A new Communist Manifesto

by Chris Bertram on November 8, 2011

At The Utopian there are details of a project by Adorno and Horkheimer for a new Communist Manifesto:

Horkheimer: Thesis: nowadays we have enough by way of productive forces; it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings. In this situation it is mankind’s dream that we should do away with both work and war. The only drawback is that the Americans will say that if we do so, we shall arm our enemies. And in fact, there is a kind of dominant stratum in the East compared to which John Foster Dulles is an amiable innocent.
Adorno: We ought to include a section on the objection: what will people do with all their free time?
Horkheimer: In actual fact their free time does them no good because the way they have to do their work does not involve engaging with objects. This means that they are not enriched by their encounter with objects. Because of the lack of true work, the subject shrivels up and in his spare time he is nothing.

h/t Brian Leiter.

{ 64 comments }

1

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 3:31 pm

2

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 3:33 pm

That didn’t work out too well. Here it is: ecologicalheadstand.

3

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 3:43 pm

The flip side of the question of “abolishing work as a necessity” is the distortion of both classical political economy and neoclassical economics by the orthodox push back against the very idea of emancipation from dominated labor. Both traditions contain strands that point in the direction of emancipation but a self-styled orthodoxy has labored tirelessly to suppress those possibilities. The same is true of “orthodox” Keynesianism, something Keynes himself was worried about. For the orthodox it’s all about accumulation, accumulation, accumulation.

4

hartal 11.08.11 at 3:49 pm

This looks very interesting too:
Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School

Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School [Hardcover]
John Abromeit (Author)

Book Description
Publication Date: October 10, 2011
This book is the first comprehensive intellectual biography of Max Horkheimer during the early and middle phases of his life (1895-1941). Drawing on unexamined new sources, John Abromeit describes the critical details of Horkheimer’s intellectual development. This study recovers and reconstructs the model of early Critical Theory that guided the work of the Institute for Social Research in the 1930s. Horkheimer is remembered primarily as the co-author of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he wrote with Theodor W. Adorno in the early 1940s. But few people realize that Horkheimer and Adorno did not begin working together seriously until the late 1930s or that the model of Critical Theory developed by Horkheimer and Erich Fromm in the late 1920s and early 1930s differs in crucial ways from Dialectic of Enlightenment. Abromeit highlights the ways in which Horkheimer’s early Critical Theory remains relevant to contemporary theoretical discussions in a wide variety of fields.

5

Nick L 11.08.11 at 4:05 pm

Fascinating and full of great lines and revealing throw-away thoughts. But I think there is reason to believe that the claim that ‘we have enough by way of productive forces’ on the global scale. The mean average global income is still pretty low, a quick googling suggests $9,000 per capita. So even with a truly egalitarian distribution of the fruits of industry, human life would remain fairly materially cramped.

In other words, we are still living in the realm of necessity. A & H jumped the gun by about 150 years.

6

mpowell 11.08.11 at 5:15 pm

I am always fairly dumbfounded by these claims that we could already do away with mandatory work. What? I guess we could, if everyone were happy as vegetarians living in small homes, riding bikes and enjoying a bare minimum of health care maybe we could get something close. (and how do you get any health care without quite a lot of labor my health care professionals?) It’s not even clear to me that the production levels of the western world could be sustained without heavy investment in things like transportation that allow potentially highly productive workers to work together (and thus be productive).

But even today, as Nick points out, world GDP per capita isn’t particularly high. And that’s with everyone working quite hard! Even accepting that the top 1% take far too much of the wealth both in a moral sense and in terms of it’s implications for the healthy functioning of our society, on the basis of absolute income we could only get a 10-20% improvement by distributing those incomes perfectly equally. It’s not like the bankers are claiming 50% or more of the world’s wealth. So this theme in communist thought has never made much sense to me.

But the conversation is very interesting to read, none-the-less.

7

bert 11.08.11 at 5:16 pm

At some point there’s an absolute level of subsistence above which material comfort has been achieved, making further production unnecessary? That’s the claim is it?
Against this is the claim that demand is limitless because human dissatisfaction is inexhaustible.

There are all kinds of reasons to bemoan market failures. Intelligent collective actions to remedy these failures have moral force behind them. But the second claim is psychologically convincing, while the first just isn’t.

8

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.11 at 5:24 pm

$9,000 per capita, $36K for a family of 4. Sounds high enough to me.

9

mds 11.08.11 at 5:28 pm

But the second claim is psychologically convincing

It’s curious, then, just how many billions of dollars and gobs of person-hours are expended on constantly telling us that our dissatisfaction is inexhaustible.

10

Guido Nius 11.08.11 at 5:49 pm

Well, there is work you want to do and work you have to do. If we can get rid of the latter that would already be something. Is that not H’s point?

