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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Neoliberal Reaction and the "Workhouse Economy"

I just found a great article by Doug Henwood in an old issue of Left Business Observer: "The New Economy and After"

Let's look at the world of work, which is where the late 1990s productivity revolution was happening. If we are in the early stages of a technorevolution, we're certainly not distributing its dividends in the form of a lighter workload: Americans have to work awfully hard to make ends meet. While average incomes have risen considerably over the last half-century - rapidly for the first twenty-five years after World War II, far more slowly thereafter - the amount of work necessary to earn those incomes has risen with equal relentlessness. A worker paid the average manufacturing wage would have had to work sixty-two weeks to earn the median family's income in 1947. In 1973, it would have taken seventy-four weeks; in 2001, eighty-one weeks. So, despite the fact that productivity overall is up more than threefold over the last fifty years, the average worker would have to toil six months longer to make the average family income than he or she did half a century earlier. And the increase in the work effort came at a more punishing pace in the 1990s than it did in earlier decades. Of course, it's not just individual workers who are putting in longer hours; an ever-larger share of the adult population has entered the paid workforce - mainly women, who aren't getting much relief in their household labors to compensate for their increased presence in factories and offices.

International comparisons confirm the picture of the U.S. as a workhouse economy. American workers put in more hours per year than do workers in Western Europe; only workers in East Asia spend more time on the job than do Americans. And our workers don't produce as impressively as people seem to think. Workers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy all produce more in an hour than do their American counterparts; Americans come in barely ahead of workers in Ireland and Sweden. Nor has the growth in U.S. productivity over the recent past been all that impressive; in a 1999 IMF study of nineteen major countries, the U.S. came in dead last in productivity growth between 1973 and 1996. It's only over the latter part of the 1990s that U.S. productivity performance ran ahead of that of its peers - though not all that far ahead, if you use comparable statistics, as more recent work for Credit Suisse First Boston by Julian Callow shows.

Why does productivity matter? Over the long term, rising productivity is what makes possible rising living standards. Possible, not inevitable; productivity gains in money form have to be divided between profits and wages. And for most Americans, the late 1990s were pretty good times, but hardly miraculous. Incomes rose modestly, but not spectacularly. And although productivity has continued to rise, according to the official stats, in the recent recession and so-called recovery, it certainly doesn't feel too good to most of us. Wage gains have disappeared. The latest chapter in the productivity miracle is more about overwork and speedup than any technological wonder. We're back where we were 100 words ago - in the workhouse economy. Or, to quote New York Times reporter Alan Cowell, the American way of economic life is all about "working longer for less."

Again, this is the result of reduced bargaining power of labor, brought about largely through state policies. Henwood quotes Michal Kalecki on the unacceptability of full employment from the perspective of the state capitalist ruling class:

[U]nder a regime of permanent full employment, the "sack" would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension.

Henwood elaborates:

That would mean the loss of "discipline in the factories" and would put "political stability" at risk - which sounds a lot like the 1970s, from the factory floor to the global scene. It looked like a loss of discipline in the whole social factory.

That indiscipline was met with the rightwing ascendancy of the late 1970s, a massively successful campaign of wage cutting, union busting, and public sector austerity on a global scale.

I wrote about that "ascendancy" myself--the shift in elite consensus in the 1970s from corporate liberalism to neo-liberalism--in a subsection of Chapter Eight of Studies in Mutualist Political Economy: "Neoliberal Reaction and Political Repression"

6 Comments:

Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

If you look on my publications page http://member.netlink.com.au/~peterl/publicns.html you will find a discussion of how the separation of the labour pool into over and under workers suggested a phase change mechanism to me. This in turn led me to look for a curve that reversed its slope, which led in turn to my spotting the Tragedy of the Commons interaction of funding Social Security via tax as the cause (as it is disconnected from the service provision). It's not government generated, however, as it substitutes for Vagrancy Costs - but those are the result of earlier social changes like uncompensated enclosures, since we haven't hit Malthusian limits yet.

August 30, 2005 7:55 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

While average incomes have risen considerably over the last half-century - rapidly for the first twenty-five years after World War II, far more slowly thereafter - the amount of work necessary to earn those incomes has risen with equal relentlessness.

Lies. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average weekly hours worked has been dropping steadily:

1970 37.0
1975 36.0
1980 35.2
1985 34.9
1990 34.3
1995 34.3
2000 34.3
2003 33.7

Cited by CafeHayek at http://cafehayek.typepad.com/hayek/2005/07/the_weary_do_re.html. Double-check yourself at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/eop. These aren't the figures of a drastically overworked populace.

Moreover, much more time at work is spent loafing - reading e-mail, buying shit on the Internet, milling about, etc. The work is also less dangerous and less physically taxing. It isn't 8 hours of shucking steel anymore.

Moreover, more hours worked wouldn't necessarily mean less leisure and pleasure time. Take someone who works 45 hours comapred with someone who works 35 hours. The person who works 35 hours has 10 more hours of leisure, right? Well, not necessarily so.

The person who works 35 hours still has work to do - on his home, on his car, running errands, etc. So does the person who works 45 hours. But the person who works 45 hours might do so in order to purchase leisure time by paying someone else to do that non-employment work for him.

To wit, I remember my father spending Saturday morning time and again working on the car to get it running. We couldn't afford a mechanic, so he did the work himself. Now he can afford a mechanic, and he gets that time back in leisure. Non-employment work is rarely figured into these statistics.

Three points, then:

1. Americans are spending less time at their place of work.

2. The work is much less demanding.

3. Longer employment hours does not necessarily mean longer working hours.

A worker paid the average manufacturing wage would have had to work sixty-two weeks to earn the median family's income in 1947. In 1973, it would have taken seventy-four weeks; in 2001, eighty-one weeks.

Well no kidding. The economy is more information intensive now than it's ever been. The highest-paying jobs are information and service-oriented, not manufacturing-oriented.

Moreover, the median is much wealthier than it's ever been.

So, despite the fact that productivity overall is up more than threefold over the last fifty years, the average worker would have to toil six months longer to make the average family income than he or she did half a century earlier.

81 weeks - 62 weeks = 19 weeks
19 weeks / 4 weeks/month = 4.75 months

Apparently, commies are bad at math, too. Of course, this Lying Commie Bastard just switched from "manufacturing wage" to "average worker". The average worker is no longer in manfacturing, as any non-commie could tell.

That indiscipline was met with the rightwing ascendancy of the late 1970s, a massively successful campaign of wage cutting, union busting, and public sector austerity on a global scale.

Oh no, not public sector austerity! *laugh*

Apparently this guy was buried under a rock for the past 25 years. Spending's exploding in the US and holding fairly steady in most other countries.

Lies: the real inheritance of communism.

- Josh

August 31, 2005 3:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Josh,

Well, given the information at your links, I'll at least concede that Juliet Schor's figures are a matter of contention.

On "reduced working time at work," though, it's a different story in service industry. In healthcare, especially, I've seen the patient load per nurse and CNA increase by about 50% over the past decade, to the point that conditions are utterly horrib For people in bottom-tier service jobs, the speedup is alive and well.

And in white collar work, I suspect the increased downtime on the job is compensation for the blurred distinction between work and time off.

August 31, 2005 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

josh:
Lies: the real inheritance of communism.

You are something of an idiot, aren't you, Josh?

August 31, 2005 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

Says the coward without a handle or a name. Where are your cajones?

- Josh

September 01, 2005 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So a handle or a name makes my comment more worthwhile, eh "Josh" (if that is your real name)?

I guarantee you lies existed well before communism.

Idiot.

September 01, 2005 2:46 PM  

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