What’s the “Real Sharing” economy?

IN RESPONSE TO GRIST’S REAL SHARING ECONOMY

The idea here is to subvert consumerism by real sharing and in so doing create a better quality of life, beyond the notion that material scarcity rules, to develop in its place social practices that cultivate meaningful relationships, so to retrieve, or discover, our unique creative outlets.

Integral to this idea, though not mentioned in this introduction, is the recuperation of time. The downside of the pursuit of the consumerist cornucopia (pcc) is having a job (or maybe two!) which is another way of saying that we trade time for goods. Or another approach is to recognize that pcc is nothing more than a futile escape (that is, an addiction) from misery – the treadmill.

BUT the main point missing in this introduction by Grist writers, is the recognition that insecurity dominates our lives – the economy does not serve our needs, we are in service to it. There is no appreciation of how fear induced by insecurity affects choices in life and without that real sharing becomes a privileged option.

Furthermore, the true abundance that needs to replace the ideology of scarcity cannot be attained by a real sharing economy as envisioned in these stories. How do we deal with the vastly complex political and economic networks except by reconfiguring those that can be salvaged and scuttling those based on greed? That reconfiguration can be based on values and practices that build upon the feel-good factor of small and local projects (real sharing), but it also will require subtle and sophisticated knowledge that cannot be easily shared.

That knowledge certainly won’t be shared if we maintain the restrictions of professions that in fact are enclosures. I see no other way to begin the process of democratizing privileged knowledge than by separating income from jobs. By provide all with an income sufficient to address basic needs, it becomes possible to extend education more widely. But more, if time and lack of financial support no longer functions as a shackle on our imagination, new research, shelved for reasons of expediency (earning a living), may flourish. Open source (and Freeware) gives us a hint of the possibilities here.

To survive the tribulations that capitalism produces we need, for the lack of a better term, popular technics in all areas. The 1% will not fund this, obviously.

I have come to the conclusion that we desperately need a Universal Basic Income to develop a convivial society. That society will, in fact, correspond to the goals de-Growthers seek, but without getting caught up in the rhetoric of growth vs anti-growth. We need to express our desire for a positive vision of pleasurable collaboration as the basis for meeting our needs (what now passes for “the economy”) that are both social and individual

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A response to Peter Marcuse

Monthly Review’s February issue contains two essays on the cooperative sector. “Neoliberal Co-optation of Leading Co-op Organizations and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation” by Carl Ratner explores the tepid economics and the conformist politics of these “leading” organizations. The other essay by Peter Marcuse, “Cooperatives On the Path to Socialism?” focuses on worker cooperatives and deserves extensive discussion amongst members of those cooperatives.

As a humorous aside, it needs to be mentioned that finding a socialist, or indeed a Marxist, in a US worker cooperative, would be a shade more difficult than finding an egg during Easter. Of the 300 to 400 worker cooperatives (and allied enterprises) in the US, I would guess not more than a dozen would subscribe in their mission statement to anything approaching universally transformative anti-capitalist politics. I hesitate to use the “R” word so as not to limit that cohort further.

Given this situation, one could presume that Marcuse’s speculations border on magical realism. However, while his Marxist diagnostic (unintentionally) reveals the paucity of radical politics within worker cooperatives, it also highlights the objective condition of worker cooperatives in our ruthless economy as they demonstrate, in their everyday reality, the proposition that people come before profit.

Marcuse, possibly aware of the oddity of his enterprise, hesitates to be definitive about almost every topic he touches upon. Regrettably, serious questions are raised but left unresolved, possibly because Marcuse lacks direct experience with worker cooperatives. Of course, this fact doesn’t stop other academics (who will remain nameless here) from pontificating on the subject, so Marcuse’s measured critical efforts are appreciated.

Let’s start our excursion into this analysis at the end with Marcuse’s concluding sentence:

Their [worker cooperative’s] main importance, in a perspective looking towards basic social change in a non-capitalist direction, is thus perhaps more in what they may say about and teach about the potentials of self-management, and the capacities of the 99% to work and manage the society—rather than in the actual changes they themselves bring about in what they do.

