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Why Syriza Failed

31 Jul

Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

The ‘good Euro’ fantasy

The strategy pursued by Tspiras and his former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has been dubbed the ‘good Euro’ approach. Essentially, they argued that a resolution to Greece’s economic depression could be found within the confines of the single European currency. The failure of previous governments to do this was simplistically assigned to the fact that they ‘never negotiated’ with the Troika but merely implemented its demands. Instead, Syriza would make common cause with other anti-austerity groups and sympathetic governments across Europe, pushing for more favourable bailout terms. This involved an attempt to ‘delegitimise’ the creditors by appealing – as Tsipras did even when denouncing the creditors – to the ‘founding principles and values of Europe’, supposedly norms of social justice like ‘rights to work, equality and… dignity’. From this perspective, the referendum was never intended to be a decisive moment for the restoration of Greek democracy and autonomy. It was merely called to strengthen the Greek government’s position when bargaining with the creditors, which is why Tsipras never stopped seeking another ‘bailout’ even as campaigning was underway.

But to any clear-eyed observer, this strategy was disastrous from the outset, because it rested on two flawed premises.

The first was that the allies Syriza sought were either too weak, or simply did not exist. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the European response to the global financial crisis has been the near-total absence of any effective resistance to the conversion of a banking crisis into a fiscal crisis of the state and from there to the imposition of austerity. With the exception of Greece and Spain, elections across Europe have tended to shift goverments to the right, even – as in Britain – after five years of cuts to state spending. The lack of effective anti-austerity resistance itself reflects the wider collapse of left-wing political forces from the 1980s. The disarray of the rump parties of social democracy, clearly unable to offer any alternative to austerity, is merely the prolonged death rattle of this epochal defeat. This was never promising terrain for a ‘good Euro’ strategy.

One hope of Syriza was the rise of Podemos in Spain – like Syriza, a loose alliance emerging from street-level, anti-austerity protests. But, as Varoufakis rapidly realised, ‘there was nothing they could do – their voice could never penetrate the Eurogroup’. Similarly, while Syriza notionally classified EU governments as pro-austerity, anti-austerity and neutral, with pro-austerity governments ostensibly in the minority, it was unable to leverage any international support. The French – perhaps the main hope – promised support in private, but criticised Greece in public. Nor were the governments of other countries suffering from EU-imposed austerity sympathetic. In fact, Varoufakis recalls, ‘from the very beginning… [they] made it abundantly clear that they were the most energetic enemies of our government… their greatest nightmare was our success: were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal for Greece, that would of course obliterate them politically, they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.’ It should therefore have been immediately clear to Syriza that the building materials for the progressive bloc it hoped to construct simply did not exist.

The second flawed premise was ‘leftist Europeanism’, the idea that the European Union is primarily about values of ‘social justice’, such that appeals to these values could overcome demands for austerity. Again, this notion was ludicrous from the outset. By the time Syriza was elected, the EU had already subjected the Greek people to grotesque abuses. These include: 25 percent unemployment (57 percent among youths) by 2012; the mass collapse of small businesses; a 25 percent rise in homelessness from 2009-11; a 75 percent rise in suicides from 2009-11; mass emigration; and a massive health crisis, with spikes in epidemic diseases and a drop in life expectancy of three years (a phenomenon generally only seen in war-torn countries), nonetheless followed by a further 94% cut in health funding from 2014-15. Even pro-EU liberals outside Greece are now reconsidering their naïve faith in ‘social Europe’ after what has happened there. To any Greek, the real values being pursued through the EU ought to have been crystal clear. As one Varoufakis advisor notes, ‘the only weapons… [Syriza brought] to the negotiating table were reason, logic and European solidarity. But apparently we live in a Europe where none of those things mean anything.’

Eurobarom 1


Eurobarometer: percentage of EU citizens expressing trust in EU institutions. Source.

 Eurobarom 2

Eurobarometer: what does the EU mean to you personally? Source.

As Varoufakis and Tspiras discovered almost immediately, EU institutions have little to do with democracy, either. The informal Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, Varoufakis notes, makes ‘decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody’. ‘From the very beginning’ (i.e. from their first meeting in February), Varoufakis encountered a ‘complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy’. Germany’s finance minister told him: ‘Elections cannot change anything’. Some ministers agreed with Syriza’s critique of austerity, but essentially said, ‘we’re going to crunch you anyway.’ What further demonstration did Syriza need that EU leaders are not interested in social justice, only containing the Euro-crisis – and thereby protecting their own shoddy financial institutions from debt default and contagion – by making Greece the whipping boy of Europe?

The Greek fetish of European membership

Unsurprisingly, critics had declared the ‘good Euro’ strategy a failure as early as February, while Varoufakis’s post-resignation interviews reveal that its chief executors also swiftly recognised its flaws. So why did it ever appear a good idea in the first place? Ultimately, Syriza was elected on a platform both of ending austerity and remaining in the Euro – the latter position being shared by all of its main political rivals and by 80 percent of the public. This contradictory position reflects the attachment of Greek citizens and elites to ‘Europe’ as a refuge from their domestic political difficulties, and thus a reluctance to confront and resolve these difficulties alone.

As The Current Moment’s co-editor, Chris Bickerton, has shown, this is part of a general trend across the EU. From the 1970s, faced with crises of rising expectations and increasing social unrest, European elites have – through varying national trajectories – tried to create a new social, political and economic settlement by entrenching themselves within international elite networks. The EU’s structures are generally not supranational authorities but rather elite solidarity clubs, where ministers pursuing unpopular ‘reform’ agendas can draw upon each other’s support against their respective populations, thereby basing the content and legitimacy of their actions not on democratic mandates but on the legalistic European processes of policy coordination and harmonisation. By linking virtually every state apparatus across European borders, elites have thereby transformed once-sovereign nation-states into EU ‘member-states’, heavily constrained, with popular sovereignty deliberately negated. European elites can no longer imagine life outside of these structures, because it would represent a vast step-change: a need to re-engage with their own populations as the sole source of their authority, and the need to articulate clear political visions for their nations instead of relying on the latest EU action plan to guide their polities.

Each member-state has followed its own particular trajectory into this dismal arrangement. In Portugal, Spain and Greece, the process was strongly marked by their 1970s transition from authoritarian rule. In much the same way as the recent Scottish referendum proposed to make Scotland independent of the United Kingdom but immediately constrain its autonomy by retaining EU membership, these southern European nations emerged from authoritarian rule only to constrain democratic choice by swiftly joining the then European Economic Community. For the Greeks, joining ‘Europe’ was apparently a way to help draw a line under the past. It signalled their rejection of military rule, their ‘identity’ ‘as Europeans’, their distinction from authoritarian neighbours like Albania and Turkey. And it precluded the return of authoritarianism by locking Greece into various intergovernmental agreements and processes that entrenched liberal rights. The same motive and process had guided the formation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the early post-war years, and the later flight of Eastern European states from ‘Brezhnev to Brussels’, as Bickerton puts it.

