mfioretti: work*

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  1. Meno energia, meno lavoro, meno materiali

    “I have a dream” disse Grillo nel 2008. Con l’articolo «Tre meno - Perché non voto» (Internazionale dell’11 aprile), sognava tre principi strategici. Meno energia: da una società a 6000 watt pro capite a una società a 2000 watt, come deciso in referendum dal popolo svizzero, approvando la strategia dei Politecnici e del governo elvetici. Meno lavoro: subito 30 ore, più tardi 20 ore in media alla settimana, come sostenne nel 1930 J. M. Keynes, e nel 1985 l’eminenza grigia del miracolo economico tedesco Oswald von Nell-Breuning S.J. nel suo libro L’uomo lavora troppo? Meno materiali: da 40 a 20 tonnellate pro capite – grazie alla economia circolare, il cui primo pioniere è l’architetto svizzero Walter Stahel, che già tenne conferenze ai festival 5-stelle.

    “Quasi tutti i peggioramenti della nostra vita – scriveva Grillo - hanno una causa comune: troppa economia. Troppa energia, troppo petrolio, troppi materiali, troppo inquinamento, troppi rifiuti, troppi chilometri, troppa pubblicità, troppa corruzione, troppo stress, troppo lavoro. Contro ognuno di questi "troppi" servono molte iniziative. Ma il risultato deve essere facilmente misurabile: meno economia, più vita. (…) Oggi invece facciamo il contrario: consumiamo per poter vendere, vendiamo per poter produrre, produciamo per poter lavorare. È il contrario di come hanno funzionato tutte le civiltà. (…) Un parlamentare che avesse capito queste cose dovrebbe cominciare a lavorare subito per tre obiettivi: meno energia, meno lavoro, meno materiali”.

    Nel 2018 il programma di governo del 5-stelle dice tra l’altro: dimezzare l’uso di energia, ridurre il tempo di lavoro, dimezzare l’uso dei materiali attraverso un’economia circolare - e molti altri obiettivi social-ecologici. Nella grillosfera non mancano personalità di alto profilo. Consigliere economico e candidato 5-stelle al parlamento è Lorenzo Fioramonti, professore di economia politica, autore di Economia del benessere – Il successo in un mondo senza crescita e del best-seller GDP - Gross Domestic Problem (in Italia: Presi per il PIL). Il grillino Dario Tamburrano è il quinto eurodeputato più influente sulle politiche energetiche. Fu lui, inoltre, l’artefice della video-conversazione tra il Presidente del Parlamento europeo e l’eco-pioniere Bertrand Piccard durante il primo volo solare intorno al mondo dell’aereo fotovoltaico Solar impulse.
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  2. If you were a delivery van driver searching for a new job any time between the years of 2010 and 2013, chances are, you wouldn’t have found many businesses competing for your services. In Selma, Alabama, there was, on average, just one company posting help wanted ads for those drivers on the nation’s biggest job board. In all of Orlando, Florida, there were about nine. Nationwide the average was about two.

    The situation for telemarketers wasn’t great either. In any given city or town, approximately three companies were trying to hire for their services. Accountants only had it a little better: Roughly four businesses were posting jobs for them.
    A lack of competition among employers gives businesses outsize power over workers, including the ability to tamp down on pay.

    Those numbers are based on the findings of a new research paper that may help unlock the mystery of why Americans can’t seem to get a decent raise. Economists have struggled over that question for years now, as wage growth has stagnated and more of the nation’s income has shifted from the pockets of workers into the bank accounts of business owners. Since 1979, inflation-adjusted hourly pay is up just 3.41 percent for the middle 20 percent of Americans while labor’s overall share of national income has declined sharply since the early 2000s. There are lots of possible explanations for why this is, from long-term factors like the rise of automation and decline of organized labor, to short-term ones, such as the lingering weakness in the job market left over from the great recession. But a recent study by a group of labor economists introduces an interesting theory into the mix: Workers’ pay may be lagging because the U.S. is suffering from a shortage of employers.
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  3. Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children. All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.

