The Politics of Abundance

PETER FRASE

We are now being bombarded with the message of austerity, of sacrificing and doing without. The conservative UK government has announced draconian cuts to social programs, and has presented them as a difficult necessity. Prime Minister David Cameron called the cuts “unavoidable”, insisting that the country had lived beyond its means but that “we are all in this together, and we will get through this together.” Barack Obama has recently sounded similar notes, arguing that government must “tighten its belt” along with individuals and households. We are sure to hear much more of this if the Republicans do as well as expected in the upcoming elections.

But make no mistake, the politics of austerity is not driven by some inevitable economic necessity, and it has little to do with ensuring economic growth or prosperity. It is a purely political project, an attempt to shore up and renew ruling class power and neoliberalism. For the rhetoric of austerity is based on a lie: that we have suddenly entered a world of scarcity, in which there is less wealth for all and so we must all collectively suffer. But this is not a scarcity dictated by the material state of the world–it is not as if our factories have been destroyed by an asteroid, or our people wiped out by a plague. This scarcity is entirely a result of the dysfunction of the capitalist economy, in which idle resources confront unmet human need. We live in a world with greater material wealth than at any previous time in human history, which makes the idea of abundance more important than ever. It falls to the left to insist that a higher standard of living is possible, if only we muster the political will to make it a reality.

But first we must understand why the capitalist class is so invested in scarcity and austerity, especially at this moment: scarcity is one of the basic premises of a capitalist society. It is important ideologically, because only by appealing to the need to allocate scarce resources can the system’s apologists justify the otherwise manifestly unjust way in which wealth and income are distributed. But it is also a necessary structural component of the economy: the entire process of capitalism is based on inducing consumers to exchange money for commodities, which they consent to do only because the commodities are scarce. And yet in many areas, the scarcity economy is threatening to break down.

Abundance–the unlimited ability to satisfy our wants–is likewise important to left critiques of capitalism. Marx, in particular, insisted that the massive increase in material wealth made possible by capitalist technical change was a precondition for socialism and communism. For him, the scarcity economy was a “realm of necessity” that could never be the basis of a fully free and human existence; this he reserved for the “realm of freedom” that existed beyond scarcity.

Yet today confusion reigns on the left on the subject of scarcity and abundance. While no-one would argue that we have totally moved beyond scarcity, it is nevertheless true that in the last few decades, large parts of the economy have moved from being scarce to being potentially available in an effectively unlimited supply. Yet because such abundance is incompatible with capitalist profit, we have seen continual attempts to impose artificial scarcity. And some on the left, out of a misplaced desire to preserve the traditional standard of living among certain threatened classes of workers, have embraced this project of artificial scarcity. It is therefore necessary to forcefully reiterate that the left’s project must demand and defend abundance against scarcity. In what follows I will just point to two quite different cases where the issue of scarcity and abundance has become confused: the production of knowledge and the decline of American manufacturing.

The production of knowledge and culture is now facing the possibility of abundance, and in response the capitalists that benefit from selling access to immaterial goods have turned to artificial forms of scarcity. Of course, this field has always had certain forms of artificial scarcity imposed on it by the system of patent and copyright, which grants a state-enforced monopoly over information. But the explosion of digital sharing technologies on the Internet has made it much easier to freely copy and disseminate information, and thus has made these monopolies more difficult to maintain. In response, the industry as turned to new technologies such as encryption, electronic copy protection, and even files that delete themselves after being consumed.

If we view the creation of abundance as our goal, then all of these mechanisms are counterproductive and unjustified: since making a copy of a book or a song is now essentially costless, society’s wealth would be maximized if everyone were allowed to freely copy as much and as often as they liked. The interest of capitalists in preventing this is obvious, and the left has little difficulty attacking the greed involved in their position. But there are also certain classes of workers whose position is threatened by a world of free sharing: the direct producers, such as writers and musicians. It is far from clear that these people are necessarily harmed by the rise of file-sharing in the like, but nevertheless it a reality that their livelihood currently depends on the existence of some kind of market for scarce copies of the works they produce; thus the world of total cultural abundance is a threat to them.

