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leberwurst proletariat

Tag: work

Some Stories About Communization


by Jasper Bernes, Nov 2020-Jan 2021, via Substack

(see also Planning and Anarchy (2020), and Belly of the Revolution (2018))

Part 1, Nov 26, 2020

I want to do a series of posts on the theory of “communization” as it has developed since 1968, because it seems to me there is a great deal more interest in the term and desire than there is comprehension. There are many reasons for the abuse the word has suffered, but foremost is that, in France, from whence it derives, “communization” never at first served to name a tendency or a coherent theory. It was simply a term of art that a loosely connected network of communist projects used to explain their vision of communist revolution.

Even as the term courant communisateur – communizing tendency, or communizer current–began to be applied to these groups retrospectively, many questioned and resisted the term, drawing attention to the way that it conflated advocates of communization, who can exist in the world here and now, with those who practice communization, that is with people who do not yet exist.

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The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (James Boggs, 1963)


In 1963, drawing on his own experience as a factory worker and radical militant, James Boggs wrote this pamphlet. It addresses (among many things) the failures of the CIO, increasing automation, rising unemployment and the emergence of new social actors (‘the outsiders’) that he saw as a threat to capitalism.

James Boggs, born in Marion Junction, never dreamed of becoming President or a locomotive engineer. He grew up in a world where the white folks are gentlemen by day and Ku Klux Klanners at night. Marion Junction is in Dallas County where as late as 1963, although African-Americans made up over 57 percent of the total county population of 57,000, only 130 were registered voters. After graduating from Dunbar High School in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1937, Boggs took the first freight train north, bumming his way through the western part of the country, working in the hop fields of the state of Washington, cutting ice in Minnesota, and finally ending up in Detroit where he worked on WPA until the Second World War gave him a chance to enter the Chrysler auto plant. In 1963, drawing on his own experience as a factory worker and radical militant, he wrote these pages.

Boggs offers both a keen analysis of U.S. society and a passionate call for revolutionary struggle. He sees the growing trend toward automation, the decline of organized labor, the expansion of imperialism, and the deepening of racial strife as fundamentally rooted in the contradictions of U.S. capitalism. And he concludes that the only way forward is a new American revolution—one that, from his perspective writing in the 1960s, appeared to have already begun.  

See also: 

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Automation and the Future of Work (Benanav 2019)

Technological Waste

by Aaron Benanav

Part 1: Automation and the Future of Work 1, NLR 119, September October 2019

Part 2: Automation and the Future of Work 2, NLR 120, November December 2019

The world is abuzz with talk of automation. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics seem set to transform the world of work. In the most advanced factories, companies like Tesla have been aiming for ‘lightsout’ production, in which fully automated work processes, no longer needing human hands, can run in the dark. Meanwhile, in the illuminated halls of robotics conventions, machines are on display that can play ping-pong, cook food, have sex and even hold conversations. Computers are not only developing new strategies for playing Go, but are said to be writing symphonies that bring audiences to tears. Dressed in white lab coats or donning virtual suits, computers are learning to identify cancers and will soon be developing legal strategies. Trucks are already barrelling across the us without drivers; robotic dogs are carrying military-grade weapons across desolate plains. Are we living in the last days of human toil? Is what Edward Bellamy once called the ‘edict of Eden’ about to be revoked, as ‘men’—or at least, the wealthiest among them—become like gods?

The Author as Producer (Walter Benjamin, 1934)


Address at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris, April 27, 1934

The task is to win over the intellectuals to the working class by making them aware of the identity of their spiritual enterprises and of their conditions as producers. –

Ramon Fernandez

You recall how Plato treats the poets in his projected State. In the interest of the community, he does not allow them to live there. He had a high idea of the power of poetry. But he considered it destructive, superfluous – in a perfect community, needless to say. Since then, the question of the poet’s right to exist has not often been stated with the same insistence; but it is today. Certainly it has rarely been posed in this form. But you are all more or less familiar with it as the question of the poet’s autonomy: his freedom to write whatever he may please. You are not inclined to accord him this autonomy. You believe that the current social situation forces the poet to choose whom his activity will serve. The bourgeois writer of popular stories does not acknowledge this alternative. So you show him that even without admitting it, he works in the interests of a particular class. An advanced type of writer acknowledges this alternative. His decision is determined on the basis of the class struggle when he places himself on the side of the proletariat. But then his autonomy is done for. He directs his energies toward what is useful for the proletariat in the class struggle. We say that he espouses a tendency. [1]