Thus, for wide swathes of the Greek public, and especially the liberal and left elite, membership of the EU is valued precisely for its constraints. The fear, as Varoufakis himself clearly articulated, is that the beneficiaries of Grexit would not be the ‘progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions’, but rather ‘the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs’. His successor, Euclid Tsakalotos, issued similar warnings from the foreign ministry. Their fear was essentially of what the Greek people would do, left to their own devices.

This concern is hardly unique to Syriza. Across Europe, the dominant – perhaps only – elite justification for European integration is that its only alternative is a return to nationalism (or worse) and war. The Greek version of this politics of fear is simply mediated through the recent historical experience of military rule. Syriza’s embrace of this pessimistic narrative clearly signified a profound lack of faith in its own capacity to lead Greeks towards a more progressive future as an independent nation.

This quite widespread ideological attachment to Europe was undoubtedly reinforced by the apparent economic benefits of EU membership before the Euro crisis. In 1974, when the Colonels’ regime fell, Greek GDP per capita was just $2,839. When Greece joined the EEC in 1981, it was $5,400. By 2001, when Greece joined the Euro, per capita income had more than doubled to $12,418. Under the Euro, average incomes then nearly tripled to $31,701 by 2008. Greece literally appeared to go from third world to first in the space of two generations. In real terms, of course, the increase was always smaller – from $12,829 to $24,148 from 1974-2008 – but this was still a significant ‘catching up’ with other European states. As is now widely recognised, much of the post-2001 boom was fuelled by reckless borrowing and its benefits were always maldistributed, with a narrow oligarchy dominating a state-led patronage system. This is undoubtedly why the Greek oligarchy, while evading the consequences of austerity itself, has waged a strong pro-EU campaign, including through the media organisations it dominates, and is implacably opposed to Syriza, which had pledged to ‘destroy’ the ‘oligarchy system’. However, economic benefits also flowed to a wider coalition, with handouts like early pensions for professional groups and public sector unions supportive of the status quo.

graphic 3

Greek GDP Per Capita, current US$. Source.


graphic 4


Greek GDP Per Capita (Purchasing Power Parity) 1990=100. Source.

Combined, these factors seem to have made many Greeks leery of Grexit, even as the economy shrivelled. For some, when the crisis struck, there was apparently a guilty sense of the chickens coming home to roost – that ‘the party was over’ – with two-thirds of Greeks actually supporting austerity in 2010. Although this support collapsed over the next four years, fuelling the rise of Syriza, fear of the unknown remained very strong. Even in the most favourable scenarios, restoring the drachma would be hugely destabilising in the short to medium term and risk undoing the residual benefits of Euro membership. This motivation seems particularly strong among those with most to lose.

All of this helps explain the structural constraints facing Syriza leaders upon their election. The Greeks were both tired of austerity and yet fearful of exiting the Euro. Consequently, they demanded an end to austerity within the Euro. Squaring this circle was an impossible task.

But this should not let Syriza off the hook. Insofar as Syriza leaders understood that these popular demands were incompatible, they ought to have exercised political leadership by trying to lead the Greek citizenry towards a more rational position. The most crucial step was to outline a compelling vision for a Greek economy independent of the Euro, where life might be tough for a few years (but probably no tougher than under perpetual EU-imposed austerity), and recovery was eventually possible via the currency devaluation that every sane economist argues is both essential for Greece’s recovery and impossible within the Euro. This Syriza comprehensively failed to do.

Despite their leftist élan, its leaders seem just as incapable as their European counterparts of imagining a future for themselves and their country outside the strictures of European integration. Syriza’s failure remains one of leadership and strategy, irreducible simply to popular attitudes. The Syriza leadership has now embraced a deal that it openly admits is rotten, claiming ‘there is no alternative’. This merely signals a refusal to accept political responsibility for articulating an alternative. Ultimately, they – like the leaders of Europe’s other ‘member-states’ – are too afraid of the consequences of genuinely restoring autonomous, democratic decision-making to their nation. As Stathis Kouvelakis comments, this reflects their ‘entrapment in the ideology of left-Europeanism’. When Greek officials denounce the ‘almost neo-fascist euro dictatorship’, they are heaping the blame entirely on German sadomonetarism while evading their own failure to rebel against it, however difficult that rebellion would undoubtedly be.

As a consequence of this hesitancy, Syriza leaders spurned the growing social basis for a pro-Grexit line, which emerged despite, not because of, them. While in January 2015, 80 percent of Greeks favoured remaining in the Euro, by the time of the referendum this figure had fallen to 45 percent, with 42 percent favouring the serious consideration of Grexit.

The left’s failure to produce Grexit

This leaves one remaining question: why were those on the left, able to see all of the foregoing problems, unable to change Syriza’s course? After all, much of the above criticism of the ‘good Euro’ strategy was initially articulated by figures within Syriza, most notably Costas Lapavitsas, Stathis Kouvelakis and others members of its ‘Left Platform’. The Greek far left has also long demanded Grexit. Left Platform figures had adopted a position of ‘no more sacrifices for the Euro’ in 2012/13 and have long argued for default and Grexit, with apparently growing support. 44 percent of Syriza’s Central Committee backed the Left Platform’s call to break from negotiations and pursue a radical ‘plan B’ in late May. Tsipras was reportedly being constrained by their resistance in parliament in June. After the referendum, the Left apparently won over a (bare) majority of Syriza’s Central Committee to oppose capitulation, backed by many grassroots activists. Yet, only 38 Syriza legislators (out of 149) rebelled against the government (six of whom merely abstained). Although this left

Tsipras dependent on opposition legislators to survive, in subsequent votes that number has shrunk to 36 (with Varoufakis among the defectors), while Left Platform ministers have been sacked or resigned. Amazingly, the ‘good Euro’ strategy persists.

Part of the explanation for this is the nature of Syriza itself as a loose coalition rather than a traditional leftist party. Initially merely an electoral coalition, formed to contest the 2004 elections, Syriza became a party only in 2012, merging 13 political groups ranging from social democrats to hard-line Marxists. Syriza’s dominant parliamentary faction has always been Synaspismós, itself a democratic socialist coalition, led by Tsipras. Syriza’s ‘Left Platform’ – comprising the ‘Left Current’ and ‘Red Network’ – are relative newcomers and, even when joined by the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), also a Syriza member – simply lack the numbers required to impose their preferences.

