Workplace Surveillance Is Central To Capitalist Exploitation

Ivan Manokha – Centre for Technology and Global Affairs – University of Oxford

Surveillance of employees in the workplace through the use of advanced technology represents the latest phase in the long history of capitalism to maintain control of workers and to increase productivity through intensified forms of exploitation. Is surveillance capitalism an updated version of Big Brother or something even more sinister? Does it really increase productivity? Are workers accepting of surveillance? And how do we ensure that surveillance capitalism does not completely wipe out privacy and individual rights? In this exclusive Truthout interview, Ivan Manokha, a lecturer at Oxford University and a leading scholar in surveillance studies, offers penetrating insights into the above questions.

C.J. Polychroniou: In the age of flexible capitalism, surveillance technologies have become extremely widespread among advanced capitalist societies, with as yet unclear implications. In your view, what is the primary aim and function of the new spying and surveillance technologies?
Ivan Manokha: The key distinguishing feature of capitalism is the existence of a labor market, i.e. in capitalism human labor is commodified — it is bought and sold in a market place. From the point of view of employers, purchasing labor represents a production cost, and their objective is to make sure that it is utilized to the maximum of its productive potential. This, in turn, requires surveillance and it may be observed that capitalism as a socioeconomic system has always involved workplace surveillance for this reason.

It is actually misleading to use the term “surveillance capitalism” following, in particular, the work of Shoshana Zuboff, now widely employed to refer to the current phase of capitalism with new — digital and biometric — technologies entering the workplace. Capitalism has always been “surveillance capitalism” because in this system the main objective of any business activity is to maximize profits — to make sure that the resources purchased and employed — including labor — are used with the maximum efficiency.

The function of new technologies, as this has always been the case with respect to workplace surveillance, is to seek to maximize worker productivity. This may be achieved in two ways: by extending the amount of time that employees work (e.g. by reducing the duration of breaks, by extending hours of work in the workplace or encouraging employees to work from home after the end of the working day, etc.), or by intensifying the labor process (the speed with which workers move, the number of tasks they complete per unit of times, etc.).

Modern workplace surveillance technologies have the potential to enable employers to do both: to monitor more precisely and continuously the time employees spend to actually work, including the timing of lunch and toilet breaks, as well as to better scrutinize and measure their performance (continuously measuring output, developing performance scoring systems and rankings, etc.).

Here a special mention needs to be made of the so-called “platform labor” — the rise of different digital platforms that bring together clients and “independent contractors,” the euphemism platforms use to refer to their laborers and service providers. They do not know their workers and have to rely on various indicators of performance to measure and compare their productivity, and the central role here is played by customers who perform the role of proxy managers — they evaluate and rank the performance of workers (e.g. of Uber drivers, of cleaners of TaskRabbit, etc.). In short, new workplace surveillance technology is used to improve the capacity of employers to monitor employees, something that they have always done. Read more

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The Growing Wealth Gap Marks The Return Of Oligarchy

Professor Thomas Weisskopf

One of the most striking features of our era is the widening gap between rich and poor. In fact, wealth inequality may be higher today than any other era, although we lack the data to draw meaningful comparisons with the distant past. Moreover, the gap between the haves and the have-nots seems to be growing, as the annual reports from the development charity Oxfam clearly indicate. What are the key reasons for the growing divide between rich and poor, especially when governments claim that there is a recovery underway since the 2008 global financial crisis? And what can be done to reorganize society so wealth is no longer concentrated into so few hands while millions of people live in extreme poverty or are barely subsisting? In the interview below, Thomas Weisskopf, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Michigan and a long-time member of the Democratic Socialists of America, offers his insights on the state of economic injustice.

C.J. Polychroniou: Professor Weisskopf, according to the 2019 Oxfam report, a handful of billionaires own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. In fact, 2018 was a year in which the rich got richer again and the poor, poorer. Do we know the primary culprits behind the ever-growing gap in economic well-being between rich and poor?

