, we can dismiss these comments as abstractions without much relevance. But then further we have this:

To be sure, work is often endured by workers but this does not reflect anything intrinsic to work as such, rather it reflects on the way that work is organised. To see work as just a disutility is to abstract from the influence of the structure and organisation of work on the way that workers experience work.

First, let’s be clear that the LSE research simply determined that at work, folks were unhappy. Now maybe they didn’t poll academics, bank managers or dentists who would register a high “happiness” quotient, but the larger issues re work were not polled.

The question of the intrinsic value of work is too complicated to explore in a brief comment. [ See my Introduction to Paul Lafargue’s essays collected in The Right to be Lazy .] However, the organization of work demands a comment, especially in the light of Michael Seidman’s book on the resistance to work by workers in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and likewise by the Parisian workers during the Popular Front days.

I come to these comments after years in worker-controlled enterprises in Chicago (a very small co-op print shop) and in Berkeley (at a much larger commercial printing plant). In both places, the work was usually under pressure of deadlines and with very narrow economic margins (an error was costly to the co-op, not the customer – unlike from what I gather is the case with government contracts!). The actual mechanics of the job were the same as in capitalist enterprises that I worked in, but there were some very important differences that made the work more tolerable in the co-ops.

In worker-managed situations, gratuitous regimentation was absent, so, for example, a radio could be played (with earplugs, or with speakers after collective agreement, of course) and discussions with fellow workers could be conducted. These things lowered the level of stress. Another difference was the customer base. For the most part the customers were non-profits and activist groups who printed useful material, not trash advertisements, or worse.

One further point to register here, and one that is a bit more elusive to any one outside the actual work situation, was the camaraderie amongst the worker/members. That camaraderie, which was built on a broadly compatible politics, formed the foundation for solidarity that cushioned the stress of the daily routine. A common complaint of many workers in traditional worksites is that they have to put up with their co-workers besides a sociopathic boss.

All that said, the way we all work, no matter the conditions, may never be elevated to a state of bliss, but for a very narrow spectrum of the population, work can be a fulfilling experience. And trying to achieve fulfillment motivates many to “strike out on their own” and become their “own bosses.”

The vast majority of jobs, however, will always be drudgery, even if mechanization can be introduced on an unprecedented scale. Despite the ancillary conditions of employment, the only recourse is to limit the amount of time devoted to such work and, consequently, to spread it around, to “communalize” it.

There is more to be said regarding work that verges on utopian speculation, but not to be dismissed for that reason. This refers back to the old saw used against anarchist theory – Who will do the dirty work? “We have a revolution and somebody bloody needs to take out the garbage,” as a somewhat bloated British Marxist once blurted into my face.

Several years ago, while discussing the concept of “zero-waste” with a friend who was trying to secure municipal funds for a complete recycling/reuse center, that antagonistic question came back to me. “After the Revolution there will be No Garbage,” came the reply, decades late.

Work as the name for monetarily enforced behavior is culturally specific. Cavemen didn’t work, the Iroquois didn’t work and for a goodly number of years I didn’t work. That said, of course, stuff would still need to be done after the revolution. Stuff that may take some considerable effort, and yet we have all had the experience, I hope, of expending considerable effort on some project that we would not consider work. Maybe we would not say it was play, but then what would we call it?

I think here we have a real conundrum: what do we call work that is not work? Activity that is done voluntarily, preferably with friends for social benefit and that we have a great deal of control over – is that work? Further, if we manage to do that activity within a festival-like context, like the old barn raisings of the agricultural era, is that work?

It is not enough to organize work, as we have it today, on a democratic basis – it needs be limited (as mentioned) and communalized, but also transformed wherever feasible. The transformation of work has several aspects, the common denominator of which is to limit work to a measure of social usefulness. Saying this conjures up images of supermarkets filled with only one detergent, one breakfast cereal and one brand of beer. While maybe we could live with one brand of laundry soap (though I doubt that), the proliferation of microbreweries, however, testifies to the creativity of work freed from the domination of corporate conglomerates and expands the notion of utility beyond strictly market parameters. I mean by this that often the beginnings of a microbrewery is someone’s hobby that becomes commoditized because the time for hobbies cannot expand much outside the confines of the daily grind. The temptation, again, to succeed as one’s “own boss” demands that the hobbyist be transformed into an entrepreneur, there isn’t much of a third choice.

