Bob Black: What is Wrong With This Picture? A Critique of a Neo-Futurist's Vision of the Decline of Work

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We approach what Bill Gates calls “frictionless capitalism”: direct transactions between producers and consumers. Capitalism will eliminate the mercantile middlemen who created it. In Proletarian Heaven, the handloom weavers must be snickering. What’s wrong with this picture? Fundamentally this: the commodities so abundantly produced in an almost workerless economy have to be sold, but in order to be sold, they must be bought, and in order for them to be bought, consumers require the money to pay for them. They get most of that money as wages for working. Even Rifkin, who goes to great lengths not to sound radical, grudgingly admits that a certain Karl Marx came up with this notion of a crisis of capitalist overproduction relative to purchasing power. There are other difficulties too. The work of the remaining workers, the knowledge-workers, is immensely stressful. Like text on a computer screen, it scrolls around inexorably, but for every worker who can’t take it, there’s another in “the new reserve army” of the unemployed (another borrowing from you-know-who) desperate to take her place. And the redundant majority is not just an insuffi- cient market, it’s a reservoir of despair. Not only are people going to be poor, they’re going to know that they’re useless. What happened to the first victims of automation — southern blacks displaced by agricultural technology ending up as a permanent underclass — will happen to many millions of whites too. We know the consequences: crime, drugs, family breakdown, social decay. Controlling or, more realistically, containing them will be costly and difficult.
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  Bob Blac  What is Wrong with this Picture?A critique of a neo-futurist’svision of the decline of work 1995ish  2 e End of Work: e D ecline of the G lobal Labor Force and the D awn of the  Post-Market Era  By Jeremy RiinNew York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995. Fu t u ri s t s ha v e announced t he new pos t-i ndus tri a l epoch a l mos t as o  en asMa rxi s t s used t o announce t he fi na l c ri s i s o f  cap it a li sm . Adm ii ng as much ,  J  e r em y R ii n i ns i s t s t ha t t h i s ti me , t he f  u t u r e i s fi na lly he r e , and he r e t o s t a y. He may be right. No o ri g i na l t h i nke r, R ii n i s a l uc i d conca t ena t o r and popu l a ri ze r o f i mpo r-t an t i n f  o r ma ti on , se rv ed up f  o r eas y d i ges ti on . A l mos t an y bod y wou l d come away from reading this book knowing more about trends in technology and the organization of work which have already transformed everyday life worldwideand , wha t e v e r t he ir u lti ma t e i mpac t, a r e ce rt a i n t o e ff  ec t p r o f  ounde r changes s till. A l ong t he wa y, t hough , R ii n makes enough c r uc i a l m i s t akes f  o r h i s r e f  o r m schemes , p r osa i c t hough t he y a r e , t o assu r e t he ir cons i gnmen t t o t he u t op i an scrapheap. A lt hough R ii n p r o vi des p l en ty o f  de t a il s , t he y ne v e r de tr ac t fr om t he b i g , bas i cmessage .  ewo rl dasweha v eknown itt h r oughou t h i s t o ri c ti mehasbeenawo rl d o f  wo r k . Fo r a ll bu t an e lit e f  ew ( and e v en f  o r mos t o f t hem ), t he ir wo r k has(as Riin says) “structured” their lives.Forall therevolutionary transf ormations s i nce t he dawn o f  c ivili za ti on , wo r k as quo ti d i an f  a t a lity has (t o li a li ne fr omW illi am Fau l kne r) no t on ly endu r ed , it has p r e v a il ed . I ndeed , wo r k was l onge r, ha r de r anddu ll e r a  e rt he I ndus tri a l Re v o l u ti onanda  e rt heNeo lit h i cRe v o l u ti on be f  o r e it. Po liti ca l r e v o l u ti ons ha v e wo r ked p r o f  ound changes , bu t no t p r o f  oundchanges in work.Tat’s all beginning to change, according to Riin.  