Robots, migration and the future of work (Briarpatch Magazine)

I have a longer read in the newest issue of Briarpatch Magazine, which is dedicated to the world of work. If you don’t know Briarpatch, be sure to check out the other articles in this issue and consider subscribing; this is one of Canada’s oldest independent left publications and definitely worth supporting. My piece has the rather grand title “Robots, Migration and the Future of Work” but it’s really about trying to see how we are often pitted against one another and encouraged to see external threats, like machines and migrants, to our well-being rather than working together in solidarity against systemic causes.

The past several decades have not been kind to workers, as most of us know only too well. Those making minimum wage are making a penny more in real terms than they were in 1976, union membership continues to fall, and wage growth for most has been anemic – far outstripped by rising productivity. And this is to say nothing about how unfulfilling the jobs that swallow the waking hours of our lives can be. Yet when workers speak out, whether about our own crappy working conditions or the absurd enrichment of those at the top, we’re greeted by a familiar chorus that is often loudest inside our own heads: just be happy that you have a job at all.

For some, the implied culprit in the background of this story is the much poorer worker in the Global South, whether at a maquiladora in Mexico, a sprawling electronics factory in China, or a call centre in India. As Canadian workers have been integrated into a globalized economy, the story goes, they can be kept in check by what happens halfway across the world. Labour discipline isn’t just – or perhaps even mostly – a function of globalization, however. There are many domestic pressures keeping workers in line and the economy unkind.

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Whose efficiency? what efficiency?

Efficiency is formidable. It rears its head most everywhere. Witness the tyranny of the target at more and more workplaces: from more greets per hour to more exam points per teacher. At the same time, efficiency also nurtures increasing tyrannies at home: get fit in 12 minutes per day instead of 15…but don’t waste those 3 saved minutes, other efficiencies await!

The ruthless search for efficiencies is everywhere, whether in reality or in slogans, corporate reports or government policies. When, for example, workers are fired or fossil fuel pipelines are planned in the name of efficiency, we want to question the cold calculations behind these decisions. On the other hand, it’s hard to disagree with efficiency. Try it at home. Walk to the kitchen via the bathroom. Use a ladder, a long stick, tongs and some string to get snacks out of the fridge. Efficiency follows us everywhere whether we like it or not: from a diagonal path across a green space to the l8st txting app.

Due to this omnipresence, efficiency is easily conflated with other categories – the drive for profit for instance. (This is no straw man: I’ve had conversations recently where such conflations have come up; overall, I think they are not marginal, albeit often implicit.) This kind of conflation works in two ways. It naturalizes profit-seeking as a simple and inevitable human aim, while making arguments against profit-seeking difficult because increasing efficiency appears to be a no-brainer. (more…)

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In and out of crisis with Sam Gindin

Today’s podcast is a feature interview with fellow political economist Sam Gindin. I interrogate Sam about the political economy of the present: the exit from the 2007 crisis, the role of states, austerity, the place of finance and the possibilities of resistance.

Sam Gindin is a left political economist with a long career. He was the longtime Research Director of the CAW and later held the Packer Visiting Chair in Social Justice at York University. Most recently, Sam authored The Making of Global Capitalism with Leo Panitch, a book that has gone on to win prestigious awards and spark important debates.

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We can’t all be workers: Putting inequality in the inequality debate

It’s easy to get confused about who is a worker and who isn’t these days. Your CEO may worker longer hours than you, not the top-hatted capitalist of the Monopoly board he. Indeed, it may seem that the leisure class of the turn of the last century has been replaced by the workaholic professional and managerial class of today. Yet, if everyone is a worker and no one is a capitalist, then how can we still be living under capitalism?

The short answer is we can’t…or, better yet, we are, which means that not everyone can be a worker, no matter how hard they try and how many hours they put in. These reflections are a continuation of something I just posted on the Progressive Economics Forum. With all the talk these days in Canada about income inequality and the shrinking middle class, I thought it might be a good idea to take another look at the labour share of income. I concluded that post with the following chart.

