July 24th, 2021

Rayfish

CASTE & LABOR

Structures of unfree labor have always been at the edge of current and historical discourse on labor, mobility and caste in South Asia. This has been in focus during the COVID-led migrant crisis in India, where around 11.4 million migrant workers were forced into an exodus from urban to rural areas.

In a recent book, RADHIKA SINGHA unpacks the category of ‘menial’ labor as one structured by caste, class and race. She focuses on the massive role of Indian labor—involving 563,369 followers or non-combatants in the British Indian Army—in Mesopotamia and France during World War I.

From the book:

"In colonial civil offices, ‘menial establishment’ was the formal categorisation for the lowest rung of employees, from peons (messengers) down to file-suppliers, bhistis and sweepers. The label ‘menial’ was often used in discussion of their service conditions. In exploring this condition of ‘menial’ status, we have the benefit of a valuable body of writing which has shown how caste norms tended to hem powerless communities into the hardest and most stigmatised sectors of work regimes—even in those which were being refashioned under the drives of colonialism and capitalism. ‘Untouchability’ was thereby recast in new contexts, and low pay, degrading conditions of work, and corporal discipline were ‘naturalised.’ The attached followers found it particularly difficult to challenge their consignment to menial status because of the presence in their ranks of ‘untouchable’ castes who swept, cleaned latrines, washed clothes, and crafted leather. This was work characterised both as a ‘trade’—that is, as a caste structured specialisation—and as ‘polluting.’ Regimental followers, public and private, were, in the manner of domestic servants, expected to be constantly at hand to tend to the physical needs of their institutional superiors, who felt they had a personal right to chastise followers for inadequate service, evasion, or questioning of demands. The fact that regiments found themselves having to supplement the income of public followers and employ ‘private’ followers blurred the line between public employee and domestic servant."

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July 2nd, 2021

Repressing Labor, Empowering China

Cheap money will boost inequality and geopolitical tension but not inflation

Though the lockdown in 2020 threw many workers out of work, the big fiscal stimulus, fueled by government debt and an unprecedentedly large monetary expansion, offered stimulus checks and elevated unemployment benefits to millions of Americans. In 2020, US federal spending grew by 50 percent, making the deficit share of GDP the largest since 1945, and the M2 in the economy grew by 26 percent—the largest annual increase since 1943. Such fiscal and monetary expansion prevented a collapse in consumption. After an initial fall in Spring 2020, US household consumption bounced back and grew by more than 40 percent in the third quarter.

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February 5th, 2021

The Italian Left After Keynesianism

From stagflation to the transformation of Italian left parties

In 1977, Eric Hobsbawm published a book of interviews with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading figure in the Italian Communist Party (PCI)’s gradualist wing, the miglioristi. Hobsbawm proclaimed himself a “spiritual member” of the PCI and intended this book to depict the path it was beating in between Leninism and social democracy. Yet his efforts appeared rather frustrated by Napolitano’s vocabulary. Though calling for the “reconstruction and renewal” of Italian society and insisting on the PCI’s “democratic commitment,” Napolitano did little to convey any clear socialist worldview. As he extolled the “perspective of the continuous, organic, balanced development of the Italian economy” and the “retailoring of [Italian] production for the foreign market,” Hobsbawm interrupted him, as if to draw him back on topic:

Hobsbawm: All this is very useful and positive…
Napolitano: But what does it have to do with the advancement of socialism?
Hobsbawm: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you.
Napolitano: That’s a question whose answer is less simple than it may seem.

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January 22nd, 2021

Inflation, Specific and General

The many causes and effects of inflation

Concerns over a generalized “inflation” loom in the recovery. Yet the prices that most heavily factor into the cost of living for US workers—housing, health, and education—have already been rising for decades. The question we should be asking is whether the extension of the welfare state is the cure for, rather than the cause of, these trends.

Until 1980, the annual rate of change of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the weighted measure of the cost of a basket of core consumer goods, increased at an accelerating pace in every business-cycle expansion, reaching double digits during the 1940s and 1970s. Inflation—its causes and consequences—was at the heart of economic debates throughout this period, when the discipline of macroeconomics took its current form. While we understand individual industry price changes in terms of supply, demand, and market power, our conceptual tools for understanding inflation remain weak.

