By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I finished The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin the other day. As Grandin follows the money, the book is almost a picaresque, his see-taste-smell-hear-feel language is amazing, and the sourcing is impeccable. It’s pleasant to see that America can still produce scholarship, albeit readable, popular scholarship. Here’s Grandin on the hold of a slave ship. Typing it in, from page 38:
Along the way, Africans died from contagious diseases or from the miseries of crossing the ocean in a claustrophobically small space. Some went blind. Others lost their minds. Even when the circus [?] followed the best practices of the early nineteenth century, the holds were never cleaned fast enough to counter the accumulating strata of excrement, vomit, blood, and pus. With poor ventilation, baking under the equatorial sun, cargo bays festered and putrefied. . “The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies, and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes, which generally carries off great numbers of them.” observed a British slave ship surgeon in the 1780s. When bad weather forced the portholes and hatches to be closed for long periods of time, the floors of the holds would become so covered with “blood and mucus” that they “resembled a slaughter-house.” “It is not,” said the surgeon, “in the power of the human imagination to picture to itself a situation more dreadful or disgusting.”
“Slave ships could be smelled from miles away.” In other words, everybody knew, much as the Germans knew, from the stench of ash and burning meat from the chimneys of concentration camps, or from the arms and legs waving between the slats of cattle cars. An entire political economy knew, over several centuries; my own, too, as it happens. (I can’t find the origin of the phrase “Southern slaves on Yankee bottoms,” but see Lawrence Goldstone’s Dark Bargain for the wheeling and dealing between Southern slave-owners and Northern shipping interests that enabled the Constitution to be passed.)
The good news for Labor Day, however, is that clearly “wage labor” (human rental) is a cultural — rather, civilizational — advance over slavery (human sale). No matter how horrid and lethal Blake’s dark Satanic mills were — and they were — they weren’t as bad as slave ships, or the entire vile process that enslaved humans, brought them to market, and sold them; or bred them and sold them. And there was a moment when the United States chose to make that advance, which Lincoln framed:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
I know it’s fashionable to say that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, but over the Union; which is in a narrow sense true; but had there been no conflict over slavery, no war would have been fought. I’m also taken with the idea that what we call the “Revolutionary War” was in fact a civil war between English-speaking peoples; and that what we call the “Civil War” was in fact a revolutionary war, because it culiminated in the complete overthrow and destruction of an entire political economy of continental scope, human sale (slavery), and replaced it with a different set of social relations, human rental (“wage labor”). The house ceased to be divided. Fast forward to the Pullman Strike.
I got my first “job” (wage labor) in the sixth grade: Shelving books in our town library; and I got my Social Security card at the same time. Every afternoon after school I’d come in and get the cart where the returned books had been piled, and wheel the cart along the stacks, putting the books back in their places. Working with Dewey Decimal system ignited a life-long interest in Classification systems! Of course, the work was easy, because I already knew where the books were, having read them or decided not to read them, even the adult ones.
My second job was mowing lawns in my neighborhood, and I got a lot of work, because the wage I (as entrepreneur) paid myself (as wage laborer) was wildly insufficient; I’ve always underbid on work, from that day to this. Nevertheless, I loved the work itself, since it involved figuring out an economy of motion: How to maneuver the lawn mower, with its oceanic, all-enveloping sound and fresh smell of gasoline, so as to have completely covered the lawn, with a minimum of effort. (I found it better to pull the mower rather than push it; I wonder if others feel the same?) And this ignited a life-long interest in time and motion study, which stood me in good stead when I went to work in the mills. Mowing lawns was also fun for me because I was nerdy (glasses) and have always been terrible at sports; but here was a physical activity I could strengthen my body doing that was fun, too, and a had a little bit of a challenge.
Do “kids these days” have time for such things? My impression is that they are scheduled within an inch of their lives, enmeshed in a hideous post-9/11 compliance regimen, and very rarely alone; back in the day, I was what I think today they call “a free range kid,” and so I did all the work on my own. And spent the money on model trains!
So I believe in what, on Labor Day at least, we call the “dignity of labor.” Of course, we do tend to identify “work” with “wage labor” and a “job,” but the three concepts are, or ought to be, distinct. The formula I remember, which I’m sure is over-simplified, is work equals force over distance: Moving the books from the cart to the shelf; dragging the mower through its pattern; the saccade of the eye, grokking a call number; the swing of arms and torso, muscling the mower onto a new track. Those are not social relations, unlike “job” or “wage labor,” where the question of the day seems to be whether you have to rent a human for an amount sufficient to purchase the necessities to recuperate that human’s body from the work that it does for you; and if you’re a Walmart worker, the answer of the day is likely to be “No, you don’t have to” which is why you might have to go on food stamps if you work there, which I hesitate to call dignity. It’s hard to retain dignity when you lack for food.