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Proletariat into a Class: The Process of Class Formation from Karl Kautsky’s The Class Struggle to Recent Controversies (1977)



Politics & Society 7, no. 4 (1977): pp. 343-401

Workers and the petite bourgeois are the only producers of all that is consumed. The surplus produced by workers is directly and indirectly (through the state) transferred as revenue to all other categories. In this sense even the poorest of the lumpenproletariat lives off the workers: given capitalist relations of production there are objective bases to the antagonism of workers to the “welfare class”… Yet at the same time all categories other than the capitalists and the petite bourgeoisie are separated from the ownership of the means of production and forced to sell their labor power for a wage, unless they can subsist on so-called welfare. Moreover, in Marx’s analysis the labor of commercial employees, while not creating surplus value, enables the merchant capitalist to appropriate surplus value without paying the employees the full equivalent of their labor. In this sense, both the reproductive and the service categories, while living off the surplus produced by workers, are separated from the means of production, forced to sell their labor power, and in a particular sense exploited by the capitalist… Concrete analysis is incompatible with the view of classes as economically determined, spontaneously emerging subjects that simply march on to transform history. Classes are formed as effects of struggles; as classes struggle, they transform the conditions under which classes are formed.


In Praise of Idleness (1932)


by Bertrand Russell (Harpers 1932)

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Every one knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

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Jobs, Bullshit, and the Bureaucratization of the World


by Jason E. Smith

You probably first heard of him when reading, on or in the pages of The New Yorker, about his role as one of the “founders” of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of you might have stumbled across him even earlier, when The New York Times published a short article on the openly anarchist anthropology professor whose politics, he lamented, thwarted his plans for tenure at Yale. Others, probably a bit younger, and having drifted into post-2008 “radical” politics, first found him on Twitter, where he assiduously maintains contact with almost 70,000 followers. Slightly older radicals will recognize him as an eager participant in and chronicler of the turn-of-the-century anti-globalization movement. SlateThe GuardianThe Financial Times and other organs of the prevailing powers open their column space to his reflections on technology, money, and Corbynism, or his calls for Western succor to the “revolutionary Kurds” of Rojava (who have, for years now, enjoyed the lethal air support of US war planes). The son of NYC leftists—his father fought in the storied Abraham Lincoln Brigades—and one of the venerable Marshall Sahlins’s last students, David Graeber is today best known for his monumental 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which appeared just a couple of months before the establishment of the Zuccotti Park camp. That book, in the works for years, seemed, due as much to its timing as to its content, the theoretical and historical work most attuned to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its demands. Now, seven years after that publication—and the rise and folding up of that movement—Graeber has followed his earlier examination of the “barter myth” and the priority of debt over exchange relations throughout human history with a new book, this time on a contemporary matter: the “current work regime.” Or as he puts it in his insistently populist idiom, the “proliferation of bullshit jobs.”

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Get rid of work (Dauvé)

What follows is a long essay by the French communization theorist, Gilles Dauvé translated by Ediciones Inéditos. It is a long read, a read which varies in content and tone but a text which masterfully summarizes the communist critique of work. The original can be found here at Troploin. He also dutifully notes that without the abolition of work there can be no communist revolution or communism. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed translating it. ¡A la chingada con el trabajo!

Here you will find a lightly modified chapter 3 from the bookFrom Crisis to Communizationpublished in 2017 by Editions Entremonde.

False construction sites


In 1997, in the French department of Sarthe, some 20 workers were constructing a section of highway under the direction of an engineer employed by a large company, BTP. After two months the engineer was arrested: no one had ordered the work that was partially done, which with an initial financing, the false construction site manager had successfully hoodwinked both banks and public organizations. Between 1983 and 1996, Philippe Berre had been convicted 14 times for ordering false construction sites. In 2009, “The Beginning,” a film inspired by this whole adventure was released, displaying a population struck by unemployment which briefly found work and hope. Phillippe Berre was not motivated by personal gain, but rather by the need to do, to be of use, to reanimate a group of workers. In 2010, once again, he took on this role while helping those affected by Cyclone Xynthia.