In another context, one wonders what all those scientists hired to fine tune the chemistry of laundry detergents would do if allowed to expand their research as they might have imagined while college students. This question probably nags scientists in all fields, and maybe most those with Defense Department grants.

It comes down to this: the crux of the system that dominates us is work. Whether we thrive or starve hinges on it. Whether the society functions at its current minimum for our welfare hinges on it. And finally, and this is the radicality behind abolishing work – all the catastrophes we face demand for their resolution that we overthrow the obedience that comes with the work that creates the conditions for catastrophes in the first place.

Bernard Marszalek

October 21, 2013

 

 

 

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A movement to free time

We are living in a time of dis-ease when the millions who are consistently working long hours pass by the millions of unemployed as ships in the night. The former, physically exhausted from overwork, share with the “chronically unemployed,” themselves psychically drained from months of fruitless search for work, the continuum of employment as the extremities – from none to too much. The most obvious solution – to share the work – never enters the popular discourse. Instead, we are forever bombarded with nostrums from a plethora of pundits, left and right, who must acquire their sagacity from the backs of cereal boxes. They mouth the need for more job training, more government work projects, more tax breaks for the “job creators,” more “insourcing” and so forth.

Fortunately, Benjamin Hunnicutt in Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream provides some clarity regarding the sharing of work by telling the story of US workers’ fight to reduce their hours of toil. If that were all that this book covered it would be noteworthy since most people seem to believe that the 40-hour workweek was inscribed in the Constitution. More significantly, however, Hunnicutt makes clear that the century long fight for more free time, from twelve-hour shifts to ten, and from ten to eight and less, was a vital aspect of original American Dream.

This American Dream can be traced back to the beginnings of the Republic, to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who all expected that the bounty of the country would provide the time for the citizens to supersede their Greek forerunners and establish the leisure to govern and to develop a truly democratic culture. This trio, and many of their contemporaries, assumed that the citizens of the new Republic, in a few decades, would need only work three or four hours per day.

The most noteworthy champion of this other American Dream was Walt Whitman, who extolled the purpose of the American experiment to create a “higher progress.” Whitman envisioned American history as a three-stage phenomenon. The first stage was to wrest control of the political process, the second was to develop the economic engine as a basis for the last stage, the “higher progress” stage, which consisted of a free people molding a culture to reflect the best in themselves and their highest goals. It was in this stage that every village and town would have a vibrant arts community and an educational enterprise to rival the European universities.

Whitman, late in life, saw that the machines of the second stage aborted the promise of further progress by sequestering the workers in factories and workshops all day, leaving them too exhausted to be proper citizens, much less creators of art. The country was in danger of being denied its heritage, according to Whitman, by the greed of the bosses.

The remarkable fact uncovered by Hunnicutt was that those exhausted workers had the very same vision as the poet. They wanted more time away from work to develop their intellectual pursuits, to walk in the woods and to be with family and friends. They fought for free time and succeeded throughout the 19th Century in reducing the hours of their imprisonment from twelve, or even more, to ten and then, in the last decades of that contentious century, they made a mighty push for the eight-hour day and the weekend. Both May Day and Labor Day came out of that struggle. But their goal took over sixty years to be realized. It was not until the Depression that what we consider the “normal” workweek was established by legislation.

FDR’s failure to create sustainable employment through government hiring programs brought forth the demand for the six-hour day. This simple idea was to spread the work around and it caught fire throughout the country. Both houses of Congress had passed legislation endorsing the idea, but though FDR at first backed the bill, in the end he didn’t sign it and instead promoted the slogan we still hear today: Full-Time, Full Employment. Within a few months war production muted the demand and it never really surfaced again as the unions all fell in line, after the war, with the Full-Time, Full Employment program and chose to concentrate on increasing wages and not decreasing hours.

Hunnicutt mentions two outliers to the 40-hour day: Kellogg Foods in Michigan and Goodyear Tire in Ohio. Both companies reduced the workday to six hours in the late 30s and Kellogg kept to that schedule for another few decades.

