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Sharing the Wealth: How Can We Get There from Here?

December 12, 2014
By Lawrence Bush From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Discussed in this essay: Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier. Simon & Schuster, 2013, 416 pages; Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans, by Simon Head. Basic Books, 2014, 240 pages; Imagine Living in a Socialist USA, edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith. Harper Perennial, 2014, 304 pages. NY TimesTHE PROCESS OF REDESIGNING Jewish Currents this past summer got me thinking about how much technology and the working world have changed since my first stint with the magazine, more than thirty years ago, as assistant editor. Jewish Currents was then a black-and-white, fit-in-your pocket publication, with very few illustrations — but the way it was prepped for the printing press was even more different from today than its design. We would send our edited manuscripts over to the print shop by messenger, where a typesetter set the articles in hot lead type. Hot type! If there was a photograph or drawing to include, a stamp-like printing block would be created in a sophisticated process that I don’t fathom to this day. A layout artist put together the “paste-up,” and “galleys” were printed out for proofreading. With errors corrected by the typesetter, the job manager looked over the job, the platemaker made plates, and the magazine went on press, then off to the bindery. There were at least three or four people making their living out of this, apart from Morris U. Schappes and me — and they were union jobs, adequate to sustain a household in New York. Today, I do nearly every bit of this work by myself, except for the actual printing and binding, on a desktop computer. Thanks to miraculous software, I am doing the work of three or four people in less than a third of the time. Such efficiencies help make editing Jewish Currents into a fascinating and wide-ranging job — but they also exemplify the elimination of thousands upon thousands of blue- and white-collar jobs from the American economy. Tears happyIn Who Owns the Future?, technologist and musician Jaron Lanier describes similar processes of computer-driven obsolescence in several industries, beginning with recorded music, which is now propelled by downloads and live concerts. These trends, along with the growth of computer-enabled home studios, have made job opportunities more scarce for recording engineers, studio musicians, CD manufacturers, and music store salespersons. Lanier also describes the downturn in jobs for journalists (widely replaced by amateur bloggers), photographers (the field has been entirely “democratized” by smart-phone cameras and other digital devices) — and, in the near future, truck drivers (due to be replaced by robotic trucks), nurses (due to be replaced in many positions by health-care robots), and numerous other “pencil-pushers” and middle-management information workers, all of them put out of work by computers. For those who do manage to hang onto their jobs, regimentation and dehumanizing “efficiencies” formerly associated only with factory assembly lines are the new working conditions. That is the reality described by Simon Head, a scholar at Oxford and New York University, in Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans. Computer Business Systems (CBS) are bringing “the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the industrial economy of the machine age,” Head writes, “to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, health care... and even the fighting of America’s wars.” Such systems enable the hierarchical monitoring of workers in real time, instantaneous feedback or punishment, and the codification of “best practices” (that is, the most productive, if not the most humane, ways of doing things) for every activity of the workday. UPS (UNITED PARCEL SERVICE) IS A GOOD EXAMPLE of a company so overtaken by a Computer Business System that, notwithstanding its fighting union, Big Brown has become Big Brother. “Every second of a driver’s day is monitored, through GPS, the touch-screens where customers sign for packages, and ‘telematics’ — 200 sensors mounted on each truck,” writes Jane Slaughter at Labor Notes. “Supervisors know what time a driver got out of his truck to deliver a package, how long it took to get the customer’s signature, and how long to drive to the next stop. They know each time a driver backs the truck up — a violation of UPS ‘methods.’ They know about ‘harsh braking’ and the amount of time the truck is idling.” This is capitalism at its most monitored, frenetic, and profitable for the very upper crust of society, for whom “worker productivity” is a goldmine. It is a capitalism in which, as Jaron Lanier puts it, “an amazing number of people offer an amazing amount of value over [computer] networks. But the lion’s share of wealth now flows to those who aggregate and route those offerings, rather than those who provide the ‘raw materials.’” Lanier’s proposed solution for the particular problem he identifies — the monopolization of the Internet — is a universal “micropayment” system in which everyone participating in information technology would receive payments commensurate to their participation, so that the “pie” of the entire Internet is not shared solely by the owners of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others who control the largest, most central computers. For Simon Head, the solution to the tyranny of computer business systems is embodied in “alternative, employee-friendly cultures” such as “the culture of German codetermination and labor-management partnership” or “the Scandinavian tradition of employee participation in software system design...” The only way to expand such efforts beyond the “particular location or company,” however, is through a politically “dominant coalition” that would include
low-income minorities and whites of the Walmart and Amazon world, middle managers and middle administrators whose real incomes have been steadily eroding, and even nonelite professionals.... [T]he progressive critique of the economy [should] include the issues of white-collar industrialism...