We all know “rogue bosses.” Philippe Berre is a fictitious boss, an anti-hero for our times; at once a “manipulator of symbols,” an agile manager of human resources, at a crossroads between the automobile and the BTP (presented as the two principal employers within modern countries), wandering as a nomad on the highways, as mobile as the activities which he preyed upon, living on the ephemeral dreams that his dynamism created around him, an illustration of a fluidity without markers or attachments, where money flows but is not wasted, where success has no future, where one builds worthless things, where all appears as communication and virtuality. But is not a sense of reality which Philippe Berre is lacking, rather he lacks respect.

When a crook brings work, revenue, and thus some “meaning” to a community in perdition, even if it is a provisional and false meaning, this raises the question – what does production and work mean? The unemployed at Sarthe trusted Philippe Berre because he brought them some socializing, a role, a status, a sense of being recognized. What is useful? Useless? Fictitious? Real? What is profitable or not? Was this piece of highway more or less absurd than any “real” highway? What work is worthy of being qualified as “a waste”? Beyond the hard reality of work (it creates objects, creates profit and is generally onerous), what is the truth?

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On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant


by David Graeber (2013)

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

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The Case Against a Basic Income


A universal basic income would shore up the market. We need ideas that shrink it.

In her campaign memoir What Happened, Hillary Clinton wrote that the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) for all Americans “fascinated” her. Reflecting on her wholly uninspiring campaign, she explained that she wanted to include it in her platform but “couldn’t make the numbers work,” so she dropped the idea.

She had planned to call it “Alaska for America,” referring to the Alaska Permanent Fund. Established in 1982, that program gives each of the state’s citizens an annual dividend from oil revenues. The idea gained popularity in the mid-sixties, and Nixon almost implemented it nationwide. American researchers conducted large-scale experiments in New Jersey, and a Canadian study took place in Winnipeg during the mid-seventies. At the time, the proposal produced heated debates in continental Europe and North America, but the decades that followed led to a slow but steady decline in support. The conservative preference for the “workfare” and “activation” policies that characterized welfare reform in the nineties — led by a different Clinton — turned basic income into a utopian fantasy.

But as interest in UBI from one of the planet’s most powerful political figures attests, the last ten years have given new life to the idea. Indeed, it’s now on the agenda of many movements and governments. For Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, two of UBI’s leading proponents, “the conjunction of growing inequality, a new wave of automation, and a more acute awareness of the ecological limits to growth has made it the object of unprecedented interest throughout the world.”

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Work: A Global History by Andrea Komlosy, discussed with Timothy Nunan

Work remains ever-present with us, yet somehow elusive. We spend more time doing it than anything else, other than sleeping, and yet defining what, exactly, the term means can be a challenge. Part of the reason may be the decline of solid salaried work, where one punched in and out of the factory, and knew that hours logged meant hours logged. For a time, even white-collar workers had the certainty of knowing that the weekend was just that – physical and infrastructural distance from fax machines, cell phones, and the papers, mountains of paper at the office. Today, however, many people not only allow office e-mail to intrude into the weekend; more than that, they embrace working from home.

Others are less lucky. Among historians, those who wash out in the brutal competition for the promise of tenured lifetime employment sometimes submit to the even crueler reality of the adjunct route. The root of the term itself demonstrates their precariousness: in linguistics, an adjunct is an optional, a “structurally dispensable” part of an utterance. All the same, as more and more work seems to become “casualized” (another telling term), organizers demand rights and privileges that were traditionally bundled with “full-time” or “traditional” employment. All the while, back at home, partners may grumble that there is precious little talk of unionizing or granting medical insurance to those of us stuck doing dishes, vacuuming, or putting a hot meal on the table.

The vocabulary that we use to talk about work remains, in short, of massive political importance, but all too often, we don’t scrutinize it very closely. Not, at least until Andrea Komlosy‘s 2014 book Arbeit: Eine globalhistorische Perspektive, published by Promedia Verlag  We recently had the chance to speak with Komlosy about her road to writing about social history and the history of work, as well as what it means to apply a global history perspective to a theme that necessarily stretches across hundreds of years. Let’s get to work, then, and dive into a discussion about Work.

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“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there”

by Jehu (2014)

If you ever want to make a good case against communism to a worker, tell her that communists want the following things:

  • Everyone is unemployed
  • No one has any income
  • Democracy no longer exists
  • No one can own anything

The paradox of communism is that it appears to involve conditions that are absolutely unacceptable to any rational person. Who in their right mind wants to give up having a job that pays a decent wage, the right to vote and control over means of production? And why would anyone who claims to fight for social emancipation stand for these sorts of things.

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The United States of Work



Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?

