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Contra Reich

Why is the Party of Jefferson So Hamiltonian?


Robert Reich (“Syria and the Reality at Home in America,” Nation of Change, September 7), noting that the share of the population either working or seeking work was at a thirty-year low, writes “A decent society would put people to work — even if this required more government spending on roads, bridges, ports, pipelines, parks and schools.” The column is illustrated with the picture of a guy holding a sign that reads “Need Work.”

Reich advocates a Rube Goldberg apparatus, with the state first doing something criminal on behalf of the exploiting classes, then doing something stupid and inefficient to remedy — in a suboptimal manner — the worst side-effects of its previous actions.

Why would a decent society put people to fake make-work on industrial-age dinosaur infrastructure, when a decent standard of living simply requires less labor now? No, we don’t “Need Work” — or at any rate work beyond that actually required to produce what we consume. What we need is to eliminate the barriers — mostly imposed by the state — between our skills and effort and what we consume.

If we eliminated waste production (like the military-industrial complex, sprawl, planned obsolescence) and rents to privileged monopolists, we could probably produce our current standard of living on a 10-15 hour work week. Instead of resorting to expedients like paying people for the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in, why not change the institutional structure so that we get the full fruits of our labor? Why not fully internalize the benefits of our increased productivity ourselves through a shorter work week, instead of letting a bunch of monopolists enclose them for rent?

Reich’s thinking is essentially Hamiltonian anti-deflationism: Reengineering society to maximize the amount of capital and labor used even if they aren’t necessary instead of  marking the prices of things down to their real cost. A society designed on Reich’s principles is a high-overhead dinosaur, like a human body bloated by constipation and edema.

The “jobs” that Reich and other New Deal liberals make so much of are just one historically bounded institutional mechanism for transforming human labor into consumption. It came about both because production technology shifted from individually affordable artisan tools to highly specialized industrial machinery that only the rich could afford (and hire others to work for them), and because ruling classes acting through the state stole land and denied the working classes direct access to the means of production and subsistence.

After two centuries and a little more, the job culture and the wage system are becoming obsolete from equally big technological changes. Thanks to desktop information technology, network communication and cheap garage-scale digitally controlled machine tools, we’re shifting back to an economic model where the main implements of production are cheap, general purpose — and high-tech — artisan tools.

As a result the job-based distinction between “employment” and “unemployment” is becoming increasingly meaningless. The lower the overhead and capital outlay required for production, the smaller the revenue stream needed to service them. Hence, the easier it is to ride out prolonged slow periods while shifting temporarily to other sideline sources of income or living off of informal production in the commons.

Ana Silva (“The future of work — on to a freelance model?” The Future of Life and Work, September 8)  anticipates a “future of work” in which a growing share of production is on a freelance model, and households spread risk with one spouse working on freelance projects while the other works at wage employment.

I agree with Silva that, in forms of production characterized by cheap tools and small production units, there will be a shift to project-based work like that practiced now in the construction trades or software.  This shift will be accompanied by a shift to meeting a greater share of our needs in the unmonetized sharing and informal economies. In fact I expect it to go a long way beyond Silva’s example of the nuclear family. As average work hours continue to drop, we’ll see more extensive income-, cost- and risk-pooling arrangements like multifamily or extended family cohousing projects, neighborhood associations, urban communes — not to mention a larger share of the population living in squats and favelas increasingly tolerated by hollowed-out and fiscally strapped local governments.

The first European towns in the eleventh century were basically favelas grown up around strategically situated village clusters, only grudgingly acknowledged by the neighboring feudal lord. As squatter settlements and informal communities around the world increasingly incorporate cheap micromanufacturing tech, modular energy and water infrastructure, permaculture, etc., they may well be the nucleus of the future society.

Contra Reich, we reached Peak Employment at least a decade ago. Rather than combating that state of affairs, the state needs to stop impeding our attempts at building a successor society.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.