Viewed one way, the world seems divided between the countries where everything seems locked into place and the countries undergoing constant upheaval. In the United States, we seem unable to change anything. Corporate power unchallenged; insane policies on gun ownership; a dysfunctional (inefficient, nontransparent, and grossly unequal) health care “system”; underfunded and segregated schools; homelessness; an addiction to automobiles that is subsidized by government funding of roads and the oil industry; environmental devastation of various sorts; increasing economic polarization; persistent racial disparities of every kind; a bloated military engaged in endless wars; and an intelligence “secret state” unaccountable to law. All of these problems have been with us since at least the 1970s and we have made little to no progress in ameliorating them. Hell, we can’t even address them within our political institutions—and they barely even register as topics of debate during our political campaigns. What national politician over the past forty years has ever had anything to say about homelessness? Why does Congress every year rubber stamp absurd military spending—the same Congress that hasn’t passed an actual, planned budget since 1996?
Such gridlock might pass as stability. Certainly, stability is far preferable than conditions in a “failed state” like Somalia. But the reality is that, absent a functioning government, other powers step into the vacuum. By dismembering a regulatory state that actually oversees economic activity, Republicans have enabled the great wealth grab that has characterized US society since 1970. There has been dramatic change—enabled by the very lack of action on the level of the state.
The change has been both material and ideological (to use Marxist terms). The ideological change might be summed up in the victory of Milton Friedman’s dictum that corporations have only one responsibility: to enrich their owners (shareholders). Any level of profit is completely justifiable—as are any measures taken to secure profits. Pollution, tax gamesmanship, off-shoring, driving down wages, various techniques to ratchet up “productivity” are all perfectly acceptable—since capital (investment) is going to flow toward those enterprises that best utilize all these means toward larger profits.
The material changes have been in modes of production. The productivity of the average American worker has risen dramatically. Since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity has risen 69% while wages have only risen 11%. (Link: https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/).
Any American worker can tell you where those productivity gains have come from: a bit from automation, but also from various “speed-up” techniques, including increased surveillance, unpaid overtime (in the US, 85% of men and 65% of women work more than 40 hours a week; link: https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/), and persistent understaffing in relation to the work that must be accomplished.
American workers notoriously do not take their vacations. Why? For very paradoxical reasons: a combination of knowing all the work that won’t get done (and will be waiting for them) if they take time off (because of understaffing) combined with a fear that the business will be seen to survive while they are gone and, hence, they will be laid off. The absolute loss of job security in the new dispensation of neoliberal economics combined with the knowledge that losing health insurance is the surest pathway to destitution keeps the worker at his or her job. Yet they are also tied to their jobs by a laudable (but self-defeating) sense of responsibility, a desire to see that the work gets done and gets done well. The struggle is to maintain self-respect even while trapped in a workplace that uses them up as ruthlessly as 19th century factory hands.
In short, even as nothing changes, there have been drastic upheavals in the terms of work for most Americans. The relentless pursuit of productivity by American enterprises has made working conditions substantially worse and job insecurity much more prevalent than they were in 1970 even as wages have remained almost stagnant.
What’s even more dispiriting is that much of this productivity is (on any sane, big picture view) worthless. Not worthless in its ability to churn out profit, but worthless in any sensible account of social well-being. We are in David Graeber “bull shit jobs” territory here. Think of tax codes and a health care system (to take just two examples) so byzantine that tens of thousands of people are employed to work through their bureaucratic mazes. We are overworked to produce things that do not, in John Ruskin’s memorable phrase, “avail life.” American society, apparently so unmovable, has increasingly embraced “illth,” the opposite of that wealth that avails life.
I had coffee the other day with one of my favorite ex-students. He is currently pursuing a PhD in the humanities—and was commenting on the academic version of insane productivity demands. The response since 1970 to the decline of jobs in the humanities has been to up the demands for scholarly production required at each step of the process of trying to secure (and then keep) a position. The inexorable logic of increasing demands appears unstoppable. Even though every one knows it is insane. Writing articles and books no one ever reads—and that have no impact on anything anywhere. The only reasonable response seems to be to up and quit: to refuse to be exploited as a non-tenurable, under-paid part-timer, and to refuse to ruin ten to fifteen years of your life bound to the productivity wheel of fire.
The young academic’s dilemma is no different than that faced by the newly hired at Goldman Sachs who are required to work 100 hours a week. (Link: https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/22/business/goldman-sachs-saturday-rule-workplace-survey/index.html) These hazing rituals can be sustained because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is open to so few even though so many desire it. There is even the meritocratic pride of those who are tough enough to make it—and their corresponding contempt for the weaklings who drop out along the way. Competition is glorified as the way to discover who is really the best, even as this fetishism of competition overwhelms any consideration of the quality or the larger worth of the work produced under these inhumane conditions. Productivity has become like money—valued for its own sake, not for the things it enables.
What was most dispiriting in my conversation with my student was not his own dismal prospects—and the attempt to figure out a way for him to have a decent life doing the things he loved. No, it was the larger view. He has given up entirely on the United States. We are a society in terminable decline, one that offers no prospects of a good life to his generation, and unable to summon the will, the know-how, or the vision to change course. Crippled by our racial and culture war animosities (stirred up by politicians and a news media that has no interest—in every sense of that word—in addressing our society’s dysfunctions), the US (in this student’s eyes) has no path forward.
Not that a future outside the US looks any better. He was convinced China is the future—and it’s grim. Twenty years ago, China at least made noises about being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, and its burgeoning economy appeared likely to produce a robust civil society. But that proved a fleeting dream. State capitalism is now joined to ethnic absolutism as China’s modus operandi. The non-Han will be crushed along with any dissent (witness the crackdown in Hong Kong). That the processes making life worse are driven by the state in China and by the abdication of the state in the United States makes China look stronger, but offers no consolation for those who lives are disfigured in both places.
It’s not that my student—or most people—can’t see what is happening to them. A clear-eyed vision of what is wrong is widespread. It’s the inability to locate any levers of change that paralyses. Stop the world I want to get off—because it is currently so obviously bad and hurtling toward worse.