How Not to Promote Economic Equality

At the Washington Post, Max Ehrenfreund argues (“Hillary Clinton’s top goal as president could be effectively impossible to achieve,” July 20) that Hillary Clinton may be hampered in her stated goal of raising middle class incomes and reducing economic inequality by factors beyond her control. These factors include forces such as “technological automation and globalization,” which — along with competition from Chinese manufacturing — have devalued semi-skilled labor and driven down wages.

But the real problem is not that these things are forces of nature like glaciers or continental drift, beyond our control. They’re the result of a system of power that promotes certain institutional arrangements, because those arrangements serve the interests of those who control the system. The problem is that Clinton is a part of that system of power and she shares its underlying assumptions. She is willing to do whatever she can to reduce economic exploitation to sustainable levels — but not to alter fundamental power relations.

All of Clinton’s policy proposals accept as normal a system of political economy dominated by a few hundred giant corporations in a symbiotic relationship with the state, in which full-time wage employment under the direction of a managerial hierarchy is the normal means of livelihood.

But globalization and automation are problems for workers precisely because they take place within this corporate framework. The problem is not that new technology is reducing the need for labor; the problem is who owns the machines. The most notable aspect of recent technological development is the radical cheapening of manufacturing technology, and the rapid shrinking of the optimal scale of production. A garage factory with $20,000 worth of open-source, tabletop computer numeric controlled (CNC) drill presses, lathes, routers, laser cutters, 3D printers and scanners, induction furnaces, circuitry printers, etc., can produce goods that would have taken a multi-million dollar factory a few decades ago.

Technological unemployment is a problem, I repeat, only because of who owns the machines. The technology itself is ideally suited to worker ownership and control. The industrial model of wage laborers working in an absentee-owned factory originally came about because of a technological shift from affordable, general purpose craft tools owned by the workers who used them, to extremely expensive large-scale production machinery that could only be owned by the very rich — who hired poor people to work them. Today we’re experiencing a reverse of that transition, with a shift back to cheap, high-tech craft machinery.

The reason the new technology hasn’t been incorporated into an economy of worker-controlled neighborhood factories is that the old corporate dinosaurs, in league with the state, use “intellectual property” and other forms of state-enforced artificial scarcity to enclose the new technologies of abundance as a source of rents for themselves, within a corporate framework.

Globalization, including the offshoring of production to contractors in China, is likewise a problem because of who possesses the decision-making power. As an increasing share of production takes place in small job-shops instead of mass-production assembly lines, global corporations outsource actual production to such independent contractors. The corporate headquarters themselves do little more than handle mass marketing and retain control of the “intellectual property,” which enables them to enforce a legal monopoly on disposal of the product even though they don’t actually make anything any more. Because of increasingly draconian global “intellectual property” accords, companies like Nike can outsource the actual production of shoes to independent factories for a few bucks a pair, and then sell them on the shelves at Walmart for $100 or $200.

It would be far more efficient for such job shops in China, owned by the workers, to produce shoes for the local market and sell them for a few bucks a pair — and for Americans to get their shoes from similar garage shops in their own communities.

The logic of technological progress is a world of small manufacturing shops, owned and operated by the workers themselves, working ten or twenty hours a week with open-source machinery to produce open-source goods for their own communities, and easily being able to afford a comfortable standard of living with their earnings from such short work weeks. That is the logic of abundance.

But Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are dedicated, every bit as much as the GOP, to the logic of artificial scarcity, enforced by the state in league with capital.

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