Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as “the ethics of technology”?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is an overriding fact about technology that needs to be considered in every discussion of the ethics of technology. It is a basic principle of liberal democracy that individual freedom and liberty should be respected. Individuals should have the right to act and create as they choose, subject to something like Mill’s harm principle. The harm principle holds that liberty should be restricted only when the activity in question imposes harm on other individuals. Applied to the topic of technology innovation, we can derive a strong principle of “liberty of innovation and creation” — individuals (and their organizations, such as business firms) should have a presumptive right to create new technologies constrained only by something like the harm principle.

Often we want to go beyond this basic principle of liberty to ask what the good and bad of technology might be. Why is technological innovation a good thing, all things considered? And what considerations should we keep in mind as we consider legitimate regulations or limitations on technology?

Consider three large principles that have emerged in other areas of social and political ethics as a basis for judging the legitimacy and fairness of a given set of social arrangements:

 A. Technologies should contribute to some form of human good, some activity or outcome that is desired by human beings — health, education, enjoyment, pleasure, sociality, friendship, fitness, spirituality, …

B. Technologies ought to be consistent with the fullest development of the human capabilities and freedoms of the individuals whom they affect. [Or stronger: “promote the fullest development …”]

C. Technologies ought to have population effects that are fair, equal, and just.

The first principle attempts to address the question, “What is technology good for? What is the substantive moral good that is served by technology development?” The basic idea is that human beings have wants and needs, and contributing to their ability to fulfill these wants is itself a good thing (if in so doing other greater harms are not created as well). This principle captures what is right about utilitarianism and hedonism — the inherent value of human happiness and satisfaction. This means that entertainment and enjoyment are legitimate goals of technology development.

The second principle links technology to the “highest good” of human wellbeing — the full development of human capabilities and freedoms. As is evident, the principle offered here derives from Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functionings, expressed in Development as Freedom. This principle recalls Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures:

Mill always insisted that the ultimate test of his own doctrine was utility, but for him the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number included qualitative judgements about different levels or kinds of human happiness. Pushpin was not as good as poetry; only Pushkin was…. Cultivation of one’s own individuality should be the goal of human existence. (J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought : 454)

The third principle addresses the question of fairness and equity. Thinking about justice has evolved a great deal in the past fifty years, and one thing that emerges clearly is the intimate connection between injustice and invidious discrimination — even if unintended. Social institutions that arbitrarily assign significantly different opportunities and life outcomes to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, income, neighborhood, or religion are unfair and unjust, and need to be reformed. This approach derives as much from current discussions of racial health disparities as it does from philosophical theories along the lines of Rawls and Sen.

On these principles a given technology can be criticized, first, if it has no positive contribution to make for the things that make people happy or satisfied; second, if it has the effect of stunting the development of human capabilities and freedoms; and third, if it has discriminatory effects on quality of life across the population it effects.

One important puzzle facing the ethics of technology is a question about the intended audience of such a discussion. We are compelled to ask, to whom is a philosophical discussion of the normative principles that ought to govern our thinking about technology aimed? Whose choices, actions, and norms are we attempting to influence? There appear to be several possible answers to this question.

Corporate ethics. Entrepreneurs and corporate boards and executives have an ethical responsibility to consider the impact of the technologies that they introduce into the market. If we believe that codes of corporate ethics have any real effect on corporate decision-making, then we need to have a basis in normative philosophy for a relevant set of principles that should guide business decision-making about the creation and implementation of new technologies by businesses. A current example is the use of facial recognition for the purpose of marketing or store security; does a company have a moral obligation to consider the negative social effects it may be promoting by adopting such a technology?

Governments and regulators. Government has an overriding responsibility of preserving and enhancing the public good and minimizing harmful effects of private activities. This is the fundamental justification for government regulation of industry. Since various technologies have the potential of creating harms for some segments of the public, it is legitimate for government to enact regulatory systems to prevent reckless or unreasonable levels of risk. Government also has a responsibility for ensuring a fair and just environment for all citizens, and enacting policies that serve to eliminate inequalities based on discriminatory social institutions. So here too governments have a role in regulating technologies, and a careful study of the normative principles that should govern our thinking about the fairness and justice of technologies is relevant to this process of government decision-making as well.

Public interest advocacy groups. One way in which important social issues can be debated and sometimes resolved is through the advocacy of well-organized advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace. Organizations like these are in a position to argue in favor of or against a variety of social changes, and raising concerns about specific kinds of technologies certainly falls within this scope. There are only a small number of grounds for this kind of advocacy: the innovation will harm the public, the innovation will create unacceptable hidden costs, or the innovation raises unacceptable risks of unjust treatment of various groups. In order to make the latter kind of argument, the advocacy group needs to be able to articulate a clear and justified argument for its position about “unjust treatment”.

The public. Citizens themselves have an interest in being able to make normative judgments about new technologies as they arise. “This technology looks as though it will improve life for everyone and should be favored; that technology looks as though it will create invidious and discriminatory sets of winners and losers and should be carefully regulated.” But for citizens to have a basis for making judgments like these, they need to have a normative framework within which to think and reason about the social role of technology. Public discussion of the ethical principles underlying the legitimacy and justice of technology innovations will deepen and refine these normative frameworks.

Considered as proposed here, the topic of “ethics of technology” is part of a broad theory of social and political philosophy more generally. It invokes some of our best reasoning about what constitutes the human good (fulfillment of capabilities and freedoms) and about what constitutes a fair social system (elimination of invidious discrimination in the effects of social institutions on segments of population). Only when we have settled these foundational questions are we able to turn to the more specific issues often discussed under the rubric of the ethics of technology.

Hegel on labor and freedom

Hegel provided a powerful conception of human beings in the world and a rich conception of freedom. Key to that conception is the idea of self-creation through labor. Hegel had an “aesthetic” conception of labor: human beings confront the raw given of nature and transform it through intelligent effort into things they imagine that will satisfy their needs and desires.

Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel is especially clear on Hegel’s conception of labor and freedom. This is provided in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The key idea is expressed in these terms:

The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. (Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)

It seems to me that this framework of thought provides an interesting basis for a philosophy of technology as well. We might think of technology as collective and distributed labor, the processes through which human beings collectively transform the world around themselves to better satisfy human needs. Through intelligence and initiative human beings and organizations transform the world around them to create new possibilities for human need satisfaction. Labor and technology are emancipating and self-creating. Labor and technology help to embody the conditions of freedom.

However, this assessment is only one side of the issue. Technologies are created for a range of reasons by a heterogeneous collection of actors: generating profits, buttressing power relations, serving corporate and political interests. It is true that new technologies often serve to extend the powers of the human beings who use them, or to satisfy their needs and wants more fully and efficiently. Profit motives and the market help to ensure that this is true to some extent; technologies and products need to be “desired” if they are to be sold and to generate profits for the businesses that produce them. But given the conflicts of interest that exist in human society, technologies also serve to extend the capacity of some individuals and groups to wield power over others.

This means that there is a dark side to labor and technology as well. There is the labor of un-freedom. Not all labor allows the worker to fulfill him- or herself through free exercise of talents. Instead the wage laborer is regulated by the time clock and the logic of cost reduction. This constitutes Marx’s most fundamental critique of capitalism, as a system of alienation and exploitation of the worker as a human being. Here are a few paragraphs on alienated labor from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

So does labor fulfill freedom or create alienation? Likewise, does technology emancipate and fulfill us, or does it enthrall and disempower us? Marx’s answer to the first question is that it does both, depending on the social relations within which it is defined, managed, and controlled.

It would seem that we can answer the second question for ourselves, in much the same terms. Technology both extends freedom and constricts it. It is indeed true that technology can extend human freedom and realize human capacities. The use of technology and science in agriculture means that only a small percentage of people in advanced countries are farmers, and those who are enjoy a high standard of living compared to peasants of the past. Communication and transportation technologies create new possibilities for education, personal development, and self-expression. The enhancements to economic productivity created by technological advances have permitted a huge increase in the wellbeing of ordinary people in the past century — a fact that permits us to pursue the things we care about more freely. But new technologies also can be used to control people, to monitor their thoughts and actions, and to wage war against them. More insidiously, new technologies may “alienate” us in new ways — make us less social, less creative, and less independent of mind and thought.

So it seems clear on its face that technology is both favorable to the expansion of freedom and the exercise of human capacities, and unfavorable. It is the social relations through which technology is exercised and controlled that make the primary difference in which effect is more prominent.

Development ethnography and the life of the poor

Indian economists V. K. Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan have edited a highly interesting volume, Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, that will be of interest to anyone concerned with the progress of India in recent years. The book is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India, and all the essays are very good.

Ramachandran’s own contribution is a piece of what we might call “development ethnography”, a pair of interview (link) with the Tamil Nadu landless worker Gabriel Selvam. This case study is a valuable document for anyone interested in poverty and global justice. Ramachandran conducted interviews with Selvam at both ends of Selvam’s working life, in 1977 and 2017, and the experiences that Selvam describes are emblematic of the extreme poor in India and elsewhere throughout that forty-year period. Selvam has lived most of his life in rural Tamil Nadu, near the town of Gokilapuram. And Selvam’s life history illustrates many of the deep themes of enduring poverty and inequality in rural India — debt, bonded labor, inadequate access to land, caste, and extremely limited opportunities for collective action.

Usury involving a sum of only 100 rupees forced Selvam into a form of debt bondage to a landlord: “Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month, plus one sheet, a dhoti, a shirt and a thunda (towel-cloth) a year.” He worked 13 hours a day for the salary of Rs 65 per month. After four years the salary increased to Rs 100 per month. (At the 2000 exchange rate of Rs 45 / dollar this is about $2.22 / month.)

Debt bondage has been formally illegal in India since 1976. But Selvam’s condition is clearly one of debt bondage: “There is no choice, I can’t leave my mudalali [employer, landlord] unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

Largescale eviction from farm land is also a part of Selvam’s story. Green Revolution seeds and techniques made farm land more profitable, and landlords had an interest in evicting poor farmers from the land they had previously rented at low rents. Poor farmers became landless workers.

The persistent and debilitating disadvantages of caste in rural India are evident in this story as well. Selvam is of a scheduled caste, and it seems apparent that the wage differentials that he experienced throughout his working life had much to do with his dalit status.

Destitution-level housing is also a striking part of the story that Selvam tells. In 1977: “As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now, there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet.” In 2017, the time of the second interview, the hut has been completed: “it is completed and expanded now: a neat, whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker.”

In 2017 Selvam’s wage has also improved; he now earns Rs 4000 per month for hard agricultural labor — in today’s exchange rate, about $40 / month. As Selvam says, they are better off. And yet it is clear — “better off” in Selvam’s village still means poor access to education and healthcare, limited nutrition, an extremely low income, and a life of toil that few Americans can even imagine.

I hope that you will read the whole interview. It is a more powerful testament to the depth of poverty and inequality in rural India than any set of economic statistics could ever convey.

Here is a World Bank report that makes for excellent parallel reading alongside Ramachandran’s case history (Raji Jayaraman and Peter Lanjouw, “The Evolution of Poverty and Inequality in Indian Villages”; link).

Guest post: VK Ramachandran on details of life as a day laborer in India

[V. K. Ramachandran was a Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and is at present vice chairman of the State Planning Board of the state of Kerala. He is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Previous discussions of Ramachandran’s work in Understanding Society can be found here (link, link, link, link), and here is an interview I conducted with VK in 2008; link.]

[Acknowledgement: Extracted from Ramachandran, V. K., and Madhura Swaminathan, (eds.) (2018), Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, Tulika Books, New Delhi. This is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India.]

“Gabriel Selvam: A Biography of Work”

V. K. Ramachandran

Among the many the many things in which N. Ram was an early instructor (and I not good enough a learner) was on how to interview, take notes, edit copy, and present the results from conversation and observation.

NR was the first among us to meet Gabriel Selvam, and the description “upstanding young agricultural labourer” is his.

An Interview in Two Parts, 1977 and 2017

1977: Young Bonded Worker

G. Selvam (35) is an upstanding young agricultural labourer who has bonded himself as a pannaiyal (permanent farm servant) out of economic necessity. Selvam’s family is of the Parayar scheduled caste.

