Slavery, Wage Labor, and the Inversion of Work

This scene from the 1969 film, Burn! is certainly thought-provoking. However, it operates under – as this blog will argue – a defunct paradigm. It has been replaced by one more ruthlessly efficient and fantastical! It is they hyperreal component of our contemporary society-economy. This is the third blog in a row on the topic of hyperreality – and it will be the last (for a while, at least) – but this particular situation is not only fascinating but relevant for us all.

But first things first: definitions.

Work. Work, in economic-productive terms (i.e., what you do at a job), is defined by the OED as a particular act or piece of labour; a task, job.

Labour, by the same meaning, is similarly defined as physical exertion [can be and often is mental in contemporary society] directed to the supply of the material wants of the community; the specific service rendered to production by the labourer or artisan.

Job is defined as a piece of work; especially a small definite piece of work done in the way of one’s special occupation or profession.

But work, in this context, and in the context of our contemporary society – one in which mass material production as the basis of the economy is largely obsolete, replaced  by services and other intangibles as the new consumables, and all this being facilitated by a global network of mass communications systems – takes on a new and terrifying meaning. Crimethinc’s most recent publication, Work, gets into the specifics of what work used to be, what it has become, and what we can do about it. For them, work is the leasing of one’s creative powers to others. They continue:

Selling our time rather than doing things for their own sake, we come to evaluate our lives on the basis of how much we can get in exchange for them, not what we get out of them. As freelance slaves hawking our lives hour by hour, we think of ourselves as each having a price; the amount of the price becomes our measure of value. In that sense, we become commodities, just like toothpaste and toilet paper. What once was a human being is now an employee, in the same way that what once was a pig is now a pork chop. Our lives disappear, spent like the money for which we trade them.

But it isn’t just the person that is transformed from human into commodity, but the socioeconomic system as well. Guy Debord wrote, in Society of the Spectacle, of what likely preceded such a personal transmutation:

When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of psuedo-needs which are reduced to the single psuedo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy.

We, especially as Westerners see this all around us, every day. The sacred importance of the economy is as ubiquitous as the priests of the economy – CEOs, economists, politicians, and laymen alike – seeking to construct endless GDP as surely as the Babylonians sought the heights of omnipotence. These caste-members give pronouncements as if they were oracles: lower interest rates!reduces taxes on the most profitable!; disempower labor unions!; cut domestic aid programs!open up foreign markets!privatize!!: as if the economy were a fickle god, whimsically bestowing upon its subjects profit or poverty depending on the value of their prostrations. The economy has become the God of the West (and Jesus admonished us: Matthew 6:24), and we serve it now (not the other way around).

But this is not the end of the analysis. For Baudrillard infuses the chimerical into work:

The whole world still produces, and increasingly, but subtly work has become something else: a need (as Marx ideally envisioned it but not in the same sense), the object of the social “demand,” like leisure, to which it is equivalent in the course of everyday life. A demand exactly proportional to the loss of a stake in the work process… :the scenario for work is there to conceal that the real of work, the real of production, has disappeared. And the real of strike as well…

So… Our work is not really our own; it is not even meaningful in a social sense since it no longer truly serves us; and as a result, the work we do has become a farce of the process of human being. But what if one of us were to find happiness and meaning in our work – could we somehow contradict this conclusion? It doesn’t seem likely. For it amounts to a Sisyphean feat: eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again and again (And Camus argued that we can – we must! – find happiness in this).

I think he’s right: it is possible for a slave to love his condition, but then again: a slave isn’t a subject, but an object; not a person, but a commodity.

The Fallacy of the Broken Window

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The following excerpt is taken form Henry Hazlitt’s book, Economics in One Lesson, though the origins of the concept of “opportunity cost” are attributed to French theorist, Frederic Bastiat. I chose to quote verbatim because he does an excellent job of portraying the parable in a readable and relatable form. The significance of this teaching cannot be overstated – too much of today’s thinking involves such terrible and short-sighted thinking, even outside the field of economics. While there is truth to the notion of “creation from destruction,” how it can be rightly applied to human systems is much more limited than is typically thought. It would serve us well to remember this parable often. Surely, I will refer to it in posts to come.

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has a bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate of glass window cost? Two hundred and fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 more to spend with still other merchants and so on ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment  in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper wil be out $250 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace the window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $250 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.

The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. The will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

*  *  *  *  *

One evening at the University I was attending, I was walking with a friend who, when she had pulled out her last cigarette, crumpled up the box and threw it on the ground of the parking lot. I looked at her in shock for her brazen littering. Quick to see my environmentalist outrage she quickly began to rationalize her own version of the broken-window fallacy. “Littering is good because it will create a job for someone to clean it up.” My rebuttal was an unsophisticated, near inarticulate, diatribe about how we need to take better care of the Earth and our shared human spaces – I even had to pick up the cigarette box and threw it away in the receptacle not far from where we walked. Had I known then what I know now, I could have argued more effectively and in a manner that was to her self-interest. I could have said, “Yes, that is true. But, if you throw it away yourself, that job will go unneeded and the money to pay that person a salary can be saved. Eventually, this savings can be passed on to us by lower tuition because the University has one less employee to pay; or, similarly, they could afford to pay higher salaries to better teachers thus improving the quality of our education, or some other more productive project.” Yet one of many “I should have said” stories I have. But the lesson has been learned, and my argument awaits new specious reasonings.

There is no shortage of similar sophistries in contemporary American life. My hope is that if we are mindful, we can identify and counter them. Maybe in this way, our individual efforts will be more effective in improving our lives and society.