e g l oba l econom y has ne v e r been mo r e p r oduc tiv e , bu t wo rl dw i de , unem - p l o y men t i s a t it s h i ghes t s i nce t he G r ea t Dep r ess i on . New t echno l og y, espec i a lly i n f  o r ma ti on t echno l og y, i s a l wa y s cap it a l-i n t ens iv e . It’ s b li nd f  a it h and shee r fantasy to suppose that new technology always replaces the jobs it destroys. A ll t he e vi dence , as R ii n r e l en tl ess ly and ri gh tly i ns i s t s , i s t o t he con tr a ry. It’ snonsens i ca l and c r ue l t o r e tr a i n t en wo r ke r s f  o r a j ob on ly one o f t hem m i gh t get (but probably won’t, since a young new entry into the workforce is probably hea lt h i e r, mo r e tr ac t ab l e , and unbu r dened b y memo ri es o f t he good o l d da y s ). We ’r e mo vi ng t owa r d a “ nea r- wo r ke rl ess wo rl d .” Ou t o f 1 2 4 m illi on Ame ri can  jobs, 90 million “are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines.” As R ii n r e v ea l s , t he t ech - d riv en downs i z i ng o f t he wo r k f  o r ce spa r es no sec t o r of the economy. In the United States, srcinally a country of farmers, only 2.7%o f t he popu l a ti on wo r ks i n ag ri cu lt u r e , and he r e — and e v e ry whe r e — “t he end  3 o f  ou t doo r ag ri cu lt u r e ” i s f  o r seeab l e .  e i ndus tri a l sec t o r was ne xt. And now t he t e rti a ry sec t o r, wh i ch had g r own r e l a tiv e t o t he o t he r s , wh i ch i s now b yf  a r t he l a r ges t sec t o r, i s ge i ng pa r ed down . Au t oma ti c t e ll e r mach i nes r ep l acebank t e ll e r s . M i dd l e managemen t i s d r ama ti ca lly d i m i n i shed : t he bosses r e l a y their orders to the production workers directly, by computer, and monitor their compliance by computer too. We app r oach wha t B ill Ga t es ca ll s “fri c ti on l ess cap it a li sm ”: d ir ec t tr ansac ti ons be t ween p r oduce r s and consume r s . Cap it a li sm w ill e li m i na t e t he me r can til em i dd l emen who c r ea t ed it. I n P r o l e t a ri an Hea v en , t he hand l oom wea v e r s mus t be snickering. Wha t’ s w r ong w it h t h i s p i c t u r e ? Fundamen t a lly t h i s : t he commod iti es soabundan tly p r oduced i n an a l mos t wo r ke rl ess econom y ha v e t o be so l d , bu ti n o r de r t o be so l d , t he y mus t be bough t, and i n o r de r f  o r t hem t o be bough t, consume r s r equ ir e t he mone y t o pa y f  o r t hem .  e y ge t mos t o f t ha t mone y aswages for working. Even Riin, who goes to great lengths not to sound radical, g r udg i ng ly adm it s t ha t a ce rt a i n Ka rl Ma rx came up w it h t h i s no ti on o f  a c ri s i s o f  capitalist overproduction relative to purchasing power.  e r e a r e o t he r d iffi cu lti es t oo .  e wo r k o f t he r ema i n i ng wo r ke r s , t he know l- edge - wo r ke r s , i s i mmense ly s tr ess f  u l. Li ke t e xt on a compu t e r sc r een , it sc r o ll s a r ound i ne x o r ab ly, bu t f  o r e v e ry wo r ke r who can ’t t ake it, t he r e ’ s ano t he r i n “t henew reserve army” of the unemployed (another borrowing from you-know-who) despe r a t e t o t ake he r p l ace . And t he r edundan t ma  j o rity i s no t j us t an i nsu ffi- c i en t ma r ke t, it’ s a r ese rv o ir o f  despa ir. No t on ly a r e peop l e go i ng t o be poo r, t he y’r e go i ng t o know t ha t t he y’r e use l ess . Wha t happened t o t he fir s t vi c ti ms o f  automation—southern blacks displaced byagricultural technologyending up asa permanent underclass — will happen to many millions of whites too. We know the consequences: crime, drugs, family breakdown, social decay. Controlling or, more realistically, containing them will be costly and difficult. If t ha t i s t he f  u t u ri s t f  u t u r e , seem i ng ly so menac i ng e v en t o t hose who a r ef orcing usf orward,what’s wrong withthis picture?Employers should be clam-o ri ng f  o r t he r e f  o r m wh i ch unde r p i ns a ll t he o t he r s R ii n p r oposes : a sho rt e r workweek.  