Seize the Means of Non-Production

Black Cat on 2020-02-06

The Inevitably of Unearned Income, and Solutions for its Disposal

Photo by Max Vertsanov on Unsplash

What is the difference between ‘slack’ and ‘leisure’?

Slack is what a member of the working class does when they’re not worried about working, but they’re at work.

Leisure is what a member of the owning class does when they’re not worried about working, but they’re not at work.

The difference is one of context — but both are more expressions of states of mind than they are of hard material realities.

A worker experiences slack when they aren’t worried about being as efficient as they possibly could be — they, for whatever reason, know that they won’t get fired or do significantly worse in their life if they do not push themselves to the utmost effort, or seek out undesirable forms of labor over more desirable ones.

An owner experiences leisure when they aren’t worried about much of anything — this is, of course, the natural state of someone who makes enough from the proceeds of property ownership that they do not need to work for someone else.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Slack and leisure are both political choices — they are the result of the economic institutions that we exist within. Further, slack and leisure can be converted into each other by changing those institutions — even in minor and reformist ways.

If workers at a firm unionize, making it harder to fire them, they increase their slack — while, at the same time, likely reducing the profits of the firm. This reduction in profits may lead to decreased leisure for the owner — though it is possible that overall profits are still high enough that the owner will not necessarily experience noticeably less leisure: leisure and slack are both qualitative and subjective concepts — there is no direct conversion between it and quantitative figures.

Slack is a useful lens through which to view capitalism, because it clearly separates capitalism from markets.

Often, analysis of capitalism conflates it (a system of production — based in private property claims) with markets (a system of distribution). Partially to blame for this confusion is that, under capitalism, property claims are buyable and sellable.

However, slack and leisure are not buyable or sellable — they are all the things that you do not have to worry about buying. This is necessarily a matter of who owns what, and to what degree — class conflict can easily be seen not in terms of who works, but in terms of who does not.

A colleague of mine recently wrote an article in which he talked about how economic successes can compound in ways that are terrible for economies as a whole, as well as for most of the people who work within them:

The Red Queen’s Wall: Economic Inequality Through the Looking Class How Inequality Compounds, and What we can do About itmedium.com

Of course, this is true.

For some, it takes all the running they can do, just to keep in the same place. For others, they can sit on their thrones (as the Red Queen does) and drift farther and farther ahead. And for others, all the running they can do just leaves them further and further behind the pack.

But, to me, there is another way of looking at this story: as one about the division between wage-share (also known as labor-share) and capital-share (also known as profit-share).

From Wikipedia:

In economics, the wage or labor share is the part of national income, or the income of a particular economic sector, allocated to wages (labor). It is related to the capital or profit share, the part of income going to capital

the wage share was once thought to be stable, which Keynes described as “one of the most surprising, yet best-established facts in the whole range of economic statistics.” However, the wage share has declined in most developed countries since the 1980s.

The Left, including myself, have often railed against capital-share. The far-Left has often wished to abolish it, while the center-Left has merely wished to see it rise. Both have proclaimed doom and gloom over its descent:

graph from here+

I should note that I agree — is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? The idea that people are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor is, I think, a self-evident moral principle. That our present institutions seem more interested in rewarding ownership than a hard day’s work is a moral outrage.

Matt Bruenig even declared that the point of the Left’s policy proposals is “to reduce capital’s share and increase labor’s share of the net national income. This goal is rarely articulated so bloodlessly, but it is nonetheless what basically all of the current populist policy ideas are aiming to accomplish”.

Bruenig goes on in that same article to group such policy proposals into three categories: external, internal, and ownership. External policies are those that increase the bargaining power of employees by making it easier for them to quit. Internal policies — such as those designed to encourage and support unionization — are those that increase the bargaining power of employees within the firms that they are already employed at. Ownership policies — such as social wealth funds or cooperatives — are those that attempt not to increase the bargaining power of employees, but to instead make them into partial or full owners of their workplaces.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

It’s this last set of policies that seems most illustrative to me of the limits of increasing wage-share — i.e., that it cannot be increased to 1. The closest that we can get is an institutional set-up in which both the wage-share and the capital-share got to the workers — which is close to, but not technically, the same thing.

If we had an economy where all firms were cooperatives or where all capital was owned by a perfectly democratic (never mind the mechanism!) social wealth fund, we would still have to have some portion of outputs be used for re-investment — i.e., if the workers did own the means of production, as in the farthest desires of the Left, they would be both worker and owner — and would necessarily have to take on the roles of both. This is seen in actually existing worker co-operatives, where the standard set-up is for the cooperative to pay each worker-owner an hourly wage — and then for any profits to be split between a dividend for all worker-owners, savings for the cooperative, and re-investment in the co-operative — as determined through internal workplace democracy.

I have previously talked about the standard (for communists) criticism of capitalism: that it is both alienating and exploitative. Alienating, meaning that it results in workers not having full control of their labor. Exploitative, meaning that it results in workers not receiving the full product of their labor.

This seems like the other side of the coin of seeing ownership as consisting of control and income — saying that the workers are alienated is another way of saying that they lack any control over the property that they work with, while saying that they are exploited is another way of saying that they do not receive the full income from the property that they work with.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Some on the Left, though — particularly left-communists and anti-work anarchists, complain that there is a third problem with capitalism that would remain unsolved: what they refer to as “self-exploitation”.

In the approximate (editing done with his approval and permission) words of my colleague, Joey Jones:

While markets have been around for millennia, what marks the capitalist era is market-dependency — and through that dependency on the boss, the landlord, etc.. Even in co-ops, the discipline of the market pushes the workers— who, after all, want the organization to survive so they continue to have a job — to work longer hours, forgo pay, etc. in order to compete. They’re performing both sides the worker/owner conflict: the boss is in their head rather the substantiated in another person.

Under competition, there is a tendency towards a race-to-the-bottom in conditions and co-ops aren’t automatically immune to that, especially if they are isolated in the context of generally non-co-op industry. Union power raising conditions across how a whole industry can act as a countermeasure, material support for co-ops can introduce slack that eases off these kinds of pressures, etc.

I don’t want to be maximally efficient. I want to slack off, do just-good-enough and not stress at the end of the day, and I want that for everyone else too.

Of course, this is a very odd objection, at face value.

Firstly, that race to the bottom — that discipline of the market — is good.

Firms (whether they are run by internal autocracy or internal democracy) should strive to be as efficient as possible.

It is good for economies to be efficient —an attack on the idea that it is desirable for us to attempt to get the maximum possible value of outputs out of the minimum possible value of inputs. The race to the bottom is simply the selective pressure to provide the best product for the lowest price.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Secondly, work isn’t automatically easy — just the opposite.

It is, after all, work. This isn’t the fault of capitalism — work, and its unpleasantness, long precedes capitalism. Work will always be unpleasant, there is no or very little inherent virtue to it, and I think that it is odd that we do not pay very much attention to GDP per hours worked as an indicator of civilizational progress.

That point, about work not necessarily being good, is the core of truth in this confusing ideological morass — after all, who doesn’t want the ability to slack off? And — some amount of slack, or of leisure, is actually inevitable. Capital-share can never reach zero, nor would it be desirable for it to.

Under our current set of institutions, there is a great amount of leisure for the owners and very little slack for the workers — receiving the capital-share of income, money that they did not actively have to work for, does this for them.

As the role of owner is not eliminable, only integrable with that of worker, one can come to see that the dividends of doing so would necessarily mean the redistribution of the leisure of the owning class into being the slack of all.

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