11

MPAVictoria 11.08.11 at 5:57 pm

“$9,000 per capita, $36K for a family of 4. Sounds high enough to me.”

Is that the right way to read this stat? I would have assumed that they were refering to workers not all humans. If you are right at 36k per family of four we could all live very well.

12

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 6:23 pm

What Nick L and mpowell overlook is that MOST production today is not oriented toward satisfying human needs. It is directed toward concentrating the accumulation of capital and guarding the institutions that further that concentration. With transition to production for need instead of for greed, current technological capacity would be more than adequate.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.11 at 6:32 pm

Well, according to wikipedia world’s nominal GDP is over 60 trillion USD. 7 billion people. So yeah, it’s about $10K/head.

14

William Timberman 11.08.11 at 6:41 pm

If I’d known this post was upcoming, I’d have saved my somewhat OT ramble on the Occupy Greg Mankiw thread and put it here instead. This seems to happen to me a lot at CT. One thing inevitably leads to another as I think about it, even when the rest of the thread is headed somewhere else. When I finally do get to that other thing, though, I find a crowd already gathered there. Either I’m in tune with the Zeitgeist, or I’m totally clueless. Or both, as it’s just occurred to me that those two states of being aren’t mutually exclusive.

15

geo 11.08.11 at 6:46 pm

@ mds vs. bert: The notion that demand is limitless seems to me deeply perverse and pernicious. Unlimited consumption, like unlimited economic growth, is pathological. Humans are two-legged creatures, with the same organs, very similar metabolisms, and a brain mass and neuron count within fairly strict parameters. What each of us needs in order to flourish is not identical, but neither is it infinite in quantity or variety. mds is right: the manufacture of appetites is in flat contradiction to contemporary economic ideology.

sandwichman @12 makes a crucially important point. The amount of useless economic activity (an impossible concept, if one accepts the fiction of “effective demand,” as in contemporary economic ideology) is colossal. There really ought to be a research institute devoted solely to toting up and reporting on the amount of economic activity (including large swatches of defense, insurance, financial services, advertising, marketing, communications, luxury goods, corrections, and law) that amounts to stealing milk from Third World babies.

16

William Timberman 11.08.11 at 7:11 pm

Geo, you said that much better than I did. We not only need new ideas about equitable distribution, but new ideas about what we mean by need itself. Unless and until we not only manage to come up with those ideas, but to propagate them widely, and see them reflected back on us by a majority of the world’s human inhabitants, late capitalism, or whatever we’re pleased to call it, seems to be headed over a cliff.

Or to put it another way, why the services of bond-traders seem to be worth buying at a high price, and those of poets don’t, and why we blithely accept the idea that mining Alberta tar sands is our manifest destiny are both symptoms of the same atrophy.

17

Lemuel Pitkin 11.08.11 at 7:18 pm

Like others, I think that on the order of $10,000 a year should be sufficient all genuine material human wants. I tend to think this is because happpiness or wellbeing come from our exiswtence as reasoning, social beings, not as material ones. If you think of the moments you’ve been happiest, or what;s most important to you, you’ll think of relationships with other people, or with yourself through the exercise of some skill, etc. Cliche but true. All material goods can do is remove sources of unhappiness, and once the big ones are gone, you’re done. Being too hot or too cold can make you miserable, but you can’t get more happy by being more and more at the right temperature. And so down the line.

Interestingly, according to Richard Wilkinson, a per-capita income of $10,000 is right about where life expectancy becomes much more weakly correlated with GDP.

18

Matt 11.08.11 at 7:41 pm

I tend to think this is because happpiness or wellbeing come from our exiswtence as reasoning, social beings, not as material ones. If you think of the moments you’ve been happiest, or what;s most important to you, you’ll think of relationships with other people

Well, I think of that, and the really nice bottle of wine we were sharing. Or the fairly nice bottle of wine and the good bread and cheese, while sitting on a bench outside the Kremlin wall (really). More importantly, though, while I have a lot of agreement with this point, I get nervous when people think they know what other people need to be happy, or really happy. This is compatible with thinking the way current economic life is set up is pretty perverse, of course.

19

david 11.08.11 at 7:48 pm

Might “all genuine human wants” include yet more healthcare (for, say, particularly expensive-to-treat genetic conditions) or, say, more education? It seems a little ambitious to assert that all needs above $10,000 a year are not ‘genuine’.

20

Lemuel Pitkin 11.08.11 at 8:07 pm

I think of that, and the really nice bottle of wine we were sharing.

If the bottle of wine, independent of the occasion for which it’s a token, is anywhere close to as important as the person you’re sharing it with … well, I won’t say something disparaging, but that would be unusual.

