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The “Conservative Leftist” responds


Peter Frase takes a long look at this “DJW” character, and is deeply dismayed by what he sees.

On my claim about our inability to universally and definitely classify jobs:

DJW totally effaces the real nature of work in a capitalist society. To pretend that the existence of many people who work as supermarket checkers reflects their “ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms” is to ignore the reality that for the worker without independent wealth, the only “choice” is between obtaining the wage they need to get by, or starving in the streets. You don’t see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

Moreover, there’s no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn’t more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that’s presumably a good thing.

This badly misses the point I was making, which is quite modest: any time we have a discussion that involves putting jobs into broad categories of ‘menial/non-menial’ or something, and presuming one category to be beneath human dignity, we’re having what is essentially an impossible conversation. Any such judgments are inevitably ad hoc, and hopelessly bound up in our own class, taste, preferences, and experiences. If “people with so much money don’t seem to take these jobs” is the standard, then 95% or more of the jobs available are in that category. Now, I have some sympathy for that point of view, but that’s precisely the kind of utopian thinking I don’t find particularly helpful.

And in the present circumstance, with massive unemployment looking to be the new status quo, I’m going to go ahead and say, yes, some sort of technological rollback that lead to lots of new ‘menial’ jobs to replace that technology would be a good thing. This says nothing about my views about the essential value or disvalue of technology, or the jobs themselves or whatever. It’s a response to actual circumstances, namely: (a) massive widespread unemployment, particularly high for those without college degrees, (b) an staggeringly unfortunate combination of political and economic circumstances that make it extremely unlikely that (a) will change for the better to any significant degree in the short and medium term. My views here aren’t based, as Frase seems to think, on the intrinsic value of jobs such as these, but rather as a response to a particular set of circumstances. In rejecting our ability to universally classify these jobs in a certain way, as the commenters I was responding to and Frase wish to do, I am not actually suggesting we go the other way, and protect them because they have some intrinsic value. I’m suggesting that under the present circumstances, the value they have do have is greater than the value to society that whatever value is likely to be produced via ‘productivity gains’ their elimination might produce.

The general principle being expressed here isn’t unreasonable or irrational: sometimes it’s better to help a few workers here and now than to run off after utopian pie in the sky, and we should be wary of the slippery logic that it’s OK to impose hardship on a few workers for the sake of the greater good. This is the same thinking that’s at work in defenses of licensing cartels that protect some workers at the expense of consumers and excluded laborers, and in attacks on investments in urban infrastructure that may have the effect of pricing some people out of their neighborhoods. These aren’t silly things to be worried about–if you can’t achieve anything positive, you should at least do no harm. And as the left has gotten weaker and weaker, such arguments have gotten more and more plausible. But we’ve reached a point where some people seem to be opposed to any policy at all that imposes a burden on any group of workers.

I was nodding along here, thinking perhaps we’re not so far apart in our thinking, until that last sentence, which strikes me as a complete non-sequitur. Perhaps such people, indeed, exist; I’m certainly not one of them. I support many policies that might result in people losing jobs they badly need to keep, even in this environment, because politics is about assessing tradeoffs. (In fact, this was never about policy at all—I’d probably oppose a law that banned self-service checkouts.) But even insofar as those people exist, even if I were one of them, they’re clearly badly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about people who lose their jobs. The ‘point we seem to reaching’ as a society is one in which a political party that openly advocates cutting off unemployment benefits during a massive and sustained run of high unemployment can win a nationwide election. Perhaps someday I’ll be concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

That isn’t to say that I’m always opposed to defensive struggles–sometimes that’s the best you can do, and sometimes winning a small human-scale victory is worth compromising our broader vision a bit. But the LGM authors go a good deal farther than this: Erik Loomis’s original post didn’t say that de-automation was a good second best outcome, he said that he was “very glad” to see the self-checkout machines disappear, because they are “a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people.” DJW, meanwhile, straightforwardly embraces Luddism. I’m taken aback by a worldview that would make such defensiveness and conservatism central to its ideology. That’s not what the left has been about at its best–and as Corey Robin explains, it’s not even what right-wing “conservatism” was ever about.

Readers will recall that my straightforward embracing of Luddism came with a creative and controversial expansion of what counts as Luddism. I included any and all bottom up ‘managing’ of new workplace technologies that often reduce productivity, in the service of protecting jobs, or merely managing the experience of working. Some sensible commenters noted that this stretches the meaning of the term considerably, perhaps too far, and I’m inclined to think they may have a pretty good point. My attempted reconceptualization of Luddism aside, what I didn’t endorse was a widespread battle against automation on all fronts. While Frase may not be able to imagine such a thing, it remains possible to fail to cheer the failure of particularly pointless exercise in automation in one case without an ideological commitment to do so in all cases.

Left out of consideration in these anti-technology arguments is any conception that increased productivity could be used to benefit the masses rather than the elite. The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years. In the period prior to that, rising productivity went with rising wages: this was the heart of the postwar Keynesian social compact. And in the period prior to that, rising productivity went along with a shortening of the working day, through a long series of bitter struggles.

Indeed. 30 years is a long time, though, and the sorts of changes that might once again tie productivity growth to the fate of workers don’t exactly appear to be on the horizon.  My position is driven as a reaction to a particular set of circumstances, rather than what I think those circumstance should or could be.

It’s odd, and a bit sad, to see the LGM bloggers ahistorically naturalizing the left’s weakness, especially given that at least one of the authors I’m discussing is a college professor. I thought it was the professors who were supposed remind us of history, and to cling to impractical utopianism.

Jeebus. Insofar as I’m cynical and pessimistic, it’s because my considered judgment about the nature of our times is that pessimism and cynicism is warranted, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise in order to fit some naïve stereotype of my profession. (Not to mention that ‘reminding us of history’ and ‘clinging to impractical utopianism’ might just be at odds with each other in some fairly significant ways).  But Frase’s larger point is based on a odd proposition; namely that if I embrace a defensive position regarding jobs in certain sectors during particularly bad times, this is all my politics is or ever could contain.

Let’s recap: my position on automated supermarket checkout and the employment of checkers involves the following components: 1. Waiting in line to check out with a human checker when I go to the grocery store. 2. Having a positive reaction to the news that some grocery stores are moving away from the use of automated checkout. That’s it. There’s virtually no politics here at all, beyond a trivial act of solidarity. This in no way impedes my ability to ‘imagine alternatives to neoliberalism’ or otherwise engage in political activity that isn’t rooted in a ‘defensive crouch’, as he puts it. Frase’s argument here seems rooted in a conviction that the political equivalent of chewing gum and walking at the same time is, to borrow a phrase, “literally unthinkable”.

The rest of his post describes a deal struck by longshoremen years ago that involved automation; I don’t know the history there but as he describes it it sounds like it was a pretty good deal, and re-iterates his support for universal basic income and principle for decoupling income from employment, ala Marx’s renegade son-in-law. The former strikes me as a pragmatic compromise based on a particular set of circumstances. The latter is utopian theorizing of the sort I described in the previous post. It may have a place in politics, but it’s crucial to not let it crowd out existing politics, let alone interfere with the kind of solidarity that will be a necessary but not sufficient condition of any future significant transformation. Frase is not entirely wrong to say “the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace.” But there’s no reason it has to be an either/or proposition; certainly to the extent that I’ve advocated measures that constitute the latter, they do nothing to crowd out the former. But that political fight is losing badly, and shows no signs of improving any time soon.  I can’t climb on board with abandoning less than ideal strategies regardless of whether the ideal strategy is currently viable.

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