So I value work. When we were very young, our work was play. It is true that when I write about gardening, I say “I don’t like work,” but all that means is that I don’t want to do unnecessary work; like weeding, for example, or watering, when I can lay down sheet mulch and avoid both those chores. (And work taking pictures, or blogging.)
Leading us to raise policy issues. Should society value work, and if so, how? As opposed to valuing jobs, or human rental? Or the money that comes either from renting humans, or from having been rented? That’s an important question and goes directly to policy options that will increasingly — if we have anything to say about the matter — be matters for public debate. For example, is a Jobs Guarantee preferable to a Basic Income Guarantee, or BIG? Bill Mitchell lays out the case for the former; he believes that work is better than cash transfers, and I find myself not in disagreement:
I oppose the use of a BIG as the primary means of poverty reduction for the following reasons:
- It creates a dependency on passive welfare payments.
- It creates a stigmatised cohort.
- It does not provide any inflation buffer and is inconsistent with the macroeconomic principles spelt out by MMT.
- It does not provide any capacity building. A BIG treats people who are unable to find adequate market-based work as “consumption” entities and attempts to meet their consumption needs. However, the intrinsic social and capacity building role of participating in paid work is ignored and hence undervalued. It is sometimes said that beyond all the benefits in terms of self-esteem, social inclusion, confidence-building, skill augmentation and the like, a priceless benefit of creating full employment is that the “children see at least one parent going to work each morning”. In other words, it creates an intergenerational stimulus that the BIG approach can never create.
Unlike the BIG model, the Job Guarantee model meets these conditions within the constraints of a monetary capitalist system. [Some might regard this as a bug.]
It is a far better vehicle to rebuild a sense of community and the purposeful nature of work. …. It also provides the framework whereby the concept of work itself can be broadened to include activities that many would currently dismiss as being leisure, which is consistent with the aspirations of some BIG advocates.
It also allows for capacity building by integrating training and skills development into the paid work environment.
So I do not favour cash grants being extended to some form of BIG as the primary means through which the fight against poverty is conducted. Instead, I argue that, large-scale employment programs be introduced and cash transfer systems be used to ensure that families of workers are also able to live beyond poverty.
I also consider it essential, that consistent with poverty alleviation objectives, that the Job Guarantee wage (which would become the minimum wage) should be paid upon the person signing in for work irrespective of whether the government can offer meaningful work at precisely that time.
While this might have the semblance of a BIG, the dynamics of this system would be very different. The primary source of income would still be work (or a willingness to work) and it would then be the responsibility of the government administration not to waste this great productive capacity through inefficiency.
It would also recognise that frictions exist across time and space which would require the on-going Job Guarantee wage to be paid while workers shift housing or projects change.
No person who is capable of working in any nation should be left without an adequate income if they are willing and able to work. For those unable to work because of age, disability, illness or child-rearing, the primary source of poverty alleviation should be a upgraded cash grant system.
One key point is that “the concept of work itself can be broadened to include activities that many would currently dismiss as being leisure”; FDR’s Federal Writers Project (I wish!) would be an example of this, as could almost any form of citizen engagement, from gathering weather data through doing research on public policy (say, landfills). And the second key point is that, for good or ill, work has dignity in a way that cashing a check does not.
So, if one must have a system of human rental, the Jobs Guarantee would seem to be a good way of mitigating its ill effects, and a better way than a Basic Income Guarantee.
So at this point one asks, “But what about the robots?” Suppose we end up with a society where robots have “taken all the jobs”? What then?
To me, the loss of jobs to the robots would mean that just as human rental superseded human sale, human gift sould supersede human rental; that is, people — even the proles! — would offer work as a gift, with the full range of adult power, just as kids today play, also as a gift. We might then have a society where people gathered in the desert to go to the office, or to punch a time clock, or to send out hundreds of their resumes, all as part of an exotic, life-changing adventure. Just to see what things are like on the other side.
I know that the sale -> rental -> gift transition sounds teleological, and I don’t even believe in teleologies. Nevertheless, as Gramsci wrote:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
We know all about the morbid symptom; but I believe “the new” could be the transition I have just described.
 Grandin’s book has made me very leery of locutions like “debt slavery” or even “wage slavery.” Considered as abstract descriptions of social relations, the terms have merit. (You can, after all, go to prison for debt, in some states.) However, I believe these terms create a false equivalence that minimizes the human suffering caused by chattel slavery, and that’s to be avoided for the sake of those whose families suffered, and especially for those suffering today.
 The Burning Man squillionaires are the very last people to implement such a utopian scheme for the whole of society. For those who can pay for the ticket to get in, sure. Not for proles. “House divided,” eh?