By J.A. Myerson
The throngs surrounding me on the national mall at Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address first whooped en masse when the President recited from the Declaration of Independence. I took this for a bad omen.
I had been on the lookout for omens, since “inauguration” initially referred to a consecration under favorable ones. There were no birds in the cold, cloudy skies to handle the auguring duties, and the rooftop snipers did not looked poised for soothsaying but for other things, so the hooting of my fellow Americans had to do.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the President intoned. “That all men are created equal…” The masses didn’t wait for him to get past this first and most sexist “self-evident” truth before breaking out in applause and vigorously waggling their flags. Leader worship like this creeps me all the way out, especially when it erupts around national catechism. Plus, I was already in a bad mood, having had my wallet stolen the night before in a DC bar.
It could have been my lingering resentment over the thieves’ fifty-four dollar credit card purchase at a Maryland fast food joint after the robbery, or the variety of authoritarian-looking uniforms donned by the many police forces who had come together in the nation’s capital to enforce laws upon us. Or maybe it was my own impulse to contradict the rave reviews of Obama’s speech populating my Twitter feed, but I found the vision of America’s future outlined by the President, who declared that “outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time,” a distinctly bleak prophesy.
President Obama insisted that the United States needs to “empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher,” this empowerment to come chiefly through “schools and colleges to train our workers.” American social insurance will exist to “free us to take the risks that make this country great.” “Striving, hopeful immigrants” will be welcomed in, insofar as they might be “bright young students and engineers” who can be “enlisted in our workforce.”
Here then is a liberal vision of the twenty-first century: an American workforce of hundreds of millions of highly trained, extremely hard-working engineers. Sounds like a blast.
In fact, so much of this vision is culled from outworn mythologies, inadequate to the economic conditions of our time, that it’s actually hard to see it as a future vision at all, rather than a renewed projection of an imagined past.
“America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” Obama said, whereby “the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.” Yet this prospect seems desperately distant from our current situation. It is not easy to imagine even the conditions for its manifestation arising soon. From the end of the Great Depression until the 1970s, when median wages did rise with productivity, certain major features peculiar to the era were in effect, three of which come to mind immediately.
First, the United States then possessed the globe’s most impressive manufacturing infrastructure, which, unlike that of Europe, had not been destroyed in the most horrendous war anyone had ever imagined. These days, China is the world’s industrial colossus, and the U.S. is an over-financialized consumerist disaster zone.
Second, those rising median wages were being buffeted by the exclusion of quite a large number of people from the earning class. Take, for instance, the millions of women whose strenuous and monotonous domestic work went uncompensated, or the millions of black Americans who were subject to overtly repressive and impoverishing Jim Crow regimes as well as pervasive redlining and ghettoization. Today, though those legacies are reproduced in an immense battery of ways, the labor force contains significantly more workers than are needed to generate the aggregate goods and services the consumer base (which is largely the same group of workers) can afford to purchase.
Third, a long period of intensive labor agitation—including millions of workers organized by communist-led unions—won large concessions from capital in the decades running up to the postwar period, at which point the Democratic Party brokered a labor truce, the terms of which included passage of the GI Bill and the expulsion of communists from the labor movement. Union density today tumbles down, down, down, at a rate eerily similar to the decline in the middle class’s share of national income. Extremely damaging economic and legal coercion of the American left didn’t end when Jack Welch inquired after Joseph McCarthy’s sense of decency.
While the fiction of a broad-shouldered, rising middle class is a remnant of economic conditions fifty years ago, the myth of the worker who acquires respectability through striving is the palimpsest of an even older social form.
Max Weber detected the earliest whiffs of this in when he described that “hard work makes the Good Lord less contemptuous of you,” the Protestant ethic of American WASPS avant la lettre. However it was the rise of industrial capitalism, as Eric Hobsbawm documents, that gave this impulse its wealth-acquisitive edge.
To achieve the sort of “respectability” Obama invoked in his hypothetical immigrant engineering student, Hobswain saw that the industrial proletariat—also of the mid-nineteenth century, also largely composed of immigrants—adopted certain “attitudes without which working-class self-respect would have been difficult to achieve: sobriety, sacrifice, the postponement of gratification.” Workers were told that, if they were good boys, they stood to be rewarded with riches. Hobsbawm quotes 1867’s “Songs for English Workmen to Sing”:
Work, boys, work and be contented
So long as you’ve enough to buy a meal;
The man you may rely
Will be wealthy by and by
If he’ll only put his shoulder to the wheel.
Today, there are people who play sports or sing or act or code and can reasonably hope to go from working class to wealthy in radical fashion, but it is unlikely that the next Chairperson of Target’s corporate board will have risen to that stature from a starting point behind a cash register. Same goes for truck drivers at FedEx and telemarketers at MasterCard: there is no path to CEO. Not to mention all the other, even more precarious workers: those whose labor is brokered by temp agencies, who work for cash without a contract, whose trade is unduly criminalized, whose documentation status is a vulnerability, etc. The stacks on stacks on stacks are forever elusive.
But this chestnut about American workers considering themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires misses that only the wild dreamers pray to be Horatio Alger; most workers have much more modest aspirations. The broad hope is to be middle-class, and the postwar period gave American workers to expect the realization of that hope.