Earlier in the essay Marcuse says this:

The contribution that the struggle for, and development of, worker co-ops could make is not so much as it affects non-participants, but rather in the effect on the participants themselves, in consciousness raising.

These excerpts may seem contradictory, but the fact is that worker cooperatives have vital external and internal roles. They serve as a model of self-management in their communities and, if they are to survive, they need to develop an internal culture in opposition to the rankism, racism, sexism, etc., of the dominant society. Yet, whether they see one of these functions as dominant or both inherently anti-capitalist, much less socialist, is debatable.

On the other hand, popular promoters of worker cooperatives in the so-called alternative media, and increasingly in the mainstream one, have decided the question – worker cooperatives are cool. Nothing in the way of economic development is more chic today than cooperatives, or more misunderstood precisely because the internal dynamics of deconditioning the dominant culture are  ignored.

Marcuse raises, in his ramble through Marx’s views, several important issues that concern members of worker cooperatives, but hardly make the agenda for any collective’s discussion. The first issue concerns the role of government. Despite the popular perception that Marx was a stone-cold statist, he actually cautioned against state sponsorship of cooperatives. As Marcuse says:

Otherwise, Marx argued, socialism would be established through state action—in stark contrast with the central idea of scientific socialism that workers will only achieve emancipation through their own efforts. If workers were to require the support of the state for their revolutionary movement, they would thereby only reveal “their full consciousness that they neither rule nor are ripe for rule! .… [A]s far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeoisie.” (The Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Naturally, we have no fear that Washington will be burdening cooperatives, or their  developers with taxpayer revenues to create incipient socialist experiments, but we do have foundations increasingly funding cooperative development. The Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, was funded this way. Evergreen has been praised for its innovative program of cooperative development using “anchor institutions,” like hospitals and universities (corporate non-profits), to purchase services from worker cooperative in economically marginalized communities.

This model, which established three cooperatives in six years with more in the pipeline according to their consultants, may soon be replicated in other cities, like Rochester. This may not be the state directly creating cooperatives as Marx cautioned, yet the state indirectly supports foundations financially through various tax breaks and legal niceties. (Further, the directors of foundations share the same social outlook as the minions who parcel out state subsidies as directed by legislative decrees.)

Smaller cooperative development agencies, often organized as non-profits, partake of similar funding sources though they are less obviously top-down enterprises. They adopt a more traditional community-organizing model that seeks to empower the grassroots. These agencies are responsible for the significant growth of worker cooperatives amongst immigrant communities. Organizing cooperatives in this manner is a relatively new phenomenon amongst worker cooperatives, which historically rose directly from farmers and industrial workers needs.

And this brings us to the second issue that Marcuse raises and is more compelling for the future of the cooperative sector, though it too is a “missing in action” concern amongst cooperative members. Here is how Marcuse introduces the subject:

When Marx writes of the “mode of production,” he has in mind a class system in which the essential struggle is between proletarians and the bourgeoisie, taking place at the workplace; consumption is secondary, and finance perhaps tertiary.

Marx’s view of cooperatives is within this framework. Co-ops are proletarian, their organization and power is a step on the road to full societal power, their importance based on the importance of the proletariat, and their class struggle against capital.

These comments by Marcuse are not meant to dismiss the class struggle, but to recognize the changed reality of that struggle. In nineteenth century America skilled workers formed cooperatives as a means of defense from outrageous labor practices. Often these enterprises collapsed under attacks, both financial and physical, by the bosses. And if that didn’t do them in, then the boom and bust cycles of capitalism finished them off. Several however lasted decades and furnished their communities with a proud citizenry of laborers. The members of these cooperatives were highly skilled men and women – proletarians exactly as Marx depicted – coopers, shoemakers, cabinet-makers and seamstresses.

Today the average member of a worker cooperative works in the service sector and the number of manufacturing worker cooperatives in the US resembles the number of “radical” ones – a dozen at most.

The point here is not to dismiss the continued relevance of manufacturing, nor even to necessarily expect a further decline of worker cooperatives in this area. It is not inconceivable that manufacturing businesses, especially those on a small scale, with owners facing retirement, and a skilled workforce able to continue the enterprise, will convert to worker cooperatives. There is much precedent for this in the recent history of cooperatives.