Caution about knowing what makes people happy is reasonable, but we simply can’t avoid making such a judgement here. Claiming that continued economic growth contributes to wellbeing involves just as definite a judgement about what constitutes real happiness, as claiming that it doesn’t.

Might “all genuine human wants” include yet more healthcare (for, say, particularly expensive-to-treat genetic conditions) or, say, more education?

$10,000 a year is certainly enough for unlimited education for everyone. Healthcare is trickier. Let’s bracket it for now, and if we agree on everything else, we can come back to it.

21

bert 11.08.11 at 8:23 pm

In 1956, “we have enough”.
So, look around you and make a list of what you wouldn’t miss.
Start with the computer you’re looking at, but don’t think you can get away with stopping there.
I don’t think this needs to be A vs B.
Any halfway generous reading of #7 will see that I’m not interested in a fullthroated defence of market forces. Rather, I’m rejecting self-deluding utopianism. A different thing entirely.

22

Matt 11.08.11 at 8:27 pm

Claiming that continued economic growth contributes to wellbeing involves just as definite a judgement about what constitutes real happiness, as claiming that it doesn’t.

But I don’t claim that. What I claim is that I’m suspicious of people who tell me they know what real happiness is in a way that’s general, or what’s required for it, not just in their own case, but for mine, too. (Or maybe that there even is such a thing.) Maybe they are right- I don’t think that what makes people happy is transparent to them, or completely individualized to people, but letting people work it out themselves seems more likely to get things right to me. Again, that’s compatible with thinking that current economic relations are awful.

23

mpowell 11.08.11 at 8:34 pm


What Nick L and mpowell overlook is that MOST production today is not oriented toward satisfying human needs. It is directed toward concentrating the accumulation of capital and guarding the institutions that further that concentration. With transition to production for need instead of for greed, current technological capacity would be more than adequate.

This is an important point if true, I just don’t believe it. Less than 5% of US GDP is spent on defense. Of course, quite a lot more is spent on arguably unproductive activities like civil legal work, advertising and sales. It would be interesting to see an estimate of how much this really is, but I would not agree that this represent an effort towards the aggregation of capital. Maybe some of law, but marketing, advertising and sales is how our economy functions. A marxist can propose that he has a better economic system for allocating goods and resources and helping people make purchasing decisions in mind which will eliminate this waste (and I’d disagree, but at least it’s an argument), but that’s different than claiming these are explicitly efforts towards aggregating wealth. People at the tops of organizations spend a lot of effort making sure they stay there, and if you take their pay as a measure of their productivity I guess you could argue that quite a lot of productivity is wasted in this effort, but I think most of the work is done by the rest of the people in the workforce and I don’t believe their efforts are so oriented.

I’m not going to get into the debate on the actual numbers. That’s pretty tricky when you talk about what that means as far as purchasing power since a big expense, health care, has a price which is directly related to someone else’s income. I’ll just point out that even if you think 9K/year is enough (by the way, I have never spent less than $600/month on rent even as a grad student with roommates which would soak up 70% of this total), people still have to work a lot to get that. So there’s no life of leisure to contemplate unless you are willing to advance the claims made by Sandwichman that a significant portion of this really is wasted.

24

Jawbone 11.08.11 at 8:36 pm

I don’t know–I’m not sure I could afford grass-fed beef, wild salmon and organic fruits and veggies on $10K/year. Would hate to have to eat factory-farmed food.

25

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.11 at 8:54 pm

It’s not that $10K/year is going to make you happy. It’s that it seems that it should be enough to remove the basic sources of unhappiness: hunger, physical discomfort. And provide some basic opportunities, like books, some transportation, etc.

26

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 8:55 pm

“We not only need new ideas about equitable distribution, but new ideas about what we mean by need itself.”

I don’t think we need “new ideas” so much as the will to realize “old ideas.” I’m paraphrasing Marx’s letter to Ruge here. What I find astonishing is the “unimagination.” The ability and seeming desire of many people to grope for excuses why “it can’t be done.” The rationales become increasingly feeble and self-contradictory but the heroic naysaying is relentless.

27

Sandwichman 11.08.11 at 8:59 pm

“It would be interesting to see an estimate of how much this really is…”

IIRC the figure is about 15% of GDP would be enough income to raise everyone above the (current) poverty level. Double that and you’re still at less than a third of GDP.

28

mpowell 11.08.11 at 9:01 pm


I don’t know—I’m not sure I could afford grass-fed beef, wild salmon and organic fruits and veggies on $10K/year. Would hate to have to eat factory-farmed food.