Moreover, despite the 2012 merger, Syriza did not develop party structures capable of discussing, determining and imposing a collective ‘party line’. This looseness permitted a high degree of open internal dissent and had a ‘horizontalist’ flavour much celebrated by contemporary critics of traditional leftist parties. But the downside is that this organisational form effectively permitted the central leadership to determine policy, while more critical elements simply became a sort of internal ‘loyal opposition’.

Syriza’s leftist elements were not unaware of this, but were compelled to join the party having failed in their initial quest to form a broad, anti-EU alliance with the anti-capitalist left. As Kouvelathis describes it, the Left Platform crowd joined Syriza in 2012 only after these proposals left were rejected by the main component of Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow), a far-left coalition formed in 2009. The KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, also remained aloof. The sticking point was apparently the ultra-leftists’ insistence on a programme of immediate rupture from the Eurozone as the bulwark of ‘neoliberalism’. However, as noted earlier, in 2011/12 this position had virtually no popular support. Nor, reflecting the long-standing decline of Greece’s far left, did these far-left parties have any electoral standing.

Essentially, while Syriza had the wrong line but at least the capacity to get elected, the radical left arguably had the correct political line but lacked any capacity to translate it into policy. Following a crisis common to all European states in the 1980s, the Greek far-left has been extremely fragmented, remaining, despite the formation of horizontalist alliances, unable ‘to actually articulate an alternative project’, and producing ‘catastrophic electoral results’, according to Antarsya’s Panagiotis Sotiris. This strategic ineptitude led them, unlike Syriza, to fail to translate their mobilisation of Greeks in the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ into party organisation and electoral success. This was arguably a serious failure of the horizontalist model with its renunciation of forming parties capable of seizing the state. As Sotiris laments: ‘we never realized that the question was about power… reclaiming governmental power. At that point, we did not have this position, but Syriza had it’.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Left Platform group threw in its lot with Syriza. But in so doing, it inevitably became somewhat marginalised and constrained: outnumbered within Syriza by centre-leftists and balanced within government by Syriza’s coalition partners, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). Through this Caesarist balancing act, as Kouvelakis recounts, ‘the government, the leadership, became totally autonomous of the party’. The lack of democratic structures within the loosely constituted party has permitted Tsipras to dominate: the Central Committee has not convened for months. But nor, it seems, has the Left Platform been willing to precipitate a full-on confrontation. Even when voting against the post-referendum ‘bailout’, it carefully manipulated its vote to try to avoid removing Tsipras’s majority support from within his party, the loss of which has traditionally triggered elections in Greece. (Ultimately, so many non-Left Platform Syriza MPs rebelled that this majority was lost anyway, although no election has been called.)

But these questionable tactics, an inevitable part of the difficulties of party politics, are probably secondary to the larger strategic failure, which was to neglect to present the citizenry with an alternative plan for Greece’s future outside the Euro until early July. Kouvelakis now admits this was a serious mistake.

It is not that the plan took forever to draft: it was already in hand long ago, but there was ‘internal hesitation about the appropriate moment to release it.’ This apparently stemmed partly from fears that Greece was ‘ready’ for Grexit. Lapavitsas has long argued for a managed and ‘orderly’ Grexit, but as late as 10 July he openly doubted whether any preparations had been made. Varoufakis’s subsequent revelation that only five officials had been tasked with this suggests that he was correct (as well as signifying his utter disinterest in alternatives to striking deals with the creditors). Essentially, reflecting its marginal position in the ruling coalition, the Left Platform was dependent on the governing part of Syriza to lay the technical ground for their Grexit strategy, which they clearly had no interest in doing. Its members had also become swept up in day-to-day events, Kouvelakis recalls, being ‘neutralized and overtaken by the endless sequence of negotiations and dramatic moments and so on… it was only when it was already too late… that [our] proposal was finally made public… This is clearly something we should have done before.’ The Left Platform thus failed to provide the leadership that their Syriza colleagues refused to provide and that their compatriots so badly needed.


What lessons can we draw from this sorry tale?

The main one is that the European left must shed its illusions about European solidarity. First, the EU is not, and has never been, a font of democracy and social justice. The left, broadly defeated at home through the 1980s, has increasingly put its faith in supranational institutions to protect human rights and social protections, including the EU’s ‘social chapter’. That this only ever expressed the left’s domestic weakness was starkly revealed when European elites combined after 2008 to inflict austerity on their own peoples, and domestic resistance was utterly ineffective. Appealing to EU leaders to uphold norms of democracy and social justice, as Syriza did, is clearly futile. Syriza should be credited with one achievement. It has finally pulled away the veil, forcing everyone to recognise the EU’s true character.

But, secondly, it is equally illusory to put one’s faith in European parties, peoples and social movements, in the hope of a transnational alliance capable of generating more progressive outcomes. This hope for a ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’, long expressed by Gramscian scholars of the EU, has been peddled for 20 years without success, expressed in forms like the European Social Forum, which ultimately go nowhere. Sadly, Syriza found little to no effective support beyond their own borders. Again, this reflects the collapse of progressive political organisations capable of turning humanitarian sympathy into meaningful political action.

This experience strongly suggests that the prevailing European order cannot be effectively contested by progressive forces at the European level. They are simply too weak and isolated. After all, part of the elites’ purpose in rescaling governance to the European level is precisely to outmanoeuvre opposition, which is rightly assumed to be less able to organise regionally than nationally. This suggests that progressive forces must operate primarily on the more hospitable terrain of the nation-state. They need to lead a movement among their own people, even if it means arguing with them, rather than relying on those abroad who already agree with them. This implies a need to recover space for this activism by reasserting the autonomy of domestic politics from European regulation – i.e., by reclaiming popular sovereignty.

Despite growing left-wing Euroscepticism, this step seems to remain anathema to most. Syriza’s leadership were openly leery of popular sovereignty, warning of a fascist revival. This fear is widespread among European elites, suggesting a strong suspicion of the masses, perhaps especially among supposed progressives. But even Syriza’s Left Platform seemed wary of articulating the necessary steps for the restoration of Greek autonomy, despite their clear premonitions of disaster. This is a sign of how deeply the ‘member-state’ mode of politics has been entrenched over several decades. It will be a hard habit to kick.