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January 9th, 2021

Plucked Goose

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

The deep divisions in American political and social life have long been thought to explain the unique weakness of America’s welfare infrastructure, and the absence of an integrated system of universal benefits.

But on their own, demographic divisions need not necessarily fragment coalitions for universal demands—history is teeming with political movements which were capable of uniting different factions. In his 1981 book, City Trenches, political scientist IRA KATZNELSON situates a history of immigration and racial conflict within a structural account of America’s urban geography and economic development.

From the text:

"Analyses of games or contests, political or otherwise, must do more than describe the players and their adversary play. They must also say something about the boundaries of the contest, which define its limits prior to the playing of the game itself. Attempts to make sense of what is special about class in America have ordinarily proceeded without this specification. They have most frequently focused on one of three conditions of American life—the racial and ethnic fragmentation of the working class itself, the unusual economic rewards of the economy, or the values that integrate American society—and they have generally argued that these conditions have made virtually impossible the development of class-based politics.

But America’s working class was not created once and for all. It has been fashioned and refashioned as members of national, ethnic, or religious groups that had been outside of the frame of capitalist labor relations have entered the ‘free’ labor market. I argue below that the unique characteristics of American institutions are aspects of a sharply divided consciousness about class in American society that finds many Americans acting on the basis of the shared solidarities of class at work, but on that of ethnic and territorial affinities in their residential communities. Each kind of conflict has had its own separate vocabulary and set of institutions: work, class, and trade unions; community, ethnicity, local parties, churches, and voluntary associations. Class, in short, has been lived and fought as a series of partial relationships, and it has therefore been experienced and talked about as only one of a number of competing bases of social life. What is distinctive about the American experience is that the linguistic, cultural, and institutional meaning given to the differentiation of work and community, a characteristic of all industrial capitalist societies, has taken a sharply divided form, and that it has done so for a very long time."

Link to the book.

  • "The factors that lead people to see the world in class terms may not be the same as those that sustain organizations created to act on such a vision. We need to investigate the conditions which encourage both the world view and organizational longevity in critical moments." Kim Voss’s 1992 paper examines American Exceptionalism through the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor. Link.
  • Mike Davis considers the question in a 1980 NLR: "On the one hand we must discard the idea that the fate of American politics has been shaped by any overarching telos. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the role of sedimented historical experiences as they influenced and circumscribed capacities for development in succeeding periods." Link.
  • "Perhaps the debate over American exceptionalism has gone on for so long and so inconclusively because the question itself is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps beginning our investigation with a negative question inevitably invites ahistorical answers." A 1984 article by Eric Foner casts doubt on the debate. Link.
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August 20th, 2020

Logistics, Labor, and State Power

An interview with Laleh Khalili

Laleh Khalili is a professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of the books Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency and the co-edited volume Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion.

Her latest book is Sinews of War and Trade. In it, she connects the themes of war making in the Middle East found in her earlier work with an examination of the contested role of capital, labor and the state in the region—via the infrastructure of maritime logistics.

Breathtaking in ambition, Khalili's analysis draws on a wide range of materials to provide long-view historical perspective on the economic and political development of the Arabian peninsula through the unequal playing field of global maritime trade. Through thematically-organized chapters on the region, Khalili examines the emergence of maritime routes; the development of landside port, road and rail infrastructure; the role of the law in structuring and securing international investment and ownership; the making of economic and political elites; the working conditions and modes of resistance by both seafarers and landside laborers; and the ways in which all of the above are tangled up with war making.

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June 24th, 2020

Running Horse

LABOR IN CHINA

In her 2007 book, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt, sociologist CHING KWAN LEE paints an intricate portrait of the two segments of the Chinese working class that have most acutely experienced the country's changing political economy: laid-off and retired workers in China’s industrial rustbelt, and young migrant factory workers in the export-oriented sunbelt.

