The Dressmaker

An interesting fact about the world we live in is that, for all the talk about robots replacing human labor, every item of clothing you own was made by a human being sitting at a sewing machine. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea of a robot revolution is, like most science fiction fantasies, simply a literalization of a current social fact — in this case, the disappearance of manual workers from the social world of rich Westerners. Everyone who writes about the Star Trek future works in a building where living people empty the trash cans and scrub the toilets; but since they are never required to treat those people as human beings, they might as well be robots. In some cases I would go a step further, and say the robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all.

Robot fantasies are everywhere. Much rarer is work that reveals the human hands behind the commodities. I’m a big fan of David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China. Especially striking in that movie is the contrast between the way the American importer of mardis gras beads talks about the Chinese workers who produce them, and the way the factory manager in China does. In the imagination of the importer, the Chinese workers are antlike automatons, with no desire except for labor. The factory has a high fence around it, he explains, in order to keep out all the eager workers who would otherwise sneak in to join the assembly line. For the manager, on the other hand, discipline is the overriding problem. He says he only hires young women because they are more obedient, but even so they are constantly refusing to comply with his orders, distracted by friendships and love affairs, sneaking out of their dormitories. They must be punished often and harshly, he says, otherwise they won’t work. The change in perspective once you pass that sign that says “No admittance except on business” is no different than 150 years ago.

I don’t know of any similar tracing of the path of an ordinary piece of clothing from the shopfloor to the display racks, though there must be some. But I just read a nice piece by Roberto Saviano on the origins of one extraordinary piece of clothing, in a sweatshop in southern Italy. Here’s an excerpt — it’s a bit long but worth reading.

From Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano:

The workers, men and women, came up to toast the new contract. They faced a grueling schedule: first shift from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an hour’s break to eat, second shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The women were wearing makeup and earrings, and aprons to protect their clothes from the glue, dust, and machine grease. Like Superman, who takes off his shirt and reveals his blue costume underneath, they were ready to go out to dinner as soon as they removed their aprons. The men were sloppier, in sweatshirts and work pants. …

One of the winning contractor’s workers was particularly skilled: Pasquale. A lanky figure, tall, slim, and a bit hunchbacked; his frame curved behind his neck onto his shoulders, a bit like a hook. The stylists sent designs directly to him, articles intended for his hands only. His salary didn’t fluctuate, but his tasks varied, and he some how conveyed an air of satisfaction. I liked him immediately, the moment I caught sight of his big nose. Even though he was still young, Pasquale had the face of an old man. A face that was constantly buried in fabric, fingertips that ran along seams. Pasquale was one of the only workers who could buy fabric direct. Some brandname houses even trusted him to order materials directly from China and inspect the quality himself. …

Pasquale and I became close. He was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores; it was impossible even to go for a stroll with him because he’d plant himself in front of every shop window and criticize the cut of a jacket or feel ashamed for the tailor who’d designed such a skirt. He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the exact number of washings before the fabric would start to sag. Pasquale initiated me into the complicated world of textiles. I even started going to his home. His family—his wife and three children—made me happy. They were always busy without ever being frenetic.

That evening the smaller children were running around the house barefoot as usual, but without making a racket. Pasquale had turned on the television and was flipping channels, but all of a sudden he froze. He squinted at the screen, as if he were nearsighted, though he could see perfectly well. No one was talking, but the silence became more intense. His wife, Luisa, must have sensed something because she went over to “the television and clasped her hand over her mouth, as if she’d just witnessed something terrible and were holding back a scream. On TV Angelina Jolie was treading the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in a gorgeous garment. One of those custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars. An outfit that Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano. All they’d said to him was “This one’s going to America.” Pasquale had worked on hundreds of outfits going to America, but that white suit was something else. He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hands inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind—not an erotic figure but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric. They’d commissioned three suits from him, without saying anything else. They knew whom they were for, but no one had told Pasquale.

In Japan the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had had a state reception given in his honor. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, pages that spoke of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance. Pasquale was filled with rage, a rage that it’s impossible to express. And yet satisfaction is a right, and merit deserves recognition. Deep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so. He knew he deserved something more. But no one had said a word to him. He’d discovered it by accident, by mistake. His rage was an end in itself, justified but pointless. He couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning. He couldn’t say, “I made that suit.” No one would have believed that Angelina Jolie would go to the Academy Awards wearing an outfit made in Arzano, by Pasquale. The best and the worst. Millions of dollars and 600 euros a month. Neither Angelina Jolie nor the designer could have known. When everything possible has been done, when talent, skill, ability, and commitment are fused in a single act, when all this isn’t enough to change anything, then you just want to lie down, stretch out on nothing, in nothing. To vanish slowly, let the minutes wash over you, sink into them as if they were quicksand. To do nothing but breathe. Besides, nothing will change things, not even an outfit for Angelina Jolie at the Oscars.