Work no longer works. “You need to acquire more skills,” we tell young job seekers whose résumés at 22 are already longer than their parents’ were at 32. “Work will give you meaning,” we encourage people to tell themselves, so that they put in 60 hours or more per week on the job, removing them from other sources of meaning, such as daydreaming or social life. “Work will give you satisfaction,” we insist, even though it requires abiding by employers’ rules, and the unwritten rules of the market, for most of our waking hours. At the very least, work is supposed to be a means to earning an income. But if it’s possible to work full time and still live in poverty, what’s the point?

Even before the global financial crisis of 2008, it had become clear that if waged work is supposed to provide a measure of well-being and social structure, it has failed on its own terms. Real household wages in the United States have remained stagnant since the 1970s, even as the costs of university degrees and other credentials rise. Young people find an employment landscape defined by unpaid internships, temporary work, and low pay. The glut of degree-holding young workers has pushed many of them into the semi- or unskilled labor force, making prospects even narrower for non–degree holders. Entry-level wages for high school graduates have in fact fallen. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, these lost earnings will depress this generation’s wages for their entire working lives. Meanwhile, those at the very top—many of whom derive their wealth not from work, but from returns on capital—vacuum up an ever-greater share of prosperity.

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Nowhere to Go: Automation, Then and Now


by Jason Smith

Part One

It is in this serious light that we have to look at the question of the growing army of the unemployed. We have to stop looking for solutions in pump-priming, featherbedding, public works, war contracts, and all the other gimmicks that are always being proposed by labor leaders and well-meaning liberals.

– James Boggs, The American Revolution

In 1963, James Boggs, a black autoworker employed for over two decades at a Chrysler plant in Detroit, published a short book focused on the nefarious effects of automation on class struggle in the United States. The story told in The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook begins with the early 1930s, the decomposition of the old craft unions, and a global economy in the throes of an unprecedented near-collapse; it arrives at a high point with the late 1930s, with a now-forgotten wave of sit-down strikes that tore through the tire and auto industries between 1933 and 1937, most famously at the Flint General Motors plant in early 1937.1 This was, in Boggs’s estimation, the “greatest period of industrial strife and workers’ struggle for control of production that the United States has ever known.” But this period also gave rise, under the reformist efforts of the New Deal and in a climate of mass unemployment, to the Wagner Act and the institutionalization of class struggle. The UAW, which just a few years earlier organized the sit-down strikes in the auto industry, had by 1939 banned the tactic in the plants. In the cast shadow of imminent war, the union’s no-strike pledge, along with the inevitable encrustation of a bureaucratic stratum more at home in the offices of management than on the workbenches, left workers to wildcat their way through the war. The Second World War witnessed thousands of work stoppages: an astonishing 8,708 strikes implicating over four million workers took place, according to Boggs, over one two-year period while war production was in full swing. Union pledges of discipline notwithstanding, order did not therefore always prevail. Workers, many of them from the rural South, and new to the world of the factory, consistently bucked against the dictates imposed by management and enforced by their own representatives. The wildcat strikes were not, however, always defections from the dictates of union bureaucrats and the boss. In 1943, a UAW-organized Packard plant was the site of a “hate strike” organized by white workers to push back against the influx of black workers into the factories, and the integration of assembly lines. Soon after, a tumultuous “race riot” broke out in the city, as white workers attacked black workers who now competed with them for housing. Dozens were killed, hundreds wounded; mostly black, and primarily at the hands of police and the National Guard. The city would be occupied by federal troops for a full half year after. Such was, for better and for worse, the American workers movement at its most militant.2

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Fuck work


by James Livingston,

Economists believe in full employment. Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way. . . [continue]

Chuang #1: Dead Generations


In this first issue we outline our basic conceptual framework and illustrate the current state of class conflict in China. We also include translated reports and interviews with the proletarians engaged in these struggles, pairing our theory with primary sources drawn from class dynamics that might otherwise remain abstract.Though taking the futureless present as our starting point, our first issue is also in a way performing burial rites for the dead generations who have populated the collapse of the communist horizon in East Asia. This issue therefore begins with a long-form article on the socialist era, “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” the first in a three-part series aiming to narrate a new economic history of China (the next two parts will be included in subsequent issues), before moving on to a pair of analytic articles on contemporary urban and rural struggles, as well as original translations and interviews with individuals engaged in them.

Print copies available from AK Press and HK Reader.