Labor: How Private Enterprise Today Gets Capitalism Wrong

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The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consists always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The opening lines of most works are often the most important in terms of underlying message. This was the lesson illustrated many years ago by a professor of mine as we studied Machiavelli’s, The Prince. Indubitably, whether ones reads the tract as genuine or satire, the message Machiavelli conveys is the acquisition of power. Here is the first sentence from chapter 1 of his work:

All states, all dominions that have held and do hold empire over men have been and are either republics or principalities.

From the first line, alone, we understand Machiavelli is discussing the ways in which dominions are held over the masses of people, and the specifics of this dominion/power is the subject of the rest of the work. Even his dedicatory letter that precedes his first chapter speaks of the way in which one may acquire their own power (favor) with a prince:

It is customary most of the time for those who desire to acquire favor with a Prince to come to meet him with things that they care most for among their own or with the things that they see please him most.

Similarly, Adam Smith speaks of an underlying theme in his most famous – and surprisingly unread – work, The Wealth of Nations. That first line indicates to the reader what “the wealth of nations” really is: labor. Without labor, there would be no produce, nothing to trade, and nothing in which to invest; indeed labor is the most fundamental unit of both wealth and economies. Without labor, there would be no wealth.

It is disheartening, then, to see that in the United States laborers – those who perform the labor – are not only vilified but denied its significance as an economic force; that laborers, i.e suppliers, are being stripped of their right to negotiate with the buyers of their commodity in the labor market. Today, corporatists-capitalists and “free-market” proponents speak of the evils of unionized labor – how it makes business hard to function, how it drives the cost of goods up, how it’s wrecking the economy as a whole, and is a socialist institution threatening the very existence of American enterprise. But Smith, father of Capitalism, the ideological inspiration for this country’s economic model, couldn’t disagree more with such sentiments.

Smith was a moral philosopher by training; he was an economist insofar as he used he philosophical inclination to look at economics and best methods of economic organization. As such, he was primarily concerned with human beings. But Smith was no utopian, he knew people were motivated by self-interest (for the most part). So he devised his system based on observations about people and industry, but that had infused into it moral elements in order to make it just and equitable. Most people are rarely familiar with the morality that Smith infused into Capitalism but it suffuses the work, throughout. For example, he was concerned about workers rights and well-being, promoted public education, a welfare system, a progressive tax system, and on and on. And he was acutely aware of the exploitation that could be wrought by financially powerful interests. But these elements of his philosophy are rarely mentioned, if not ignored altogether.

This begs the question: “Why?”

Is it because the morality of such systems is hard to quantify mathematically and as such keeps the economic theory of capitalism unscientific? It’s possible to argue that point but anyone familiar even with the basics of economic theory know that while there are some good working models, economics is hardly a “hard,” science, the ways physics, chemistry, or biology are; in fact, much of it remains theory (lower case “t”). This is why Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman at the time, was unable to see the lead up to the economic meltdown as it was happening in front of him (despite warnings from other economists and forecasters) – because the real-world data contradicted the theory of how it should have played out. The same goes with advertising – dominant economic theory asserts that consumers will seek information that will allow them to make the best purchase of a good/service of all the options presented; but advertising is a direct undermining of that information-seeking because it appeals not to a sense of understanding of the product but of feelings about a product upon which advertisement plays.

The answer may, ironically enough, be answered by Smith himself: self interest. Like advertising, if consumers had all the information they needed they would make the best purchase possible, or more than likely: none at all. This would make it hard to persuade a consumer into buying an inferior product or good (Remember: we live in an economic society who’s credo is “buyer beware”). In fact, it is likely consumers would consume less than they do because they would be informed of the fact that companies want them to buy products, even if they do not need them – this would definitely affect a nation conditioned to consume, and whose consumption constitutes 70% of its annual GDP. Similarly, if laborers in an economy were aware of just how important they were, it’d be less likely that businesses could exploit their labor so brazenly.

Does this sound cynical? Then I would remind the reader of the history of labor movements in this United States – there was a time when children worked; when adults worked to scrape by a meager living (and still do – most households fund their living with revolving debt, for example); when American immigrants were unabashedly and shamefully exploited (and still are – see: Mexicans); when working conditions were unsafe and often led to worker deaths; when the only weekend was a half-day on Sunday, and the work-day was 12 hours or more; when monopolies existed and the government had to break them apart. And let’s not forget the ultimate exploitation – that which gave America a head start as an economic powerhouse: slavery. The exploitation of labor is a part of American history, although, it is seldom discussed; and it continues to this day Another example: do major corporations outsource manufacturing jobs in the U.S. to foreign countries because they can’t turn a profit? or is it because they want to selfishly increase their profits as much as possible by paying foreign labor a fraction of what it takes to pay a U.S. worker living wages (a practice that Smith was opposed to)?

Whatever the explanation, it is no secret that Corporations are rapacious profit-seekers and that they disproportionately influence the markets (and the government that makes the laws that govern the rules of the market place). And, though, this is just one of many examples of the incongruity, it is clear that the U.S. version of “Capitalism” is not Adam Smith’s version. And this discrepancy is costing labor in the U.S. significantly.

This train of thought begs another question: if several major tenets of the original Capitalism are stripped away, is what remains still Capitalism? It reminds me of a question about identity that another professor asked class one day: “What is essential in a thing? What parts of the whole are necessary in order for the whole to still be considered that essential thing? For example: a table. If we remove one leg, is it still a table? If we remove, two? three? if we remove all four legs, is it still a table?”

Are there enough legs left of Smith’s philosophy in today’s Capitalism to be truly considered Capitalism? And what do we do about the mistreatment of the wealth of our nation? Let us labor together to discover the answers.