This realization leads some on the left to defend intellectual property laws, uphold the right of cultural producers to charge for access to their work, and denounce the culture of the Internet where “everyone expects to get everything for free”. The correct response to this, from the perspective of abundance, is to acknowledge that the old way of compensating cultural production is collapsing, and to insist that we find new and better ways of compensating it rather than attempting to shore up the old system with regimes of artificial scarcity. There are many possible alternatives that we might imagine. One could offer grants to promising thinkers and artists, as the government already does to a limited extent. One might give everyone a voucher that they could use to support the artist of their choice, with the artist agreeing in return to free their works from copyright. Or, in a more radical formulation, one might observe that many people already produce huge amounts of culture and knowledge for free–and that if we can reduce the amount of time spent in paid work, and make it easier to spend extended periods out of employment, then perhaps it will be unnecessary to directly compensate cultural and knowledge production at all.

The problem of abundance arises again in the context of the debate over manufacturing employment. Here the issue is somewhat different. Unlike immaterial information goods, things like cars and machine tools are still scarce in a meaningful sense, and thus the argument for subordinating them to the logic of the market is at least plausible. But technological progress has made it possible to produce manufactured goods with far less labor than before. From the standpoint of abundance, this is a development to be welcomed, since it means that far less of our time has to be spent in the drudgery of industrial production. But it poses a problem for those who look on manufacturing not just as a source of material wealth but as a source of high wage employment, and who nostalgically recall a time when a far larger share of the population was engaged in manufacturing work.

Advocates of the project of “rebuilding manufacturing” or the like tend to rely on the argument or the perception that the decline of manufacturing employment in countries like the United States is principally the result of a zero-sum contest, in which jobs have been removed from high-wage countries and relocated in low-wage areas like China or Mexico. But while this dynamic is certainly real, it is not the most important driver of de-industrialization. For the truth is that the physical output of the U.S. manufacturing sector is far higher today than it was forty years ago, even though the number of workers in manufacturing has declined dramatically. Even in countries that have experienced less offshoring of manufacturing, employment in the sector declines. Rich countries like Germany–still regarded as a leader of rich-country manufacturing–are leading the way in the creation of completely automated factories, in which a handful of overseers keeps watch over an army of robots.

And so we return to the politics of artificial scarcity. The facts about manufacturing suggest that the decline in industrial employment cannot be reversed simply by bringing back jobs from abroad. What would be required in addition is a reversal of decades of increases in technical productivity, a return to a lower material standard of living. For the left to inscribe that on its banners makes no more sense than demanding that the majority of the population go back to performing grueling agricultural labor, as they did throughout most of the pre-capitalist history of settled human civilization. Hence it is hard to see why the project of “rebuilding manufacturing” would inspire anyone once its full implications became clear.

Moreover, even physical manufacturing is beginning to succumb to true abundance, as the technologies of micro-fabrication become increasingly advanced. Three-dimensional printers capable of producing any object from a digital blueprint already exist, and eventually they will be accessible to a broad stratum of consumers. The day is coming, probably sooner than we think, when we will hear complaints about the “piracy” of machine tools and electronic devices, just as we do today about songs and movies.

None of this is to deny that there are areas where scarcity is a real concern for the left. The most significant one is the environment: as we increasingly run up against the ecological limits of capitalism, we need to reserve a central place for discussions of restraining and controlling growth in areas such as carbon emissions and renewable energy. But this is an entirely different set of issues from the false scarcity of the capitalists. The existence of environmental limits doesn’t change all the other ways in which we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity.