    None of this would have been possible before he received UBI. Until this year, Järvinen was on dole money; the Finnish equivalent of the jobcentre was always on his case about job applications and training. Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.

    In one talked-about case last year, an unemployed Finn called Christian was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.
    Iain Duncan Smith
    ‘For Iain Duncan Smith, poverty was the rotten fruit of broken families, addiction or debt.’ Photograph: Bloomberg/via Getty Images

    That was Järvinen, too, until this year. Just as with so many Britons on social security, he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself, while refusing him even a glimmer of a hope of fulfilment.

    So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as “poor”.

    His liberation came in the lack of conditions attached to the money.
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  4. I interpret the growing interest in a Basic Income across the political spectrum as a positive development. Here is how I see it: the demand for a Basic Income is, depending on the terms of the demand, a left-wing demand; however, the politics of the demand are not by any measure straightforward. Whether or not it can improve the lives of a broad crosssection of workers depends on several specifics, most important, on the level of the income that is provided. If it is too low, it risks further subsidizing low wage employers by offering their workers a wage supplement. The demand I support is for a miminal livable income that, insofar as it enables workers to opt out of waged work even temporarily, would force such empoyers to offer better wages and conditions. That said, the politics around this are tricky at best, as it is not unlikely that once won, a Basic Income will be first instituted at a low level. The struggle to then raise the level of income will require additional efforts.

    But even if or when it is secured in the form of a minimal livable income, it should be clear that a demand for Basic Income is not a proposal to replace the wage system, but only to loosen its grip on us a bit by providing income for those now shut out of or rendered precarious in relation to waged work, and for those whose contributions to social (re)production that are not now remunerated with wages. It would also give individuals a stronger position from which to negotiate more favorable employment contracts and better enable us to make choices about what kinds of households and intimate relationships we might want to form. While these are not insubstantial benefits, they do not add up to some revolutionary postcapitalist vision.

    Basic Income is the only way capitalism will be able to sustain itself materially and ideologically.

    On the contrary, I think a Basic Income is likely to be the only way capitalism will be able to sustain itself materially and ideologically in the near future as the wage system and family model continue to reveal themselves inadequate to the task of distributing income and organizing productive cooperation. Instead, what a Basic Income could provide is material support for the time and effort necessary to fight for additional reforms and a conceptual opening to think more critically about work and nonwork and more imaginatively about how they might be further transformed. It is in that sense a rather modest demand, but one that I think will enable further political thinking and action.
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  5. The main difference between the Old Left and the Alt-Left is that the latter focuses more on the cultural, behavioral and psychological sides of economic life. In a world where material resources are relatively abundant and information and information processing become dominant in economic life, money begins to matter less than e.g. cultural capital, good social relations and access to high quality information. What is lacking is not stuff, or money, but intelligent solutions for distribution, value creation and ideas about what to do with our lives in the first place. To create a fair and sustainable global order we must create better social settings for people to do worthwhile things.

    We have already stated that this entails a “betrayal of the working class” (read previous post in this series). What do we mean by that? Basically it means that the Alt-Left loosens its ties to the worker movements and the interests of labor (higher wages, safer employment, benefits, consumption and so on). Simply put, the greatest problem of the world is no longer that working and middle class people make too little money. Many of the problems that come from poverty and economic precariousness are – upon closer inspection – in fact social and psychological problems. In the most developed countries people aren’t literally starving or freezing to death. But they are being stressed out, alienated, frustrated, treated poorly, manipulated by advertisement and getting stuck in destructive social relationships. Increasing people’s incomes and consumption can be a way of remedying these maladies, but it is far from the only way. And a too strong focus on material wealth does not only blind us to other means of improving people’s lives; it also perpetuates an overall system of production and consumption that is not ecologically sustainable.
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  6. Several REI workers at yesterday’s forum spoke of qualifying for and being on food stamps. However, for some, meeting the qualifications for food stamps is difficult even if they’re homeless.

    Ash Crew has worked at Seattle’s REI since 2012. She said students are required to work 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamps in Seattle. But it’s impossible for her to work that many hours at REI no matter how hard she tries.