Certainly not organic as you know it. But the world could produce enough fruits and vegetables for the world’s population with somewhat better than normal farming practice. Beef is right out, though, as a staple. Maybe you could have fish once a week. Not every day, certainly.

29

Lemuel Pitkin 11.08.11 at 9:04 pm

The question, obviously, is not whether you could live reasonably in a rich country today on $10,000 a year, but whether a country where per-capita income is $10,000/year has enough material resources in principle to provide a reasonable life for everyone.

A country like Brazil, South Africa or Thailand (all around $10k per capita) is certainly rich enough to provide reasonable quality housing, food, transportation, etc. to all its citizens, and to provide universal education and healthcare. I certainly know people from middle-income countries like this, not at all members of the elite, who don’t consider life in the United States to be at all preferable to life at home.What genuinely necessary goods are these countries simply too poor to produce?

30

bert 11.08.11 at 9:31 pm

Wrong, Lemuel.
The question, obviously, is the one asked by Adorno and Horkheimer.
What system do we use to organise society?

If you’re suggesting a minimum standard of living, not so different from a minimum wage, then I don’t think we have much to argue about.
But you seem to be suggesting instead that a level should be fixed at which all human needs should be declared met. Who decides the level, and how? Beyond that level, is progress abandoned? In science? Medicine? If not, how are resources allocated to achieve shared goals? A central plan? Spontaneous cooperation?

As for the creation of demand, I think mds places far too much weight on advertising. ‘False consciousness’ was always a particularly evasive way of preferring theory to human reality.

31

Colin Danby 11.08.11 at 9:34 pm

Are we enriched by our encounters with objects?

32

Pascal Leduc 11.08.11 at 9:45 pm

The kinds of objects that enrich us through our encounter with them are not the kinds of objects I feel comfortable discussing on this kind of blog.

33

Lemuel Pitkin 11.08.11 at 10:42 pm

But you seem to be suggesting instead that a level should be fixed at which all human needs should be declared met.

What I’m suggesting is this. There are material needs — for food, protection from the elements, mobility, etc. And then there are other kinds of needs, social or moral — meaningful relationships, useful work, a chance to develop one’s capacities, etc. Love and work, basically. A society that’s organized around maximizing material production may not do very well in meeting the other kinds of needs. Ours pretty clearly doesn’t. So if we think — and we really should think — that there is a declining urgency of material needs, whether or not we can identify a point of absolute satiation, then as we grow richer we should reorient our institutions from producing more, to supporting more fulfilling lives. We should ask less, what organization of production will maximize the amount of stuff our labor produces, and more, what organization will maximize the opportunity for people to derive satisfaction in their working lives, conditional on some adequate level of total output.

There’s no conflict with continuing progress in science — if anything, science is already organized much more around intrinsic motivation than most of the rest of our society.

34

Helen 11.08.11 at 11:47 pm

Because of the lack of true work, the subject shrivels up and in his spare time he is nothing.

To misquote Emma Goldman: If I’m still erased from the discussion with the adoption of He/Him/Man/Mankind, I don’t want your revolution.

35

john c. halasz 11.08.11 at 11:53 pm

@34:

Das Subjekt.

36

zamfir 11.09.11 at 12:00 am

Can a GDP really be used in this way? It’s measurement assumes exchangeability between different products on the margin, which I guess makes some sense. So a BMW gets counted the same as 1000 pairs of sneakers, on the assumption that we can choose either of them.

But we’re talking about far more than marginal changes here. If we stopped making BMWs at all, can we really assume that the freed productive capacity could produce a similar value of more widely spreadable goods? It’s far from obvious for example that we can produce 10 6k cars for every 60k car we would no longer be producing.

37

mds 11.09.11 at 12:22 am

‘False consciousness’ was always a particularly evasive way of preferring theory to human reality.

This is the human reality where we’re all materially richer than people in 1956 were because our inexhaustible dissatisfaction means we all can own $300 netbooks, I take it?

38

bert 11.09.11 at 12:27 am

At an individual level, you have the freedom to trade off material comfort and deeper personal fulfilment. At a societal level, a similar tradeoff is perhaps possible along the lines you suggest. Someone mentioned organic food upthread. Not perhaps the most stirring example, but that’s the kind of values-based shift towards a better model that I’d embrace. To help it along, you’d campaign and raise awareness and encourage societal change. To me, the clearest obstacle to this kind of change is the disproportionate influence of business lobbies on the political process. It’s a pressing problem in your country, Lemuel, but not just your country, and it needs fixing with rules-based reform. I can imagine if we carried on long enough, we might come up with a common programme we could both live with.

But if the path leads into antidemocratic territory, I’m out.
I don’t know your stuff well enough to judge, but it’s possible that the difference between your seemingly reasonable and pragmatic “we should reorient our institutions” and the gassy and utopian “we should do away with both work and war” is large enough to put you on my side of the line.

