Work It

Imagine two economic systems, distinguished by purpose more than by form. In this corner, weighing in at 187 pounds of rootin tootin punchin power, is welfare state neoliberalism, the purpose of which, one could say, is to maximize the aggregate social product, through reduction of barriers to movement of labor, goods, and capital, and, perhaps,by incentivizing innovation through support of premier academic institutions and strict intellectual property enforcement. Then, ideally, the state redistributes the aggregate social product, to the extent that redistribution will not interfere massively with  the incentive structure that created the social product to begin with, in a somewhat Rawlsian manner that offers material dignity to the worst-off in society.

In the opposing corner, somewhat out of shape these days and weighing in at who knows what, is something like postwar industrial capitalism, in which the main purpose is to ensure a rising wage to the maximum segment of working-age heads of households, and to employ limits on the movement of labor, goods, and capital to ensure that rising wage, while focusing most redistribution on retirees, kids, and to the production of shared public goods.

It would be easier to discuss the relative benefits of one or another system in different circumstances and different times if we conceded that the two systems are focused on maximizing different quantities, and that different measures of economic health will favor one or the other implicitly. This is all the more true as U3 (official) unemployment, labor force participation, and the percentage of households with one or two full-time earners are all contingent not merely reflections of the overall health of the economy but of the kinds of choices that are encouraged by it and the extent of cash and in-kind welfare available.

Insofar as these two systems are still in competition, every one expects welfare-state neoliberalism to  prevail eventually, and widespread technological unemployment is on everyone’s mind for sooner or later. We all welcome our robot overlords, or at least expect their eventual arrival. But there is something off-putting and tendentious to the insistence that labor as a form of self-definition has already passed its day and is dead. (As Aragorn says in Return of the King, there will come a time when the strength of men will fail, but this is not that day.) When Vox devotes multiple articles to Andy Stern, former head of the SEIU, and his entreaties to stop looking to work as a means of benefiting lower-income people, and when Mike Konczal argues prior to the election, that appealing to Trump voters is in large part a dead letter for the left because any left agenda will have to leave work as a mechanism for redistribution behind, one cannot help feeling that this eulogizing over the death of work is a matter of preference as well as description, as for at least some left-leaning academics it already is. As with the minimum wage and as with the decline in marriage rates, the unfortunate and unforeseen consequences are sometimes not so unfortunate or unforeseen from certain points of view.

In some ways, intraleft arguments about the appropriate response to Trump’s victory and the continued political sway of the white working class, consumed as they have been with the question of whether any demand for political attention by Trump voters is fully compromised by the taint of racism and whether economic depression in rural or postindustrial America is a sufficient cause worthy of sympathy if not assent, are still refusing to  address the deeper question of whether the working class (of any race) is still entitled to view itself as a working class at all, whether the obligations of the state are to supporting workers as workers (and as households supported by workers) rather than as individual recipients of public largesse. The bigger question is not how you would win the working class but whether there is to be a working class at all.

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