Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

“…other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature.”

“…other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature.”

A defense of Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis from the 1940s by Ephraim Fischoff makes the plausible argument that critics — and many supporters — of Weber’s essay attached unwarranted causality to it, as if “Calvinism caused capitalism.” Instead, Fischoff explained:

Weber’s thesis must be construed not according to the usual interpretation, as an effort to trace the causative influence of the Protestant ethic upon the emergence of capitalism, but as an exposition of the rich congruency of such diverse aspects of a culture as religion and economics.

Fair enough. Then along comes Colin Campbell 43 some odd years later talking about the Other Protestant Ethic. It was Campbell’s intention in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism to update Weber and to fill in what he saw as a significant gap in Weber’s thesis — his failure to account for new consumer attitudes, which Campbell traced back to Sentimentalism and Romanticism, both adaptations of Protestantism. 

The Hippie Dog Whistle Work Ethic Silent-Majority Counter-Offensive

The Hippie Dog Whistle Work Ethic Silent-Majority Counter-Offensive

Following up on my last post, I was searching for coverage of Ronald Reagan’s infamous “strapping young buck” comment from 1976 and found this wonderful commentary by Ian Haney López on Bill Moyers’s show.

In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, López mentions the “work ethic” angle several times.

The narratives promoted alike by the ethnic turn and racial-demagogues—a lack of work ethic, a preference for welfare, a propensity toward crime, or their opposites— reinvigorated racial stereotypes, giving them renewed life in explaining why minorities lagged behind whites…. they became the staples of political discourse, repeated ad nauseam by politicians, think tanks, and media.

 …

In accord with the stories spun by dog whistle politicians, many whites have come to believe that they prosper because they possess the values, orientations, and work ethic needed by the self-making individual in a capitalist society. In contrast, they have come to suppose that nonwhites, lacking these attributes, slip to the bottom, handicapped by their inferior cultures and pushed down by the market’s invisible hand, where they remain, beyond the responsibility, or even ability, of government to help. 

Many older whites nostalgically pine for the days when a solid work ethic meant a good job, a decent home, a new car every few years, an affordable college education for the kids, and a nice vacation by the lake or seashore every August.

Dog whistle politics (as opposed to overt racist rhetoric) got its start with George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace addressed his speeches to the proverbial hard-working, tax-paying, church-going, law-abiding, gun-toting patriotic citizen:

The “Work Ethic” Hoax

The “Work Ethic” Hoax

The story has been told that Martin Luther invented the doctrine of the “calling” and that John Calvin (“my friends call me Jean”) intensified it with his doctrine of predestination. Subsequent pastoral literature softened the predestination blow with the Protestant ethic that working hard and succeeding would show that you were one of the elect. Max Weber told that story. 

It was, of course, a fable. But that is beside the point. Max Weber’s fable wallowed in relative academic obscurity and sports clichés until… [wait for it]… 1971 when Dick Nixon dusted it off as a cudgel to bludgeon those folks driving around in their Welfare Cadillacs — we all know who they are — and the nattering nabobs of negativism enabling them. Pure backlash dog whistle. 

“Keep religion out of it,” Nixon told a speechwriter who labeled it “the Protestant ethic” for a Labor Day address in 1971, “Let’s just call it the work ethic.”

I would like you to join me in exploring one of the basic elements that gives character to a people and which will make it possible for the American people to earn a generation of prosperity in peace.

Rescued from Oblivion!

Rescued from Oblivion!

I was sure that the English translation of Friedrich Engels’s Preface to volume 2 of Capital had used the expression “rescued from oblivion” in referring to the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. But the only translations I could find didn’t agree:

“In this pamphlet, the importance of which should have been recognized on account of the terms surplus produce or capital, and which Marx saved from being forgotten, we read the following statements…”

“In this pamphlet of 40 pages, the importance of which should have been noted if only on account of the one expression “surplus-produce or capital,” and which Marx saved from falling into oblivion, we read the following statements…”

Today, when checking up on an old citation I had made regarding Sydney Chapman, I dug out my photocopy of Chapman’s unpublished autobiography (which I just happened to have lying around). And there was the expression. But that is not the important part. Chapman was talking about his education at Cambridge and two courses he had taken from Herbert Foxwell:

Ethic of leisure

William Godwin’s ethic of leisure and the riddle of social justice

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) William Godwin declared, “the object, in the present state of society, is to multiply labour; in another state, it will be to simplify it.”

In The Enquirer (1797), he affirmed, “[t]he genuine wealth of man is leisure, when it meets with a disposition to improve it. All other riches are of petty and inconsiderable value. Is there not a state of society practicable,” he asked in conclusion, “in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?”

In Thoughts on Man (1831), Godwin repeatedly emphasized the proposition that, “every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.” Leisure was indispensable to fulfilling that endowment in that “occupation, which arises contingently” was “often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits” than the “prescribed” occupation of a trade or profession. 

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.

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. 

Karl Marx/Benjamin Franklin Mashup

Karl Marx/Benjamin Franklin Mashup

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Remember that time is money. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. 

He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent or rather thrown away five shillings besides. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. In short, the way to wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality.

Doing the world a favor. For Michael.

Doing the world a favor. For Michael.

I did indeed post Dilke’s work. Then I reposted it. Then, ten years later, Contributions to Political Economy reprinted Dilke’s pamphlet, along with an essay about it by Giancarlo de Vivo. And forthcoming in the next issue of CPE is my article on the “Ambivalence of Disposable Time.” Thank you, Michael, for asking me to do the world a favor. Rest in Peace.

Rescuing Disposable Time from Oblivion

Two hundred years ago this February, Charles Wentworth Dilke anonymously published a pamphlet titled The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, deduced from principles of political economy. Four decades later, Karl Marx would describe the pamphlet in his notes as an “important advance on Ricardo.” In his preface to volume two of Capital, Friedrich Engels described the pamphlet as the “farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat” and credited Marx with having saved the pamphlet from “falling into oblivion.” 

In the 1960s and 70s, Marx’s notebooks from 1857 to 58 were published in translation as the Grundrisse, a section of which – known as the “fragment on machines” – became the subject of much enthusiastic commentary and theoretical controversy. Some of the most evocative and heralded passages of the fragment dealt with the concept of “disposable time,” which Marx had adopted, with citation, from the anonymous pamphlet. But Marx’s rescue of the pamphlet from oblivion was far from convincing. With few exceptions, the discourse on Marx’s fragment on machines ignored The Source (pun intended) of Marx’s category of disposable time.

For Marx, disposable time referred not only to time off work for rest and recreation but more crucially to an explosive contradiction at the heart of the capital accumulation process. Continued accumulation required both the continuous creation and appropriation by capital of ever more disposable time. Marx’s fragment on machines was received as prophetic when the translations appeared. It was as if Marx had been anticipating precisely this time — when automation, computerization, and robotization seemed to either herald “the end of work” or threaten universal precarity. Nevertheless, The Source and Remedy continued to languish in obscurity – if not total oblivion. Few copies and no translation of the pamphlet were to be found in the archives of libraries. Eventually, a microfilm copy of the pamphlet became available in the 1970s as part of the Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature. The full collection of old documents cost around $200,000 in 1980 dollars – the equivalent of $3,000,000 in current dollars.