Obama encourages that expectation, but even this formerly humble ambition is increasingly elusive. More and more, American labor is temporary, part-time, low-wage, and non-unionized, meaning that the hopes of going from a low-income birth to an even medium-income adulthood are not well-founded for a majority of American workers.
People’s expectations can only be frustrated to a point, according to James Davies, who proposed the J-Curve theory of revolution. A widening divergence between people’s expected need satisfaction and their actual need satisfaction, particularly after a lengthy period of their coupled ascent, produces the conditions for uprisings, according to Davies. The picture somewhat eerily mirrors the divergence in American productivity and real wages.
The right wing project has been to realign people’s expectations by discouraging them from anticipating a particularly good American life. You should work yourself to death with basically no help from anybody, readying an arsenal of weaponry for the day you have to do battle with the government, as that government attempts to change your light-bulbs and force your children to read Savage Love and RH Reality Check. If that’s your bar, a lousy job and over-medication clears it.
Obama’s task, then, is to put forward a program for the United States that actually makes American life excellent, so that our conditions rise to meet our expectations. Prohibitively, however, the proposal has to fit within a capitalist framework, and the very forces that once made capitalism miraculously expansive now corrode the entire economic process. So we get an inaugural address, hailed in liberal quarters as extremely hopeful, that promises a depressingly banal future.
“The only possible resistance to a culture of banality,” British playwright Howard Barker once wrote, “is quality.” Luckily, a proposal of greater merit is being presented for American consideration, as an ascendant left articulates an array of counter-ideas.
Peter Frase (a GC student, as it happens) argues in Jacobin that a labor force permanently and increasingly surplus to production requirement needs not more work, but less. As more and more production and provision is accomplished through automation, the wealth thereby generated can be put towards ensuring that Americans can survive outside the labor market. There is already an economically useless and parasitic ownership class in this country that has stockpiled way more dollars than it has productive things to do with. Liberating people from alienating wage labor can facilitate confiscation and redirection of that capital through a guaranteed basic income grant for everyone.
How to build a hefty political movement around those aims is one annoying question. Strike Debt, which continues to produce impressive ideas and offshoots, proposes to organize debtors into an imagined community (in Benedict Anderson’s sense, wherein it is no less real for being imagined), capable of developing and pursuing a political program. Resisting debt and imagining a social order not constructed on usury, predation, bullying, and peonage is likely to become more attractive to more people the more they come to terms with how much they are expected to continue paying banks for dubious services rendered.
If people didn’t have to do so much damn work all the time, and weren’t saddled with so much damn debt, they would be liberated to learn and participate in socially valuable things. The people who really enjoyed and were good at engineering would be engineers, just as the people who really enjoyed and were good at clarinet or baseball would be clarinetists and baseball players. Neighborhood orchestras and sports leagues, far more than an abundance of monotonous work and strenuous debt service, would really make this country a good place to live.
There, then, is a leftist vision: a citizenry full of individuals who have explored the fields they find most stimulating and can spend their lives pursuing the endeavors that attract them, without a yoke gripping their necks. It resonates, I find, with the less sexist, if more theologically dubious, second self-evident truth in the Declaration: that our creator endowed us with a right to live, freely pursuing happiness. Had this been the applause line, I might have taken it for a slightly better omen.
There are several major obstacles in the way of organizing a dissident movement around proposals of work relief and debt annulment. The first is the organizing power of the capitalist class for whom these ideas are anathema. No less intimidating, however, is the pervasive American psychological complex of deep-seated cultural attitudes glorifying work and scorning those who default on obligations. Reversing centuries-old prejudices may not be easy, but in the coming construction of property and social relations, there are few things more important.
Even President Obama’s big job creation initiative, the segment of his inaugural address most welcome to liberal ears, portends lots of unemployment. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” the President told His Fellow Citizens, “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise.”
However considerable the amount of labor required to install a huge number of Arizona solar panels and Wyoming wind turbines, the switch to renewable energy entails firing a huge number of West Virginia coalminers and Louisiana oil rig workers. Furthermore, once the panels and turbines are in place, they require very little labor going forward. Occasional maintenance and eventual replacement are not labor inputs on the order of magnitude provided by the fossil fuels industry.
The other major job creation projects of great social benefits, like the construction of a national bullet train infrastructure and the installation of a national fiber optics network, are similarly capital-heavy. Likewise, scaling back the most corrosive institutions in American life—the military, the prison system, the security state, and the financial sector—implies the same types of mass layoffs associated with abolishing the fossil fuels industry. This outcome, per Frase’s argument, would be a good thing.
Of course, it is entirely possible that just the opposite can happen. After all, that is what is going on right now, as our military, prison, security, and financial sectors expand, the fossil fuels industry tightens its death-grip on global markets, people work ever harder for ever less, and aggregate demand continues to rest on unsustainable levels of household debt.
We should at least be clear that no appreciable amount of social progress is possible without confronting a drastically reduced need for labor in the future and figuring out how to accommodate that with less personal debt. If it is true that, as President Obama said, we cannot resist the transition, we’d better confront the question sooner than later.
Maybe next inauguration.