39

bert 11.09.11 at 12:28 am

mds, I responded to one piece of snark because George seemed to think you’d made a point. You can stick your second piece of snark up your arse.

40

William Timberman 11.09.11 at 12:39 am

Driving — or rather being driven, as I didn’t own a car at the time — around Los Angeles in the mid-Sixties, I confess I felt a bit like I’d died and gone to heaven. The smog itself seemed more exotic than threatening, even though it did literally turn the air orange on a summer afternoon, especially in the western parts of the city. No matter what the fogeys said, it was clear to me that all things were possible in this paradise — all you had to do was reach out your hand.

Now, if the mirror doesn’t lie, I’m a fogey myself, and Los Angeles is looking more than a little shopworn, and much less sure of itself than it did then. And yet until recently LA was the armature on which we hung all the heroic drapery of our hopes and dreams. Far too many of the worst practices pioneered there were adopted as a model in the developing world, most notably in places like Brazil, and now China. Even if we do finally get the desired revolution in thinking, reconstructing our entire infrastructure to match is going to be an evolutionary process, and at this point, we have no idea how much longer it will be before we begin on it in earnest.

I often console myself for entertaining such dark thoughts about the future I’m not going to see by reading Paolo Soleri rather than watching our technocratic wrestling matches on the Intertubes. Until, that is, I remember one of my more cynical friends pointing out to me that he’s more a sculptor than an architect, really, and that it’s therefore unlikely that the Bechtel Corporation will be exchanging ambassadors with Arcosanti any time soon.

A pity.

41

Nick L 11.09.11 at 12:40 am

I was thinking in terms of $9k per household. If $9-10k is genuinely per capita then that clearly makes a big difference. Although that has to cover all public goods like education, policing and health as people have pointed out.

Life in middle-income countries is much more liveable on a modest income (equivalent to minimum wage in the North) because most middle-income countries are very unequal and therefore labour-intensive services are cheap. I’m currently living in such a country, and it makes eating out, travel and other such luxuries very affordable. Very nice for local middle class people and expats. But if the world was more equal then these kind of services would be expensive, as they are in places like Switzerland and Sweden – obviously still better for the poor in middle income countries though!

This is the problem with this kind of static comparison – it assumes that prices would remain constant after redistribution. In actual fact because of the inelasticity of demand for primary commodities, in a more equal world the prices of many staples such as fossil fuels, grain and cooking oil would rise significantly.

Achieving that $10k per capita would involve pretty big distributive transfers away from populations in the North, and giving up the standard of living they have come to enjoy would be difficult for those populations to say the least. If the whole world were like Europe in the 1950s I think A & H would be more or less right. But as their note that they know nothing of Asia suggests, the fact that huge parts of the world remain underdeveloped means that issues of material scarcity and distribution are going to remain with us for a very long time.

42

Sandwichman 11.09.11 at 1:12 am

“This is the problem with this kind of static comparison – it assumes that prices would remain constant after redistribution.”

That is indeed a problem with static comparison. The upshot of such an epiphany should be the rejection of standard economics, which carries static models to an absurd length — even to the extent of falsely labeling them “dynamic.” The only point of the more modest static comparisons is to provide a starting point for thinking about the complexities.

On a note of that complexity, I would argue that, in addition to the waste that is counted in the GDP as output, there is an enormous amount of unused capacity to produce — unemployment is the “obvious” case but fatigue from overwork also detracts from productive capacity and there is immense underutilization and misallocation of talent and energy.

43

Lemuel Pitkin 11.09.11 at 1:21 am

the fact that huge parts of the world remain underdeveloped means that issues of material scarcity and distribution are going to remain with us for a very long time.

Oh sure. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the problems of scarcity have been solved everywhere. When I say that economic life in the rich countries no longer needs to be organized around the production of ever more stuff, I’m not denying that there are big parts of the world where more stuff really is needed.

44

Lemuel Pitkin 11.09.11 at 1:21 am

(oops, that first paragraph was supposed to be in italics.)

45

Stephen 11.09.11 at 1:44 am

On the non-gender specific pronoun thing I reckon that instead of coming up with a whole new scheme for the neutral pronoun you’d just make the, currently male, pronoun the non-gender specific one and invent new ones for male people.

Man = person of any gender
Woman = person of female gender
Wereman = person of male gender

Apparently “were” meant a male man in Old English.

The awesome thing about this is that it retcons all the current literature to be non-gender specific. And it would make me a wereman. Raowr.

I don’t have any idea what the male equivalent of “he” or “him” would be but it wouldn’t matter as much if it was clumsy since you don’t need to refer to specifically male pro-people all that often.