The real issue regarding the changed nature of the class struggle that Marcuse alludes to, has two facets – the changed nature of jobs and their disappearance. It would be only partially correct to attribute to technology the deskilling of jobs and their demise. The real culprit here is the morphing of traditional, production-based capitalism into finance capitalism. Jobs are evaporating because capitalists make more money with money than with workers.

The implications of these developments extend far beyond the horizon of cooperatives in one sense, but not in another. Marcuse doesn’t develop his musings regarding technological change to discuss the future of jobs, but it is obvious that cooperatives can’t exist without them. Marcuse does however recognize the significance of workers control:

Thus, whether or not co-ops within a capitalist society are the motor of societal change, they suggest an alternative to the capitalist mode of production—even though they retain the form of wage labor—simply by distributing the surplus value produced to the laborers themselves.

In other words, in a world, hopefully not too distant in the future, when jobs are separated from income through the implementation of universal basic income and a new era of economic democracy arrives, the necessary work that still needs to be done, and which will require fewer hours to accomplish, will be modeled on worker cooperatives.

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The Economy Sucks, Now What?

– Basic Income or Job Guarantee?

REFUSING TO WORK

Periodically, the New York Times publishes sobering long-form articles depicting the economy in dark tones that clash with their more upbeat business page reportage. For example, the NYT recently noted a poll indicating the decline of belief in The American Dream – Many Feel that The American Dream is Out of Reach, Poll Shows (December 10, 2014). While the poll showed a trend towards disbelief in attaining the American Dream, I was depressed to learn that 64 percent still believe “… it is possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich.” This means that more Americans believe in the Dream than believe in the Devil.

I am reminded, reading in Hand to Mouth, of Linda Tirado’s jaw-dropping incredulity that a co-worker, who held nothing but dead-end jobs, still expected to “strike it rich” one day. The American Dream, I suppose, retains its tight hold on the psyche of millions, like a prophylactic against utter despair.

Shortly after the American Dream article, the NYT published a multiple-part series focusing on men and the growing trend against work in America – or as the article puts it – the increase in the number of prime-age workingmen who are not in the workforce. Of those between the ages of 25 and 54, 16% do not have jobs and are not looking for them, up from the 60s when only 5% of men were in this category.

The Labor Department keeps a record of what the NYT refers to as “non-workers,” in a backdoor sort of way, by tabulating what they call the “participation rate” in the economy: only those who have jobs or are actively looking for work are counted as “participating.” When women began to enter the labor force in increasing numbers after the 50s, the rate of participation grew, but for over a decade now women’s participation has declined bringing down the rate in general. However, that doesn’t explain the continuing decline in participation of working-age men.

Economists argue over the increase in non-workers: some believe that young adults stay in school longer, others attribute the increase to early retirement, and still others think the explanation lies with the increase in disability benefits under Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

One of the most obvious reasons for the decline in participation is almost never acknowledged in the press – the poor wages of service sector jobs, the only sector of the economy that steadily offers work. In one installment of the NYT series this issue surfaces accidentally. In the mall where the reporter is interviewing an unemployed union member, the “non-worker” turns and looks with disdain at the fast food jobs advertised and asks how anyone can live on $10 per hour?

In that same article, interviewees told the NYT reporter that they lost their previous good-paying jobs due to technology. And, as if following the advice of those experts who advise retraining, a few talked about picking up “computer skills.” These ex-workers, unfortunately, seemed to have the most minimal understanding of the role of computers in the current workplace, as if all they needed to know was how to do word processing or layout a spreadsheet.

Techno-wizards and starry-eyed venture capitalists who think new, undreamed-of jobs will be delivered to us by technology share a similarly clueless view of the future workplace, but from the opposite perspective. They confuse the backend, the programming and the maintenance (engineering) with the minimal role of the operators of new technology who simply follow the commands on the monitor. The former requires extensive training that may offer skilled (and high-paying) employment, while the latter simply requires following a machine command and is compensated poorly.

In the last installment of this NYT series, Lawrence Summer, the former Treasury secretary, is quoted as saying that he no longer believes that automation will create new jobs. He elaborated:

This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility. This is something that’s emerging before us right now. The answer is surely not to try to stop technical change, but the answer is not to just suppose that everything’s going to be O.K. because the magic of the market will assure that’s true.

