Thursday, July 15, 2010

How do paychecks make us poor?

Karl Marx, Capital:

Wages, as we have seen, imply by their very nature that the worker will always provide a certain quantity of unpaid labor. ... [A]t the best of times, an increase in wages means only a quantitative reduction in the amount of unpaid labor the worker has to supply. This reduction can never go so far as to threaten the system itself. Apart from violent conflicts over the rate of wages (and Adam Smith already showed that in such a conflict the master, by and large, remained the master) a rise in the price of labor resulting from accumulation of capital implies the following alternatives ...

Not to get all Marxist on you, but that is some crazy shit. Here we've been told our entire lives that a paycheck is a good thing, and this bastard shows up, telling us we've been robbed! The more faithful we are to chasing that cash reward for all our hard work, the more somebody else is earning money on top of the money they already have: the money and resources that make them an employer in the first place!

Now, the thing we have to understand about Capital is that Marx is writing about for-profit, private enterprise: he is writing about capitalism. However, he is approaching it as a pure theoretical model; he's saying, "This is how capitalism actually works if we let it run its course according to its own logic, and businesses don't cheat, and there's no corruption, and we give the system the benefit of the doubt -- in other words, we hold capitalism up as the ideal that it claims it is." And his point in doing this is to say: "As an ideal, capitalism means transferring value from people who have to work, to people who don't have to work because they own the process by which wealth is transferred." Among other fucked-up points he makes.

By today's standards, we might be tempted to say: Well, so what? That's the way things are: the rich get richer, the world's a mess, those-people-over-there-have-been-fighting-for-millions-of-years! But what I want so eagerly to convey to you is the fact this jackass still gave half-a-damn about Enlightenment ideals like freedom and democracy, even if we just like to take credit for them in between episodes of Jersey Shore. Marx came much later than the Founding Fathers -- and the joke he liked to make was that it's kind of hard to "declare your independence" when you're totally obligated to somebody whose whole purpose lies in suppressing you as a cost. It's almost like the opposite of actually being independent, which for Marx was what he might call "ironic." But America never likes a smart-ass so we have a hard time getting any of this in school.

Now, you might say to yourself: "Well, fuck that private-profit shit, I am going into the public sector, or to a non-profit!" The problem in this case is that capital, by its very nature, expands, and one of the places it likes to expand most is anywhere it is not. That is what is called "privatization": when public assets are sold to private interests for the purposes of profit. Capital is always pushing for this. The other side to this is that capital doesn't like to be taxed, which means it doesn't want to support teacher's pensions or fire stations or libraries or just about anything public. If people want those things they have to pay for them out of the portion of the value they receive in their paychecks after capital takes its cut. These days, that typically means accepting less and less, because people can't afford to support these things alone, and capital punishes communities that attempt to borrow money in order to do so. Borrowing money is something governments are allowed to do only when they bail out capital, not communities -- an outcome which is reflective of their comparative power.

In conclusion, I only want to tell you this: in a world of finite resources, ours is a way of production and exchange that requires constant, never-ending growth. When growth is "good," that proportion of the value we produce to which we are entitled by law may or may not cover the costs of our survival as communities, but when growth is bad -- or stalled -- all bets are off! It's hard to look at this scenario as making sense on any level, but rest assured there are at least a few people out there who are doing very well by it, all thanks to what the rest of us are willing to give up on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis!


fwoan said...

Bravo! I loved this. So often I want to describe somethign similar to this but have a hard time connecting the real world examples I need.

Ethan said...

Like fwoan said. This framework will be very useful for conversations with coworkers, I think.

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i enjoyed this thoroughly!

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