A loan of Rs 100 taken over six years ago from CT, a petty usurer, led directly to his present condition as farm servant. At that time, the loan was taken for subsistence needs and was perceived as a temporary expedient. On account of a 120 percent interest rate, the loan of Rs 100 became a liability of Rs 220 over a year. The usurer pressed Selvam, then 31 years old, to sell his house in order to repay the loan. Selvam, refusing to abandon the family house site, went around asking for a way to work off his debt. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the landlord SCC. This landlord, who was looking for a young and strong farm servant, was willing to advance the money to clear the debt, provided Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month plus one sheet and a dhoti, a shirt, and a towel-cloth (thundu) a year.

Selvam took an advance of Rs 100 for going to work as a farm servant, and used that to clear just under half his debt. Then, after the first month of work, he took a loan of Rs 120 to clear the debt.

Since then, that is, for six years, Selvam has been working for well over 13 hours a day. He worked at the salary of Rs 65 a month for four years. Two years ago, when paddy prices soared to nearly Rs 150 per 58-kilogram bag, the farm servants in the village asked their employers for a raise. Selvam was given a wage rise that was long overdue: in 1977 he was paid Rs 110 a month.

SCC, like some other big landlords in the village, has found it much to his advantage to hire a farm servant in this way. He has advanced small sums of money to Selvam over the years, sums always taken “temporarily,” but with no real chance of the debtor repaying the debt and getting out of his present condition. Selvam makes it clear that he is not paid anything near the remuneration he should be getting for this work. “There is no choice,” he says, “I can’t leave my mudalali (employer, landlord) unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

In his childhood, Selvam was not as badly off as he is today. His father, Gabriel, was a poor or lower-middle peasant, cultivating surface-irrigated land that had been leased in from landlords of the village. His mother worked as a hired labourer.

His father sent Selvam to school. Selvam studied in the Mission School in Gokilapuram, down the road from where he lives today, up to the fifth class. He completed the sixth class at the NMR School in Gokilapuram. Selvam was a good student and his father sent him to Vatthalakundu, where Selvam studied in the seventh and eighth classes, finishing when he was 16 years old. He stayed at a hostel at Vatthalakundu, and his father sent him Rs 20 a month. Selvam returned to the village after finishing the eighth class. He can read and write Tamil and can still read some English.

Selvam’s father tilled 6 kuzhi (3.6 acres) of surface-irrigated land belonging to landlord ST on kuthagai (fixed rent) for 20 years. He also worked 1.5 acres of groundwater-irrigated land belonging to SP, a landlord of Uthamapalayam. Selvam also worked on the land leased in by the family. Selvam married when he was 20 years old. His wife, Alphonse, is from a family of tenant cultivators from Pudupatti in Uthamapalayam taluk.

In about 1967, there was a sharp decline in the agriculture conducted by the family. The surface-irrigated land had poor soil and bad drainage, and standing water after the rain affected the crop. The land was manured only for one crop, one of the reasons for the yield being poor. The groundwater-irrigated land had a well with plenty of water and had a pulley and rope to draw water with. But household cultivation was in decline, the family began to incur debt, and the age-old symbol of a peasant family heading towards destitution became apparent: the cattle owned by the family became thin and weak.

About the same time, eviction took place on a large scale in the village. Earlier, the paddy crops were the traditional parunnel and samba varieties; later, with the introduction of new seeds, yields were higher, and agriculture became more profitable for the landlords. There was also fear among them, Selvam said, that the tenants would assert their right to cultivate the land. Landlords brought pressure on the tenants to leave the land. Rents were raised, rack-rents were imposed on tenants. In some cases, landlords brought great pressure on tenants to leave, offering them small amounts of money to do so. The peasants were disunited, Selvam said, and, out of fear, accepted the money and left the land.

Agricultural Wage Work

Selvam made it clear that the big landlords can always bring pressure on agricultural labourers; as for agricultural labourers, there is little scope for their advance today. Opportunities for employment in some tasks have gone down since the arrival of tractors, Selvam pointed out. The tractor has robbed those with ploughs and bullocks of ploughing work, and those with carts and bullocks of work in basal manuring. Even during threshing, the tractor has deprived agricultural labourers of employment. While earlier, there would be four days’ work at the threshing-floor and four bullocks would be needed to trample the grain for the second threshing, now the tractor can be driven over the sheaves to complete the task in less than an hour.

Unemployment is high and wages are poor, and women’s wages have actually been brought down, from Rs 3 per day to Rs 2.50 per day. There was agitation by Communists five years ago in southern villages of the Valley, Selvam recalls, when men workers won an increase in their grain wages, from 4 measures per day to 5 measures, and women an increase to 3 measures for threshing.

While wages in the village do not vary directly with the caste of the worker, discrimination against the scheduled castes, the overwhelming majority of whom are landless labourers, is deeply entrenched. Most of the farm servants in the village are Dalit.

Selvam has an extremely busy working year. During the 1976-7 agricultural year, he worked on both crops of paddy on surface-irrigated land, in different operations in the cultivation of irrigated sorghum (cholam), finger millet (ragi), tomato, and banana on groundwater-irrigated land, and in little millet (samai) on unirrigated land. In addition to agricultural work every day, he did domestic tasks at the landlord’s house. Selvam’s wife Alphonse laboured at agricultural operations for 57 days in 1976-7, and earned Rs 158.70 as wages. She seeded and cleaned tamarind for 3 days, for which she earned Rs 7.50.

Selvam’s wage is lower than other farm servants in the village, some of whom are paid Rs 130 and Rs 140 by their landlord employers. But when Selvam asks for a wage increase, the landlord arrogantly insists: “I have already increased your wages. You used to get Rs 65, now you get 110.” The standard that SCC uses, Selvam says, is not the wage paid to other farm servants in the village, but the Rs 65 pittance that Selvam himself used to receive before he was paid Rs 110 a month.

When Selvam is unwell, the landlord may give Selvam a small amount of money to buy medicine, but he will not pay for treatment for Alphonse or the children when they fall ill.

