It’s your life, so sell it along with the rutabaga!

This is one way to think about modern capitalism. There are others.

Most of us glide through life not thinking particularly deeply, if at all, about the underlying forces controlling our lives.  In fact, we are taught all along that there are no forces that control our lives at all and that we are fully in charge of our lives whatever we make of them. That belief is actually part of the very real underlying forces I just mentioned, one that aims to line up our personal lives in such a way that we don’t question the forces that drive us to behave in certain ways and not in others.[1]

An example might help.  I’m sure you found yourself recently in a grocery store buying food for the week, or maybe just for dinner, assuming that is that you have enough money to actually shop in grocery stores and not in dumpsters, but that’s another matter I’ll deal with later.  Two aspects of this shopping scenario are of interest to me here.  First is the idea of the store itself.  How many of us actually question the very existence of the store? Not many, I’m sure.  

Stores are such a regular and ubiquitous part of life that we tend to think of them as just part of the landscape, as places to go buy things, certainly, that is if we think of them at all.   Well, a store is nothing more than a place where things are stored, awaiting distribution or for people to come along and pick them up in exchange for money. People have been storing things ever since the dawn of humankind.  

Finding secure places to store food and other goods has been a human preoccupation throughout history (and pre-history for that matter).  In a situation where food is readily available and there is no worry about spoilage because it’s consumed very soon after it’s collected, storage isn’t an issue.  This was true, for instance, of the !Kung San in Southern Africa before colonialism. It does become an issue when there is a large number of people to feed and where food can become scarce at times. Obviously, food storage is not so much an option for nomadic as opposed to settled peoples so it has been a very important pre-occupation of humankind especially for the last ten thousand years or so since the advent of large scale domestication, settlement and formal government.  Preserving food then becomes imperative and storing it securely even more so.  

So, we’ve needed to store food and other products for a long time.  Once food and other goods are in storage, they need to be made available to people for consumption.  Not just any people, of course.  In what we know of pre-history and early history, family was the most important unit of distribution.  People would pass around chunks of meat around the campfire. As we went along as a species especially in certain parts of the world we now know as the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, the units of distribution grew ever larger driven by domestication and urbanization.  Well, that was then, what about now?  

Eventually, political units tended to grow in size and motivations changed.  There was an increasing need to mobilize, equip and feed large numbers of people for various tasks like war, agriculture, large infrastructure projects like water diversions, roads, sanitation systems as well as religiously inspired projects like pyramids, cathedrals and the like. This historical development required innovations in storage management and distribution.  Centralized storage systems like granaries, warehouses and eventually freezing and cold storage facilities grew more prevalent.  But of course, human production never occurs in a vacuum.  Production, distribution and consumption, the three ‘moments’ of human production are not just economically but also politically driven for the most part and limited by the availability of raw materials, labour and technology.  In our time, and for the past three centuries, give or take a few decades, business has been increasingly dominant in all phases of human production.  Business. Yes, business. 

Business is a method, a way of organizing human activities, most predominantly economic activity.  That said, the ways and means of business have become pervasive in all types of organizations, governments and non-profit.  It’s a truism to say that businesses exist to make money. That’s not all they exist for, but if they don’t make money they don’t last long (unless they get government subsidies which they often do). And what is the interest of business in human production? Well, as I noted above, business is an organizational vehicle for the production, distribution, and often, the consumption of commodities. Note that I said business is in it for the creation of commodities not products. 

Commodities are products specifically created for the market. General Motors doesn’t make vehicles for its own use, it makes them to sell. Once a vehicle is sold it no longer holds any interest for GM. In fact, if people, car buyers, were more concerned with GM’s welfare (as GM thinks they should be) they would drive their vehicles into the first power pole they encountered upon leaving the auto dealer lot. That would mean an opportunity for GM to sell another vehicle to replace the one just smashed up against the power pole. Smashing up cars is good for business. 

