A More Equitable Distribution
FDR | Alain Supiot on Post-Work | Factoids
Quote of the Moment
Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people.
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism -- ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe, if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.
Both lessons hit home.
Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing. This concentration is seriously impairing the economic effectiveness of private enterprise as a way of providing employment for labor and capital and as a way of assuring a more equitable distribution of income and earnings among the people of the nation as a whole.
| Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Message to Congress on the Concentration of Economic Power, April 29, 1938
Alain Supiot on Post-Work
In a long interview in Figaro in July 2022, the French social theorist Alain Supiot discussed many of the themes of his recent book La Justice Au Travail (Justice at Work).
He does not use the term post-work, as I outlined in a recent issue of Work Futures, but his thoughts converge pretty conclusively.
I had not known of Supoit until recently, when he was mentioned by Flora Baumlin and Romain Bendavid in “I love you, me neither”: the ambivalences of the new relationship to work. A few notes from that report:
The title in French is 'Je Taime, Moi Non Plus', the title of a notorious, erotic Serge Gainsbourg song, which is meant to be facetious: 'I love you, me neither'. In this case it indicates the ambivalence that French workers have for work. Only 21% say work is very important [in 2022], compared to 24% in 2021 and 60% in 1990. A fundamental shift in money versus time: workers no longer want to work longer hours for more pay. Instead, they will forgo money for time off. Basically, people are less interested in working long hours and thinking about work all the time. They are disengaging with the symbols of work ‘success’ and finding less value in seeking meaning through the sense of 'belonging' with their company.
The section entitled 'Electoral abstention, employment abstention: same fight?' asks good questions. I like the comparison to the yellow vests who did not allow unions or other institutions to represent them. They wrote [with me paraphrasing from the French]:
Another factor explaining the less structured place of work lies in the growing distrust of common institutions, of areas constituting the functioning of life in society, including employment as it currently exists. To understand this phenomenon, a comparison can be made between electoral abstention and a certain form of abstention from employment, the latter being more diffuse, less easily perceptible. In an interview for Le Figaro, Alain Supiot, professor emeritus at the Collège de France, speaks of a “secession of ordinary people” which is felt on two fronts: abstention or protest voting and divestment from work.
That led to me finding a reprint of the Figaro interview.
Some of Supiot’s comments:
LE FIGARO. – You write that the secession of elites, theorized by Christopher Lasch, is today being met by a secession of ordinary people. Do the last legislative elections, and to a lesser extent the presidential election, confirm your diagnosis?
Supiot | Christopher Lasch was in fact the first to highlight this feeling of elite secession, of loss of all democratic control, which is one of the roots of the deep institutional crisis that we are going through.
In the United States, it was brewing well before the election of Mr. Donald Trump, as we can see in Elysium, a science fiction film released in 2013. This "blockbuster" transports us to the 22nd century.
The rich have seceded, they really live “above ground”, in a luxurious satellite, equipped with incredible medicine; up there everything is calm, luxury and pleasure, while American cities like Los Angeles have become vast, violent and polluted slums. As in any good American film, a lone hero will restore justice. Being deeply rooted in the hearts of men, the aspiration for justice is always and everywhere at work in history... In the American subconscious that this film reveals, it is the inequality of access to the healthcare system that polarizes the revolt against a political class which only receives weak signals from Earth. This is a point to meditate at a time when our health system is on the verge of breakdown and two-speed medicine is quietly taking hold.
Having the feeling of no longer having any control over the decisions that concern them, "ordinary people", those of the middle and working classes, are in fact, inclined to secede in their turn.
This political scene, however, only constitutes one aspect of democracy, which has also always had an economic and social dimension. The first foundations of Athenian democracy were laid by Solon, 2,500 years ago, to restore civil peace, threatened by the monopolization of wealth by a small number of plutocrats who reduced the large number of Athenians to slavery or exile. He achieved this by lightening the burden of debt and recognizing that all those who live from their work have dignity equal to that of the wealthy. This structural link between political democracy and economic democracy has continued to manifest itself in history ever since. The Italian cities of the end of the Middle Ages were founded on a "mutual aid conspiracy" between merchants, wishing to free themselves from feudal ties without allowing the richest among them to monopolize power. During the Age of Enlightenment, Montesquieu, the theorist of 'gentle commerce', warned that "to maintain the spirit of commerce, it is necessary that the laws, dividing fortunes as commerce increases them, place each poor citizen in sufficient ease, to be able to work like others; and every rich citizen in such mediocrity that he needs his labor to preserve or to acquire .” And according to Rousseau, "it is extremely important not to suffer in the republic any financier by state: less because of their dishonest gains than because of their principles and their examples", which according to him are contrary to civic virtue, that is to say the ability to distinguish the particular interest from the public interest.
This economic dimension of democracy resurfaced in the 20th century, with the New Deal in the United States, or with our "Social Republic", resulting from the program of the National Council of the Resistance and dedicated to the end of the war by the Preamble of the Constitution. In 1936, in a speech that remains famous, Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted that "the freedom of a democracy is not assured if the people tolerate private power growing to such an extent that it becomes stronger than the State." democratic itself. From recent history, he drew the lesson that "economic despotism" gave rise to fascism and that “government by organized money is as dangerous as government by organized crime.” This awareness led to the generalization after the war of what we call the “Fordist pact”: we exchange subordination at work for economic security. You're going to do a stupid job, assembling parts on an assembly line all your life, but you'll have a decent salary, paid vacation, and social security.