Figure 1. The labour share of income, with and without the 1%.
Figure 1. The labour share of income, with and without the 1%. (Source: Statistics Canada and World Top Incomes Database).

I think this has some of the answers as to why it is unhelpful to talk about the very highest income earners as workers. The reason is economic power, for which the labour share of income is a proxy. The widening gap between the income share made up by total employment income and the employment income of the bottom 99% shows precisely a gap in power. The highest earners disproportionately affect the power of labour, but they do so not as uber-workers but as something different entirely. (more…)

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Questions for robots

Eighty years ago, Keynes famously predicted that within a century people would need to work no more than three hours per day. High living standards aided by technological breakthroughs would give human beings satisfying, minimal work and plentiful leisure, while robots and machines took over menial and repetitive labour. Less than twenty years before Keynes’ prediction is set to expire, reality has turned out quite differently.

Across the global North and South, those lucky to have jobs are working long hours. Factories across the global South, in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere, run around the clock with workers often clocking in for shifts over 12 hours at a time. Even the average US worker today works more hours annually than a medieval peasant. Western European countries, long considered social democratic bulwarks against the regime of relentless work, are not far behind and legislation shortening working time is under attack, despite stagnant employment.

Despite these trends, the argument that robots are set to make workers obsolete is still here. The technology revolution that finally fulfills the promise of labour-saving technology is always just around the corner. It is thus no surprise that today there are those who argue that this time the changes are real: technology is finally ready to displace workers like never before. Move over, cheap labour from the global South, there’s a new competitor in town in the race for the bottom. The bogeybot du jour has a white collar, takes its subsistence wage in watts and won’t even think about signing a union card.

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The more things change… Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping” and the village square

Media outlets recently publicized Amazon’s patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping.” The premise is as simple as it is creepy: Amazon will charge and ship items before customers have the chance to buy them themselves. In other words, Amazon knows what you want and is happy to spare you the trouble and effort of actually buying it, simply delivering the item –and, of course, your bill.

Here is the fruit of the information technology revolution. A giant corporation with which a person might have no face-to-face contact has complete enough psychological profiles that it can anticipate wants. Mass media brought us the creation of wants without our knowing, now the internet takes it one step further: the item that you didn’t know you wanted shows up at your doorstep unannounced. Hooray.

One common critical reaction to such innovations involves a retreat into the past. For the very youngest generations, it might ironically involve a wistful look back at the anonymity offered by the megamall. For most, however, the argument is that things were once different: people knew each other and many everyday transactions were based on personal relationships. Sure, the butcher knew your favourite cut of meat – but it was your butcher, not a computer knowing what you wanted. “If only we could go back to a world where relationships mattered.”

The problem with this argument is that it does not challenge what is truly wrong with something like “anticipatory shipping”. Even personal relationships can be embedded in a problematic economic logic. In many ways, in fact, today’s information-based economy is becoming more and more akin to that of the village square of the past. The anonymity of the past several decades may have been just a brief interlude during which information-processing capabilities lagged behind production capabilities. (more…)

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Economic history in the present: Potlatch and tax

This post inaugurates an occasional series I’m calling, “Economic history in the present”. This series will look at vignettes from global economic history with an eye to current phenomena or particular events. Some will be more speculative, drawing on anthropology and philosophy; some will be more rigorous. Hopefully, both aspects of this approach will produce interesting juxtapositions that illuminate the present via the past. Without further ado, here is the opening salvo…

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While redistribution is a bit of dirty word today, it has been a key economic activity across human history. As resources move from the periphery of society to its centre through means more or less refined – from robbery and pillage to rents, taxes and tithes – the need arises for mechanisms to move some resources back from the centre to the periphery. Whether to pacify, reward or simply keep from starvation, the powerful have long given part of their take back to the powerless. Over the course of human history, the vehicles for redistribution have varied considerably: from the haphazard to the ritualized, from the simple to the elaborate.

potlatch-ceremony

One oft-cited means of redistribution comes from the lands now occupied by British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest of North America has a rich tradition of the potlatch, a highly complex, formal redistributive process frequently drawn upon by anthropologists. In ceremonies lasting from several hours to several weeks, wealthy and powerful leaders of kinship groups gave away their wealth to guests from the surrounding area that included members of their own group and often entire rival groups. The more that someone gave away, or even destroyed, the more prestige they garnered and the wealthier they became in the eyes of others – despite the fact that a potlatch might leave them temporarily near penniless. Social status was conferred via giving rather than having.