46

MPAVictoria 11.09.11 at 2:16 am

“To misquote Emma Goldman: If I’m still erased from the discussion with the adoption of He/Him/Man/Mankind, I don’t want your revolution.”

Not to get off track but I always found this to be a particularly confusing complaint. Male authors tend to use him/he and female authors tend to use her/she. What exactly is the problem?
/ See your point about mankind though. I have been trying to replace it with humankind.
// Same thing with the term “man hour”.

47

Matt 11.09.11 at 2:42 am

Presuming I get to wave my magic wand to equalize global consumption and discard most of the FIRE sector while I’m at it… It seems that this equalization will fix many more problems than just the most obvious ones like “the world’s poorest are currently at risk of literal starvation.”

For example, one person worries about the viability of organic agriculture with flattened income distribution. But if organic agriculture is (implicitly) always a niche choice for high-income people, what is the point? We only have the one planet. If you can afford “wise” consumption only due to others’ relative deprivation, it does no good. It’s like buying a bunch of carbon credits and claiming that your net emissions are now below those of an Indian farmer; it might work as a mathematical abstraction, but it seems extremely dubious as a moral or practical proposition for environmental improvement. Let’s you and he first have equal opportunities to consume, then we’ll work out how to have organic food without making the hard parts someone else’s problem.

I’m not sure that income equalization would be mostly bad even for relatively wealthy people, like the median American. Americans’ high incomes haven’t protected them from rising-even-faster costs of education and health care. Income flattening is going to tame those costs even if it raises the prices of most consumer goods. There’s also no doubt some psychological benefit to workers in eliminating the incentives that currently exist to chase cheap labor around the globe. How many hamburgers or $2 t-shirts would you trade for higher employment and job security, both for yourself and your whole society?

If an hour of labor pays approximately the same everywhere and in every field of employment, jobs that are now low-status and low-pay would receive a fairer share of effort to make them less strenuous and inefficient, and/or they would be done less. This in turn should improve how things are generally done in addition to how they are compensated. Would toilet exteriors retain so many muck-trapping features if even doctors and senators were expected to clean them (or pay someone else for cleaning at the same rate they are paid)? Would consumer electronics be discarded after 2 years, and built around that expectation, if everyone in the production chain were paid at the same rate as the devices’ buyers and designers?

If equalized consumption drives up the prices of fossil fuel, good. It will make it easier for non-fossil alternatives to displace them. For that matter, I understand that in poor rural areas of the world fossil fuels are often used as an (expensive, hazardous) compensation for the lack of reliable electrical infrastructure. The poorest people may pay several times what middle-class Americans do for basic things like a liter of clean drinking water or an hour of reading light at night. They don’t even have the option to cook with electric heat, but contribute to deforestation, spend substantially more labor, and risk respiratory disease cooking over wood fires indoors. Who would tolerate this insane state of affairs, other than people too deprived to have any other option?

48

Watson Ladd 11.09.11 at 2:58 am

Radical idea: how about we all seek to pick how much labor time to put towards advancing our own standard of living however we want? And each one of us can decide how best to advance their own life using the means of production available to all. Society doesn’t come into it at all.

Increasing the standard of living in the third world will increase the income to everyone, because we will waste fewer people.

49

Meredith 11.09.11 at 3:08 am

Yes, “man” originally referred to all human beings (cf. anthropos, homo), but its drift into specifying male vs. female (and male adult vs. male juvenile) human beings should tell us something, namely, that however much word usage contributes to shaping consciousness, social practices matter at least as much and affect word usage. As long as the male human being remains, implicitly, the unmarked version of “human being” in social practice, it won’t matter much what new terms we adopt. Pretty soon, whatever word for “human being” we use (too bad that’s such an ugly and awkward phrase) will usually be understood (implicitly, unconsciously) to refer primarily to the male human being. (Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also try to effect change by changing our use of words.)
Speaking of which, my very first reaction to reading the extract above from the Horkheimer-Adorno exchange (inclined though I be to take both men’s thinking seriously): while these two “were” were chattering away, women were changing their babies’ diapers (well, in theory), others were doing their laundry, other were keeping their homes clean and tidy, others was getting their meals ready…. Others, including other “were,” were growing their food, getting it to market…. (Btw, the sing. is wer.)
What a strange launching pad this particular exchange is for a vitally important conversation to be had about work (as activity as well as product), about social relations, about individual aspirations (and their sources), about the social conditions that construct our frameworks (limiting them without utterly limiting them — think how infinity sets work), and much more (including equity), most of these being questions both men engaged passionately.