It is time to put to rest the canard that technology creates more jobs than it eliminates. In the late 50s, when automation first made inroads into Detroit’s diversified workforce and decimated high-paying union jobs, it precipitated an alarm regarding the future employment of the displaced workers. The so-called urban riots (really insurrections) of the 60s, while ignited by issues of institutional racism, were at bottom stoked by economic resentments. The manufacturing jobs, mostly union organized, that opened the prospect of Black middle class status, disappeared and were replaced, not with equally good-paying technology jobs, but with poorly paid service sector jobs.

If service sector employment had not exploded, the job killing effects of automation would have occurred as predicted in the 50s. Of course, new technologies give rise to new jobs, and often these cannot be envisioned, much less calculated or planned for. Highly skilled occupations, though, absorb a tiny fraction of the workforce, and though they may spin off other jobs, these are usually ancillary, no-future jobs. Nothing in the past indicates that new technologies have produced the bounty of jobs the techno-wizards predicted.

JOBS GUARANTEE

If we cannot expect the expansion of technology, now threatening the careers of semi-professionals, to provide the millions of jobs it eliminates, then what? How are we to sustain ourselves with no job and no income? Some advocate that the government be “the employer of last resort” and guarantee a job for all those who want one – this is commonly referred to as the Jobs Guarantee (JG). Often the reference here is to FDR’s job programs, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

There seem to be two arguments for this sort of program – one from actual need and the other from precedence. No one can deny that there is a vital need today to rehabilitate the country’s infrastructure. In fact, individual states are already setting aside taxes to rebuild bridges, because the federal government has been unable to mandate funds for much of anything aside from the military. And besides rehabilitation of what’s crumbling, new infrastructure is long overdue: electrical grids and high-speed rail, to name only two of the most obvious. And the argument from precedence – the FDR experience – provides a political basis for advocating for a massive federal jobs program.

Our social priorities are askew and real work, useful social projects, could help to reorder our goals and create a society that works for all of us. But does a Job Guarantee meet these challenges of our times? The premise of JG is to create millions of jobs, not only in heavy construction to rebuild our crumbling schools, highways and railways, but also to staff those new schools, to fill the hospitals with more health care professionals (the population is aging, after all) and, beyond these obvious needs, to enrich our culture by providing jobs in the arts so that we have more symphonies and theaters, just as in the 30s.

The mind boggles at the task the government would need to undertake. Admittedly, the government did do all this in response to the Great Depression, but that hardly convinces, on two counts: firstly, the population of the jobless then and scope of their employment doesn’t compare to the complexity of today’s needs. And secondly, all the jobs created then were temporary jobs. The federal government undertook a new role with the understanding that it was responding to an emergency; it was simply reviving the economy with every prospect that it would discontinue its rushed treatment of an acute economic malady. Our depressed economic circumstance bespeaks a chronic condition.

Today we need millions of jobs. Depending on how you count the unemployed, the underemployed and the “non-employed,” we have at least 12 million seeking jobs and upwards to at least twice that amount. This does not include the tens of millions of working poor, those who work but remain in poverty. Is it fair for the government to provide jobs while so many people are barely scraping by? Or is the intent of the JG to pay substandard wages?

The stupendous calamity we face is not a jobs issue, it is a lack of income issue.

ABUNDANCE IS NOT ACCUMULATION

It is true that besides the obvious bounty, the profits sucked up by its owners, technology does benefit society by creating unprecedented material abundance. This abundance, while generated by greater productivity, has to be hidden in plain view from the proletariat. This is the great capitalist scam: the owners of technology convince the workers that the machines, dead labor so to speak, not their living labor, produce wealth. The bosses have largely convinced us that we must service the machines (at low wages), not the other way round.

We entered into a society of abundance many decades ago, but capitalists must invest seemingly forever to secure wealth, the fruit of that abundance, for themselves. Their greed has modeled a putative life for most of us. So, pursuing, if not happiness, then cultural enrichment on both an individual and social level, has been successfully avoided for the insipid goal, or more appropriately, the addiction of material enrichment.

