Saturday, July 11, 2015

Modern Work Patterns Make No Sense

From "Lancashire" by Leo Hartley Grindon.
The BBC’s In Our Time did a show recently about the Lancashire cotton famine – basically when the British textile mills were cut off from their main sources of cotton in the American South due to the Civil War. The British had outlawed slavery, but were all too happy to take advantage of the slavery practiced by their trading partners. How convenient, and a nice way to claim the moral high ground. Slaves aren’t useful for value-added work anyway, and that was the key to Britain’s prosperity, but, hey, we’ll gladly make use of the cheap cotton produced by your slaves and pat ourselves on the back for our morality!

In any case, some have claimed slavery was no big deal anyway for capital formation because Britain just pivoted to getting cotton from Egypt and, especially, India. But Indian cotton, although not grown by slaves, was grown by subsistence farmers who were dragooned by the British authorities of the Raj  into producing cotton in sufficient quantities for export. How did they pay for the transition? Loans, of course. You can’t eat cotton, and it’s very vulnerable to variations in the monsoon rains.

Fast forward today, and what are all those small farmers committing suicide at a staggering rate growing? You guessed it, cotton (now woven in Bangladeshi sweatshops instead of Lancashire mills). And now it’s genetically modified cotton, which is produced by Western corporations and bought via debt upfront, with all the risk laid at the feet of the small farmers. This means the farmers also need to buy the pesticides, the upside being that they can always drink it if the rains fail to show and the debts come due, which is exactly what many of them are doing.

So, one again, an attempt to wash the blood off the hands of the creation of capitalism falls short.. But what I want to highlight this part which put it in a historical context:
[5:30] Melvyn Bragg (host): Who are the people working in the cotton industry?

Emma Griffin: Well, in Lancashire everybody’s working in the mills; some of these mill towns have the vast majority of the populations working in these mills,. And whole families will be employed. They offer a lot of employment for children. Children can start working from the age of nine. Now they’re not going to be doing very skilled work or operating the machines, but they’ll be doing menial work around the factory. And as they enter their teens they’ll start to become machine operators, and as Lawrence has already mentioned, and quite unusually, there’s a lot of employment for women, and in many mills women will actually outnumber the men. But all of the tasks within a factory are usually divided up according to gender, and of course it will be no great surprise to hear that women tended to have the lower paid jobs whilst men had the most senior positions – the overlookers, the engineering, and the heaviest work. That always came with the greatest pay, and of course with the greatest status.

I think one point that is important to emphasize is that we tend to think of factory work as low skill and low pay, but for nineteenth century Britain, that simply isn’t  true at all. In the context of the time and given that these are relatively uneducated workers, these workers are able to command a real premium for working in the factories. It is regarded as skilled work, that these are valuable workers, and this is particularly true for the women. The other alternatives for them are things like domestic service, or cleaning, or laundry work. By contrast, the money they can earn in the factories is very significantly better than the alternatives there.

MB: And the background to this is at this the end of village industry, really. Village cottage industry where everyone was at the loom if they weren’t in the fields.

EG: It is. There’s been a very significant switch in the way that things are made. So traditionally people are paid for making things according to how much is made. So a shoemaker gets paid for his shoes when he’s made his shoes and is not really paid for his time--he’s paid for what he actually accomplishes. In the factories that logic doesn’t really work because the employers have spent money invested in very expensive machinery, and that means they’ve got to keep the machines running all through the week, as long as possible. So they’ve got to get workers to the factory early in the morning, they’ve got to get them working intensively throughout the day, staying until late into the evening. And that’s a very different kind of working pattern that’s being introduced. So instead of people dovetailing working at home with managing a cotton garden or something, now they’re going into the factories. And it’s the beginning of modern working patterns that we’re familiar with, where we’re effectively paid for our time rather than what we manage to get done.

MB: But there was a preference for people to work in the factories rather than to stay in the countryside in these not idyllic village in these lousy conditions.

