The Cerberus of Surplus Capital

“It is the nature of a new idea to confound current consensus.”

William H. Whyte, Jr.

In the previous post, we looked at the most daunting socioeconomic issue facing us today: the decline of labor value. Looking beyond a simple statistic like the unemployment rate, we can see the inescapable reality that technology, and the myriad systemic offshoots enabled by technology, will continue to reduce the economic value of human skill and effort. This is not to say that work is unimportant or unneeded, even economically speaking. Jobs will always be necessary, lots of them. It is just that the monetary value of labor as a component of the overall economic pie will continue to shrink, both in the US and globally. And similarly, the actual amount of labor needed to sustain reasonable economic growth will also decline. In short, it should not be controversial that decade after decade of labor-saving technology has resulted in – surprise, surprise – a reduced need for labor.

In a vacuum, this reduced need for labor is fantastic. If less work is needed to produce the same amount of stuff, then we could all be kicking back on the couch after putting in a couple leisurely morning hours at the job, waiting for the robot bartender/butler to wheel in an afternoon mojito. A growing economy that needs less labor input is the dream support structure for all manner of social betterment: shorter work weeks, more time with family and friends, more space for individual entrepreneurial activity, more resources freed up for charitable activity, more time for people to pursue education, artistic expression, travel, etc.

But in our culture, an American culture that venerates work above all else, the decline of labor value is a disaster. As Hannah Arendt observes, “What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.” We have spent the better part of two and a half centuries pushing all of our moral chips into the pot, betting on work as the best and only true way to build people, communities, and the nation. And now that this bet is coming up a loser, we are panicked.

Politically, we are painted into a corner. Both of the major parties still see Full Employment as the only road to salvation, albeit in different ways (the trickle-down path vs. the bubbling spring from below). But as economic reality continues to preclude these hopes for labor rejuvenation, each side must become more strident and extreme in its demonization of the opponent, as that is the only way to preserve some measure of credibility amidst the continuing slow-motion wreckage.

So what has to happen, many say, is a meeting in the common-sense middle. We need more cooperation and less extremism, so that we can find common ground and move forward. We just require some true stateswomen and statesmen, people who will reach across the aisle to unify us on some shared idea of a better future.

Sounds great, but the problem is that both sides of our current political system still exist on the same spectrum regarding labor, one that espouses Full Employment as the linchpin of national improvement. Any meeting in the middle is still going to involve an antiquated and dead-end understanding of economic production, labor value, and modern money. Even if we see a major shift towards bipartisan cooperation and legislative boldness (an unlikely development, but we’ll grant the point for argument’s sake), our mainstream politicians will still be trying to force everything through the funnel of full employment, which basically involves improving our citizens to meet the needs of business. But the business world has already spoken on the subject, and the decline of labor value itself is its declaration. Any legislative activism vis-à-vis the labor market (tax breaks for reshoring jobs, raising minimum wages, scale-tipping for labor union formation, tax holidays for repatriating overseas profits) is basically trying to force business to artificially overvalue labor again, just to preserve our national tunnel vision on the moral and economic worth of work.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that our national leaders in Washington are so ineffective at creating real change to help regular people, especially when it comes to jobs, wages, and basic economic security. Both sides are working off obsolete talking points and stale ideas, tropes that are more suited to the age of the gold standard and lifelong pensions. What is needed is not a meeting in the middle of this arid, scratchy ground. An entirely new set of ideas is necessary, one that acknowledges the realities of work, money, government, business, and overall economic health.

Power and Change

The problem with fomenting real change is, of course, that those in power will not want it. The current system works quite well for a small segment at the top, and those who reap the rewards of the status quo are not about to hand over the keys to those who would dismantle their advantage.

But so what?, the struggling change agent says. We just need to preach the message and fight the good fight, and the gathering winds of popular unrest will turn the tide against the powerful. The activist inclination, especially on the progressive side, is to believe that, because our present injustices are politically created, they can also be politically undone. But this is not the case. The complex, interlocked substructure of power is not just, or even primarily, political. The ascension of a small segment of controlling elites is the result of decades of development in many areas: technological change, the evolution of finance, changes in corporate governance and organization, trends in legal thought about property and ownership, consolidation of mass communication, etc. All of these long-term, algorithmic currents of change cannot be undone by winning a few elections and passing some landmark legislation. They run too deep.