An abundant society is not defined by the size of your television, or the elegance of your espresso maker, but by the quality of life that ensues when basic needs – food, shelter, health and conviviality – are satisfied. When the time that we devote to directly supplying those (real) needs reverts back to us, when our days are filled with the things we want to do and that immediately sustain us, and not the tasks of the paymaster, then we can begin to truly live.

A line of thinking like this is easily dismissed as fanciful, as utopian, in the sense of unattainable. But, to mention only one area, the accelerated pace of our current drive to despoil the environment in quest for oil and natural gas is praised as eminently practical. Where is the folly here? Is imagining a world free of exploitation more harebrained than the headlong pollution of our aquifers?

And anyway, a society of abundance won’t resemble a Land of Cockaigne – grilled geese won’t fly directly into one’s mouth and robust Bordeaux won’t spout from fountains. An abundant society means that the basic components of communal life are attainable for everybody on this planet; it doesn’t mean that breakfast is served in bed for all. An abundant society primarily defines a change in consciousness – an appreciation of quality over quantity. Or to take another aspect, an abundant society means moving away from the reign of scarcity to a profound sense of conservation and an end to the egregious waste that pervades our existence. A recent study in the UK determined that up to 40% of food products are discarded without being used. I recall that fifteen years ago when the energy cartels were screwing California consumers with outrageous electric rates, people conserved energy to such a degree that the state’s private utility companies feared financial losses. Waste means profits in our present system.

A GUARANTEED INCOME FOR ALL

It is necessary to persist in speaking about an abundant society and counter the popular confusions just mentioned, because there is no other way to reverse the perspective of power – a perspective that demands sacrifice and scarcity to keep us all subservient. It is this perspective that JG succumbs to in its focus on jobs instead of income. A guaranteed income, that is, creating a livelihood on a foundation of security for all, follows directly from recovering the social abundance denied to us.

What sort of society could evolve if everybody received an income to meet his or her basic needs of food, shelter and health? No one would be wholly dependent on either private or public jobs, and not on charities either. Interestingly, such a society might resemble the DIY economies that sprang up in the nineteenth century when the private sector was rapacious, employment precarious and before the state’s welfare role in the economy was in place. To stabilize their lives people began to search for ways to create their own economic institutions. In newly industrializing countries like Great Britain and the United States, cooperative ventures were established to provide various social insurances (widows’ benefits, for instance), local food shops and even work places. Accompanying these grassroots efforts, the 19th Century saw an effervescence of communal experiments. The most impressive was Robert Owen’s mill in New Lanark, with up to 2,500 inhabitants living in the communal enclave built at the mill site. In America, literally hundreds of alternative communities were established – this period has come down to us, somewhat unfortunately, as the Age of American Utopianism, when it would be more appropriate to call it the Age of Social Innovations, or the Age of Communal Empowerment.

No matter the terms used, these social experiments occurred during a period before the consolidation of corporate capitalism and its control of the state and technology, when the potential for social relations was still somewhat fluid and the mass of people believed that they could devise a society that more clearly met their needs. The capitalists and their state henchmen, of course, could not tolerate these experiments, which they saw as open rebellion to the structures of oppression that they assiduously began to implement. For them, ideas to create a more just society signaled an ideological class warfare that had to be suppressed – legalistically if possible, by violence if necessary.

Again, we find ourselves living in tumultuous times. In the 19th century, people assessed the negative aspects of the growing industrial society and sought a way of living that provided them with security and respect. For a brief period, and only after decades of persistent worker rebellions, a Grand Bargain mollified dissent – in exchange for obedience, consumerism was unleashed upon the masses. Today, the realization is widespread that the Grand Bargain (aka The American Dream) is a hoax and, I believe, that as a result we have entered into a period of proliferating social experimentation, a sort of practical utopianism has captured the imagination of many.