As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet. “We do not know when this hut will be built,” Alphonse said. “We lay a few bricks, and it may be a few months before we can add more bricks. It may take years to complete the hut in this manner.”

With all this, Selvam must also face rudeness and shouts from the landlord, the loud arrogance of SCC as taskmaster of “his” farm servant.

“Life is difficult for me,” Selvam said. He sees his children at 5 a.m. (when he leaves the house), when the older children may be just beginning to wake up. It is seldom, and only in the slack season, that he comes home before they are asleep for the night. And the hours in between are filled with arduous, back-breaking labour that covers every task that an agricultural labourer in the village can perform.

I have seen Selvam, early in the morning, heaving farmyard manure on to a cart and driving the cart to the paddy-fields, unloading it in neat piles across the field. I have seen him, bare-chested, barefoot, and dressed in an old and torn lungi, with a soiled cloth on his head to protect him from the sun, walking with a hoe across his shoulder over the ridge east of the village on the road leading to SCC’s groundwater-irrigated field in neighbouring Anamalaiyanpatti. I have seen him at the field, cutting and clearing water channels before the electricity comes on and irrigation water rushes up; and in the banana field, hacking at the tough young shoots that grow by the banana trees, cutting dry and withered leaves off the tree, and straightening tree trunks with wooden props that have been chopped and shaped by him. I have seen him, in the evenings, working in SCC’s house, watering, feeding, and washing the cattle or chopping a tree trunk for firewood for SCC’s kitchen. I have seen him at the bus-stop in Uthamapalayam, straining to lift a motor pump, newly repaired, on to the carrier of a Gokilapuram-bound bus. Standing under a bus-shelter in Gokilapuram after 11 o’clock at night, I have heard the sound of a cart coming down the road from Anamalaiyanpatti. It is Selvam, urging the bullocks through pouring rain back to the house of SCC. I have seen him after 11.30 at night, rain smudging the red mud that clings to his face and body, entering his hut and eating gruel and pickle by the weak light of an oil lamp, and preparing to catch some sleep before the next day of labour begins.

Selvam states clearly that it is not “loyalty” that keeps him with the landlord. It is his debt and the difficulty of finding alternative employment if he were to leave. “I have heard of the union of agricultural labourers in East Thanjavur. A union is needed, unity of agricultural labourers is needed. If there were a union in Gokilapuram, I would join it.”

May 1977

2017: A Working Life

Selvam worked for a total of 13 years with SCC. When he left, he was paid a mere Rs 400 a month. Selvam said that about 4000 rupees were due to him and unpaid when he left SCC’s employment.

Selvam worked 15 years as a daily worker after he left the employment of SCC. Three years after he left, Selvam’s son Arokiyasami was married. Over the three years, Selvam spent one year as a worker in a cardamom estate in Parathodu in Kerala, owned by Shanmughavel of Pannaipuram.

Alphonse worked as a wage labourer all her working life, that is, until four years ago.

Ten years ago, Selvam began to work for Venkatesan, a retired college teacher. Selvam was hired at a wage of Rs 2000 a month. Venkatesan owns 10.8 acres of thottam land and 1.8 acres of nanjai land in the north of the village, on the banks of the Thamaraikulam irrigation tank, where he grows nendran banana and coconut.

Selvam comes to the field at 7 am every day, takes a break from about 11:00 to 2:30, and works again at the field till 6 pm. He takes care of the field, clears the channels for irrigation, works the locks of the pipes for drip irrigation, supervises and works with other wage workers at some operations (planting and harvest), and weeds and cleans the fields. He also keeps the main trunks of the banana trees free of unwanted side-shoots, and applies fertilizer and undertakes all other plant protection tasks.

After three years with the landlord, Selvam asked for a raise. His new wage was fixed at Rs 4,000 a month (the worker on the neighbouring field gets Rs 6,000 a month, he told us). The landlord agreed, and said that he would henceforth account for Selvam’s withdrawals against the new wage. For Selvam is not paid his wage on a fixed day every month. He takes money for expenses from the owner “whenever I need it,” for household expenses, for festivals. The employer says he is keeping an account; Selvam trusts him and says that he, too, keeps track of how much he has taken from the landlord. He estimates that he has credit of about Rs 10,000 with the landlord. There is no formal account of Selvam’s savings with the landlord.

Four years ago, Alphonse developed a swelling on her right knee. A doctor in Uthamapalayam gave her drugs and an injection, and the swelling “sank to her foot.” Blood and pus was drained with a large syringe from the foot. Alphonse was discharged from the hospital, and was told to spread an ointment on the wound. Selvam did this every day. Alphonse began to scratch the itchy wound before it had healed completely. She eats betel leaf and nuts with lime, and the lime paste on her finger began to inflame the wound. It turned septic. Selvam took her in his son Sekhar’s autorickshaw to Cumbum, where the doctor said that she needed emergency treatment at Theni. Alphonse was taken by ambulance to the Theni Government Medical College and Hospital, where the doctors advised emergency surgery. She had a second surgery, followed by a skin graft.

In the post-operative ward, Selvam watched people on the other beds, and began to realise the importance of dressing Alphonse’s wound correctly – that it was a task that needed an expert, something he could not do himself. He hired a person to change the bandage – at Rs 50 a day – for the three months they spent in the hospital.

Alphonse is back home now. She can move a bit – to the sitting platform in front of the house, to change her clothes, to go to the bathroom; but not more than that. “We do not know how long she will survive. She has never done anyone any wrong. When she goes, it will be to heaven.”

The Children

Arokiasamy (50), the oldest child of Selvam and Alphonse, works as a mason and has a small business as a contractor for constructing small houses. His wife, Sumathi, has a tenth class school-leaving certificate, and works in the panchayat office as a data collector. They have two children, a son, Maniprathi (22), now a student at a polytechnic in Namakkal, and a daughter, Sunitha (21). Sunitha completed a B. A. degree and is now married. Her husband works on the staff of a tea estate owned by N Ramakrishnan, former MLA from Cumbum.

Arokiamary (48), the only daughter of Selvam and Alphonse, is now almost completely blind. She looks after her parents and brother, the much-loved carer in the home.