EG: There’s a real draw. I mean it’s clear that population is moving into Lancashire so workers are very clearly…there are some push factors from the rural sector as well, but there are clearly attractions to the factories. And one of the attractions is that there’s a lot of employment for children. So if you imagine a family in rural Norfolk of five or six children, many of those children won’t be at work because there is no work for them to do. You make the move to somewhere like Manchester or one of the mill towns all round about, and suddenly all of your family is at work. So you go from having one breadwinner to having four or five wage earners in your family, which makes a very significant difference to living standards indeed. So, yes we’ve got basically, since the end of the eighteenth century, we’ve got rural migration into the towns, whole families are moving and taking up these new opportunities.
Getting paid for what you actually accomplish. What a concept! Instead, most of us are chained to our desks for forty hours a week regardless of what we actually accomplish. What sense does this make? In fact, all we do is “fiddle around on computers all day” (as David Graeber puts it) and actually accomplish very little. Yet we must sit there and put in our forty hours regardless of whether there is four hours of work to do or forty. Not to mention the odd idea of selling a concept as ephemeral as time – how bizarre that is. One’s time on this earth is so limited; something feels wrong about selling it to the lowest bidder. Indeed, before the invention of precise timekeeping that wasn’t even possible. The clocks that were designed to help monks time their prayers evolved into shackles for the working class.

Of course people take the modern work situation for granted because the authorities do their best to induce historical amnesia and make us think that the way things are is the way they have always been. This is what George Orwell meant when he said that whoever controls the past controls the present (and by extension, the future). That is why Americans are kept as ignorant of history as those in power can make them.

As Emma Griffin points out, those work patterns make sense when you work in a factory where every second the machine isn’t running it’s a loss of profit. This is also why agricultural societies have always been more leisurely than industrial ones--working harder won’t make the plants grow any faster, after all – once the land you’ve got is seeded and watered, it’s several months minimum before you harvest your crop with little to do but pull weeds and wait. By contrast, a machine never gets tired, and you will give out before it does, hence the Stakhanovite working hours of the early Industrial Revolution (only ameliorated by brutal strikes where workers often sacrificed their lives in a hail of government-sponsored gunfire).

But in case you haven’t noticed, not a lot of people are working in factories anymore. Yet, bizarrely, the entire structure of society is designed as if we do! We all get into our cars and head to work at the exact same time every day (causing epic traffic jams), and file home at the exact same time (causing yet another traffic jam). We all work Monday-Friday (with a few exceptions). During that time we’re chained to a desk for eight hours regardless of what we actually accomplish. It doesn’t matter if there’s four hours of work to do or forty – we’re parked there whether we like it or not. But there is no spinning machine, no power loom, no drill press, no drop forger. No machine at all except sometimes a computer which can go anywhere and work anytime. We’re not producing any goods at all! Graeber again:
...through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves...working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their [F]acebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
The "efficiency" of factory working patterns in a post-factory age.
I think the crux of the problem is that we've built our society around the expectation of a steady income. In fact we need to have a steady income, otherwise we are homeless. Every single month we have to write that rent or mortgage check to keep a roof over our head. So getting paid intermittently is difficult unless we own the home, and even then we have to pay utility bills. We simply aren’t structured for a world of  intermittent work. This is because the entire market is predicated on people getting a steady paycheck. In other words, everything is still predicated on the industrial/Fordist model in a post-Fordist world. And we have no real clear idea of how to move beyond it.

What we have is a very serious mismatch between the design of the post-industrial world and the requirements of its economy. We all know this selling of time makes no sense anymore, yet we cannot move beyond it. We’re accustomed to it. Making it worse is the fact that (in America, especially) so many things are tied to our jobs like health care and retirement.

Being in modern industrial society practically requires us to be in debt. That means being yoked to a steady repayment schedule. This is a major barrier to the kind of society we need where we get paid by what we produce. Even that is tricky, because most of us don’t produce a damn thing; we do “interpersonal/ administrative” work, i.e. push paper. Compare this to back when people lived on the land for generations making a living, and almost nobody outside of entrepreneurs and monarchs/governments had to worry about debt.