Another lesson concerns the organisational form and content of anti-EU resistance. Broad coalitions, rooted in societal mobilisations, are crucial, but insufficient without strong party organisation. Syriza’s formation as a party helped create the structures and programme necessary to help turn popular mobilisation into political power. It thereby achieved what every fashionable, ‘rhizomatic, horizontalist network’ – from Occupy to the Greek far left – has failed to: to exert some grip over state power and thus potentially leverage over social change. Yet, its absence of strong internal democracy also allowed its leaders to pursue an unworkable strategy and even betray the expressed wishes of the electorate. Against the Eurocrats for whom ‘elections cannot change anything’, the task is to rebuild truly democratic parties capable of articulating an alternative and attractive vision for the future of European societies.

Lee Jones



The effects of QE

21 Oct

Of all the new terms that have been invented since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, quantitative easing is perhaps the most bizarre. A purely technical term, it has entered into everyday language as ‘QE’. Monetary policy has taken centre stage as the main tool governments have to do something about growth and QE is it.

Tucked away in the small money supplement of the FT weekend was a long piece on QE. Its discussion of the effects of quantitative easing is worth commenting on. QE is basically a monetary stimulus programme, where central banks create money and use it to buy assets from banks and other financial institutions. The main thing central banks have bought are government bonds. Holders of bonds have therefore exchanged them for cash and that cash is what the governments hope will be spent in ways that stimulate the economy. QE was dreamed up at a time when interests were so low that they couldn’t really go any lower, making a traditional monetary policy response to an economic downturn impossible. The standard approach had been to cut interest rates in a downturn, raise them when the economy seemed to be overheating. Unable to do that with rates so low, QE was the radical alternative.

QE has been striking by its ubiquity: it has been the key policy response of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan. What is surprising is how prevalently it has been used but how sceptical people are of its effects. The idea is that cash injected into the economy would generate new economic activity. There is little evidence, however, that QE has done that. Banks have tended to use the money to boost their capital ratios rather than to increase lending to businesses. Companies have sat on increasing piles of cash. QE in general is seen as having had little effect on the real economy.

Where has its impact been felt? After all, the US Federal Reserve has been buying $85bn a month of US government bonds since it started its QE. Intervention on such a huge scale cannot be free of effects. According to the FT, the main impact of QE has been on asset prices rather than on the real economy as such. These prices have risen considerably, boosting the wealth of those who own such assets. Predictably enough, that means the already very wealthy. The FT cites a Bank of England study that finds that in the UK, the top 5% of households hold 40% of the assets whose price has risen most because of QE. The central banks’ policy of printing money has inflated some asset prices, to the great benefit of those that hold them.

For everyone else, the effect has been more mixed. By keeping interest rates at very low levels, QE has obviously favoured the lenders over the savers. All those hoping to earn some return on their savings have been disappointed. Home owners, especially those with big mortgages, have been happy.  This view of QE helps us understand some of the curious features of this current economic downturn: as the real economy data continues to give cause for real concern (unemployment remains high, growth is anaemic, business investment remains very low), the price of fine art, the best wines and the high end properties in London, Paris and New York have all soared. With low interest rates and with central banks injecting so much liquidity into the bond markets, investors are looking for some return wherever they can. And that includes in a Monet or a large house in Neuilly or Richmond.

The best defence of QE cited by the FT was that things could have been worse without it. It returned confidence to markets and investors, and so helped us avoid the complete collapse that could have occurred in 2008 or 2009. As the FT admits, this argument is difficult to prove: “we just don’t know what would have happened without QE”. It is surprising that a policy with such obvious distributional effects has not been the subject of greater debate or disagreement. This is perhaps because the term itself is so euphemistically technical. Or because it has been carried out by central banks whose place is somewhat outside the terrain of partisan politics. It may also be that governments have been good at convincing people that there is no alternative to QE, which is tantamount to saying that they have no way of tackling problems in the real economy directly but can only work through asset prices.

This, of course, is not true. Governments could intervene far more directly in the economy. However, QE sits alongside the view that governments are fiscally constrained and need to reduce their outgoings as much as possible. Fiscal austerity combined with QE gives us the policy mix for the current period: a massive boost in the prices of assets owned by the wealthiest section of society and extensive cuts in government spending on public services. However technical it may sound, there is nothing ideologically neutral about QE and its effect.


The meaning of Merkel’s victory

2 Oct

Originally published in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique

Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat party (CDU/CSU) have won a resounding victory in Germany’s general election. Merkel has broken what had become an established rule of European politics since the beginning of the crisis: incumbents don’t get re-elected.

Merkel had seen this at first hand as close working relationships with other European politicians were felled by electoral fortunes. The peculiar alliance of France and Germany (“Merkozy” to the European press) was undone as Nicolas Sarkozy lost out in the 2012 French presidential election to his Socialist challenger, François Hollande. Mario Monti, another favourite partner of Merkel, was routed in Italy’s election earlier this year by the comedian-cum-blogger Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement. Incumbents have lost out across southern Europe — Spain, Greece, Portugal — as voters hope that a change in government might mean a change in fortunes. There has been no decisive shift left or right, just a broad and sweeping dissatisfaction with existing governments. Apart from Germany.

Merkel’s re-election doesn’t mean that nothing has changed in Germany or that it has been blissfully untouched by the Eurozone crisis. Looking at the substance rather than at the party labels, we see shifts. The more dogmatically free-market FDP, Merkel’s coalition partner in the outgoing government, failed to secure any parliamentary representation at all. The Left Party, Die Linke, a persona non grata for mainstream German politicians because of its roots in East German Stalinism and its opposition to NATO, now has more parliamentary seats than the German Greens. If the Social Democrats (SDP) enter into a coalition with Merkel’s party, then Die Linke will lead the opposition within the Bundestag.

The policies of Merkel herself have steadily drifted leftwards as she has taken on ideas first floated by the SDP. From military conscription to a minimum wage and rent controls, Merkel has adopted policies that first came from the left. This had the effect of emptying much of the campaign of any traditional ideological conflict. German voters have not been divided by the politics of left and right, given the vastly similar programmes adopted by the main parties. Merkel has even given up on nuclear power, in a move that pulled out from under the feet of the Green Party their most distinctive policy position. Instead, the campaign was fought around the language of risk and of personality. Germans preferred Merkel’s low-key, homely aspect to Steinbrück’s debonair image and, seeking reassurance in the widespread depoliticisation, voted for Merkel’s motherly, risk-averse approach.