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Matt 11.09.11 at 3:10 am

Radical idea: how about we all seek to pick how much labor time to put towards advancing our own standard of living however we want? And each one of us can decide how best to advance their own life using the means of production available to all. Society doesn’t come into it at all.

I’m going to advance my standard of living by running a metal plating shop like my uncle. But instead of squandering time and effort on chemical recovery like he does I’m going to dump the waste liquor in a dirt pit out back. Sucks to be you, society! There’s a man of rational self interest in town now!

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john c. halasz 11.09.11 at 3:34 am

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Watson Ladd 11.09.11 at 4:25 am

You know, if that waste liquor only contaminated land that was only going to be yours I would be hard pressed to see this as different from having a messy room. Of course it isn’t, and because of private ownership of capital we don’t all have the ability to advance our interests. But that was the dream of capitalism: that for the first time there would be no lords and no church. The radicalism of capitalism is the big insight of Marx.

john c, the standard of living I consider adequate involves indoor lighting and a net connection. Babylon doesn’t even get partial credit on that point. The history of the world is a history of famine. It is only now that famine is truly manmade, that we can conceive of ending hunger.

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js. 11.09.11 at 5:42 am

The radicalism of capitalism is the big insight of Marx.

You do remember that he was in favor of overthrowing it, right?

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Nick L 11.09.11 at 12:29 pm

@49
This is why A & H cut such odd figures in my view. Deeply humanistic and concerned with human (and non-human) suffering, but only able to offer their rather obtuse and sometimes tortured reflections because of the highly privileged place they occupied in society.

This might be true of many intellectuals, but A & H seem much more acutely aware of the contradictions of their position due to the fact that such contradictions were such a hallmark of their philosophy. The position they attempt to occupy with regards to the USSR in the excerpt is an excellent example of how difficult they found it to situate their critique in the historical circumstances they found themselves in. History at least has vindicated their position on remaining silent on the East because Stalinism was a tyrannical dead end whilst relentlessly critiquing the democratic West precisely because it fails to live up to the principles it lays claim to. Take that Lukacs.

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chris 11.09.11 at 1:11 pm

If you are right at 36k per family of four we could all live very well.

Well, those of us in families of four might. Economies of scale are quite powerful at the household level (four people don’t need four stoves or refrigerators or bathrooms), but should everyone be forced to live in groups? Even people who can’t find anyone they particularly want to live with?

BTW, at 36k per family of four, I’m assuming you’re practicing some basic degree of economizing like buying all your cars used (for example), right? How does everyone do that at once?

Try living alone on $9k and I don’t think you’ll find it all that pleasant. If you’re in the First World you can only avoid homelessness based on public goods and subsidies, which only works if someone else is making more and paying net taxes; if you’re in the Third World prices are lower, but the public goods suck, possibly including public safety and the stability of the political system (i.e. you could be killed in a civil war at any moment).

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StevenAttewell 11.09.11 at 2:24 pm

$9-10k a year as the sum of material needs? I’m kind of curious how this is being calculated, given that the current poverty line for a single person is 10.8k.

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Lemuel Pitkin 11.09.11 at 3:08 pm

Chris and Steven, you are missing the point. Nobody is saying that an individual in today’s rich countries can meet all of their material needs on $10,000 a year. The claim is that a society whose per capita income has reached that level has sufficient resources to meet all of its pressing material needs and can be organized to reduce the amount of alienating and unpleasant work instead.

It’s reasonable, for instance, to say that in much of the contemporary United States every household needs to own a car. But that’s a result of how we’ve set up our our built environment. It doesn’t mean that one or more cars per household is a universal human requirement.

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MPAVictoria 11.09.11 at 3:08 pm

“Well, those of us in families of four might. Economies of scale are quite powerful at the household level (four people don’t need four stoves or refrigerators or bathrooms), but should everyone be forced to live in groups? Even people who can’t find anyone they particularly want to live with?

BTW, at 36k per family of four, I’m assuming you’re practicing some basic degree of economizing like buying all your cars used (for example), right? How does everyone do that at once?

Try living alone on $9k and I don’t think you’ll find it all that pleasant. If you’re in the First World you can only avoid homelessness based on public goods and subsidies, which only works if someone else is making more and paying net taxes; if you’re in the Third World prices are lower, but the public goods suck, possibly including public safety and the stability of the political system (i.e. you could be killed in a civil war at any moment).”

Aren’t you assuming that prices well remain constant? Wouldn’t a change of this magnitude have a huge effect on the prices of different commodities and services?

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StevenAttewell 11.09.11 at 7:48 pm

Lemuel –

Who’s including cars? $10.8k works out to $900 a month – median rent in the U.S is $651, and even trailers average at $410 a month. So you’re starting out house-insecure (housing costs above 30% of income), and at best have $490 for food, clothing, transportation, and all other necessities (or $16 a day).