Given this history it is a tragedy that the labor movement has not revived this venerable demand, especially now, five years into the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Maybe it is time for the environmental movement to take up the historic cause to reduce the workday – not for narrow economic reasons, but for broader cultural ones. Of course, this demand would increase employment, despite the threat by the bosses that ultimately jobs would be lost to automation if the status quo were disturbed.

The intent of this demand would only incidentally be job creation; its main purpose would be to push for less work and more free time for us to expand our leisurely pursuits, whatever they may be. This could be an end run around the issue of economic sustainability. By displacing the dominant role of working for a living, we could begin to value our precious time and devalue the time we sell to live. In other words, we would downsize.

And by downsizing we entertain the prospect of moving into a post-growth society, where what we do, because we have the time, approaches pleasurable activity and displaces the commoditized leisure we are offered in lieu of time to make our own fun.

Published on CounterPunch October 17, 2013

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Workaholic Leisure

The American workaholic culture cannot tolerate idle pursuits, and so when not at work Americans diligently pursue their leisure as strictly as a doctrine of faith. Gone are the late afternoons when saloons would fill with the local workforce having a drink or two and engaging in a chat with mates before heading home. Today there’s no chance to slip into casual conversation at the bar when a large screen sports program demands everyone’s attention. Spectatorship occupies those moments away from work as another form of production – the production of leisure time.

The sociopathic behavior of workaholics’ can be traced back, in America, to the early 19th century when popular agitation to reduce the working day, to a mere ten hours, prompted clergymen to decry the threat of idleness. One sympathetic minister, William Ellery Channing, while endorsing the shorter working day, cautioned against sloth and preached the “higher life” which required vigorous effort, not passive indulgence. This reference comes from a newly published book, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt. (More on this excellent history in a forthcoming post.)

It was a revelation to read in Michael Seidman’s Workers Against Work the sections on leisure and the proletarians in Barcelona and Paris. Minutes from meetings show that both the anarcho-syndicalist and the Communist militants characterized workers who hung out in bars and cafes as lazy. Some CNT activists wanted to close bars and music and dance halls by 10pm since they were unproductive activities. A more extremist current of this repressive tendency executed drug dealers and pimps. The ordinary workers, of course, were not oblivious to the privileges, and the hypocrisy, of the militants who managed to commandeer the few automobiles set aside, ostensibly for official work, for personal uses. On the more positive side, participation in sports appeared to be the major leisure time activity before the revolution and that continued afterwards with rival unions and factories sponsoring teams.

In France leisure developed, by the late 19th century, into a more diverse culture, encompassing sports, camping and family activities, often sponsored by religious institutions. The socialists, seeing that they could loose influence especially with youth, developed their own institutions, like sports teams, holiday camps and trips.

In 1936, when the Popular Front gained power they began to funnel municipal funds into sports facilities, community centers, evening schools and even art events.

What may have begun as an attempt to limit the political influence of the Church, morphed into a robust and enterprising sector of the economy that appealed to working class families, now that they had the weekend and the 40-hour week, as an outlet for their free time.

Though consumerism had a head start in Paris compared to Barcelona, the workers in both cities demanded security and good pay and refused to foreclose those demands for the militants’ moral vision of work. And likewise, the attractions of consumption – most notably in Paris – meant that when the prospects of loosing their shorter working day and their Saturday, the most rebellious workers were not the militants, but those workers generally considered apolitical. In other words, when it came to fighting for less work (and therefore more consumption, in its widest aspect) it was precisely those workers who had disabused themselves of the work ethic that fought the capitalists most ferociously.

Their rebelliousness supports James Livingston’s thesis in favor of consumption in his Against Thrift. (Preliminary notes on Against Thrift here) For him the sphere outside the job defined freedom and fulfillment for the proles. Livingston, as well as Seidman, share an assumption about the hierarchical arrangement of work despite the very different times and locations. This may seem odd given that the workers in Barcelona ostensibly ran their factories, but Seidman carefully documents the contradictory role of the technicians, and even managers, that the militants installed because of their expertise.

It would be a mistake to assume that shopping fulfills Livingston’s insights regarding “the realm of freedom,” just as it would be futile to decry democracy in the workplace as an illusion because the Catalans failed to achieve their lofty goals. To abolish wage slavery marks the first step to radically transform work, that is to abolish it. And to enjoy leisure when work is abolished cannot mean a day in the mall as anything other than an excursion into boredom.

