The Biggest Bubble Of Them All: ‘Work’

Below, find a brand new commentary from Notes From Disgracedland’s Bjarne Knausgaard  who regular readers will recall pens some of the best political/economic color around.  

The first link there is to his blog and the second is his Twitter, which you should follow.

The divided subject of labor market

It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work (William Faulkner)

For the first time since the advent of industrial age, new technology is destroying more jobs than it is able to remobilize. Productivity and employment have begun to diverge from each other since the last years of the 20th century – productivity accelerates while employment decelerates. This is the new reality. While good for profits, this is becoming a major setback for labor, a source of positive feedback in the system and a destabilizing force for the entire economy and society. The profit maximization equation can no longer be satisfied: The recipient of wages (and social benefits) is expected to perform an impossible task of supporting increasing consumption, which accounts for an ever growing fraction of GDP, while being paid less in an environment of rising living costs. Credit, which had been conceived as the magic bullet aimed at bridging this imbalance, has turned to be another source of positive feedback leading to unsustainable borrowing and balance sheet crisis from which it is difficult to engineer economic and social recovery.

Work is at a crossing point of history, going through a significant transformation, second since industrial age, with profound economic and social implications. Both new technology and credit, together with dismantling of the welfare state, have been the drivers of surplus labor and erosion of demand. It is becoming clear that we need less labor to produce the same output and that further rise in growth is conceivable without a rise in employment and wages. Work has become the biggest bubble which is about to burst. This is the limit where economic and social rationalities collide. Disappearance of work in work based societies is no longer only an economic issue, but a wider social and political problem and a crisis of the entire system of values.

Work alone

A priori, there is nothing appealing about wage work. It is all about the employers; they set the rules, workers comply[1]. Work is generally an unpleasant task, something we rather would not do. It goes against our nature and conflicts with our free will. Unlike work for subsistence, which we (most of the times reluctantly) do, wage work is an outcome of a voluntary optimization process. Workers effectively agree to surrender a portion of their free time in exchange for salaries.

When seen from the modern perspective, work defines our social identity. It is a gift to society and our contribution to the project “better future”, a sacrifice we are willing to make for collective wellbeing. Work is viewed as our moral duty, social obligation and the road to personal success. However, work as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, in Ancient Greece freedom was exclusively located in the political realm and necessity was a prepolitical  phenomenon. Those who had to work were slaves to necessity considered incapable of making ethical decisions, and therefore, not part of political life[2].

The modern notion of labor appeared with the advent of manufacturing capitalism. From the modern perspective, production was not governed by economic rationality. The objective was to work as much as it takes to earn a wage necessary for subsistence rather than earn beyond that by working as much as possible. The economic rationalization of labor was a major novelty at the time. It presented a radical subversion of the way of life. In order to overcome workers’ unwillingness to work long hours, factory owners had to pay them meager wages, which forced the former to put in long hours every day of the week in order to earn enough to survive. Labor became part of reality distinct form everyday life. However, in the course of time, with development of industrial society, work became the Siamese twin of life.

Technology and labor in postindustrial age

While in pre-industrial societies innovation and competition were strictly prohibited, postindustrial age, in contrast, is characterized by its addiction to innovation.

Innovation has turned out as a major trigger of a reinforcing mechanism of economic exhaustion. The primary reason is that innovation is a source of rent — prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. Profit centers always compete in terms of their capacity to innovate. Higher output leads to more investment in innovations which lead to new technologies, which means higher output and even more innovations. However, technology reduces need for labor and so the workers have to work for lower wages, which reduces labor costs of production and increases output, which means more investment into new technologies, which further reduces the need for labor and lowers wages further. This process continues until it exhausts itself and there is no more room for labor.

When labor is scarce, workers have some bargaining power – they could refuse to work and the producers are willing to make concessions to workers. As long as profit margins are high, there will be money for everyone. Problems begin when margins begin to compress. Cost cutting eliminates jobs either through automation or relocation to regions with cheap labor or forces the workers to accept lower wages. As a consequence of innovation, work ceases to be the main productive force and wages the main production cost. Output is produced more by capital than by labor, and labor gradually loses bargaining power as its choices become reducible to dilemma between poorer working conditions and unemployment.

As a consequence of these developments we have had three major trends that emerged in the past decades: Decline of wages, reduction of government spending (a.k.a. dismantling of the welfare state), and continued rise of consumption as a fraction of GDP (currently near 70%). Over time they have created cumulative imbalances and dead-end conditions, which have resulted in the 2008 crisis and conditions where further recovery from the crisis is becoming increasingly more difficult to engineer. These trends define the current landscape. Any attempt at change becomes a source of positive feedback that only destabilizes things further.

Devalorization of labor and the new standard of subsistence

Credit is another source of positive feedback. Low wages force more reliance on credit which causes higher living costs (more liabilities and less money for subsistence), so more people have to work (e.g. not just the head of the household, but their partners, kids….), and they have to work longer hours which further increases labor surplus and forces lower wages and amplify reliance on credit which increases living costs further. Servicing debt becomes the main liability, which further undermines bargaining power of the workers. This continues until debt becomes a burden than can no longer be born.