Pasquale left the house without even bothering to shut the door. Luisa knew where he was going; she knew he was headed to Secondigliano and whom he was going to see. She threw herself on the couch and buried her face in a pillow like a child. I don’t know why, but when Luisa started to cry, it made me think of a poem by Vittorio Bodini. Lines that tell of the strategies southern Italian peasants used to keep from becoming soldiers, to avoid going off to fill the trenches of World War I in defense of borders they knew nothing of.

At the time of the other war, 
peasants and smugglers
put tobacco leaves under their arms
to make themselves ill.
The artificial fevers, the supposed malaria
that made their bodies tremble and their teeth rattle
were their verdict
on governments and history.

That’s how Luisa’s weeping seemed to me—a verdict on government and history. Not a lament for a satisfaction that went uncelebrated. It seemed to me an amended chapter of Marx’s Capital, a paragraph added to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a new sentence in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a note in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A page added or removed, a forgotten page that never got written or that perhaps was written many times over but never recorded on paper. Not a desperate act but an analysis. Severe, detailed, precise, reasoned. I imagined Pasquale in the street, stomping his feet as if knocking snow from his “boots. Like a child who is surprised to discover that life has to be so painful. He’d managed up till then. Managed to hold himself back, to do his job, to want to do it. And do it better than anyone else. But the minute he saw that outfit, saw that body moving inside the very fabric he’d caressed, he felt alone, all alone. Because when you know something only within the confines of your own flesh and blood, it’s as if you don’t really know it. And when work is only about staying afloat, surviving, when it’s merely an end in itself, it becomes the worst kind of loneliness.

I saw Pasquale two months later. They’d put him on truck detail. He hauled all sorts of stuff—legal and illegal—for the Licciardi family businesses. Or at least that’s what they said. The best tailor in the world was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda. He asked me to lunch and gave me a ride in his enormous vehicle. His hands were red, his knuckles split. As with every truck driver who grips a steering wheel for hours, his hands freeze up and his circulation is bad. His expression was troubled; he’d chosen the job out of spite, out of spite for his destiny, a kick in the ass of his life. But you can’t tolerate things indefinitely, even if walking away means you’re worse off. During lunch he got up to go say hello to some of his accomplices, leaving his wallet on the table. A folded-up page from a newspaper fell out. I opened it. It was a photograph, a cover shot of Angelina Jolie dressed in white. She was wearing the suit Pasquale had made, the jacket caressing her bare skin. You need talent to dress skin without hiding it; the fabric has to follow the body, has to be designed to trace its movements.

I’m sure that every once in a while, when he’s alone, maybe when he’s finished eating, when the children have fallen asleep on the couch, worn-out from playing, while his wife is talking on the phone with her mother before starting on the dishes, right at that moment Pasquale opens his wallet and stares at that newspaper photo.

Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:

Let’s suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI?

Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.

This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it’s a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don’t have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it’s an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn’t to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people’s capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market — incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say — is the important thing, so we’d always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it’s on more or less “even” terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn’t we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there’s some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn’t want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn’t want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There’s a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what’s most likely to make this surgery successful and not what’s most likely to make him money. (And we don’t think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide — so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they’re focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you’re left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you’ve given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn’t work. If the nightwatchman won’t do what’s right because it is right, you can’t have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn’t give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn’t give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn’t form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together — they have the PTA, to begin with — than the same number of voucher recipients are.

Keynes Quote of the Day

From Britain’s Industrial Future:

The notion that the only way to get enough effort out of the brain-worker is to offer him unfettered opportunities of making an unlimited fortune is as baseless as the companion idea that the only way of getting enough effort out of the manual worker is to hold over him the perpetual threat of starvation and misery for himself and those he loves. It has never been even supposed to be true, at all events in England, of the soldier, the statesman, the civil servant, the teacher, the scientist, the technical expert.

And to think this was the Orange Book of 1928! Times have changed.

They sure have. Then, it seemed like the move away from institutions based on material incentives to institutions based on intrinsic motivation was well underway, or at least realizable. While today — perhaps in Britain even more than the US — the tide is running strong the other way, with the good and great eager to get teachers and technicians, if not yet soldiers and statesmen, onto the unlimited-fortune/starvation-and-misery plan.