[Supiot led me to the FDR quote, earlier.]
This reduction of social justice to a question of having, of exchanging a quantity of hours of brainless work for a quantity of money, was very early criticized by the philosopher Simone Weil, but also by de Gaulle, who will denounce "those who think they are clever" by limiting the participation of workers to its financial aspect, while he wanted to extend it to the management of companies.
From the 1990s, the loss of monetary and budgetary sovereignty of the State and the devitalization of social and economic democracy went hand in hand. Globalization has put companies at the service of finance and States in a situation of fiscal, social and ecological competition. The active – independent as well as employees – have thus lost on both counts: they no longer have any control over political power, subject to the disciplines of a Market that has become total; and no more on economic power which, emancipated from the supervision of States, reduces work to the status of an instrument of "value creation" for shareholders. It is therefore not surprising that the secession of ordinary people is felt on both counts: through abstention or protest voting; and by the disinvestment of work. We were told loudly that the digital revolution marked the "end of work", but it is the shortage of "essential workers" that we are faced with today, starting with the "first on duty" whose pandemic has revealed to the "first in line" that we cannot continue to despise and underpay them with impunity. It is difficult to find teachers, nurses, waiters, truck drivers... This evil affects public services impoverished and disorganized by decades of "structural reforms", but also businesses, the Total Market and the financialization of economy have been deeply disrupted.
Figaro | How are businesses “broken”?
Supiot | From the moment you say that the company has no other goal than the enrichment of its shareholders, that it is a slot machine in competition with other slot machines, it is delivered to the entropic forces of financial speculation. In the most extreme forms, this gives the United States the scandal of the pharmaceutical group Turing which, after having bought the patent of the drug used to prevent and treat malaria and toxoplasmosis, increased the price by 5000%, for the greater satisfaction of its shareholders and the misfortune of the sick.
Making money for money's sake is not just doing nothing, it's preventing you from doing well.
Figaro | How to reconcile elites and ordinary people?
Supiot | By bringing to life the two components, economic and political, of democracy! We should bring the richest back to earth, following the wise advice of Montesquieu to reduce economic inequalities that have once again become extravagant. We should also give all those who work the means to influence what they do and how they do it. Health personnel are better placed to think about the organization of the hospital than consulting firms paid a lot of money to explain to them how to work. There is a strong demand in this direction among many young people who do not dream of being billionaires, but of doing useful work. Frances Haugen, a senior executive at Facebook, illustrated this aspiration, by choosing to warn about algorithms harmful to mental health rather than pursuing a remunerative career there.
To reconcile the ruling classes and ordinary people, it would also be necessary to restore the political debate, which neoliberalism degrades into an exercise of communication or propaganda among people presumed ignorant of the principles of sound technical management. This conception is the contemporary avatar of the Leninist idea of an enlightened vanguard guiding the masses unconscious of the laws of history and economics.
But under such a "scientific government", the political function disappears; what remains is pedagogy and punishments: you are faced with ignorant people, so you have to explain to them how it works and bring the strong [hard] heads into line. The difficulty is that ordinary people see every day that this vanguard has been wrong about everything for 40 years: about the supposed benefits of financial deregulation, about the European economic convergence promised in the euro zone, about the reorganization of the economy in international production chains as fragile as they are polluting, on the assimilation of States to companies, called upon to cultivate their "comparative advantage" rather than ensuring their youth the means to make a decent living from their work without being forced to emigration.
And then the young disaffiliate from institutions in the political and economic realms, and come to believe that work is no longer ‘very important’ as Baumlin and Bendavid’s analysis showed.
I don’t believe that Supiot’s Justice At Work is available in English, yet, but I am hopeful.
And I will give him the final word:
Supiot | The strength of democracies faced with the rise of totalitarianism has been to invent mechanisms that make social justice the product of permanent challenges. On the political level through the regular holding of elections which settle the debate between a majority and oppositions. And on the economic level with the collective freedoms established by the social state: freedom of association, right to strike, collective bargaining; representation of employees in the company, which make social antagonisms the driving force behind a permanent transformation of the Law. But this political and economic democracy exercised within national legal frameworks has been anesthetized by the opening of borders and the free movement of capital, which subject political power to an economic power escaping any union challenge. Hence movements of anomic revolt, of the "yellow vest" type.
And the rise of the Post-Left and the inevitable secession of workers into Post-Work.
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When asked to name the biggest challenges that could arise from the use of generative AI, 48% of marketers in the NewtonX survey predicted that their own teams would shrink as these tools take on more responsibilities. Another 48% anticipated smaller marketing budgets over time.
A number of brand marketers have already begun exploring how they might produce the same amount of work with fewer people, or get more work out of their existing teams by using AI, said Wesley ter Haar, executive director of digital-marketing services company S4 Capital | Patrick Coffee
Just remember that I was one of the first to say AI would be applied to cut the workforce, and that it would happen as quickly as the technology allows unless we enact laws to moderate it.
Eighty-six percent of Mexican avocado exports go to the US. | Fresh Plaza