Of course, the scenario I just painted is simplistic and the real situation is much more complex, but the truth is that business makes products to sell. We call those products commodities. Distribution businesses like grocery stores are also in the business of making money but their challenge is somewhat different than GM’s. Grocery businesses have conditioned us over the decades to expect a myriad of consumable commodities on their shelves. People (like you and I) get very upset when they see empty shelves or even half empty shelves in their favourite grocery store. I can hear people saying to themselves “What’s wrong? Why are the shelves getting empty? Should I stock up?” Fear and panic can set in. So, it’s better to keep the shelves topped up to avoid triggering a sense of doom and scarcity.

The reality is that grocers can never sell all the commodities that grace their shelves so masses of produce, meats, dairy products and other perishable items get tossed in the garbage every day. That is of no fundamental concern to the grocer (can you say Jimmy Pattison) as long as on average and over the long term enough commodities get sold to still make a profit. The ‘wastage’ is collateral damage. If food producers and distributors actually made food to consume rather than to sell, there would be no hungry people on the planet. But that’s not the way our world works. We allow people to starve if they have no money to bring to the market to exchange for food. It’s all about the market.

People get consumed too in the productive process. We sell our labour-power to a buyer at the best price we can get if we’re lucky and that buyer then has the ownership of our time and our capacity to work. Our time spent at work is not our time. It belongs to our employer.

However, my point is that we have to own ourselves in order to sell ourselves just like we have to own a rutabaga to sell it. That’s a basic legal foundation of capitalism. As owners of our labour-power we enter the market as free players, at least in theory. And if we are free players in the market we must also be free players in other aspects of our lives. It’s a singular philosophical expression of the reality of life in a capitalist society. More on this in another post. This one’s long enough already. 

[1]Dr. Bruce Lipton explains how we get programmed early in life to accept the reality we are presented with:

Capitalism: On Its Way Out?

I’m going to try to keep this simple. The answer to my own question in the title of this post is: of course. All things come and go. The era of capitalist domination will inevitably come to an end one way or another. How long capitalist domination can hang on is open to conjecture but it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

I’m actually researching a series of blog posts on the relationship between capitalism, liberalism and democracy. Below I consider the most important dimensions of capitalism including its life-historical reality, its structure as a set of social relations, its difference from other modes of human production and its effects on morality and other aspects of life. If you haven’t read my post Is Canada a Capitalist Country?, now would be a good time. I may have been a bit too strident in that post, but I’ll try to make up for that here.

Some writers, actually many writers who might now be considered apologists for capitalism (and some left-wingers too) claim that the spirit behind capitalism has always existed in us humans. They argue that the key to capitalism becoming the dominant mode of production in history was removal of the fetters that kept it from emerging. I don’t buy that and neither does Ellen Meiksins Wood. Capitalism didn’t evolve next to feudalism and just wait until the time was right to overthrow feudal social relations. Capitalism grew out of the failing social relations of feudalism.

Simply capitalism is based on the system of wage labour. As feudalism was on its way out, there was a lot of stress between serfs and lords. Many lords couldn’t keep up with their responsibilities towards their serfs and serfs were reluctant to wait around for the lords to get their shit together. The productivity of agrarian England, particularly regarding wool production, for example, was rapidly diminishing to the point where in the 17th Century a half of English workers (called servants then) were wage labourers. I’ll not get into the specific mechanisms and forces that led to that outcome in this post but will explore it later in review of C. B. Macpherson’s book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford, 1962).

As workers we have a relationship to our bosses, our employers, based on wage labour. In a classic capitalist scenario, a capitalist hires workers to extend his or her own capacity to produce commodities for sale. It’s no surprise that businesses that mine oil and gas, for example, are referred to as petroleum producers. That designation does not include the people who work for those businesses. Hasbro is a toy producer. No reference to their workers as the real producers. Their labour power has been bought and paid for by the capitalist and he or she can therefore refer to it as his or her own labour. After all, it was bought and paid for.