The context of the quote is interesting, too — it’s part of a larger argument for the “more or less comprehensive socialization of investment” Keynes would continue to argue for in the General Theory. Since managers of private firms already work for “a certain salary, plus the hope of promotion or bonus,” nothing would change if their businesses were publicly owned: “The performance of functions by Public Concerns in place of privately owned Companies and Corporations would make but little difference to the ordinary man.” If soi-disant hard Keynesians read more Keynes, they would find a much more radical vision there than countercyclical fiscal policy.

(via Jim Crotty’s unpublished book on Keynes. Encouraging him to get that thing out is high up on my list of life goals. Britain’s Industrial Future was officially written by a committee of Liberal grandees headed by Lloyd George. But this passage was written by Keynes, Crotty says, and he would know.)

Selfish Masters, Selfless Servants

Via Mike the Mad Biologist, a Confucian parable for the financial crisis:

Mencius replied, “Why must your Majesty use that word ‘profit?’ What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.
“If your Majesty say, ‘What is to be done to profit my kingdom?’ the great officers will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our families?’ and the inferior officers and the common people will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our persons?’ Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered….

Indeed, there are deep contradictions hidden in that word “profit.” Reminds me of a classic article on corporate governance, Bruce Greenwood’s Enronitis: Why Good Corporations Go Bad.

The Enron problem is … the predictable result of too strong of a share-centered view of the public corporation… Corporate law demands that managers simultaneously be selfless servants and selfish masters. On the one hand, it directs managers to be faithful agents, setting aside their own interests entirely in order to act only on behalf of their principals, the shares. On the other hand, in the service of this extreme altruism, they must ruthlessly exploit everyone around them, projecting on to the shares an extreme selfishness that takes no account of any interests but the shares themselves. Having maximally exploited their fellow human corporate participants, managers are then expected to selflessly hand over their gains…

Altruism and rationally self-interested exploitation are extreme and radically opposed positions, psychologically and politically. … For managers, one easy resolution of these tensions is a simple, cynical selfishness in which managers see themselves as entitled, and perhaps even required, to exploit shareholders as ruthlessly as they understand the law to require them to exploit everyone else. …

Internally, the share-centered paradigm is just as self-destructive. Corporations succeed because they are not markets and do not follow market norms of behavior. Rather, they operate under fiduciary norms as a matter of law and team norms as a matter of sociology. However, the share-centered paradigm of corporate law teaches managers to treat employees as outsiders and tools to corporate ends with no intrinsic value. Just as managers are unlikely to learn simultaneously to be selfish maximizers and selfless altruists, they are unlikely to be simultaneously cooperative team players and self-interested defectors. Thus, the share-centered view undermines the prerequisite to operating the firm in the interests of shareholders. …

Managers constructing the firm as a tool to the end of share value maximization treat the people with whom they work as means, not ends. …they learn as part of their ordinary life to break ordinary social solidarity. Learning to exploit ruthlessly is surprisingly difficult. … But cynicism can be learned, and managers subjected to the powerful incentives of the share value maximization principle do eventually learn it. … This training, however, surely creates cynics, not faithful agents. … A manager whose lived experience is a pretense of selflessness (with respect to employees, customers and business partners) covering real disinterested exploitation (on behalf of shares) is unlikely to suddenly see himself as “in a position in which thought of self was to be renounced, however hard the abnegation” and voluntarily hand over these hard-won gains of competitive practice to his principal. If you can properly lie to your subordinates, why not lie to your superior as well? … In the end, the cynicism of the share value maximization view must eat itself alive.

Something like Enronitis was clearly involved in the financial crisis. Indeed, some of the most famous controversies around the crisis hinge precisely on disputes about whether a transaction was between the parties linked by a fiduciary duty, or was an arm’s-length one where predatory behavior was expected, and even a moral duty. You can get yourself out of legal trouble, as Goldman has in the case of the Paulson trade, by establishing that you were on the war-of-all-against-all side of the line; but obviously, a system where predatory and trust-based relationships are expected to exist side by side, or even to overlap, is not likely to be a sustainable one. (Of course if the goal of our rentier elite is simply to stripmine the postwar social compromise, then sustainability is moot.) Friedman’s idea that a corporation’s duty is “to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society” isn’t coherent psychologically or logically, since it demands that management regard certain norms as absolutely binding and others as absolutely non-binding, without any reliable way of saying which is which.

Greenwood is talking about the “corporation as polis.” But the same point applies to the polis as polis.