From the preface:

"Although unemployment and exploitation can be found in many places and at different times, peculiarities of China’s postsocialist conditions have engendered features of labor politics that defy conventional categorization. First, the law, fledgling legal institutions, and the rhetoric of legal rights are central to labor protests throughout China, even though very few workers actually believe in the effectiveness of the regime’s ideology of law-based government. Second, leading to the formation of neither a national labor movement nor representative organizations, the several thousand worker protests that erupted every year throughout the 1990s took the prevailing form of localized, workplace-based cellular activism. With workers blocking traffic in the streets, lying on railroads, or staging sit ins in front of government buildings, these demonstrations presented a palpable threat to social stability, at least in the eyes of the national leadership. What must be emphasized, however, is that workers’ cellular activism has thus far rarely escalated into large-scale, coordinated, cross-regional unrest.

What, then, is the nature of working-class agitation in this period of marketization and globalization? Above all, I have found that the communist regime’s strategy of accumulation, in the form of what I term 'decentralized legal authoritarianism,' both generates the impetus for and places limits on working-class protests in this period of market reform. This larger political economic context of reform shapes not only collective mobilization by workers but also popular rebellion in general, and therefore is a key to understanding the institutional foundations of China’s economic dynamism and sociopolitical tensions."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • "Labour strikes in China are always launched by unorganized workers rather than by trade unions." Feng Chen on China's quadripartite wage setting system. Link.
  • "This chapter investigates the role of social networks during China's most dynamic period of urban protest (1919–1927) in Shanghai." A 2007 book chapter by Elizabeth Perry. Link. See also: Perry's groundbreaking 1993 book on Chinese labor politics in the early 20th century, and her 1980 analysis of peasant rebellions in Huaipei from 1845–1945. Link and link. ht Julian G.
  • Meg Rithmire reviews regional approaches to Chinese political economy, asking: "How have local governments differently interpreted and implemented national reform policies? What explains different decision-making regarding investments and growth strategies? And how have different local growth strategies beget different socioeconomic consequences?" Link.
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May 28th, 2020

Digital Scab, Digital Snitch

On automation and worker surveillance

Before Covid-19 hit, we'd become used to reports about Amazon's robotics innovations and the impending large-scale automation of warehouse jobs. But recent strikes and protests by Amazon's very human workers have exposed how far we are from robotic warehouses. In fact, as part of its effort to keep its warehouses fully staffed during the crisis, Amazon recently announced that it is ending its recently-instituted sick leave and base pay expansions, replacing both with increased overtime pay. While higher pay encourages more workers to apply for jobs, overtime incentivizes existing workers to work longer hours. Amazon’s strategy for increasing output in the pandemic seems to be getting its human employees to work harder.

In late-February, I took what must have been one of the last public tours of an Amazon warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. Prepared to witness vast and impression automation, I was met instead by a traffic jam of workers exiting the facility. Inside, there were of course robots—shelving units known as "pods," whizzing stuff from one end of the warehouse to the other—performing tasks previously done by people with forklifts. (According to Amazon, these robots have raised productivity of the remaining workers by orders of magnitude.) But there were other innovative technologies on view, at the workstations of human “stowers,” who distribute incoming products to the pods, “pickers,” who take items off the pods to fulfil orders, and “packers,” who put the orders in boxes and tape them shut. Over their shoulders, there were clocks counting down how much time each worker had to complete each task. The technology tracks which workers fall behind, and ‘learns’ how hard it can push them. In place of a human foreman, Amazon's timers dictate the pace of work and mete out automated discipline.

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March 25th, 2020

Tilted Ark

PRODUCTION MAINLINE

Wartime economic planning

This week, reports swirled regarding President Trump's invocation of the Defense Production Act—a 1950 law passed to manage production in the context of the Korean War—to meet the coming demand of crucial medical supplies to treat people with COVID-19. Much of the ensuing commentary has elided necessary distinctions between the Cold War–era DPA and the more memorable interventions into the productive capacity of the US economy that defined the Second World War. (For a helpful disaggregation, see this essay by Tim Barker; for a rundown of the DPA's history, see this summary from the Congressional Research Service.)

In his book, Arsenal of World War II (the fourth in a five-volume series on the political economy of American warfare), PAUL KOISTINEN provides a uniquely comprehensive and detailed account of the often misunderstood economics and administration of America's World War II mobilization effort.

