Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The New Charter of Industrial Freedom

The Image below is NOT the old "Charter of Industrial Freedom." It is instead an editorial by Samuel Gompers that appeared in the A.F. of L. Federationist lauding the labor provisions of the Clayton Antitrust Act as the Charter of Industrial Freedom -- an "industrial Magna Carta," no less! As Charters go, the memorable part was the proclamation in Section 6, "That the labor of a human being is not  a commodity or article of commerce." It was a noble sentiment but, as discussed previously, had negligible traction as legal doctrine.
For the New Charter of Industrial Freedom, I'm going to suggest something entirely different from lofty phrases and woolly intentions. In fact, I'm going to take liberties with the notion of a "Charter" and suggest something more akin to a chart of accounts than to a manifesto.

The trouble with manifestos or any other sort of persuasive journalism is that they are indelibly marked with the sign of the commodity. The popular press was no less a product of the new industrial conditions that emerged during the 19th century than were the boot polish, stomach pills or packaged cereals whose advertisements filled the columns of the newspapers.

Persuasion in the resulting "free market of idea" presupposes that there is indeed a market of idea, that it is free and that that is a good thing. The treatise, pamphlet, article, book or blog post thus takes its place proudly as a commodity on this market, confident that it will find just as many buyers as it is intrinsically worth. Or it takes its place grudgingly in some forlorn niche, resentful of the puffery and commercial pandering that  propels unworthy screeds to the top of the ideological heap.

Hold that thought while I check my stats to see if this has gone viral yet.

The point is that criticism cannot win the free-market-of-ideas lottery because even if it does momentarily that only goes to show that the lottery wasn't rigged after all. Catch 22. The manifesto affirms at the level of metalanguage what it denies manifestly.

Framing The New Charter of Industrial Freedom as a chart of accounts (with liturgical undertones) aims beyond superficial persuasion to deeper layers of inculcation, confession, calculation and reflection. I won't go into a detailed rationale here for the framing but instead will briefly reference a couple of sources that underlie that rationale: James Aho's The Religious, Moral and Rhetorical Roots of Modern Accounting and Rob Bryer's "Accounting and Control of the Labour Process."

Bryer wrote of a capitalist mentality, inculcated by the accounting process, which uses the accounting information to control the labor process and minimize costs “by holding the collective worker accountable for the rate of return on capital.” In its broader historical context, as recounted by Aho, that bookkeeping originated with a moral and confessional purpose quite distinct from the purposes and mentality that evolved from it. One might even say that the evolved capitalist mentality glorifies and defends precisely those motives and actions that bookkeeping was invented to expunge as sinful (see also Weber's pessimistic conclusion: "fate decreed the cloak should become an iron cage.").
Almighty and most merciful Auditor, We have followed most faithfully the devices and desires of our own pocketbooks. We have not strayed from thy bottom line. We have left unpaid those social costs which we could shift to others and we have amassed revenues from doing those things which we ought not to have done... And thereby we have successfully maximized return on investment and shareholder value. Amen!
This is not to chastise the capitalist mentality for moral hypocrisy, though, but only to stress the efficacy of the bookkeeping technology at focusing and refining the "devices and desires" of those who employ it. But it is only efficacious insofar as its objects are conceived as commodities. A counter-mentality -- whether it calls itself socialist, trade unionist, ecological or anti-capitalist -- cannot be founded on the commodity-principle derived from the capitalist bookkeeping. But neither can it be founded on pure negation.

In "Time on the Ledger," I have sketched a prototype of what such a social accounting process might look like. It is only an outline -- a stick-figure that can only be fleshed out through a broad collaborative effort. It is due to be published in May as Chapter 11 in Toward a Good Society in the Twenty-First Century: Principles and Policies. Also in May, I have been invited to participate in the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin.

What I proposed in "Time on the Ledger" is a social accounting framework for evaluating the net social productivity of different hours of work arrangements. The basic idea is that first, there are fixed social cost to labor that are not reflected in capitalist accounting and the way that employers can shed their labor costs by laying off workers and second, there is a technologically-determined optimal length of working time per worker exceeding which subtracts from net social product over the longer period. The information from this process can guide collective bargaining and public policy advocacy while at the same time inculcating a commons mentality in practitioners. It is not enough to translate back and forth between capitalist accounting perspective and a commons ideal. One must become fluent in a new social accounting language.

I would like to conclude these introductory remarks on the New Charter with a digression on prayer and confession. Karl Marx concluded his letter to Arnold Ruge of September 1843 with the following, "What is needed above all is a confession, and nothing more than that. To obtain forgiveness for its sins, mankind needs only to declare them for what they are." A confession! My little parody above was paraphrased from the general confession in the morning and evening prayer of The Book of Common Prayer. An entire book of commons prayer may be too ambitious an undertaking. But perhaps a reworking of that morning and evening prayer...

What appeals to me particularly about that liturgy is that it is performed as a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It is, to be sure, a scripted and rehearsed dialogue -- a set piece, so to speak. Aside from any specific religious content, the ritual of this dialogue performs a vital centering purpose, opening up the mind and heart to a deeper level of receptiveness. It seems to me that such a centering ritual would be entirely appropriate for a group assembled to carry out a social accounting analysis.

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