Bernard Marszalek (October 4, 2013)

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Workers Against Work

It seems plausible to imagine that workers, no matter how abused they are in their workplaces, would rally around the work ethic during moments of national catastrophe. During WWII US productivity advanced as industrial workers “enlisted“ in the war effort. We have all seen those old newsreels with hundreds of workers streaming out of factories looking noble and, of course, at a brisk clip – wouldn’t you if you just spent 10 hours manufacturing war materiel? And then there was Rosie the Riveter – the iconic figure of the dedicated anti-fascist worker.

The real story of war production, however, depicts regimentation that rivaled the military. One need only recall the post-war labor agitation, as workers released from the pressure cooker period of war, erupted in strikes that eventually led to state repression in the way of anti-labor laws.

One would think however that the workers in Barcelona and Paris during the late 30s, in their struggles to fight fascism, had an allegiance to their role as anti-fascists to conform to the demands of production. Especially in Barcelona where in most cases they had taken over the factories when the owners fled.

Michael Seidman, in his 1991 book (out of print), Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts relates an entirely different scenario, one of workers resisting the productivist demands of the militants in Spain’s CNT and the French union CGT. Through meticulous research Seidman details the absenteeism, the defense of a casual work pace, the theft and the resistance to overtime, among other acts of rebellion against the workplace, and presents us with a more complex appreciation of the struggle against the work ethic.

There are several points that arise from Seidman’s history, aside from the repudiation of the standard histories of so-called politically committed workers and their zeal for work. The most significantly, Seidman questions the revolutionary ideology of both anarchist and Marxist organizers. When push came to shove these politicos, despite their putative disagreements, were devoted to an economic vision that duplicated that of their class enemy. They became the new bosses. The workers recognized this and fought against it.

Seidman, in a short pamphlet: The Strange History of “Workers against Work” – The Vicissitudes of a Book, comments on the reviews of his book from both the legitimate and clandestine translated editions that have appeared recently, 20 years after its original publication. This alone is noteworthy. As he remarks, there seems to be a revival of interest in the questions that he delved into in 70s France while living with some ultra-leftists. At that time, he says that he recognized a seeming contradiction with those he knew who resisted work and yet at the same time believed in a form of council communism, after the fashion of the Situationists. I guess if you presume that workers’ control would be limited to a simple transfer of industrial production from the current bosses to dedicated militants then I can see some difficulties. But was that the view of those who believed – in agreement with council communism – that the workers would be satisfied with new asses warming the seats of power? Or that the workers, disgusted with their enslavement to wage labor, would not transform the way they work?

I have no idea of course what his friends thought, but those who I knew at that time in the US had a more nuanced view of the Situationist’s “generalized self-management” that incorporated the utopianism of William Morris and Oscar Wilde, the vitriol of Paul Lafargue and Albert Parsons, the visions of the surrealists and the long tradition of dissident Marxism and anarchism. Seidman’s newer book, The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968, may illuminate some of these currents in that explosion against work in May.

In The Strange History…, Seidman makes a telling distinction between advocating the “ abolition of wage labor” and not “for ‘the liberation of work.’” The implication here is that he is for the former and he should not be confused with those who advocate the work-free utopia.

Appropriately enough, Seidman, in his concluding chapter raises the viewpoint of Paul Lafargue on work; unfortunately, he misinterprets Lafargue’s intent in The Right to be Lazy. He presumes that Lafargue took the 1848 slogan – The Right to Work – resurrected by the conformist opposition of the 1880s, as the position of the workers themselves. But in fact, his essay was directed at the politics of those who wished to compromise with those in power. When published, Lafargue’s pamphlet was enthusiastically received by the French workers and as Seidman mentions, is the most translated socialist text aside from the Communist Manifesto.

One last point: Here are Seidman’s concluding sentences:

Accepting labor uncritically and believing that it provided meaning for workers, the productivist utopians [the militants of CGT] logically concluded that the state would be superfluous once workers had taken control of the production forces. Yet the actual historical experience of the Left in power in Paris and Barcelona question such a vision. Despite the presence of working-class parties and unions in government, workers continued to resist constraints of workspace and worktime, thereby provoking state intervention to increase production. Historians may conclude that the state can be abolished only when Lafargue’s cybernetic utopia has been realized.