What I’m asking is to pull out the unspoken calculations behind the $9-10k number – what level and quality of public goods are we assuming (health care? education? housing? social insurance?), and what change in the price level are we assuming? MPAVictoria seems to be suggesting that there will be a price fall, but are we sure? Will it be enough?

Even in households of 4, $36k is only 1.6 times the poverty rate. A sudden shock – the loss of a household member, an injury or illness, a sudden unexpected expenditure (car/heater/fridge breaks down, a missed payment leads to penalties) – easily pushes a household back under that line.

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mpowell 11.09.11 at 7:52 pm

Lemuel, you’re also ignoring that living in Brazil stuff like housing can be cheaper because there are much poorer people do build them for you cheaply compared to the US and Europe. Nick has already made this point. This is why using PPP estimates instead of direct currency conversions have people in places like Brazil making a little bit more than they would otherwise. You could spend a lot of time trying to get this worked out precisely, but I think it’s pretty fair to note that 9K/person in the US is not nearly enough to actually live, eat, get an education, etc. It’s below the poverty line. The only service that you really need where the deliverers of that service are paid really high salaries is health care. Housing and food are already provided at the cost necessary to support something like a living wage for the people doing the labor for you. And you’d struggle to get by on 9K/year even without health care in the states.

That being said, GDP/capita in the US is much higher than that and it would be possible for everyone here to live comfortably (even if the environmental impact were still questionable). We don’t really need to address the global issue. The issue is whether an alternative organization of social resources could realize that goal.

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Lemuel Pitkin 11.09.11 at 9:58 pm

That being said, GDP/capita in the US is much higher than that and it would be possible for everyone here to live comfortably

OK. I don’t want to get fixated on the number. Let’s put it this way. Per capita GDP in the US grows around 2% annually, so it doubles every 35 years. We can use all of this growth to produce more stuff. Or we can use all of it to reduce working hours (and to reorganize work in less productive but more fulfilling ways). Or some mix. Historically, we’ve chosen all or almost all more stuff, and no or almost no more leisure. The essential point of the H&A position, as I understand it, is that no longer makes sense. We should be devoting much more of the gains from technological progress to reducing work instead. Personally, I think the material standard of living of 1975 but with everyone working half the hours, would be much more conducive to freedom and happiness than what we have now. Even if you don’t want to go that far, I think the logic of moving somewhat in that direction should still be convincing. But there are strict limits on how much you can make that choice individually, it’s really something we have to decide as a society.

And if you could also deal with all the waste in our current system, both unneeded production and unused capacity, then we could have the 1975 standard of living for much less than half our current workhours.

Anyway, focusing on the same country over time should avoid some of the confusion here. Ordinary Americans in 1975 had access to all the necessities of life, and that didn’t depend on a vast poor underclass to provide them, as you might argue for Brazil today.

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Salient 11.09.11 at 11:39 pm

If the bottle of wine, independent of the occasion for which it’s a token, is anywhere close to as important as the person you’re sharing it with … well, I won’t say something disparaging, but that would be unusual.

Nahhh. It’s probably more ‘usual’ to share excellent alcohol with a mediocre companion than it is to share any alcohol with an excellent companion, unless one has better-than-good luck with blind dates and such (or unless one studiously avoids accepting the offer of an excellent drink from a nice enough but kinda unmemorable person). I’ve gone to see several quite good movies with not-quite-insufferable acquaintances to whom I am probably likewise not-quite-insufferable. :) None of which is really a disagreement with the spirit of the content of your post; access to various memorable leisure/luxury consumption goods is hardly something humans need abandon, no need for all the vineyards to grow grains instead of grapes, etc.

instead of coming up with a whole new scheme for the neutral pronoun you’d just make the, currently male, pronoun the non-gender specific one and invent new ones for male people… The awesome thing about this is that it retcons all the current literature to be non-gender specific.

Nice. I love it. Not only does ‘Herland’ instantly become one of the most heavily gendered works written in the English language (!), but also a whole field of opportunity opens for bad jokes or puns in the subjunctive tense (of the form “if I were…”).

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Watson Ladd 11.14.11 at 6:29 pm

js, only in certain ways. Marx was about the fulfillment of capital. F

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Watson Ladd 11.14.11 at 6:31 pm

Sorry, the computer I am using did something funny. Mods, kill 63. Marx was about expanding the possibilities that capital once had. Conservativism was in the time of Marx about destroying capital in non-emancipatory ways. Adorno and Horkheimer deeply regretted being alive at time when the possibility of emancipation seemed almost passed, and so took this elliptical kind of thinking as the only possible stand when action was foreclosed.

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