Post-Work: Zombie Social Democracy with a Human Face?

Texte selectate sau scrise de echipa redacţională: Vasile Ernu, Costi Rogozanu, Florin Poenaru.

Andrew Kliman despre iluziile keynesianismului și ale ideei de post-muncă într-un context în care locurile de muncă sunt din ce în ce mai puține.

The vision of a “post-work” society––one in which the fruits of technological progress take the form of reduced work-time rather than more consumer goods and services––has recently enjoyed a measure of renewed interest and support in parts of the left. There’s the essay by John Quiggin, a social-democratic Keynesian economist and author of Zombie Economics; articles by Peter Frase and Chris Maisano in Jacobin magazine; and, from a somewhat different perspective, David Graeber‘s recent thoughts on “bullshit jobs”.

Post-work is certainly not a novel idea, but it’s a good one… sort of. In 2011, the average consumption of the 80-plus percent of people who live outside of the “high-income” countries was only eight percent of the U.S. average, so the urgent priority for most of the world’s people is more consumption, not less work.[1] And why shouldn’t individuals choose the form––less work or more stuff––in which they personally benefit from technological progress? Different strokes for different folks. Is it really the job of the left to become the shadow nanny state?

That said, reduced work-time is hard to argue against. And I wouldn’t want to argue against it even it if were easy.

But why is post-work catching on at this particular moment, when lack of work is the immediate and intractable problem faced by tens of millions of workers in Europe and the U.S.? Quiggin tells us that the renewed interest is the result of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s promotion of a 1930 essay in which John Maynard Keynes suggested that a 15-hour workweek would become feasible by about 2030. But the underlying goal is to give social democracy a human face—for even its proponents find it rather desiccated in its received form. Quiggin recognizes that

if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society.

Maisano expresses such a vision quite nicely. In a passage I wish I had written, he says:

The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom—freedom from alienating work and freedom to use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labour movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs.

However, the problem is that this vision is being used to entice us to rally round the same old social-democratic technocratic lever-pulling. To make the vision a reality, we supposedly have to start with what Quiggin calls “[t]he first step … the social democratic agenda associated with post-war Keynesianism”––guaranteed minimum income, more social services, allocation of investment funds on the basis of “social need rather than market signals of price and profit,” and so on.

The problem here is that Keynesianism and social democracy don’t work. They failed in the global economic crisis of the 1970s and they failed when Mitterrand’s government tried to implement them in France shortly thereafter. These events killed them off––for good, I thought. But since the latest global crisis can’t easily be blamed on Keynesianism and social democracy, they’ve recently risen from the dead (zombie-like, as Quiggin might say).[2]

Mitterrand’s experiment is particularly important to revisit. It definitely wasn’t your standard

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post-war social-democracy. I was very excited about it at the time. In coalition with the Communists, Mitterrand’s Socialist Party came to power in the spring of 1981, promising rapid economic growth and reduced unemployment. The new government nationalized a lot of industry and virtually the whole of France’s financial sector became directly government controlled. New laws strengthened the power of the trade unions. The minimum wage was increased several times; by the end of 1982, it had risen by 39%. Rent controls and new taxes were imposed, including a wealth tax and a maximum 75% tax rate on income. Private healthcare was curtailed. Significant capital controls to prevent the outflow of funds from France were already in place and the new government strengthened them further.


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