The “cybernetic utopia” refers to Lafargue’s speculation that the capitalist technology currently used to increase profits, needed to be re-conceptualized to benefit the workers. Mainly this meant, for Lafargue, that timesaving advances in mechanical work should reduce the workday and that homicidal machines should be abolished. He, like the socialists of his day, did not address the question of technology’s supposed neutrality. Only the Romantics rejected technology which they saw as synonymous to industrialism, a despoiler of the environment and human crafts. A more nuanced view of capitalist technology didn’t appear for almost a century.

The modern industrial plant of today would probably affirm Lafargue’s wildest dreams of a workplace paradise. The industrial worker today benefits from the enormous power of automated devices that, to use an extreme example, flip huge metal carcasses around to accommodate a delicate application of human power. And wouldn’t he marvel at the sight of a lone technician manipulating a control panel to dictate mechanical operations with the power of a Greek god? We have one half of Lafargue’s utopia all around us, and no prospect of the other half – workers’ control. And the workers are fast disappearing!

 

 

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Labor Day, May Day, What’s to Celebrate?

I suspect that more than a few people would accept as historic fact that Stalin created May Day, and to checkmate Stalin’s evil, communist attempt to influence US workers, FDR initiated Labor Day. Two utopias in conflict: the Workers’ Paradise vs. the American Dream. The Communist Manifesto or FDR’s Second Bill of Rights.

Oddly enough, there is symmetry at play here as both leaders corrupted the original meaning of these workers’ holidays. Neither Stalin nor FDR cared two figs for the historic struggle of the working class; their intent, like the Fathers of the Church before them, was to seize dissension, drain it of its original content and fill it with a conformist ideology.

May Day grew internationally to memorialize the struggle of the working class as exemplified by the Haymarket Martyrs, however, in America, the home of this infamy, workers were expected to “Honor Labor.” In other words, on Labor Day the workers celebrate work, while on May Day workers commemorate the struggle to gain control of it, in fact, to abolish it.

This may sound extravagant, but how else can one view the origins of the struggle for the Eight Hour Day, which both holidays share? Let us not look upon this demand for a shorter word day with the mindset of a 20th Century labor union official, but from the point of view of a half-starved laborer trying to survive the brutal conditions of his or her employment, whether in a factory where the machinery created a din so loud that ear drums shattered, or in a sweatshop bent over a sewing machine all day, or in a poorly ventilated mine, or in a slaughterhouse where human body parts where lost on a regular basis. The demand for eight hours was not the goal, but the means to build workers’ solidarity for another fight and yet more control of production. The bosses’ knew this. To give an inch here, they recognized, would open the door for more demands.

The struggle to reduce the hours of the working day is widely believed to have begun in 1824 with a wildcat strike by the women weavers of Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket, RI. These young women protested to work only ten hours! The righteousness of their cause, repudiated by the bosses, inspired the townspeople to pool their money and erect a community clock to prevent the mill owners from jiggering the length of the work shifts.

Sporadically in the coming decades, attempts to limit the workday continued until in the 1880s work stoppages for the eight-hour day advanced from individual worksites to citywide demonstrations. The most successful protest, organized by the New York City Labor Council for September 5, 1882, brought out as many as 40,000 workers. The success of this event, which some refer to as the first Labor Day, spurred replication throughout the country.

Some labor historians credit Peter McGuire, a carpenter who became a leader in the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), with founding Labor Day. But others believe that Mathew Maguire, a socialist and organizer of the New York demonstration, deserves the honor. He was, after all, instrumental in 1884 for situating the holiday on the first Monday of September. Disputes on the origins of Labor Day give way to agreement that the historic beginning of official recognition began in 1887, when Oregon became the first state to proclaim it as a legal holiday. Several months later, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York followed the lead of the west coast state. Workers continued to agitate for the Eight Hour Day and by 1894, 23 States had fallen in line and on June 28 of that year, Congress declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, though it didn’t legislate eight hours as a standard working day.

Celebrations of labor’s Day reached a peak at the end of the 19th Century and trailed off in the early decades of the new century, until it was revived in the 30s to coincide with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and renewed labor agitation. Finally, the Eight Hour Day achieved legal status in 1935 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, taking only one hundred and eleven years from that original Slater’s Mill strike to be enshrined in law.

