Letters

Marriage, Continued

Dear Editors,

Issue Nine was a real barn-burner. Keep it up! And please keep the first person plural in the opening commentary — we are living in a dark age of technological isolation, and speaking collectively is a source of comfort and an act of resistance. I crave companionship and n+1 is good company, in no small part due to its reviving the “we.”

The Letters section was fascinating for the strong reactions to Mark Greif’s “On Repressive Sentimentalism” from Issue Eight. Greif now seems to regret his style, but is it not possible to express ambivalence about the impending triumph of gay marriage? There exists a noble utopian tradition of trying to imagine a world free of the tyranny of the family unit — where children are not owned by parents and sexual relations aren’t reduced to a form of prostitution. I don’t think I’m the only one who has attended parties in the Castro and thought, another world is possible; the gay community has expanded the boundaries of “family” into something more inclusive and humane, and we have much to learn from their example.

Any time civil rights are on the march is exciting, and we all felt the tingle when the court in Iowa ruled in favor of gay marriage. Every person of conscience loves to see the end of institutionalized discrimination. But when the institutions that are becoming more inclusive (marriage, the military) are also wreaking so much violence upon people, some of us are more circumspect about the depth of the victory.

— Bob Downing

More Babies for Octomom

Dear Editors,

I find Mark Greif’s writing about how to be human and in particular how to negotiate the demands of one’s body sustaining. When Greif writes about the darkness of wasting leisure on exercise and health, he voices things I feel deeply; when he writes about the necessity of abortion and IVF, he convinces me that he’s right. But when I think about these two strands together — one reveling in non-intervention and indeed ignoring one’s body in order to cultivate one’s mind, the other favoring extreme interventions that allow some escape from the body’s tyranny — the positions are inconsistent.

In particular, Greif seems to give greater weight to the unwanted events visited on women’s bodies (pregnancy, infertility) than to those tyrannical propensities of the body that are sex-neutral (disease, ugliness). I see that in both cases, his vision is to deemphasize physical demands so as to be more human, but what is essentially human about having babies only and precisely when one wants to through extreme medical intervention?

Why is the pill less sinister than the treadmill? I think the two are about equally sinister. Both represent the executive function of the mind taking the body in hand. Both involve extreme attention to planning and perfecting life, to making one’s life the ultimate fulfillment of one’s dreams. I am not sure this is what it means to be free. Why is IVF less bizarre than dieting? In both cases one goes to extremes to have one’s cake and eat it too. Both are repugnant in their attempts to exert ultimate control over the body.

To move from the political to the philosophical, both IVF and abortion give back to families some of the freedoms taken away by a broken social system that finds sin in having and rearing children outside of its extremely rigid framework. If we were not required by society (both by its moral scolding and by its lack of helpful services) to pursue perfection in the having and raising of children, then fertility interventions would seem much less important to our freedom. Unexpected children or a lack of children would seem like much less of a drain on freedom.

Greif seems to be suggesting, with regard to food, health, and exercise, that we let a lot of things go (or let it all hang out) in order to have the most free and beautiful life of the mind. I think this loosening should extend to the control we exert over fertility, to the modes of family-making we think normal, to our feelings about the meaning of fertility mistakes, and to our judgment of people who do things differently. If we were simply to decide that having a baby during high school (or even during grad school) or not being able to have one at all were not life-ending tragedies then this loosening could take place. Abortion and IVF are not themselves tools that lead to freedom but post hoc efforts to mitigate the harm of a system in which our reproduction is not free. The system is what we should fix. This is where Greif’s communalism instead of marriage comes in.

— Josie Clowney

Full Employment

Dear Editors,

While Benjamin Kunkel makes some very important points about the economic viability of full employment, he emphasizes these at the expense of addressing the political aspects of full employment, which, as Michał Kalecki demonstrated in his seminal 1943 essay on the topic, make it practically impossible to achieve within the coordinates of a capitalist system. What makes this especially curious is that Kunkel has clearly read Kalecki’s essay but has seemingly ignored its fundamental lessons in order to burnish the credentials of his own arguments.

