Socialist Register 2021: Ursula Huws on Reaping the Whirlwind

First session of Socialist Register 2021: Beyond Digital Capitalism: New Ways of Living

An introduction to this year’s book with Greg Albo & Stephen Maher (in memory of Leo Panitch)

“In addressing how far digital technology has become integral to the capitalist market dystopia of the first decades the 21st century, we were deliberately seeking to counter so much facile futurist ‘cyber-utopian’ thinking that has proliferated through these decades. The proof of capitalism’s continued dynamism, even in the face of severe global economic crisis, lay in the most successful and most celebrated high-tech corporations of the new information sector which really were restructuring and refashioning not only our ways of communicating but of working and consuming, indeed ways of living. Yet precisely because this was taking place within the logics of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, and through the reproduction of capitalist social relations, this produced new contradictions and irrationalities. Perhaps none of these was greater than those revealed by the contrast between the investment, planning, and preparation that went into the interminable competitive race for ‘more speed’ by way of reducing latency in digital communications by so many milliseconds, on the one hand, and on the other the lack of investment, planning, and preparation that underlay the scandalous slowness of the responses to the spreading Covid-19 pandemic around the world.” —From the Preface by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo

followed by

Reaping the Whirlwind: Digitalization, Restructuring, and Mobilization in the Covid Crisis

Ursula Huws

Ursula Huws’ essay addresses the changes sweeping through global labor markets during the coronavirus pandemic, looking in particular at the concentration of capital and expansion of market share by global corporations, bringing with it the digital management of supply chains and an exponential growth in algorithmic control and surveillance of workers. Pandemic lockdown conditions have exposed very clearly the polarizations in the workforce between ‘fixed’ workers, physically isolated in their homes but closely monitored via their computers, working virtually, and the precariously employed mobile (‘footloose’) workers, disproportionately made up of black and migrant workers, equally closely monitored, who deliver the physical goods and services the home-bound need to survive and care for their bodily needs when they become sick, at great personal risk.

GREG ALBO teaches in the Department of Politics at York University. He is co-editor of the Socialist Register. Greg is also on the editorial boards of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, The Bullet and Historical Materialism. URSULA HUWS, Professor of Labor and Globalization at the University of Hertfordshire. She has been researching the social impacts of technological change, the restructuring of employment and the changing international division of labor since the 1970s. Ursula will visit The MEP again on February 21, to discuss her current book, Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies (Pluto FireWorks, 2020). STEVE MAHER is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Canada, and Assistant Editor of Socialist Register.

Socialist Register 2020: Beyond Market Dystopia

Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living
Volume 56 of the Socialist Register

Each year a new volume of the Socialist Register appears, effectively laying out for socialists and communists what are burning issues of the day—we now have 56 years of coverage, and many of the burning issues are now in a full blaze. This year’s edition was published before the global pandemic, the 40 million additional unemployed in the US alone, and the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. The whole world watched the video and responded with a movement that is more widespread than was Occupy Wall Street in 2011 or the first Black Lives Matter upsurge in 2014.

In the preface to Socialist Register 2020, co-editors Greg Albo and Leo Panitch discuss much of what the working classes of the world are confronting with capital’s market dystopia. At one point they cite Colin Leys, a former co-editor of the Register from his 2001 text, “Market-Driven Politics, Neoliberal Democracy and the Public Interest”

A strong non-market domain, providing various core services, as the common sense of a civilised and democratic society may sound far-fetched in an era of market-driven politics. But it is debatable whether it is really as far-fetched – as hard to imagine or as absurd – as the world towards which market-driven politics is tending, in which more and more of the workforce is absorbed in ever-intensified competition for ever higher output and consumption, while the collective services for which democracy depends gradually decay.

The editors go on to state that “It is precisely this sensibility that informs this volume, Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living. By challenging our contributors to address what are the actual and possible ways of living in this century, we saw this as way of probing how to get beyond the deep contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. We did not want contributors to conceive their remit as future-oriented per se, but rather to see their mandate as locating utopic visions and struggles for alternate ways of living in the dystopic present. To this end, a number of he essays interrogate central dimensions of ‘how we live’ and ‘how we might live’ in terms of educating our children, housing and urbanism, accommodation of refugees and the displaced, and (to lean on that all too common phrase) the competitive time pressures for ‘work-life balance’. These are all key questions, of course, of ‘social reproduction’, a theme Register. They are the counterpoint to ‘economic reproduction’ and ‘how we work’ at the heart of several essays here. Today, this involves exploring and exposing all the hype and contradictions of the so-called ‘gig economy’, where automation’s potential for increased time apart from work is subordinated to surveillance, hazardous waste, speed-up, and much else that makes for contingent work and precarious living. Finding new ways of living cannot but confront both these obstacles.Yet even amidst all that appears so new in today’s capitalism, classical socialist themes, dilemmas, challenges, and struggles are still very much with us. Indeed, several essays in this volume undertake political archaeologies of the past to find their vestiges providing new meaning for the practices of socialism in the twenty-first century.

We will meet for ten weeks to consider eleven of this year’s presentations, one essay per week except for our last session (see schedule below). This reading of the Socialist Register could become a regular feature of MEP summers: it allows for frequent participation but takes into account that all of us may miss a week or more due to summer travel and vacations.

Four of the ten sessions remain as follows:

August 24 • What Should Socialism Mean in the Twenty-First Century?
Nancy Fraser author will be present

August 31 • The Affordable Housing Crisis: Its Capitalist Roots and the Socialist Alternative
Karl Beitel author will be present

September 14 • Communism in the Suburbs?
Roger Keil
And The Retroactive Utopia of the Socialist City
Owen Hatherley
both authors will be present

Discounted copies of the book (2 remaining) are available from The MEP. Write to: info@marxedproject.org or to revsgroup@gmail.com for information. A separate product line will be an on-line item —check website after 6/20 for ordering information.