I’m disillusioned.


I spent my entire adult life studying, thinking about and teaching university courses on history, social relations and  social institutions. I researched how successive historical periods with their own set of class relations came and went. I was particularly interested in the nature of capital and how it relates to labour. I still am, I guess, but I’m not at all convinced that anyone wants to or can share in my knowledge. My scholarly trajectory has been unique. I’ve researched the ideas of a number of historians, political economists, sociologists, psychologists, semanticists, semioticians, philosophers, geologists, cultural geographers and anthropologists of the last two centuries and more. I can’t imagine that very many other people have studied the same constellation of thinkers or who have come to the same conclusions I have about history.

I’m quite active on Facebook, but I’m about to back away from any political discussion on that social medium. There is no way of developing an argument that is cohesive, well-developed and grounded in reality in a Facebook post. The trolls don’t necessarily dominate Facebook, but they often make the Facebook experience distinctly unpleasant. Even well-meaning people who don’t have the background in the social sciences that I have been privileged to acquire can make Facebook frustrating and annoying. This all may sound elitist, and there may be a touch of truth to that observation, but only to the extent that the knowledge I’ve acquired is very difficult to communicate to people who don’t share at least some of the background I have.

Take the concept of capital as an example. I’ve written about capital in the past. This blog has many posts that touch on the concept, if they’re not directly and entirely concerned with it and its relationship with other social institutions such as employment, business and the nation-state.

It’s my observation (I don’t have any scientific information to support this statement) that most people think of capital as money. It’s true that in accounting capital is considered money used to run a business. And because finance capital has become so important in the last 100 years, it’s also become synonymous with capital. Money is a social relationship but is considered a ‘thing’ in the modern mind. Capital, as I see it, and in classical economics, includes money and assets used in the production and reproduction of wealth. Marx, in Capital, distinguishes fixed from variable capital. Variable capital is the investment a capitalist makes in wage-labour. I’ve always considered capital to include labour, an idea that has gotten me in more than one heated discussion with colleagues. For me, if I hire someone to work for me, the work that that person performs is in fact an asset that contributes to my productive goals, and hence should be considered capital. If I’m a slave owner in Rome in 33 AD, my slaves must be considered my capital because they are a vehicle that allows me to accumulate more capital. In essence, for me, capital and labour are the flip sides of the same coin. Labour is always required to produce capital and capital is nothing but crystallized labour, that is, all the labour that was required to produce it. Another example going even further back in history: a bow and arrow, or spear created by a hunter must be considered capital. They embody the labour that it took to create them and they are used to create more wealth, i.e., meat for the family and community table.

Countries, businesses and individuals can have capital. In fact, it’s inconceivable that in this day and age a country or business could operate without capital. Capital assets including money, land, labour, tools (including buildings, machinery, software and that sort of thing) and knowledge, are a prerequisite of large scale industrial production.

Capital does not refer exclusively to assets in a capitalist mode of production. Capital exists whenever and wherever humans create the means to increase their stock of tools, machinery, etc., as a strategy to ensure their material survival. Capital accumulation exists wherever people can produce and stockpile more than enough assets to ensure their immediate survival.

For a number of reasons that are beyond  the scope of this short post to explore, modern capitalist production aims to replace labour as much as possible in the productive process. There is a historical dynamic to capital accumulation that leads inevitably to more and more replacement of labour by capital in the productive process. So, tools, machinery, robots, etc., (with their load of crystallized labour) are constantly in the process of replacing labour. Careful to note that I use ‘labour’ here and not ‘work.’ Work is a unit of measure of the amount of energy required to perform a given task. Labour defines how work is to be conducted. Employment, just to refine the possibilities a little, refers to a particular relationship between labour and capital in the context of a labour market,  where a person’s labour-power (their capacity to work and create wealth) is bought and sold.

Currently, global capital accumulation is the culmination of a process whereby workers are becoming less and less of a factor in production and when they remain part of the productive process are devalued to the point where they are unable to even reproduce themselves. Yes, we are not yet at a critical stage in this process, but the last 3 or 4 decades have clearly shown how corporations have moved commodity production around the planet to areas of cheap labour and lax labour and tax laws. They’ve also replaced workers ‘at home’ with mechanized systems. McDonald’s, as well as other fast food chains, is in the process of replacing front line staff with automated order taking software and hardware processes. Their initiate in this is not unusual and is in fact the goal of most corporations in all fields of production, from agriculture to mining to food and clothing production. Everybody is in on it. There are many consequences of this process and I’ll tackle those in future posts.

Suffice it to say here, that unless one has done a serious study of the dynamics of capital and labour in historical context, how can it be possible to understand one’s relationships to capital? People confuse labour with work with employment. They see these concepts as interchangeable. They’re not. Does that matter to the average person on this planet? Not at all.

Thus, appealing to a person’s rationality is useless on the grand scale of things. It’s not, however, in some immediate and personal ways. It seems the farther we get from daily life, the harder it is to understand the relationships that control us. So appeals to reason might work for some people some of the time, but people generally don’t have the knowledge and information required to apply reason to larger geopolitical events and situations. This may seem elitist, and maybe it is, but I’m not happy about it, no matter what it is. I often feel that my entire life of thought and research has been for naught because I can’t share it in any meaningful way, at least not with the social tools we have at our disposal most of the time, especially the social media.

More to come on Trump, trolls and half-truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “I’m disillusioned.

  1. I wonder if part of your frustration comes from the fact that you are no longer teaching university courses or did you feel this way even when you were teaching? Im sure that over the years, you have contributed to the knowledge of countless students, myself included. After my husband, Michael, was advised to change careers to something other than full time high school teaching, English, history and music, he told me there was always something “not quite right” in his life. The reason for him leaving that career was his manic episodes. I once asked a dictodr how can they tell the difference between soneone having a manic eoisode and simply being a flamboyant personality. The reply was, “It’s a matter of degree.” That explanation satisfied me for the moment, but I have always suspected that society cant accept people who behave outside the so-called norm, so we label people. I digress somewhat, and I hope you can see what I am trying to say. I will use a cliche, for want of a better way of expressing my thoughts. That cliche is, it’s lonely at the top.” It has been obvious to me that you are predominantly an academic and an intellectual and, eslecially in retirement and outside a university town such ad Oxford, England, people such as yourself will find it extremely difficult to find others of like mind. In my view, you are an exceptional person who is not only an intellectual, but also a talented artist and carpenter.

    Finally, I think I do grasp some of what this essay is saying. Its rather frightening in a way. May I close witb a question? Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Your comment isn’t that bad in terms of typos. I can’t edit it, in any case. I know that ‘dictordr’ is meant to be ‘doctor’ so I’m ok with the odd typo. I find it challenging to comment using my phone too.
      In any case, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ve always been immersed in my research. When I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work in political economy, there were others working on the same material. I disagreed with a lot of them because they had largely failed to see the trajectory of Innis’ thought. They often accepted at face value the assertions of others who had done minimal research. I bought and read virtually everything that Innis wrote, except for his shopping lists. His work led me to Veblen and I could immediately see what Innis was on about when he discussed the expansion of empire. Innis has often been described as a nationalist and he is anything but. I have a number of examples in my dissertation where he explicitly disavows nationalism and even the idea that we should be collecting statistics on a national basis. He wrote that scientists should not allow politicians to lead them around by the nose. Statistics Canada, in fact, serves the nationalist agenda and uses the country as their basic unit of analysis when it’s not often justified, as is the case with trade relations, imports and exports.
      The question you pose at the end of your comment is great and I’ll address it in my next blog post. Thanks again, Marilyn. I appreciate your comment.

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