Kunkel is dissatisfied by what he calls the Full Employment Profit Squeeze thesis, following the work of Robert Brenner. According to this thesis, the rising total wage bill of society engendered by the full or near-full employment economies of North America and Western Europe made it impossible to sustain the rates of growth and profitability required to keep the economy chugging along. In line with Brenner, Kunkel argues that it was increased competition between North America, Western Europe, and Japan and the industrial overcapacity this competition created that brought down the postwar order, not rising wages. If one accepts this argument, then like Kunkel one is inclined to accept the notion that “the era’s fatal flaw lay not in excess compensation for workers and overfull employment, but in insufficient wage growth and not-full-enough employment.” After all, even Kalecki recognized that profits could be even higher under a full employment regime because of the increased economic activity that such an arrangement would produce.

But this is where Kunkel’s analysis runs into trouble. While it’s certainly true that full employment might not threaten the dominance of capital in strictly economic terms, as Kalecki demonstrated full employment creates a constellation of political conditions that could ultimately serve to undermine the long-term viability of capitalism itself. Kalecki identified three main reasons why capital, within a system of representative democracy, would oppose a full employment policy achieved through government spending: (i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending (public investment and subsidizing consumption); (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment.

The first two reasons are fairly simple to understand. The third point, however, is the most crucial to assessing the viability of Kunkel’s argument. As Kalecki argues, the biggest barriers to the maintenance of full employment are primarily political, not economic:

Under a regime of permanent full employment, the “sack” would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But “discipline in the factories” and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.

History bears this argument out. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, countries across the advanced capitalist world and some developing countries were rocked by major strike waves; in Sweden, Italy, France, and Britain, socialist and communist parties advanced plans to encroach significantly on the political power of capital. Even in the US, important sections of the Democratic Party and the labor movement were dedicated to a fairly strongly social democratic agenda. This political crisis could have been resolved either by moving beyond the social democratic welfare state or breaking radically toward neoliberalism. As we are all painfully aware, the latter option won out. The political and economic power of capital was restored and the labor movement and left political formations were decimated.

Now, while full employment may be impossible to attain short of a radical change in the way the political economy is structured, it may still be useful as a political demand. After all, most people will accept the idea that everyone should be able to have a job if they want one, and if capitalism is unable to do this then such a failure is a significant mark against it. But I would question the inherent desirability of full employment as a political and ethical goal. The global economy is so fabulously wealthy and productive that we probably don’t all have to be working full-time, 35- to 40-hour per week jobs. If a left movement gains enough strength in the coming years to challenge the dominance of capital, it should probably demand that advances in technology and productivity gains be used to take people’s labor off the market as much as possible. Why make work for the sake of making work?

— Chris Maisano

Benjamin Kunkel replies:

It’s gratifying to see the essay I wrote on full employment being so thoughtfully discussed, within a framework I basically agree with. So it would be churlish to complain too much about the particulars of the discussion. Still, a few points.

1) The essay was meant to consider the economic, not the political viability of full employment within capitalism. It’s the economic viability of full employment that we’ve been encouraged to doubt over recent decades, with costs to the health of the capitalist economy, where inadequate wages and employment have produced a chronic shortfall of demand. Brenner argues that it was not full employment but overcompetition in international manufacturing that caused the crisis of the ’70s — an argument that seems to me more persuasive, as well as better documented and developed, than its main rival.

2) At the same time, Chris Maisano is right that I wanted to defend full employment as a potentially useful political demand. The usefulness of the demand doesn’t prejudge whether the demand can or can’t be fulfilled this side of socialism. That full employment may be “as ruinous to capitalism as common opinion has supposed” is something I explicitly allowed for in my last paragraph. That Kalecki himself was less than 100 percent sure on this point is evident in the passage of his that I quoted in the same paragraph: “If capitalism can adjust itself to full employment, a fundamental reform will have been incorporated in it. If not, it will show itself an outmoded system which must be scrapped.”