Shekhar (46) lives in Gokilapuram. He owns an autorickshaw, from which he which earns an income of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a day. His wife, Thilakam, is a manual worker in agriculture and at non-agricultural tasks. Their children, Merlyn Marcia and Praveen, their grandparents’ joy, study in class 1 and class 2 in the English-language medium section of the Savarimuthu Udayar Memorial Higher Secondary School, a reputed school in the neighbouring village of Rayappanpatti.

Vedamuthu (44) stays at home with his parents. He is a person with intellectual disabilities, and is unable to go regularly to work.

Xavier (41), the youngest son of the family, works at loading and unloading bags of rice at the government civil supplies godown in Uthamapalayam. His wife Muthuarokiyam and he are now residents of Uthamapalayam, where his children Akhilesh, Vimalesh, and Pratibha go to school. Xavier earns 600 rupees a day, and an extra 1000 rupees a month for the manual work at the godown.

Forty Years On

Selvam and family live today in the house whose initial construction costs led him into bondage in 1977. It is completed and expanded now, a neat whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker. They were exploited and extremely poor – near destitute – in 1977. Today, they are still poor, Selvam’s wages are low, and he has no knowledge of how much of his earned wages are held by his employer. But he is no longer destitute, no longer in bondage, and no longer at the mercy of a harsh and cruel landlord of the old type.

They are better off now than they were in 1977 – oh yes, of course we are, Selvam says. Our house is complete, and we never go hungry, we have special things to eat: egg curry twice a week, chicken on Sundays, fish once in about twenty days. Thanks to the public system for the distribution of cereal, there is enough rice for the family. The house has been electrified (Selvam says that they received their electricity connection at the same time, conveniently, as their son Arokiasami’s wedding).

I have continued to meet Selvam over the years. I was associated with resurveys of Gokilapuram village in 1986 and 1999, and continue to be interested in changing agrarian relations in the village and region. I return to the Cumbum Valley regularly for tasks connected with the Gokilapuram Educational Trust, an organisation of which the honoree of this volume is a founder trustee. Travel to the Valley gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with Selvam; as we grow older, we grow more conscious of the value of old friendships.

Selvam asks me if I remember the little kerosene lamp (of course I do — made of tin and with a flimsy glass chimney) that I used during our survey in 1977. I used it after dark during conversations and interviews in homes that had no electricity. You gave it to me when you left the village after the survey, he says. After electricity came to the house Selvam stored the lamp deep in a loft, where it remains today. He keeps it as a reminder of his friend — and of the days when they had only a single lamp for light in a half-constructed house.

December 2017

The second American revolution

The first American Revolution broke the bonds of control exercised by a colonial power over the actions and aspirations of a relatively small number of people in North America in 1776 — about 2.5 million people. The second American Revolution promises to affect vastly larger numbers of Americans and their freedom, and it is not yet complete. (There were about 19 million African-Americans in the United States in 1960.)

This is the Civil Rights revolution, which has been underway since 1865 (the end of the Civil War); which took increased urgency in the 1930s through the 1950s (the period of Jim Crow laws and a coercive, violent form of white supremacy); and which came to fruition in the 1960s with collective action by thousands of ordinary people and the courageous, wise leadership of men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, it is this second American revolution that is the most important piece of his legacy.

And this is indeed a revolution. It requires a sustained and vigilant struggle against a powerful status quo; it requires gaining political power and exercising political power; and it promises to enhance the lives, dignity, and freedoms of millions of Americans.

This revolution is not complete. The assault on voting rights that we have seen in the past decade, the persistent gaps that exist in income, health, and education between white Americans and black Americans, the ever-more-blatant expressions of racist ideas at the highest level — all these unmistakeable social facts establish that the struggle for racial equality is not finished.

Dr. King’s genius was his understanding from early in his vocation that change would require courage and sacrifice, and that it would also require great political wisdom. It was Dr. King’s genius to realize that enduring social change requires changing the way that people think; it requires moral change as well as structural change. This is why Dr. King’s profoundly persuasive rhetoric was so important; he was able to express through his speeches and his teaching a set of moral values that almost all Americans could embrace. And by embracing these values they themselves changed.

The struggle in South Africa against apartheid combined both aspects of this story — anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The American civil rights movement focused on uprooting the system of racial oppression and discrimination this country had created since Reconstruction. It focused on creating the space necessary for African-American men and women, boys and girls, to engage in their own struggles for freedom and for personal growth. It insisted upon the same opportunities for black children that were enjoyed by the children of the majority population.

Will the values of racial equality and opportunity prevail? Will American democracy finally embrace and make real the values of equality, dignity, and opportunity that Dr. King expressed so eloquently? Will the second American revolution finally erase the institutions and behaviors of several centuries of oppression?

Dr. King had a fundamental optimism that was grounded in his faith: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But of course we understand that only long, sustained commitment to justice can bring about this arc of change. And the forces of reaction are particularly strong in the current epoch of political struggle. So it will require the courage and persistence of millions of Americans to these ideals if racial justice is finally to prevail.

Here is an impromptu example of King’s passionate commitment to social change through non-violence. This was recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1966, during James Meredith’s March against Fear.

Populism’s base

Steve Bannon may have lost his perch in the White House and Breitbart; but the themes of white supremacy, intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government extremism that drive radical nationalist populism survive his fall. In The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality Justin Gest attempts to explain how this movement has been able to draw support from white working class men and women — often in support of policies that are objectively harmful to them. Here is how he describes his central concern:

In this book, I suggest that these trends [towards polarization] intensify an underlying demographic phenomenon: the communities of white working class people who once occupied the political middle have decreased in size and moved to the fringes, and American and European societies are scrambling to recalibrate how they might rebuild the centrist coalitions that engender progress.

The book makes use of both ethnographic and survey research to attempt to understand the political psychology of these populations of men and women in Western Europe and the United States — low-skilled workers with limited education beyond secondary school, and with shrinking opportunities in the economies of the 2000s.