Political stability in Germany reflects its unique position in Europe as the country that has survived the crisis. Not unscathed, as the leftwards shift suggests, but markedly better off than any other country. Having reformed itself in the early 2000s, German industry rode an export-led boom that continues today. As trading partners in Europe — from Eastern Europe through to southern Mediterranean economies — crashed and burned from 2009 onwards, Germany compensated by expanding sales in non-European export markets. What it lost by way of demand in Europe it has gained in emerging markets, especially in Asia. Germany’s current account surplus, at $246bn over the last year (6.6% of GDP), is greater than China’s. Along with a more flexible labour market that is keeping unemployment low (but part-time employment high), we have the material foundation for Merkel’s victory. But though this foundation is solid, Germany is not booming. Since the early 2000s, German wage growth has been very limited. Moreover, few Germans own their own homes, meaning that they have not experienced the same wealth effects of rising house prices felt by a chunk of the British middle- and upper-middle class, the Dutch, Italians and Spaniards. They have been saved from the effects of collapsing property prices but have not known the heady days of year-on-year price rises. Merkel’s cautious optimism reflects the attitude of a large part of the German working and middle class who feel that their relative prosperity is precarious and needs to be closely guarded.

The meaning of Merkel’s victory for the rest of Europe is mixed. It is possible that Merkel will soften her stance to some extent now the election is over, though we should not expect any sudden U-turns on something like Eurobonds. A slow recalibration of the Eurozone economy is more likely, as crisis-hit countries like Spain and Ireland regain some competitiveness via internal adjustments to wages and prices. Where Merkel may compromise is on measures to boost domestic demand. If Germans were to consume a little more rather than save so much, that would help pull other Eurozone economies out of their deep depression. Though something like this may happen, any recalibration will still occur within the context of a Eurozone marked by massive disparities in wealth and spatially organised around a clear logic of centre and periphery.

The Future of Work

20 Jun

TCM editor, Alex Gourevitch, will be speaking with Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem With Work, about ‘The Future of Work‘ this Sunday at PS1. It is part of Triple Canopy’s ‘Speculations on the Future‘ program. In advance of this event, we thought it worth laying out a few facts relevant to the discussion. While we have spoken about some of the political questions at stake in the work/anti work debate (here, here, and here), those were relatively fact free speculations. And necessarily so. The issue at stake was hopes and desires for the future, and the organizing aspirations for a possible left. These discussions, however, can always do with a small dose of vulgar empiricism. A brief look at some relevant facts suggests that the most likely, if not most desirable, future of work is roughly that of increasing dependence on the labor market and lower quality work for most people. One word of caution: the data is limited to the US and Europe, entirely because that is our area of expertise and where the data is most readily available.

Although every so often there are breathless declarations of the end of workthe collapse of work, and that technology is leading to a world without work, the historical trend is the opposite. Ever since the 1970s, an increasing share of the population has been working. For instance, the graph below shows the employment to population ratio in the United States. Notably, even after the dramatic post-2008 decline, a higher percentage of Americans still work in the formal labor market than anytime before the mid 1970s. Slide1Similar survey data from Eurostat of all people between ages 15 and 64 shows, wherever data is available, that there have been dramatic or gradual declines in ‘inactivity‘ or non-participation in the labor market. In Germany, 35.9% of 15 to 64 year olds were inactive in 1983 while in 2012 that number had sunk to 22.9%. In Spain the drop was from 44.1% in 1986 to 25.9% in 2012. For France, 31.6% (1983) to 29% (2012), and the UK 29.1% (1983) to 23.7% (2012). The Netherlands saw the largest decline from 1983 to 2012, from 41.4% to 20.7%. The most likely future of work in the US and Europe is that more people will be working for wages or salaries than ever before, as absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population.

Three recent changes to the political economy suggest not only increased participation in, but greater dependence on, wage-labor, especially by those on the bottom end of the labor market. These are a) stagnation or reduction of welfare benefits, b) stagnation or decline of wealth and c) stagnant wages and precarious employment. Welfare and wealth are alternatives to wages as sources of consumption; lower wages and precarious employment increases insecurity of and need for employment.

For instance, in the case of welfare, the stagnation or reduction of welfare benefits means that states offer the same or worse benefits to those who cannot find or live off a job. This is consistent with increased numbers taking advantage of these benefits. For instance, recent reports made much of the 70% increase in Americans using food stamps, which represents a doubling of the amount spent on food stamps, since 2008. But food stamps alone are hardly enough to live off, and their increased use reflects the increase in unemployment. More broadly, American welfare benefits are not enough for most people to live off, many states recently cut benefits, and the welfare system is famously designed to spur labor market participation, not provide an alternative to it. Moreover, in Europe, where welfare benefits are more generous and less conditional, the consequence of austerity policies is, at best, to limit the growth of any such programs and in various countries to reduce or even eliminate them. Cuts to public employment and hiring freezes, increases in retirement age, and other measures mean the reserve army of labor will be larger, and most people will have fewer/poorer state provided alternatives to finding a job.

Finally, the increase in part-time, low-wage work, alongside stagnant or declining wealth at the bottom, further entrenches labor market dependence. We were unable to find longitudinal wealth data on Europe, but in the United States we have seen net declines in wealth for the bottom 60% of the population.

Share Total Wealth 1983-2009

Since wealth assets are not only an alternative source of income, but also, in the US especially a source of retirement income, this means greater dependence on the labor market for the working age population, as well as postponement of retirement, further swelling the ranks of the labor market. On top of which, wages remain stagnant and full-time work harder to find. Jobs are low-paying, part-time, and insecure and once one starts looking not at median but bottom quintiles, the situation is only worse. These trends are equally evident in Europe, where part-time, less secure employment has increased in places like the UK and Netherlands, alongside the more often commented increases in unemployment in places like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

In all, then, we can say that alternatives to employment have gotten worse or disappeared for the majority of people in the US and Europe, while the available jobs pay, on average, less than they used to and offer less security. There is every reason to think that the most likely near future of work will give us strong reasons to think about a different way of organizing work – about a better, if less likely, future.

Making the best of a good crisis?

17 May

A recent debate has emerged around the use European elites can make of the Eurozone crisis. According to the Naomi Klein theory of social change, backed up recently by Paul Krugman, crises are used by capitalists as opportunities to reform economies in their favour. Whether such crises, or “disasters” to use Klein’s turn, are wars provoked by outside interventions (Iraq) or financial crises of the kind we are seeing today in Europe and elsewhere, the point is that crises are good for those who favour neoliberal policies.

In the context of the austerity versus stimulus debate, Krugman suggests that the reason why austerity is preferred is not that it works (it clearly isn’t working) but it is because stimulus might work. If European economies begin to grow again, then the window of opportunity to replace “social Europe” with a neoliberal alternative will have gone. Successful stimulus will only strengthen the case against deeper structural reform. Krugman notes that this view is already entering into the evaluation of Japan’s recent attempt at monetary stimulus: cautious voices are pointing out that if this works, then there will be no incentive to tackle the country’s underlying problems.