I think that basic economic security provided by a guaranteed income will support the multiplicity and elaboration of these social ventures. With a their basic needs met, those who participate in “social labs,” as the network of community economic, social and cultural experiments could be called, will be able to devote more time to their development. I find this prospect most exciting and the least appreciated for its libratory potential.We are not talking here about simply releasing the so-called “entrepreneurial spirit” and creating new jobs, though both will certainly happen, but more significantly, BI will support creative collective endeavors of all sorts. For example, in the area of food production and distribution, in opposition to corporate control of this vital resource, every community in America has witnessed not only the growth of local farmers’ markets, but also the largest increase in retail food co-operatives in decades. The same forces are at work in other areas like alternative energy (one aspect of creating new infrastructure), local currencies, and a blossoming of cultural expression in the arts and theater. Neighborhood conviviality, no longer a fond wish, shows traces of flourishing across the land.

A basic income guaranteed to all, while empowering social experimentation (by providing an economic foundation for individuals to devote more time to expand its scope), will grant the working poor the biggest boon of all – better paying jobs. The beloved marketplace that the employers used as a weapon would now betray them as the workers bargain from a position of strength. The bosses, facing the prospect of loosing subservient hands if not properly compensated, might very well opt for even more automation. The famous hamburger machine, with its job-killing potential, portends a future that demands income be separated from labor.

FINANCING BASIC INCOME

One final issue needs to be addressed regarding Basic Income. Inevitably, the question of how to pay for such a program arises. Most advocates answer with various tax measures to equitably distribute incomes, and given the grossly exaggerated inequities in wealth, this seems like an appropriate response. However, it seems to me that depending on traditional taxation, that is, on the state’s role as welfare provider, is a dubious proposition and replicates the errant reasoning of the JG advocates.

A more appropriate funding source would be one that adopts, in some fashion, the Alaska Permanent Fund that invests the revenue collected from oil and gas extraction and allocates yearly payments (earnings of the invested monies) to the citizens. Or in other words the commons, as a natural resource, partially finances the livelihoods of the citizens, as it had in rural societies centuries ago. Natural resources, it must be noted, extend beyond oil or gas to include the oceans and even the broadcast bands. In fact, the air itself is a resource and pollution taxes (or fees) have been in effect for decades. The point here is to establish a protocol for everyone benefiting from the wealth of the natural world, before the rich can abscond with it, and to remove the state as far as possible from directly funding the distribution of revenues.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of Basic Income, as I see it, is not simply to provide an income, but to recognize a fundamental social need that capitalism aborted – a viable livelihood: a value, and an economic consequence, that was integral to the functioning of the commons. This is more than an economic right; the recognition of a common sharing/control begets an organizational form of management that forms the basis for (radical) democratic practices that are thoroughly and consistently embedded in everyday life. Here we have the basis for dignity for all.

 

 

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Laborless Day

U S Labor Day needs retooling

Labor Day needs some serious retooling. With millions out of work and the prospects of good paying (mostly union) jobs disappearing at a steady pace, Labor Day increasingly takes on the aspect of a memorial, not a celebration. Gone are the days I remember in my youth when the yearly “Labor Day BBQ” sponsored by my father’s union – the United Steelworkers – was a highlight of an otherwise depressing end of summer. I suspect that at today’s picnic – if one even occurs – I would find a somber event with nostalgic retirees celebrating their memories.

What’s left to commemorate on Labor Day? Poor paying jobs? Of course, on this day, the usual pieties regarding the honorable role of labor will be solemnized mostly by politicians, rather than by partisans of labor. But like the dogma of a religion observed only in transgression, nobody will believe a word. It is as if The Right to be Lazy, by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, has become common sense. How can it be otherwise when every poll taken since the 60s comes up with the revelation that the majority of people dislike their jobs? The most recent Gallup worldwide poll (2013) recorded only 13% like going to work.*

Instead of accepting the desperate pretense that the traditional labor movement can be revived, why not return, not for nostalgia, but for inspiration to the origins of the workers’ holiday in the late 1880s? Labor Day began as marches (they called them processions) to support shorter working hours. If we acknowledge the spectacular rise in productivity over the century since those marches, then we must recognize that the reduction of working time (not to mention higher wages) due to productive gains has been stolen from us.

Stolen first by the bosses who pocketed the profits from the introduction of machinery and a theft never really challenged by the unions except to seek, as meager compensation, higher wages and benefits

And a more leisurely life was stolen by consumerism, or more precisely by debt. I mean by this that the desire for a less stressful life has been traded for consumables and a faux luxurious life. The Kellogg workers in Michigan, for example, abandoned their decades-long six-hour day for eight so that they could “keep up with the Jones” – a race we see today as heading to oblivion.