Of course, now there are less and less places interested in buying your time anyway. Getting paid for what you produce is a nice idea, but it's harder than ever. In the Middle Ages you had carpenters, coopers, cobblers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, thatchers, brewers, butchers, tailors, etc. Today, our stuff is produced by factories filled with robots, often on the other side of the world. You can't hand-produce an automobile or microwave or refrigerator in your basement workshop, and even if you did, there is no way you could sell it for less than GE or Toshiba. Even food is produced by vast factory farms undercutting anyone without enough land. Our notions of "self reliance" are completely at odds with this reality.

And the kind of stuff you can produce is almost impossible to sell nowadays. Musicians, writers and other artists are seeing their livelihoods disappear because everyone expects free stuff, and it's hard to make a living crocheting for Etsy, despite all the pronouncements of techno-utopians. See this: From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author's life? (Guardian)
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as "chillingly brilliant" (Financial Times) and "bewitching" (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, "No one else writes quite like this in Britain today." Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he's an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name.

After working seven days a week without holidays, and now approaching 60, Thomson, you might think, must be looking forward to a measure of comfort and security as the shadows of old age crowd in. But no. For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London's South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls "my garret".

The space is so cramped that Thomson, who is just over 6ft, will only be able to stand upright in the doorway, but he seems to derive a certain grim satisfaction from confronting his predicament. "All I want is enough money to carry on writing full time. And it's not a huge amount of money. I suppose you could say that I've been lucky to survive as long as I have, to develop a certain way of working. Sadly, longevity is no longer a sign of staying power."

Thomson is not yet broke, but he's up against it. The story of his garret is a parable of literary life in Britain today. Ever since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury. "Last year," said novelist Paul Bailey, speaking to the Observer in 2010, "was sheer hell". Off the record, other writers will freely confide their fears for the future, wondering aloud about how they will make ends meet. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, recently swindled out of his life savings, told me how difficult his life had become. Never mind the money, the very business of authorship is now at stake.
We’re actually going the opposite direction as it gets harder and harder to get paid for producing something. So the modern working pattern we’re familiar with simply don’t work anymore! We’ve moved on, but we can’t escape from them. And this make no sense.

What we should be doing is moving to a society where we do not have to rely on the steady paycheck and get paid for what we actually produce. That means severing the ties between a job and social benefits. Yes, that means universal healthcare and retirement pension. Housing is a stickier issue, but an important one. When Classical economists like Ricardo talked about “rent,” what they meant was the crops (or money from the selling of crops) paid to the landlord who was distinct from the farmer in order to use the land. What do you do when the land produces no revenue? Classical economics doesn’t really address the issue (Georgist economics does).

The other point I wanted to make based on that snippet has to do with employment. One sneer often hurled at “luddites” by economists and other Cornucopians is how we all left food growing and cotton spinning and dirty factories and all that behind and yet we still have plenty of jobs. Case closed--jobs will always self-create in sufficient numbers without any sort of planning; to claim otherwise is the “Lump of Labor Fallacy,” and all that. But note that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. In the early Industrial Revolution, as noted above, everyone worked--men, women and children, young and old included.

That’s a huge amount of the population that is just not in the job market anymore. That is actually forced out of the job market by law – it’s illegal to hire anyone below sixteen with a few exceptions. That is, we artificially keep children out of the job market. That a huge portion of the population – actually the majority of the population in some countries (less so in the West – which is not coincidental). Again, we just think of this as the normal state of affairs, but as the above points out, it is anything but. In fact, like selling our time instead of anything useful, it is the aberration for most of human existence. We just take modern working patterns for granted thanks to Shifting Baseline Syndrome. In the movie of human existence, the industrial model would be the last few frames, yet we tend to assume it was the entire movie.

We also used to keep women out of the workforce too, as any viewer of Mad Men knows. Women were expected to get married and keep house – and yes, that had a lot to do with making sure there were enough jobs for the men. I’m sure my readers know that the women who worked on the assembly lines during World War Two were politely asked to step aside when the men came home. The generation who lived through the Great Depression would have never accepted the nonsense spewing from today’s economists about the "Lump of Labor" fallacy – they lived through unemployment rates as high as 25 percent and a decade of people being tossed out into the street.