In short, while the gross inequalities of our present situation feel villainous, they are not. They are structural and, like most important public things, economic. Today’s lopsided constellation of the haves and the have-little-or-nothings is a by-product of the victory of technology itself over the “production problem” of capitalism. When the ratios of labor, production, and profit cross a certain threshold, where businesses do not need to reinvest all profits back into themselves in order to grow, the result is surplus capital, which then goes in search of new ways to multiply (see James Livingston’s “Against Thrift” for the full discussion).

Surplus capital, in search of outlet, reaches for a few different dinner trays. Most obviously, it goes for speculation, fueling all manner of bubble with the breath of irrational exuberance. As Livingston notes, the production problem was solved in 1919 in the US, and surplus capital has been inflating stock and resource markets ever since. But surplus capital also allows the business sector to hedge its bets on the vagaries of competition, and it does this by purchasing governments, so that laws and regulations can be written to favor the already-flush. And to justify and explain the purchase of government, surplus capital captures old mass communication organs, as well as creating new ones.

Think of it this way: the Cerberus of surplus capital (speculative finance, the purchase of government, and the capture of public discourse) is not evidence of evil, despite my hellish canine metaphor. Rather, it is simply the way that post-scarcity capitalism manifests itself after the production problem has been solved. The situation is structural, and cannot just be undone, because the underlying relationships between technology, labor, production, and profit will not revert to some older state of reality. All of the factors that have been creating surplus capital for the last 100 years are still in place, and they are not going anywhere.

So we have an economic system that will continue to produce surplus capital, and that capital will continue to create huge power imbalances between the few and the many. And the whole thing is virtually impregnable, because of the wholesale purchase of government, the bloating of the financial sector, and the control of media.

So what to do? There are really only two approaches: redistribution after the fact, or predistribution before the fact. Redistribution will always prove impossible in the long run, because of the self-recreating nature of structural power, detailed above. So predistribution is the only option. And while it sounds like a nice, neat counterpart to redistribution, it is anything but. Predistribution is a complex beast, as it includes a package of unorthodox ideas with a seemingly-impossible task: dismantling the scaffolding of unequal structural power, while being palatable to that very structure itself. In short, we’re looking for a way to get the powerful to willingly choose the form of their own semi-destruction, a socioeconomic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

 

Something Ain’t Workin’

 

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor, and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society…. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won…

What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, 1958)

In the last few posts, we have been looking at the stalemate created by the Divided America complex. We have seen that narratives have emerged to appease the masses, narratives that must become more volatile and confrontational through time, as they do not lead to the actual bettering of economic conditions for regular citizens. As things deteriorate, scapegoating and finger-pointing intensify, and the total political annihilation of the other side is held out as the only hope for a return to American greatness. But since total and enduring political and cultural victory is impossible, and because the offered conservative and liberal utopias are so grand in their scope, fulfillment is always deferred, conveniently delayed until that point when only the ideologically pure have their thumbs on the levers of power.

This endless deferment of fulfillment is fundamentally rooted in the shared project of both liberals and conservatives: the restoration of full employment. Jobs, jobs, jobs – who could want anything else, right? Politicians and economists from across the spectrum all want roughly the same thing: well-paid, secure, meaningful, and productive work. The details differ, certainly. From the right, jobs are seen as flowing from private investment; and if government would just step out of the way (stop rewarding freeloaders, mostly), then the entrepreneurially driven jobs of yore would come back with gusto. From the left, jobs also come primarily from the private sector. But there is an additional requirement that government construct a robust supporting infrastructure: anti-discriminations laws, equal pay laws, minimum wage laws, pro-union laws, job training programs, etc. Despite these different points of emphasis between the right and left, all roads for social improvement still lead back to the main thoroughfare of paid employment for all.

But there is a problem here, a big one, and it is one that we have just not been willing to face. Plainly stated, the problem is that the economic value of human labor is declining, and will continue to do so, inexorably. Depending on how we respond to this iron clad axiom, we could be looking at the most disastrous development in modern industrial history, or we could be opening the door to a dazzling reshaping of individual daily life and of the entire socioeconomic infrastructure.