Let’s be clear, to revive Labor Day as Laborless Day is not an effort to seek a shorter working day. Laborless is not like Payless; Laborless means Free! What other choice is left to us? Those who entice us with a secure future through education betray us. Those who promise a better life for our vote lie to us. And those who praise the value of work make it scarce.

Industrial society, that living hell Blake, and many others, in horror foresaw has finally achieved – after more mayhem than predicted – the abundance promised by its apostles. But it has all been wasted on a tiny elite. For us – there’s only an abundance of poverty. Inequality, the concern today of academics, pundits and various do-gooders, misses the target. The fight is not for a level playing field, but a new game.

The triple crisis before us – the economic, environmental and political – cries for a response appropriate to its severity. We are dangerously close to another mass species extermination and engagement with this reality requires decelerating and reversing the forces that produced this calamity.

To begin this process of reversal, where better to start than with what we have in common, our disgust with work? The vampire logic of work sucks out our life force while building a deviant social cohesion composed of failure and shame.** It usurps in this way the possibility for a different way of living. We cannot be free in these circumstances. And not free, changing course is impossible.

In the midst of all this misery, however, our subversive desire to avoid work is often a secret delight and pleasure too often hidden from our co-workers. When it erupts, like in the recent upsurge of protests by the wage slaves of the service economy, the utter disgust the workers have for their jobs generates a momentum that terrifies the bosses.

The immediate demand may be higher wages for the employed, but if the ultimate goal is liberation from poverty, that will only occur when we abandon the delusional quest for full employment for a system where income is separated from work. Political rights can only be assured when economic rights are secured. Two hundred years ago, owning property served as insurance for political rights; today the notion of a free yeomanry survives in the belief that all the people, not only an elite, should benefit from natural and human resources.

This belief motivated the founding of the Alaska Permanent Fund that provides an annual sum to every citizen (including children) based on revenues from oil exploration in the state. For the past decade, the average benefit has been over $1,000, of course not enough to live on, but the Fund serves as model for a larger program to provide a modest lifestyle. I hasten to add, not one based on extractive industries, but sustainable ones. The various proposals for supporting basic guaranteed income are all based on the premise that resources are the common wealth for the benefit of all.

With an income guaranteed as a right, all work can be challenged and some (possibly, most!) jobs will disappear as stupid wastes of time; some will be replaced by machines; some may be revalued because they are useful but currently disparaged, and so forth. The point is that traditional work will no longer be the sole means for survival. We will be in control of jobs and not the other way round. Some may take the basic income and seek out a part-time job for a little extra money and some may continue working at a task they fully enjoy, at least for a while. And some may devote themselves to an individual or social project with very little or no remuneration. Surely, the threat of climate change implies a great variety of collective endeavors to mitigate the consequences of decades of unrestrained growth. The security of a modest income means that none of these choices need be permanent.

Can we not imagine how to live a more convivial form of economic activity free of the horse collar of jobs and the constrictions of the marketplace? And would that activity be economic in any sense that we recognize? It may not be that we will trade homo economicus for homo ludens, but that our collective/individual activity will transcend both spheres. Our desire to live a life closer to our potential, closer to the natural world and closer to others cannot continue to be denied. To do so is to invite our extinction along with the earth.

Some day work as we known it will be relegated to dioramas in the Hall of Work in the Museum of Capitalism. You may laugh at what seems a total fantasy, yet today we think nothing of touring royal boudoirs, a transgression our ancestors would have paid for with their lives. Let us celebrate Laborless Day in anticipation of a better future.

_ _ _

* What’s behind job dissatisfaction? This article explains why you hate your job. And further, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report analyzes employee engagement and productivity in workplaces across the U.S. This research shows that less than a third of U.S. employees (30%) are engaged at work. Thus, while Americans may be satisfied with their job security, and with other aspects of their jobs such as vacation time and retirement benefits, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged at work.

** This formulation is derived from Viviane Forrester’s masterpiece of anti-work polemic The Economic Horror. Read it!

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“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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