There is quite a bit wrong with this explanation for austerity, however compelling it may seem at the intuitive level. Everyone likes to bash those far-sighted capitalists – the elusive 1% – who conspire behind closed doors to get what they want at the expense of everyone else, the 99%. But this is more a conspiracy theory than it is an explanation of why governments are committed – for the time being – to the austerity agenda. Profiting from a crisis is one thing. Creating a crisis in order to implement a cunning plan is another. In Europe, there is no doubt that authors of the bail-outs have tried to calibrate carrot and stick, using the difficulties of the present crisis in countries like Greece and Portugal as a way of encouraging structural reform. They have also cautioned against any suggestion that the crisis is over, believing that such talk will undermine the commitment of national elites to the reform programme. All this, however, is a far cry from the notion that crises are manufactured as opportunities for neoliberally inspired reforms.

Krugman makes the added point that elites chose austerity over stimulus because they feared the latter could be too successful. He invokes the work of the Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki and his notion of the political business cycle. According to Krugman, Kalecki’s idea explains why businessmen don’t like Keynesian economies. In fact, Kalecki argues something much more specific. At issue for Kalecki is not the ability of Keynesian deficit spending to return crisis-ridden capitalist economies to the status quo ante, which is what Krugman and others imply. Kalecki’s point is not about the stabilizing effects of Keynesianism but rather about its transformative and radical political effects. These are not internal to Keynesianism itself – Keynes was far from being a radical on this point – but are part of the political consequences of Keynesian policies (hence the title of Kalecki’s famous 1943 essay, ‘Political Aspects of Full Employment’).

Kalecki argues that full employment, as a policy goal, is both feasible and attainable. However, politically, the problem with maintaining full employment is that it empowers the working class to the point that it begins to challenge the basic contours of the capitalist economy itself. Full employment has a creative effect by way of ideas and actions that threatens the fabric of capitalist society. It holds up the prospect of a better society and stimulates people to think about how that alternative could be achieved. Kalecki’s point is that stimulus makes a return to the status quo ante more difficult and that is why owners of capital will do everything to frustrate governments who identify full employment as their main goal.

In today’s context, what is striking is that the austerity versus stimulus debate is had against a backdrop of consensus around the nature of the economic system. Both are means to an agreed end and Krugman’s argument for stimulus is that it works better than austerity in this regard. Kalecki’s point about stimulus was that it throws open, because of the mobilisation and politicisation of workers, the question of what the ends are and of what kind of economic system we would like. If we want to bring back Kalecki to the present discussion, it is this aspect that we should emphasize. And to resist Krugman and Klein’s conspiratorial accounts of intended crises and infinitely cunning capitalist elites.

Work is (potentially) one good thing: A response to Livingston and other post-workists

14 Mar

In today’s post, TCM co-editor Alex Gourevitch replies to Jim Livingston and other anti-workists, a debate that heated up after Ross Douthat’s op-ed on the subject. For the earlier iterations of this discussion see our earlier post, along with Peter Frase, Evan Burger, and Jim Livingston’s – and some older posts by Seth Ackerman, Chris Maisano, and Kathi Weeks.

Leisure is one good thing, but work is another

Leisure is a good thing. But it is not everything. That is one problem with the post-workists. The other problem is that they have a very one-sided view of work, one that, ironically, comes from adopting rather than overcoming a distinction that the constraints of this society impose on us: the distinction between production and consumption.

Consider Jim Livingston’s most recent foray into the work debate, in which he argues that work is culturally obsolete. The “renunciation of desire,” which Jim sees as the hallmark of work, was once useful insofar as it led to massive increases in human productivity. Once it became possible for machines to do the work of humans, however, the historical mission of the work ethic was exhausted:

“What if the deferral of desire is no longer the condition of life because the socially necessary labor of the proletarian has receded?  What if the realization of desire (yes, the consumption rather than the production of values) has become the condition of life as such—of human development, as Hegel would say?  Then the morality of the slave, the Stoic, the worker—the repression of desire—becomes a constraint on human development, a fetter on the growth of the forces of production.”

The real possibility available to us, if we overcome our inner compulsion to work and free our desires, is that “man is able to step aside and install machines in his place (Hegel).”

Jim offered these thoughts in the name of “trying to slow us all down,” but he was far too quick. First, the identification of work with the “renunciation of desire” is just wrong. Second, discipline and desire are not opposites. And third there are many different kinds of discipline, some good some bad. If we get our thinking straight about this we’ll see that we should not be seeking to “abolish work” but to change it.

To begin with, to condemn work as the “renunciation of desire” is slipshod. After all, if the very renunciation of desire, whatever exactly that means, were the thing that was bad about work, work would not be the only bad thing. Many activities people engage in during their free time would be bad – like training for a sport or practicing music. It is hard to think of anything but purely non-instrumental activities – like playing games, hobby-painting, revelry, hanging out, and maybe religious worship – as having any value if all renunciation of desire is bad. All purposeful activities require some discipline. So one problem is that the abolish work position, by attacking “discipline” or the “renunciation of desire” isn’t really identifying something specific to work, at least as Livingston defines it. But there’s more.

Livingston wants to celebrate rather than renounce desires, forgetting that the development of many desires is only possible over the course of a life in which there is also discipline. Livingston’s delight in the razzle-dazzle of textual interpretation, his desire to synthesize Hegel-Marx, has required decades of disciplined study; indeed, mere reading itself requires years of discipline and development. It is only after we have developed an ability that we desire its skillful exercise and enjoy its realization.

One would think someone with a fondness for Hegel would be sensitive to this fact, but Livingston’s world is weirdly techno-primitivist. On the one hand, society is brimming with machines, which are a product of a very advanced stage of historical development that presumes a radical transformation and expansion in human needs and relationships. People in this modern society are not born into their occupations and, for that same reason, do not have a fixed or given set of needs defined by hereditary social roles. We define our needs, and have the relative freedom to do so both because our roles are not fixed and because of the massive increase in the technical ability to do so. Further, our way of organizing our desires is stamped by this historical development. The very conception of leisure as free time starkly opposed to productive activity, upon which post-workists lean so heavily, is not a natural one. It is the product of the capitalistic organization of work, in which daily work is radically separated from the satisfaction of needs. The average worker gains access to a wage on condition that she gives up control over her work to a boss – her free time is time spent consuming. Thus our very way of relating to work, leisure and desire is the unwitting and not immediately visible product of a long historical process and specific social constraints. Livingston’s celebration of machines would seem to require acknowledgement of this, and to develop an argument for consumption out of these historical facts.