Women tentatively slipped their toes back in the water in part-time jobs as long as they were not taking jobs from male breadwinners (e.g ‘Kelly girls’). Eventually that changed as feminism (encouraged by business) “liberated” women to enter the workforce regardless of the effect on men’s jobs and wages (because jobs are always unlimited, declared economists, “Lump of Labor,” and all that - see The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy). Now women actually dominate the workforce. Women have essentially won the gender wars. Note also that the wheels came off the economy in the late 1970’s opening the door for Neoliberalism and ending thirty years of rising fortunes for the middle class in America. Coincidence?

We are also keeping people out  of the workforce ever longer thanks to increasing education requirements (even though for most jobs it’s useless). In other words, a degree is nothing more than a job-hunting license.

Now you may scoff at this, but consider the reason why we take children out of the workforce and stick them in the warehouses/gulags we call schools for over a decade. Ostensibly, it’s to train them in the necessary skills they need to do the kinds of jobs that modern post-industrial society demands. Except their skills are now useless – we now all take it for granted (thanks again to the economics priesthood) that a high-school diploma is worthless and not worth the paper it is printed on and enables you to do nothing but work the deep fryer, stock shelves, or, if you’re lucky –swing a hammer or hang drywall - A College Degree Is Now Required of Basically Everyone (Jezebel). And we assume that such people deserve to have no healthcare or vacation or a decent, reliable  income because they have no “skills.” “Skilled” labor, by which economists mean a piece of paper from a degree-granting member of the education cartel, allows one to actually make a living at less than poverty wages. Yet now even that is not enough! Anyone who can’t remain out of the job market until age thirty, well, to hell with you, I guess. And I’m not even going to get started about how it’s entirely on our backs to make ourselves amenable for the few jobs that are on offer.

We also count people over sixty as “retired,” whether they are retired or not. As the progress harpies constantly point out, we’re living longer today. So that’s not properly counted either.

All this is to say that we’re now holding an awful lot of people out of the job “market” for ever-longer periods of time, skewing the job-abundant present situation constantly proclaimed by economists ever further from an apples-to-apples comparison with the past, even the fairly recent past (and even then the workforce participation rate keeps dropping). Economists like to claim that employment has not vanished at all in the two hundred years of productivity gains since we left the farms and factories behind, but they keep moving the goalposts. An apples-to-apples comparison keeping all things equal would consider anyone over the age of nine until death not working as unemployed.

What would that look like?

Our gains in efficiency have eliminated a massive of jobs, we’ve just dodged the bullet by redefining who needs a job. Children (and formerly spouses) were able to be supported by one breadwinner. Not anymore. It’s almost as if school (and retirement) were a design to camouflage the amount of jobs lost over the last few hundred years. And now the creeping normalcy of endless requirements for “more school” is yet another attempt to camouflage this fact. And we’re not even discussing bullshit jobs, or guard labor (which I’ve discussed before) All part of the plan, with economists fulfilling their roles as normalizers and chief propagandists, of course.

Another thing to point out is how much the economy has changed since back then even though today's economic priesthood declares that working less is pie-in-the-sky and unrealistic. We went from men, women and children working in factories and sweatshops, to single male breadwinners to two-income families in the last few hundred years. We went from sixty-hour, six-day workweeks to forty-hour five day workweeks (all while the economy grew). We went from  unionized jobs to temp work. Yet now, if you even dare suggest shorter workweeks or less working hours, you are met with stories abut how the economy will fall to pieces and everyone will be thrown into poverty. Another case of historical amnesia.

Stupid Luddites (sneer).

Finally, it’s worth noting that shifting children from economic boons into economic burdens, and sending women into the workforce in droves is the secret mechanism that industrialism is gambling on to halt worldwide population increase. One can't help but wonder about the limits to that approach.


  1. But Indian cotton, although not grown by slaves, was grown by subsistence farmers who were dragooned by the British authorities of the Raj into producing cotton in sufficient quantities for export

    Don't forget the 2nd part -- cotton itself was not crucial to the British industrial revolution, despite much hyped recent arguments to the contrary

    1. So if I understand the argument, you substract the productivity of cotton and the remainding industries show sufficiently robust growth absent the gains from cloth manufacture to consitute an industrial revolution.