    Crew also said she’s been chronically homeless, living in her car for over a year while attending school and working a second job. She was forced to cash out her vacation time at REI in order to survive.

    “What REI does is keep many of their students teetering on poverty,” she said.

    Crew’s hours were inexplicably cut, like so many others’, and she was explicitly told it wasn’t due to her job performance. She also said she rarely saw her manager, and even though she kept reaching out, the manager made no efforts to see her. At one point, Crew even tracked down her manager to ask to speak with the person before the end of the work day. This did little, however, as Crew’s manager left without talking to her.
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  7. The U.S. starved investment in public goods for decades, killing its young, middle, poor, and future. Hence, today, unlike the rest of the rich world, it doesn’t have working healthcare, transport, education, infrastructure. Much of it now resembles the broken parts of poor countries. If you think I’m overstating it, consider: the majority of public school kids in the US are now in poverty. That’s not just a tragedy — it’s two things. First, a needless tragedy of choice. Second, a unparalleled tragedy: nowhere else in the modern rich world has anything remotely like the above ever happened.
    The Last Great Hope

    The Internet was once a Great Shining Hope for exactly this reason. It was what economics call a public platform good — a public good so powerful that it let us make public goods of our own. If all that stuff, education, healthcare, etc, couldn’t be free…then maybe at least information could. The net gave us the opportunity to create little public spaces, town squares and commons, of our own. We called them websites or blogs or homepages. Whatever they were, the point was to create a mini public space — a place where people could enjoy stuff that you made, and maybe they contributed to, to come together, and prosper a little bit, if not in hard terms, then at least in soft ones.

    And for a while, a million little town squares bloomed. No, they weren’t utopias. But they were examples of public goods working pretty well. You could make your own website, etc, create a little community of your own, make new friends, contacts, share your expertise, develop yourself, and see a real benefit in your life. Maybe your own little town square could even help you defy economic decline, and launch you into a new career. It wasn’t true for everyone, but it was true for some. And so the internet was probably the greatest public good the world knew for centuries, rivaling the invention of public water, electricity, libraries, parks.
    The Art of Turning Prosperity Into Shit

    And then along came the smirking overfashioned would-be Masters of the Universe at Genius. They made a system where anyone could “annotate” (what does that even mean? Fear not, I’ll propound below) the entire web. Result: hordes of losers of modernity, you know the type, usually angry guys enraged at women for never being their girlfriends, minorities for “taking” their jobs, and the world in general for not putting them on the pedestal they once occupied by birthright, see a golden opportunity to leave nasty, bigoted comments at the targets of their ire.

    Let’s go back to our millions of little shining town squares analogy. What’s that like? Like some dudes for whom capitalism was more like a inferiority-complex fuelled jihad than a moral philosophy…decided to rent other dudes a fleet of weaponized drones…that they could hover over the little town square of anyone they didn’t like…particularly women and minorities…take a dump from a hundred feet up…and there was nothing the owner of or the people in the town square could do to stop them.

    Now that’s a great, as they say, business model…if you don’t give a damn about, oh, humans, and have the moral arithmetic of a venomous rodent. The guys renting the drones get rich and powerful! They don’t face any consequences! It’s all perfectly legal. The hordes of angry losers in an age of rage can’t believe their luck. They have a foolproof, convenient, hilarious way to shit all over anyone they never liked…and no one can do a thing about it. Look out below!! Turd bomb incoming!! Turd fleet…mobilize!! LOLzerz!!

    Of course, there’s another side to the equation. Remember the once-shining town squares? They’re covered in shit. Dripping with it. The gleaming spires and soaring arches are now plastered in the shit of enraged douchebags. The masses once congregating therein, discussing, conversing, chilling, sharing, enjoying, relating, connecting, living, flee for their lives. Hey — no one wants a shit-bomb to land squarely on their pate, righ

    We used to be afraid of Terminators and simulated hyperreal Matrixes. But we missed the forest for the trees. The machines already took over. As it turns out, they’re not made of steel and wires. They’re made of rules and regulations, titles and roles, people and processes. For turning shining prosperity into…shit.