Politically, it will become increasingly impossible to run party platforms through the lens of full employment, because no amount of job re-training programs, corporate tax cuts, minimum wage hikes, or union rejuvenation efforts can change the deep, underlying algorithms of declining labor value vis-à-vis economic production. These trends are long-term, widespread, global, and irreversible; and if we keep swimming against these currents, we are consigning our future to continued economic inertia and the resulting cultural volatility. But if we can somehow lean into the skid, there is still some hope.

The End of Work

What are we talking about when we observe that there is a decline in labor value? Simply put, it means that the monetary worth of the human skills component of the economic pie is shrinking, for a variety of reasons, mostly driven by technology. But technological unemployment (a robot will get my job) is not the only manifestation of declining labor value.

I won’t belabor (sorry) the issue of the decline of work here, as there are other pieces of the puzzle I want to get to, and there are many others who have made the case far better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, there are a whole range of long-term trends that prove the point of declining labor value: stagnant wages, declining labor share of GDP, declining labor force participation, increased inequality in wealth, declining job creation rates, increased long-term unemployment, increased underemployment (people working part-time who want full-time), increased temp and contingent labor (think ‘gig’ jobs), job polarization, lower wages for recent college grads, and so on. Martin Ford calls these developments the “Seven Deadly Trends,” and there are certainly a few more. I would encourage everyone to read the works listed at the end of this post, as they are crucial in understanding what is driving the global labor landscape. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that these trends are long developing, global, and irreversible.

So if this is the case, if labor value is truly on a downward slope with no end in sight, why is “jobs, jobs, jobs” the only political lyric we hear? Why are we still satisfied with the endless deferment of dreams served up by our main conservative and liberal narratives? Why are we content to wait for job retraining, or wider college availability, or better pre-school, or rejuvenated labor unions, or trickle-down job creation, or tariffs that bring back beloved heavy industry, or tax haven magic that re-shores billions and restores US jobs? All of these hoped-for dreams push help for regular people out many years, perhaps generations.

Well, the short answer is that most people are really not content to wait for these developments, and that is why we see so much political disgust and disillusionment. And even beyond that, I firmly believe that much of our free-floating rage, especially the male variety that is so frequently on display in mass and chronic murders, is traceable to the collapse of stable, reliable employment, which is then filtered through failed households, decimated communities, and the ballooning drug/crime/addiction landscape.

But in a more abstract sense, we have been somewhat able to ignore the decline of labor value by hiding it, mostly via the expansion of the state, the addition of breadwinners inside the household (i.e., women entering the workforce), and by the growth of personal debt. As James Livingston notes, ‘entitlements’ now make up 20% of all household income, supplementing a squishy core of regular wage compensation. Declining individual wages have been obscured by putting more emphasis on ‘household income,’ even though those households now have to include a lot more overall labor time just to keep afloat. And while household debt is lower than it was during the 2008 recession, it is still at an uncomfortably high level, especially considering that student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt, just as salaries are cratering for recent college grads.

The Labor Market

To get a little more abstract still, we need to think about jobs in their wider economic setting: the labor market. And we need to look at what the labor market is supposed to do, historically, versus what it is actually doing now. Following Livingston again, what we see today is a labor market that is either totally broken, or absolutely perfect, depending on how you frame the question.

For background, we need to go back to 1919. As Livingston notes, before 1919, economic growth in the United States required ever more capital investment and more labor. But thanks to technological innovation, the 1920s saw massive productivity improvements, robust business profits, but declining employment. The result was surplus capital, which then went in search of speculative outlets, creating the stock market collapse and the Great Depression. Since that pivotal period, the main economic story of the United States revolves around two trends: the growth of the financial sector to handle the surplus capital generated by victory over the ‘production problem,’ and the growth of the government sector to deal with those rendered economically superfluous by that same victory.