A world of material abundance requires a new kind of politics. We must, of course, reject the capitalist insistence on maintaining artificial scarcity in order to prop up the profit system. But we must also revise the canonical model of 20th century social democracy, predicated on full employment at high wages. The world that is on the horizon is one which has more material and cultural wealth than ever before, but less need for waged work. That world doesn’t look much like capitalism, but it hardly matches the old visions of high-modern socialism either–what it most resembles, in a way, is communism as Marx originally envisioned it.

The notion of a politics of abundance that I’ve articulated here doesn’t provide any specific policy proposals, nor does it provide specific guidance for resisting austerity and budget cuts and the rollback of social programs. But the point of articulating it is to provide a firm grounding for why we resist the call for austerity. Rather than giving in to the ruling class’s politics of fear, we can be inspired by a vision of a better possible future. It is a vision that is profoundly optimistic about the potential of human societies, while questioning the ability of capitalism to deliver on that potential.

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6 Comments

  1. This is why I’ve always been skeptical of claims made by people like Leo Gerard and others from the old industrial unions that a new “green” manufacturing sector could be a significant source of employment for people whose parents and grandparents used to go to work in steel mills and auto plants. If we currently don’t need very many people, relatively speaking, to actually produce a car, why would we need significantly more workers to produce a solar panel or a windmill? As far as I know these industries don’t require significantly more investment in labor (if any) than the older industries. Recently I learned of how decades ago the longshoremen’s union in New York negotiated a guaranteed annual income for their older members to try to deal with the technological revolution spurred by containerization (by taking them out of competition for jobs with younger members). Ratcheted up to a broader social level, there’s a big chunk of your 21st century left project right there.

    • Oh, the green jobs racket, tell me about it. Everyone’s desperate for that to be the magic bullet that solves our environmental problems and brings back high-road capitalism all at once. I’ve even been drawn into this stuff at work–our center is working on a survey that’s trying to ascertain what the demand and supply of labor is in these “green jobs” in New York.

      On the longshoremen, Bill DiFazio wrote a book about them (which maybe is what you’re referring to?), based I believe on his dissertation with Stanley Aronowitz. He used it as a case study to show how giving people a guaranteed income did not, in fact, cause them to dissipate themselves in booze and TV, but instead led them to become more engaged with their families, neighborhoods, etc.

      • Yeah, that’s what I was referring to. I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I would like to. In addition to what we’ve been talking about here in terms of post-scarcity politics, I think it’s important to consider the sources of economic growth and development when trying to reformulate a left project that’s more suited to current conditions. I read the book Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly around the time it came out, and while I was annoyed by their avoidance of the fact that you would need a radical anti-capitalist left to make their analysis a political reality, that analysis is quite good and has very radical implications. Following the work of a bunch of economists they argue that economic growth comes primarily from scientific knowledge and technological capacity accumulated over time, rather than increases in capital accumulation or labor supply. Here’s a clearly tendentious but still useful interview they did with Dissent a couple of years back: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=177

        • That’s a good point, although we also need to deal with the ambiguity of talking about “the sources of economic growth and development”–there’s the growth of actual material wealth, and there’s the growth of money-income for capital. What’s coming more into focus for me these days is that the latter is increasingly going to be based on rents derived from various kinds of artificial scarcity, particularly through the system of intellectual property rights. That was another point I was really trying to emphasize in this post, but it’s something I plan to tackle at greater length at some point in the future, since it has some interesting complexities. It’s arguable that at some point, a rentier economy like that is not recognizably capitalism anymore, in certain fundamental and politically salient ways.

  2. I think the American left would see things more clearly if it managed to get over its politics of personal virtue (sacrifice, socially responsible consumption, low-flow toilets, etc.) and focus instead on winning a comfortable and happy life for everybody. (This is not a dig at environmentalism, it is a dig at green-washed bullshit.)

  3. Interesting article. I enjoyed it. I’m on the same page about most all of what you say, but I posted some critical remarks on it here:

    http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/2010/11/accomodation-critique-and-resistance.html

    Comments and discussion are welcome.

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