A particularly interesting feature of the book is the ethnographic attempt Gest makes to understand the mechanisms and content of this migration of political identity. Gest conducted open-ended interviews with working class men and women in East London and Youngstown, Ohio in the United States — both cities that were devastated by the loss of industrial jobs and the weakening of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. He calls these “post-traumatic cities” (7). He addresses the fact that white working class people in those cities and elsewhere now portray themselves as a disadvantaged minority.

There and elsewhere, the white working class populations I consider are consumed by a nostalgia that expresses bitter resentment toward the big companies that abandoned their city, a government that did little to stop them from leaving, and a growing share of visible minorities who are altering their neighborhoods’ complexion. (10)

The political psychology of resentment plays a large role in the populations he studies — resentment of government that fails to deliver, resentment of immigrants, resentment of affirmative action for racial minorities. The other large idea that Gest turns to is marginality — the idea that these groups have that their voices will not be heard and that the powerful agents in society do not care about their fates.

Rather, this is to say that—across the postindustrial regions of Western Europe and North America—white working class people sense that they have been demoted from the center of their country’s consciousness to its fringe. And many feel powerless in their attempts to do something about it. (15)

And resentment and marginality lead for some individuals to a political stance of resistance:

Unimpressed with Labour’s priorities, profoundly distrustful of government, and unwilling to join forces with working class immigrants, Barking and Dagenham’s working class whites are now engaged in a largely unstructured, alternative form of minority politics. They tend to be focused on local affairs, fighting for scarce public resources and wary of institutionalized discrimination against them. The difficulty has been having their claims heard, and taken seriously. (71)

The resentments and expressions of marginality in Youngstown are similar, with an added measure of mistrust of large corporations like the steel companies that abandoned the city and a recognition of the pervasive corruption that permeates the city. Here is Evelyn on the everyday realities of political corruption in Youngstown:

The more I saw, the more I realized that money can buy your way out of anything. Then you see your sheriff get indicted, your congressman dishonored, our prosecutor in prison, and a mayoral nominee with a cloud over his head. The Valley has been embroiled in political corruption for a long time, and people just look out for themselves. It makes you sick. You don’t see it firsthand, the corruption, but you know it’s there. (128)

The overriding impression gained from these interviews and Gest’s narrative is one of hopelessness. These men and women of Youngstown don’t seem to see any way out for themselves or their children. The pathway of upward mobility through post-secondary education does not come up at all in these conversations. And, as Case and Deaton argue from US mortality statistics (link), social despair is associated with life-ending behaviors such as opioids, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Gest’s book lays the ground for thinking about a post-traumatic democratic politics — a politics that is capable of drawing together the segments of American or British society who genuinely need progressive change and more egalitarian policies if they are to benefit from economic progress in the future. But given the cultural and political realities that Gest identifies among this “new minority”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that crafting such a political platform will be challenging.

China today

There are a lot of opinions about China today in the United States — authoritarian, farsighted, effective at economic progress, overly committed to Party authority, challenged by the environmental effects of rapid economic growth, burdened by a corrupt and aging party elite. Some believe China is on the path to becoming a dominant super power, while others think that the suppression of individual freedom and thought is a fatal weakness that will eventually spell serious problems for Chinese stability and progress.

Several specific impressions from a recent trip to China leave me with more nuanced versions of several of those thoughts. Here is one: whenever you drive into a parking garage in virtually any major city in China your license plate is immediately scanned and stored. This makes it very convenient for parking — you don’t need a ticket and the parking charge is automatically added to your form of payment when you leave. But it also means the state has the tools necessary to create a vast and up-to-the-moment database of the current locations of millions of citizens. This is part of a surveillance system on a truly massive scale. We know how important this kind of meta-data is in the case of phone and email records — think how much more of a reduction of privacy it creates when your vehicle is tracked from highway to parking garage to surveillance camera on the street. And why does the parking lot scanning system exist? Surely for the purpose of social monitoring and control. Patterns of movement as well as current locations can be analyzed and inferences can be drawn about one’s private life, social connections, or current plans. (Is there a concentration of vehicles around a certain address corresponding to membership in an environmental action organization? Is more intensive investigation needed to head off a possible demonstration or protest?) So this small detail — ubiquitous license plate scanners — points to a more basic feature of the vision China’s leaders have for the relation between state and individual. It is the panopticon.

Here is a related observation. Take a look at these photos of classrooms at different universities.

Notice the video surveillance system at the rear of the room in each photo. Why is it there? How does it affect the behavior and speech of students and professors? The answer is fairly obvious. The video device has a chilling effect on the content of a professor’s lecture and the comments that students make, whether or not it is currently functioning. It permits direct monitoring of the content of classroom discussion. There are a handful of large subjects that cannot be discussed in the classroom. Everyone knows what those topics are, and where the sensitivities of the political officials lie. The seven forbidden subjects include universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, historical errors of the CCP, crony capitalism, and judicial independence (link). And a recent program of disciplinary inspections of universities ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) demonstrate the seriousness of the central government’s resolve on the points (link). So the mere fact of the presence of the video device is a reminder to students and faculty that their words and thoughts can have large consequences in their future careers. And we can predict that this fact will change the way students and faculty think and express themselves. Once again — surveillance and control. This environment is bad for students and faculty; but more fundamentally, it is bad for China’s longterm ability to foster creativity and independence of mind among its future leaders.

Here is a third observation, in an entirely different key. It is the sudden appearance of the yellow bicycle in many cities in China, almost overnight. This is a bike-sharing system that uses a phone app so the user can find a bike nearby, rent it for a short trip, and leave it wherever he or she wishes. Ofo and its similar competitor Mobike are funded by some of China’s biggest and most innovative companies — Tencent, Foxconn, and Alibaba. This is very convenient for the “last mile” problem of how to get a commuter from the bus or subway stop to the final destination. This innovation too has a major surveillance aspect — as soon as I pick up a yellow bike I’m on the radar thanks to the connected GPS device on the bike. But mostly it’s an interesting example of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that is underway in China today. Is it a viable business model? That isn’t yet clear. Does it solve a persistent problem in cities with hundreds of thousands of commuters underway everyday? That too is uncertain, given the challenge of scaling such a system in a city the size of Shanghai. Does it have the potential for creating brand new problems of urban behavior? Certainly so, given the unmanageable piles of yellow bikes you now see in many locations in Chinese cities. Does it give a basis for optimism about local initiative in China as a solution to its problems? Yes, for sure. The very speed of this onslaught of the yellow bicycle gives amazing evidence of China ability to quickly try out novel systems and solutions. (The bikes have shown up in a big way in Seattle as well, along with their orange and lime cousins.)

