Thorstein Veblen, the controversial American economic historian and philosopher who died in 1929, just before the Great Depression, understood the capitalist mode of production better than most. He wrote extensively on Karl Marx’s work (in The Place of Science in Modern Civilization) and found it to be internally logical but based on the moral premise that workers deserve to receive the full value for their participation in the productive process. According to Veblen’s interpretation of Marx, work is a social activity but the output of that activity is appropriated privately. We know that workers do not receive the full benefit of their participation in the work process, their employers pay them only part of the value workers create. Otherwise, surplus value and profit could not be possible.
Just as a quick aside, Marx understood that workers did not share in the value they produced except in the receipt of wages, a value pre-determined in the productive process by and large. Workers sell their labour-power (that is, their capacity to work) to the capitalist in the labour market. A capitalist has to have all the elements of productive capacity in place before production begins and that includes labour. So, labour is part of the cost of production determined before production can begin.
It’s interesting how screwed up we are about our place in the world, particularly around our role in the productive process. So, business evolved historically as a means to satisfy certain human needs and wants. It’s a method by which production and distribution are organized. Ironically, as business capital came to dominate industry more and more, we, as members of societies in our capacities as productive beings, came to serve business rather than the other way around. Of course, we have the idea that we all live as citizens in democratic society, free to move around from employer to employer if we want. In other words, we have the illusion of having some control of our lives, but that’s just what it is, an illusion. The fact is that we are supposed to be served by business but we are essentially the servants of, and work at the whim of, business. The world has been stood on its head. Make no mistake about it though, business cannot exist unless we offer ourselves up as workers to it in the labour market. (I’ll deal with public sector work and small business in the next post.) We are workers, citizens and consumers but it is our role as worker that is the most important in our world.
Business is becoming more and more global in scope and reach. With some exceptions it used to be that businesses hired workers locally for local production and distribution and for local consumption. That all changed starting in the 15th Century but the 19th Century was when this movement increased dramatically. Workers in the Canadian forest industry (employed by British companies) produced timber for British manufacturing plants and to build tall ships. Later workers in BC produced lumber predominantly for the American housing market. In truth, Canada has always been a source of raw materials intended for processing elsewhere as much as possible. That’s not entirely true, but as a basic thrust and overall aim, it is accurate.
In the 1920s the British Empire was losing power over its colonies including Canada while the United States was growing stronger and more influential on a global scale. In that period of time, the Canadian government succeeded in negotiating the Auto Pact with the US whereby cars sold in Canada must be made in Canada. Since that time, the US has been on a mission to erode those early gains by Canadian workers, and the Auto Pact has been unravelling for at least a couple of decades now helped along, I may add, by free trade agreements.
This is all to argue that business, and us as workers, used to live primarily under the banner of citizenship. It made sense to think of Canadian business and American corporations. (This is also true for union, by the way) That’s no longer true for the largest global corporations. More than ever, capital dominates industry and production on a global scale but it still has certain national ties that make it seem as though it serves national interests, including those of ordinary citizens. That is no longer true and is getting to be a more and more dangerous illusion.
The seemingly miraculous rise of China as a global economic power must be understood as arising from a massive shift of capital by Canadian, American and European business to productive capacity on (for example) Chinese soil in factories using cheap labour. “Canadian” business has no loyalty at all to Canadian workers. That’s clear. Its business logic and primary mission is to accumulate capital. If that means shutting down factories in Oshawa, Windsor, Hamilton and Montreal and opening them in export processing zones in China or by creating “Chinese” contractors to manufacture consumer goods, so be it. Now, work is also becoming obviously global with the shift of manufacturing capacity to China (and other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, etc.) and the rise of the new class of ‘temporary’ workers in Canada. Things are shifting all over the place. It’s hard to keep track of it.
The problem with modern capitalism is that it’s completely anarchistic. There’s nobody in charge. Corporations are all in it for themselves and countries are becoming increasingly powerless to do any planning that does not put corporate profits first, that is, if they were ever really interested in doing so in the first place. Citizenship counts for very little anymore in a world where corporations like Monsanto, Nestlé’s and Exxon call the shots and politicians serve them in any and every way they can. This includes looking hard to find every way possible to shift wealth from public to private hands including public-private partnerships (P3s) and the systematic dismantling of government services and their replacement with private contractors doing the same work.
To use a business metaphor, the bottom line is that we are in the throes of a massive shift in the global distribution of capital and labour. For the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look good for us as workers or as consumers. As we lose our jobs we will not be able to afford the products produced in China by corporations based in North America, Europe and Australia, even if they are getting relatively cheaper and cheaper. That can’t be good for businesses that rely on us buying their products made in China but they aren’t going to change the way they do business because they are caught in the treadmill of needing more and more profit and accumulated capital in order to survive. And they’ll do anything to survive including encouraging global fascism while dismantling democratic institutions (what’s left of them) as a means of ensuring the ongoing concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands, while pushing harder than ever using advertizing to convince us to spend, be individualistic, mistrust government, oppose taxation, and ‘get ahead’ by ‘working hard’.