Labor Day celebrations waned during the war years, and then were revived again by the unions in the late 40s to fight the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Bill. With that battle lost, the unions retreated from promoting Labor Day as a day of protest to one of commemoration, or rather, as some see it, given the increasing irrelevancy of organized labor, subservience.

May Day too had its historic period of obligatory (state) subservience after the Russian Revolution. In Russia, May Day was a day of boring, seemingly endless parades of military hardware, where the Russian workers, reduced to spectators, gazed at the slow rolling phalanxes of armaments meant to defend their paradise.

The origins of May Day, less disputed than Labor Day, also arose from the agitation to control the production process by limiting the duration of work. In 1884, at the convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, a resolution was passed marking May 1, 1886 as the day that all of the workers in North America would limit their time at work to eight hours.

Building support for that date, eighteen months in the future, commenced immediately and in Chicago popular labor agitators, anarchists of mainly German descent, began organizing for a one-day general strike for May 1st to support the Eight Hour Day.

The turnout in Chicago was immense, with some sources counting 90,000 participants it was by far the largest protest of all the cities in North America. It is not hyperbole to say that a total of half-million workers across the country downed tools and paraded that day. May Day in 1886 fell on a Saturday, still a working day, but the warm temperatures enticed whole families to come out and celebrate. The parades everywhere were peaceful and carnival-like, despite the fear mongering of the corporate press.

In Chicago, the general strike coincided with several ongoing labor disputes. The most significant strike was under way at the McCormick-Harvester Works. McCormick employed several thousand and was one of the largest industrial plants in the US. On May 3rd, a rally was called to support the workers and thousands gathered at the entrance to the plant to hear a series of speeches, that though militant, did not advocate violence. The factory shift bell sounded and strikebreakers began to emerge from the complex, a struggled ensued, and the police overreacted and killed several strikers. The next day, a protest rally took place and in the drizzly evening, as the speakers were winding down and the crowd peacefully dispersing, a bomb exploded. The explosion and wild shooting by the police killed seven of their force and four workers, besides wounding dozens.

The event, known today as the Haymarket Affair, resulted in the first Red Scare (or more precisely, Red and Black Scare) with media, police and judicial forces joining in ruling class-coordinated repression – a corrupt judge, biased jury and a lying cop – the result: four innocent men hanged, one suicide, and two got life (years later commuted by an ethical Governor, who acted against popular sentiment). Despite this local repression and a national bomb-throwing anarchist scare, workers’ organizations continued to grow: the Knights of Labor doubled its membership that year and a united Labor Party formed in Chicago.

The impetus to agitate for the eight-hour day continued and the newly formed AFL, in 1888, proclaimed May 1, 1890 as another Eight Hour Day general strike day. A year later the international workers’ organization meeting in Paris (the Second International), after an in-person plea by Samuel Gompers (later the conservative head of the AFL), declared May 1st as an international day of strikes to demand the eight hour day. And so in 1890 the first International May Day occurred. It was a major success across Europe and parts of South America and the following year the Second International declared it an annual workers’ holiday.

It is ironic that though the AFL was responsible for alerting the Second International to the eight hour agitation scheduled for 1890, it quickly back-pedaled from any hint of radicalism, for example by repudiating strikes. And in a move to salvage the Democratic Party from the dire electoral effects of the Panic of ’93 – a major depression began that year – the AFL supported pro-business President Grover Cleveland, who in gratitude signed legislation that proclaimed Labor Day a national holiday. His pro-labor gesture wasn’t enough however to secure his victory, another sour labor defeat at the poles.

Much of the history of American labor is the history of its domestication. The workers had first to be tamed before the industrial plutocrats would negotiate with them. And who better to serve as the workers’ minders, than their union leaders? Ruling class violence in the early labor struggles had but one purpose: to teach the workers that they could never win on their terms. The industrialists saw the dispute about hours as a step by workers to wrestle control of the work schedule from them, and so consumerism and electoral illusions were traded for workers’ control of production. The bosses retained rule of the shop floor.

What then does Labor Day or May Day represent? What significance can they have for a workforce that, universally, slides down the steep slope of broken promises? Labor Day especially, with all its archival references, amounts to little more than an insult to the American workers.