The potlatch with its ironic twist on wealth should not, however, be mistaken for some kind of utopic ritual; the powerful could give away so much precisely because they had the power to obtain it in the first place. Redistribution is fundamentally about restoring a semblance of social balance; the potlatch gift is a counterpoint to the potential and actual exploitation and violence inherent in the prior process of distribution. It points to redistribution as pivotal in keeping social peace and ensuring continued social cohesion and survival. (more…)

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Transformations in profit and possibilities of resistance: A reply to Sam Gindin

Several weeks ago, I published a series of blog posts on profitability and investment in Canada since the financial crisis of 2007-8. These were republished as a single long article on Socialist Project and given the title, “Canada’s Profitability and Stagnation Puzzle”.  Since them, Sam Gindin has published a reply to my piece, “Puzzle or Misreading? Stagnation, Austerity and Left Politics”. Gindin challenges me on a number of fronts, most generally for misreading the current predicament in terms of a static formula that treats all capitalist crises ahistorically. This critique has ramifications for how Gindin sees not only my empirical account of present trends, but also my theoretical background and thoughts on strategies for resistance and alternatives.

Despite what appear to be many points of dispute, I think Gindin and I actually agree on a great many things, both in terms of the diagnosis of the current crisis and strategies for overcoming it. There are quibbles about statistics and wording, and I want to deal with a couple of these here, but I think we share much on broader theoretical and strategic matters. I want to primarily focus on the agreements behind our recent Socialist Project-facilitated interaction. (more…)

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Solving Christmas conundrums with New Year’s resolutions

I know I promised to not post until the New Year. Clearly the holidays have gotten the better of me. This, however, will be a short reflection and at once a New Year’s resolution.

Christmas is a time of large get-togethers for my family and this year was no different.  We feasted late into the night on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day. Both nights the talk at the table inevitably turned to politics.

The range of economic, social and political problems identified during our meals would make any left-wing activist squirm in her seat with glee. A dearth of good jobs, runaway inequality, corporate control of politics, rampant consumerism, housing unaffordability, environmental degradation, climate change – these and more like them were raised many times over and by different people. Indeed, there was broad agreement at both feast-tables that we are in the midst of a systemic crisis.

At this point, you would expect the token lefty writer and activist (me) to easily leap up onto the table, make a rousing speech and lead a rabble in its Sunday best to take over the nearest bank, corporate office or shopping mall armed with borscht spoons and pierogis…or, at least, to get widespread agreement among those at the table that the only sensible way forward is a strong left-wing program – one best able to address the concerns raised.

Sadly, nothing like the latter took place (nor the former in case you’ve been holding your breath). (more…)

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Notes on Black Friday

Black Friday may be a fitting day to start a blog on political economy. A day of extreme consumerism, a “working holiday” for many in the service sector, an outlet for anger and violence played out across store aisles and parking lots. At the same time, also increasingly a day of protest, of working people ready to say “enough!” even in the face of serious repercussions. It is a day when the global capitalist economy shows a bit more of its true face. This is the much-vaunted Western consumer, often poor and in debt, racing to buy the baubles produced in the global South by her even poorer counterparts…so that the profit engine can keep churning, GDP can keep growing and those like the Waltons can keep lining their pockets.

I was motived to write this blog entry after seeing too many news stories, images, Facebook posts and conversations of the “look at these stupid poor people trampling each other” variety. Today is an easy day to be smug. Sure, people don’t have to trample and fight with each other over trinkets. (more…)

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