3) Maisano questions whether full employment is desirable, let alone possible. After all, what’s so great about wage labor for forty hours a week? But full employment simply means a job for everyone who wants or needs and can perform one. Nothing requires that full employment be achieved at forty hours a week rather than twenty, or that workers forfeit control over the surplus product (as with wage labor) instead of gaining such control (as, ideally, with socialism). Neither exploitation nor overwork is built into the definition of full employment.

The main point of my essay, though, was to spur discussions of just this kind, at a time when the goal of full employment has been all but forgotten. I think that goal can and should be maintained alongside the goal of a transformation of the system. And postwar history would seem to bear me out. The improving conditions of Western workers in the first decades after World War II inspired demands for still further improvements, while the defeat of labor since the ’70s has only yielded deepening working-class demoralization. It’s a surprising feature of postwar democracies: the more labor gets, the more it demands; and the less labor gets, the less it demands. Reform and revolution may turn out, then, to be allies rather than enemies.

Internet Revolution

Dear Editors,

A faithful mail carrier delivers your magazine to my door unhampered by the digital revolution — thus arrived your chatty history of the “Internet as Social Movement.” The report’s admirable reporting aside, the artfulness in dramatizing the subject suffers . . . well, let’s say it suffers from its eagerness.

There is no equalizing “like” between the Russian revolution and the digital landscape. They do shoot people in hot revolutions, often in the back of the head. The framing of our internet socializing, the cloud revolution, by hanging it inside the October revolution is a bit like Potemkin steaming forth without an anchor attached to history.

— Gediminas Trimakas

Dear Editors,

Ciao. A friend pointed out your last editorial on “webism” [“The Intellectual Situation”] online. I found a lot of insight there. Then I realized you run a print magazine. (I love paper. Am I a bookist?) I don’t know if you ship the print magazine also to Italy. How much does it cost? The euro is going down and down — it’s not easy to say the cost.

As an author, my heterononymous name is ippolita (a research group we founded in 2004). We’ve collectively written some books about hacker culture — our culture. The first is only in Italian (Open is Not Free: Digital Communities between Hacker Ethics and the Free Market); the second is The Dark Side of Google, published in Italy, France, and Spain. It is the only published radical critical analysis of what we call “the spirit of contemporary capitalism and technocracy.” We wrote it together through assembly, ML, and the WYSIWYG Wiki software we coded. Like all ippolita’s books, it’s a copyleft book under Creative Commons license. We use copyleft because we cannot accept the idea that to make a copy of a book (not to sell it) is a crime.

As for your article on webism, this is the first time I’ve heard of a project with affinities to our work as independent-autonomous publishers and writers. The book we’re writing now is about social networking and why we detest the social media bubble, in its technical, social, and philosophical aspects. In fact we argue that it is not only a social movement but also a religion.

Our way out? Well, making books (as long as someone can read them), education, auto-education, the hacker’s freedom of creation. We need more tools, ones that are convivial rather than industrial (in Ivan Illich’s sense). Culture is the most (if not the only) revolutionary means to build up a society for people who want neither to rule nor to be ruled. That is the conclusion of my PhD thesis about convivial writing tools. But this is theory; books are practices.

Here in Val d’Ossola the weather is good, finally, after three weeks of rain. That’s important. I’ll go on a trip to a lake and swim, without a computer or cell phone!

OK, I’ll stop boring you. Go ahead with your excellent work.

— k. of ippolita

More from Issue 10

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Today it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism

Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The crack-up of the country’s wealthiest, most populous state has been long in the making.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement
Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Jonathan Franzen’s novel is a feeling-machine.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

The good people of America choose electric cars when given the chance.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

After my two years of war I’ve never been so free, I own nothing now, not even my real name

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Now, Oates’s colleagues don’t just watch television. They write books about The Sopranos and teach courses on The Wire.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

We are always in search of fiction that is willing to meet the world as it is.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

There’s no way around it: Commonwealth is an irritating book.

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