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A to Z of communisation (Gilles Dauvé)

(This “A to Z” is the third part of Everything Must Go! Abolish Value, published by Little Black Cart Books, Berkeley, California, in 2015.  The first two parts were written by Bruno Astarian: Crisis Activity & Communisation, and Value & its Abolition)


“Some people will find our propositions insane or naïve. We do not expect to convince everyone. If such a thing were possible, it would be very disturbing. We would rather have readers who have to rub their eyes before granting credence to our positions.”

A World Without Money: Communism, 1975

 AUTONOMY                       BLUE COLLAR                    CLASS                       DAILY LIFE

ECOLOGY                      FAMILY                             GIOTTO                              HABITAT     

INSURRECTION                   JAILBREAK                       KARL  (MARX)                   LABOUR    

MONEY               NON-ECONOMY          OBFUSCATION                POLITICS               QUERY  

REVOLUTION               SEX             TIME  (IS OF THE ESSENCE)                       UNLABELLED

VALUE                        WORK          XENOPHILIA                      YESTERDAY                      ZOMIAS


In 2012, radical Oakland occupiers made it clear that “no permission would be asked, no demands would be made, no negotiation with the police and city administration” : nobody or no body had the power to grant them anything relevant, so there was no point in bargaining with wannabe representatives.

Participatory decision-making implies a communal capacity often called “self-empowerment”. Autonomy is inclusive. As participants share an equal stake in the creation of a different world, the most important thing in their lives becomes their relation to others, and this interdependence extends far beyond the circle of relatives and friends.

In a different time and place, some people have stressed the spontaneity of many recent Chinese strikes, demonstrations, protests, street blockades and riots. Other observers have emphasized the careful planning that takes place beforehand. Yet organization and spontaneity are two sides of the same coin. A self-initiated work-stoppage needs previous secret talks and meetings, and its continuity needs durable independent information channels (such as a mutual help hotline) and decision-making structures.

However, the ideology of autonomy is one of the up-to-date nostrums. Autonomy is acting by oneself:  it says nothing about what this individual or collective self actually does. In the ebbs and flows of social battles, most occupations and strikes meet the limit of one company, one neighbourhood, one town, one city. Workplace, neighbourhood, kinship, etc., create a potential community of struggle which by its own strength alone can certainly self-manage an occupation, a strike, even community life for a while… but it is not enough to break the log jam.

How does a community of struggle create more than its struggle ? Can it go beyond rituals of social partnership ? How does solidarity not become an end in itself ? When can collective will wield its transformative power?

Unlike a book divided into chapters which gradually make their point from beginning to end, this A to Z is more like a dictionary in which each entry is to be read in relation to all the others. It is by accident that autonomy begins with the first letter of the alphabet. But it is no accident that self-activity should be a starting point. Autonomy is a necessary condition of the whole A to Z of communisation. It does not encapsulate the whole process.

Occupational Hazards. The Rise & Limitation of Occupy Oakland, CAL Press, 2012

New Strikes in China,

Eli Friedman, Insurgency Trap. Labor Politics in Post-socialist China, Cornell U.P., 2014

A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy, troploin site, 2008


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What is wrong with free money?


by Gruppen Gegen Kapital und Nation

Proposals for a Universal Basic Income or Citizen Income and variants thereof enjoy sympathy from different camps: from conservatives like Richard Nixon1, from libertarians who consider themselves disciples of the free market2, from liberals like Martin Wolf3, from social democrats like Paul Krugman4 and from people who consider themselves Marxists5.

However, what each of these proponents actually mean and want with a Universal Basic Income is wildly divergent. Centrally, the Marxists want an end to the “compulsion to work”, liberals and libertarians rather want to provide “incentives to work”.

Yet, despite these differing and at times opposing aims, these proposals share more than just a name: they share wrong premises about the capitalist mode of production and the state which watches over it.

In the following we want to first critique these shared wrong premises about productivity, the welfare state and the budget. Then, we draw out the contradiction of some left-wing supporters who, on the one hand, insist on unity with libertarian, liberal and social democratic Universal Basic Income proposals in order to acquire a whiff of seriousness and, on the other hand, continuously deny this unity.

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Your Job Is Pointless

Every Day The Same Dream 017

by Kit Caless

Like a lot of people, I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve been a deckhand on P&O Ferries, a dustman, a barman, an administration robot, a security guard, tea-boy at L’Oreal, a copywriter, an editor, a social media wonk. I’ve had zero hour contracts, I’ve been freelance, and I’ve had a salary. None of these things have satisfied me. In a country where the average worker spends 36 days a year writing emails (Londoners receive around 9,000 emails each year), you begin to wonder what the hell work really is.