BOTH LANIER AND HEAD DESERVE A SALUTE for at least attempting to suggest ways of taming the beast. Such suggestions too often seem beyond the powers of progressive thinkers, ever since Karl Marx spent pages and pages of ink unveiling the hidden nature of capitalism (in Das Kapital) yet only managed a fairytale vision of a post-revolution state of social bliss (in The Communist Manifesto). Many socialists seem satisfied to offer their critique of capitalism and perhaps live their lives in an “alternative” way (hybrid cars, free-range chickens, never shopping at Walmart’s), thereby claiming a kind of innocence from “the system” — but it’s much more rare that they offer a vision of what happens after we nationalize an industry, after we pass laws that restrain private wealth and power, after we topple some of capitalism’s ideologues and taste-makers from positions of influence, after we empower the marginalized to take more decisive public roles in society. How might we create a sustainable, share-the-wealth economy without wrecking creativity and entrepreneurial energy? What should be the rules about private property ownership, and how might public support for those rules be cultivated to avoid a widespread renters’ mentality? What curbs, if any, should be placed on advertising and other consumerist tools, and how will such curbs be reconciled with free speech? How might we overturn militarism without surrendering to militaristic cultures? How might we restrain carbon and methane emissions without sacrificing our material possessions? How might we have democratic discussions about “how might we” in our computer age? To my mind, it is a foremost responsibility of people who call themselves socialists to define what it is they’re actually envisioning and to wrestle with the likely contradictions that each innovation will bring in its wake. Given the grotesque results that “planned economies” have produced in our lifetimes, I especially want to know how we envision dealing with the contradictions between “planning,” “regulating” and “sharing,” on the one hand, and “individual liberty,” “freedom,” and “creativity” on the other. Failing to do so, we leave the defining of socialism in the hands of anti-socialists, and we leave optimism and enthusiasm about the human future in the hands of libertarians, futurists, and capitalist cheerleaders. IN THE LATE 1990S, I TRIED TO FULFILL THIS DEMAND for a leftwing vision by proposing to create a facsimile of the New York Times dated January 1, 2000 and filled with marvelous news about a world redeemed. I drew a cartoon showing the front page of that imaginary edition and proceeded to line up commitments from a few well-known progressive thinkers to write lead articles on topics in which they specialized. My idea was to have activists create reports about solutions to our world’s multiplicity of crises, in the matter-of-fact style of the New York Times. At the bottom of each article, there’d be a blurb: Want to make this real? Contact such-and-such an organization. The parody would serve as an organizing and fundraising tool, and challenge leftists to move beyond critiquing what is to the harder task of envisioning what might be. (There’s an updated version of my front page at the start of this article.) Sadly, the project never made it past the drawing board. I brought it to my literary agent at the time, the estimable, radical Frances Goldin, who told me that publishers would not be willing to distribute a facsimile newspaper, period. So I dropped the idea. Now, fourteen years after the millennium, the same Frances Goldin — a life subscriber to Jewish Currents who is nearing 90 — has come out with her own vision of a world redeemed, as co-editor (with Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith) of Imagine Living in a Socialist USA. The book is filled with essays with promising titles — “Prometheus Completely Unbound: What Science and Technology Could Accomplish in a Socialist America,” “Imagining Art After Capitalism,” “How Queer Life Might Be Different in a Socialist USA,” “A Woman’s Workday in a Socialist USA” — and the writers include such veteran activists as Angela Davis, Frances Fox Piven, Michael Moore, Michael Ratner, and two dozen others with impressive movement resumés. Only a few of their essays, unfortunately, take on the tasks of imagination that I’m demanding. Most hardly move, in fact, beyond condemnation of capitalism’s many negatives to wrestle with the contradictions that the striving for socialism would inevitably produce. Instead they depend on the appealing messianic fantasy that human beings, released from the competitive and fear-ridden culture of capitalism, will simply become generous world citizens overnight. Problems solved! Activist scholar Joel Kovel, for example, in “The Future Will Be Ecosocialist, Because Without Ecosocialism, There Will Be No Future” — an important essay simply for its emphasis on the primacy of environmental concerns — asserts that as society moves “from the generalized production of commodities to the production of flourishing, integral ecosystems” and releases people “from the capitalist rat race,” we will “recognize ourselves as natural creatures and part of nature,” and therefore be motivated to develop an ecologically aware economic system. It’s a very nice thought — but modern scholarship seems to show that in centuries past, indigenous peoples in places ranging from Papua New Guinea to North America, without the logic of capitalism driving them, were nevertheless capable of hunting species to extinction. Efforts at building and sharing “the commons” have similarly often ended in the “tragedy of the commons,” the overuse and neglect of common property. Human greed and overreach, in other words, are not simply capitalist diseases. Kovel’s mistake is to treat capitalist rapacity as though it were imposed upon the human race by invaders from another planet, rather than seeing it as a reflection of certain human drives. Of course, we can cultivate other human drives — towards cooperation, social bonding, reverence, nurture — but it will take much more than the abolition of what Marx called “commodity fetishism,” and it’s that “more” that I want most to read about. Attorney Michael Steven Smith, one of the editors of this volume, displays a similar