It’s hard to miss important signs of social change in ordinary consumer behavior as well. In 24 hours in Shanghai I saw several Porsches, two Maseratis and a Bentley — more super-luxury cars than I’ve ever seen in Michigan. In a city of 40-50 million maybe that’s not exceptional, but that’s part of the point: the scale of China’s population and economy means that there is a class of super-rich, affluent, and middle class people that may be larger than many European countries. This implies a rapid upward shift in the income distribution. It also demonstrates the increasing purchasing power that China brings to the world economy.

A final observation is familiar but important — China’s success in rapidly creating an extensive network of bullet trains. It is now possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing in 4.5 hours — compared to twelve hours just ten years ago. This is roughly the distance between New York and Chicago. This too has been an impressively rapid development, and it has the potential for changing the social and urban networks of China. This contrasts painfully with the inability of the United States to effectively address its infrastructure problems, let alone creating new transportation options. The Chinese state’s consistency and perseverence on an infrastructure plan have paid off with major benefits to the economy and society.

These snippets seem to point to some very important facts about China today. One is the confidence and stability created by several decades of sustained, real economic growth and infrastructure improvement. The lives of vast numbers of Chinese people are substantially better off, in almost all sectors. Second, the weight of surveillance and control has visibly and disturbingly increased in the past ten years. The central government and party are very serious about maintaining ideological control, and they have increasingly effective tools for doing so. Moreover, this level of control seems to be largely accepted by young people and university leaders alike. And third, China is demonstrating its ability to compete at a global level in the areas of business innovation and scientific and technological research. University research centers are increasingly able to deliver on the promise of offering world-class research progress on a wide range of scientific and technological problems.

So in some ways the assumptions made in the United States about China’s current realities seem to be a bit off. The speed and quality of China’s economic growth is greater than most American commentators believe, and this record of success seems to have created a deeper reservoir of legitimacy and acceptance by the Chinese citizenry than is often believed. Second, the power and security of the central state seems greater than often imagined, and the determination of China’s leaders to maintain power and ideological control seems more likely to succeed than many American commentators believe. President Xi and his political apparatus show every indication of an ability to carry out their agenda of continuing economic growth and strict ideological control.

So the current really looks something like this: an authoritarian state apparatus that succeeds in managing economic strategies and individual behavior surprisingly effectively. An authoritarian party state with continuing economic progress seems to be in the cards for China’s future for at least the next few decades.

There is a better and more inspiring vision of the future for China. It is a future in which citizens and leaders alike have confidence in the capability of everyone to contribute to China’s progress. It is a future in which discussion, criticism, and alternative ideas are expressed freely. It is a future where no one has the power to unilaterally decide China’s future, no matter how well intentioned. It is a world in which the Chinese people decide their own priorities and plans, and one in which progress and harmony continue.

This is a pluralist and democratic vision of China’s future. And most fundamentally, it is a vision that is hard for the CCP to embrace, because it seems inconsistent with single party rule. So it is hard to see how this future can emerge from the current configuration of power, authority, and ideology.

(Andrew Nathan’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books provides useful insights into these topics; link. Nathan sheds more doubt on the “soothing scenario” — the idea that China will soon evolve towards a more open-minded form of democratic society because of its involvement in the liberal framework of global trading relations. China is not “evolving” towards a more democratic form of socialism; and it is not showing signs of collapse under its own economic inadequacies either.)

Intergenerational social mobility

A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility” (link). Here is a statement of their approach:

We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.

Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents’ income group and the child’s income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.

The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)

These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well — for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.

Worker-owned enterprises as a social solution

image: Mondragon headquarters, Arrasate-Mondragon, Spain

Consider some of the most intractable problems we face in contemporary society: rising inequalities between rich and poor, rapid degradation of the environment, loss of control of their lives by the majority of citizens. It might be observed that these problems are the result of a classic conundrum that Marx identified 150 years ago: the separation of society into owners of the means of production and owners of labor power that capitalism depends upon has a logic that leads to bad outcomes. Marx referred to these bad outcomes as “immiseration”. The label isn’t completely accurate because it implies that workers are materially worse off from decade to decade. But what it gets right is the fact of “relative immiseration” — the fact that in almost all dimensions of quality of life the bottom 50% of the population in contemporary capitalism lags further and further from the quality of life enjoyed by the top 10%. And this kind of immiseration is getting worse. 

A particularly urgent contemporary version of these problems is the increasing pace of automation of various fields, leading to dramatic reduction for the demand for labor. Intelligent machines replace human workers. 
The central insight of Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism is couched in terms of property and power. There is a logic to private ownership of the means of production that predictably leads to certain kinds of outcomes, dynamics that Marx outlined in Capital in fine detail: impersonalization of work relations, squeezing of wages and benefits, replacement of labor with machines, and — Marx’s ultimate accusation — the creation of periodic crises. Marx anticipated crises of over-production and under-consumption; financial crises; and, if we layer in subsequent thinkers like Lenin, crises of war and imperialism.

At various times in the past century or two social reformers have looked to cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises as a solution for the problems of immiseration created by capitalism. Workers create value through their labor; they understand the technical processes of production; and it makes sense for them to share in the profits created through ownership of the enterprise. (A contemporary example is the Mondragon group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.) The reasoning is that if workers own a share of the means of production, and if they organize the labor process through some kind of democratic organization, then we might predict that workers’ lives would be better, there would be less inequality, and people would have more control over the major institutions affecting their lives — including the workplace. Stephen Marglin’s 1974 article “What do bosses do?” lays out the logic of private versus worker ownership of enterprises (link). Marglin’s The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community explores the topic of worker ownership and management from the point of view of reinvigorating the bonds of community in contemporary society.