Capitalists buy our labour power. Not our labour, but our labour power, our capacity to work. Of course a lot of us never work for an individual capitalist. We work for governments at various levels or non-profits. So, it’s more accurate to say that workers as a class work for capitalists as a class.

The system of wage labour has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our worlds. We expect to grow up to be nothing else than workers or employees (as many people prefer to be called) and we are trained at home and at school to expect no other outcome. We just want a good job. So few of us can ever become capitalists despite our dreams. Besides, the reality is that we, as individuals, are not very important in the scheme of things. It’s capital versus labour on a grand scale that counts historically. Individuals are simply personifications of our classes and no one is indispensable. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple died a while ago but Apple lives on. Us workers are a dime a dozen. You want to find meaning in your life? For most people it’s futile to even contemplate finding ‘meaning’ in their work.

So, why will capitalism die? Because of its own efficiency and effectiveness. Due to severe stresses often caused by periods of overproduction of commodities, the capitalist class embarks on a program of renovation that changes the relationship between capital and labour. Globalization is a result of that renovation. Capitalists seeing their profits drop from failing sales have some options. They can curtail production and they can make their production processes more efficient, meaning that it takes fewer units of labour to produce the same product. They can also move production around like build a factory in Sri Lanka to take advantage of low wages, favourable labour and safety laws, better access to raw materials, and new markets.

Let me back up a bit to a very simplified illustration of what happens when someone wants to produce a product. Let’s look at a hypothetical product called a widget. It’s for ducks to perch on. So Sam McGee, a prominent local duck hunter and entrepreneur decides he wants to produce widgets. What does he do? Well, he gathers together all the things that he will need, what I call INPUTS in the table below. He hires a manager and the manager gets on with it. Sam sits back and watches the whole thing unfold from his condo in Panama.

The dollar values on the right in the table below are the costs per widget. In this case they add up to $28.50. He envisions making a profit of $12.50 per widget. Not bad. Note that McGee has to hire workers before he starts operations. Workers are part of the inputs. Workers do not share in the profits of the business. Workers’ labour is part of the costs of production like the land, equipment, and raw materials. McGee has agreed to pay market value for all the inputs. In this scenario, McGee gets $40 per widget which he also sells at market value. So how does McGee make money?

Sam McGee’s World

The Widget factory
raw materials$2.00
Widgets $40.00

Well, McGee is a clever kind of guy and he’s figured out that he can make money as things are. All he has to do is make sure that his costs of production amount to less than what he can get for widgets on the market. If the workers shared in the profit, the table above would look somewhat different. The $8.00 Sam pays his workers would rise to $20.50. So, the only way Sam cam make money is by not paying his workers full value for their labour. The $12.50 in profit comes from not paying his workers a full share of the market value of the widgets.

His cleverness will be tested, however, when the market for widgets collapses because he’s now produced a lot of widgets and he’s saturated the market and because he also now has competitors that pay lower wages and make even more money than he did. Damn. What to do? Cutting production is an option. The problem is it takes 10 workers to make 100 widgets a day. They can’t make any more and if they make any less, the costs of labour per widget go up. So what to do. Sam, the clever guy, knows a guy in welding and fabrication who says he can build Sam a piece of equipment that will allow for the same output of widgets but using half the current employees. Not only that, the equipment will allow Sam to tailor his production of widgets to any number he wants. Bonus! Sam gets on that right away, installs the equipment and fires half his staff. He also cuts back on production temporarily and lays off half his staff again. He’s now down to 2 workers and is still producing widgets, but a lot fewer of them. Sam is still making money but his workforce is not doing too well by him. As a side thing, Sam needs to also figure out how to make flimsier widgets. The ones he makes last way too long. He has to cultivate a forever returning clientele.

I know this is a huge simplification of how capitalism works, but it’s the essence of the thing at least from the production end of things. Of course, there’s money to be made in the distribution of commodities too and in their consumption. And if Sam needs to borrow money all the better. Then Goldman Sachs can get rich too.