We all know the tragic litany of working class defeat, from living wage jobs to dead end ones, from prized skills that one could be proud of, to soulless routines. But the defeat of the working class, as our brief historic overview indicated, began before the Golden Age of the Fifties when unions were winning concessions and workers were enjoying the consumer bounty that came with their acquiescence. It is obvious today that the immediate post-World War II era was an exception in the history of capitalism. It is foolish to fight for those days to return.

The demand for control of the workday was grounded in the insight, now seemingly lost, that workers should benefit from the increase in productivity. Paul Lafargue, known for his essay The Right to be Lazy, stated the obvious:

A good working woman makes with her needles only five meshes a minute, while certain circular knitting machines make 30,000 in the same time. Every minute of the machine is thus equivalent to a hundred hours of the working woman’s labor, or again, every minute of the machine’s labor, gives the working woman ten days of rest.

When Lafargue wrote these provocative lines, in 1883, they were directed at the wage slaves toiling in the sweatshops and mines. Workers then, as now, never benefited from the introduction of machinery, in fact, the machinery mostly meant a speed-up. And beyond that, workers could not take pride in their jobs; if they were proud of anything, it was the solidarity of their class. The artisanal sense of a job done well persisted in a few trades, like printing, tool making, custom needle trades or cabinetry, but for the vast majority, to call their work a craft, much less a calling, applied to another era.

Much has changed in the one hundred and thirty years since Lafargue wrote –

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes…. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work….”

The most obvious change has been the decline of manufacturing jobs in the West and the growth of the service sector. But what has not changed is the corrosive influence of the work ethic. Then as now the elite, in the media, in the political parties and in the boardrooms, propagate the dogma and the workers attend the church. Every body grumbles about their jobs and yet we are all expected to identify with one. If useful work were available, maybe dedication to a job might be understandable. This might be the case for healthcare workers, who despite dispiriting management practices, have higher job satisfaction than most other workers. They may, not incidentally, have union protections. On the other hand, employment “opportunities” are expanding faster in unorganized sweatshops, like the Amazon warehouses, or in fast food, retail, janitorial services and other marginal jobs. The mobilization to raise the wages of these exploited proles merits support, yet support does not entail ignoring economic realities and the resulting immiseration.

Few today raise the heartfelt concerns about job quality that were expressed forty years ago in Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking book Working. Are the tasks we do useful? Do they satisfy our need to feel accomplished? To call for “Jobs Now” too easily amounts to a demand for grunt jobs. Adding the demand for a so-called “living wage” – a misnomer if there ever was one – seems purely cosmetic, or more precisely, it simply assuages class guilt. Where is the demand for useful work? Even the demand for Green Jobs has evaporated, I presume so as not to embarrass Obama for his poor performance, again.

Of course, raising this issue lifts the lid on a sequence of interrogations that corporate America cannot recognize. What defines a useful job? And when did corporations last create one? Their track record is almost as bad as the Federal Government, which at least still hires a few food inspectors. How can it be that millions of people slave away in dull, meaningless jobs as our infrastructure collapses around us? We have here a supreme waste of material and human resources. A troubling thought must arise – do we have useful employment for all who need jobs?

Let us dream the ideal government-hiring program. The federal government hires all the people needed to rebuild and repair the thousands of bridges civil engineers have designated in poor condition. More people are hired to update school buildings and public hospitals, to construct a new energy grid and to build high-speed rail all across the country. The federal government pays local school districts to hire teachers and teacher aides (or more correctly, re-hires all those fired). Rural clinics are established. The National Forests and Parks receive funding to update and expand and to prepare for the devastating effects of climate change fast upon us. We have here a new, New Deal. A Green New Deal. This is the program the fans of FDR want, and as an immediate program to create useful employment and resuscitate capitalism, it fits the bill. Of course, this is fantasy. The corporate and political elite (no longer home to enlightened Keynesians) would fight it savagely for numerous reasons.

But more to the point, A Green New Deal is not a long-range strategy if we want to address, at minimum, the next twenty years. Stop-gap programs are ultimately a waste of valuable political energy, besides being delusional about radical change. In the 19th Century, unlike today, the vision of those who opposed capitalism took the form of controlling the workplace so that the economy could benefit all. Today with the workplace, as it was known then, almost extinct (at least in the West) and work itself taking an atomized form, where it can be secured at all, another vision needs to be developed. Economic democracy, in other words, must have a 21st Century relevancy and a contemporary vocabulary.