In some sense, we are being pulled back towards early industrial age. In those days, the unwillingness to work beyond subsistence had caused employers to pay lower wages to force workers to work long hours in order to earn for their basic needs. Labor market was inefficient: Demand for labor was high, but workers were reluctant to work. Early industrial era worker had a limited capacity to desire and the opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less. Salaries had to be low to force people to work hard in order to earn for subsistence.

Although, the end result (low wages) coincides with the current predicament, the causality chain is different. Late 20th century economies grow only if people consume beyond their needs. The ability to desire – the consumer libido — has to be maintained systematically and that mechanism has to be incorporated into ideology as work ethics and wage work to become closely associated with social status. With pressure to maximize profits, and therefore limit wages, this program could only be achieved if wage recipients continued to borrow more and more, especially if their liabilities continue to grow. For that, they need jobs, but jobs do not pay. So, they have to work harder, put in longer hours, to be able to survive. Unlike early industrial age when scarcity of labor was the dominant factor, in post-industrial economies, supply of labor continue to climb together with costs of living high.

Preindustrial concept of “enough”, which in the early days defied economic rationality, gained new life in the light of postindustrial developments. Its meaning is now being redefined by credit. The problem is no longer the individual attitude towards work, but the collective response to the cumulative effects of excess rationality. Credit redefines what subsistence means. It is a conversion factor from desires to needs. As seen from the workers’ side, the effect of increased efficiency of production, brought about by technology, is offset by credit. It naturally extends what our needs are and sets a new standard of subsistence and determines how much we have to earn for survival. Contrary to the economic dogma and cults of free market ideology, competition has led to suboptimal outcome for labor. Despite all technological advances, there has not been a commensurate decrease in working hours.

Work won’t be revolutionized, it will be auctioned

The objective of profit centers is to make money and, if they happen to create jobs, that is good, but not necessary if it negatively affects their profitability. Keeping this as priority for the future, changes of the labor force would have to be made accordingly. Some contours of the fragmented labor force are already beginning to show along these lines of adjustment. The assembly line has colonized a wide range of jobs. With the rise of cognitive economy and de-emphasis of material production, workers are divided into four main categories: Inventors of ideas and desires, educators (responsible for reproduction of labor), salesmen of products and producers of desires, and routine laborers[3]. We could refer to them metaphorically as over the counter or OTC (first three) and exchange jobs (the last one). OTC jobs can never be made generic; they always carry some unique component of personal skills that cannot be fully automated. Routine laborers, on the other hand, require no particular social skills. They are an extension of assembly line workers, but in a wider context that includes technical and intellectual skills. They are always replaceable and therefore treated as expandable.

Extrapolation of the current trends leads to a limit where workers become a shadow category. They no longer exist, only their time does, always ready to engage in exchange for a temporary salary. In that environment, the next step towards improving the efficiency of transaction between capital and labor are job auctions. A finite term, e.g. 2000-hour or zero-hour, job would be offered in an auction and given to the lowest bidder. Profit centers would face high flexibility at expense of labor force whose bargaining power could decrease further. The labor force would be self-trained and offer high-level skills on an increasingly precarious landscape. Those with superior skills could demand additional accommodation that could smooth their consumption across periods without jobs, which could create a need for intermediaries, job brokers who have stables of workers with standardized skills on whose behalf they bid for part time jobs.

Added flexibility of employers eliminates pressure to have a long-term view and strategy. Instead, there is a sequence of short-term tactical positions with an ability to quickly adjust labor costs to different market conditions. If this is indeed the case, it could create a reinforcing mechanism where their output trails the economy and never completely recovers or rebounds. Disappearance of permanent jobs would have a dramatic impact on credit market. It would increase urge to save more and would affect ability of long-term borrowing, with direct impact on housing market, education, consumption, etc. and, therefore, adverse effects on economic growth.

In the extreme, demand for labor completely disappears — everyone works for himself. This is the most radical social transformation from society of workers to society of employers. The ultimate irony is people employ themselves but end up working long hours and paying themselves poorly.

Coda

Work is gradually emerging as the biggest hoax in the history of humankind. We have come a long way from the early days of capitalism where its basic antagonism was defined by the dynamics of capital and labor. It is reduction of life to work, and not capitalist exploitation, what makes work alienating. This particular aspect is what has led to the rapid dead end. In taking work as a given, we have depoliticized it, or removed it from the realm of political critique. Wage work continues to be accepted as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining others and ourselves as social and political subjects[4]. There is an urgency to emancipate ourselves form work. Crisis of work is signaling also a crisis of imagination. We cannot imagine postwork society. This is the biggest problem.

[1] “Work is a paid activity, performed on behalf of a third party, to achieve goals we have not set for ourselves, according to procedures and schedules laid by the persons paying our wages.” (Andre Görz, Critique of Economic Reason, Verso 1989)

[2] ibid.

[3] Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998 )

[4] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work, Duke University Press (2011)

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4 thoughts on “The Biggest Bubble Of Them All: ‘Work’

  1. That was not that convincing and hard to read, to boot! It is as if it were written in a foreign language and translated poorly–missing words like “to” and “the”, also mistaking words (e.g. “expandable” should be “expendable”).

    Some of it is either obtuse or the author doesn’t know how to communicate the idea. E.g.: “The problem is no longer the individual attitude towards work, but the collective response to the cumulative effects of excess rationality.”

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