What I’ve just shown here, simplified as it is, is the way that the labour force is being squeezed right out of existence. Either production is automated to eliminate workers altogether or the value of labour power is so reduced that workers can’t survive on the wages they are offered. We’re in that place right now. Simply put, there is a greater and greater amount of capital going into production at the expense of labour and as the system gets closer and closer to essentially eliminating necessary labour, the margins of profit drop, and capital can no longer exploit workers.

Oh, but it’s so much more complex than this. Governments have gotten into the picture helping Sam McGee in his time of terrible trouble partly by helping to manage and maintain his now mostly unemployed workers. (On EI, they are always free to come back to work. They constitute a free pool of labour for Sam). Banks too have joined governments to ensured that Sam will be fine. After all, Sam is the creative producer and his workers are nothing more than part of the cost of production. Sam needs our help!

Now think of Sam McGee as the totality of global commodity production and think of his workers as the global labour force and you will begin to get the picture.

In my next post I tackle how capitalism along with its essential liberal legitimation has infiltrated our very psyches, our values and our morality, and I will address how that infiltration is not as solid as it might seem.

Are you self-absorbed or self-effacing?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s White Coat, Black Artinterviewed Elizabeth Rathbun, a 66 year-old Vancouver resident with severe MS. Her story is compelling but it’s not the focus of this blog post. The focus here is narrative clues to the tension between us as individuals and society. I use Goldman’s interview with Rathbun as a vehicle only. I could pick millions of similar interviews or conversations that have the same dynamic and I have many in computer files. The fact is, I’ve just listened to the most recent episode of White Coat, Black Art and this interview struck me as prototypical example of the type of narrative I want to analyze here. 

For a long time I’ve been interested in individualism versus society. There’s a lot of great literature around this topic but Norbert Elias tops the list of sociologists I think of when I try to parse out the relationships we have with ‘society’. In psychological terms the relationship between the individual and society is bound up with all manner of confounding moralisms and ideological constructs. Like a number of other sociologists I find that conversation and narrative are a treasure trove of hints and hypotheses about our social relations. 

So, aside from the story itself, what is it about what Elizabeth Rathbun says to Brian Goldman that catches my attention? Read the following three paragraphs from the interview. Rathbun is talking about her experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her MS is a particularly debilitating strain, leaving her in a mechanized wheelchair to get around, and in constant need of care. 

“What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which you look after your family, and the ways in which you contribute in the community.”

“Each time you think you’re there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in your lives and you start all over again.”  

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

Before going on I will now edit Rathbun’s comments a little and reproduce my edits below. See if you can tell the difference between the originals and my edits. Here are my edited versions of her comments:

“What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which I look after your family, and the ways in which I contribute in the community.”

“Each time I think I’m there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in my life and I start all over again.”  

So, why did Rathbun not use I in her comments on her MS? Let’s be clear, I’m not picking on Rathbun nor finding fault with the way she answered Goldman’s questions. Back in 2006 a number of my students in a research methods course undertook some research on what we called pronoun bending. Pronoun bending describes the use of the personal pronoun you rather than I in daily conversation, interviews, etc., when I often seems the most appropriate pronoun to use. One of the research papers we used as a source for trying to figure out the meaning of this phenomenon was called The Indefinite Youby Hyman (2006).[1]He concluded that the use of the indefinite you was in his words youbiquitous. Rathbun is not alone in her use of the indefinite you. We all do it! I’m adding the paper my students put together in 2006 to a page here. It would be helpful if you read it now, especially the findings at the end of the paper. 

At times people being interviewed or in daily conversation will start off by using I then switch to you at certain times. My students were most interested in why that happened. Hyman (2006) and Senger[2](1963) in a much earlier paper suggested a few possible reasons. It could be a defense mechanism or a means of distancing oneself from a painful reality. It could be a way of showing that we’re not so self-absorbed that we can’t relate to other people and their problems.

