Disposable People

Disposable People

Disposable people are indispensable. Who else would fight the wars? Who would preach? Who would short derivatives? Who would go to court and argue both sides? Who would legislate? Who would sell red hots at the old ball game?

For too long disposable people have been misrepresented as destitute, homeless, unemployed, or at best precariously employed. True, the destitute, the homeless, the unemployed and the precarious are indeed treated as disposable but most disposable people pursue respectable professions, wear fashionable clothes, reside in nice houses, and keep up with the Jones.

Disposable people are defined by what they do not produce. They do not grow food. They do not build shelters. They do not make clothes. They also do not make the tractors used to grow food, the tools to build shelters or the equipment to make clothes.

Although disposable people do not produce necessities what they do is not unnecessary. It is simply that the services they provide are not spontaneously demanded as soon as one acquires a bit of additional income. One is unlikely, however, to engage the services or purchase the goods produced by disposable people unless one is in possession of disposable income. Disposable income is the basis of disposable people. Conversely, disposable people are the foundation of disposable income.

Sometimes, disposable people have been called “unproductive.” It sounds harsh but it is only meant in a technical sense. In the late 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s debate raged in academic Marxist circles about the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labour. The main issue had to do with the distinction between labour that produced surplus value for capital and labour that didn’t, whether or not the product or service was useful or necessary. One further refinement had to do with whether the labour produced reproductive surplus value in the form of wages goods (or services) or machinery. In this view, labour performed producing luxury goods would be unproductive, even though it appeared to produce surplus value for the employing capitalist. In fact, though, it only assisted in appropriating surplus value produced elsewhere.

I suspect these debates could have been illuminated by Marx’s Grundrisse or even more so by the 1821 pamphlet by Charles Wentworth Dilke, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. That pamphlet explicitly excluded the manufacture of luxury goods from the process of capital accumulation and clearly explained why. The production of luxury goods destroys reserved surplus labour rather than establishing the conditions for its accumulation and expansion. Jean-Baptiste Say would have agreed:

Misery is the inseparable companion of luxury. The man of wealth and ostentation squanders upon costly trinkets, sumptuous repasts, magnificent mansions, dogs, horses, and mistresses, a portion of value, which, vested in productive occupation, would enable a multitude of willing labourers, whom his extravagance now consigns to idleness and misery, to provide themselves with warm clothing, nourishing food, and household conveniences.

So much for supply creating it own demand. 

Dilke contended that if capital was allowed to actually accumulate, the rate of interest paid for its use would rapidly fall to zero because the accumulation of capital was very limited, “if the happiness of the whole, and not the luxuries of a few, is the proper subject for national congratulation.” When that limit was reached, the hours of labour could be drastically reduced, “where men heretofore laboured twelve hours they would now labour six, and this is national wealth, this is national prosperity.” “Wealth… is disposable time, and nothing more.”

Dilke’s disposable time may well have been an oblique rejoinder to Thomas Chalmers’s (1808) concept of disposable population. Chalmers was as upbeat about the expansion of disposable population as Dilke was wary about the increase of unproductive labour. Dilke was an ardent follower of William Godwin, as had been Chalmers until he was converted by Thomas Malthus’s polemic against Godwin on population. In the Grundrisse, Marx appears to have been enchanted by Dilke’s concept of disposable time.

Nearly a century after publication of The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, Stephen Leacock’s The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice was serialized in the New York Times. At its core was the same dilemma at the heart of Dilke’s pamphlet, with all the vast improvements of productive machinery, why weren’t ordinary people better off and why were the hours of work still so long?

If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?

Leacock imagined an observer looking down from the moon on a production process that stopped short of producing enough necessities, and then again stopped short of producing enough comforts to shift, “while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities.” Leacock was a student of Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago and was clearly influenced by Veblen’s philosophy. A passage in Dilke’s pamphlet that imagines the “last paragraph” of a future historian uncannily anticipates Veblen’s concept of pecuniary emulation:

The increase of trade and commerce opened a boundless extent to luxury:—the splendour of luxurious enjoyment in a few excited a worthless, and debasing, and selfish emulation in all:—The attainment of wealth became the ultimate purpose of life:— the selfishness of nature was pampered up by trickery and art:—pride and ambition were made subservient to this vicious purpose…

Inspired by Leacock’s Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Arthur Dahlberg’s Jobs, Machines and Capitalism was described by Louis Rich in the New York Times as “one of the most valuable, both theoretically and practically, since the writings of Veblen.” Dahlberg’s argument influenced Senator Hugo Black’s legislation for a thirty-hour work week. 

At the core of Dahlberg’s theory was the observation that, as machines replaced human labour in core industries, more and more workers were reabsorbed into “miscellaneous” employment, providing services and manufacturing goods that were not spontaneously demanded. They became disposable people in disposable jobs. Demand for these goods and services had to be artificially created through advertising, gratuitous product differentiation, built-in obsolescence, and salesmanship. Consequently, the bargaining power of labour was weakened, and capital was empowered to take a larger share of national income. The goods and services this higher income group were then encouraged to consume with their expanded incomes became increasingly frivolous, as did the new investments available to absorb the rest of their income. Eventually higher income earners would spurn the unappetizing new consumption and investment opportunities and hoard their excess income. Economic recession would ensue.

As had Leacock, Dahlberg cited the example of the First World War as an episode in which a shortage of labour imposed an unaccustomed discipline of efficiency on capital. They both argued that a permanent shortage of labour could be achieved through reduction of the hours of work. Such a shortage would lead to greater industrial efficiency, less waste, higher wages, more leisure, and, ultimately, the elusive goal of social justice.

The chance that Dahlberg, Leacock, or Veblen would have read The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties is slim but not impossible. Herbert Foxwell mentioned the pamphlet in his introduction and bibliography to August Menger’s The right to the whole produce of labour (1899). In Veblen’s ” The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers” he mentions “Foxwell’s admirable Introduction to Menger.” More probable is some familiarity by Veblen with William Godwin’s views on leisure, possibly through the unlikely intermediary of Harriet Martineau’s writing. In Society in America, Martineau wrote the following tribute to Godwin, leisure, and… disposable time:

The first attempt to advocate leisure as the birthright of every human being was made now some half-century ago. [Godwin’s Inquirer] The plea then advanced is a sound one on behalf of other things besides philosophy, literature and scholarship. Leisure, some degree of it, is necessary to the health of every man’s spirit. Not only intellectual production, but peace of mind cannot flourish without it. It may be had under the present system, but it is not. With community of property, it would be secured to everyone. The requisite amount of work would bear a very small proportion to that of disposable time.

Leisure as the birthright of every human being? Harriet Martineau? Disposable time?