a t wou l d pu t mo r e peop l e on t he pa yr o ll, g ivi ng t hem some t h i ng t o dobes i des f  ee li ng so rry f  o r t hemse lv es o r, wo r se y e t, fi gu ri ng ou t who ’ s t o b l ame , and providing the purchasing power to buy the commodities the employers are i n bus i ness t o se ll. Bu t — t o R ii n ’ s appa r en t amazemen t — t hose Ame ri cans s till en  j o yi ng t he dub i ous p rivil ege o f  wo r k i ng , wo r k l onge r hou r s t han t he y d i d i n 1 9 4 8 , a lt houghp r oduc tivity hass i nce t henmo r e t handoub l ed . I ns t eado fr educ i nghou r s , emp l o y e r s a r e r educ i ng t he ir f  u llti me wo r k f  o r ces , i n t ens ifyi ng e x p l o it a ti on  4 and i nsecu rity, wh il e s i mu lt aneous ly ma xi m i z i ng t he use o f t h r owawa y t emp workers, momentarily mobilized reservists. Riin is obviously frustrated by the bosses’ failure to appreciate what he hasasce rt a i ned t o be t he ir l ong -t e r m , en li gh t ened se lf-i n t e r es t. H i s own modes t p r oposa l f  o r a k i nde r, gen tl e r h i gh t ech cap it a li sm accep t s as g iv en t ha t a l o t o f  people will continue to work while a lot of others will not. For those who workhe p r oposes sho rt e r hou r s , bu t he fr e t s t ha t t he y ma y fri e r awa y t he ir fr ee ti me . S till mo r e wo rri some a r e t hose whom t he econom y has down l oaded i n t oidleness. For both classes he has a solution. e still-employed are to enter “the t h ir d sec t o r”, t he v o l un t ee r sec t o r ( as opposed t o t he ma r ke t and go v e r nmen t sectors), encouraged by “a tax deduction for every hour given-to legally certified tax-exempt-organizations.” And t he pe r manen tly unemp l o y ed w ill ge t a go v e r nmen t- supp li ed “ soc i a l wage ”, channe ll ed t h r ough “ nonp r o fit o r gan i za ti ons t o he l p t hem r ec r u it and train the poor for jobs in their organizations.” Hold it right there! Hasn’t Riin repeatedly insisted that the early decades of  t he 2 1 st cen t u ry, if  no t soone r, w ill be a nea rly wo r k l ess f  u t u r e ?  a t p r oduc tivity will increase as producers dwindle? Wh y does t h i s i mpe r a tiv e go v e r n t he f  o r- p r o fit sec t o r bu t no t t he nonp r o fit sector? If t he r e ’ s s till so much wo r k t o be done , be it e v e r so f  ee l- good and “ commun ity- based”, and if people are to be paid to do it — whatever the “creative accounting” b y wh i ch t he ir wages a r e pa i d — t hen t h i s i s no nea rly- wo r k l ess wo rl d a t a ll. R ii n i s ass i gn i ng t he o t he r w i se unemp l o y ab l e t o t he wo r khouse o r t he cha i n - gang. Tat’s, to say the least, an awfully odd conclusion to a book titled Te End of Work  .What’s wrong (something obviously is) with this picture?  J  us t t h i s . R ii n m i sunde r s t ands , o r r eco il s fr om , t he i mp li ca ti ons o f  h i s v e ry powerful demonstration that work is increasingly irrelevant to production. Why is work geing ratcheted up for those who still do it even as it’s denied to thosewho need to work to survive?Are the bosses crazy? No t necessa rily.  e y ma y unde r s t and , if  on ly i n t u itiv e ly, t he ir i n t e r es t s be  e r t han a fr ee l ance dem i-i n t e ll ec t ua l li ke R ii n does .  a t suppos iti on i s a t l eas t cons i s t en t w it h t he -. obse rv ed f  ac t s t ha t t he bosses a r e s till r unn i ng t he wo rl d whe r eas J  e r em y R ii n i s on ly w riti ng books abou t it. R ii n assumes t ha t wo r k i s only about economics, but it was always more than that: it was politics too. As its economic importance wanes, work’s control function comes to the fore. Wo r k , li ke t he s t a t e , i s an i ns tit u ti on f  o r t he con tr o l o f t he man y b y t he f  ew . It preempts most of our waking hours. It’s oen physically or mentally enervating.
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