New: Annual Labor Issue

May/June 2020 cover

Our May/June issue, which is our Annual Labor Issue, is finally at the printers. We just posted Nicole Aschoff’s feature on app workers in the pandemic.  Here is the p. 2 edtiors’ note:

Or Does It Explode?

People from across the political spectrum understand why people riot. Langston Hughes knew that a dream deferred might dry up, fester, or sag—or it might explode. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of riots as “the language of the unheard.” Even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was capable of understanding that looting after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was the result of pent-up anger: “While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.”

But make no mistake: What we have seen in cities across the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers are multiracial, multigenerational protests against this most recent and many other killings of unarmed Black people—protests that night after night are turned into riots—police riots, in particular.
A “police riot”—the term was popularized by the Walker Report on the violent clashes at the 1968 Democratic National Convention—is one that is instigated by the police or their agents provocateurs, who escalate violent confrontation with civilians. This is exactly what we have been seeing in cities across the country today.

And the looting that has occurred? Leave it to the satirical newspaper The Onion to put it in perspective, with the headline “Protestors Criticized for Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First.” The cartoon by Barry Deutsch in our March/April issue depicted a private equity firm as a vampire, sucking blood out of a company it takes over, claiming he’s forcing it to “innovate and learn to do more with less blood!” By the cartoon’s last frame, the vampire’s victim is dead.This could be a metaphor for the economic underpinning that surely has contributed to the fervor of these protests. Decades of financialized neoliberalism, with its austerity, wage stagnation, and job insecurity, have left working-class Americans—and especially working-class Black people—in desperate straits.

According to the Federal Reserve, in 2018, at the height of the last economic recovery, nearly 40% of U.S. adults said they would have difficulty covering a $400 emergency. This was before we were hit with a pandemic whose impacts, as Alejandro Reuss explains in Part 1 of a joint series with Labor Notes, “lay bare grave failings of economic policy and institutions—indeed, of the capitalist system itself.” The seriousness of the pandemic’s impacts on the U.S. working class—and disproportionately on Black people—arise from unequal access to health care, employers’ power over workers, and the scourge of unemployment, with nearly over 40 million people having lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. It speaks volumes about the priorities of our ruling elites that our militarized police and the National Guard have all the equipment they need and yet we are left unequipped to deal with either the pandemic or the economic crisis.

In this, our Annual Labor Issue, Pavlina Tcherneva’s cover story presents an alternative to the mass unemployment that experts tell us is guaranteed after a shock and the resulting severe recession: guaranteed employment, with the government backstopping payroll as the “employer of last resort” and providing a Job Guarantee. Nicole Aschoff surveys the situation of app-based tech workers in the midst of the pandemic. Yeva Nersisyan and L. Randy Wray argue that the response to the pandemic shows why we need to move beyond “pay-for politics”; the task is to find and deploy the resources our economy has to meet our real needs (hint: health care and jobs are more important than militarized police). And Esra Uğurlu and Gerald Epstein depict the Fed’s response to the crisis so far as being much like Uncle Sam’s in this issue’s cartoon: bailouts for Wall Street and rugged capitalism for the rest of us. Also in this issue: Jayati Ghosh on “Neoliberalism as Neocolonialism,” Arthur MacEwan on unsustainable growth, and more.

The economic system our ruling elites have constructed may have sucked the U.S. working class dry like that vampire, but we know the working class is not dead, because people of all races are in the streets looking for a brighter day. Despite all the dark clouds, this truly is a silver lining.

Capitalism’s Surveillance Squeeze

By Zoe Sherman

This is the script for Zoe Sherman’s contribution to Democracy @ Work’s “This Is Left” video series, available soon at their website

I want to talk about surveillance.

In particular, I want to talk about two kinds of surveillance carried out by private actors, not the surveillance carried out by the government. One kind is almost inescapable and encompasses all of us but is veiled in the hopes that we won’t notice that we are being surveilled. The other kind is primarily directed at low-wage workers and is designed to intrude on its targets’ consciousness at all times. Neither is new; both have deepened in the COVID-19 era.

First, the inescapable kind of surveillance that tries to evade your consciousness. A variety of data collectors vacuum up data on every move you make online. Every app you download makes more data accessible to more data miners. That act of collecting, analyzing, and selling data has become so central to our economy that sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls this the age of surveillance capitalism. Of the five most valuable global brands, according to the Forbes ranking, all five engage in significant data mining either for internal use or for sale. Two, Google and Facebook, sell your data as their primary revenue-generating product. Sure, each of these companies provides some useful products and services. Maybe you think it is a fair trade—your data in exchange for the convenience they offer in return. But consider: if the trade were really in your interest, why would they be so deliberate about obscuring from your view their data collection, the uses they make of it, and the analytic insights they derive? It would take several full workweeks out of each year to really scrutinize all the service contracts you “agree” to in the ordinary course of participating in the social, commercial, and political life of your community. If your interests aligned with theirs, if the trade of data for service were really a win-win, wouldn’t you expect them to be straight with you?

Surveillance capitalism was well entrenched before this pandemic, and in fact businesses began developing techniques to surveil, sell personal data, and steer the behavior of consumers even before the digital age, but in the pandemic as the opportunities for communication using only air as the intermediary between the speaker’s breath and the listener’s ear have dwindled, even more of our activities have migrated online. Time on social media has increased. Like mountaintop-removal exposing coal for easier extraction, every online substitute for in-person social encounters makes our data more accessible to those surveilling.

Second, consider the kind of surveillance turned on workers as a condition of employment. The eyes and ears of the foreman, overseer, boss, manager, or whatever title the person directly responsible for the surveillance holds are supplemented by a range of sophisticated tracking tools. The time of every worker’s every task is measured, with nudges to speed up administered any time the pace slackens. Bathroom breaks are timed. When you call customer service and hear that “this call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes,” what that really means is that if the person you talk with pursues their social needs by protecting themselves from an abusive caller or enjoying the reciprocity of a friendly customer, they will be penalized. The sales goals must come first. Under workplace surveillance, the normal human behaviors of pausing to catch your breath when winded, taking a minute to recover from a difficult social interaction, or daydreaming for a spell between periods of intense mental focus are redefined as criminal behavior—theft of the time that you ceded to the employer’s control when you accepted the paycheck.

Again, maybe that’s a fair trade—autonomy and moment-to-moment responsibility for your own actions swapped for a wage. But again, consider: if capitalism really were about everyone’s personal freedom, if employers and workers really did meet in the labor market as equals with compatible interests, why would workers be treated like criminal suspects on the job? Clearly, employers do not believe that workers who take care of their own well-being during working hours will yield up as much profit as could be extracted through abuse.

Technologically enhanced worker surveillance was already pervasive in many workplaces before the pandemic. (Indeed, Charlie Chaplin presciently satirized video surveillance of the workplace in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times.) But since many workplaces went remote, employers have made enormous new investments in surveillance software. Workers who had previously been exempt from the most intrusive forms of surveillance when in the office are now tracked through their computers at home—and now that the investment has been made there’s no reason to think the software will be turned off even if workers do return to the physical office.

Capital treats us as a raw resource. Waste not, want not; whether as consumer or as worker, surveillance technologies help capital to squeeze every last drop of value out of us. In a moment of disruption and danger, when our selves are more vulnerable than ever, capital’s move is to squeeze harder. What’s our move?

Zoe Sherman is an associate professor of economics at Merrimac College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.