The logic is pretty clear. When an enterprise is owned by private individuals, their interest is in organizing the enterprise in such a way as to maximize private profits. This means choosing products that will find a large market at a favorable price, organizing the process efficiently, and reducing costs in inputs and labor. Further, the private owner has full authority to organize the labor process in ways that disempower workers. (Think Fordism versus the Volvo team-based production system.) This implies a downward pressure on wages and a preference for labor-saving technology, and it implies a more authoritarian workplace. So capitalist management implies stagnant wages, stagnant demand for labor, rising inequalities, and disagreeable conditions of work. 

 
When workers own the enterprise the incentives work differently. Workers have an interest in efficiency because their incomes are determined by the overall efficiency of the enterprise. Further, they have a wealth of practical and technical knowledge about production that promises to enhance effectiveness of the production process. Workers will deploy their resources and knowledge intelligently to bring products to the market. And they will organize the labor process in such a way that conforms to the ideal of humanly satisfying work.

The effect of worker-owned enterprises on economic inequalities is complicated. Within the firm the situation is fairly clear: the range of inequalities of income within the firm will depend on a democratic process, and this process will put a brake on excessive salary and wage differentials. And all members of the enterprise are owners; so wealth inequalities are reduced as well. In a mixed economy of private and worker-owned firms, however, the inequalities that exist will depend on both sectors; and the dynamics leading to extensive inequalities in today’s world would be found in the mixed economy as well. Moreover, some high-income sectors like finance seem ill suited to being organized as worker-owned enterprises. So it is unclear whether the creation of a meaningful sector of worker-owned enterprises would have a measurable effect on overall wage and wealth inequalities.

There are several ways in which cooperatives might fail as an instrument for progressive reform. First, it might be the case that cooperative management is inherently less efficient, effective, or innovative than capitalism management; so the returns to workers would potentially be lower in an inefficient cooperative than a highly efficient capitalist enterprise. Marglin’s arguments in “What do bosses do?” gives reasons to doubt this concern as a general feature of cooperatives; he argues that private management does not generally beat worker management at efficiency and innovation. Second, it might be that cooperatives are feasible at a small and medium scale of enterprise, but not feasible for large enterprises like a steel company or IBM. Greater size might magnify the difficulties of coordination and decision-making that are evident in even medium-size worker-owned enterprises. Third, it might be argued that cooperatives themselves are labor-expelling: cooperative members may have an economic incentive to refrain from adding workers to the process in order to keep their own income and wealth shares higher. It would only make economic sense to add a worker when the marginal product of the next worker is greater than the average product; whereas a private owner will add workers at a lower wage when the marginal product is greater than the marginal product. So an economy in which there is a high proportion of worker-owned cooperatives may produce a high rate of unemployment among non-cooperative members. Finally, worker-owned enterprises will need access to capital; but this means that an uncontrollable portion of the surplus will flow out of the enterprise to the financial sector — itself a major cause of current rising inequalities. Profits will be jointly owned; but interest and finance costs will flow out of the enterprise to privately owned financial institutions.

And what about automation? Would worker-owned cooperatives invest in substantial labor-replacing automation? Here there are several different scenarios to consider. The key economic fact is that automation reduces per-unit cost. This implies that in a situation of fixed market demand, automation of an enterprise implies reduction of the wage or reduction of the size of the workforce. There appear to be only a few ways out of this box. If it is possible to expand the market for the product at a lower unit price, then it is possible for an equal number of workers to be employed at an equal or higher individual return. If it is not possible to expand the market sufficiently, then the enterprise must either lower the wage or reduce the workforce. Since the enterprise is democratically organized, neither choice is palatable, and per-worker returns will fall. On this scenario, either the work force shrinks or the per-worker return falls.

Worker management has implications for automation in a different way as well. Private owners will select forms of automation based solely on their overall effect on private profits; whereas worker-owned firms will select a form of automation taking the value of a satisfying workplace into account. So we can expect that the pathway of technical change and automation would be different in worker-owned firms than in privately owned firms.

In short, the economic and institutional realities of worker-owned enterprises are not entirely clear. But the concept is promising enough, and there are enough successful real-world examples, to encourage progressive thinkers to reconsider this form of economic organization.

(Here are several earlier posts on issues of institutional design that confront worker-owned enterprises (link, link). Noam Chomsky talks about the value of worker-owned cooperatives within capitalism here; link. And here is an interesting article by Henry Hansmann on the economics of worker-owned firms in the Yale Law Journal; link.)

 

Erik Olin Wright on real utopias

Erik Olin Wright is one of the genuinely important contributors to a progressive sociology in the United States. He was one of the first wave of social scientists and philosophers who created the movement of analytical Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s, and for more than thirty years he has organized much of his own thinking and the collaborations of a number of other scholars around the idea of a “real utopia.” Essentially the idea is to make use of good social science research and theory to help to formulate visions of the future of society that incorporate an emancipatory vision of human community while imagining institutions and social arrangements that are feasible and attainable. Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias provides a manifesto and extensive development of the ideas (link).

The general perspective that Wright has taken in the Real Utopias project is egalitarian and emancipatory. The project has focused on a number of key topics: universal basic income, market socialism, deliberative democracy, alternatives to capitalism, and gender equality, to name just a few. (Earlier posts on UnderstandingSociety have highlighted some of the goals of the real utopias project (link, link). Erik’s webpage provides more details.)

Erik agreed to have a conversation with me about the rationale and central convictions that underlie the real utopias project, and the discussion is a valuable contribution to some of the hardest problems of social and political life that we now face — rising inequalities of wellbeing and opportunity and the emergence of a politics of intolerance, division, and hate.

Thanks, Erik, for spending an afternoon with me thinking and talking about these important challenges. Progressives need new ideas and new imagination about what a future world can look like, and the real utopias project is succeeding in doing exactly that.

(I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of A. V. Chayanov’s Theory of Peasant Economy because Chayanov too was a “real utopian,” seeking to identify a feasible road to rural emancipation that was neither capitalist nor a version of centralized authoritarian communism. Chayanov was arrested and executed by the Stalinist Soviet secret police in 1937.)

Here is a link to the interview on YouTube (link).

 
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