Essentially, after 1919, capital owners had the upper hand on labor, economically speaking, since business growth could be sustained without having to increase the labor share of production. If businesses can maintain healthy profit levels without hiring more people or increasing wages for those already employed, then they have no other moral obligation to pursue anything like full employment for society as a whole. The fact that fewer people will have enough money to buy a particular business’s product is not really that business’s problem. As long as they are turning a profit, and their internal logic is telling them to avoid declining returns on investment in labor, those business owners will just take their surplus capital and look for other, more speculative ways to invest, instead of plowing more money into worker wages and capital equipment.

But as the Great Depression showed, declining labor value is a problem for the government, as destitution and desperation are not the best faces for a great nation. FDR and WW2 ushered in an era of government intervention in this labor-capital relationship, and the federal spending spigot was opened up. After the war, we hit a goldilocks period, where government fiscal activism was still robust, and the rest of the industrialized world was in tatters. In that unusual interim, wages climbed and the good life was available, catalyzed by the GI bill, cheap mortgages and real estate, and the continental construction of happy motoring suburbia (nod to Jim Kunstler).

But by the end of the 1970s, these unusual conditions had receded, and the logic of capital’s shedding of labor input resumed its relentless march. Surplus profits were in play again, and they went in search of an impressive neoliberal suite of goodies: deregulation, marginalization of labor unions, privatization of public utilities, loosened campaign finance laws, lower corporate and top-earner income taxes, expanded opportunities in financial securities, and the construction of a sprawling spread of laissez-faire cultural organs (think tanks, research institutes, publishing houses, etc.).

Since the peak of real wages in the late 1970s, these neoliberal trends, combined with the growing sophistication of globalized corporate management techniques and structures, have strip-mined the labor market, squeezing every last bit of surplus value from the lives of regular workers. The result is a populace that is beleaguered, underpaid, stressed, anxious, overworked-yet-underworked, and generally enraged at the rickety economic scaffolding that is splintering under its feet.

Work and Morality

Despite the complexity of current economic conditions, the morality that underlies the American work ethic is really quite simple: people should work hard, because it builds character, keeps them out of trouble, and grows the economy. People who don’t work (when they are able to do so) are lazy and morally suspect, a drain on society and on the hard-working taxpayers who pay the bills. This is an idea that goes back further than the founding of our country. It is rooted in Luther’s concept of a calling, a worldly vocation by which one improves self and society at once. As Livingston puts it: “Before the Reformation, almost no one believed that socially necessary labor was an ennobling activity. After the Reformation, almost everyone did.”

Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of this concept. The Protestant work ethic is still the most powerful moral idea in America, more durable and widespread than any sectarian manifestation of religion, patriotism, family, or ethnicity. These other things multiply and diversify, while the work ethic is a nearly universal unifier. Indeed, the American Dream itself is nothing but the work ethic in a quasi-sacred shroud. As we are a young people, a dizzying diversity set in a massive physical expanse, the work ethic is our history, purpose, and destiny, all in one.

Unfortunately, the deterioration of labor value has rendered this work ethic a cruel joke. We should all know, by now, that labor, effort, skill, and dedication are no longer linked to monetary compensation, social worth, and economic security. Consider this: does anyone really believe that Mark Zuckerberg works 150,000 times harder than the average American household (he takes a $1 annual salary, but makes $9 billion a year just on stock appreciation)? Do Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett have more social and moral worth than the bottom half of the US population? Or less dramatically, does a hedge fund manager making hundreds of millions dollars a year have more personal character than an elementary school teacher or a janitor?

So even though we know, deep down, that the labor market is now totally irrational, with no justifiable relationship between effort, character, reward, money, and security, the power of the work ethic prevents us from admitting it. We just feel, in our hearts, that something can and must be done to bring the jobs back and fix the labor market. We reserve our most intense outrage for those people and entities that limit our career opportunities, and (especially) those of our children. We may have other social and political concerns, like guns, abortion, campaign finance, gerrymandering, and the like. But when it comes to the actual mechanism for creating a better future, once some other barriers are eliminated, it is still Work that takes center stage. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

This is a profound misreading of the times. Work cannot carry the load any more, and the work ethic itself must be scrapped, at least in its current form. But in order for this to happen, we need to put something substantial and practical in its place. And any alternative has to be attractive, persuasive, simple, and achievable. Libraries are filled with fantastic and alluring schemes to achieve noble ends. But in today’s socioeconomic situation, the tools of control are highly developed. Power is amazingly concentrated and entrenched, and any plan for the future must be appealing to those who are already in charge.