    The Rise of the Shit Machines is the story of the economy over the last several decades writ large. Some Shit Machines beshit all over our skies, parks, towns, water…some take a massive dump in our hearts, minds, and spirits…and so on. Some pollute our skies, some poison our bodies, some ruin our communities, some dumbify our culture, some misinform our minds, some distort our relationships. But all really do the same thing: bury us in shit.

    The economy “grows”…but nobody but the 0.01% really benefits…because cleaning up shit you shouldn’t have to isn’t the same thing as making life better. It’s just struggling for it not to get worse. Hence, for most of us, life is going downhill. Shit Machines do this: transfer wealth to their shareholders, owners, investors, and execs…but only by taking it from the middle, young, planet, and future. No real value is created for anyone.

    Society’s just playing a game of musical chairs…or maybe a better metaphor is: mostly, we’re janitors glumly resigned ourselves to wasting our lives cleaning up a bathroom clogged up by Other People’s Shit.

    It’s a contest of social uselessness, things without any point, redeeming larger purpose…a race to the bottom to make more and more of those things…that’s sparked by financialization, the idea that everything – even your own goddamned website – should be an asset someone else can buy and sell…so robots owned by hedge funds can earn pennies a second that add up to billions a month…so douchebags with the apparent moral conscience of Satan’s gimp can rake it in.
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  8. Welcome to the American working class.”

    It was dark advice. But the times could at last be shifting. As digital journalism finds its place in the new-media landscape, helped by a crop of new web-only publications, younger journalists are beginning to demand the kind of work protections, decent wages and newsroom solidarity that many of their older counterparts once enjoyed. In the past year, workers have voted to unionize at Gawker, Vice, Salon and ThinkProgress, affiliating with the Writers Guild of America East, AFL-CIO. In January, The Huffington Post’s management voluntarily recognized the WGAE to represent 262 employees. The union negotiates “compensation, benefits, and job security” for its members.

    The NewsGuild represents the digital newsrooms of The Guardian US and, until it folded last month, Al Jazeera America. (Since learning of the closing, a group of AJAM reporters have banded together to create a website and help one another find jobs.) People organizing at digital-media outlets are doing so for the same reasons that people did a generation ago, said Gabriel Arana, a former senior media editor at The Huffington Post, who was involved with the union drive. “A lot of these new-media companies feel like tech companies. But at a certain point, having free snacks at work means less than having a retirement account or a decent salary that you can raise a family on. Digital media is maturing. People in it want the stability to be able to make a career out of it.”
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  9. It could end well or it could end badly, depending on how we act now.

    To understand the argument, the first thing we need is a bit of context. So before the robots take over, let’s look at how we got to where we are.

    The material conditions of what we in a country like Australia, (or the US, or Iceland) think of as a normal, decent life, are largely an artefact of a particular set of social and economic circumstances that arose in the West from about the end of World War II. The hours we work, the money we earn, the things we can do with that money, the age at which we retire — the very notion of ‘retirement’ — the services that we expect from our government, were, by and large, formed within this period.

    Broadly, those circumstances are: a manufacturing-based economy that directly and indirectly employed large numbers of skilled and unskilled people in such a way that they were able to enjoy a reasonable level of financial security and had the means to afford a given standard of material comfort.

    All of this was underpinned by a welfare state in which government managed the major risks and needs associated with an economy based on capitalist growth. Health and education, financial support when you were unable to get work, and an income when you retired were its major pillars, and these were not “entitlements” as it is now fashionable to label them, but the material expression of what most citizens saw as the whole point of government.

    This had nothing to do with any particular affection for government per se, let alone with a national commitment to collectivism. It was rather the practical realisation of a belief in positive personal freedom. It held that there is such a thing as society and we are all better off, and freer, when the state aims at some basic level of equality of opportunity and outcome.

    Growing prosperity brought with it challenges to key social institutions and practices. As the writer Ellen Willis has said, the sixties were mythical but they were also consequential. They launched genuine changes to notions of family, religion, women’s role, race, and recreation, (especially as the latter related to drug taking). Willis notes:

    The expansion of the American economy after World War II produced two decades of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed masses of people unprecedented latitude in making choices about how to live….