It may not be the benevolence that makes the butcher, baker or brewer hand over the beef, bread or beer. But it is benevolence– or at least something other than self-interest — that ensures that it’s not full of E. coli. And if you say, well, it’s just their self-interest in avoiding the penalties of the law, that begs the question of why the authorities enforce the law. Or as Hume famously observed,

as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.

Boris Groys develops a similar line of thought in The Communist Postscript:

The theory of Marxism-Lenisnism is ambivalent in its understanding of language, as it is in most matters. On the one hand, everyone who knows this theory has learnt that the dominant language is always the language of the dominant classes. On the other hand, they have learnt too that an idea that has gripped the masses becomes a material force, and that on this basis Marxism itself is (or will be) victorious because it is correct.

This is a particular instance of Groys’ broader argument about the inherent power of rational speech:

The listener or reader of an evident statement can of course willfully decide to contradict the  compelling effect of this statement… But someone who adopts such a counter-evident position does not really believe it himself. Those who do not accept what is logically evident become internally divided, and this division weakens them in comparison to those who accept and affirm the evidence. The acceptance of logical evidence makes one stronger; to reject it, conversely, makes one weaker.

Similarly, the decisionmaker who acts on norms consistently is stronger, in the long run, than the Enronitic manager whose honest service to “shareholder value” requires dishonest, strictly instrumental treatment of workers, customers, regulators, and the rest of humanity.

All of which is another way of saying that, despite the fantasies of libertarians, and cynics, that it’s self-interest all the way down, we can’t dispense with intrinsic motivation, analytically or in practice.

UPDATE: Added Groys quote. Had intended to include it in the original post, but I’d lent the book to someone…


Keith Richards wrote a book. A month ago, at least, you could find it on the front shelf of the Barnes & Noble, next to the Glenn Beck.

I haven’t read the book, but I did read David Remnick’s review in The New Yorker. I was struck by this bit:

In the teen-aged imagination, the virtue of being a member of the band is that you end the day in the sack with the partner, or partners, of your choice. Not so, Richards says: “You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.”

One could preach a whole sermon on that text. To begin with, that’s what it is to be an artist, isn’t it? It’s work, hard work, and you’re always working. Or as the man says:

Labour time cannot remain the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. … Labour becomes the individual’s self-realization, [but this] in no way means that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier with grisette-like naivete, conceives it. Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned serious, the most intense exertion.

And there’s nothing more satisfying than that exertion. That’s what Keith Richards says, anyway. All the varieties of consumption the world can offer — and it offers them all to the rock star — can’t compete with the need to produce, in this case to produce music. The development of capitalism has certainly increased the number of of people who can get some of the satisfactions of consuming like Keith Richards, but has it increased the number who get the satisfaction of producing like him, freely and creatively?

This need to be doing productive work, and to do one’s work well, what Michelet called “the professional conscience” is, it seems to me, one of the most fundamental but one of the most neglected human drives. You can hear it from Richards. You can hear it from people like the stonemason interviewed in Studs Terkel’s Working:

There’s not a house in this country that I built that I don’t look at every time I go by. I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many you wouldn’t believe. If there’s one stone in there crooked, I know where it’s at and I never forget it. Maybe 30 years, I’ll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn’t. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don’t think of it …. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It’s something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was 17 years old. I never go through Eureka that I don’t look thataway. It’s always there. Immortality as far as we’re concerned

Or you can hear it from the sailor Stanislav in B. Traven’s The Death Ship, explaining why he took a grueling, barely-paid job as a stoker on the titular vessel when he was living comfortably as a petty criminal on land:

You get awfully tired and bored of that kind of business. There is something which is not true about the whole thing. And you feel it, see? … You want to do something. You wish to be useful. I do not mean that silly stuff about man’s duty. That’s bunk. There is in yourself that which is driving you on to do something worth while. Not all the time hanging on like a bum… It is that you want to create something, to help things going.

This is what liberals, who think that human wellbeing consists in the consumption of goods and services, cannot understand. Capitalism piles up consumer goods but deprives more and more of us of the satisfaction of genuine work. A good trade, when it’s a question of meeting basic needs. But once they are met — and they are met; they are finite, tho liberals, from Mill to DeLong, deny it — all the bacchanals in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that one has produced something worthwhile by one’s own free efforts. Or as that other guy said, It’s not that which goes into the mouth, but that which comes out of it, that defiles people. Or that exalts them.

EDIT: Thanks to (I think) Chris Mealy, this has quickly become the most-read ever post on Slackwire. If you like it, you might also appreciate this one and this one.