Thomas Weisskopf: There are both economic and political reasons for the growing wealth gap between the very rich and the poor. The natural tendency of capitalism is to generate both overall economic growth and ever-increasing inequality in both wealth and income. Most people do not have the opportunity to acquire much wealth, but those who have inherited or accumulated a certain amount of wealth have many opportunities to increase it, and the more wealth you have, the easier it is to do so. Wealth is everywhere much more unequally distributed than income, because those who have wealth can use it to generate even more. The distribution of wealth has a huge impact on the distribution of income, because wealth is an important source of income — especially for the very rich. The underlying unequalizing tendency of capitalism can be interrupted by catastrophic developments — such as wars or major economic crises, which can shrink the wealth of an entire capitalist class, or natural disasters which can destroy the wealth of individuals whose wealth is vulnerable to such events. World Wars I and II, as well as the Great Depression of the 1930s, had the effect of reducing the degree of wealth and income inequality around the world. The natural unequalizing tendency of capitalism can also be limited, and sometimes even reversed, by political intervention. From the end of World War II to the 1970s the capitalist world achieved rapid economic growth without much increase in wealth and income inequality, because most governments took responsibility for assuring that the gains from growth would be widely shared. They did this through a variety of means, including relatively high (by current standards) taxes on wealth and income, which funded government spending on public programs that had the effect of redistributing income and opportunities from richer to poorer segments of the populations, well as policies that curbed the power of large corporations and protected workers from exploitation by employers. Beginning in the late 1970s, government policies in many capitalist countries — most markedly in the U.K. and the U.S. — shifted toward less redistributive tax and spending policies, less regulation of large corporations, and less protection for workers. Read more

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A World Political Party: The Time Has Come

Heikki Patomäki

Shared problems require shared action. The world economy and deepening global risks bind us together, but we lack the collective global agency required to address them. A sustainable global future will be impossible without a fundamental shift from the dominant national mythos to a global worldview, and the concomitant creation of institutions with transformative political agency. A world political party would be well-suited to bring about such a shift. Although such a party will not materialize overnight, it can emerge from the chrysalis of activism and experimentation already forming on the world stage.
The transnational Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) is a compelling experiment in this vein, providing useful lessons for a world political party proper. Although the challenges to forming a transformative world party are profound, the risks of inaction are grave – and the rewards of success momentous.

Party Time
We now understand how small our planet has become. The local and global have become profoundly intertwined as our daily activities depend on the workings of the world economy. Common risks, like ecological crises and weapons of mass destruction, tie all our fates together.

Despite such interconnectedness, people’s everyday experiences still differ greatly. For example, consider the contrasts between a day in the life of a high school teacher in Finland, a textile worker in China, a CEO of a multinational corporation in Brazil, and a janitor in Kenya—a case study in lateral and vertical diversity. Their lives’ possibilities are interwoven and shaped by the global economy, but in sharply divergent ways. Shared problems require shared action. But to achieve collective agency on the global level, disparate individuals must learn to see themselves (and their daily lives) as fundamentally connected to one another through common global structures, processes, and challenges. Such collective learning has the potential to politicize the world economy and the institutions that govern it. Rather than being treated as immutable, these institutions can and must become the subject of political contestation. Both radically reforming existing institutions and building new ones must be on the agenda. Seeing the world system as malleable goes hand in hand with the quest for globalized political agency, for advancing transformative visions of “another world.”

The roots of the contemporary quest go back to the formation of transnational political associations in the nineteenth century with the burgeoning peace and labor movements. A century later, in the 1960s and 1970s, new movements for gender and racial equality, nuclear disarmament, and environmental justice sparked global organizing and activism. In the 1980s, economic globalization became an era-defining issue. Then, as the walls of the Cold War came tumbling down and the Internet eroded barriers to communication, the concept of global civil society took hold. To this day, civil society carries the banner of transformative hope, expressed through pursuit of peace, justice, democracy, economic well-being, and ecological sustainability.

The growing organization and influence of global civil society can be seen in the human rights movement. For example, an international criminal court was
first proposed in 1872 in response to the atrocities of the Franco-Prussian War. However, the NGO Coalition for an International Criminal Court (ICC), which featured prominent human rights organizations, was not founded until 1995. By the time the Rome Statute was adopted in July 1998, more than 800 organizations had joined the campaign; in the early 2000s, the number was more than one thousand. The ultimate creation of the ICC, though noteworthy, was an achievement tempered by the nonparticipation of China, Russia, and the US, among others, and by accusations, especially by African states, that the court has been guilty of applying double standards. Read more