From the book's introduction:

"An ironic legacy of the New Deal was that it helped create the partnership between corporate and military America that was destructive to reform. In the defense and war years, New Dealers took the lead in preparing the nation for World War II. Once hostilities ensued, the same reformers were at the center of devising the structure and controls essential for successfully harnessing the economy for war under stable economic conditions. Many of those same New Dealers became victims of the industry-military alliance that their mobilization policies and methods had assisted in bringing into being.

Despite advancement in weaponry, massive output was the critical World War II development, and that depended on successful economic mobilization policies. The political economy of warfare involves the interrelations of political, economic, and military institutions in devising the means to mobilize resources for defense and to conduct war. In each war, the magnitude and the duration of the fighting have dictated what the nation had to do to harness its economic power, but prewar trends have largely determined how this mobilization took place."

Link to the book page.

  • Mark Wilson's 2016 book, Destructive Creation, also on the business-government relationships that defined the World War II mobilization effort. Link.
  • A few recent articles on medical supplies: on the ventilator shortage; on mask production in China; on Taiwan's response to the virus; on the EU's plans to airlift masks; on China's increasing medical supply delivery to Europe.
  • From Otto Neurath's 1919 "War Economy": "The main result of our investigation may be expressed as follows: war forces a nation to pay more attention to the amount of goods which are at its disposal, less to the available amounts of money than it usually does." Link to Neurath's collected writings on economics.
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March 9th, 2020

Flanked by Two Dolphins

SYSTEM CIRCULATE

An ecosocial theory of disease

The correlation between health, income, and wealth is widely recognized in contemporary research and policy circles. This broadly social understanding of public health outcomes has its origins in a theoretical tradition dating back to the 1970s and 80s, in which scholars began to embed medical research within a political and economic framework.

In a 2001 paper, epidemiologist NANCY KRIEGER seeks to strengthen the theoretical foundations of epidemiological research by linking them back to biological study.

From the paper:

"If social epidemiologists are to gain clarity on causes of and barriers to reducing social inequalities in health, adequate theory is a necessity. Grappling with notions of causation raises issues of accountability and agency: simply invoking abstract notions like 'society' and disembodied 'genes' will not suffice. Instead, the central question becomes who and what is responsible for population patterns of health, disease, and well-being, as manifested in present, past and changing social inequalities in health?

Arising in part as a critique of proliferating theories that emphasize individuals' responsibility to choose healthy lifestyles, the political economy of health school explicitly addresses economic and political determinants of health and disease, including structural barriers to people living healthy lives. Yet, despite its invaluable contributions to identifying social determinants of population health, a political economy of health perspective affords few principles for investigating what these determinants are determining. I propose a theory that conceptualizes changing population patterns of health, disease and well-being in relation to each level of biological, ecological and social organization (e.g. cell, organ, organism/ individual, family, community, population, society, ecosystem). Unlike prior causal frameworks—whether of a triangle connecting 'host', 'agent' and 'environment', or a 'chain of causes' arrayed along a scale of biological organization, from 'society' to 'molecular and submolecular particles'—this framework is multidimensional and dynamic and allows us to elucidate population patterns of health, disease and well-being as biological expressions of social relations—potentially generating new knowledge and new grounds for action."

Link to the piece.

  • Krieger's 1994 article takes a closer look at epidemiological causal frameworks, questioning the adequacy of multiple causation. And her 2012 paper asks: "Who or what is a population?" and articulates the analytical significance of this definition for epidemiological research. Link and link.
  • "Disease epidemics are as much markers of modern civilization as they are threats to it." In NLR, Rob and Rodrick Wallace consider how the development of the global economy has altered the spread of epidemics, taking the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a case study. Link.
  • Samuel S. Myers and Jonathan A. Patz argue that climate change constitutes the "greatest public health challenge humanity has faced." Link.
  • A history of epidemics in the Roman Empire, from 27 BC – 476 AD, by Francois Relief and Louise Cilliers. Link. And a 1987 book by Ann Bowman Jannetta analyzes the impact of disease on institutional development in early modern Japan. Link.
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