naiveté about human beings when he writes in his essay, “Law in a Socialist USA,” that in a “democratically organized society that has done away with capitalist private property... the rule will become ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” and there “will be no need for law as we know it. Human relations will become regulated more by custom, as they once were before the advent of class society.” These are disturbingly glib ideas, given what has been defined as “socialist legality” under communist rule around the world. Is Smith really satisfied by a socialism without any contractual defining of mutual accountability, and without any legal checks on those in positions of power? Is he really prepared to return civil rights, civil liberties, marital law, and labor law to the rule of “custom”? Like where, in Afghanistan? Or in the Satmar community? THANKFULLY, THERE ARE SEVERAL ESSAYS in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA that do move somewhat further into the complications of an imagined socialist system. Arun Gupta, cofounder of the The Indypendent, reckons with food production and distribution with some details about how he would “rethink daily life, from housing and community to work and leisure,” to achieve a global but community-based food system. Fred Jerome, author of a trilogy of books about Albert Einstein’s political life, imagines a post-capitalist news media run by labor unions, government agencies, and “a plethora of noncommercial sponsors,” and even suggests some headlines. While Jerome, to my mind, greatly underestimates both the dynamism and independence of the media and the risks of government involvement in the “Fifth Estate,” at least he puts his political imagination to work. Michael Moore details ten practical steps towards establishing a social democratic America, and makes the struggle for it seem plausible. Radical educator William Ayers imagines a public education system in which “middle-school students might spend a year exploring the environment of their neighborhood, mapping everything from housing and labor patterns to health and recreation and crime statistics,” and schools in general “would resist the overspecialization of human activity, the separation of the intellectual from the manual, the head from the hand, the heart from the brain, the creative from the functional.” Renate Bridenthal (seven of the twenty-nine essays in this book are by women) imagines “A Woman’s Workday in a Socialist USA,” which includes “a shortened workweek of, say, twenty-five hours,” which “frees up time for personal and family affairs,” as well as a return home to “choose to make dinner with your partner or to eat in the dining room of your communally owned living space.” And science-fiction writer and biographer Terry Bisson, in the only work of fiction in the collection, imagines an intergenerational Thanksgiving dinner in 2077, about half a century into the socialist revolution, that reveals a society much transformed but still filled with challenges, disagreements, and all kinds of personalities. The story is the best demonstration in the book of the power of art to catalyze deep thinking about human possibility. There is a glaring absence of young writers in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA, which may partly explain why the book lacks detailed vision about what “the revolution” could look like. For the most part, the essayists are academics, attorneys, or artists whose lives, I would guess, are really no more communal or experimental today (once upon a time, perhaps) than the lives of their neighbors. The missing generation, from the Occupy movement to the organic farming movement to the coop movement and so on, may not call their experimentation “socialism,” but they are certainly living the alternatives. My own generation of socialists, on the other hand, judging from the essays in Imagine, seem content simply to utter one hundred condemnations of capitalism per day, the way an Orthodox Jew is bid to recite a hundred blessings, and thus be counted among the chosen. WHEREFORE MY SARCASM? I guess I’m afraid of revealing myself, in my very attachment to the notion of “socialism,” as just another baby-boom dinosaur — and I feel embarrassed by the inability of my betters to lend the term actual substance. I’m also upset by the alacrity with which they condemn capitalism (which has produced a comfy lifestyle for many of us) without looking over their shoulders at the life-squeezing contradictions of the 20th century’s “planned economies.” And I’m frustrated by the fact that the most optimistic and spirited writings about the human future are coming, these days, not from visionary socialists but from venture capitalists and anti-government libertarians who advocate constant inventiveness and constant change, and seem to have the ears of younger generations. Despite my upset, however, I hold fast to my belief that all economic activity, all wealth-creation, is incontrovertibly social — and that this reality principle must somehow be reflected in the distribution of wealth or human society gets ugly and distorted. The moral implications of this are reflected in fundamental concepts of Jewish philosophy and religious law — in the concept of the Jubilee Year, which mandates the redistribution of wealth every half century; in the concept of tsedoke, the sharing of wealth, as an act of justice, not charity; in Judaism’s foundational story of liberation from class slavery; and in many other principles that I have written about before and will write about again in Jewish Currents — and I find that this coincidence of socialist and Judaic principles raises both in my esteem. I also understand socialism to require, however, not only public ownership of the means of production, and not only the equitable sharing of the wealth produced, but the development of the social capacities of human beings, psychologically, spiritually, and practically — and I recognize that whenever we talk about the transformation of human beings, we need to tread very lightly and keep a very healthy distance from totalitarian culture. It is this concern that is almost entirely absent from Imagine Living in a Socialist USA, which makes the book feel antique. Lawrence Bush is the editor & publisher of Jewish Currents.