Interviews

“The way we’re counting value these days, it all goes away very fast.”

Shit Is Fucked Up And Bullshit: History Since the End of History BY Malcolm Harris. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House. 288 pages. $18.
Malcolm Harris. Photo: Julia Burke

One of the most striking, important, and unique features of Malcolm Harris’s work is the way in which he integrates a profound understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy into his analyses of our contemporary life without heavy-handed jargon. Harris’s first book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017), addressed how we should understand millennials and explains why we shouldn’t understand their generation in terms of the moralizing analyses that are often proffered but instead in terms of its mode of production. His new book, Shit is Fucked Up & Bullshit: History Since the End of History, is a collection of essays that ranges across a variety of topics but still seeks to understand the world in which we live in terms of a fundamental critique of political economy. How do we make a living, and how do the requirements for how we make a living shape our understanding of one another and the world in which we live? What does it mean that we have to understand ourselves in terms of “human capital”? What does that do to ourselves and our social relations?

We sat down on the book’s release day, February 25, in front of a pre-virus audience at New York’s Strand bookstore to discuss shit that’s fucked up and bullshit.

How is this book different than your last book?

The biggest difference honestly was whom I wrote it for and why. The work in Shit is Fucked Up is way more chaotic in terms of how I ended up producing it. Some of this is like, I needed to make rent that month, or I wrote this piece because I had to think of something quick cause my editor needed a thousand words, so I wrote a thousand words about sex robots. And I still think that piece is valuable, and it’s worth including in this collection. But then I also have pieces in here that I wrote because of the political situation. There’s one in here about fascism that I never sent to any editors, that I just wrote on Medium.com like any nonprofessional writer and posted because the political situation seemed so urgent to me and I had to get these ideas out to anyone who would read them as soon as I possibly could because we’re in an emergency. And I didn’t get paid a dollar for it. I’m not sure how all that reads together, but so far people have said that it seems very cohesive, which I appreciate because it was my life and it felt cohesive from that perspective because I was living it and doing it every day.

How does your personal experience come through in your work?

A lot of writers my age have had to exploit their own experiences in order to publish, and I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to do that very often. Most of the material in here doesn’t use “I,” except for like, “I think this,” whatever. It’s not about me or my life or my experiences. At the same time, if I’m writing about millennials and housing, obviously I’m writing about myself too, as a millennial who needs to live somewhere. So I try to be mindful of where my perspective is in the book, in the analysis that I'm doing. But I’m happy that I didn’t need to foreground first-person experiences.

You often take one salient contemporary phenomenon and use it as a lens to illuminate deep structural issues in terms of value and labor and social relations under capitalism. You have this great essay on the phenomenon of wage theft. As you point out, it’s the largest property crime in America. I think it’s something like fifteen billion a year. What does that tell us about who we are, who we have become?

Wage theft is whenever your boss is stealing from you. And bosses steal more from workers than anybody else steals all put together, period. It’s the largest property crime in America by a long shot. Which sounds fake, but it’s totally true. And one way that you can commit wage theft is you make workers work off the clock. The way Apple was doing it was, “Oh, you employee, you have an iPhone, that’s really cool, we’re really for you having an iPhone. But you’ve got to register with us and every time we’re going to check it, and we’re going to check your bags when you come in and check them when you leave.” But they did this checking process before and after workers clocked in and out. So, they have to wait in line for a security guard at their job to check their bag that they brought to their work, and they have to pay for that on their time.

Wage theft is increasingly characteristic of our employment relationships. Employers who are encountering a situation where the rate of profit threatens to decline, the way that they’ve found to save money is pushing down workers’ wages. And a really good way to do that is wage theft, partly because the enforcement apparatus is literally and figuratively civil. In the article I look at Wage and Hour enforcement, and these enforcers are basically like cop equivalents, they show up at your workplace and they say, “Hey you! That’s stealing from your employee! You’re in trouble!” I talked with Maria Rosado, one of the top administrators in the New York Wage and Hour office, about how enforcement works and what policing looks like for bosses who are stealing from their workers as compared to, say, for someone stealing a cell phone. I was on a grand jury in Brooklyn for a while, so I know what stealing a cell phone looks like. You grab a phone out of someone’s hand and prosecutors will try to put you in jail.

If you’re a boss and the Wage and Hour enforcers show up to your firm, they’re not going to shoot your dog like the cops might. Instead they say, “Hey, we really got to talk about this. This is an issue.” And what Rosado told me is if the employer’s like, “Fuck you, get out of here,” their response is something like, “I can tell you’re upset. I think we should take care of this at a different time, maybe give you a chance to calm down. We’re going to call your office in a week.” What if the cops did that? If they confront a thief and say, “It seems like you’re upset, why don’t you take a week to cool down, we’ll call you about that cell phone later. We know who you are, we know where you are, don’t worry about it too much, we’ll work this out.” It’s a different realm of justice.

A lot of Wage and Hour enforcement gets left to civil lawyers, whose job it is to file class action suits for the workers. But at the end of that, nobody’s going to go to jail. They might not even admit wrongdoing or pay penalties. So you have a system in which the largest form of theft in this country by a huge margin, that disadvantages only working people, cannot be prosecuted as a crime. And the more I looked at it the more it seemed that this was just part of the employment system that we have now, even though it falls outside the technical rules, it’s characteristic.

