Sunday, 6 July 2014

By Any Means Necessary

One of the most resonant texts of twentieth century economic speculation is J M Keynes's 1930 essay The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, in which he predicted a 15-hour week within 100 years. The reason for the continuing fascination is the idea that technology and growth can deliver Utopia; that a life of easeful pleasure is within our grasp, even some way short of a post-scarcity economy. The essay got a further mention the other day in a conventional (though witty) column by Andrew Martin advocating a 4-day working week. What was poignant was to see this staring across the fold in The Guardian at an investigation into the growth of food banks.

Following a gradual reduction in working hours over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a bifurcation in developed economies after 1980. For unskilled labour, average work hours have shrunk, while low-wages have required many to extend their total work hours over multiple jobs. This is the root cause of the growth of food banks: there just aren't enough adequately-paid unskilled jobs to go round and social security is increasingly threadbare. For the skilled, there has been a twin movement of increased time off (paid holidays, parental leave, part-time working etc) and presenteeism (i.e. hanging around for reasons of status rather than productivity).

The high-profile of the latter gives rise to middle class angst summed up by The New Yorker recently as: How did we get so busy? The answer is that work time is increasingly a positional good, i.e. a "fictitious commodity" distinct from labour power. The emblematic forms of this appear first at the margins, in feminised job-shares and nepotistic interns, dissolving the relationship between labour and status. For high-status (and predominantly male) roles, the "always on" joys of corporate email have partially replaced the traditional arenas of performative loyalty and politicking down the pub, club or golf course. A parallel change has been the increasing professionalisation of management - i.e. the construction of a pseudo-scientific discipline through MBAs and rule-books - which means that footloose executives often lack an understanding of a business and value their ignorance of operational detail ("it's about strategic vision"). Rent-seeking remains a growth area of the economy.

Conventional economics sees no mystery in the failure of the 15 hour week to arrive, though it remains fascinated by Keynes's idea. A 2010 MIT collection of essays, Keynes Revisited, quoted in the New Yorker article, explained this failure variously: human inventiveness creates ever more new products, so we keep working to acquire more new stuff; we also work to achieve self-actualisation, which may just mean avoiding our families and meeting new sexual partners; and how much we work is conditioned by social norms as much as practical need, hence the sensual French have more holidays than puritanical Americans. These are essentially sociological explanations, which might seem odd coming from economists, until you consider the influence of rational choice theory (Gary Becker was a key contributor) and that the essays were written in the immediate aftermath of 2008, when conventional economics was trying to avoid catching our eye.

The influence of Becker leads to the assumption that the hours we work are a matter of personal choice, a trade-off necessitated by the inescapable scarcity of time. This might be dismissed as just a determination to keep the concept of scarcity at the heart of orthodox economics at a time of growing capital abundance, however I think it also relates to the ideological importance of competition, present in the idea that we have many demands competing for our attention. A key feature of the digital economy is its dependence on our time as both a scarce resource and a tradable commodity: we spend time with apps as much as we spend money; we pay for free services with our time and our liminal attention; we seek to turbo-boost our social connections, replacing inefficient face-time with instant messages and broadcasts. The boundary between work and leisure has been blurred by social media. This presents a challenge to both Keynes and his critics: where does work stop and non-work start?

This is part of a wider cultural turn since the 1970s centred on the idea of competition: not just with each other in an economic or quasi-economic context, but with ourselves in the internalisation of biopower (diets, gym, lifelogging), or through fetish objects (from Tamagochi to smartphones) and the status competition of social media. As Will Davies notes: "At  key moment in the history of neoliberal thought, its advocates shifted from defending markets as competitive arenas amongst many, to viewing society-as-a-whole as one big competitive arena. Under the latter model, there is no distinction between arenas of politics, economics and society. To convert money into political power, or into legal muscle, or into media influence, or into educational advantage, is justifiable, within this more brutal, capitalist model of neoliberalism".

Inequality is then the rightful product of competition. However, this is not the same justification as the "superior rewards to talent" deployed in response to Thomas Piketty, but a more brutal acceptance that winning "by any means necessary" is its own justification. This can be thought of as the oligarch's defence, and has obvious implications for the effectiveness of democracy. It also has implications for the working day. If you believe you are engaged in a competition at all levels of activity - from the absurd "global race" through commercial rivalry to empire-building and jockeying within a company - and that this competition has no rules or constraints, not only will corporate malfeasance be normalised and "gamification" accepted as routine, but you will be constantly working the angles to preserve or improve your own position as "the entrepreneur of yourself". In such circumstances, taking time off is tantamount to conceding the game.

But there is a problem here, an incipient crisis. If automation continues to replace labour with abundant capital, if we reach "peak jobs", working time will inevitably become scarcer, even if we engineer more supernumerary roles. The current ideological valorisation of "hard-working" may be nothing more than the anxiety of musical chairs. What do we do once the music stops? A job guarantee scheme cannot work beyond a stop-gap, unless we want to commit to the creation of a new helot class in perpetuity, alongside an employment elite who are constantly at work in the same sense that the aristocracy once was. A guaranteed basic income might be a more palatable solution for capital, as it does not necessarily compromise ownership or power, but this means it would probably be framed as a subsidy to labour (i.e. a dole), rather than a social dividend (i.e. the individual's share of technological progress), so the tendency towards the parsimonious is likely to lead to social conflict.

If we think of a basic income as "buying off" labour (i.e. a market intervention, akin to a set-aside scheme), the principle of social equality will, ironically, lead to that time being priced at a minimum level - we won't buy back the time of the skilled at a higher price. This means we will buy off the time of the poor (the un- and under-employed) first, so retaining high work hours will be entrenched as a sign of status ("scarce" workers, aka "talent", will be exempted altogether). Buying back time on a pro-rata basis across all jobs would actually be better in the long run (it's a transitional measure that would gradually disappear), but it's a non-starter politically in the short run: why should a lawyer's free time be worth more than a binman's?

Another option is to revive popular capitalism by giving workers shares in the robots as their hours decline ("Workers can earn more of their income from capital than from working - by owning part of the robots that replace them ... rather than rely on government income redistribution policies"), but this looks about as credible as previous attempts at popular share-ownership under Thatcher and Yeltsin, which were clearly never intended to dilute actual capital accumulations. Unless the purchasing power of declining wages increases, shares will soon migrate to cash and ownership will once more be concentrated in the hands of the rich.

The point to remember about Keynes's 1930 essay, and the reason its still resonates, is that it was a defence of capitalism, in the form of technological innovation and the wonders of compound interest, at a time when many were questioning it in light of the 1929 crash. Keynes believed that if it were "managed" (through population control, technocracy and the avoidance of war - i.e. Edwardian liberal shibboleths), then it would surely deliver the "bliss" of a 15-hour week. This ignores the fact that all changes in working hours, from the Victorian Factory Acts to the EU Working Time Directive, have depended on legislation and enforcement by the state. Working time is a social construct, and thus a political choice.

That choice is between a competitive, market-based solution, which cannot but immiserate the majority to preserve the privileges of a minority, or a cooperative solution, which cannot avoid the same outcomes unless it is applied equally across all jobs, which means socialism. Given the ideological investment in our flexible labour market by all political parties since the 1980s, and the continuing obeisance to the interests of "business", it is likely that the former path will be the one taken, with the politics reduced to quibbling over the degree of immiseration. In that sense "austerity", at a point in history when we are collectively richer than ever and perfectly capable of spending our way to both higher growth and greater equality, is looking like a fixture of the century rather than a temporary aberration.

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