24 July 2013

The American social contract

Clearing his throat on the way to reviewing Jaron Lanier's new book Who Owns The Future?, Freddie deBoer provides a spot-on summation of the social crisis precipitated by the structural changes we are seeing in the economy.

What becomes of America when the social contract can no longer be fulfilled? Generations of parents taught their children about deals that they thought were immutable aspects of the American condition; they now watch their adult children struggle in a society where those deals are not honored. The current employment crisis in the U.S. can be understood only in light of this basic social contract, the central theme of the American myth, the moral of our national fable: If you work, you will survive. Not only will you survive but you will prosper. All our propaganda begins here. Young Americans are promised that work will translate to an ever-improving lot in life, within and across generations — a bigger house when you’re 40, and your children in a bigger house than they were raised in. You might say that this is a lot to ask of any social order. But then, it wasn’t my idea.

A country that has made its self-definition utterly dependent on the ubiquity of paying work now has an insufficient number of jobs. This is not short-term economic cyclicality; labor-force participation has dropped, fairly steadily, for decades. Capital-biased technological change contracts industry after industry. The most powerful, most profitable companies now employ a tiny fraction of the workers that similarly sized enterprises once did. The biggest employers, like Wal-Mart, provide insufficient wages and hours to give employees access to middle-class existence. The problem is not merely those who are entirely unemployed but also those who need more hours or higher wages and can’t get them. And all these people desperate to work or for more work undermine the bargaining power of those currently employed. Who asks for a raise when there are 50,000 young graduates who will do your job for two-thirds of what you make now? Who complains about discrimination, harassment, and other workplace immiseration when relief for employers is a round of pink slips away? This is what an employment crisis means. The unemployed suffer, and their suffering causes the employed to suffer. Each person’s precarity is instrumental in another’s.

It is hard to overstate: This country, in its current condition, has no other option but something close to full employment. Our pathetic social safety net, even absent the contracting effect of austerity measures, can’t fill in the gaps caused by the demise of ubiquitous employment. Even the counterrevolution has no other idiom; the most common epithet directed toward Occupy protests, after all, was “Get a job!” That the near impossibility of getting a job was the point for many who were protesting was too destabilizing a notion to be understood. In the short term, I have no doubt that the unemployment rate will fall. The question is the long-term structural dependability of a social contract built on mass employment.


For argument’s sake, let’s consider America’s employment crisis not as a failure of conservatism, market fundamentalism, neoliberalism, nor austerity. Let’s suppose that the problem is proceduralism.

A proceduralist views society not in terms of a necessary goal (say, happiness and opportunity for all its members) but instead as a set of rules that it must follow—because they are natural, because they stem from the Western tradition, because they comport with human behavior, because they follow God’s law, depending on whoever is justifying the current procedure. If these rules are followed, no injustice needs to be redressed. Rules can be discarded or changed if their intent is found to be problematic, but outcomes can be good or bad without issue. Problems arise only if the rules are broken.

Proceduralism tends to be popular among those who wrote the procedures; it’s a discourse of power. From Wall Street to the NSA, “we were following the rules” is a cynical but effective defense, undertaken by people who know that those same rules will save them from the consequences of their destructive yet superficially lawful behavior.

But what happens when established procedures lead to unsustainable or immoral consequences, such as widespread and persistent unemployment? The employment crisis reveals a conflict between the procedures of democratic capitalism, which ensure certain rights but promise nothing else, and the logic of the American social contract, which justifies the social order by assuring citizens that they can trade work for material security.

Talk of social contracts is passé in an America obsessed with technocapitalist visions of a prosperous future. The yen for “disruption,” an empty term for empty minds in empty people, makes traditional obstacles like social contracts suspect or downright pernicious. This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world.

The problem for proceduralists is that social contracts exist for a reason. It turns out that there are, actually, certain outcomes that society must ensure if it is to go on functioning. The really essential function of the social contract is to prevent the people from burning everything down. There are too many of us to be held down by force. The average person must agree to be governed for anything resembling civilization to endure. If the average citizen finds that their agreement with society has been broken, then civil unrest will result, as it has in Egypt, and in Greece, and in Turkey, and in Brazil. Trust me: it is not the cops that keep people from invading your home and stealing your stuff. Proceduralists may generally rule, but eventually, their bodies end up stacked in the village square.

Reactionaries of various stripes respond that something, somehow, will come along, despite the fact that recent Stanford graduates, pockets stuffed with Silicon Valley cash, are creatively disrupting the jobs out from under hundreds of thousands of Americans. The economy will correct itself, jobs will spontaneously will themselves into being, just as the finance industry will become spontaneously, magically self-regulating.We just need everybody to buy into the rules, to accept the procedure..

For the rest of uswho have lost faith in these rules, the question is what else is to be done. Can full employment be brought back by force? Can something else be built in its place? These are uncomfortable questions in a proceduralist country populated by a teleological people.

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