We’re at a moment when we see a revival of the left in America and with that comes many debates about both capitalism and democratic socialism, which are mainly focused on a redistribution of wealth. One of the points you make in the book is that redistribution is insufficient to solve the deeper problems with value production under capitalism. Could you talk a bit about what these deeper issues are?

Any solution to the ecological crisis that is based on further accumulation, further expanding capitalist production, is a really bad idea. I talked to a political theorist named Leanne Betasamosake Simpson about solutions to global warming. She’s an indigenous political theorist from what we call Canada—she’s Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg—and she made me think about indigenous critiques of accumulation society that are hundreds of years old. And as a settler-colonial culture, we’ve treated those insights as nonoverlapping magisteria, which is a phrase people use to accommodate conflicting claims from religion and science. “Oh, these things can both be true because they don’t really affect each other.” And I think that’s how we’ve treated indigenous political theory, especially when it comes to questions of climate change. We say, for instance, that we need to see ourselves as one with the Earth, but that’s somehow nonoverlapping with our decarbonization plan. We also have to do a trillion dollars of investment, five trillion dollars of investment, seventy trillion? I can’t remember what the number is actually supposed to be, but it’s tens of trillions of dollars in investment.

And where are you going to put those solar panels when they break? Well, now we’ve got to have a solar panel pit. And now nobody can live in the solar panel pit. And no one can live in any of the areas where the water is connected to the solar panel pit. I was just reading about wind turbine blades, which are built to be virtually indestructible, because they have to be up there for years and hit stuff and not break. The problem is that you can’t easily recycle them. You can’t easily break them down or use them for anything. So they have what look like whale graveyards. Huge bulldozers stacking windmill blades and then covering the turbines with earth. That is not a solution to the bigger problem, that is not a path toward a solution. Just because that is the current limit of our political imagination, as a settler-colonial state, doesn’t mean it’s the solution.

And there’s an important Marxian lesson here too, in terms of how we tend to think about value. In line with the divergent criteria you were mentioning, we tend to think, “Of course we value the Earth, and we value the environment”—but the point is that such professed values are at odds with how we actually live and how we make a living under capitalism. Unless we can integrate our professed values with how we actually practically reproduce our lives, we’re going to be stuck with all the pernicious social contradictions that characterize life under capitalism.

And that monetary value, the way we’re counting value these days, it all goes away very fast. If you look at what’s happened with the wildfires in Australia, all that value you accumulated can go in the blink of an eye if you don’t know how to maintain the ecology around it. We should know that the idea that we’ve really produced this stuff and that we can count on the things we’ve produced to be there tomorrow is not true. Our ecological crisis puts the value of accumulation itself into question. And that’s good, because we can have other answers. We can have lives worth living and a world worth living in that has nothing to do with that kind of valuation, that has nothing to do with profit or exploitation. I think the choice we face is between those two things. There’s no way to integrate them.

This argument is also an important contrast to traditional socialist critiques of capitalism in the name of an economy based on central planning, which won’t solve these fundamental problems. One of the ways you exemplify that very ingeniously in the book is in your chapter on Amazon as a planned economy.

Yeah, I talk about Jeff Bezos as Stalin a little bit. And not just in the way that he’s an authoritarian, but that the plan for Amazon has not in the past been about profits, it’s just been about revenue. They’re trying to scale up, and historically any sort of money they’ve made they put it into scaling up. One year they had $13.8 billion left over so they spent $13.7 billion to buy Whole Foods. They were just like, checking their wallet, checking the price, and then, “Ah fuck it, we’re doing groceries now.” And Amazon is one of the machines that’s driving that rate of profit down, in the way that you would also try to do under a planned economy. You’re driving the labor cost of goods down. The problem with that is that then you start to look at people as costs to reduce.

Amazon implemented a company minimum wage for Amazon workers. They acted as if they were this national body, and they said $15 an hour. (And of course it doesn’t apply to Amazon workers outside the US.) You think like, “Oh, that’s been a progressive demand for a long time.” But the thing is, Amazon doesn’t tell you what they’re going to make you do for that $15 an hour. That wage can actually be a decrease in standard of living even if it’s technically a raise if what they’re able to pull even more out of you during that time, and Amazon has gotten incredibly good at bending workers into the right shapes. If you read any article about working conditions at Amazon, and I mean even up to the white collar level, they all talk about how people are pushed to their physical limits. When it comes to lower-wage work, it’s about peeing, and how “Oh we have to pee in these bottles,” or like, “I pee behind the wheel of my delivery car.” For white-collar workers it’s more like, “Don’t ever get sick, or love anyone who gets sick.” What Amazon has done is calculate for each of them how they can drive them to the very edge of what their needs are as a human being.

A crucial lesson here is that what characterizes a capitalist system is not necessarily a “free market” rather than a planned economy—the deeper issue concerns the measure of value itself. If we understand ourselves in practice as human capital, we ultimately treat the requirements of our own well-being and flourishing as costs to be reduced, and hence we end up with all of the structural contradictions that you're tracing on various levels in our social life.

Yeah and that’s in contrast with a Polanyian vision that society should provide basic goods to everybody for free, and then people can figure the rest of it out. As long as everyone has the basics covered then whatever society we live in can’t be that bad because you can always fall back on your basics and chill. But a system with exploitation as its mode of value production is going to be characterized by exploitation no matter what. If you have free health care in a capitalist society then, well, health care is free so that you can go back to work and make money for somebody else, because that’s the only way the whole system operates. It’s based on exploitation.

Martin Hägglund is Professor of Humanities at Yale University and the author of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019).