Yet, on the other hand, though Livingston knows all this, his argument approaches desires as spontaneous and ‘natural,’ not impulses that we develop and refine over a lifetime and a history. Desires have an odd, childlike immediacy for Livingston – direct impulses that we either repress or satisfy. Somehow, in Livingston’s world, we at once heroically bestride the world, consuming with unreflexive gusto all of the amazing technological outputs, yet do so with the simplicity and innocence of a child, for whom any and all constraint is the “renunciation of desire,” the oppressive residue of a bygone era holding us back like a stern father. It is not even clear how Livingston suggests we will maintain just that level of know-how to keep machines running (they do break down!), let alone why this is a way of thinking about desire and consumption that is in any way appropriate for us modern creatures. Alternatively, we could acknowledge that we are reflexive about our desires, that we shape and define them – which involves a more complex dialectic between discipline and development than Livingston’s “renunciation of desire” allows.

Though Livingston pretends to a kind of romanticism, the actual Romantics suffered for their art.  They sometimes exercised quite intense discipline (and took exquisite, often perverse, pleasure in it). Balzac wrote every day for hours at a time, denying himself food and sleep, just to improve and develop his art, even if he then discarded that day’s labor. What he strived for, what he most desired, was the virtuosic display of his abilities, not just any old verbal expression. Nor is this just a point about artists and writers. All human skills, from engineering to teaching to cooking, require patience and discipline to develop. Once developed, they produce in us a host of new desires for their skillful exercise, and we take real pleasure in that. Surely a great part of the pleasure in exercising these abilities is the satisfaction of a job well done, of having achieved something that was difficult, which took foresight, effort and directed energy.

Though the examples so far have been individualistic, we can say the same for collective activity: achieving collective aims requires discipline, and the satisfaction and joy in achievement is related to that discipline. Post-workists frequently mention painting and other artistic activities as the truly creative, free activities, but why not also see, say, the design and execution of a mass transit system as an act of collective creativity? True, it will require certain restraints, like at least a temporary division of labor among participants, and thus a certain amount of individual discipline in order to achieve that long-term end. And there are many undesirable ways for that discipline to be organized (more on that below). But the very fact that discipline is required can’t be what’s bad about them. Surely, one of the things that people find satisfying about cooperative work is that each person restricts some personal desires to one side to participate in and realize a shared a project. If the aim of designing a mass transit system is a democratically defined purpose, and participants can exercise equal control in the design and execution of this work, why not see it as a collective work of art? A full expression of human creativity and productive powers? True, it may only be possible to find pleasure in such activities if we have developed certain ideas about the nature and necessity of social cooperation, about the value of creating and recreating the world around us, about recognition of others as a condition for the exercise of our own powers. But I can see nothing slave-like in any of that. Moreover, those ideas and values already exist in all kinds of work, even those kinds of work shot through with domination and injustice. And that enjoyment of collective endeavors is, among other things, the source of some of that solidarity that has formed the necessary basis of left wing movements.

That we train, refine and expand our impulses is evident even in those desires that Livingston favors: the non-productive or passive desires. I love watching soccer, but I most love watching good soccer. If nobody makes the effort to become a good soccer player, there will be little to appreciate. That desire simply goes unsatisfied. We can say the same thing about a movie, a meal, or anything else we passively consume. Further, when I used to play soccer, a wholly unproductive activity, I got the greatest pleasure from playing well. But to get there, I had to put in hours of training. It was not productive, and what I consumed was the activity of playing. But I could only get that full pleasure after a long period of training my body and mind. In fact, it was only through the process of training that I gained a full appreciation for and desire to play well. Once again, the relevant desire that seeks satisfaction depends upon prior discipline. Discipline is not necessarily or inherently the “renunciation of desire.” It is, or at least can be, the restriction and shaping of impulse, and one that can produce a whole new set of refined and novel desires.

There are many kinds of discipline

I can hear the post-workists sharpening their knives, ready to thrust all kinds of contemporary examples, from creepy workplace surveillance to inhuman working conditions, into the heart of my argument. How could I ignore all the oppression and coercion in so much actually existing work? What good is all that restriction of desire? Why put people in conditions where, in order to satisfy basic needs they have to take shitty jobs, thereby renouncing their deeper longings and desires. And they are right, those are terrible forms of discipline.

But they are right in a way that identifies a problem with Livingston’s post-workism, not my position. The forms of worker coercion and social discipline that are most objectionable are not eternal facts about work but specific to the organization of work under capitalism. It is Livingston who naturalizes many of the negative features of work under capitalism, thereby backhandedly displacing criticism from historically specific relations of political and economic power. Livingston turns a social problem into a problem with, in Livingston’s words, “the ontology of work.”

In fact, some of the absurdity of the position that identifies work with the “renunciation of desire” comes from this unwillingness  to differentiate among different kinds of discipline. The discipline that economic need exercises on a poor worker and the discipline that a boss exercises on an employee are not inherent features of work. Surely we can imagine a society in which people’s basic consumption needs are unconditionally satisfied, and in which all possess equal control over work. But this would not be a society that had “abolished work”; it would be a society that had abolished the class relationships that condemn people to a lifetime of economic need, crappy bosses, and stultifying work. The abolition of the ‘working class’ is not, as the post-workists believe, the abolition of work. It is the reorganization of control over work, and the machines and materials we use to work, so that everyone has the chance for self-developing, better work, should they want it. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine people needing high quality work to feel fulfilled; that it be a central desire in a highly productive society. That is not something a basic income and mechanization of thoroughly unpleasant work could satisfy. There is no obstacle to defending the value of work while still criticizing many forms of worker coercion and social discipline (see here for a piece that I co-authored on just that subject with Corey Robin and Chris Bertram).

Work will not set you free. It is not the only good thing in life. But opportunities for self-developing work are one good thing in life, just as unproductive free time is another good thing. Post-workists, however, tend to be single-minded and therefore one-sided in their conception of a free society. That is why they gravitate towards things like basic income and mechanization, but put less emphasis on the value of collectively controlling the aims and organization of work. Rather than give us a picture of the future, they just take one side of the present and use it beat up on the other side. That is what Livingston does when he argues for the “consumption rather than the production of values.” Surely there are many sides to a full and flourishing existence. In a future society we would not replace producers with consumers but would see the expansion and transformation of both in a way that would see a dissolving, or at least easing, of the contrast between the two things. Work would be something less instrumental and less frequently limiting, but rather freer and self-developing – a productive activity that we can consume. Leisure would be more experimental and wide-ranging, less dominated than it is now by the requirements of recharging for another day at a bad job.