      Is slavery necessary? The Romans (and most societies) had it but no IR.

      So take away slavery and cotton and you get and Industrial Revolution anyway? Maybe. Certainly you need other stuff - particulary coke to make enough metal. But the way see it, you don't invent a way to make cloth in those quantities if you don't *have* enough raw material. The reason you don't get factories in history, at least in the way you do in the IR, is you don't have the supply of raw materials in the first place. In most nations, growing that much raw material would take too much land out of production for food. You would end up starving the workforce you need for the factories.

      How do get that much raw material? Trade? Why would a country trade away that much materiel without some sort of coercion? The cotton monoculture was a historical creation.

      The other thing is that you don't invent a system to turn out that much cloth if it just piles up and sits there. The outlets to sell it drive the amount of production. This is another reason you get factories when you do. Without a dominant position in trade you don't get that.

      Once you get the factory system, you get the productivity gains seen in the the other industries. Thus even though cotton brings it about, a quantitative analysis will say no - it's across all industries. So it seems like a quantitative analysis might lead one astray here. A historical analysis gives one a different prespective than just number-crunching.

      A lot of people have pointed out that slavery actually *hurts* the industrial revolution - cheap labor eliminates the incentive to invent efficient machines to do stuff. That eventually undemrmines slavery itself:

      You just took your hands off the wheel. You didn't even have to touch it.

      JONES: Yeah. Pretty much, everything's driving itself.

      SMITH: The picker feels the cotton plants. It makes all the adjustments itself. Toto just sits there, calls his wife on the cell phone, cranks up the blues station.

      SMITH: Toto has a lot of time up here to sit and think. He was raised by his grandfather, George, who worked on a cotton farm before all this technology. Toto heard the stories.

      JONES: Had to get down on their hands and knees and get some blisters and splinters in their fingernails and everything.

      SMITH: You do realize that you probably harvest more in five minutes than he did all day long.

      JONES: Ah, yeah. I can make a round and pick more than they picked in their whole lifetime.

      SMITH: These machines are not only fast but, by the end of the process, the cotton they produce is clean. It's pure. It's untouched by human hands...

  2. Great analysis, love your writing man!

  3. Thanks for mentioning the fact so many people are not actually in the labor force. I've been saying that for years but it falls on deaf ears.

    The usual solution to the issue is a guaranteed basic income of some kind, say $20,000 per year per adult.

    However there are some big problems with it,

    1st, no society can collect that much in taxes and have enough left over to fix infrastructure. The US for example would have to collect 4 trillion or so in taxes, maybe more if social security overages are factored in. From what we can tell our society can collect about 20% of the GDP at maximum (this is called Hauser's Law) which is at 2014 levels, 3.4 trillion. This means an added say 2.6 trillion a year or so in debt.

    2nd Its incompatible with significant immigration which is a policy goal of the elite and the business class and with a population of broken families,.

    3rd It will have pronounced negative effects on people, familial quality and personal conduct

    4th It will alter the cost of goods in significant ways in labor intensive industries, impacting the business model. It doesn't do much good to give someone 20k a year if a burger and fries is $14

    5th Free money means cost increases unless controlled . If people are getting an extra 20k a year, housing will just jump $1500 a month and they won't be better off . This means either rounds of price controls everywhere or something akin to UK style council housing , neither of which work out well

    Basically we have an efficiency trap , the net result of which will be a global favella with a tiny ever shrinking elite and everyone growing more impoverished

    If we are lucky the TFR will stay low for a few generations and baring a massive African diaspora, the population will shrink anyway and in a century or so will not be enough to support much industry anyway. Its a self correcting social carrying capacity overshoot

    Now if we can come up with some combination of work sharing, cost and immigration management and basic income we might be able to cope with the decline. Otherwise we'd be better off with no new immigration and paying people to not have kids.

    This will gimp the economy but would be the most peaceful and humane decline and beats the real possibilities of civil war or New Jacobins


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