Given the precariousness of employment, the wasted intelligence and creativity of those who do have jobs, the lack of collective engagement (formerly called civic pride) and the need to retrieve the quest for a just society that motivated our ancestors (a legacy stolen from us by an increasingly repressive system) a society based on an expansion of citizenship must be imagined. Just as our passport certifies our political rights, we need a debit card that guarantees our economic rights. In other words, income has to be separated from jobs. The term defining this idea in the US is Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). The same notion exists throughout Europe, in some countries of Africa, Asia and South America.

The concept is straightforward. Every individual receives a stipend that covers all essential needs to live a frugal life, that is, an amount sufficient to live without holding a job. The insecurity that results from our current job shortage would be eliminated. This alone would save all the costs that the state must bear to deal with social breakdown. But beyond the welfare savings, providing modest economic security makes it possible for healthy social outcomes. For the great majority of people, receiving a stipend would not, as cynics think, see them take root to couches. Consider it an inoculation for the body politic. Anyone would be free to pursue an avocation, to experiment with creativity. How many artists, musicians and writers are waiting to blossom? Presumably, most people would supplement their guaranteed income with employment, however, that may not mean a full-time job, nor a poorly paid one, nor one that was complete b.s. The debit card extends the traditional rights signified by the passport into the realm of the economy. Instead of taking over the means of production as in the traditional Marxist model, the fully endowed citizen has simply seized his or her labor power and leases it to the capitalist on a more equitable basis.

This arrangement need not end capitalism, just its most egregious forms. Freed from compulsive wage-slavery, and sustained with economic security, the new citizen can begin to develop the idea of a democratic society. A society as envisioned by the world’s great philosophers, incorporating leisure, camaraderie and festival. The barriers that today restrict our ability to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and collaboration could methodically displace a life of toil and give way to new forms of enjoyable, productive and creative activity.

Worker cooperatives and employee managed firms, though rare business ventures today, do offer a hint of what this collaboration might look like. These firms, because they are hostage to economic forces beyond the control of the workers, are partial models of democracy. If, however, they were free of at least some of the stress of coping with a profit-driven economy, their convivial working relations could unfold new forms of working together. We have no name for this concept, this new sort of activity. What do we call an activity that encompasses the productivity of a job, without the coercion; that maintains the spontaneity of play, but does not presume its ephemerality; a term that encompasses creativity of art without its isolation and commodification?

The social implications that result from introducing a universal debit card are vast. Let’s dream again, but this time better. Firstly, the trap door to mass overproduction of commodities falls away and a whole range of community workshops replace shopping. Now able to devote more time to their first love, people create all sorts of treasures – like the family keepsakes that have disappeared from households with the rise of pernicious plastic crap. Next, hackers – again with newly available time – take on the universalization of the knowledge commons, making available to humanity systems and techniques better than the proprietary ones. Freeing social creativity in just these two areas unlocks technology from the commodity form and offers solutions to remediate the world wasted by capitalist exploits, especially for people in regions and countries suffering from its most ravenous excesses.

By subverting the mania for more jobs with pleasurable pursuits, we slow the expansion of capitalism  (and eventually put it in reverse gear) and that allows us time to reflect on priorities and to undertake together practical projects. With the drive to accumulate moderated, with growth no longer associated with progress, we develop, by doing, a truly sustainable society, one focused on conserving resources while enriching our cultural life. If we reverse perspective, from commodity production (immediate gratification) to communal production (long-range democratic planning) we then have an opportunity to respond to climate change, not as an emergency, but with an urgent and sensible plan.

For too long we have accepted the view that homo faber defines us as human, when it seems that to define us fully as culture-forming beings, homo ludens more appropriately reflects our being. The great visionaries and many traditional societies have known this. Since the onslaught of our humanity by the rise of industrialism, we have increasingly labored under a burden – we have been witness to an ever-diminishing prospect of realizing our potential. Future May Days, infused with its original Green hue will retain its festive nature, but Labor Day may simply move into that realm of respectful observance we reserve for the horror and mayhem that we solemnly contemplate on Hiroshima Day, or Armistice Day.

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