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Here’s What A Green New Deal Looks Like In Practice

Robert Pollin – Photo: UMass Amherst

With the climate change challenge growing more acute with every passing year, the need for the adoption of a new political economy that would tackle effectively both the environmental and the egalitarian concerns of progressive people worldwide grows exponentially. Yet, there is still a lot of disagreement on the left as to the nature of the corresponding political economy model. One segment of the left calls for the complete overthrow of capitalism as a means of dealing with climate change and the growing levels of economic inequality in the era of global neoliberalism, while another one argues against growth in general. In the interview below, Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, explains some issues raised by each of these positions, and how to move toward solutions grounded in a fuller understanding of economic development.

C.J. Polychroniou: Bob, let’s start with the “degrowth” argument for securing climate stabilization and realizing egalitarian aims. What’s wrong with this political economy model in an age of catastrophic climatic conditions brought about through 250 or so years of capitalist expansion via the use of fossil fuel energy sources?

Robert Pollin: Degrowth proponents have made valuable contributions in addressing many of the untenable features of economic growth. I agree with degrowth proponents that economic growth in general produces a wide range of negative environmental effects. I also agree that a significant share of what is produced and consumed in the current global capitalist economy is wasteful, especially most of what high-income people throughout the world consume. It is also obvious that economic growth per se makes no reference to the distribution of the benefits of growth and, more generally, offers no critique of capitalism as a mode of production.

But on the specific issue of climate change, degrowth does not provide anything close to a viable stabilization framework — that is, to stabilize the global mean temperature at a level that will prevent severe negative ecological feedback effects, such as increasing frequency of droughts and floods. Consider some very simple arithmetic. According to its most recent October 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now concludes that a viable climate stabilization program will necessitate limiting the global mean temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius as of 2100. This in turn will require global net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions falling by about 45 percent as of 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Let’s focus for the moment on the 2030 target of a 45 percent CO2 emissions contraction. Following a degrowth agenda, let’s assume that global GDP [gross domestic product] contracts by 10 percent between now and 2030. That would entail a reduction of globalGDP four times greater than during the 2007–09 financial crisis and Great Recession. In terms of CO2 emissions, the net effect of this 10 percent GDP contraction, considered on its own, would be to push emissions down by precisely 10 percent. It would not come close to hitting the IPCC target of a 45 percent CO2 reduction. At the same time, this 10 percent global GDP contraction would result in huge job losses and declines in living standards for working people and the poor. Global unemployment rose by over 30 million during the Great Recession. I have not seen any degrowth proponent present a convincing argument as to how we could avoid a calamitous rise in mass unemployment if GDP were to fall four times as much as during 2007–09. Read more

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Noam Chomsky: Ocasio-Cortez And Other Newcomers Are Rousing The Multitudes

Noam Chomsky

A quick glance around the world today reveals that politics almost everywhere — from the federal government shutdown in the US to the power struggle in Venezuela and from Macron’s crisis in France and UK’s Brexit nightmare to the Israeli-Iranian rivalry – are engulfed in a state of uncertainty and turmoil. Meanwhile, oligarchy is replacing democracy as the widening social and economic gap between rich and poor continues unabated. So, who rules the world now? The US is in a state of relative decline, but neither Russia nor China has the capacity to control global developments. How do the super-rich and corporations factor into this equation? In this exclusive interview, world-renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky provides penetrating insights into some of the most critical developments going on in the world today.

C.J. Polychroniou: After 35 days of a partial government shutdown, Trump signed a three-week funding bill but without securing money for the border wall. Leaving aside for the moment the surrealist nature of contemporary US political life, do you detect some hidden political strategy behind Trump’s funding conflict over the border wall with the Democrats?

Noam Chomsky: There’s a political strategy, but I’m not convinced that it’s hidden. With Trump, everything is pretty much on the surface. There have been constant efforts by political analysts to discern some deep geostrategic or sociopolitical thinking behind his performances, but they seem to me unconvincing. What he does seems readily explained simply on the well-grounded assumption that his doctrine is simple: ME!