    As a result a growing minority — particularly among the children of the upper middle class — felt free to question the dominant social arrangements, to experiment and take risks, to extend student life with its essentially bohemian values into adulthood rather than graduate to professional jobs, nuclear families, and the suburbs….

    What most counterculture opposition to capitalism amounted to was this minority’s anger at the majority for refusing to make the same choice.

    This “liberation” was always contested, especially by those who had the most to lose from the new, freer social arrangements. But it took a halt in the growth of economic prosperity to allow the forces of conservatism to push back with any force. That is to say, the backlash against “the sixties” and the liberation it represented were in part driven by the sort of white, male privilege that drives much of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s current social agenda, but it was also tied to the retreat of prosperity.

    As ever, as economic circumstances changed, so too did social relations. As industry globalised, a professional layer of managers and technocrats arose, a group Milovan Dijas and others have called “the new class”, and they insinuated themselves into the heart of these industries. This prosperous strata of managers, because of their professional, international focus, started to weaken, or even break the bonds of commitment between themselves and their countries of origin. Why, they asked, should I pay taxes for services I don’t use (health education, transport et al) in a country where my roots are shallow?

    By the time of Reagan and Thatcher, and in Australia, of Hawke and Keating, government itself was being redefined as the problem. We were being told there was no such thing as society and that freedom equated to choice in a marketplace. Industry regulations, unionisation, government ownership and the services government provided were recast as dead weights upon the alleged entrepreneurial hand of business and the alleged aspirational values of the middle class. A narrative was born — or more accurately, reanimated — and it was powerful, sweeping up not just the conservative parties of the world, but those of the centre-left too. Indeed, for those on the left who had eschewed the notion of living in or raising traditional families, and who had abandoned religion as any sort of unifying social force, work itself became the lingua franca of middle-class acceptability. The obvious ties between the centre-left of politics and the labour movement reinforced the tendency to latch onto work and employment as a unifying mantra. In recent times, this was particularly noticeable in the person of former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, who, along with education, elevated work to the top of her list of personal values:

    …I believe in the importance of hard work; the obligation that we all owe to ourselves and others, to earn our keep and do our best.

    Life is given direction and purpose by work. Without work there is corrosive aimlessness. With the loss of work comes a loss of dignity.

    Market, market uber alles became the chant. With it came a rebirth of the sixties counter-culture, but this time it was firmly lodged within a market and consumption framework.

    What we have been living through since about the seventies, then, is a massive realignment of the philosophical and material conditions of Western civilisation. To call this a transition period is to presume that there is some sort of end in sight, that there is some sort of rest point looming, a settlement where the questions posed by the present are answered. I doubt very much that it makes sense to think in those terms. It is transition all the way down.

    And the nature of the transition is structural; that is, the changes that are happening are built into the very fabric of how wealth is created and how work is done, and it is this fact that we have to get through our heads.

    This is why what is to come is different to what has happened before. The worldwide economic stagnation flowing from the 2007 global financial crisis is not simply another trough in the usual economic cycle, but a break from what has gone before, from what we think of as “normal”. The essence of the way we construct work — the sort of paying work that underpins all our discussions and presumptions about “standards of living” — is fundamentally changing. In part this is to do with the shift in wealth creation from manufacturing-type industries to finance and technology — neither of which need much in the way of paid labour.

    given what we are about to go through in terms of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, the elevation of work to the centre of the centre-left’s philosophy is likely to cause something of an existential crisis.
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  10. While the idea of a basic income as an egalitarian reform can be traced back to Thomas Paine, interest in the policy has picked up in the last few decades. Belgian philosopher and economist Philippe van Parijs, for example, sees in the basic income the possibility for a “capitalist road to communism” — a strategy for leaping over socialism (understood as collective workers’ ownership of the means of production) and moving directly to communism (“from each according to her abilities to each according to her needs”).

    In recent years, a UBI has been embraced in particular by the post-productivist left, which carries a strong feminist and ecological bent and rejects the traditional left’s valorization of labor and the working class.
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