The Hot Potato Metaphor

It looks like you: did not win Capitalism. Would you like play again on a different setting?

There’s an old right-wing joke that says… the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. Very clever, very witty, aphoristic. It contains a worldview in 14 words. (Fourteen? Oh Christ, a lot can be said in 14 words apparently.) What this joke tells us is that:

A. Socialist altruism is good, in the same way that giving everyone a pony would be good; we don’t like to not give people things, because we’re nice people

B. However, giving everyone a pony, even the undeserving, means the most deserving will suffer. There are a finite number of ponies.

C. Hence it is a zero-sum game. You keep spending, spending, spending, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and you end up with nothing, or too little to go around. The party can’t go on forever.

This is akin to the The-Economy-Is-a-Household metaphor, which anyone with a passing awareness of history (especially the financial and economic history of the United States; they even made a musical about it) would recognize is ill-fitted to actual lived reality, to put it very mildly. Pay-go, what goes out must come in, gotta keep the checkbook balanced, or else…

You’re profligate. You’re wasteful. There’s only so much you can spend and then the bill comes due. The fiscal equivalent of a bad hangover, inescapable.

It’s also very similar to the The-Economy-Is-a-Lifeboat metaphor. By the very definition of its own terms, the metaphor mandates that there is not enough to go around. To say this is not always the case is not to say scarcity never exists — every surviving member of the kingdom Animalia knows that it does, instinctively — but it is to say that the metaphor is intended to be limiting. It forecloses any mutually beneficial outcome by presupposing that there is not enough to go around.

Hence, your socialist appetite for giving everyone a pony will eventually face the grim reality of no-more-ponies. One could certainly look at The Economy in a different way, as a generative force that represents the sum total of its participants’ value (a moving target), which could be divided up equitably because it continues to grow, or at least dynamically corresponds to its inputs — it’s not a fixed quantity, in any case.

But the joke about socialism, of course, is about the chastened wisdom of one who knows that there aren’t enough ponies to go around. (And what do you know? The teller of the joke also happens to be the owner of a fine pony ranch. Huh. Weird.) There are other, similar metaphors, like the Hobbesian War-of-All-Against-All, where you better take anything that’s not nailed down or else you’ll get fucked (until the Sovereign Father comes along and makes things right, at least — this is also the Life-Is-a-Game metaphor, where bad actors have to be punished by an authoritarian rule-setter for breaking the rules).

Much of leftist thought, going back a long way, has challenged the scarcity-based assumptions embedded in these metaphors. As commonsensical as they may seem, the idea of having a finite number of chairs has not been borne out by most of human history, from the agricultural to industrial to information revolutions. (The Musical Chairs metaphor — life is tough, kid. Somebody’s gotta be without a chair. And I ate all the chairs, so… good luck.)

But being serious, the anarchist/socialist/communist traditions have always had a certain assumption, going back to Godwin or Proudhon or whoever, that life could be better than it is now; there’s at least enough to go around, if not more; and a flawed but perfectible humankind can be more creative than it currently is (which is to say, “not much”). The postindustrial society of mass production and automation was supposed to make scarcity a non-issue, leading some observers in the 1960s and 1970s to assume that a new, less work-centric culture of leisure was ahead. We all know that’s not quite what happened. And environmentalists also came along, peskily, to say that capitalism’s prodigious productivity was in fact drawing on fragile, finite resources (ecosystems) that were not properly accounted for in the ledger book.

And a specter of scarcity still haunts the postindustrial imagination, as seen in the vogue for dystopian fiction and film in the early twenty-first century, exemplified by nothing so much as The Hunger Games (which is really just a mystified version of the much simpler story in the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale — basically, you kill everyone until you’re the last person left. Then you get whatever ponies there are!). It’s hardly surprising that individuals and families, squeezed by relentless capital accumulation in their work and a withdrawing of social provision by the state, imagine that the future will be everyone fighting over scraps (especially if the promised automation makes huge numbers of people “useless”).

But there are other reasons to believe in scarcity. Like, scarce things for instance. What is the only commodity of which there is, almost by definition, never enough? Time. In many ways labor is time, especially where caring labor is concerned — it takes an hour to spend an hour with someone in their final hours, it takes listening and responding in real time to be a good teacher, it takes 50 minutes to have a therapy session. Baumol has a whole explanation about why this “cost disease” (you can increase the productivity of almost everything except services, especially healthcare and education, which results in long-term distortions of cost), but it seems overly reductive in my view — or, at least, not interesting.

The fact is that the problem with care-socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s care.

Ho, ho, ho… how is it that caring labor or caring value is not the same as all these other economic activities, which are not bound by the limitations of the Lifeboat/Household metaphor? (According to me.) Because there are only so many hours in the day. As Nancy Fraser and others have made abundantly clear, one of the unintended consequences of late-twentieth-century Feminism was the neoliberal model of the two-earner family:

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it—assuming you’re not single? Like the family wage ideal, however, this too is an obfuscation. It mystifies the steep rise in the number of hours of paid work now required to support a household, and if the household includes children or elderly relatives or people who are sick or disabled and cannot function as full-time wage earners, then so much the worse. And if it’s a single-parent family, it’s even worse than that. Now add to this that the two-earner ideal is being promoted at a time of cutbacks in state provision. Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds.

Nancy Fraser, “Capitalism’s Crisis of Care,” Dissent, 2016

As Fraser points out, the chores of what was formerly known as “the domestic sphere” were offloaded on to anyone poor enough by anyone rich enough to afford it — especially the managerial upper-middle-class, but far from only them, since families up and down the income spectrum have to reckon the cost of childcare versus the value of work (one of those “two-earners”). The people who got the short end of this stick end up taking care of other people’s children and parents. Who’s looking after their own children and parents? God, for one.

They’re back in the Philippines or Pakistan or Nigeria or whatever. She’s sending back to some poor benighted village or sprawling slum in a third-world megalopolis as remittances, so everyone’s happy.

But you eventually end up running out of other people’s care. Just as capitalism eventually runs out of new territories and new un-enclosed sources of value to exploit, you run out of care too. You run out of labor (other people’s, and yours) and you run out of time (mostly yours), in the waning demographic years of late capitalism. You run out of people to offload this on to, whose caring labor can be bought and paid for (always for very little, axiomatically; we should be very nice to those low-paid carers because they do such important work). This is the Hot Potato metaphor. Someone ends up holding it.