What we need is a Trojan Horse. We’ll get to that next time.

Key Works on Employment:

Brybjolfsson, Erik & Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age (WW Norton: 2014)

Dunlop, Tim, Why the Future Is Workless (Newsouth, 2016)

Ford, Martin, Rise of the Robots (Basic Books, 2015)

Livingston, James.

  • Against Thrift (Basic Books, 2011)
  • No More Work (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
  • “Why Work?” (The Baffler, No. 35, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting the Table

In the last couple posts (here and here), we established this general framework: our country is being artificially split into two warring factions, mainly due to our electoral machinery (winner-take-all) and the partisan media that feasts on the resulting confrontational style of politics. As economic conditions on the ground deteriorate for regular people, narrative theodicies arise to explain why things are so screwed up, and who is to blame. These stories, which I described as Dreams Dashed (the conservative variant) and Dreams Derailed (liberal version), have several common characteristics: they are emotionally charged, with compelling heroes and villains; they are both anti-establishment, albeit with different interpretations of who actually makes up the elite; they have built-in excuses for inertia, because total victory over a dehumanized Other is necessary to fulfill their vast and ideologically pure goals; and finally, at bottom, both stories are economic, offering explanations for the pecuniary collapse of the American Dream.

How can we break this logjam? What could possibly reduce the intensity of this Divided America battleground, so that we might approach our fellow citizens with respect and dignity, instead of shouting past each other and walling ourselves into enclaves of like-mindedness?

The popular approach to this impasse is the appeal for a sensible return to “The Middle.” In this interpretation, both sides have become too ‘extreme,’ and the antidote is the common sense of regular, hard-working folks. If we could just get some more ‘moderates’ into the government, then we could right the ship. And not surprisingly, the popular refrain for this return to The Middle is economic: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The problem here is that the economic status of labor value has fundamentally changed over the last few decades, and that change is permanent (more on that later). There is no magical job-creating elixir sloshing around in the hallowed Middle. This is the very reason that our conservative and liberal stories have had to become more intense and combative through time. The agreed-upon economic status quo has absolutely stalled in creating ‘full employment,’ even while the overall financial condition of The Establishment is just fine.

The election of Donald Trump and the efforts of Steve Bannon to topple traditional Republicans are perfect illustrations of the emptiness of the wisdom of The Middle. They are now waging, on separate fronts, scorched-earth campaigns not only to destroy everything even remotely left of center, but to also blow up the establishment GOP structure as well. As many have noted, traditional Republicans are now reaping what they have sown, as their intensifying anti-government rhetoric has come home to roost.

But as we have noted on this blog, this intensification of rhetoric is not exclusive to conservatives. Indeed, our political duopoly and companion partisan media must, by necessity, become more combative through time, because economic conditions on the ground continue to erode. People cannot be placated forever with the same old stories. As they become more desperate, their need for scapegoats intensifies, and the bleats for a return to the happy Middle become more quaint and more faint.

So what to do? The first step is to recognize the nature of stories, and how they relate to economic conditions. There is a temptation, especially as we have been looking at the Conservative and Liberal narratives for the last couple posts, to think that the psychological persuasiveness of stories for individuals and communities translates to historical and social causation. Ideas can only do so much heavy lifting. As historical materialism suggests, economic conditions on the ground (how we work, where we live, how we physically move around, how we make things, the arrangements surrounding property, etc.) always constrain and condition the range of possible ideational responses. (Say what you will about Marx’s fanciful historical predictions and political proclivities, his observations on basic social and historical causation are still spot on.)

What that means for our task here is that we should resist the urge to simply create a new narrative as an alternative to the ones that now drive the Divided America battles. We can’t just storytell our way to a better situation. Instead, we should jump directly into our current economic realities, and craft some immediate solutions to the most pressing problems. Once that is under way, then maybe some better stories can grow out of the improved conditions on the ground.