One clear moral/behavioural principle in our world is that we shouldn’t brag always using I, I, I in our conversations. It’s okay to be an individual, but we must also recognize our social connections and our reliance on others. Self-effacement is problematic, but it’s non-threatening too. When Rathbun says with reference to dealing with a debilitating disease like MS that “What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial,” she is unconsciously appealing to our sense of belonging and understanding. She could just as easily have said “What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial.” In using the indefinite you, she is implicitly imploring us to agree with her. She is subconsciously saying “You know what I’m going through, don’t you. I’m not alone in feeling this way.” 

Now consider Rathbun’s third paragraph above. I repeat it here:

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

In this paragraph she is using an indexical use of you. In other words, she is pointing to you specifically and saying that may be where you would draw the line in the sand, but not me! “I couldn’t care less.” Wow. She’s owning that one. There is a switch in this quote from using you to using I, but it’s a ‘natural’ one, not one from I to an indefinite you. 

This post is plenty long enough already, so instead of going on and on, I’d like to challenge you to pay close attention to the conversation you have or hear and try to pick out speakers’ uses of the indefinite you. I think it’s a fun exercise. And please read Pronoun Bending on this blog. 

[1]Hyman, Eric, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[2]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.

Computers:Woe is Me!

Sometimes I love my computers. Often I hate them. And I have mixed feelings about the networks and such that my computer consorts with. Yesterday, my early 2011 old MacBook Pro decided it was a good day to die. If that wasn’t bad enough, our internet connection decided it no longer wanted to play either. In the case of our internet connection, it’s probably the Shaw Hitron modem that’s the issue, at least that’s what the Shaw tech guy I talked to in Winnipeg thought when I called on Sunday. It’s not the first time we’ve had issues with our internet connection. A Shaw tech guy (no, not the guy in Winnipeg) is supposed to come out later today to look into the issue, I hope whoever it is can fix the damn thing. Trying to type emails on our phones is almost as frustrating as having the internet connection itself go down. At least we have some communication with the outside world using data on our phones. Our WiFi network is working fine, it just hasn’t found a way to dance with our internet modem.  Oh well. 

As far as computers go, my old MacBook Pro is certainly dead. I operated on it, took its hard drive into My Tech Guys in Courtenay, our local dealer, and were told that it was toast. I was hoping maybe it was just the video card or the mother board but no, the hard drive is kaput as is the battery. I already replaced the keyboard on the thing and a few other parts and that’s my third battery in there, so, now is the time to surrender. I’ve raised the white flag. I give up. No more money to be spent on expensive operations. 

So, what to do? Buy another computer of course. I’m pretty cheap when it comes to buying some things. I really feel that way about electronics. I expect my computers to last at least a tenth as long as me. That’s been the case so far. Our Macs have done very well, actually. We have one old blue iMac that came out in 2002 and it’s still working fine and we have another desktop model Mac that has three hard drives in it and has tons of storage capacity. It’s at least 10 years old. Problem is I can’t pack those around and I often want to pack a computer around. I’m not going to say I need to pack one around, because that wouldn’t be the truth, but I surely want to. I’m retired so needing is a bit of a stretch. I’m mostly in want mode these days. It’s like I need my sleep but I want my computer to be portable. 

Now I have a brand new Mac Air. It’s a solid state computer. No hard disk, just 128 gigabytes of storage. I’m used to more than that, my old MacBook Pro had a terabyte drive, but I can always store photos and videos on our external drives. Problem is, my old dead drive had a lot of files and passwords in it that I would dearly like to have access to now. I wasn’t too worried about it because I have a backup system, but I just tried to access that and wasn’t able to. Yikes! Is it time to panic? Well, maybe not quite yet. It may be that our whole computer universe is waiting for the Shaw tech guy to come and get us plugged back into the world. I hope so. Today will tell. 

Addendum: Josh, the Shaw guy came over yesterday and checked things out here. Turns out we had too many ethernet connections from the shaw modem to the Apple modem. Easy fix. My bad.

I was able to retrieve everything off my old computer. Now I just have to select the files I want to use. The others can stay on the external drive.

Fun and games.