This is not just an argument over utopian ethical ideals. As post-workists themselves have recognized, there is a political problem with the ‘abolition of work.’ As Peter Frase says, “by asking workers to give up not just their chains but their identities as workers, anti-work theorists relinquish the forms of working class pride and solidarity that have been the glue for many left movements.” This problem is clearest in Livingston’s own position, which condemns the desire to work as a slave morality, and which sees discipline as the renunciation of desire, rather than also as the path to achievement and further self-development. If I am right, or even in the ballpark, then there is no reason to discard outright these important sources of solidarity. Nor is there reason to see the kinds of personality required to engage in sustained and organized political struggle as, at best, regrettable necessity, and at worst, slaves on the march. Unless, of course, the post-workists really believe that radical social change is mere child’s play.

The Persistence of Work

25 Feb

The breathless announcement of ‘the end of work’ has been a feature of capitalism almost from its inception. It has featured especially prominently during every capitalist crisis of the twentieth century. From Keynes’ ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ (1930) and Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’ (1932),* to Clive Jenkins and Barrie Sherman’s The Collapse of Work (1979) and Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), to Jeremy Rifkin’s (seriously mistimed) The End of Work (1995), we have seen some variety of the claim that there is a tendency for the working class to be replaced by machines. The most recent entrant to this motley crew is Ross Douthat, whose recent column in the New York Times carried the title ‘A World Without Work.’

The rhetorical thrusts and parries of Douthat’s op-ed make it difficult to follow, though his bottom line appears to be that the ‘end of work’ is a secular trend that represents a wider cultural malaise: it is “of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.” In other words, it is the product of a series of voluntary individual choices to withdraw from social life. This social disintegration is a threat to human well being – “it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work” – and this is because, while it appears it is easier to survive without working (“steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before”), we lose all of the personal benefits of work. These benefits are everything from ambition (“it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity. [A nonworking working class may not be immiserated; neither will its members ever find a way to rise above their station.]), to “structure” “a place to meet friends and kindle romances” and “a path away from crime and prison for young men.”

Douthat is worth paying attention to because he is not giving us the run-of-the-mill concern with unemployment but rather raising the specter of the rejection of employment. He thinks the voluntary withdrawal from the labor market is the defining feature of our economy: “the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up.”

The conflation of “wanted and unwanted” leisure is already something of a black-eye for Douthat’s argument. To the degree most current ‘leisure’ is unwanted, it is forced idleness, not voluntary withdrawal. People know that it would, under current circumstances, be better to have a job, but they despair at finding one. Despite record high profit rates, corporations sit on huge loads of cash instead of investing it, and since that is the only source of job growth in this economy, those who want a job but can’t find one are helpless. Unwanted leisure is not expanding from the bottom up, it is forced from the top down.

But let’s put this to one side for now because, at another level of facts, Douthat is lost in a mirage. What Douthat calls “work-force participation” has declined only relative to the highs of the early 2000s and is still significantly above the halcyon days of this nation-of-joiner’s post-war boom. Here is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ graph of labor-force participation rates going back to 1948, the earliest data point.


Before 1973 the labor-force participation rate never beat 60% while now, though below its 2000 peak of 67%, it is still at a steady 63-64%. There is no end of work, but rather a one-off decline and then plateau. Even with this decline we continue to labor-force rates plateauing higher than back in the good old days. (Employment-to-population figures tell the same story.) So the historical trend of increasing participation in the labor market, due to the entry of women in the work force, is what still dominates our political economy. Work persists.

Worse yet for Douthat, is his claim that “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.” Let’s say that Douthat is actually talking about this one-off decline after the recession – since that is the only actual economic fact that conforms to his story. Douthat never explains how material prosperity suddenly lead to a 4% decline in labor-force participation, but there are two options: welfare benefits and ‘getting by.’ Why those two options would suddenly and spontaneously be attractive to people in 2008 he never says, but that is because he can’t. The problem is not the lack of demand for jobs due to superior alternatives, which is what Douthat’s claim amounts to, but rather the persistent lack of supply, which has led especially new entrants to the labor market to temporarily withdraw or postpone entry (ie go to college). This shows up, for instance, in the steep decline in household formation among young people who, lacking adequate income or job security, have fallen back on living with their parents or group housing. In other words, the ‘problem’ registered in the post 2008 numbers, is not material prosperity and government benefits but, rather, economic stagnation. This may be a prosperous society but it is not a dynamic one, nor is it one in which people are unaware of the social disadvantages of getting a job.

The issue here is not just that Douthat gets his facts wrong but that his facts are (mis)assembled to tell a particular kind of story. Like many end of workists before him, Douthat gives the strong impression that the natural tendency of capitalist economy is to bring about an end of work. These statements are always over-reactions to one aspect of capitalist development that miss a larger whole. The natural tendency of the capitalist economy is to generate immense material prosperity alongside unemployment and over-work. While there are fantastic machines, which generate material wealth and replace human workers, this is only one-side of the coin – not evidence that “we’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.” In fact, a supermajority remain dependent on the labor market for satisfaction of needs, and will remain so unless the political economy is radically transformed. And, further, it is a serious mischaracterization of the situation to say that those who have decreased their dependence on the labor market have done so voluntarily.

That there is no natural tendency towards a leisure society, and that much leisure is in fact forced idleness, is important because it means a society based on free time is one that will require political struggle. It will not naturally evolve through more machines and cultural changes. Moreover, it means that instead of thinking we face some kind of social disintegration due to a cultural shift away from work, community and church, we face a problem of power and control in economic life. Only Douthat’s lack of imagination, combined with mischaracterization of historical trends, lead him to present us with two alternatives – present underemployment (and overwork) or a return to “a grinding job” and all its auxiliary social benefits. Nobody thinks that unemployment is a good thing, least of all those of us who think escaping crappy jobs and nasty bosses is a good thing. Douthat seems to think that “the right not to have a boss” can only take the form of withdrawal from the labor market – a retreat from the world of work itself. But that presumes a current structure of ownership over means of production that there is no good reason to assume. Some jobs may necessarily be grinding, but many of the undesirable aspects of work have to do with subjection to someone else’s will. Change ownership and control and work itself can change. And while drudgery may not disappear, it need not define anyone’s life. There is no reason why we cannot have both more free time and better, more self-developing jobs. The obstacles to that world are social and political, not natural. Douthat, however, wants to leverage on obvious point about the social advantages of the world of work to limit our expectations and lower our horizons.

It is true that the immense wealth, and remarkable, labor-saving machines, of our society make a leisure society possible. But that world of freedom, in which we can be both free at work and free from work, is not one that will naturally appear. It is something people will have to fight for.

*To be fair to Russell, he doesn’t quite belong in this crowd because he appreciated that the leisure society was not something we were naturally approaching so much as a possibility that could only be achieved through political change.


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