Monday, August 11, 2008

RIP: Meatrobot Workers of the Rustbelt

"Detroit's last great hope was the widespread love of its trucks and SUVs, combined with the undying loyalty of the blue-collar middle class. But the blue-collar middle class is dying more quickly than the truck and SUV craze—and it's doubtful either one is coming back."

-Ed Wallace, Business Week
Detroit's Past Isn't Its Future



BFGalbraith said...

For all our talk of freedom, we take the phrase "working class" very seriously. Work is evidence that a society has failed to creat sufficient freedom. A whole class of workers is an indication that a society has not sufficiently mechanized to create optimum freedom. A working class is a bad thing in a society that is advanced enough to have something like an iPhone.

The Serpent Lord said...

Our infrastructure including transportation systems - of which the automobile industry is just one component - are designed around class notions which are outdated and were only half real to start with.

Who is taking the phrase "working class" very seriously?

The current Wikipedia article on social class lists three models of social class in the united states which are supposedly used by sociologists. Go check it out right now, but not if you have a full stomach.

According to all three taxonomies there is a class below "working class". Apparently when working people are young or retire or get sick their social class changes. Sorry, that's bullshit.

All three taxonomies include either a "lower middle class" or include half the population in the middle class. The distinction between this extra class and the working class: they are "semi-pro" and have "college education". More bullshit.

The facts on the ground: The sociologists have defined the working class to include only industrial meat robots: people with steady employment at low wages - often an oxymoron in a modern economy. No surprise then that this class only includes 30% of the population. This means 70% of the adult population are in "non-working" classes including "semi-professionals" and people with minimum wage and part time jobs.

Here's a much simpler system: graph income distribution in the US as a histogram. Now imagine color coating all the people in that chart according to the various cultural components that define class such as education, autonomy at work, ownership, social connections and so forth. What you will find is that we have a single big blob without any clear demarcations between social classes.

We have a continuous gradient of social class without discrete social classes. We have constant pressures without clear boundaries. We have a smooth, stepless pyramid with a broad, inclusive base and a small powerful elite. We have divisions by region and ethnicity and other cultural factors but no class division aside from the continuous, distributed pressures that raise some up, push others down and keep most people in their place.

At the top of the pyramid we have some busy people who are defined by the work they do. This work brings them profit, power and glory while leaving them substantial autonomy. At the bottom of the pyramid we have busy people who are defined by the work they must do. This work provides them with a minimal level of autonomy and security. It beats sitting around waiting for someone else to take care of you.

Work of the most dreary, demeaning sort defines both the high and low ends of our social class spectrum in the US. We are a society of workers. We could call this one class the "middle working class" or the "autonomous working class".

An individual can then be categorized by degree of inclusion. The super-wealthy are at the center and fully included, with maximum autonomy and power. The comfortable professionals and trust fund kids are within the social class to varying degrees but far from the center. (professionals have limited autonomy and trust fund kids have limited power.) At the fringes we have everyone else - not really in the one social class but pulled and pushed into a place or trajectory relative to the one class.

We should take work more seriously and recognize it as a component of freedom, especially as it applies to the most powerful classes of people who do not need to work (they have autonomy) but are defined by their work. Optimum freedom is not the elimination of work but the liberation of work. This is not accomplished by replacing manual labor with mechanical labor, but by increasing productivity with information technology.

BFGalbraith said...

The critiques of these models I've seen essentially say two things:
1) Define class by how much "freedom" a person has (control over schedule, ect.)
2) Define class by dependency on social services.

When we do these two things, upper-class pretty much stays were it is at, but Middle-class become narrower, including only those doctors that do not work at HMO's, on only those lawers who are senior partners in their firm (not junior partners.) Only those business owners who can choose to take a vacation without it hurting their bottom line (not the businesses that are managed by their owners.)

The vast majority of the population (60%+,) ie "the working class" = "underclass" = "poor" = "working poor", have very little control over their own lives, which is why they are often in need of social services, because they simply don't have the option of making enough income. The most common social service for them to need is incarceration. Statistically speaking, there very little difference between the "Flint factory worker" and the "single mom on welfare", even if one makes $20 an hour for 9 months out of the year (still not enough) and the other doesn't.

Because a disproportionate amount of upper and middle class are white, this extraordinarily inappropriate distribution of wealth in the USA (and most 3rd world countries) is written off as a "diversity issue", with politicians playing the race card to not have to deal with the really difficult problems in the world. Here are some simple facts about wealth distribution:

1) It's just about as much money for a bank to do a $10,000,000 business loan as it is to do a $100,000 business loan. Since banks expect people to be able to more or less match assets (as a guarantee the bank will get at least some of it's money back,) only those in the upper or middle class can command enough capital to start business ventures.

2) Microlending is happening, but not so much in the USA. I believe this phenomenon is destining countries like India for greatness but countries like the USA to eventual 3rd-world-ness.

3) In a "free market society" does it make sense for the government to hand out cash to companies or to individuals? Obviously it makes sense to give the cash to individuals, because the whole justification of capitalism is that money is earned through serving the market demands of individuals. Notice that there simply isn't anything like a "minimum income for all" on any USA political agenda. This make the whole USA capitalism agenda wreak of LARPing.

The net effect of this is to undo our meritocracy. This is being seen in the form of alternative meritocracies emerging, such as various online communities that are involved in piracy, software development, various forms of social networking, and MMORGs, where most of our "talent" ends up really NOT contributing to our economy (though I personally am in favor of the recreational-use-of-electronic-alternatives-to-heroine.) Other organizations that "don't seem to make a lot of sense" off line qualify as well, including various religious organizations, gangs, etc.