Trump understands that he has a primary constituency — extreme wealth and corporate power — and that he has to serve its interests or he’s finished. That task has largely been assigned to the Ryans and McConnells, who have performed it admirably. Profits are skyrocketing, real wages are barely increasing despite low unemployment, regulations that might limit greed (and help mere people) are being dismantled, and the one legislative achievement — the tax scam — put lots of dollars in the right pockets and created a deficit that can be used as a pretext to undermine benefits. All is working smoothly — with analogues worldwide.

But Trump must maintain enough of a voting base to stay in power. That requires posturing as the defender of the ordinary guy against hated “elites” (always suppressing the true “masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase for the merchants and manufacturers who were “the principal architects” of policy). This act is helped along by such figures as Rush Limbaugh, who instructs his tens of millions of followers that they should beware of “the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media,” institutions that “are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit.” So, he argues, just listen to ME.
Meanwhile Trump must rise to the defense of the masses from awesome threats, chief among them now the hordes of “rapists,” “murderers” and “Islamic terrorists” he says are being mobilized down south to storm across the border and slaughter decent law-abiding white Christian Americans. We must therefore have a “beautiful wall” — which they will pay for. Trump promised that, and to back down would not only betray the trembling masses but also be a defeat, which his ego cannot tolerate.

The game is not really new. After all, the revered Ronald Reagan bravely donned his cowboy uniform and declared a National Emergency to protect the country from the Nicaraguan army, supposedly poised to destroy us all only two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas. Trump is only carrying it further, helped by the fading of such infantile notions as “truth” — or “false realities,” to borrow Jared Kushner’s innovation. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s admonition that policymakers must be “clearer than truth” has long passed into obsolescence. They can do far better in the atmosphere of “alternative facts” for those liberated from the four pillars of deceit.
I doubt that there is any deeper political strategy. Read more

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Oligarchy Is Destroying Our Society And The Planet

James K. Boyce – Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Is capitalism on the brink of joining the dustbin of history? And what would a post-capitalist society and a sustainable economy look like?

Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the world has experienced historically unprecedented levels of growth, with capitalism raising the standard of living of many nations. At the same time, capitalism has generated immense contradictions (exploitation of labor and nature, huge economic inequalities and gross social injustices), and these traditionally have been the main foci of radical political movements advancing the vision of a just socioeconomic order. But is the era of capitalist growth now coming to an end?

Renowned economist James Boyce, senior fellow at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, offers critical insights on all of these questions, which should be food for thought for all progressives in the age of the revival of democratic socialism. Professor Boyce is the author of the forthcoming books Economics for People and the Planet: Inequality in the Era of Climate Change and The Case for Carbon Dividends.

C.J. Polychroniou: There are economists today who are arguing that the era of capitalist economic growth is over. Is capitalism, in your own view, on its deathbed, soon to join the dustbin of history like previous economic systems such as feudalism?

James Boyce: Your question really has two parts. One is about the future of capitalism, the other about the future of economic growth. The answers depend on what we mean by both of these terms, “capitalism” and “economic growth.”

Let me start with growth. Whenever we talk about this, we need to ask: Growth of what? Conventional economists use the term to mean growth of GDP, gross domestic product, the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in the economy that carry a price tag. Yet we know that GDP is a hodgepodge of things that are good, bad and useless. It not only includes good things, like food and housing and music, but also bad things, like the costs resulting from wars, prisons and environmental disasters. GDP also includes some useless things, like one-upmanship spending for what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption,” the aim of which is merely to attain a higher position in the social pecking order, spending that does not add to a society’s well-being since one person’s gain is just another’s loss. The only thing that all the items counted in GDP have in common is that they carry a market price tag.

At the same time, GDP doesn’t count much that is very important to human well-being. It doesn’t count good things without a price tag, like the unpaid labor devoted to caring for children and the elderly, or ecosystem services, or any of the proverbial “best things in life that are free.” It doesn’t account for things that reduce our well-being like environmental degradation and violence. So, all in all, GDP is a deeply flawed measure of a society’s well-being. Preoccupation [with] how fast it grows is misplaced.

The same applies to “limits to growth,” a phrase popularized by some well-meaning environmentalists. Of course, there are limits to growth, if by this we mean the growth of bad things like pollution, natural resource depletion, imprisonment or violence. None of these can grow forever. The limits may be hard to identify with precision – what, for example, is the maximum percent of a nation’s population that can be put in jail? Three percent? Ten? Twenty-five? – but we know there is a limit. Read more

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