And as we trudge back to work, it seems like a worthwhile time to ask: What is the point?

Peter Fleming, professor of Business and Society at City University, has tried to answer this question in his book The Mythology of Work. When I met him in an overpriced café in east London, he told me, “The refusal of work movement isn’t about laziness.” In fact, he said, “it’s nothing to do with doing nothing. In fact, if you want to see people doing nothing, go into a large corporation. Some of us are very lucky that our work really is a labor of love, but that’s not the case most of the time.”

General antipathy for work makes it all the more weird that, if you live in a metropolis like London, the one question everyone will ask when they meet you for the first time is, “What do you do?” Fleming says this is natural. “The ideology of work has demolished all of the other traditional status structures related to religion, artistic endeavor, raising family, and other status symbols within communities. After demolishing these structures we have been presented with a situation that tells us the only thing that matters is the work you do—and therefore you should revolve and center your whole life around that. It’s followed the increased individualization of society, which has broken traditional communities apart.”

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After Capitalism



HOW WILL IT END? For centuries even the most sanguine of capitalism’s theorists have thought it not long for this world. Smith, Ricardo, and Mill pointed to a “falling rate of profit” linked to inevitable declines in agricultural productivity. Marx applied the same concept to industrial production, suggesting that the tendency to replace workers with machines would lead to a chronic and insurmountable lack of demand. Sombart saw the restive adventurousness of capitalism as the key to its success—and, ultimately, its failure: though the appearance of new peripheries had long funneled profits back to the center, the days of “stout Cortez” had ended and there would one day be no empires or hinterlands to subdue.

Schumpeter was the gloomiest of all. He opened a chapter titled “Can Capitalism Survive?” (in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy) with the definitive answer, “No. I do not think it can.” Inspired by Marx, he imagined that the very success of capitalism—the creation of large enterprises through continuous innovation—would lead to profound fatigue as innovation came to be merely routine, and the bourgeoisie turned its attention toward the banalities of office life: “Success in industry and commerce requires a lot of stamina, yet industrial and commercial activity is essentially unheroic in the knight’s sense—no flourishing of swords about it, not much physical prowess, no chance to gallop the armored horse into the enemy, preferably a heretic or heathen — and the ideology that glorifies the idea of fighting for fighting’s sake and of victory for victory’s sake understandably withers in the office among all the columns of figures.” He foresaw a world in which intellectuals, a marginalized and unhappy lot, would turn their discontent into politics and lead the discontented castoffs of capitalism toward socialism.

These predictions, however, failed to describe what was actually happening with capitalism in the 20th century. By the 1980s people had turned toward a different proposition of Schumpeter’s: that competition “from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization” was the source of dynamism in a swiftly growing economy. For Schumpeter, the crises of capitalism were signs not of the system’s debility but of its secret health. Business cycles were zesty, violent guarantees of continued growth. Monopolies were only temporary and could be broken up by the “perennial gale of creative destruction.” When in the 1960s and ’70s the otherwise impregnable position of American industry was broken by competition from Germany and Japan, Schumpeter seemed prescient. The response of corporations in the 1980s—enormous mergers, leveraged buyouts, union busting, corporate raiding, mass layoffs, and upward redistribution of wealth—seemed almost to be taking his words as prescriptive.

But while the economy has been dynamic, it has not been healthy. Several crashes later, the gloom has returned, and the signs of autumn are once again most recognizable in the pronouncements of free-market capitalism’s erstwhile boosters. In the past year, many have taken up Larry Summers’s remark that we have entered a period of “secular stagnation,” marked by persistent and slow growth worldwide. Fiscal austerity is general, taxes remain low, and debt levels continue to rise—which means that Western countries, by selling treasury bonds to the rich through capital markets, are actually paying their elites in bond yields to avoid having to go through the politically impossible process of taxing them. Absent any political recourse to countercyclical fiscal policy, central banks in the US, the Eurozone, and Japan have kept interest rates low and pumped trillions of dollars of fiat money into the financial system, keeping banks and dot-com companies liquid and driving the rich to put their money into the condos now flooding Manhattan, all while leaving median wages pleasantly low. It’s kept things humming along, but not much more than that. Fear courses through the veins of the free-marketers, who recognize that all is not well with the system they love.

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