Making Bad Jobs Good

by Rob Horning

9 July 2010


More on the jobless future. In the FT yesterday, Richard Florida of creative-class fame had an op-ed called “America needs to make its bad jobs better”. By bad jobs, Florida doesn’t mean non-creative ones; he means low-paying ones. The gist of the editorial is that we need to make the low-skill, service-sector jobs that still get created by the U.S. economy pay better.

The problem is that on average, service workers earn only half of what factory workers make – and only a third of what professional, technical and knowledge workers are paid. The key is to upgrade these jobs and turn them into adequate replacements for the higher-paying blue-collar jobs that have been destroyed.

It would seem that the obvious way to achieve that goal is with unions, but Florida is hesitant to call for a new round of labor unrest. Instead, he asserts that when it came to manufacturing jobs becoming “good” jobs, “most of it was because of the enormous improvements in productivity wrought by improved technologies and management techniques.” So better bosses and magic machines, not worker organization and struggle, made manufacturing jobs “good.” Once bosses decide to do the same for the service sector and pass along all the “benefits” of improved productivity to the squeezed and harassed workers, everything will be hunky dory again. “Service jobs are the last frontier of inefficiency,” Florida writes, “providing abundant low-hanging fruit for the innovation and productivity improvements that can undergird higher wages.” Feeding and cleaning the elderly, for example, will be a great job once it it is more efficient. (Perhaps they can be placed on a conveyor belt that will usher them through a mechanized bathing apparatus run by well-paid knowledge workers?)
Setting aside the fact that efficiency doesn’t make jobs “good” in the sense of their becoming more intrinsically rewarding, bosses haven’t been passing along productivity gains to workers in the form of higher wages like they should in theory. In fact, wages have been stagnant for decades. As Felix Salmon notes in his response to the op-ed, “productivity improvements don’t necessarily result in higher wages for the less-skilled: they’re just as likely to result in greater returns to capital, as owners extract more profits from the business, or else to result in the jobs going to better-educated workers instead.”

It seems that service workers need to unionize to secure their share of any productivity gains, but the general idea of bargaining on equal terms may hamper part of what service workers are selling with the labor time, that is, the creation of a certain affect for their clients, that of their being the master. Service work is often a matter of selling an experience (it’s “immaterial labor”), and often the experience includes a feeling of superiority at commanding the labor of others with your money. Unionizing would rightfully mitigate that but may make some less interested in their services, particularly if they can be construed as luxuries. Also, as service work becomes more and more of creating types of emotions in a very specific context, it may become less amenable to the kinds of cooperation among workers that generate solidarity. There may even be a refusal on the part of the worker to recognize that they are part of an affect-manufacturing process. And certain service work, in becoming more “productive” may become more autonomous and voluntary, conducted in the midst of everyday life processes that have become networked and dispersed and can be harvested after the fact by companies seeking to profit from it. Such laborers in the social factory don’t even know they are working, let alone have the impetus to unionize. In other words, it’s worth wondering whether the structural shift to a service economy rooted in immaterial commodities and ad hoc work spaces requires a different definition of “job”.

Michael Hardt argues (pdf) that immaterial labor is becoming “hegemonic”—that its “qualities tend today to be imposed over other sectors of the economy and over society as a whole. Industry has to informationalize; knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process.” This, he claims, leads to a shift in emphasis on “immaterial property”—ideas—which are harder to monopolize and extract profits from.

If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you, but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared.  When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically – and, I would add, making the common into public property, that is, subjecting it to state control or management, similarly reduces productivity. Property is becoming a fetter on the capitalist mode of production.

His point is that the economy increasingly consists of ideas made from other ideas, and these ideas (nonrival goods) need to be widely shared or networked together in order to fulfill their potential to create value.

But a shift toward the common as the basis for production would not only upset capitalist assumptions about property, it would disrupt our assumptions about jobs, which would increasingly cease to “belong” to anyone but could be autonomously performed by whoever feels qualified and entitled to do it. This is what seems to be happening to journalists and reporters right now.

A good deal of service work may be too contingent on local circumstances to ever be generalized in that way (e.g., you need to be there to cut someone’s hair), but those are the sorts of things that will remain resistant to productivity enhancement. The manufacturing of meanings and affects and entertainment and so on may become more productive mainly by becoming more a product of the common—produced by a flexible, dispersed nonlabor force of volunteers in a near-realtime response to evolving trends and dispositions. This essay (pdf) by Adam Arvidsson illustrates this tendency: He argues that the creative class “are not the primary producers of creativity. Rather they owe their class position to their ability to poach and appropriate creativity produced elsewhere, in networks of (mostly) unsalaried immaterial production that unfold in the urban environment.” He thus “emphasizes the contribution of the unpaid ‘mass intellectuality’ of the urban arts, design, music and fashion scenes.”

As the networked economy continues to flourish, productivity gains can be had by eliminating the poacher middlemen, poaching the ideas directly from the “creative proletariat”. So it seems that the more these immaterial products (which tend to be the output, ironically enough, of the creative class Florida extols) constitute the U.S.‘s slice of the global economy, the more our future here appears jobless.

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